This was the first day of my second trip of 2019 to the Scottish Highlands. I planned this trip back in October 2018. Despite this the only hotel I could find was the Caledonian Hotel in Ullapool. Again. There is a hotel in Gairloch but it wasn’t available for the full duration of this trip. I had also become frustrated by the fact that the Easyjet flight I usually book to get me home is always late, so I had booked with British Airways from Heathrow instead as they ran flights at times that were suitable to get a walk in on the first and last day.
That went well, because 3 weeks later I got this email.
It does irritate me intently that British Airways sells tickets for flights before they seem to have established the timetable (this has happened so many times to me) especially as they were at pains to point out I had booked a non-refundable fare so if I wanted to change the time or date of my travel I’d have to pay the difference in fare, plus a £60 “admin” fee. Of course, if British Airways decide to change the time instead, I can’t bill them a £60 admin fee!
Well there was no way I was going to get any walking in if I wasn’t going to get there until after 8pm. So I asked for a refund and booked again with Easyjet from Luton, as I had before. Of course by then the prices had gone up and I’d already booked a hire car with Avis so I kept that booking.
I was finding booking and planning my trips to the coast was becoming increasingly challenging, but at least after this I had no further booking changes.
My flight from Luton was on time and so I headed to Avis desk to collect my hire car. I had apparently qualified for “Avis Preferred” membership by taking flights on Norwegian Airlines to Norway and collecting points, even though I hadn’t hired a car for any of these trips (This was in the days when you could travel abroad without the threat of quarantine or being forced to stick things up your nose and charged for the privilege).
The main advantage this gives is I could go straight to the “preferred” counter at the desk and pick up the keys without the usual barrage of questions about what optional extras I’d like to buy (none). I had also been upgraded to a Citroen C3 which had some bits of rubber stuck on the sides. Not sure what that was all about.
I drove from there to Aultbea which took a little over 90 minutes and I parked on the road by the shop.
Aultbea is on the shores of Loch Ewe, with the Isle of Ewe just off-shore. An information sign told me that Loch Ewe was home of the Arctic Convoys during World War II and was selected because it is remote, a very deep loch and has direct access to the Atlantic. In total during the war, 481 merchant ships left Loch Ewe, bound for Russia. Fortunately that is all long in the past now.
My plan for today was to follow the road was to round the peninsula of Rubha Mor along it’s west coast (facing Loch Ewe) to the top at Greenstone Point and then down the east coast, facing Gruinard Bay to Mellon Udrigle (yes, this really is a place) and back along the road to Laide.
Unfortunately there was no path linking the dead-end roads on either side of the peninsula so I had to hope I’d be able to find my own way. On the positive, the map suggested the area was not especially hilly, but there were many lochs, which likely meant it was going to be wet and boggy.
It was a grey, overcast day and the road soon took me round the corner to overlook another, quieter bay with the Isle of Ewe visible in the loch.
This island is inhabited, by a single family, so it’s not possible to visit. The beach was pebble and I could soon see the houses of the next village, Buailnaluib ahead.
One of the houses here had a very odd artwork in the garden. Well since she seemed to be taking my picture, I’d oblige by doing likewise!
Buailnaluib merged into Ormiscaig and here the road now left the loch shore with houses on the left whose large gardens went right down to the coast. One seemed to contain some stones, perhaps the remains of an old stone circle?
I continued along the road through to Mellon Charles and the end of the road.
At the end of the road a track continued through a gate so I followed it. It soon headed up to the top of a hill. This offered good views back where I had come from. However the problem was where to go now!
I asked some locals for advice. They were no help.
Northwards, where I wanted to go it was a very steep drop, way too steep to consider trying to get back down there.
So instead I had to turn inland until the gradient on my left gradually eased and I judged that I could get down.
I soon found a place where the hill was shallow enough I could get down and headed back to the coast.
Once down the gradient was less and I made my way over the rough ground aiming for a place called Slaggan.
