Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Backpacking & Packrafting in Torridon (North West Scotland)

I didn't get everything I wanted out of this backpack, unfortunately. But the trip certainly had its moments. The photo below was taken from the north shore of Loch Maree, a few days into the trip which had actually started in Gairloch.


I left Edinburgh on Friday morning but missed my connection in Inverness which meant I was forced to spend my first night away in a hostel. The next evening I took the bus from Inverness to Gairloch, spent another night there, and then on Sunday morning hitched a lift a few miles along the road to Loch Bad an Scalaig. From there I set off on foot to the south east, along a rough path that climbs up in to the heart of Flowerdale Forest, and by this time the wind was beginning to pick up (upland gales were forecast).

The path from the loch initially passes through a wood of young pine trees, over a million of which have been planted in the vicinity in an effort to regenerate the decimated habitat. Coming clear of these young trees I found myself in a rugged and wild landscape.

I was heading for Loch na h-Oidhche (which translates to 'Loch of the Night'). Can anyone tell me how this is pronounced?

A building is marked on the map at the south of the loch. I was aware that this was an estate bothy and was not expecting it to be unlocked. I had also heard that there was a boat house at the north of the loch and, due to the increasingly powerful wind, I planned to spend the night in there (hoping that it was both unlocked and reasonably dry).

Presently, I came to the loch and found the boat house both dry and, thankfully, unlocked. A corrugated iron haven, it was rattling violently now that the wind was living up to the forecast. Inside were a couple of chairs, a stool that served as a table and a boat (who'd have thought?).

After a meal and a brew I wrapped myself up in waterproofs and braved the outdoors once again. The wind was constant. But the rain came and went, minute to minute. I walked a long the loch side, and broke away from the path. I discovered, to my delight, a vast quantity of high grade bog.

Loch na h-Oidhche lies between two corbetts, with Beinne an Eoin ('Hill of the Bird') to the east and the beautiful Baosbheinn (The Wizard's Hill) to the west. I had planned to climb these two mountains, and was particularly keen to get on top of Baosbheinn which is renowned as a viewpoint for the Torridon area and out across the waves to the Hebrides. The current winds called this into question. Also, in the preceding weeks I had experienced a worrying problem with my right knee. Maybe it would be better to stick to the low routes and bealachs to avoid too much strain? I would leave the decision for the morning.

Although I was awoken several times by the wind which violently shook the boathouse all night, to the extent that the windows rattled so that I worried they would be blasted in on me, the morning brought a changed scene outside. The wind had largely subsided and although rain came in fits and starts, the overall tone of the morning was far calmer.

The view of Baosbheinn was tempting. But I decided to carry on around the base of Beinne an Eoin and save these two summits for another day. For one thing, the torrential rain of the night before had fueled my hope that the large burn / small river running the length of Strath Lungard, the the east of Beinne an Eoin, would have sufficient water to allow me to paddle this stretch of the journey. I was keen to find out.

Before I left, however, I heard the sound of an engine approaching, and a quad bike pulled up at the boat shed. A youngish couple were on the way to visit the bothy at the other end of the loch (from their references to 'our boathouse' and 'our bothy' and a few other hints from our chat I took this to be the Laird and Lady of the estate). With a burst of rain having soaked them (they weren't even wearing waterproofs) they had decided to stop for shelter in the boat house instead of continuing. I was a little sheepish and apologised for having borrowed the boat house overnight. That was no problem, said the man. Subsequent discussion revealed that half of the bothy at the other end of the loch was in fact unlocked and left open for walkers to shelter in! And I had slept in a corrugated shack on a concrete floor! However, the public part of the bothy is soon to be locked for good, so I was told, as visitors had too often abused the place and left it a mess. So bear that in mind if you are coming down from the hills and expecting this refuge to be open. By now it may already be locked.

Had I heard the roaring of the Stags, the lady asked me. I hadn't heard much other than the roaring of the wind and the rattling of corrugated iron. With the improved weather I hoped that would change.

