The Angry Corrie 48: Jan-Feb 2001

TAC 48 Index

Tales from a long roam: storming through Knoydart

With the recent strange episode of the torching of Cameron Mackintosh's cottage, Knoydart has returned to the news pages after a quiet spell as the 1999 land deal bedded down. But quiet or not, Knoydart remains shaped by the twin forces of bitter, lingering politics and a fierce, dominating climate. Mick Furey discusses one aspect of this in his review of Denis Rixson's recent book on the history of the peninsula. First, though, comes a reminder of the scale and seriousness of the place. Back in 1989, Andy Mayhew undertook a long walk from Aviemore to Cape Wrath via Knoydart. Here, in an extract from his account of that trip, he recalls the harshness of the wet west coast.

THE WALK BEGAN again in earnest on January 26th. My heel had healed and I was eager for the off. The weather was finally perfect: a dusting of snow on the hills and the sky blue. No wind, a frost in the shadows. An ideal day. So I spent it in the Fort, shopping. And next day the storms returned.

For a week it rained, and when it wasn't raining it was pouring. When it was neither raining nor pouring I was hurrying from one bothy to another before the rain started again. Then a calm day - overcast but dry - to push on to Loch Nevis. I was so pleased to be moving again that I popped up Sgurr na Ciche and the Garbh Chiochs for the afternoon, returning to base only after a scary descent down vegetatious crags in the near dark.

Next morning I stood by the tidal flats, gazing across at misty hills, serenaded by an oystercatcher's call. Did I dare cross the Rubicon? The moat of the fabled Knoydart, home of the storm? Now, more than ever, I needed a change in the weather. And change it did. For the worse.

I climbed into the mist, zigzagging over Mam Meadail, down to Torcuileainn, back up to the Mam Barrisdale. A tortuous route of height gained and lost, but necessary in the steadily worsening conditions. Rain swept the glens, wind strengthened, cloud vanquished the peaks to lonely obscurity. The direct route over Meall Buidhe and Luinne Bheinn was not an option. Near Torcuileainn, a Land Rover passed. A wave from the driver: the first human I'd seen in over a week.

Knoydart is a place of rock. There is little soil to absorb the rain, which gushes down over the stark, grey ribs of the earth. A land of mountain and flood. By the time I reached Mam Barrisdale I was soaked, but the well-made paths - for which Knoydart is justly famous - allowed progress to be bearable, if not pleasant. And at the end of the journey was an estate bothy boasting the twin delights of electric lighting and an indoor flush toilet.

It was as well I had such a (comparatively) comfortable refuge, as the storms continued for the next three days. If there was a lull it was always at night. I managed to crawl up Sgurr a'Choire-bheithe, the nearly-Munro, but otherwise it was an increasingly familiar routine of eat, drink, read and eat some more. Not surprising, then, that cabin fever - or bothy fever - began to set in. Knoydart was meant to be something special, a place I'd dreamt of exploring for years. Now here I was and I could hardly see the hills through the incessant rain. The frustration was acute - as was the desire to move on.

Eventually, on the Sunday, the wind and rain eased. A few patches of blue broke through the monochrome sky. Time to go.

There is a fine path along Loch Hourn, most fjord-like of sea lochs. A desolate, empty path that once joined thriving communities. The loch was once filled with herring boats. There were kirks and inns, there was laughter and song. Now only a couple of holiday cottages remain. A sobering landscape. Knoydart was long regarded as Britain's "last wilderness", but it never has been, never can be. It is only empty because we made it so.

For all that, it isn't empty any more, at least not in summer when 40 or more tents pitched at Barrisdale is quite usual. My having passed through alone, barely seeing another person, was, I realised in retrospect, an almost unique experience.

An ugly scar of electricity pylons led west up the brae from Kinloch Hourn. I had followed the same pylons, the same scoured track, on Skye two years before. A scar, but used, and thankfully. Unfortunately, it led straight into an ambush.

When the rains came on again I decided to pitch my tent for lunch - and then, with no let-up in sight, stayed put for the night. I was exposed, but the wind was light, the rain merely annoying. Until, that is, it got dark...

An earlier storm by Loch Ericht had been a lullaby in comparison, the "hurricane" that ravaged southern England in 1987 just a squall. I never slept. The wind would bounce up the glen, ricocheting from crag to crag, until it found what was left of my tent. Then it would pounce, pummelling me into the sodden ground. There were puddles in my sleeping bag as the torrent soaked through the collapsed folds of the flysheet. The burn, so placid earlier, roared angrily as it surged by, devouring the ground, creeping ever closer to where I cowered. The elements were uniting in an all-out assault to finish the walk once and for all. For the first time since childhood I began to pray - not to just the Christian God but to Vishnu and Allah and Zeus and Thor. Every god, from every pantheon, in case, just poss-ibly, one of them was really out there, listening. (I tend to go for Heather the Weather myself - Ed.) But if they were there, they were taking too much delight in watching me suffer to ever intervene. I begged for forgiveness, for mercy. Please, please help...

Perhaps someone was listening. I emerged into the grey dawn exhausted and soaked from having lain in a puddle, but alive. Fortunately the night had been mild. I had always known I would survive - it was just that surviving was such a damned hellish ordeal.

But it wasn't quite over. I still had to escape, to find shelter: I craved the comfort and security of humankind. Maps were too sodden to consult, but I knew that the nearest bothy was too far and my only chance was to head down to Arnsidale, into the storm. Even this was no easy option. I abandoned my tent to its fate, and fled.

The craggy hillside was awash with flooded burns, pouring over heather and through storm-lashed trees into Dubh Lochain. As the wind blasted, lifting me from my feet on several occasions, a single-minded determination drove me on. I was almost enjoying it, and only the uncertainty of where I could stay to recover, to lick my wounds, held back a smile as I clambered over mud-slides and through waist-deep floods.

Slowly the rains eased, the wind fell. I reached the mouth of Glen Arnisdale and turned to the nearest house where the kind Iain MacKenzie provided a warm, dry bed, the year's first hot bath and a chance to watch TV as the floodwaters surged east and carried away Inverness railway bridge. They had failed to get me. Just.

TWO DAYS LATER I entered a new world, scrubbed clean and gleaming. The sun shone. Frost glistened on the burnished braes. Gulls called in the still, keen air. The hills were white. Winter had arrived.

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