A track runs from the east side of the peninsula down to here though I believe Slaggan itself is abandoned, but I hoped the track would still exist as it might prove useful if I was unable to make my way further north.
I soon reached Slaggan which has a pretty sandy beach.
I wasn’t seeing it at it’s best in the weather today but it was still a beautiful remote and sandy beach and I couldn’t resist going down onto the sands. A stream flows out onto the beach but it was shallow enough on the sand I could use the pebbles in the stream to cross it and keep dry feet.
From the back of the beach I made my way up to the top of the grassy cliffs.
Once up the land levelled out and I could continue broadly along the top of these grassy cliffs, which soon dropped back almost to sea level.
Areas of rocks sticking up provided sections of brief firm ground to walk on.
I soon reached a small lochan right on the coast (un-named on the map). However it was very windy so I didn’t want to linger, you can tell by the size of the waves on this small loch!
North from here I could see there were again low cliffs, rockier this time so I followed the top of this at times on rough ground at other times following a “sort of” path.
As I headed north I passed a couple of pretty pebble and rock beaches. This is a remote stretch of coast and I wondered how many people had seen these beaches before me. Not many, I suspect.
The path at times improved and became quite obvious, I suspect created by sheep but it was proving easier than expected.
Ahead and over to my right I could see the loch of Loch na Doine Duinne.
This was a fair bit larger and I could see the map showed the stream from the loch flowed out to the coast. I was a bit worried about crossing this but it turned out to be easy enough, I could just step over on the rocks.
This was the last main hazard according to the map between me and Greenstone Point, the northern tip of this peninsula. The ground was a bit more level from here on and I was able to go the coastal side of the few lochs ahead and soon spotted the end of the headland, marked with a cairn. I was impressed by the amount of lichens on the side of this rock, it was almost hairy!
I continued east as best I could heading on the north side of Loch an Dun-chairn and soon reached a narrow rocky bay.
The cliffs here looked very straight and there were stones piled up to form a wall, partly broken. Was this some sort of little harbour or perhaps a quarry? The map didn’t show anything but it was clearly something man made.
East from here I could now see quite a way and see the land flattened ahead of me.
I continued to make my own way passing the bay at Camas an Lochain. Here as I neared the waters edge I could hear strange sounds. Looking closely I saw objects in the water. Seals heads!
Well the noise was from the seals and they were all staring at me! I guess I had provided some interest for them or perhaps disturbed them approaching, but it was lovely to see them.
I was now close to the end of the road at Opinan but the rain had started again.
I was heading over the rough ground, as I had been all day, walking over some heather. Suddenly and without warning my left foot disappeared into a hole that meant I was into the ground above my knee whilst my right foot stayed at ground level. As I had not seen this hole at all (hidden by the undergrowth) I had been walking along and this had comes as a complete shock. This caused me to fall and the way I fell I kind of expected to hear an ominous crack as I broke something. Fortunately there wasn’t any crack but I suspect I’d have done some sort of injury, falling like that. I extracted my lag back onto solid ground. Well I wasn’t in a huge amount of pain and I could still put weight on it, but my ankle was quite painful. However it wasn’t impossible to walk and if I kept moving it didn’t hurt too much, more of an ache but I could feel as soon as I stopped for any length of time it began to hurt more.
I was lucky not to have done any major damage it seems and I was at least close to the road so I could get help if needed. I continued over the uneven ground, now taking much more care, to the road with no further incident. Well at least from here on I’d be on roads so no risk of falling down holes I hoped (pot-holes won’t be that deep, surely?!). I brushed the mud on my trousers away and tried to move my leg in different directions. A bit painful but everything seemed to be working as it should. I hoped I’d be able to get to Laide anyway but I was worried about the rest of this trip, it was only my first day, after all.
As I reached the road I could see the marshy bay of Allt Loch a Choire ahead. The scenery was taking my mind away from my painful leg, which was good.
