The one thing about planning trips in Scotland is that you simply can’t rely on the weather. That’s not a moan, it’s just a fact of life. For a weekend that involves mainly outdoor activities this means you need the right clothing, or it’s highly likely to be a miserable experience…
Back in Feb/March this year I stumbled across Rua Reidh lighthouse – I can’t now remember how or why – but it’s a B&B in a lighthouse on a very remote peninsula near Gairloch – lighthouse / remote – what’s not to love about that? Looking at their booking page the first weekend they had space and I was free was the end of August – ah well, nothing like planning ahead.
With the stay booked and paid for it then slipped out of mind, but by early August we were starting to look forward to it. The preceding weekend was very warm and sunny – not good, since at this time of year two weekends in a row of good weather isn’t terribly likely. Tough.
Location wise, the lighthouse is 12 miles away from Gairloch, the nearest resource for fuel, food, drink etc, along a single track road. We’d take a full day to ride up on the motorbike, taking the scenic route of course. A full day at the lighthouse to go walking, and another full day for the (scenic) ride home. Now ‘go walking’ in the far northwest of Scotland does NOT involve nice paths, it means heather, peat bogs, midges, sodden wet ground that will suck you in up to the knees… in short, you need decent walking gear. Now for the next conundrum – how to get all that on the motorbike?
Packing…. My hard panniers are pretty good – well, they’re tough and they’re watertight. They’re not big though. At 35 litre capacity they’re about the capacity of a moderate size rucksack. My ‘normal’ backpack for walking is 50 litres. Because the panniers are hard there’s no room for expansion… So we each had one 35 litre space in which to cram walking boots, gaiters, waterproof jacket, waterproof trousers, clothes, underwear, toiletries etc. Packing is an art, and we succeeded, I even managed to cram in my kindle, binoculars and another pair of shoes – so I had something other than filthy walking boots or big motorbike boots to walk around the B&B in, and a priority – wine – one bottle in each pannier. Well, got to have the priorities sorted, don’t you?
Finally the weekend arrived and with the bike checked over and loaded up we set off. The route up took us through Glen Devon, past Loch Earn, Tyndrum, Glencoe, Fort William, Loch Cluanie, Achnasheen, Kinlochewe and Gairloch. Around a 271 mile run, and on some of my favourite roads.
The first planned coffee stop was at the Tullybannocher café just outside Comrie, but we decided we didn’t want or need to stop, so pressed on through Tyndrum and Glencoe to reach Glencoe Village where we planned to stop for lunch. As we approached Glencoe valley from the south we could see the clouds ahead, but up to then we’d only had the odd short shower, so I guess we’d hoped for the same… err, no. It tipped down all the way through Glencoe and continued to rain as we reached Glencoe village. Our planned lunch stop had been invaded by a coach load of tourists (bloody Rabbie’s tours..). We jumped back on the bike in the rain and sought another café. After a couple of false starts we found an alternative café and Sharon went to investigate while I got the bike parked – place was full – seems that wet weather is a café owner’s dream – oh well, nowt to do but push on to Fort William for both fuel and food.
Fuel was easy enough, but stepping/dripping into MacDonalds the queue was long and didn’t shift while we waited, and looking round there were no free tables, so leaving the bike in the MacD’s car park we walked/splashed over to the Morrisons supermarket to see if it had a restaurant – it did, and there were free tables – great! We ordered and paid for lunch, sat down and waited. And waited. I wandered off for some shaving oil, came back, still no lunch. Hmm. It eventually arrived – stingy would be a good description of the portion size. While we sat there the rain stopped and everything outside started to dry up. By the time we’d eaten and got back to the bike the rain was back on. Dammit.
We were accosted in the car park by my pal Bruce – he was on his way back from a wee visit to Thunder in the Glenn by Aviemore – not much time to chat as it was peeing down and we were all kitted and champing at the bit to get going, we’d lost a lot of time both in Glencoe and here in Fort William.
Back on the road we passed almost right underneath a Sea King style helicopter descending low into a field right beside the road – practising something I guess as the road was clear.
Further on up the road, not too far short of the Cluanie Inn we were overtaken by a hero/statistic in waiting on a sports bike. He nipped by us, and decided against all common sense to also go by the car in front of me. Bad idea considering it was a blind corner. Sure enough an oncoming car hoved into view and the hero/statistic in waiting was forced to squeeze between the two vehicles, causing both to swerve to avoid taking him out. Well, how long before he becomes another statistic, and another nail in the coffin for the freedom that bikers enjoy?
Extremely wary of his pals following on, I signalled for turning off into the car park at the Cluanie Inn and gave my rear obs far more attention than would normally be required to ensure we weren’t taken out by the hero’s pals behind us trying to overtake as we turned into the carpark. I’d happily see these fools grounded – they give us a bad name.
After a refreshing drink we set off again, and apart from a quick stop to answer the call of nature (queue conversation of “wow, that’s an impressive stream” – “shurrup, you’re not supposed to be watching!”) the next stop was for a fuel top up in Kinlochewe. Now as it turns out, this wasn’t necessary. Annoyingly, I had googled “nearest Fuel Gairloch”, and google said Kinlochewe and Ullapool were the nearest, totally ignoring that there IS a petrol station in Gairloch. Very odd.
