316. Hope to a bit north of Eriboll (on Loch Eriboll)

October 2017

This was the last day of a 5-day trip to the far north of Scotland. It was also a Sunday. There is very limited public transport in this area of Scotland (though it is remote, so it is perhaps a surprise there is any at all!) with no buses on Sunday.

The weather forecast had been for heavy rain and gale force winds all day so I had originally planned to abandon any thoughts of going for a walk and instead visit Dunrobin Castle (which was still open in October) before continuing on to Inverness Airport where I had to return my hire car and fly home in the evening.

However after breakfast at my hotel the rain had stopped. I checked the “rain radar” on my phone and it seemed the last of the heavy rain had passed. The BBC weather forecast had improved from the previous night too, so I decided to make the most of my time here and do another walk after all.

The previous day I had reached the hamlet of Hope. Actually, I’d gone a bit passed it, having realised there was nowhere I could find that seemed safe to park in Hope. Instead I’d found a small gravel parking area about half a mile further up the road towards Durness where there was a path into woodland beside Loch Hope.

My plan therefore was to walk up and back via the same route (something I generally try to avoid) to Eriboll Farm. This was only a distance of around 4 miles, but since I’d be walking there and back, it would in fact be 8 miles. I had already researched and found there are buses (only on Tuesdays and Saturday) from Durness to Eriboll Farm (which is one of the stopping points listed in the timetable) which would be how I would do the next walk. So I only needed to do this smaller distance to fill in the gap before I returned next year to continue around the Scottish coast.

I checked out of my hotel in Thurso (which was, like most i’ve encountered in the far north of Scotland, pretty poor). Thurso was also a bit far away for a “base” for this trip, but there are few hotels in the area (having said that I passed one that looked pretty nice in Bettyhill, which might have been a more sensible option). So it was over an hour drive to the parking place I had reached the previous day. It is however a beautiful drive with some stunning scenery on the way, though it is also quite demanding, not because of the traffic but because the road is constantly going up and down hills and around bends and there are a few stretches that are only single-track with passing places (even though it is an A-road!). There are also a lot of areas of open moorland where sheep wander across or stand in the road. I parked in the parking area, under cloudy skies, but at least it was dry.

The road here does have one lane in for each direction but there is little traffic. In fact it was about 10 minutes before the first vehicle even passed me. I could see the road twisting up the other side of the hill ahead and because it is quiet you can usually here traffic coming from about a mile away!

The road initially descended over the open and wild moorland. The only company was sheep.

The A838

On the drive here the sheep did not seem to move at all when cars drove right past them. But oddly, when out of a car they seem far more wary of humans. So as I walked along the road the sheep grazing at the side of the road would usually panic as I approached and start running along the middle of the road instead. Once a “safe” distance ahead of me they’d stop, until I got closer, then they’d start off again. It felt like I was herding sheep and I was a bit worried that having seemingly and inadvertently herded them into the middle of the road a car might hit them.

Fortunately as I reached the corner by Loch Cragaidh they seemed to change plan and ran off onto the moorland rather than on the road, so I was able to get past them and they were able to go back to eating grass!

Loch Cragaidh was small but beautiful with a few trees at one side and open moorland and rocks all around it.

Loch Cragaidh

I could just see out to the sea beyond it, too.

Loch Cragaidh

The road climbed here and as I climbed I got a better view out to sea. I would like to have been closer to the sea, but I could see no obvious route to get there other than walking across the boggy moorland littered with streams and since I had to travel home in the clothes I was wearing I did not want to get in too much of a state!

As I neared the top of the hill I switched to walking on the grass to the right of the road which the sheep had grazed so it was nice and short. Rounding the corner I passed an isolated house (perhaps part of a farm?) at Heilam (I’ve realised that in this remote part of Scotland, even individual houses are named on the map).

Rounding the corner I came to the wonderful view of Loch Eriboll. The other side of the Loch was less than a mile away as the crow flies – but more than 10 miles to walk! But at least I was back on the coast now and the road proved a firm surface to walk on.