I continued on the minor road trying to be as gentle as possible with my left leg as possible. Over in the field was an abandoned caravan. It did puzzle me who put it here and why, there seem to be a surprising number of caravans around crofts in the Highlands.
Over in the woodland behind a fence I soon passed what I assume is a childs play house, it looked as if it had been a real labour of love for someone.
I followed the road to a T-junction at Mellon Udrigle. Here the map suggested there was a nice beach just ahead. If I hadn’t hurt my leg I’d have gone to take a look but I didn’t want to leave the smooth surface of the road for the rough sand, as that might make things worse and prevent me finishing the walk.
So I turned right and the road headed south, almost arrow straight at times and soon passed beside Loch na Beiste on my right. It was quite a big loch, with the wind creating waves on the surface.
Just past this I came to the other end of the track to Slaggan. The sign indicated this was 5km away (oddly signs in Scotland are often in KM) and that the track was unsuitable for motors except rough terrain vehicles. That suggests it’s a fairly decent track to walk on at least, all the way if at least some kind of vehicle can get along it.
I continued along the road into Udrigle where the road joined the side of Gruinard Bay.
I could see Gruinard Island and beyond the Summer Isles where I had passed on my last trip. A lovely view, despite the grey weather.
I now followed the road south to reach the stores at Laide. This is a petrol station, shop and post office. It was all closed up. Well it was gone 7pm.
When planning this walk I had been expecting it to take less time than it did (I usually under-estimate when walking over rough ground). I had planned to complete the walk by following the A832 over the neck of this peninsula back to my car. This was a little over 2 miles along the road but the presence of a view point on the map suggested it was going to be quite a climb and then descent the other side.
One advantage of being a bit later than expected is that I was only 15 minutes before the arrival of the one and only bus that runs this way along the road. According to the timetable it stopped here at the petrol station in Laide. In the absence of any bus stop I sat on the wall outside. A motorist soon arrived wanting petrol and was disappointed to find the petrol pumps locked. I hope they didn’t have far to go, as I didn’t know where the next nearest petrol station was.
I was a bit nervous as to whether the bus would turn up. Soon I saw a large coach coming. Was that it? It didn’t have a destination displayed and I was expecting something much smaller, but I saw it said “Westerbus” across the windscreen as it got closer, so flagged it down. It was the bus! The driver seemed a little irritated at getting a passenger on at this stage I think because he had to rummage about to get the ticket machine out.
It was a short drive back round to Aultbea but with my leg hurting I was glad of shaving a couple of “positioning” miles off my walk by using the bus. I wasn’t sure how far into Aultbea the bus went so as it happened I got off a little early. Still by now the sun had come out and Aultbea looked lovely in the early evening sunshine.
I soon passed the Aultbea Hotel. This had suddenly closed down, without warning back in May. It seems the owner simply did a runner, told his staff to close it down and ask all the guests to leave and put a notice stating “Sorry the Hotel is Closed” in the window, and that was it.
It seems they also didn’t contact anyone already booked even those that had already paid some or all of the cost. I peered in the window to see tables laid and condiments on them, as if set for the evening meal that would never take place.
There are different approaches to take to walking the whole coast. Some, like me, do it as a series of day walks that join up. Others do it continually either with the help of a friend or relative to drive or pick them up at the end of each walk or carry a tent and camp overnight each night. Others make several multi-day (or longer) trips and book somewhere to stay at the end of each days walk. Each approach has their pros and cons. The cons of my approach is the need to arrange transport (or try to) hence relying on often infrequent buses or having to do there and back walks but the pro is I only need to carry what I need for the day with me and have somewhere comfortable as a base to get back to at night. The latter approach has the advantage you can walk between your accommodation, no need for any transport at all, but you have to carry everything with you and you can’t miss a day (for example if the weather is bad) without throwing out all the rest of your plans, so in practice you have to walk pretty much no matter what. Fellow coastal walker “Helpful Mammal” had taken this latter approach and booked a night at the Aultbea Hotel. Having been warned by another walker it was closed unexpectedly he headed to the hotel to find it was true (and the hotel had taken his deposit and not contacted him about it’s closure) leaving him to find somewhere to stay the night with no onward transport (but he was able to find somewhere to spend the night).