Kinlochewe to Gairloch is only 20 miles or so, and the plan had been to get a fish supper from the Beachcomber chippy in Gairloch. Only slight issue was that it’s now shut ‘until further notice’ – that’s not much use on a cold and windy August evening. Oh well, a very short distance away is the Fish Box Bar, on the side of the Millcroft Hotel – we headed over there and grabbed a table. Food wasn’t served until 6pm and it was 5:52pm… not a problem – Sharon takes at least 10 minutes to decide over a menu anyway. Two meals, a coffee and a soft drink came to £22 – very reasonable we thought.
Fed and watered it was time to tackle the 12 miles of single track to the lighthouse. It was raining – again – and the low speeds required for single track with blind bends and blind rises didn’t help with visor steaming issues, even with a pinlock fitted. What I thought were unmarked speed bumps turned out to be drainage culverts that had been put in leaving a bump in the tarmac. The bridges got smaller and smaller, and several of them are wooden – slippery in the rain for a bike.
Our hosts had been clear that 12 miles of single track was not to be sneered at, or underestimated, and said to expect it to take around 40 minutes, 25 minutes was closer to the mark for us, but then it was late on and there was no traffic on the road to slow us.
Roger came out to greet us and stood patiently as we unloaded the gear from the bike in the rain, and never moaned once about us coming dripping wet into the conservatory – in hindsight, dripping wet guests must be rather common there – the heated drying room with a dehumidifier is testament to the rather damp nature of that part of the world.
Roger sorted all our wet gear in the drying room and Tracy showed us to our room – a gorgeous huge double room. With the big thick walls, built to withstand anything the atlantic could throw at it, and good double glazing, the room was very quiet indeed, despite that rather windy and foul weather outside.
After unpacking and changing we took one of our bottles of wine and went back to the conservatory where we sat and chatted with Roger and Tracy, the owners, and another couple Chris and Jane who were staying there with their two dogs (here I confess I only recall the name of one dog, the rather lively Poppy, who had her name shouted rather a lot, and her older companion was so well behaved and barely ever mentioned, so the name never stuck).
Tracy and Roger are a fascinating couple. Not many people could handle the isolation of their lighthouse, and they live there all year round. We may moan about missing deliveries, but at least the delivery driver is willing to drive to your door – that’s not always the case here, instead Roger and Tracy may have to drive to the nearest point the driver will go to – Melvaig – and take delivery there, then drive/trailer the goods back themselves – pressing friends for help if it’s a larger item. OK, so you don’t get big deliveries every day, or every week, but you do get your rubbish collected don’t you? Not here, they have to drive it to Melvaig, the bin lorry won’t come to the lighthouse.
Water is a talking point – no mains water here, instead it is fresh water from the hillside – suitably filtered and UV treated – it’s absolutely safe to drink, very soft, so if you come from a hard water area you’re going to love this water –the only caveat being the colour – it’s all natural, filtered by peat on the hill, giving the water a brown tinge. Depending on the time of year that brown tinge can get quite dark. Some guests apparently find it disconcerting – some don’t actually believe it’s safe to drink – well, we loved it – proper fresh water, no chemicals – and once you get used to this, Roger assures us that ‘normal’ water tastes like the swimming pool! It does have a comic element though – when you step in the shower and see the brown water gathering at your feet and think “wow, was I that dirty?” – nope, just the water – and the effect in the toilet is brilliant – definitely looks like the last person had distinct gut issues and didn’t flush…. But this is what water SHOULD be – natural! Personally I couldn’t get enough of it.
After a decently early night and a lovely sleep in the big comfy bed we were all set up for the Sunday and a walk into the wilderness. Roger and Tracy have laminated maps with a circular route that you can borrow, but here I must add a bit of advice if you decide to tackle the full route – take an OS map, and a compass, and KNOW HOW TO USE IT.
Going around the headland was fine – it is all sheep tracks though, so just a case of keep looking and picking the best route for where you want to go. The route takes you to the cliffs above the nearest beach – a few km across relatively difficult ‘paths’ – not to be sneered at, and if you then climb down to the beach, back up again, and walk back along the headland to the lighthouse you will have done a decent walk.
Instead we decided to head inland, along the valley, although first we made use of the bothy to have our lunch away from the wind and the midges. Here Sharon made use of my first aid kit to tape a big plaster over a blister that was developing on her foot – her boots looked the part, but they weren’t up to the demands of the wild, and that meant wet feet and blisters.
Walking up the valley on what presumably would have at one point been a cart track used by the inhabitants of the now ruined crofts the going only gets marginally easier – it’s very broken and muddy in most places. Eventually you reach the start of a wood. Here you leave the track and climb up the side of Maol Breac. The going is tough, there are no paths, no sheep tracks, and it’s hard work.
The idea is once you reach the main ‘false summit’ and are almost at the top of the hill you locate the radio masts and walk to them, so you can descend the other side of the hill on the service road, otherwise it’s a long, long walk over very difficult, boggy ground.