Ard Neackie

Once I turned the corner though, I was hit by the full force of the wind. Gales had been forecast and it certainly felt like a gale force wind. The sky also looked quite threatening. I carried on until I came to a lay-by just above the “almost island” of Ard Neackie (which apparently means “Farm on a Beach” in Norse) and seemed and apt description. However it was clear this “almost island” had been used for different purposes in the past. I could see the remains of some kilns (I later found these were lime kilns) and the house is marked as “Heilam Ferry” and with the remains of a pier visible, so it was clear there was once a ferry over the Loch here (sadly, there isn’t any longer).

Loch Eriboll is a deep sea loch and has been used for many years as a safe deep-water anchorage between the wild seas of the Pentland Firth and Cape Wrath. It has also been used a lot by the Royal Navy (and still is, from time to time) though the crews generally did not like coming here and nicknamed it “Loch ‘Orrible”. They used to write the names of their ship in chalk on the hills on the loch. It was also filled with numerous German U-boats who surrendered here at the end of World War II.

I decided given the forecast (a weather warning was issued) it might not be sensible to go too far from the car as I also didn’t want to get soaked as I needed to travel home in the same clothes later in the day (I was travelling hand luggage only). So I decided that since I was going up and back anyway, I’d turn back here then move the car to this point and see what the weather was like then.

So I turned back and re-traced my steps back to the car.

Loch Cragaidh

There was a bit more traffic on the way back – the motorbikers on the NC500 were out now. I soon reached the car and drove the mile or two along the road to this layby. As I did so a shower started, so I ate a sandwich in the car. Then it stopped, so I decided to continue.

The weather was perhaps typical of the Scottish Highlands in Autumn, a mixture of sun, showers and strong wind, often all at the same time! I followed the road as it descended. I considered walking out to Ard Neackie and exploring that but I was a bit put off because the road that led down to it had a gate across it and as I neared it a man drove through it in a van and I could see him down near a caravan on the island. So I decided rather than get told it was private etc, I’d just stick to the road.

Ard Neackie

It was really beautiful now, too, with a bit of sun around.

Loch Eriboll

The road descended down towards the little bay at Roadstead. The road had narrowed now and is single-track with passing places. The road is now just above the shingle and pebble beach and the little bay here is so pretty with a few trees in their best autumn colours.

Camas an Duin on Loch Eriboll

Camas an Duin

Beside the road near the end of the little bay there is a little waterfall, too.

IMG_3833

The bay has a couple of houses and buildings and I suspect these are related to what looks like a salmon farm in the loch. At the end of the little bay the road began to climb up again.

Roadstead on Loch Eriboll

Roadstead on Loch Eriboll

In places, the road had been cut into the rock. It was getting more gloomy now and at a place called Kempie I came across another gravel area you could park, and with a fine view too. I decided that again, I’d turn back to head back to where I’d parked and move the car, so that is what I did.

Roadstead on Loch Eriboll

Roadstead on Loch Eriboll

Roadstead on Loch Eriboll

At the lowest point on the road, I dropped down onto the beach and sat there to have the rest of my lunch, as that bit was quite sheltered.

The beach at Camas an Duin

The beach at Camas an Duin

Then I continued up the hill back to my car. As I got there there was a brief but heavy shower – I had timed it well!

Loch Eriboll

Ard Neackie

I drove on to where I had just walked and parked up again, just as a second shower arrived – but it did make for a beautiful photo, as a rainbow formed over the loch.

Rainbow over Loch Eriboll

Loch Eriboll

Once this stopped, I set off again. But as I rounded the corner, the wind picked up even more. It was incredibly strong, so much so that I struggled even to move forward. All I could hear was the wind, and my clothes and bag were all flapping in the wind. Then another, heavier shower came in. The wind was so strong that the rain was painful as it hit me. I could barely keep my eyes open and in the end decided to lay down beside the road as it was less windy right near the ground and shelter whilst it passed. A few cars passed and I was a bit worried someone might see me lying there and think I was injured or something! As the shower passed I continued a bit further, but I could already see the next shower coming. A couple of minutes later it too arrived. As this cleared there was more rain visible coming up the loch. The wind was really intense.

