Monday, 29 July 2013

Arkle, Handa Island & Kylesku Holiday

This years summer holiday with Steve, Elaina and Craig took me to the far north west of Scotland. The guys booked self catering accomodation in Kylesku just a few hundreds yards from the Kylesku Hotel. It was called An Cladah which is gaelic for a safe haven. The last two years we were based in Ullapool and visited Kylesku on our last night to indulge in their incredible seafood platter. Most people pass Kylesku over its most famous landmark, its bridge. In a high sweeping curved arc it impressively spans the narrows of Caolas Cumhann where the turbulent waters of the merging sea lochs Loch Gleann Dubh and Loch Glencoul meet the sea loch of Loch a' Chairn Bhain. The panoramic scene is truly breath taking with massive mountains, massive skies and massive sea lochs. The idea of a big concrete bridge being centre stage here would horrify most people, but somehow they made this bridge look like it belonged and won many awards for its stunning design. The bridge replaced an old ferry crossing that is no longer used. The ferry crossed the Caolas Cumhann at a slipway at the bottom of the sheltered fishing hamlet where there are just over a dozen buildings including our accomodation for the week. The views out of the front of the building were to the sheltered Camas na Cusgaig bay with nothing but mountains and big skies beyond.

Seafood Platter at Kylesku Hotel, Scotland
Friday and Saturday

I drove up to Ayrshire on the Friday night as Steve and Elaina put me up for the night which was great as it meant the long journey was cut in half. I'd not seen much of Ayrshire before and really enjoyed the drive along the A71 across Ayrshire. Loudoun Hill is certainly something I will climb up if I am ever on my way along that road again. That night we watched the weather and unfortunately it showed nothing but rain for the far north for the coming week. The next day we headed north, stopping at the Real Food Cafe in Tyndrum for fish suppers as it would have been rude not too, then continued our journey north via Morrisons in Fort William and a cheeky half pint of An Teallach at the lovely Aultguish Inn by Loch Droma. When we reached Ullapool we got a bit of a shock. We looked to down to Loch Broom expecting to see the quiet fishing port and village front. However it was obscured by the biggest cruise ships I've ever seen. It turns out that the forty three and a half thousand tonne privately owned luxury residential cruise ship 'The World' had decided to visit Ullapool. It was huge and totally dominated the usually quaint picture postcard scene. Ben Mor Coigach looked as grand as it always does as we descended to the beach at Ardmair. We passed Ardvreck Castle on Loch Assynt then turned right to ascend the A894 over the bealach towards Kylesku and the wind and rain we would spend the week with hit us head on. After unpacking at An Cladah we made our way down to the Kylesku Hotel for Razor Clams, Seafood Platter and Red Cuillin ale. Craig and I left the table after our meals and made our way down to the jetty as we know from experience you are almost always likely to see Grey Seals in the water. We saw a few Grey Seals and then had the shock of our lives as we both looked right and saw a startled large dog Otter staring straight at us. As Craig raised his arm to point at the Otter it literally flew off the rocks and into the water like a life guard. Craig ran to get the others but it was already long gone.

The Split Rock at Clachtoll Beach, Assynt, Scotland


The next day I felt quite ill. It was only the second week of taking the new stronger Propanolol tablets I am now on for my high blood pressure so I just presumed it was probably the effects of these. Looking back now I think the seafood was probably to blame. We planned on an easy day on Sunday as the weather forecast wasn't great. We drove to Lochinver where we visited the Lochinver Pie Shop then visited the visitor centre where they have currently setup a webcam on a nearby Golden Eagle nest. We drove home along the scenic route via Clachtoll Beach where we had a great time walking along the beaches at Bay of Clachtoll and Bay of Stoer. On the drive home I felt very ill and by the time we got home I was sick and extremely low on energy so went to bed early. Unfortunately that pattern followed for the next three days and it was Wednesday before I felt like myself. Not great when you are sharing a house with others, I felt really bad as I wasn't myself at all.

Great Stack on Handa Island, Scotland


I was still not feeling well and the weather was not great, but there was the odd dry and sunny spell. We decided on a trip out to Handa Island with a chance of seeing Puffins, which I have never seen before. We drove down a scenic road with small hillocks and lochans to the tiny fishing hamlet of Tarbet. The weather hadn't been too bad so far but as soon as we got out of the car the heavens opened and a short sharp shower soaked us so I hid in the local phone box, only re-appearing after the rain had finished. The ferry out to Handa Island is a small rib. The trip across the Sound of Handa was very quick and smooth which pleased me no end considering my sensitive state. As we reached Handa Island the stormy skies cleared and gave way to blue skies. We landed at a sheltered beach on the south east corner of the island and it really did look like we hand landed in paradise. Artic Terns in their hundreds were swooping around the beach looking like a mix of a Seagull and a Peregrine. We were taken to a small shelter just above the beach where RSPB volunteers gave us a talk on the island and its wildlife. Most worryingly how not to be attacked by an angry Great Skua. We walked a four mile circular route that crossed the island to the north side then headed anti clockwise around the western side of the island. The path is an excellent wooden boardwalk most of the way which does a good job of keeping walkers to the path avoiding ground nesting birds. The Great Skuas were not to be messed with and were huge and scary looking things. When we reached the Great Stack on the northern side of the island we watched Puffins on the top of the cliffs and literally thousands of Guillemots below them. It was a brilliant day out that I will definitely do again one day. We had lunch on the far western side of the island looking out at waves crashing over the rocks. The views to the mainland were stunning with mountains making up a wide panoramic horizon. We had cake and drinks at The Shorehouse restaurant back at Tarbet then headed home. When we returned home I felt ill again and tired so went to bed early yet again. The others went what they called 'Otter spotting' or to the rest of us, five minutes staring at water then an hour in the pub.