An overcast sky with sun glinting through made for a moody view of the Beinne Alligin Massif as I made my way along the loch side. presently I came to the bothy, half of which was indeed open, and boasted beds with mattresses (!) and even a gas cooking range(!!).

I didn't linger long at the bothy. Having set off fairly late in the morning it was already wearing towards the afternoon. The path ends at the bothy and so from there begins the delight of off-footpath Torridon walking. Anyone familiar with the area will attest to the fact that one mile an hour is often very good going when you leave the paths behind. I had learned this on a week long trek through the area during last summer so knew what I was in for.

Rounding the Southern side of Beinne an Eoin I was faced with the hills of Beinne Alligin and Beinn Dearg rising up from the rough ground, and between them a partial view of the mighty Liathach. The mountains in this area are largely of Torridonian Sandstone, as are a chain of mountains through Scotland from Applecross to the south up into Sutherland to the North. Another obvious feature of these mountains is their prominence from the surrounding ground. Rather than rolling hills of gentle ascent, here are mountains that spring up from the relatively low laying ground around and present steep, often terraced, faces which challenge those who approach them.

Continuing still further around the base of the mountain I was pleased to see that the level of water appeared to make the Allt Strath Lungard a feasible paddle.

I climbed down steeply in to the Strath. A young Stag fled as I approached, the only one I would actually see rather than hear for the duration of the trip. I'm not sure the speed I was making would have been any more than one mile an hour over that uneven, tussocky ground. I eventually reached the banks of the fledgling Allt Strath Lungard.

The burn gradually grew in width and flow as I walked alongside, although it remained extremely rocky. This soon changed and I was able to inflate my boat and take to the water. My feet thanked me for this respite from the rough ground! The water level was increased due to the heavy rain of the previous two days. But it was still a bottom scraping paddle to begin with. Some small drops made for good fun at first but soon the water leveled out into a flat ribbon, meandering beneath the crags.

Soon I was hearing the sound I had hoped for, a deep guttural roar floating down from the Stags on the high ground of Beinne an Eoin. I'd have loved to be up there to witness the battles taking place, which is something I've never seen other than on TV. One Autumn it will be worth an expedition out somewhere to set up a tent to watch and take photos from, stalking activity permitting.

The views all around were beautiful as I floated lazily through the Strath. But turning into the current to face back towards the jagged skyline of the Liathach ridge was one of the highlights of the trip. I clambered up on to the ridge of Liathach, in dreich conditions, with a friend last summer. Our campsite for that night had been beside a sandy beach beside the loch in the magnificent Coire na Caime, a wild spot that I would recommend to anyone with a strong tent.

Paddling north in the direction of Loch Maree, the outlines of Beinn Lair and Beinn Arigh Charr formed the horizon. I hoped to climb at least one of these hills in the coming days. I imagine the view down on to Loch Maree from either summit would be superb.

All in all it had been a fantastic day so far. Good weather, an enjoyable paddle, views worth remembering and the sound of Stags roaring unseen in the hills; all this had me grinning uncontrollably by the time I came to exit the water.

Hauling my boat out and deflating at the point I did was important, as you will see. As the Allt Strath Lungard becomes the River Talladale, so it becomes a raging downward torrent. Unfortunately, a complete view of the cascades through the Talladale gorge is unavailable from the west (the side, without conscious decision, I had exited the river on). Perhaps also because the way down to the Loch on the west side of the gorge was so tough, it would have been a better option to exit on the East of the River.

The crags of the gorge are lined with Scots Pine. Although these trees aren't large many of them are potentially very old, and have grown to their height in difficult conditions and in difficult positions. Many cling precariously to the crags their roots, I imagine, having invaded cracks and clefts to grip on to their places.

I crept as close as I dared to the steep edge to look down in to the ravine. Although I could hear the waterfalls, and by evidence of their sound and how far they fall I would guess them to be far more impressive that the first cascade pictured above, I couldn't have got a view of them without walking out precariously on to a spit of rock overhanging a massive drop. I chose not to risk that (an easy choice!).

