During May 2009, a hardy small party of four had ventured into Glen Affric in extremely wet weather. The small Bothy at Camban provided some respite from the constant drumming of the rain drops on one’s rain hood. The burns were in full spate and the party spent most of the time drying out all our kit in Allt Beithe hostel only to get wet wading knee deep through two rivers on the walk out. This was to be my last attempt at any Munro in the area of the glen. The rain was so torrential and unremitting that no serious walking was done. On the way out through showers of hard snow pellets, sleet and rain it was resolved to attempt the trip in better weather in the following year of 2010, although at the time I was suffering from what later was found to be heart trouble requiring the fitting of a one wire pacemaker. Injury and illness amongst the four of us caused cancellation of the 2010 trip.
However it was, my walking friends in Leicester Local YHA Group decided that I must go to Ratagan and also Glen Affric SYHA hostel at Allt Beithe for my 2011 birthday and booked five of us into Ratagan and Glen Affric before the end of 2010. It was to be a week’s walking with the odd Munro ticked off along the way. I had a wish to climb a few Munros, and eight would be ideal. That was one a day.
The birthday party left Leicester on Saturday May 21st full of hope for a good week but by the time we reached Stirling SYHA hostel the weather had changed and it was raining heavily. And it rained all the next day on the way north as well as when Ratagan was reached. The weather forecast was for hurricane force winds of 120 mph and heavy rain for the Monday when it was planned to walk into Glenn Affric from Morvich. We were advised that to go into Glenn Affric would be a hazardous journey. We rescheduled our journey for the Tuesday. There were five of us, Liz, Kathy, Boh, Tony and myself, Alan, the author of this record. It was to be a test of our wet weather gear.
As one of us had never been to Skye, on Monday it was decided to drive over as far as Sligachan. Loch Duich was in turmoil, driven insanely mad by the hurricane force winds, dashing and splashing on the shore, but the Skye Bridge was open. The car windscreen wipers were struggling to cope with the wind and rain so we took coffee and cakes at the serpentarium where a four-foot long African snake was handled. Liz was so charmed by one that she adopted it on the spot. All these creatures had been illegally imported into this country and confiscated by customs. The water coming off the hills created waterfalls where none normally existed. The Sligachan Inn was empty. The bar staff were unused to this boredom and outnumbered us. No customers except for us who had just arrived. The very strong winds kept blowing the doors open against the pressure of the door closers. Buckets, cans and other receptacles were scattered about catching rainwater dripping from the ceiling overhead. The ferocious winds driving the rain under the roof covering or maybe the roof itself was being destroyed. We never asked so did not find the answer. Huddling next to the fire to the continuous accompaniment of the plop plop of the drips into various containers we rested and watched the weather raging outside over a pint of Pinnacle from the Cuillin brewery based on the premises. Then refreshed we all clambered back into the car thankfully parked just by the door, to enjoy the wild weather all the way back to the mainland and then to the Clagaigh Inn for a meal. It was here that evening it was decided that the 80th birthday party would best be held on Sunday night. It was the best value for money!
The morning of Tuesday dawned less wet and windy as promised by the weather forecast. Two chaps who had walked out of Glen Affric on Monday arrived soaking wet at the hostel later advised us that the way past Camban Bothy was not impossible but very very wet.
The route chosen was from Morvich via Glenlicht House at the end of the track and along the path past Camban Bothy. It was still raining when we set off up the track. We all were glad of the shelter in the lean-to at Glenlicht House to eat and watch the rainsqualls being blown past. We had made good time to this point. Leaving this shelter during a lull in the rain Kathy saw her bright yellow backpack cover disappear rapidly in the direction of Meall a Charra never to be seen again carried away by the strong wind. The waterfalls at Allt Grannda were magnificent on both sides of the gorge one of which needed to be walked through but we all did that with no bother. Camban, much improved with new sleeping platforms since our last visit in 2009, seemed a long way along the track, but was a welcome shelter from the elements. Outside a water vole had been spotted very bedraggled and not at all used to these conditions as could be seen from its expression. He headed for shelter some where around the back. The path summit at Croc Biodaig was at the end of a seemingly long uphill drag. Tales of wet weather walking were exchanged with the other Munro baggers in the kitchen common room at the hostel. The English warden kept the back door locked and all outdoor kit had to be removed before entering the building. No boots allowed inside anywhere. Comply or be refused accommodation. I left my boots in the entrance porch, as I needed them later to reach the bunkhouse 50 yards away, only to find that the warden had taken a dislike to them there and had placed them amongst all the others to dry. The inside of my boots were not wet. Damp, yes but not wet.
