On the far-flung banks of Loch Maree, in Scotland’s rugged north, I struggled through a wild land where even the goat paths dwindled out.
If there’s a trail around the loch, I thought to myself, surely this isn’t it.
I had arrived in Poolewe by bus the evening before. “D’ya have a place te stay?” the driver asked as he pulled my pack from the storage compartment. The cold October rain concerned him.
“I’ll find somewhere to camp” said I, indicating my backpack. I retrieved my headlamp from the top pouch. At 57 degrees North, the sun quits early.
“Righty then.” He scratched his head, then pointed to a nearby structure. “Toilets are just there if you need, and you could pitch on the green below.”
I thanked him and confirmed the time and place to catch the return bus three mornings later.
Rather than occupy the village’s tiny park, I crossed the bridge over the River Ewe and headed upstream along a sleepy lane.
A mile later and well out of town I came to a cluster of scrawny birches just shedding their yellowed leaves. Amid the marshy vegetation under their branches I found a dry enough patch to unroll my bivy sack. Thankfully the rain had slacked. After a light supper I settled into my tight quarters and was soon sound asleep.
An erratic light, seeping through the nylon, woke me ahead of dawn. I checked the time: 6:12 am. The light passed and I began the awkward process of dressing on my back in a mummy bag.
Before I emerged from my cocoon, the wobbly light returned. It bounced from the headlamp of an early jogger. I was glad to know a nearby soul shared the spirit of getting out.
Day didn’t break; it crawled into the sky wrapped in moody clouds while I broke camp and set off down the track.
Over a gentle swell in the road I was greeted by a sweeping view of moorland, loch, and mountain. The breath of ancient hills, laden with earthy, autumn heather and bracken, underscored the welcome like a faint harmony. I stilled my pace and listened deep to the belonging of here and now. Years agone, the Highlands cast their enchantment over me, and ever after their silent strains beckoned my return. I am here. And here is good, I mused. I was back, though in a region I had never yet explored.
During my train ride from Glasgow to Inverness I had used the complimentary WiFi to look up hikes near Loch Maree on walkinghighlands.co.uk. Like many highland lochs, Maree sits in a long furrow sliced through the hills. From its head near the village of Kinlochewe it stretches some 13 miles northwest to the River Ewe, where its waters have but a short sprint to the sea.
For my first foray into these hills I chose to summit Beinn Airigh Charr, a Corbett at the northwestern end of Loch Maree near Poolewe. From there I could survey the surroundings before deciding my next move.
Walkinghighlands exhibited a number of out-and-back hikes in Loch Maree’s vicinity. My hope was to discover a circuitous route linking them into a 2 day trek. A day on this side to reach the far end and a day to return along the opposite shore seemed reasonable, given the distance. I should’ve accounted for weather and terrain.
Shortly I came to a wide, swift stream where I refilled my bottles. The Steripen I used to sterilize the water flashed its low battery warning. Not to worry; I brought spares.
To my dismay, the replacement batteries were either not new or not compatible, so the uv lamp had only enough juice to finish the job. I had 36oz of drinking water and no way to sterilize more. Thankfully the cool, damp air would stave off dehydration.
I continued toward Beinn Airigh Charr, over the soggy moor, past crumbling, fern-choked sheepfolds, across streams that tumbled through narrow mossy clefts, under the shadow of weathered crags, and up windswept slopes of grass and heather.
By late morning I was into the clouds. I donned my raincoat against blowing rain. The spidery trail gave out to spongey turf. I went a bit further. The mist thickened.
Over the moan of the wind and not far off came the eerie, wild call of some fog-cloaked creature. I started and looked over my shoulder, but saw only greyness. The grunt-bellow sounded again just out of sight. Must be a stag in rut, I concluded. I continued upward, glancing back now and again in hopes to glimpse the beast standing proud out of the mist.
I sheltered from the wind behind a dark rock and took lunch, hoping the cloud would blow over before the cold drove me down. Despite low visibility, I had a fair hunch where I was. There’s something about the way air moves over mountain saddles that told me I was nearing the summit. That, and I had a screenshot on my iPhone of WalkingHighland’s route description. If not for the blanket of raincloud, I would’ve had a wide southward view of Loch Maree and the Torridon Hills.
Seeing no improvement in the weather, I made a reluctant descent. Sure, I could’ve reached the top, but there would be nothing to see, and the further I went off trail the harder it would be to rediscover. I didn’t wish to navigate crags and scree in the low visibility, and I was ready to get below the clouds. Gosh but it wasn’t easy, turning around so near the apex. Funny that a wise choice can feel so like defeat.
I found the path and followed it back to the private track on the skirts of Loch Maree. I looked left. By my guess the head of the loch was at least 8 miles distant. How much further in that direction this one lane gravel road went, I couldn’t tell. To my right: Poolewe, 4 easy miles away. The time was 2 pm.
I turned left.
The road ended a mile later at an unoccupied cottage. A path, perhaps made by deer stalkers, continued into the dark green forest. I went on, hoping the faint trail would take me eventually to Kinlochewe at the far end of the loch.
I walked nearly 2 hours through woodland, crossing streams gushing with mountain rain, sometimes losing the path in the the dense fern only to pick it out again farther on. A thin, misty rain accompanied my journey.
The trail passed a couple conservation areas bounded by impassable fencing. These projects form a small part of the enormous Letterewe Estate, over 43,000 acres of highland known as the Last Great Wilderness of Scotland.
