Cape Wrath Trail 16: Night Hike To Strathan
I had walked from Loch Stack and it was an arduous road walk towards Kinlochbervie which I don’t care to remember.
I got to London Stores by 17:30 which is one of the very few shops on the entire route. I picked up some food and chatted to the owner. He was an elderly, stout sort of gentleman who looked like he’d lived there his whole life. He had immaculately combed white beard and hair. The shop was floor to ceiling with all sorts of things you could buy.
I asked him if there was anywhere to stay around here, I didn’t want to walk to Kinlochbervie which is just a harbour town and a big deviation off the route. He told me there was a Bothy nearby called Strathan. The track next to his shop would take me 2 miles of the way, but the final 4 miles were pathless. He told me if I had a good map, compass and torch I could make it. He reiterated that three times. He wanted to make sure.
I did have those things. I liked the old guy, and felt like he had somehow given me his blessing (and a challenge) that I could get to the Bothy okay.
I left up the peat track which indeed ended abruptly on the top of the moor. As it was now 17:45 the light was quickly dying and I checked the map. From here I would have to rely on pace counting and walking on a single bearing. After darkness there would be no landmarks whatsoever. The proposed route on the map was useless.
Fortunately, Strathan Bothy is directly North of the track end. So my bearing to keep was N0°. If it had been any other bearing I would not have decided to walk. Following a simple needle pointing Magnetic North is a fairly reasonable task.
I pace counted in the dark for an eerie 2200 metres which took me on walk like a ghost train. I was now looked down upon by a looming hill. This landscape felt completely void of anything but wet moorland, scratchy heather and trips and falls. A hill was a definite feature.
I hiked up the steep hill and then I ditched the compass which was wobbling like crazy with my momentum and magnetic interference. The contours of the hill matched those of my map so I was confident of my position and contoured up North Westerly and the North again after just 100 metres.
It was again hard to read the compass needle going down the hill. Instead, here I had a clear view of the sky and I could see all the major constellations. I found The Great Plough, or as me and my sister used to call it, “the saucepan”. If you find the handle of the saucepan, trace it along to the bowl, down and up the otherside, these final two stars will point to the North Star. It’s about two hand widths away. Sailors have been using this star to navigate for thousands of years.
I simply walked towards the star. I walked towards the left of a Lochhan that matched what I saw on the map. It’s silvery reflection was the only feature visible on this landscape. But in the far distance I could also see the sea. I also saw… the first flashes of the lighthouse at Cape Wrath. It was a tantalising reassurance that I was on the correct path.
Eventually I met a very old looking track that then ended abruptly. (It later transpired this was the other end of the peat track that I had started from, the middle had been swallowed up by moorland over time).
I encountered a gaping black river. I knew my Bothy was somewhere on the otherside of this. I just had to cross this chasm. I hesistated.
I looked up the river and something caught my eye which looked like a pole. I drifted towards it in the darkness and saw…. a silver step ladder. It was a strange sight. But I encircled it with my torch and realised it was part of a much bigger structure .
I don’t know how I had the fortune to do it, but I had navigated within 30m of a large footbridge. The bridge was marked nowhere on the map. It was a suspension-type rope bridge. Was this the Mary Celeste of bridges… a ghost bridge?
It was a spooky rope bridge made of chicken wire and old planks. I carefully tip toed across. To be honest I was a bit freaked out by now. The darkness and wet had got to me. I half expected that when I turned and looked back it will have utterly vanished.
I saw two signs of passage ahead of me and I didn’t know which one to take. I walked 50 paces down one path and it went nowhere so I went back to the bridge, which had not disappeared, and I took the other. It didn’t go anywhere either.
The feeling of hopelessness and fear at this stage had to be quickly be suppressed and turned into rational deduction. I was cold, tired and wet. I didn’t want to wander into dark and get lost. That could be disasterous.
My best bet, I handrailed along the river in complete darkness. The sound of it was really the only cue I had. The river was completely black.
I knew if I didn’t find a landmark after 200m I would simply turn back the other way and try the other direction.
I wound round in a kind of double mushroom shape of the river and I felt the curve was enough of a feature to find on the map. Indeed it matched. The map told me there would be an intersecting stream coming up that ran diagonally North East. This would lead directly to the Bothy. At least the map was making sense again. I thought back to some of the skills I had picked up doing nighttime orienteering in Epping Forest. I believe those skills helped me find safety that night.
I eventually found the diagonal stream and followed it. But then it stopped and I had no Bothy in front of me. Just a thick bed of reeds.
I shone my torch forward and I saw several pairs of wide eyes glowing back at me.
I thought it was deer at first, but it wasn’t. They looked alien-like.
Then I saw the fluffy outline of sheep. I giggled and shouted, “Hello, ewe!”. And they all ran off.
I felt that this must be a clue I was close to the Bothy. Bothies were often once shepherds houses, and generations of sheep remain hefted to the lands around them. Sheep are so habitual they will not leave the area they are reared in. (I read this in a book called “The Shepherds Life” that I had found at the Bunkhouse in Inverie). I decided it was a good enough hunch and not to give up. If there are sheep the Bothy must be around.
I checked the map again and realised I was not looking at it correctly at all. The bothy marker was actually a just a label pointing to a small black dot a little further West. This dot was the actual Bothy.
So I swept my torch West up a hill. I caught an indistinct shape of something. I took two paces and the shape transformed into the gable of a Bothy. I had found it. It was over.
I had walked two and half hours, 8km through featureless, pathless terrain looking for a needle in a haystack. It seemed unreal that I had actually managed to find it.