I walked past the now closed hotel and back to my hired car. I was glad of a sit down. The short bus journey had made my leg hurt though walking had made it hurt less again. I now had to drive back round the coast to Ullapool.
This didn’t take too long. Unfortunately I had again booked the Caledonian Hotel. Even booking 9 months before departure, it was the only place with availability vaguely near the bits of coast I planned to walk on this trip (probably because it is certainly the worst hotel in Ullapool and probably for some considerable distance).
Nothing had improved at this hotel since my last stay, but this time I had been allocated a room on the middle floor of the 1970s extension behind the main building. This meant I had the delights of creaking floorboards above me, not just from the adjacent rooms and all along the corridor. The room was as bad as before, a horrible bathroom with bright blue 1970s lino that only contained a toilet and a shower (in a tiny horrible 1970s cubicle I had to duck down in), with the sink in the main room. One thing I had noticed is this room had an electric shower. It had clearly been fitted very poorly, shattering many of the tiles and taking great chunks out of the wall too, but I hoped it would be better than the shower I had last time. However on using it, I soon discovered that it started ice cold, but soon became boiling hot. If I attempted to adjust the temperature at all, a red light would come on, the pressure would drop to a trickle and it would not heat the water. I put it back to the setting it was on, which increased the water pressure again but where it went through the cycle of heating the water until it was literally scalding then the “overhear” light came on, it would go cold again and about a minute later, the cycle would repeat. I vowed to report this to reception in the morning but first I headed out to get something to eat. (I did report it, they came to check, agreed it was not working properly, promised to fix it, didn’t, I reported it again and it still wasn’t fixed so I gave up).
On finishing that my leg was really hurting. A good thing in Ullapool is that it has a Tesco that is open to 10pm, a rarity in the highlands. I headed there to get some pain killers and a tube of “Deep Heat”. I hoped the combination of these two might make my leg less painful but I was already worried that my fall earlier had scuppered my plans for the rest of the trip. Back at the hotel I was limping and could barely get up the stairs to my room (no lift). The chances of walking in the morning seemed remote, but I rubbed plenty of the Deep Heat on before bed in the hope it would help. Fortunately, I was able to walk the next day and the pain soon subsided and I didn’t really notice it on the following days. I had been lucky – it had not ruined the rest of my trip.
This had been a varied walk and I was glad I had been able to find a route over the open ground, even if it had meant falling into a hole! I had past some spectacular bits of coast and some lovely beaches as well as a couple of pretty villages, with views to many islands, including the Isle of Ewe, Gruinard Island and the Summer Isles. It was just a shame the weather had been so poor, with rain or drizzle for much of the walk however the sunshine at the end gave me hope the weather would be better tomorrow.
Here are details of the public transport for this walk. There are two bus routes (neither daily) but between them, they provide one bus per day each way between Aultbea and Laide most days except for Thursday and Sunday.
Westerbus 707 : Gairloch – Poolewe- Aultbea – Laide – Badcaul – Dundonnell – Braemore Junction – Ullapool. 1 bus per day each way, Monday, Wednesday and Friday only. (Connection is available at Braemore Junction to/from Inverness).
Westerbus 700A : Laide – Aultbea – Poolewe – Gairloch – Kerrysdale Junction – Loch Maree Hotel – Kinlochewe – Achnasheen – Lochluichart – Garve – Strathpeffer – Dingwall – Inverness. Note that on the return journey the bus only runs between Aultbea and Laide on request. 1 bus per day each way on Tuesday and Saturday only.
Here are the complete set of photos for this walk : Main Link.