RSF - The Off Road Cycling Club

The Adventure Starts Here

Vagabond Days in the Far North West

by George Berwick


The fun was over and now it was time to cleanse the soul for a Vagabond trip to the North-West. We had recently returned from a relaxing tour of the Western Isles on the recumbent tandem staying at B&Bs and Hostels. We were fit although savvy was in short supply so it was time to suffer for the joys of rough-stuffing and bothying. Vagabonds 1 and 4.5, went 'pirangi' and pedalled to Perth to join the 158 train (booking but no fee on Scotrail) north. The train deposited us in the evening at a midge- and rain-free Achnashellach station. The Coulin track starts from the railway so we were soon walking up the forestry road, avoiding tree felling to the pass, then riding to our night's abode, a wee cabin beside a roaring waterfall.

Low clouds were clinging to the mountains next morning as the weak pair stumbled and walloped our legs on the pedals whilst negotiating the stony track to the River Lair. Once across the river, a good track was followed for two miles to the base of Fuar Tholl. Leaving the bikes below. we were elated by the views from the summit. Soon the wheels were rolling again at walking speed and, after a mile of excellent going, the map proved correct as the path petered out on a very steep descent to Clach nan Con Fionn. We took the most gentle line and gained the glen track at the large stone and so on to our night's shelter.

Next day it was up the glen to Loch Coire Fionnaraich then following an eroded track to Bealach na Lice. The walk to Annat on Loch Torridon is pleasant and offers good views of the many Torridon mountains. Reaching Annat we kissed the tar; Perth had been the last place where we had cursed the bitumen. A fire was soon kindled and we enjoyed a can of tea in the May sunshine.

Liathach and Beinn Eighe towered above narrow, moraine-covered Glen Torridon as we pedalled along the single track road to Kinlochewe. Here we visited the Eight to-Eight shop to fill the bags with three days' supply of food then headed for the heights to find a good doss. The Scottish Rights of Way Society has erected two signs north to Dundonnell one via Bealach Germ, the other via Bealach na Croise. Years ago we had struggled over trackless Bealach Germ so now we were looking forward to a path over Bealach na Croise. We should have known better. We drummed-up at a ruined shieling beside Loch Cleann na Muice. Forty years ago, when Vag 4 was young at heart, she slept in this ruin having expected it to have been a house; she was then a devotee of Bart's half-inch maps which led her into many interesting situations.

In the trackless Pass of the Cross we encountered a lone Dutch camper who was walking wild country. Most folk we meet leave their cars close to the hill that they plan to climb, very few wander long-distance through the glens and over the passes to discover new horizons. We had a grand view of An Teallach at Loch an Nidd. Here we gained a path over to Loch a'Bhraon and the Destitution Road. It was a cold run down to Braemore junction. The large house near here used to be a Youth Hostel and before that was owned by an engineer who built a test tunnel in his garden as a prototype to the London Underground.

Ullapool came and went as soon as we could fill the bags with fresh supplies. The tarred road east was taken to Locha-Chall; here the surface became gravel to Loch an Daimh and the bothy was found awash with food donated by a school group. Five ATB riders were encountered on their return trip between Ullapool and Carbisdale, We moved further into the hills and met our fate in a one-room bothy containing five Irishmen. A good night was passed listening to their stories around a stove fuelled with plastic whiskey bottles.

Twelve miles of gravel roads took us to the fishing hotel at Oykel Bridge. Big salmon catches were featured in the posh interior where we enjoyed cheese sandwiches and tea. A good track goes along the left bank of the River Oykel towards Loch Ailsh, there is a gap of about a mile which gives you a good chance of some real rough-stuff, in the forest we found a three-sided house with dodgy floorboards, but with a bit of ingenuity we had a pleasant evening round the fire. This is better than camping for you can see the stars while in bed.

In Lochinver Vag 4.5 found her front tyre needed a rubber transplant. The local garage arranged that an Oriental tyre would arrive from Inverness next morning. Going round the loch we located the path to Ardroe and also found the classic view above Lochinver spoilt by a massive hotel development. We lost the path in Ardroe but, after scouting around the holiday homes, found the way to Achmelvich.

Caravans and fences now compete with the golden sands in this crofters' clachan. After a search we located the Hermit's Castle before returning to the campsite to collect water·· anti driftwood. I kept Vag 3.5 happy by magnanimously offering her the concrete bed while I made do on the split level floor.

With a shiny new tyre we tooli the road to Glen Canisp lodge where an equally shiny notice states "No bicycles". Collecting wood at the lodge we walked the heavily loaded bikes to the bothy. After tea, we walked up Canisp and back, nine miles in five hours before dark. Lying on the sleeping platform we watched the last rays of the sun turn crimson on Suilven and before 5am the sun was again shining on the mountain.

