I’m now at 21 months straight on this monthly outdoor sleeping challenge and have a real mixed bag over the summer and autumn- from the enlightenment inducing Tien Shan mountains of Kazakhstan to a hungover doss in Strontian campsite. Going to make more of an effort to keep up to date from now on!
August: Loch Maree Canoe Camping, Sandwood Bay and Kazakhstan
I’d planned a family campervan tour around the Northwest in August, but when it came down to it I realised that I didn’t want to spend a week living cheek by jowl with an assorted mass of humanity on campsites. I wanted the wilds and fortunately my family did too. Now the kids are older we can get back into some of the places that we used to frequent back when we were footloose and fancy free.
First up was a two night canoe camping trip on Loch Maree. My trip with Donald the previous month reminded me what I had been missing by staying away from Loch Maree. This time we launched from Slattadale rather than from the Loch Maree Hotel, and took a line through the islands to find a campspot. Dense clouds of midges followed us far from shore, necessitating headnets, and rain was never far away. It brightened slightly as we pitched camp. We lit a fire and sheltered beneath a tarp. Next day we paddled to Isle Maree and back, a place of which I have learned much of late. It is a place made magical not only by its history and legends, but also by its natural history. Whereas the rest of the islands are based on gneiss and home only to pine and bog, Isle Maree is of fertile sandstone soil and also supports a diverse population of hardwoods. I counted eight varieties, oak, ash, holly, larch, chestnut, rowan, pine and birch as I made my rounds.
The isle’s geographical exceptionalism has no doubt made it a special place since men first gazed upon it, but it is known for its association with Maol Rubha, an early Christian mystic, born in Northern Ireland in 642, just under half a century after the death of Columba. Landing at one of the islands shores, one is drawn into the heart of its forested interior, where inside the mossy remains of a small wall a recumbent slab bears the chisel work of an early christian. But the eye is drawn more to the contemporary gravestones. I found them chilling when they loomed out the gathering dusk on my first visit, leading me to withdraw and camp on the opposite shore instead. I an not a superstitious man, but for some reason on that occassion I felt more attracted to the campsite without the graveyard. Most of the stones are members of the McLean family, though the most impressive is – or at least was, its elaborate celtic cross now propped against the pedestal on which it once stood – that of Alexander Robertson, the ex proprietor of the Loch Maree Hotel. This unfortunate chap made up a picnic hamper for some guests. The hamper included some tainted sandwich paste. Several of the guests died, plunging Robertson into such torment that he later took his own life.
The far shore on which I previously camped to avoid the graveyard ambience of the island has its own ritual significance. Bulls were sacrificed there until comparatively recently. The bulls were perhaps killed on the shore to avoid falling foul of the taboo against removing anything from the island. Anything on that island is simply too dangerous to be unleashed on the wider world.
In times past a popular cure for madness was to bring the lunatic to the island and have them drink from the well, then tow them round the island behind a boat. There is an account this happening in the 19th century. It was described as being partially successful, in that a ‘harmless imbecile’ was converted into a ‘raving lunatic’.
Logs in the interior are left to rot to comply with this taboo. I forbade my children to remove any stones and then realised that the rusty mini tripod that I had found was also verboten and tossed it away. Truth be told if there was any madness to be unleashed I had let the genie out of the bottle after my last visit.
The attraction if the island that I haven’t mentioned is the coin tree, and old oak that has had hundreds of coins hammered into its trunk. The tree succumbed to copper poisoning long ago, but parts of it remain. I would never dream removing any of the blue and green stained pennies and halfpennies, but I had found two perfectly modern pound coins on the ground. I took them to the garage in Kinlchewe, where I traded them for a mint magnum ice cream. Who knows where those accursed currency units ended up, perhaps given as change to a passing German biker who might at this very moment being driven into insanity.
Family backpacking trip to Sandwood Bay
After a night at home we readied ourselves for a backpacking trip into Sandwood Bay, a place I once visited every year, either to camp at the bay or as a side trip while visiting the nearby bothies. The first bothy is Strathchellaich, famous for the hermit named Sandy who lived there permanently for a number of years, collecting his pension fortnightly in Kinlochbervie and buying provisions in the London Stores on his way back. Sandy decorated the walls with surreal art and always did his best to repel any hopeful bothy-goers. Strachan, the second bothy, was also occupied for a period by an elderly couple who fell on hard times and moved in, along with a sizeable menagerie. This story of this second bothy squat is less well known. I learned about it in Mike Cawthorne’s ‘Wilderness Dreams’. Recalling the story reminds me of the old guy who until recently camped out beside the A9. Tramps were a common sight in the Scottish countryside after WW2 but nowadays they are rare, if not extinct.
