Cairngorm and the Clava Cairns

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Suilven above Lochinver
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Sandwood Bay

Day 1: The A9 –  Inshriach Cake Stop – Clava Cairns

More photos; https://flic.kr/s/aHskeaRmCc

As our 17 days in the Hebrides last August 2014 was such a success – a mixture of wild camping and lovely B&Bs  – and with funds a bit depleted with a big Africa trip on the horizon, we decided on a similar budget – conscious approach to visiting some of the most stunning landscapes anywhere; Assynt, Durness, Torridon, Applecross and Skye.

It’s a LONG way from our home to the Lochinver area. Around 6 hours driving, though on pretty fast roads.We were keen to get up to Loch Assynt on the first day.The main ‘problem’ was deciding on which stops we should make.There is just so much to see en route.

At 8am on Wed 27th May, we set off,  the car packed to the gunnels with camping, walking, photography and bird-watching paraphernalia.Plus some nice food and TREATS (a must when camping) including two bottles of champers. Lots of choccy stuff and honey roasted cashews for me (aargh, the calories!)  and Chris’s usual ton of fruit , crisps and Chardonnay.

The plan was to camp on the slopes of Quinag, one of our favourite mountains above Loch Assynt – IF the weather was half decent.The forecast however was suggesting low cloud, rain and winds so our chances weren’t looking so good.

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Quinag from the Kylesku road

Got through the rush-hour traffic on the city’s southside and past notorious Castlecary on the motorway to Stirling and soon had the open road ahead of us – the A9.Not the most scenic route but pleasant enough – and , mostly, quite fast.

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From the car..Stirling Castle

Despite a very strong pull, we shot past one favourite stop – House of Bruar, or Harrods in the Highlands as its known, with its irresistible food court. Instead, lowly Inshriach Potting Shed coffee shop in the Cairngorm National Park called , a cracker of a wee place with some of the best home-made gateaux(way beyond just cakes) I’ve tasted.

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Inschriach entrance

You have to choose well though.Some are a tad too sweet even for me. It’s been voted best in the UK by the RSPB because of the garden birds and red squirrels which feed right in front of you.Beautiful garden too.One of these really charming places that just makes you feel good as well as adding inches (I could feel them) to the waistline in half an hour.

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So at 10.45am , having taken a 10 min winding detour off the A9 and entered the different and very beautiful world of Rothiemurchus  (all birchwood in early summer leaf of shimmering pale green, yellow oaks)  we reached Inshriach, the car park quite busy already.

Chris doesn’t really have a sweet tooth and avoids cakes usually , but over 18 years I have convinced him of the joys of a good bit of home-baking occasionally. So he ‘forced down’ a lemon drizzle sponge and I had a truly exquisite fatless layered sponge with a cream, fresh gooseberry and rhubarb filling.I’ll be picking that one again.I did mean to keep some for later but it was just too good.

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Cairngorm view near Inschriach
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Loch Morlich
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Cairngorm landscape

I’d visited lovely Loch an Eilein recently and Chris was happy to just push on after that to rejoin the A9 to Inverness.Then followed a lovely if very brief drive through some of the loveliest Cairngorm scenery where we had our next stop planned – Clava Cairns.

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Clava Cairns

We’d both got quite interested in Outlander, despite its Mills and Boon – ish storyline.It  covers the Clan system well and as my husband is a native Gaelic speaker, he enjoy the Gaelic side of it.He’s also a huge fan of anything historical and particularly about the Jacobites.Great fun too, spotting well-loved places they used in the filming, mostly non-CGI altered too (apparently visitors to NZ can’t recognise most of the sites used for filing Lord of the Rings because of image manipulation ).

It’s not the easiest place to find and the signage suddenly petered out but we found it ok and by 12.15 we were wandering this sacred, Bronze Age burial chambers ringed by woodland. 4,000 years old. Impossible to imagine. No-one else was there. Just the sound of wood pigeons and an occasional harsh ‘caw’ from the crows .It’s farming country round here and this is the one site there has been quite a bit of CGI applied in Outlander to make Clava Cairns look more open and with views to the hills.Still a great place to visit though.

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It was overcast with a cold wind as we headed beyond Inverness, me taking a quick look down at the choppy sea going over the Kessock Bridge as I’ve seen dolphins from here before . None of the resident pod today though.

Oh,  it always feels SO good to turn left at the Tore roundabout and join the Ullapool road,  heading for the NW Highlands! Spotted a couple of red Kites cruising the sky above the road , quite a familiar sight in the area.They feed them at Tollie Farm and you can pay to see that.

The sky was getting gloomier as we drove the beautiful and fast road over past Garve and along lonely Loch Glascarnoch.The big hills were well-clothed in mist and the loch looked full.

Then the little white houses of Ullapool appeared on the far horizon as we headed along Loch Broom, everything bathed in that cold , Far North light.The gorse was out everywhere, splashing the landscape with dazzling yellow.The hills still look a bit brown/ dullish green in May with none of the vibrant bright greens of true summer. It would be July  before these developed and August before the heather started to really bloom.

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Yellow Gorse

The Ceilidh Place in Ullapool makes a good coffee stop but we were a bit worried about the weather and where we would get set up tonight. It was looking unlikely to be Quinag’s slopes as the rain was already falling quite steadily and the wind was strong. Picked up some fresh milk and a pack of Parma Ham in the excellent supermarket in town then headed up the road over to Ardmair Bay, a lovely spot but now lashed by driving rain.

I usually stop every few miles on this road but the cloud was so low there wasn’t a lot to see except wild, empty moorland.Still looked magnificent.The A835 is a great driving route, really incredible if the mountains are clear.