At this point, while crossing the rough pathless ground and beginning a relatively steep descent down through birch woods towards the loch, my concerns regarding my knee became achingly appropriate. Last year's trek in the are had been much longer everyday, and for the majority of time had been across equally or exceedingly difficult ground. I had had no trouble. In all the long treks I've had in past years or this year I've never experienced these issues. But by the time I reached the lochside I was limping with one straightened leg and my grin had become a grimace.

Despite this, I could not help but appreciate the views that opened up as I descended beside the gorge. A view down on to the water gave me sight of the wooded islands that stud this magnificent loch. The view to the North East was of the mighy Slioch ('The Spear'), which was climbed on a windy but sunny day the previous year.

So I planned to visit the Islands of Loch Maree. In fact neither hell or high swell on the loch would have deterred me (I'd been looking forward to it). But I am not so ignorant as to pay no heed to considerations of conservation. On that note, a word about 'access rights' to the islands. In several online locations this subject has been discussed. The simple point is clear: you have an unreserved right of access to these islands, as you do to other wild places within Scotland (enlightened lawmakers in 2001 saw to this). However, it is an offense to 'knowingly disturb' a protected species - quite rightly so. Also, leaving 'legal rights' aside, I think most people with a concern for nature, and what remains of Britain's wild places, would be mindful of places as special as these islands and cautious about their approach to them. Divers nest here, which are protected in this country. The Scottish Crossbill also has a stronghold in these islands. It wouldn't surprise me if there are Wildcats and Pinemartin living on the larger islands (as they do on the surrounding hillsides). The islands are home to old growth trees that are an important part of the 1% which remains of the previously 'great' forest of Caledon and represent what is probably the single most undisturbed area of natural habitat in the whole of the Scottish Highlands. So it was with dismay that I discovered fire circles, broken glass and other litter on the shores of Isle Maree. In the most polite phrasing I can muster, I call the anglers people who left this mess arseholes.

Soap box moment over. In-line with general advice I paid a visit to the Loch Maree hotel (where you can apparently find the 'warden' of the islands and discuss areas of particular sensitivity)in advance of paddling out. Unfortunately, the Loch Maree hotel seems to have closed down. It no longer has a hotel sign outside and through the windows you can see ripped out fittings and general chaos. I don't know whether this means they are closed for good or simply refurbishing. Hopefully the latter.

Dusk was coming by the time I got on to the water. I planned to camp on a spit of land protruding from the south shore of the loch, which looked like it would offer easy paddling access to the east of the island chain the following morning. With a shadowy Slioch on the horizon I paddled towards my intended camp site.

I am awaiting delivery (still!) of a new shelter, an MLD Trailstar. I had put out via Twitter a plaintive murmur of dissatisfaction that the company were taking their sweet merry time in constructing and delivering the item. To my salvation came a fairy blog mother. My tent is out of action, and other than that (an Akto) I only have a tiny tarp. The tarp is great, but for a trip like this it would have made an uncomfortable home during the windy and rainy nights. So Helen stuck hers in the post and it arrived with a couple of days to spare - Thanks Helen, you're a legend and my trip was a damn sight more comfortable as a result!

The following morning I packed and set off on to the Loch. It was a grey and blustery day, a change from the previous day's conditions. The islands closest to the shore are small rocky affairs. The trees that are clinging on there seem to be doing so heroically.

Hamish Brown visited these islands by Kayak, en route to Beinn Lair, and complained that none of his maps agreed with each other and that none represented the islands accurately. I'd imagine it was the smaller islets that were the problem. I can imagine that some appear and disappear with changes in the water level. Or otherwise that two islands might become one with a fall in the water level, or vice versa.

I paddled close to the shores of these smaller islands but planned to first go ashore on Isle Maree.

Isle Maree is distinct from the others in the chain for a number of reasons. Firstly, while Caledonian Pines completely dominate the other islands, on Isle Maree Pine is scarce. Dominant on Isle Maree are birch and, especially, Oak and Holly. The island is famed for its ancient role in druidic ritual, and as a place of healing. A story tells that there was once a well on the island which could cure madness. The well apparently dried up when a local man dipped his mad dog in to it. It is also said that St Mael Ruba, a 7th century missionary that brought Christianity to these parts, was a hermit on the island. The name of the loch itself is also thought to be an anglicised corruption of the name Mael Ruba.

