This far North, in January, it never really gets light. I can see the sun peeping over the tops of the hills that mark the horizon, but it’s so low it could be being wheeled over the hills in a wheelbarrow. It’s even bright, I have to squint to look into the sun, but even so, at mid-day, the light on the landscape has an evening feel to it as if dusk is only minutes away. The sun gives no heat only a flat insipid light that tones down the colours of the grass and the outlines of the hills. I’m on the tarmac road that leads over the hill from the Kyle of Durness to Cape Wrath. Technically this is a public road but it is cracked and pot holed and single track as it rolls it way across the moor. I think this little road can justifiably claim to be one of the remotest in Britain. It doesn’t connect to any other road and only runs from the jetty that connects this place with civilisation, some eleven miles, to the lighthouse at the end of mainland Britain. Orkney and Shetland are further North and to the East of Scotland the land can boast being a few degrees closer to the pole but this place beats all of those for its remoteness, the grandeur of its scenery and the drama of its position as it head buts its way out into the Atlantic Ocean. This is the true North.
Ever since I can remember I’ve had a fascination with travelling North. In my imagination the Northern lands were places of wilderness, wild weather and even wilder men. I suppose I am not alone in that fascination, perhaps there is something in our racial memory. The Vikings who terrorised these shores a thousand years ago were known as the Northmen and the fear they provoked musty have conjured up a fearsome image of the lands from which they came. Even if the Vikings did not totally deserve their bad press Northern landscapes continue to invoke images of savagery and lawlessness. In my youth our holidays were spent driving North, heading for Scotland, seeking out the snow and ice of real winters as fledgling mountaineers. Driving up the M6 from my Merseyside home my mind would be filled with dreams of ice covered ridges and rugged snowy peaks. Well, I reflect, that was thirty years ago and here I am weighed down by coal whisky and food, still doing it still travelling North.
You can arrange to be ferried across the short stretch of water to the jetty or, you can do as I did, and walk in from a small bridge further down the estuary. On the map this had appeared a straight forward option and indeed it was for the first few miles. I found myself walking across the hard sand of the inlet at low tide. This was an unusual sensation for me, sand rather than snow beneath my boots and the cries of sea birds rather than ravens. Mountaineers, or even bothy bumblers as, in my later years, I am perhaps now better described, don’t often find themselves on a beach. Progress was quick across the hard sand and I was just contemplating the possibility of walking all the way to on the beach to the jetty where I could pick up the road when I met the small cliffs of the headland and was forced to climb inland. This was slow and tedious going and I cursed every lump of coal in my sack as I lurched up through lumps of heather and small outcrops and my rate of progress dropped to meters per hour.
Finally, gasping and sweating, I land on the road and begin to find my way, at first parallel to the beach, where seals are basking, and then inland heading towards the lighthouse. Away from the sea the landscape feels empty and there is an unusual stillness here. I notice there are no sheep and even deer are noticeable by their absence. It should be noted that I am now crossing a firing range a place where it is not always advisable to wander.
I’m not a lover of signs, being particularly irked by those that state the bleeding obvious, especially those that the Scottish Rights of Way Society delight in littering the countryside with. These signs are placed in some of our most mountainous places and say things like, “DANGER OF GRAZZED KNEES AHEAD,” or “YOU MIGHT HAVE TO WALK FROM HERE,” or “SEE THAT WATER, I WOULDN’T JUMP IN IT IF I WERE YOU, YOU MIGHT GET WET.” I’m going to make an exception for these M.O.D. signs, these are great. “Don’t touch our bombs, you idiot, or you’ll get blown to bits,” now that’s a sign. Brief and to the point, it gets the message across and you know where you stand. I think the illustration could be a bit more graphic, perhaps a figure being blown skyward would be even more convincing. The only other way they could get the message across with more clarity would be if they littered the landscape with fake body parts and put up signs that said, “Go on, touch our bombs, why don’t you.”
After a while the moon appears over my shoulder and I have to concede it has actually gone dark and what little sun there was is now tucked up in bed. So here I am in the middle of nowhere in the pitch dark. I can’t deny that this is becoming a familiar feeling, anyone who has read my blog before will know that I am the master of nocturnal bothy journey’s, well finding a bothy in the daylight is just too easy really isn’t it. Where’s the fun in that. Despite the darkness I arrive at what I think must be the point where the path departs from the little narrow road and descends to the beach where the bothy lives. I spend a few minutes with my head torch focused on the map and decide that there really can be no other place I could be, past errors having made me cautious. In a short while my head torch picks out the white walls of the bothy and soon my stove is purring and soup is on its way.
Now, theirs is really no getting around it, I am an antisocial individual, enjoying the solitude of bothies as much as the occasional social contact I find in them. If it’s solitude you are after then at Kearvaig in the winter months you’ll be quids in. There’s shed loads of it there. The first thing I do on arrival is to have a quick dram, just to test the whisky you understand. The effect on my tired and cold physique is rapturous, as the brown liquid warms places I’d forgotten I had. You have never really drunk whisky until you have tramped mile after mile through wind rain and bog and found yourself lifting a small sensation of the nectar to your lips in a Highland bothy. You can’t drink whisky in a house, it’s not designed for that. Whisky is designed to fortify a hairy rural peasant, and imbue within him enough get up and go to scare every insurance agent for miles. The first dram worked so well I decided to have another just to check the first one wasn’t a fluke.
The next challenge is to light the fire. Fire lighting in bothies is always a dark art. Everyone has different techniques and you can never be sure just what kind of response to the naked flame you are going to get. This time the coal puts up a fight. It smoulders, gutters, flames for a while and then decides to die. I, however, have other ideas, after all I just carried a bag full of that black stone for hours across hills and over rivers and now it’s going to keep me warm whether it likes it or not. I have one advantage, I was brought up so long ago that our family relied on a coal fire. As a child I watched my mother make little sticks out of intricately folded newspaper, saw her feed it with lard and, health and safety experts switch off now, spread a newspaper across the hearth to create extra suction and more airflow. Now and again the paper would burst into flame and my mum would casually hurl it up the chimney, I wouldn’t even bother taking my eyes off the Flinstones on our 15 inch black and white telly. So, I know a trick or two, I feed it with kindling, blow on it, hurl the ends of candles on it and, eventually it bursts into life and keeps my toes warm all night.
In the morning I am greeted by beautiful weather, sunshine and an off shore breeze but, more important than that, I’m met with my first sight of where the bothy is situated. Of all the bothies I’ve ever visited Kearvaig has surely the most spectacular, it is set in a wonderful small bay with the breakers of the Atlantic crashing on to a sandy beach only yards away. Across the bay are the rugged cliffs that lead on round to Cape Wrath itself and beyond them the eye is led out to sea and on into the vastness of the ocean. The bothy is gem and a credit to the Mountain Bothies Association without whom these mountain shelters would fall into wrack and ruin. It’s a long walk and, for most of us, an even longer drive but an experience of the true north is a trip to savour and one I know I’ll be repeating over and over again unless, of course, I accidentally put a bomb on the fire.
Call this number to find out if the RAF are going to bomb you on the way in (handy to know). RAF Tain 01862 892185 Very helpful folk.
The MBA, god bless her and all who sail in her. http://www.mountainbothies.org.uk/ Lot’s of info on bothies.