I checked the map. I estimated it would take me about 25-30 minutes to reach Eriboll Farm (as I tend to make quicker progress on roads). And obviously a similar amount back. Then the next shower arrived. It seemed the weather had turned more to what was forecast with seemingly shower after shower now coming through, and the wind was picking up. I tried to check the “rain radar” on my phone, but there was no signal at all, so it wasn’t possible to check.

I decided that it would not be a problem to add another hour, at most, onto my next walk here. I’d just take the bus from Durness to Eriboll Farm, then walk back up to this parking spot and back before walking onwards and back to Durness. I was going to get soaked if I carried on and I was worried about the worsening weather – it is also unpleasant to walk on a road when it’s raining, as each passing car kicks up the spray.

So I turned back. It was easier going back, with the wind behind me and I was soon back at the car. I sat in the car for 15 minutes or so, hoping the weather might lift and I could try again. But as I had suspected, each time a shower came within no more than 2 minutes, the next one had started and they seemed to be getting heavier. I was glad I had opted to keep moving the car, so I did not have far to go back!

So I decided to abandon the walk here (to resume from the same place next year) and head for Inverness, though this too was not without problems!

When I left Thurso the car (a Fiat 500) had just over half a tank. But it struggled a bit over the hilly moorland and by the time I had reached the first place I’d parked to start today’s walk it was only a little over a quarter of a tank remaining. I was worried about running out of petrol. There are few filling stations around here and being a Sunday I was not sure if they would be open. I drove back to the parking area on the Kyle of Tongue where I could pick up a mobile signal and find the nearest petrol station. The nearest one en-route seemed to be in Tain which was a little over 60 miles away. I turned on the “trip computer” on the car which showed I had enough petrol to go 120 miles, so all seemed well.

I drove into and out of Tongue and took the A836. This is a single track road with passing places for almost 30 miles – to Lairg. The road headed steeply out of Tongue and I had to stop to let a couple of cars pass on the way up. By the time the road levelled out I was alarmed to see that I had done a little over 4 miles – but the “range” on the car had dropped to 80 miles – it turns out a Fiat 500 really doesn’t like hills! Actually I did wonder if there was something wrong with that car. I had heard good things about the Fiat 500 but never driven one until now. Whilst it handled well enough it was really sluggish and the fuel consumption was really poor, presumably the engine is designed for city driving and when you work it hard to get around the hills of the Scottish Highlands, this is the price you pay – it drinks fuel. (I don’t know what size engine it had, I suspect the smallest available).

So I was now getting worried. How on earth could I have used 40 miles of range in travelling 4 miles! I decided to continue (there was little choice) but was very careful to avoid touching either the brake or accelerator as much as possible and try to maintain as close to 50mph as I could and was safe. Now the range was going up again, and I was soon up and beyond 120 miles.

After about 10 miles or so I reached the village of Altnaharra. Here I noticed a couple of petrol pumps beside the road, opposite a hotel, with the name of the hotel on them. They were padlocked but I assumed that because this is such a remote area the hotel had decided to offer petrol too and I could go into the hotel and ask for them to unlock it for me. I knew the petrol would be expensive, but it was better than running out. I headed into the car park and was met by a couple of motorcyclists who told me that they too wanted petrol, but they had tried and found that the hotel seemed to be closed and locked up and there was no one around. Very odd.

