The North West Tour

Anna and I made our escape into the wilds of the far North West of Scotland last weekend. It was my birthday weekend and we had decided that we would go somewhere local(ish) this year rather than book a holiday abroad.

As I had been wanting a return to Sutherland and specifically the Coigach/Assynt area of the West Coast we looked around for accommodation. Making use of AirBnB for the first time we found a suitable B&B, the Touchwood Guest House, in Inverness for the Friday night so we could break the journey and we settled on Lairg for the Saturday and Sunday nights. For our accommodation we found the delightful two bed flat ‘The Old Dairy’ which suited our needs.

The plan for Saturday was to be away from Inverness at a reasonable time and head to Ullapool and then north to Coigach with a visit to Stac Pollaidh and on to Loch Assynt. It’s a pity the weather didn’t know this as we woke to steady rain in Inverness which never really went off until mid-afternoon. This meant that the photo stop at Stac Pollaidh was dreich and grey, the same could be said with the quick stop on the shores of Loch Assynt I have a nice photo of the rain falling on the loch... I did manage to take a few photos but I can’t say that they are particularly good. Thank you weather!

Loch Lurgainn & Stac Pollaidh under grey skies.

Caledonian Pines on Loch Assynt in the pouring rain.

By this point it was early afternoon and thoughts were turning to lunch, we headed into Lochinver to find the pie shop we had been told about by friends (the friends who cycled the NC500 route back in early April, my blog about that can be found here). As we drove into Lochinver the sun was starting to try and break through what had been a solid, iron grey sky. This was starting to be a little more promising for photos if the weather continued to improve.

During lunch at the excellent Lochinver Larder (purveyor of the most excellent pies) we noticed a few photos hanging on the wall from a local photographer. One stood out with a view of Suilven, I surmised that it had to have been taken somewhere on the Cansip Lodge road, so with the weather definitely better (it was at least dry) we decided to go and have a look.

A cloud topped Suilven from Loch Druim Suardalain.

With the area checked out, and a thought to come back the next day if possible we set off for Achmelvich Beach and hoped to make it to Stoer Lighthouse. Well, we managed Achmelvich… We arrived under what was now a blue sky which meant we saw the beach in the sun. I have to admit I was expecting a bigger beach but it didn’t detract from the view.

Achmelvich Beach.

A house with a view - Loch Roe.

Having spent a bit of time at the beach we then decided to try and make Stoer although we were running out of time. We had to be in Lairg for 5pm in order to not miss the time slot for entry at the flat we had rented. We did manage to drive a little further north, but time was against us sp we reluctantly turned and headed south and east. (Although not before I’d found a location for a sunset!)

The drive to Lairg took us just over the hour and we arrived to find a cosy flat awaiting us. As we sat eating dinner we talked about what to do that evening, I was keen to drive the shore of Loch Shin to see if anything would make a sunset location. As we headed North West along the A838 the sky was turning black with approaching rain, it also meant the sun would disappear long before actual sunset. We made it as far as the shore of Loch Merkland and decided we had gone far enough, locations were near enough non-existent, our ice creams had pretty much melted and the rain wasn’t far away. So we turned back for Lairg. We did stop at one location but, again I can’t say the photos were particularly good. The sun was also fighting the cloud cover and quickly lost the fight. Saturday was now over and bed beckoned.

Sunday had us wake to the sun shining. The forecast wasn’t good for later but we were heading out regardless. Today’s itinerary was to travel north, we would drive the A836 through Altnaharra on the shores of Loch Naver and end up in Tongue, from Tongue we would then head west to Durness and south to Laxford Bridge.

With a couple of stops, one at Loch Naver and the other a small lochan on the road we made good progress toward Tongue.

Loch Naver from just south of Altnaharra.

Unnamed Lochan, next to Loch Staing beside the A836 looking to Ben Klibreck.

On arrival in Tongue we then headed south on the road that takes you around the Kyle of Tongue as I had a location I wanted to check out and if the weather played nicely take some photos. This location was to be Lochan Haken with views across to Ben Loyal. At this point we were enjoying warm sunshine and took the opportunity to have a cup of tea (and an Abernethy biscuit or two) by the side of the road while enjoying the view. I was keeping an eye on the increasing cloud cover, once tea was finished I picked up the camera bag and wandered down to the water’s edge. Once set up I spent about half an hour taking photos as the clouds flitted across the hillside and the water’s surface alternated between mirror calm and ruffled with the slight breeze.

Ben Loyal across Lochan Hakel.

