“There will be a mixed weather picture over the British Isles this weekend with most places experiencing some bright spells“, said the man from the BBC weather forecast. Meanwhile in Sutherland it was dreich, dank and blowin’ a hoolie. Welcome to Scotland in May.
I’d been planning this trip for several years. I like to think of it as a “Sutherland Sandwich”: Scotland’s two most northerly munros with a filling provided by arguably one of the UK’s remotest and most beautiful beaches, Sandwood Bay. I’d never been this far north and had eagerly anticipated a wild camp at Sandwood Bay. However, on the drive up on Saturday morning it wasn’t looking too promising. In fact, much of Sutherland looked like this. Not nice.
Past Bonar Bridge, Lairg and then Altnaharra the road progressively narrowed. It had an ‘end of the road’ feeling. Eventually, the single track road seemed more like a farm track: sheep on the road, grass growing in the cracks along the centre and muddy puddles either side. However, by the time I reached the car park for Ben Hope – difficult to miss the way up, really – the sun was actually wanting to poke the thick layer of cloud that blanketed the hills above about 300 metres.
I bounded up the hill, enjoying my first munro of the year and feeling the fittest I’ve ever felt with my half marathon training. It was a pretty straightforward route with a path almost all of the way, the only difficulty being spotting the route in thick cloud. However, further up, the fine mist covered my glasses and the gusty wind picked up. This is the worst kind of rain for a spectacle wearer; a hat is useless since the fine droplets are blown in on the wind. I resorted to peering over the top of my wet glasses and approaching the rockier summit, having to walk at almost a 45 degree angle into the wind. At least the Mountain Weather Information Service had got the forecast right: extensive cloud cover about 300m, 30-40 mph gusts and significant wind buffeting. Yes, this is Scotland in May after all.
A quick stop on the top for a breather, a text home (hurriedly putting my gloves back on owing to the cold) then to find the path back down. Whether it was my misted-over glasses or the thick cloud but I lost the path after a few minutes and scanned the hillside left and right looking for signs of a faint path. Reaching a steep drop down I realised I’d gone wrong somewhere. The only thing for it was to retrace my steps, fortunately finding the familiar path just a short distance back up the hill. It’s in situations like this that you can so easily get disorientated and end up convincing yourself you’re somewhere different; however, experience has taught me to keep a clear head and think logically.
The way down was uneventful after this. I returned to my camper van in just under 3 hours and got changed out of my wet gear. I drove north past Loch Hope and up to the north coast, reaching the gorgeous Ceannabeinne beach (“Can of Beans” to the locals !). It’s also been renamed ‘Pete’s Beach’ by Peter Irvine (author of Scotland the Best), one of his top beaches in Scotland. I brewed up a cup of tea in the van and enjoyed the views.
I drove past Durness to Kinlochbervie, and left the van in the small car park at the start of the walk in to Sandwood Bay. By this time it was early evening and rather than carry my food in for a late meal I opted to cook in the van before setting off. The John Muir Trust, who own the land around Sandwood Bay, have done a fantastic job in maintaining the path. It took just an hour and a quarter to cover the 4.5 miles, finally taking in the vista of the wide bay. While it has stayed dry all day, the clouds hung heavy and the wind was still quite gusty.
I set up camp at the far end of the bay (well away from the only tent I could see), on a grassy promontory with a great view of the entire beach.
I awoke in the middle of the night with the squally wind threatening to whip my tent pegs out (yes, I checked with my headtorch several times). Fortunately, my little tent didn’t go airborne in the middle of the night with me in it and I woke up to a calm, sunny morning. The contrast with yesterday’s weather couldn’t have been greater (of course, this is Scotland in May).
I was so pleased to see Sandwood Bay in this weather: sunshine makes such a difference. It’s a gorgeous beach, 2km long with a sea stack at the southern end and a view out towards the Isle of Lewis, some 40-50 miles out. I lingered as long as I could, savouring the views and the light.
Taking one last look back at the beach from the track I walked back to the van. Leaving the peacefulness of the beach behind – there was just one other couple who had camped overnight – I soon encountered the day trippers walking the other way … lots of them. A couple on mountain bikes passed me, one with a full size surf board strapped to his rucsac. It made me think about wilderness. It’s a relative concept: I’d certainly experienced the wildness of Sandwood Bay the previous evening with the wind blowing and the roar of the waves smashing onto the beach. Somehow, with the day trippers and surfers with all their gear, the feeling of wilderness seemed to have vanished; it simply became an accessible beach on a sunny day.
I drove a couple of miles back towards Kinlochbervie to Oldshoremore to have a look at the beach there. Given that it was already mid-morning I opted for a brunch of strong coffee and bacon rolls in the van rather than taking a walk. It had turned out to be a beautifully warm, sunny day, with the temperature topping 20 degrees. It was a great drive along the A838 towards Ben Klibreck, past Foinaven, Arkle and Ben Hee, all hills to which I’ll have to return.
I set off at 2pm, leaving the van in a layby in quiet Strath Vagastie. Several other cars were already parked there but I only had the deer for company for a while.
I’ve rarely been walking in Scotland on such a warm day and was soon overheating. It was difficult to believe that there had been fresh snow on the hills just six days previously (that’s Scotland in May for you). However, with the wet Spring the walk in was extremely boggy and energy-sapping. It’s also a surprisingly steep ascent, up the hillside just to the right of the picture above. In just under 3 hours I reached the summit, with only limited views through the haze. Instead of navigating through the bogs I instead took a longer but quicker line down the long curving ridge south of Ben Klibreck which got me back to the van in under 5 hours.
I reparked the van in the small layby just beside Strath Vagastie bridge, a peaceful spot beside the small stream. This was my kind of camping: I was alone to enjoy the scenery, able to sit outside eating my tea in a t-shirt until after 8pm and there were absolutely no midges ! How many places can you camp directly at the foot of a great hill with a view like this ?