The best forecast day for an assault on a Munro was Wednesday, this was the morrow and I said that an early start was necessary. We all lay in late. I was up first, as I needed to be up a hill and would go alone if no one else was ready. Kathy and Liz were concerned that the old bloke was out of his mind and needed to be looked after. Tony and Boh got out after we three had left to go up Mam Sodhail. My eyes were not good, as I needed to have cataract operations in both eyes when I got back although the appointment had not yet been set. Water was still coming crashing frantically off the hill cascading down the waterfall next to the narrow path up from the track. We rested at the Bealach in the stone wall shelter before turning right to follow the path upwards. We could see the objective. My legs were suffering a bit. I had been this far before in far better calm sunny weather, and had not been up a hill since my pacemaker was fitted. I was determined to get up this one even though our slow progress meant that we had to be content with just one summit. Time would not allow us the second one of Carn Eighe before darkness fell on the return. It was not raining nor snowing and there was the possibility that we would get a view from beneath the low clouds a few feet above our heads. Kathy and I managed to stop Liz from attempting the furthest hill first and we summitted across the boulder field. Rather later than we had wished, but we did get a view of the far glen glowing in bright-diffused sunlight from next to the wind blown icy cairn. Kathy set a return compass course for the Bealach and set off down. Fatigue set in. But we descended quite quickly although I needed lots of rest stops. Falling at times through the snow. On reaching the track in the glen, the girls went ahead and I enjoyed the solitude and the warm pleasant inner glow that comes with the satisfaction one gets when a goal has been achieved. As a septuagenarian I had bagged another in my task of Munro ticking. It was a big one; number fourteen in Munro’s tables. The evening was dry and the clouds a little higher as I strolled along the track knowing that this may be the last time I would enjoy this glen during my lifetime and I wanted to savour the moment. The girls kidded the rest of the Munro baggers that they had left me to ascend Carn Eighe and would be along shortly. A cup of tea was ready when I at last walked in. The next day was going to be wet again but not so windy. There were some that did not believe that we three had done it or that we had gone to the lower top and not the cairn. A wiry agile man who was trying to finish his last few Munros quizzed me and said quietly that we had gone to the top without doubt. I inwardly rejoiced, as I had not ticked off a Munro since 2008. At that time I was suffering with a heart problem that was diagnosed later.
The next day I rested out of the rain having already given up any idea of ascending Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan, as I needed to regain my strength to walk out to Ratagan Hostel and the proposed Munro was An Socach, which I had been up in calm sunny weather some years previously. I stayed in the bunkhouse with a chap from Derby who needs a few hills to complete his total but did not fancy getting soaked to achieve his goal. The girls led the two men up the same route that had been used the day before to the Bealach Coire Ghadheil and turned left this time along the ridge over the top and over the Munro getting very wet during the walk whilst I and the Derby chap watched out of the rain from the shelter of the bunkhouse, for the party coming down off the hill towards the hostel. The hostel was locked during the day until 5.00p.m. despite the weather. The manager was from England and an escapee from the rat race in the City. Whilst waiting a long distance walker walked in, very glad to get out of the rain and the wind for once. He was on a journey from John o’ Groats to Lands End. We later discovered he was to fly to Holland for a few days before resuming his trek. He told the tale that in a Bothy book, seen a day or two earlier, he had noted that a certain Swedish girls choir met at the Bothy on Thursdays. We had seen the same message in the Bothy book at Camban. Those girls certainly got about for their choir practice. In some men’s imagination they were all blonde, buxom and under twenty-five.