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Loch Assynt

But as we approached Loch Assynt, Quinag was wreathed in heavy cloud and it was now blowing a hoolie. There were white horses on the loch, a wild lonely place,  with the ruins of Ardvreck Castle perched above a little pink beach.

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Loch Assynt

We were going to visit it but as we stepped out of the car at the parking spot – surprisingly busy – we nearly got blown over. So – think again.Quinag was out for camping, that was for sure.

Not so easy to find a wild camping spot in Assynt unless you really know the area.Unlike the Hebrides, the landscape is far rockier with little by way of flattish grass land.

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Assynt landscape

There is also quite a bit of crofting and little houses dotted everywhere near the coast. Hhmm……it might have to be an official camp site.Not a favourite option, but any port in a storm and all that.

And so we set out on the LONG recce to find somewhere for the night.Checked out Achmelvich, the campsite overlooking the wonderful white sand beach,  stunning,  with its turquoise water and beautiful rocky and emerald headlands.

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Achmelvich Beach – on a good day

Not a warm welcome from the woman there and the pitches for tents weren’t in the nicest spots.So – onto Clachtoll, a bit of an untidy crofting township on a nice wee beach – magnificent drive there, as they all are round here.

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Coastline around Lochinver

It’s a rollercoaster of a landscape and you drive up and down and round , blind bends and narrow, narrow single track roads with passing places.Hardly a soul about. The campsite  looked ok from a distance but we had an inclination to check out the softer lands around Stoer just in case a wild pitch presented itself.Too soon to give up just yet on that front!

We also detoured briefly to check out the availability of a real bed in our third night’s B&B accommodation at Stac Fada , Stoer, just in case they had a vacancy. They didn’t. Felt a bit of a numptie in my full waterproof gear as I told the owner we were in the tent tonight and she literally reeled back in disbelief. “In this??” she gasped, no doubt thinking she had this pair of nutters staying with her in 2 days time.The bungalow did look lovely however. A little haven of civilisation with a pretty garden in the wildest landscape.So – Stoer Point beckoned and we set off. The wind was rocking the car, the rain almost horizontal; it was a really wild, yeuch night.

Pulled in at the Lighthouse car park and it all had a (soggy) majesty about it, the ocean whipped up into white horses and spume rising up into the air from cliff side waterfalls. All far too exposed though for a tent. Listened to the shipping forecast at 6pm and the weather was going to get worse, before it got better.

Ok, we had to get shelter or we’d be blown away into the ocean or the bog by Force 8/9 gales. Storm Force was the order of the day out at sea.

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Suilven from Quinag’s slopes…the view we hoped to see.

I must admit to feeling quite depressed by this stage – our very first night, so carefully planned and anticipated and now KAPUT.

Clachtoll campsite in the storm

Headed back to Clachtoll campsite where all the best pitches with a view were long gone. But it looked better kept with areas for tents and the owner, Jim , was a really friendly welcoming guy. One advantage about wild camping is –  location, location, location, location. All the money in the world at your disposal for a night’s accommodation can’t buy you the sort of experience you get with a great wild camping spot. it makes the inconveniences and slight hardships with a tent well worth it, in my view. But a ‘tent with a view’ was out tonight and so we pitched – for all of £12 –  into a sheltered corner just below a very large tent on the upper level. I admit at that point I envied the folk sitting reading in the lounges of their caravans – cosy and dry AND admiring the waves crashing with fury onto the rocky shore below. They had a view at least!

Ah well , time to cheer ourselves up with some champagne, courtesy of  Aldi’s at £12 a bottle. A plastic tumbler or two and we felt a lot better. Nicely chilled it was too in the wintery temperatures. Silver linings indeed.

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Wonderful Assynt

It’s actually quite cosy and comfortable in the tent given the good gear we’ve got now. Comfy air filled mats,  warm sleeping bags. I browsed a newspaper as we chatted about what to do next day, given that the storm was due to pass over and become heavy showers. The idea had been to get some hillwalking in but if the low cloud continued that was out. We’re at the stage in life now where we want the views! A walk to Sandwood Bay however, might be just the thing.

Good dinner. Parma ham, some pickles and tomatoes to start. Then we somehow, carefully, managed to cook venison sausages in the apron of the tent without us and it going up in flames. They tasted brilliant on buttered rolls, as good as a Michelin meal. Camping does make good kitchen.

The evening brightens (as it often does)

While I move onto good old boring tea after food, Chris enjoys his bottle of wine ‘of an evening’ and so we spent it reading and just relaxing, glad at least to be this far north. By 8pm a glimmer of sun made me long for a stroll on the beach and a chance to see if the great mountain views along the coast were clearing (they hadn’t). The wind was fierce but everyone had had the same idea so this tiny wee place and beach was full of families, dogs and kids running about, letting off pent up steam. The beach is nice but it doesn’t match Achmelvich, which is simply stunning. I’m not a huge fan of Clachtoll, it has always had an untidy, scattered look about it but some very spruce holiday homes have sprung up, enormous affairs. The hinterland is a wonder as is the coast – you couldn’t get more ruggedly beautiful.It’s quite similar to Harris’s east coast.

By 10pm we were a bit knackered and looking forward to getting a decent sleep after the day’s travel and travails. BUT the tent above us had other ideas. We now realised it was inhabited by two women who insisted on talking in loud voices to each other until well after midnight. They were in and out of their car too for some bizarre reason and each visit was accompanied by the loud slamming of the doors and car boot. I almost got up to remind them that there wäs a ‘quiet’ policy in the site from 10pm but I just couldn’t face the aggro. Another advantage of wild camping – utter peace and quiet. No one else around. Ah well, they’d probably sleep late , some compensation.(as it turned out – WRONG)

Sandwood Bay and Durness

Next day – a walk to Sandwood Bay and THE perfect , lonely Durness beach becomes home.

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