Along one such fence I followed the trail until it disappeared in the rocky shoreline. Then I followed the water’s edge until I came to a buttress of rock standing out of the water. The way was barred.
Two hours of daylight remained. I wasn’t yet halfway to Kinlochewe. I couldn’t get back to Poolewe before dark. Bivouacing overnight and returning at dawn was one option.
I doubted the trail I had followed was ever meant for hikers. Probably it was made by deer or goats, and now it seemed I had reached its end. Although… those fragments of rock at the cliff base might offer enough footing to get around it, I considered.
The only way to know how far you can go is to go as far as you can. I stepped to the rocks with a grin. Maybe the trail continued beyond the rock?
I reached a steep green gully hemmed by another rock wall; this one most definitely impassable along the shore.
I turned away from the loch and scrambled up the cleft between the two crags. It was steep. I removed my gloves to get a surer grip on the wet rock. Soon I stood on a ledge, one good hold in my right hand. With a short fall beneath me and a tumble to the water, down-climbing was no option. I had reached the point of no return.
The way up looked doubtful, but it was the only way out of the corner I worked myself into. I lifted my left foot high and stuck my toe into a lip of rock. My left hand searched for grip. Finding none, I raised firmly onto my left foot and groped higher. Still nothing. I dropped half back to the shelf.
Deep breath. Quiet prayer. Onward and upward.
Standing again on one leg, right palm pressed into the rock, I stretched to my full extent. The smell of stone was damp in my nose. Pulse quickened a beat. My hand brushed a clump of moss. I plucked it out and jammed my fingers into the crevice it had occupied.
From there the holds came easier and I was soon on a slope of heather overlooking the loch and its cloudy islands.
For the next hour I picked my way across ferny slants, angled rock faces, and a network of capillary rivulets feeding the loch. Snagweeds grabbed at my ankles. More than once I lost footing and narrowly avoided a slide by clutching firm-rooted shrubbery. A steady drizzle and chill breeze kept me pressing forward, anxious to find level camping ground before dark.
I accepted such challenges. They exercised my resolve while inspiring a healthy sense of vulnerability. It felt like living, not just being.
Gradually the steeps lessened. I splashed through another cold stream and came to a wooded hillock as daylight waned.
There stood another fenced conservation area. On the far side I found a bog. Darkness was coming swift. I doubled back a short distance to a pleasant birchwood and hunkered at the base of a tree for supper. Night fell completely.
I prayed God to bless the food and water (I had refilled from a rill on Beinn Airigh Charr) and asked that the rain let up. Before amen, a stiff, nipping wind swept in. It drove the rain away as I ate. I asked that the bitter wind let up. By the time I finished eating, the wind had calmed, the rain had gone, and the air was notably cooler.
After stretching out my bivy sack and tossing my sleeping bag inside, I wrung out my gloves, removed sodden shoes, peeled off wet layers, and crawled into sleep.
Long before dawn I was awakened by a bright light shining through the nylon. I wondered if a boat’s spotlight was pointed at me from the loch.
Poking out my head, I discovered the clouds had broken and a brilliant Hunter’s Moon coursed the deep blue yonder. A breeze rustled the tree shadows and that strange call of stags echoed in the enclosing hills.
In that magical slip of time, I pondered the fartherly love of God. In all my zany adventures his hand is ready to catch me if I falter. When I get myself into a pickle he ensures a way of escape, though it be at my reach’s limit. He listens to the wishes of a wayworn child, and cares. And so, he softly sang me back to sleep, until morning rays pierced the clouds and lit the tops of freshly snow-dusted hills.
After sloshing through through the bog next morning, I came to a horse trail, and minutes later, to the Letterewe Lodge. It’s a hunters’ manor on the edge of the wild, reachable only by boat from the far shore. There I encountered a couple gents on care-taking duty who pointed me the way to Kinlochewe.
“It’s about five miles,” they said, “and a good path all the way.”
I learned that this trail came out of the mountains, opposite the side of Beinn Airigh Charr I had bushwacked. Wild goats and bands of red deer also came out, driven from the heights by nasty weather. “You know it’s dreich when the goats come down,” I was later informed.
“Five miles” turned out to be seven, and the “good path” was a thin, squelchy track with several dubious water crossings. I love how Scots consider this a good path, I thought as I tossed my pack over a knee-deep flow and stepped back for a running leap.
The views were worth every effort! With many a backward glance down Loch Maree, I decided it would be a more dramatic viewing experience if hiked the opposite direction.
I arrived in Kinlochewe around 2pm and hitched a ride along the southwest shore of Loch Maree to Slattadale car park. There I ate lunch with stare-worthy views across the loch to Slioch, then hiked 6 miles over moor and stone to Poolewe. For my final night in Scotland I dined on smoked salmon, roasted lamb, and sticky toffee pudding a la mode before turning in to my toasty room at Creagan B&B. I nestled into cozy bed and slept the sleep of peace, with nary a regret for my roundabout adventure.
Perhaps I like the Highlands because they’re honest. They are what they are with no pretense or agenda. My exposure to the raw, untrammeled elements of nature was a journey in truth. No wonder people in the Bible and throughout human history have resorted to the wild to draw near God. There is sunshine and rain, triumph, misstep, bleakness, and unspeakable beauty. Through it all we stumble onward, never fully knowing what’s ahead. This is what it is to live.