Puffin on Handa Island, Scotland


Got out of bed at midday. Felt like myself for the first time since Sunday morning. Weather forecast was rubbish again so we decided to drive down to Ullapool. It was one of those eerie days when there is hardly any wind, its dark in the middle of the day and the clouds are dark but high and above the highest summits. For the first time all week we could see the summits of all Assynt's giants. Quinag, Ben More Assynt, Canisp, Suilven, Cul Mor, Cul Beag, Stac Pollaidh and Ben Mor Coigach all looked stunning. In the end this was probably the best day of them all weather wise. We had a look around the gear shop and gallery in Ullappol then made our way to the Ceilidh Place for delicious lunch of French Toast, Mushrooms, Bacon and Maple Syrup. Sadly I felt unwell again after eating. We drove home via the scenic road under Stac Pollaidh then to Lochinver via Inverkirkaig. That road is one of the most beautiful drives in the world. We had tasty burgers for dinner at the fantastic Caberfeidh restaurant in Lochinver before heading home through yet more pish weather.

Waterfall in Smoo Cave, Durness, Scotland


Steve looked at a map the night before and asked how far north I had been. The furthest I had ever been was the Kyle of Durness at the point where the tiny ferry crosses the sound to the minibus that heads out to Cape Wrath. I had never been further than that, not been to Durness itself or anywhere beyond. Steve picked out a circular route that would take us up to Durness, across to Tongue, down to towards Lairg then back across to Laxford Bridge via Loch Shin. What a fantastic drive and a fantastic day to do it. The weather most places further south of Ullapool was cloudy with rain but in the far north it was a mixture of low cloud, blue skies and sunshine for most of the day. We headed north and stopped at the beach at Faraid Head which was lovely though I suspect its close proximity to the rather tempting Cocoa Mountain had a lot more to do with our visit to this wonderful little peninsula. Cocoa Mountain was heavenly, a quirky chocolate factory and shop in the middle of nowhere selling the most delicious chocolate truffles and drinks. We headed to Durness and Smoo Cave. I'd read about Smoo Cave many times and always wanted to visit. I expected a big wet dark cave with not too much to look at. I was so wrong. The cove beyond the cave is stunning enough, but inside is a waterfall and boat trip further into the cave. It was awesome and a bargain for a few quid. Visible fault lines, waterfalls, calcified rocks, geology, bird life, history, it had it all. After Smoo we made our way along the coast to another stunning beach, this one Traigh allt Chailgeag.

Steve, Elaina and Craig on their rock at Traigh allt Chailgeag beach, Scotland

Here I had fun scrambling along the rocky eastern side of the beach whilst the others made their way across the beach to a mini stack of rock they climbed and sat on for a while. After Traigh allt Chailgeag the road crossed extremely barren wild land then headed in land for several miles following the huge inlet of Loch Eriboll. After Eriboll the road crossed the River Hope outflowing from Loch Hope and as the road ascended from Hope we got our first sight of Ben Hope, the most northerly of all the Munros. We crossed another extremely wild expanse then the road reached the impressive Tongue Causeway. From the causeway there is a picture perfect view down the Kyle of Tongue to Ben Loyal. At Tongue we took the road to Lairg. This was now a different landscape again, extremely wild and barren but on a day like today with barely a cloud in the sky it was absolutely breathtaking. After passing Ben Loyal we passed through Altnaharra which Steve and myself being weather geeks loved as this is often one of the coldest spots in Britain as the Met Office has a small weather station here which we passed. We passed the huge Ben Klibreck which still had a patch of snow on its northern face, before stopping by at the somewhat unique Crask Inn. Unfortunately they had no food and some strange stuff coming out of their ale taps so we had to go elsewhere for dinner. We carried on and eventually stopped at the Overscaig Hotel by Loch Shin. This was a lovely place, the guy that owned the place was extremely friendly and hospitable. The food was excellent, I had Venison Lasagne which was to die for. The other people in the place were friendly too and it had a very relaxing feel about the place. The drive between there and Laxford Bridge passing Loch Merkland, Loch More and Loch Stack was awesome. Looking out at Arkle over Loch Stack that evening we just knew we had to come back the next day and climb it.