It was noted that the two women in our party had climbed two Munros whilst the men had managed only one wet one!
On Friday Boh set the pace and led the way out back to Morvich. It was raining continually again. I never did discover whether the high pace set was because he was glad to get away from the remote hostel, get out of the rain, or he wished for a pint or two in a pub. I was bringing up the rear. After a sustenance stop sheltering at Glenlicht House where despite a visual search over the adjacent hillside there was no sign of the errant yellow backpack cover. I tripped, stumbled and fell over on the track shortly after leaving the shelter. I was tired and I had the car key. The earlier arrivals were sheltering in the National Trust Rangers display room when I arrived last in the pouring rain.
Back at Ratagan Hostel we met up with Chris and Alice. They were staying in the Wee Bunkhouse, a cosy six-bed garage size accommodation. Five blokes and Alice were staying requiring the blokes having got over their surprise at discovering that a female was in residence, to mind their p’s and q’s. Alice was amused.
The forecast for the Saturday was not much improved, as the conditions were high strength winds at high level and gusty wind and rain squalls lower down. Over breakfast it was decided that the most sheltered walk was from Totaig to Glenelg by the coastal track.
One car was by some arrangement left at the Glenelg hotel. The midges were biting at Totaig by the old ferry house and slipway where in September 1954 I had landed on my way from Eilean Donan by bicycle to Ratagan Hostel. We seven set off up hill past the Broch at Caisteal in bright sunshine and sheltered from the wind by the lee of the land. It was windy at high level as could be seen by the racing cumulus clouds. The walk was pleasant and uneventful until we reached the wide track that had been forested over some many years previously. It was torturous underfoot. The route was marked with yellow warning tape of a similar sort used to keep folks away from competitors in cross-country events. The tape was intended to keep us on a route of comparatively drier conditions under our boots but it was still slippery, very wet and waterlogged. The going got slower and slower after what had been excellent progress along the first part of the track. The forestry folk had cut a path between the trees three metres wide to indicate the previous route but forestry ploughing had destroyed the centuries old well trodden track through the trees and reduced it to peaty bog!
At Ardintoul, a place that although at the end of some tarmac, did not appear to be connected to any other place than Bernera Barracks, now part of some farm a few miles away. Off the end of the tarmac lane we were literally on the beach in rain showers and it was windy as well. Bright wind blown sunshine interposed the showers and a seashore stone wall provided some shelter from the wind and horizontal rain. It was not until we were in sight of the ferry crossing to Skye did we meet anyone. In this case a pleasant young Scottish woman wisely wearing waterproof wellingtons walking her wet dog. We exchanged the time of day. Further along the field track led to a galvanised five-barred field gate. We exited the dripping trees and were immediately on water streaming tarmac above Kylerhea ferry to the Isle of Skye. No one saw any otters at play. Two miles of road in drying conditions brought us to another footpath across fields to the Bernera Barracks and into Glenelg by the school. Our garments had dried and our boots were drying out. On the road in Glenelg village with the hotel almost in sight the skies darkened, and the heavens opened. The rains had come again determined to soak us before we reached the pub, which they did. The earlier arrivals had informed the local drinkers that a white haired old man, about to celebrate his first octogenarian birthday was approaching having walked from Totaig. This was not really believed and unknown to me. When viewing the alcohol offerings in this warm and pleasant hostelry I was asked my age. It was subject to a wee bet, of a double dram or two. It was thanks to my walking colleagues confirming my age from across the room, that a few drams were downed as a result of this gambolling? Gambling? The loser, in order to clear his account behind the bar had to visit the village shop to obtain money from the local ATM.
The vehicles arrived and I suggested that a visit to the other brochs in the area could be done, as I was the only one to have done so previously. It was raining again on the visit to the tall structures of Dun Telve and a few yards further Dun Trodden. We finished the days walking. The strong winds had not diminished. Norman arrived on his Triumph motorcycle. We were now eight. Would anyone else arrive?
