Away to the West

Late last month I saw Sutherland again, but the west this time. The weekend had me with a bed in Inverkirkaig while the others camped near Achiltibuie and on the Saturday there was to be a long, long hike (6 / 7 miles) to what I’d thought would be the foot of Suilven and then a bit of a wait for me till my companions came down from the summit. It didn’t quite turn out like that as the “walk in” as they called it had more than a few uphills along the way which had me peching and left me feeling I’d already climbed a fair bit of the hill before I settled down on a flattish rock and declared I was going no further.

Above is the view from my base camp, before the mist rolled down right over me and I had to wrap myself up in my picnic rug. The horizon you can see there is not the summit; I heard there were at least two more similar steep stretches before the bealach was reached, and then there’s the final bit on to the dome of Caisteal Liath. Unfortunately the mist never lifted and the real hill walkers got no view whatsoever after all their efforts. Writing about the mountains of Assynt, Norman McCaig called it “my masterpiece of masterpieces” but it was shrouded for us that day.

From the comfort and safety of my sofa, I shall get my fix of Suilven from watching a BBC Alba programme, the fourth one of a new series called Dana / Scotland’s Wild Side which starts on 22 September, thereafter on iPlayer. The series features a climber called Kenny Rankin, originally from Plockton who travels about in an old van, sometimes even sleeping in it before a climb. Now, I bet he doesn’t overnight in a layby! Dana in Gaelic means bold, daring, intrepid, adventurous according to my dictionary which is very apt as I believe this laddie will be seen running along the ridge of Suilven!

By the way, the midgies were fierce and out in full force. Anticipating this, I’d bought a pocket-size version of Smidge at Ralia but although I tried and tried and so did the rest of the party, we could get no product to come out of the pump spray. We all had midge nets, past caring how we looked, though the wee buggers were getting under mine when I tried to eat or drink. I emailed the company when I got home and Dr Alison Blackwell, Director of APS Biocontrol in Dundee, dealt quickly and efficiently with getting a replacement to me. So well done to her. (And while I’m on the subject, if you buy direct from their website it costs £5.50 but the same size is priced at £7.99 on Amazon.)

I stopped at Ralia both going north and coming back again, though I’m still a bit of a feartie about doing a right turn on the A9. Their inside tables are not in use yet – due to a lack of staff I believe – but they have several outside and their two workers were making and serving up high quality soups, sandwiches, snaisters, teas and coffees as fast as they possibly could.

It felt quite strange to be heading west at Tore rather than going on to the north as I usually do but the day was lovely and I enjoyed the change of scenery as I headed for Ullapool. Garve Hotel was closed and a sad-looking sight and I remembered when RMF and I had gone in there a few years ago on our way to Inverewe Gardens (see “Spring to the north has aye come slow”). Much more promising was the Aultguish Inn which I spotted on the Friday and stopped at on the Monday. I should have been alerted by the emptiness of the carpark but maybe I was too busy noting with approval the troughs of flowers, a saltire and a lion rampant flying high. Just at the front door though, there was a blackboard saying they were closed until the Tuesday at 5, with “thanks for your understanding” at the bottom; at first they got none of that from me and I roared my frustration at the sky. I did calm down though, realising this could have been another staff shortage issue. I have subcontracted a review to my wee sister who’ll be passing later this month on her way to spend a couple of nights in the hotel where My Favourite Niece is working for the season.

I stopped instead in Ullapool, where mid-afternoon the Seafood Shack was still hoaching; I’ve never been ‘in’ but at looks as if it’s thriving. I went to West Coast, also in Argyle Street, for an Earl Grey tea and a lemon and coconut slice. The inside has been remodelled and there are tables outside only, though you go in to place your order. I called in again on my way home for coffee which came out their hatch at me horizontally – luckily I saw the server’s tray hitting an obstacle and I just managed to jump out of the way in time. After he’d mopped up most of the mess he observed laconically: “I suppose I’d better make you another one” and I said I’d be most obliged. It’s quite a farantoosh place: the order before mine was for a beetroot latte.

I’d also recommend Delilah’s in Lochinver, again with outside tables only, for good coffee and craic. Cousin Mairi and I were being called “girls” on Friday afternoon but “guys” on Saturday when we came off the hill. (See I am not a guy) I don’t know whether this was because our party of five now included a male or whether we had both aged and lost our gender after a ten-hour expedition, but I wasn’t taking it sitting down, especially as there were no young ones there to get embarrassed; I called out the perpetrator who took it in good part. They were nice lads.

On Sunday, we had lunch at the Summer Isles Hotel after I’d managed to conquer their system: you can’t book online but instead you fill in a booking request form and then wait for them to get back to you. After a couple of days, I got a phone call and an email from them but by this time I was in the land of variable phone and internet signals and confirmed our table in a phone call made from a rock, just off the Suilven path. It was the oddest place I’d ever read out my card number, or rather got someone else to do it as I didn’t have my glasses. Assuming the lunch customers were typical of the place, we made up quite a different clientele and the crofting talk didn’t go down well with everybody. The food was ok though their prices are on the high side. I feel though that it’s not fair to judge places too harshly at the moment with staff shortages and supply difficulties – though whoever was making our dinners could surely have managed to get my roast potatoes ready at the same time as my fish. I turned down the offer to have them for pudding and instead I had one scoop of excellent pistachio ice cream which was not at all sweet.

I was on the lookout for NC 500 offenders (too many previous links to mention!) and on my first evening in Inverkirkaig, I passed a family with a van from Swindon Car and Van Rental parked in a passing place at 8pm; they were sitting at the side of the road eating and being eaten but I wasn’t sure if they were planning to stay there overnight so had to hold my tongue, restricting myself to saying hello. There are clear police signs on the road though telling drivers not to park in passing places. We saw what I thought was a monster camper van in Lochinver which I wouldn’t have fancied meeting on a single track road but it was outclassed by an even bigger one which I just managed to pull out in front of as it was leaving Ullapool on the Monday. It was towing a small car behind it and I have to say that it smacked my gob – is that even legal?

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