In the centre of the island is a circular stone wall built, in the way that agricultural dry stone walls are constructed, of hundreds of small rocks (roughly head sized, rounded rocks). This is covered in thick moss. Following the same circle are interspersed Holly and Oak trees. Almost continuously, these are planted one after the other in a sequence (holly, oak, holly, oak, holly, oak, and so on). By the size of the trees it is clear these must have been planted in this circle several hundreds of years previously. Within the circle of rock, holly and oak is a cemetery. Among the headstones I could find one from as recently as 1925, but the other 'recent' ones were from the early 19th century. Smaller, overgrown and fractured headstones were clearly ancient.

A little distance outside the circle is a dead tree, into the trunk of which have been forced hundreds of individual coins. These are offerings, as I understand, probably for health or healing. Most of the coins are now eroded and discoloured, the size and denomination of these very old ones is not familiar. But among them are a few obviously recent additions. I thought about adding my own but was worried I might cause others to become dislodged. Perhaps I should have, for the sake of my fucked knee.

Queen Victoria apparently added a coin to this tree when she visited the island. I wonder what was ailing her? She was known as a bit of a misery guts...

From Isle Maree I paddled on and my next stop was the largest of the islands in the chain, Eilean Subhain. After crossing the channel from Isle Maree, I followed the shore of the island until I reached a small sheltered bay. Here I pulled my boat up and went to explore.

The claim to fame of Eilean Subhain is to be the only island in Britain with a loch which in turn is home to another island with another loch on. Slioch was almost peeping out of the clouds. But the weather didn't seem to be improving and the wind was picking up significantly.

I laboured across the island, which is extremely rough and boggy under foot. Soon my knee was hurting again. When I reached the top of small cliffs from which I could look down on to one of the lochs I was surprised to see a small group of Red Deer hinds scatter below me.

I suddenly became worried that somehow my boat would have blown off the shore. I hurried back, squelching through the bog as fast as my leg would allow.

Glad to find my boat was where I had left it I set off paddling again along the shore of the island. I explored the shoreline of Eilean Subhain and its tiny neighboring islets in this way before continuing on to do the same along Eilean Loisgte and Garbh Eilean. I found a small sandy beach with a reasonable degree of shelter and stopped for lunch and a brew, considering the options. I decided to head for shore and find somewhere to camp before dusk fell.

I made camp on the north shore on a spit of land with an intriguing name. Rubha Challeach, I think, means 'point of the old woman'. Last year I had camped a couple of miles further down on the same side of the loch at another spit named Cladh nan Sasunnach. I am English and was backpacking with a Scottish friend. It was to his delight that this was translated to mean grave of the Englishman.

Rubha Challeach was wonderfully cutoff, impossible to approach by the shore from either direction due to the the wooded cliffs all around. Good job I had bought a new headnet after losing the last one in Finnmark as it was a warm night and as the wind began to drop the midges began to bite.

Next morning the wind was up again and there was a significant swell on the loch. Paddling would be fun! But the weather was fine and it was warm despite the wind. The view to the south, toward the hills I had come from, was hazy.

After striking camp I ate breakfast on the shore and drank several cups of tea as I considered the options. I couldn't go any further by foot. That was the very clear yet very disappointing fact. I couldn't paddle in the direction of Kinlochewe as there would be no way of making headway against the strong wind. I could have revisited the islands and camped another night at the same campsite. I decided, in the end, to paddle to the west end of the loch and take on the River Ewe, a river I had previously researched quite thoroughly. Although I couldn't continue backpacking on foot, the river Ewe would carry me to the coastal road and I could hitch hike along and enjoy the coast instead.