On Sunday I awoke aged eighty.
There was a concern that the very strong winds that had been blowing all week would affect our plans. It was agreed that I would decide what to do, as it was my birthday. The principle of these was to find somewhere out of the wind so as not be blown away or soaked through by the wind blown rain.
A long discussion took place Sunday morning at breakfast, when it was obvious that the weather forecast was not wrong. The wind was in the wrong direction being somewhat westerly. We went to Plockton for coffee at the waterfront Plockton Hotel on Harbour Street. At least we were out of the wind and wet but were not comfortable. A middle aged Scot in full tweed regalia complete with kilt, long woollen socks, a woollen shirt, tweed Scottish style jacket, and a blonde female companion sat reading a pile of Scottish Sunday papers nearby. A touristy bit of shopping along the street ended with a visit to the Plockton Inn on Innes Street. This place was different; it had a pool table and was open all day, did meals and was warm and cosy. I was satisfied with a pint or two from the local Plockton Brewery, Plockton Bay Ale at 4.6%. All the Scottish Sunday Papers were bought. The games of pool were rather curious in as much as it was my birthday I was to be allowed to win. What the players failed to realise was exactly how bad my eyes were. I may have won the odd game with Norman and Tony. The very brilliant wind blown sunshine attracted some away from the hostelry to do the local walk above the houses and around the park. These hardy individuals set off in brilliant sunshine and were back some time later having been soaked by a heavy shower. The time had come to move from one pub to the next at Dornie.
The rain was sheeting down again when we reached the Clagaigh Inn. Parking was impossible but we got the OK to park right outside the door. I believe we were earlier than the time previously set. This did not faze the bar staff. I have no clear recollection of the initial events other than the booked table was rearranged to the main room from the pokey area under the stairs. Others bought drinks. Curiously I was sat at the head of the table with my back to the bar facing the fire. Through the windows on my right I could see the far hills, the rain, the scurrying clouds and the dimming sky in the west. The meal was good value. A birthday cake, brought all the way from Aberdeen was produced complete with eighty candles not a total of eighty but two – one number eight and one zero. I was distracted by something for on returning to my seat my straight pint glass of blackcurrant and lemonade was lettered. I did not notice immediately which caused some quiet amusement amongst the other seven at the table knowing that my eyes were dim. Some moments later when I lifted the glass for a sip I noticed “Aging Gracefully 80 Happy Birthday”. I smiled. The request for a cake knife was an unusual one, for the resident chef brought in a long sharp pointed butcher’s knife. I took the opportunity to personally thank him for the special veggie meal produced for the occasion and arranged by the collaborators. I cut the cake. Then I made a thank you speech thanking all for braving the terrible windy wet weather and travelling the 500 miles from Leicester to be present on the occasion of my birthday, which very often falls during the Spring Bank Holiday. During the evening it was discovered from the bar staff that my friend Alan, in America, had sold over the Internet the property he owned next to the pub. The manager made us welcome to come at another time to stay at the Red House. This is provisionally arranged for 2013.
To defray the cost of the expensive trip I bought the meal as a personal thank you for the pleasant birthday celebration Scottish trip. This caused a surprise amongst the diners as the chef this time collaborated with me and kept it secret. Fun was had all round. Thank you to the attendees once again for making my 80th birthday such a success despite the appalling weather. I was disappointed that my daughter’s family were not present but Truro is further away. Also my octogenarian Scottish walking friends were not well enough.
On the Bank Holiday Monday all travelled all the way back to Leicester.
Completing this write up in the early part of 2012, it has been reported that during this past year Scotland has had the wettest weather since records were first taken. There was little or no rain in Leicestershire.
It was too expensive to hire a kilt and full regalia for the party so the ladies were denied the opportunity to find out what nether garments are worn beneath. Thus I avoided any up-kilt photo shots. Maybe there will be a chance next time? Keep watching the group programme.