Finding the masts will be very very easy in good weather, but when we reached the top of the hill, visibility was around 50 yards, and we probably had around a km of boggy ground to negotiate – think one wrong step and you’re up to your knees in water and mud. Happily for me I spent many summers in my formative years being dragged up every hill my parents could park their caravan near. I learnt many fundamentals of navigation from my Dad, for whom hillwalking was a passion, whatever the weather.
With the map and the compass initially I was lacking the critical element of the puzzle of ‘here’ in the “how do I get from here to there” puzzle – I had a broad idea, but not a definite. We soldiered on a bit and out of the mist loomed a small loch. Awesome, given the relative location of the wood below, and the bearing we’d walked up on, I was 99% sure which blue splodge on the map we were at. I set a new bearing and we set of on that. Of course it’s impossible to walk a straight line across a bog. You skirt around this and that, climb up and down peat banks – Hardly text book navigation, but decide on an identifiable ‘thing’ to aim at, get there, then find another ‘thing’ on your bearing, and so on.
Eventually through the mist we caught sight of another little loch – this confirmed where we were (not that Sharon actually believed me when I said that) – and a subtle adjustment to the bearing was made, ensuring that we’d be aiming ever so slightly west of the target as that meant if we did miss the masts, we would intersect with the service road. To miss to the east would have meant a long walk eventually descending back down to the headland.
At this point, totally inexperienced in such adventures, tired, sore, wet, and genuinely worried we were lost, poor Sharon was not confident. Really not confident. Have faith said I. Judging by her face, faith was not readily forthcoming.
In reality we probably crossed around a km of boggy ground, but it probably seemed endless to Sharon. Constantly surrounded by impenetrable mist, and sinking if you stood in the same place too long. Think Lord of the Rings and the swamps/bogs of the dead marshes that the hobbits had to negotiate, and you maybe get an idea of how uncomfortable, lost and un-navigable it all felt to Sharon.
As the first (and west most) mast finally crept into view I was relieved, but not as relieved as Sharon was. As we stepped onto the service road she was quite literally dancing for joy!
The rest of the walk back was of course easy in every sense other than our feet – tired and abused from the walk so far, now the tarmac felt unreasonably hard. Spirits were, understandably, much, much higher – on the interminable bog Sharon had been tight lipped and pensive, I was quiet and concentrating, but I knew lots of placating words would have a diminishing and then negative effect. I well remember my own growing anger with my Dad, annoyed at being tired and being asked to walk further on an uncertain route, furious that it might be a waste of time and precious energy. Words are useless in the face of such worries. Results speak volumes though, so I shut up and got on with it.
As we descended the weather cleared – well, of course it would! When we eventually got back to the lighthouse we were knackered, I think Sharon was even more tired than me.
After showers and clean clothes we went to the wildlife hide they have, which also has a display with a history of the lighthouse. Sitting in the ‘hide’ which is actually one of the lighthouse outbuildings, you have a broad view over the cliffs to the sea, and on the wall is a white board with dates of sightings – sea eagles, sea otters, minke whales, porpoises of all sorts – all are ‘common’ – although that’s a relative term – it’s a big old sea out there, and the chances of looking at the right patch of sea at the right time is rather slim… Well, at least that’s what we told ourselves when we gave up after a half an hour (tip – bring a cushion for the bench).
We ate dinner at the lighthouse on the Sunday evening, cooked by Tracy, it was lovely – boeuf bourguignonne with tatties and carrots, and plenty of it, and bread to soak up the gravy, followed by pineapple upside down cake with custard and cream – or both. Our 2nd bottle of wine made it’s appearance for dinner and Roger commented he was impressed we’d managed to find space for the wine in the panniers – got to get your priorities right I told him. Apparently they’ve had plenty of bikers staying there, some horrified at the lack of available alcohol, and others more ingenious, like a Dutch group who had one bike towing a trailer which held nothing but beer – and it had to be sent off to Gairloch the following morning to refill! We were joined at dinner by a French couple. Roger and Tracy managed to bow out of after dinner chat very gracefully indeed – they are fantastic hosts, always around, but never in your face.
Chris and Jane had done the same walk as we had, and Jane looked just as knackered as us. Everyone made their excuses and we went for an early night. After the sleep of the terminally knackered, we were up in the morning, peering out the window, but alas, no sea eagles making an appearance for us.
After breakfast it was time to say goodbye to our lovely hosts and head home – by the scenic route of course!
Gairloch / Kinlochewe / Torridon / Loch Carron / Loch Cluanie / Fort William / Glencoe / Tyndrum/ Loch Earn / Glen Devon
The weather stayed largely dry for the ride home, well, almost.
Stopping for a few pics, and getting lunch at the Cluanie Inn, we left Rua Reidh at 10 am and got home at 6pm, tired, rather damp (it pee’d down for the last hour).
Would I go again? Hell yes!! Next time we’ll walk to the beach and back, and maybe try and stay a little longer and take a day or more to explore some of the places nearby. Oh, and I need better gaiters, and Sharon needs better walking boots!