Gradually Sandwood became a part of my past, I hadn’t been back to since my first daughter was light enough to be carried on a chest mounted harness, which enabled me to carry a pack on my back. Now, seven years later, I have two children old enough to walk in the four miles to the bay, and we loaded our packs into the car and set off, relishing the contrast between a lightweight backpacking trip and our usual campervan trips which always seem to require many trips between house and van before departure.
At the southern end of Sandwood is a tall cliff of higgelty piggelty sandstone blocks. In the upper reaches is an abandoned eyrie, at the base is a howff built around a natural rock shelter. This howff fascinated my on my first visit, and for some reason, which is less obvious to me now, it became my ambition to sleep within its confines. It was somewhat homely back then, with the entrance blocked by a fish box to keep the sheep out. A sleeping bag was shoved into a dry crack at the back of the overhang. This may have been abandoned, a harbinger of the modern trend for abandoning camping equipment, but some said that it was owned by a hermit who frequented these parts. There is, or was, a further howff to the north at the Bay of Keisgaig. The roof was incomplete last time I passed by and it has probably deteriorated further. I remember standing beside it and briefly considering undertaking the necessary renovation work, so it is possible that someone else may have acted upon a similar urge, though modern lightweight tents have largely snuffed out my urge to doss in grotty howffs.
When I finally did get at around to dossing in the howff at Sandwood I found myself thoroughly spooked. Sandwood is a place with a particular atmosphere and the noise of the surf reflecting off the cliffs can create some odd effects. It is said to be haunted by the ghost of a sailor who whose corpse was washed up on the beach. I suspect that such sightings can be explained by Sandy the hermit. Judging by the photo on the wall in Strathchellaich he did actually look like a sailor’s ghost, with a sou’wester and a bushy beard. It wasn’t any apparition that spoiled my night in the howff though, it was the bleeping of an unseen digital watch every hour on the hour. My mind ran wild. What if the watch was still attached to an arm? Could a body or severed body part be buried within the howff? Suspecting that the watch may be in the sleeping bag I put it outside, around the corner, but the bleeping continued. I abandoned the howff and slept soundly on the grass outside. The experience was the closest I have had to one of the supernatural, a pronounced but irrational fear drove me from that howff onto the turf outside.
The haunted howff has now seen better days. It is no longer sheep proof and has sheep shit on the floor, but not yet the decomposing sheep carcass that will surely follow. Near the old howff I noticed a piece of drystone wall poking out of the green turf at the base of the crags. This could be anything from a wall or structure from the relatively recent past to something more like Orkney’s Scara Brae. I hope the former, because the discovery of a a neolithic village would completely spoil one of my favourite camping spots.
Camp below Tuyuk-su Glacier, Kazakhstan
Spectacular though these trips were, the plum camping spot for August was far, far away in the mountains Central Asia. More on that next time.
I had hoped that Kazakhstan would take care of both August and September’s outdoor sleeping requirements, but by the first of September we were checked into the luxurious Intercontinental in Almaty. This led to a pretty poor excuse for an outdoor sleep in September, a campsite on the last night of the month while my family slept in the van and friends, with whom we had enjoyed a jolly night in the pub, slept in the camping pods. I don’t often have hangovers these days but this was an exception. It wasn’t until after 1100 that I was sure that my breakfast was going to stay down.
October made up for the miserable excuse that was Strontium. The next night, the first of October, was spent at a lovely west coast beach. It was chilly but sunny, and I was able to chase my hangover away with some afternoon beers while the ten kids that we had brought between us ran riot.
November: Peanmeanach bothy
Peanmeanach bothy on the Ardnish Peninsula was the venue for this year’s autumn bothy trip. I’ve been keen to get into this beautifully located seaside bothy for many years, but had been put off by reports of crowds. There were no crowds on the stormy November weekend of our visit, just one baldy, beardy bothy man firmly ensconced in the right hand room. This was one of the bothies that featured in the BBC programme ‘Bothy Life’, which followed the maintenance officer, a local lady whose family had lived there when it had been a busy community. The bothy sits on a dry area between the shore and a boggy area behind, and on either side sit the ruins of a row of half a dozen or so old croft houses, their stone walls finished with lovely rounded corners. This makes them look organic, completely in place, a part of the landscape. The ground in front of the houses is striped with lazy beds, where the residents of the houses would have grown the potatoes and other crops that sustained them.
Of course bothies don’t count as outdoor sleeping, so after passing the stormy friday night in the bothy I pitched my tent between two of the ruins and settled down to peaceful saturday night of fresh air, ticking off my 21st consecutive month of outdoor sleeping.