So I continued on to Lairg. It felt like I was nearing civilisation again and I was even next to a railway line for a while. At Bonar Bridge the next village I spotted a petrol station, pulled up and put the pump in (this one was not locked) but when I pumped nothing happened. I walked to the shop only to find that it too was closed on Sunday. So I had to continue to the A9. The higher speeds and roundabouts of the A9 soon meant the range was plummeting again, but thankfully I reached Tain and an open petrol station – sort of. Because when I arrived, it had “Back in 5 minutes” written in the window and was locked up, but just as I got out of the car the man arrived back and opened up so I was able to fill up again. I guess I have to learn that next time I’m in this remote area to keep the petrol near to full (especially if travelling a long distance on a Sunday) so as to avoid the risk of running out again!

I continued to the retail park near Inverness to fill up again (I had to return the hire car full to avoid paying an excess fee) and stopped here for a meal before continuing to the airport. I returned the hire car and headed into the airport. My flight home left about 30 minutes late and Easyjet were being very strict (unlike on the way up), forcing every single passenger to put their bag into the “sizer” with the warning that if it was too big and didn’t fit or didn’t fit “without a squeeze” you would have to pay a fee to put it into the hold. I was a bit worried my rucksack might be a squeeze so had to busy myself removing things from side pockets and putting them in my coat and trouser pockets instead to avoid having to pay a fee. This worked but then I had to waste time putting them all back again, but at least I did not get charged extra. My journey home too was fraught with the motorway closed so I had to divert on un-familiar roads, to face a further diversion before I could finally get home, around quarter past midnight – not great, because I had to go to work the next day (or rather now later the same day). But by taking a later flight at least it allowed me to make the most of the day and get some walking in at least!

It had been a successful trip though and i’m looking forward to returning, now that I have reached such a stunningly beautiful and remote stretch of coast – but Cape Wrath looms for next year and I will need to work out how to tackle that!

Here are details of the public transport needed for this walk:-

Durness Bus / Far North Bus route no 803. Durness – Laid – Eriboll Farm – Kyle of Tongue (Youth Hostel) – Tongue – Skerray – Borgie Bridge – Bettyhill – Armadale (road end) – Strathay – Portskerra – Halladale – Reay – Isauld – Shebster – Janestown – Thurso. Note that the bus will also stop at Hope as long as you flag it down. Saturday only, 1 bus per day each way.

Transport for Tongue also used to operate a bus on Tuesday but it is currently “temporarily” suspended due to Covid 19.

Here are the complete set of photos for this walk : Main Link.

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6 Responses to 316. Hope to a bit north of Eriboll (on Loch Eriboll)

  1. 5000milewalk says:

    Some fantastic photos there Jon! I occasionally think about driving on a little bit more and doing an extra couple of miles half way along a walk, but by the time I get to my car I’m usually tired and can never be bothered! With all the problems with public transport up there I’m really glad I bought that electric foldable bike – it doesn’t arrive until March but there’s nowhere to go with it yet anyway of course

    • jcombe says:

      Thanks, really pleased to hear you like the photos. One advantage of changeable weather is it can lead to some quite dramatic photos. Yes getting back to the car is always dangerous. Somewhere warm and comfortable when the weather is not good can quickly become more attractive than getting out and doing more walking. I hope the electric folding bike works well for you and hope you can get back to the coast soon.

  2. I remember that view of Loch Eriboll with the house on the peninsula. It’s beautiful, and I love your rainbow shots too. I am paranoid about fuel in areas like that, always buy some when you see it! As for “back in 5 mins” type notices, I always find them really annoying. Has the 5 minutes just started or is it nearly over? I wish they’d just say a time.

    • 5000milewalk says:

      “Back in 5 minutes” is more useful than a Cornish “Back drekkly”… that could mean anything from 5 minutes to a few weeks 😊

    • jcombe says:

      Yes lesson learnt there about fuel. I now always make sure I have a full tank before a long journey or before Sunday, knowing they are often closed on a Sunday. If I’d have known at the time there was actually a self-service petrol pump in Durness, but I didn’t know it at the time. Not sure how on earth it’s going to work in remote places like this with electric cars, but I will probably have finished walking the coast of Scotland by the time that happens.

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