As I bobbed among the waves photography became a real challenge. But with a following wind and riding the swell I made very swift time westwards along the loch. The disapointment of this change of plan was swiftly melting away and I couldn't help but grin at the views all around and the sheer joy of being out on such a beautiful and remote feeling stretch of water. The north shore of the loch is wild for its entire length and a track only disrupts this for a short stretch. But on the western half of the loch there are no tracks or paths on either side.

Having read up on river Ewe I knew where I would need to get out and scout ahead. At the head of the loch is the wide mouth of the river and at this point the swell subsided but a welcome current began to draw me downstream.

In its higher reaches the river Ewe is wide with a gentle flow. It is as it narrows and the pace increases that it becomes progressively more boisterous. Looking back in the direction of Beinn Arigh Charr, a short distance ahead of the point I knew I would need to get out to scout the rapids ahead, I decided to get out and leave the boat to climb up slightly for a more complete view of the mountain.

A little further down stream I took my boat out on the north side of the river and wandered down stream to check the rapids. A weir would be first but there was a clear channel down the centre and it looked like fun. Then shortly after that a series of small wave trains which would also be easy to cope with. After this stretch was negotiated I again got out of the water to scout further ahead. Although the difficulties still didn't appear severe, this time I decided against continuing and instead deflated my raft and collapsed my paddle for the last time.

From here it was only a short walk to the coastal road, and the walk took me beside the river which becomes a bit of a thrashing beast as it approaches the sea and passes under the coastal road bridge.

It didn't take me long to hitch a ride to the east along the coast, in the direction of a high point that looked like a promising place for views out to sea and back in to the mountains.

Despite it being a very windy spot I wasn't wrong about the campsite.

I enjoyed a clear, starry night sky. In the morning I began hitching west, first with a bloke delivering scaffold to a site outside Gairloch. And then something most unexpected happened. I was walking slowly along the road and as usual sheep were doing their best to disrupt what little flow of traffic there was. Of the cars that passed me none seemed keen to stop. And then a familiar Land Rover passed by and then stopped. I had to double take as I realised who it was. My dad, step mother and step mother's mother, out for a drive with their dogs! I knew they were on a trip somewhere along the west coast, but it was pure chance they had decided on a drive out this way that morning. A pleasant surprise, that was. We had a pub lunch and I played with the dogs at the Red Point beach for a bit. Then they dropped me off to camp.

So although the trip didn't go according to plan, and I am still concerned about my knee, it had its moments.


  1. Brilliant I love Torridon and dragged my 70 year old mother through Fisherfied further North. Thank you.


  2. David - thanks. Well done with the HRP!

    Pootsie - Hope I can do that when I'm 70!


  3. What a varied and superb trip David. Scenery is mind blowing up there. Like the island hoping as well. Packrafts do open another route option up. Really enjoyed that and the photos.

  4. Fantastic landscapes. I need to add Scotland to my places to visit with my packraft. Thanks for sharing your adventure.

  5. Martin - thanks. reckon you could benefit from a boat in your backpack

    Forrest - thanks for sharing yours, too. Love the Adventure vids you make. The US is def somewhere I want to take my boat one of these days

  6. Hi David

    I have come to your blog far too late - I shall have to go right back to the start - what a great read! And the pictures: Pure Hill Porn!


  7. Hi David, What a great read and the photos are pretty special too. I love your ones taken from the water. How's the knee now? Not fun heather-bashing with knee pain :(

  8. A fantastic and varied wander through some brilliant Torridon scenery. The packraft really opens up some interesting options. Sorry to hear about the knee though.

  9. Graham and Nick

    thanks. The knee is ok at the moment but how can I be sure that's not just be cause I've been off it for the week? Need to get it checked out but hopefully its nothing serious.


  10. fantastic trip, something I've had my eye on doing myself sometime in the future. My family live in Poolewe so I know the area, loch and islands very well.

    Loch na h-Oidhche pronounced - Loch na highch-eh
    (if that makes sense)

  11. Poolewe is a great location. Thanks for the Gaelic tip

  12. Thanks for the great post. I have been visiting your site often and I find it really interesting and informative.The scene is good for the visitors to ralex. Try on now!!!

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