Arkle across Lock Stack, Sutherland, Scotland

After being ill for most of the week and putting up with some pretty pish weather I wasn't really up for climbing up anything huge, but I did want to try and climb up something spectacular if possible. Arkle seemed the perfect choice as it was only up the road and I had gorged over photographs of its narrow ridge and quartzite slopes in books many times. Steve had done most of the driving during the week and Elaina had been an absolute star and let me sit in the front to avoid me getting motion sickness which I tend to suffer from when sat in the back of cars. So today I decided to drive. It only took around twenty minutes to get up to Laxford Bridge then across to the parking layby at the far end of Loch Stack. Unfortunately the wind had picked up overnight and I could feel it moving the car quite dramatically so worried about how it would be up a mountain. I was right to worry as the wind did indeed end up stopping us from topping out on Arkle. We parked up and made our way along the track by Loch Stack. There were several tall, dark and foreboding clouds dotted around with curtains of rain hanging from them. One passed over Ben Stack on our left and the worst of it missed us just. As we turned the bend and headed toward Lone we looked up to see that the wind was so strong up high that it was blowing the Allt Eason an t-Siabaidh waterfall back up over itself. It looked as if the mountain was smoking. We crossed the bridge at Lone and walked through the huge split boulder at the entrance to the small forest by the Allt Horn. The track ascended zig zags behind the forest then a small cairn by the path side marked the start of the ascent. The going was okay for a while but the wind was picking as we climbed higher. In the shelter of the ridge on our left protecting us from the strong south westerly winds we could handle the gusts, but as we got higher and the path headed to the exposed crest of the ridge we started to struggle and it was very unnerving at times. The guys decided there was no way they would be able to make it to the southern summit of Arkle and I agreed but also had a massive urge to stand on top of a mountain. The guys turned back and I decided to go on by myself and instead head towards the satellite summit of Meall Aonghais. The ascent was fairly easy going until I hit the col between Meall Aonghais and the southern summit of Arkle. I struggled so badly to balance at one point that I gave up and instead got on all fours and clambered up the boulder strewn slope on all fours. The summit was wider than it appeared from below and was covered in fascinating examples of Pipe Rock, a kind of quartz sandstone with vertical burrows. I quickly took some photos towards Fionaven then sped down the southern slope of Meall Aonghais and met up with the guys at the main path back down through the forest where we sheltered from the rain eating lunch. The wind was so strong it whipped up the waters of Lock Stack into tornadoes on our way back along the track. Below are all of the photos from the walk. That night I packed and in the morning I was woken suddenly when Steve decided to burn the kitchen down and set the smoke alarm off cooking bacon. A week of pretty pish weather and feeling ill but I think you'll agree we all made the most of it. I was glad to be with the guys and delighted to discover lots of new areas.

Arkle, Scottish Highlands

Ben Stack and Loch Stack, Scottish Highlands

Arkle above Loch Stack, Scottish Highlands
Allt Eason an t-Siabaidh waterfall on Arkle, Scottish Highlands

Craig and Steve approaching Lone below Arkle, Scottish Highlands
Lone below Arkle, Scottish Highlands

Split boulder by Allt Horn forest, Arkle, Scottish Highlands

Ben Stack across Loch Stack from Arkle, Scottish Highlands

Looking towards Ben Hee from Arkle, Scottish Highlands

Ascending Arkle, Scottish Highlands

Pipe Rock on Arkle, Scottish Highlands

Pipe Rock on Arkle, Scottish Highlands
Arkle south summit from Meall Aonghais, Scottish Highlands

Ben Stack and Arkle from Meall Aonghais, Scottish Highlands

Slabs on descent of Arkle, Scottish Highlands

Looking south from descent of Arkle, Scottish Highlands

Waterfalls on descent of Arkle, Scottish Highlands
Waterfalls on descent of Arkle, Scottish Highlands

Scots Pines below Arkle, Scotland

Allt Horn, Arkle, Scotland

Steve, Craig and Elaina lunching by Allt Horn, Scottish Highlands
Craig leaping off the split boulder, Arkle, Scottish Highlands

Craig leaping off the split boulder, Arkle, Scottish Highlands

Craig leaping off the split boulder, Arkle, Scottish Highlands
Arkle, Scottish Highlands

Water being whipped up by wind on Loch Stack, Scottish Highlands
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  1. Good read Jamie, pity your stay coincided with some rough weather. We struggled on Cul Beag whilst you were up Arkle on the Thursday and those winds were extreme. It only calmed down on the Sunday. Still so much to do up there.

  2. Aye I think I could go back up there thirty times and still find new things to do and places to explore. :-)

  3. Seems so long ago! Btw you've missed some text out. Should read " I hid in the local phone box, only re-appearing as Superman after the rain had finished..."! I have the photos! See you at the NYM meet hopefully.

  4. I know what you mean, does seem like ages ago! There are a fair few things I leave out of these trip reports!!! Hopefully see you on the wrong side of the Pennines for the NYM meet. J :-)

  5. Whilst the weather and illness make it seem like quite a challenging week, it seems you still managed to have an interesting time. Love Puffins and always good, if scary, to see Bonxies! The pipe rock was really interesting too!

  6. The Bonxies were huge! The Pipe Rock I had never seen before, at one point it was every single boulder that was like that. :-)