The track eastwards is fairly easy to Loch Gainimh but we lost it for a while at the east end of the loch. The going got a hit rough above the Allt a Gainimh Dhorcha and we were glad to find the perfect spot for a drum-up at the west end of Loch Fada. The next three miles of track over to the Cam Loch is a bit tedious but offers spectacular end-on views of Suilven. In its final stages the track becomes soft and we were glad to reach tar near Ledmore. This track is a bit easier and clearer than when we last attempted it twenty-five years ago as it is used frequently now by walking tours. We consider this one of the classic rough-stuff routes.

Kylesku was visited for old times' sake. Here a free ferry plied over the sea loch until the Queen opened a new bridge in 1984. The whole area was closed during the war while testing of mini-submarines and mines took place.

We crossed the shapely brig and headed along the north shore of Loch Glendhu. The Westminsters own large tracts of land in Sutherland and their stalkers' paths are first-class. being used only by foot or by horses taking out the deer carcases. We followed the path over to Loch More and had planned to stay the night at a hut en route. It was a sorry sight to see the hut fallen apart but, with time on our side, it was soon rebuilt as a basic A-frame structure. stuffing the gaps with heather and moss. We had a good night's sleep and christened our edifice "The Palace of Westminster"

On the drop to Loch More we met an elegantly tweedy keeper who stopped for a chat during his walk to a hill loch for a spot of fishing. Achfarrv is famous for its black and white telephone box painted to match the estate houses. On one of these is a memorial stone to Lupus Grosvenore a past Duke of Westminster famous for his good works, path building in particular. Cycling toward Laxford Bridge. Vag 4.5 recalled a previous trip when two men chatting at the roadside failed to notice her as she cycled past. Shortly afterwards she was well nigh stunned by the blast of' explosions as Telecom engineers blew holes in the hillside for new poles.

Around Durness there were many Dutch and German motorcyclists. They were carrying tents: the French have cars and caravans while the 'Colonials' use campervans. The Keoldale Hotel had changed its name, no doubt to help the tourists locate Cape Wrath. Plenty of kilties were around celebrating the local wedding of' the year. In fact the church at Eriboll had been well renovated for the occasion. Halfway down Loch Eriboll is Eilean Choraidh (Sheep Island) which the navy once used as target practice for the bombing of the Tirpitz. Now its name is used for the Rare Breeds Centre which has an excellent cafe that stays open late.

With deteriorating weather it was time to disappear into the hills to a bothy where we could fester· for a couple of days. The mist was so low we didn't see the resident eagle. Pedalling east in rain and bitter winds we found the village of Tongue very quiet and the plan of climbing Ben Loyal was forgotten on a dull day. Instead, we took the old road round the Kyle to Kinloch. An intimidating 'Private' sign had us going to the lodge to ask permission to use the track to Loch Dherue but when no one appeared we hi-tailed it to the head of the loch listening all the time for land-rover pursuit. At a fishing hut we discovered ammunition carelessly left on the outside window sill. Friends had said that there was a good path along the east side of the loch - were they trying to tell us something? - goats would have difficultly along that route. We carried the loaded hikes for two miles through huge boulders and fallen trees then had fun with the bogs before eventually staggering back onto tar as darkness fell.

Later that evening we were glad to check into a handy bothy. Nae chance of me telling you where you call find these residences - you might get in first and take top place in front of the fire. Another wet and windy morning dawned; is this the normal weather for the far north? After a reluctant departure we followed the undulating road along the top of the map with our capes on until Bettyhill Hotel saw us dining at 5pm overlooking vast expanses of empty sandy beach. American cyclists were clapping in their mates who had made it to the local campsite. At the top of the moor road in thick mist and drizzlel Vag 4.5, trust her, punctured her rear tyre.

A long off-road route with river crossing to the next bothy was abandoned as deliverance arrived in the shape of a B&B sign at Strathy village. Nearby there was even an antiquated CTC winged wheel on an equally antiquated tin hut.

With a strong northeast wind still blowing next day, we forgot about going to Thurso for our train and used the wind to help us down to Forsinard. This is a lovely road and the fast-running burns made it an interesting ride south. This lonely station is in the heart of the 'Flow Country' and the RSPB have taken over the station building as a visitor centre, making it an excellent place to browse and keep out of the wind. Soon the train whisked us south leaving us to reflect that the far north is suitable only for recumbents - and others who prefer to be horizontal.

Information Note:

Bothies such as those mentioned in this article are basic unlocked shelters, privately owned but maintained by the Mountain Bothies Association who are always glad of volunteers to help with their upkeep.

Details can be obtained from: Ted Butcher, 26 Rycroth Avenue, Deeping St James, Peterborough PE6 8NT tel 01778 335062