Bradan à linne fiadh à frìth craobh à coille [Salmon from the pool, deer from the moor,
tree from the wood]– from ‘hymns to a young demon’, by Aonghas MacNeacail
We had spent a great amount of yesterday evening eliminating the midges from inside our tent: there had been huge swarming clouds of them, and if we opened the zips even a crack they would be unerringly inside. We woke to the same clouds of biting insects trapped between the tent inner and the flysheet.
We decided therefore to forego a hot porridge breakfast and simply eat a bar or two; we discussed the best way of managing taking down the tent and keeping the midges out while we did it. In the event the midge jackets pretty much kept us bite-free, and we set off wearing the full protection.
With increasing light levels came a slight breeze which was just enough to clear the air, and it wasn’t long before we could strip off the hot jackets. However uncomfortable it is to overheat, its better than getting appallingly midged.
Today was going to be one 33km gigantic road walk. Our feet must have toughened up somewhat because it wasn’t as bad as we were expecting. We began with similar terrain as yesterday, native woodland with a thick heather and bilberry understory, moss and lichen filling in every available unoccupied space.
The impetus to grow, to find a nurturing substrate, led to many plants scrambling on top of each other to get a foothold; tree trunks living or dead turned into gardens for tiny saplings of Scots pine, nascent bilberry bushes and ferns.
If we had had more time last night we would have done well to have gone further down the valley to find a place to pitch. On the map the open area of the estate ended, and we were to walk out onto a road where we presumed camping opportunities would be fewer, but in fact the road was lined with beautiful grassy flat turf leading right down to the river. We filtered a few litres of water for our platypuses.
The road took us swiftly down the glen through land now largely given over to agricultural purposes. Small herds of cows and sheep grazed, the lambs now fat and developing muscle, and fields where a silage cut awaited baling. The river wove through the glen, now closer now further away, a constant aural and visual presence.
To our right the land rose and the heath came right down to the road; curlew, having raised their broods, were making a different range of calls now, not so urgent and suspicious of passers-by.
We passed sporadic settlements. A roughly insulated bus shelter for children to wait for transport to school. An old shipping container converted into a smoker with two stainless steel chimneys coming out of the top (of great professional interest to my home salmon-smoking expert). Apart from farming there were clearly employment opportunities in the area in estate activities; the salmon fishing infrastructure included ghillies’ hides, and huts used by fishermen as bases.
It was coming up to lunchtime and we had a decision to make. Did we take a detour into Ardgay and hope the pub or village shop was open? Or would we simply be fruitlessly extending our day by 3km? We asked a chap in his driveway bidding farewell to friends about the chances of a cuppa in Ardgay.
When he heard what we were doing he called over to his wife and insisted that we come in for tea with them. Margaret brought us wonderful hot, weak black tea with an embarrassingly loaded plate of buttered fruit bread and her version of millionaire’s shortbread topped with a thick layer of ginger tablet, and positively forced us eat the lot while her husband Roddy entertained us with stories of his childhood in Torridon. He comes from four generations of ghillies and gamekeepers, and talked about the Highland Clearances in the eighteenth century (which his family suffered on both his father’s and mother’s sides) as though it were recent history. We talked about the metalling of the roads – he could just remember as a boy the cart tracks – and the harsh winters which cut their little Torridonian community off for up to three months at a time. Margaret was going to spend the rest of the day filling the freezer with meals for fishermen up for a week’s salmon-fishing on the Carron. If they get any of her millionaire’s shortbread they are fortunate people. It was an exceptionally warm and friendly rest-break and we left with a spring in our step that had as much to do with the freely-offered hospitality as with the excessive quantities of sugar consumed.
No longer needing to stop off at Ardgay we headed straight up the left bank of the Kyle of Sutherland, appreciating the views out over the wide expanse of water.
We were close to the railway line here, the one we’ll take on Wednesday to get us out to Altnabreac station to commence our final approach to John O’Groats. The walking was very picturesque, even the railway bridges being an attractive feature.
There was quite a complex confluence of road and rail and water at Invershin and we couldn’t quite see whether we could get across the rail bridge, where there seemed to be a cycleway marked on the map. It turned out to be a vertiginous kind of gantry affair bolted to the side of the rail bridge with horrid views down to the water far below.
From the A-road on the far side there was a good view back to Carbisdale Castle, a Scottish baronial pile constructed as part of the bitter inheritance settlement for the widowed Duchess of Sutherland (who spent six months in Holloway for destroying documents in an attempt to secure her late husband’s estate). She stipulated that one side of the ‘Castle of Spite’ should have no clock on it because she didn’t want to give the Sutherland family the time of day as they travelled past by road or rail.
It was by now getting hot and airless. There were no footpath options but we decided to take the B-road from Invershin towards Lairg as being quieter and possibly scenic, as it passed the Falls of Shin on the way north, even though it was a couple of kilometres extra distance.
It was the right decision. The road followed the river Shin as it tumbled over its rocky bed, sunlight glinting through the birch-trees on the bank and warming piles of logs from plantation felling, and it was a quiet, swift walk up towards the Falls.
The Falls turned out to be a major local environmental attraction. We collapsed into Mac and Wild, the architecturally salmon-shaped visitor centre-cum-eatery, walking under an enormous salmon-tail sculpture standing out against the blue sky. After lunch and a bucket of ice cream we decided to visit the Falls before continuing on up the road.
We were so glad we did. We stood with others marvelling at the salmon leaping up the waterfalls. It was clear that the smaller ones simply didn’t have the power to make the height and distance, but the larger salmon with a mighty muscular thrashing convulsion leaped upwards, clear of the boiling white water.
It was a sight we have always wanted to see.
Energised by this extraordinary sight we powered on ourselves, up the road in the hot afternoon to Lairg and our 6 o’clock lift back to Ullapool with Dan. This glorious sun was forecast to vanish overnight, being replaced by a weatherbomb bringing with it a day of heavy rain and thunderstorms. We were going to hole up in Ullapool until Wednesday morning, to see out the storm.