With the photo in the bag as it were we then drove back to Tongue and on to Durness. As we crossed the country we saw the forecasted rain approaching from the south. A black sky against the blue where we currently were. As we passed Ben Hope I stopped to take a quick photo of the approaching rain.

Ben Hope and Loch Hope under the approaching rain.

Our drive continued west, around the shore of Loch Eriboll where we briefly dipped into the rain at the southern end of the loch before driving back into the sun. Now we were following the north coast with its spectacular beaches and rocky coastline. We stopped just outside Durness for a few photos of Whiten head. Under the warm sunshine it was hard to believe that rain was approaching. Upon arrival in Durness I had hoped to walk out to Smoo Cave but, as we sat having lunch the rain made its presence felt. We quickly packed up and by the time we were sitting in the car it was raining hard – no walk to the cave then..!

Whiten Head.

We gave the rain sometime to see if it would clear but with no sign of it abating we moved on and headed south. Next stop was to be Laxford Bridge.

At Laxford Bridge we pulled over and I went for a wander to see if there was a spot for a photo. The rain was starting to fade and blue sky once again making an appearance. I found a path along by the River Laxford with a nice location looking back at the bridge and the small rapids that flow underneath. Again it was hard to believe that the sun was on my back while I was looking at a grey sky that resolutely refused to show signs of clearing for a photo!

Laxford Bridge and the River Laxford.

We then moved on to Loch Stack which is located on the Laxford Bridge - Lairg road. We agin pulled over and sat waiting to see what the weather would do, it was clearing from behind us (from the west) and there was a house sitting by the shore which I thought would make a nice foreground focal point. Loch Stack also has an island with a clearly visible cross which would add a middle point. Now all I needed was a little light of the subject… We sat for about 40 minutes watching and as the clouds broke the sun started to play across the landscape. Several shots later I was happy.

Loch Stack

We now had the choice to return to Lairg for dinner or head south to Lochinver (again). I was keen to be in the Lochinver area for sunset so Anna decided dinner in Lochinver and that would save us the drive later on. Back to Laxford Bridge and then south to Scourie, Kylesku and Lochinver. We stopped on a few occasions to take photos of the many lochs that dot the road side in this part of Scotland. All the while we were enjoying the sunshine and spring warmth. As we approached the bridge at Kylesku we stopped to look at the view across to Quinag - a mountain I had only previously seen from the south when I camped in Assynt back in February.

Loch na Claise Feàrna.

From Kylesku it was a quick drive to Lochinver and dinner in the Caberfeidh.

With the sun now out properly and it starting to drop as the evening wore on I was keen to head back out the Canisp Lodge road to see how the light would play on Suilven and Canisp as it started to set. I figured we would have about an hour there before we headed back up the Achmelvich road to the place I had scouted the previous day.

Another factor that was more prominent on the Sunday as it had been wet then warmed up was the appearance of the infamous Scottish midge. Down by the loch on the Canisp road wasn’t the best place and eventually being dinner for them wore thin! I managed to try a few different locations from the previous day and had slightly nicer light but the hills refused to pick up any of it.

Loch Druim Suardalain in the afternoon sun.

It was now time to head to my chosen sunset location and watch to see what would happen. I had chosen a high point that looked back into the interior of Assynt. It showed all the main peaks in the area, from Stac Pollaidh in the south through Cùl Beag, Cùl Mor, Suilven and Cansip. To fit in everything I wanted called for a 5 shot panorama, thankfully the sun as it dropped ever lower started to light the hills with the clouds shading parts. I thought this would be the last photo of the trip so having watched the sun drop I packed up and Anna and I started the drive back to Lairg.

Sunset on the hills of Assynt (l-r) Canisp, Suilven, Cùl Mor, Cùl Beag and Stac Pollaidh.

It was at this point that I realised you should never think you’re done for the day. As we left the Lochinver - Ullapool road and made our way along the A837 we passed Loch Borralan. With the dropping temperature, a damp then warm day created the perfect conditions for a mist to form. We could see it in the low areas of the surrounding countryside and it was drifting across the loch surface. This was too good an opportunity to miss, the car dumped I shot of across the boggiest, wettest grass I have come across in order to reach the loch shore. The sky was still tinged with colour from the departed sun, mist was drifting on the loch surface and I had Cùl Mor and Suilven perfectly reflected in the mirror calm loch surface.

Loch Barralan with Suilven and Cùl Mor

It was then back to Lairg to sleep. On the Monday we would be heading back to Aberdeen after a wonderful weekend touring around the North West of my home country. A part that I had never previously visited until now.

We arrived home in Aberdeen, in the middle of rush hour, to find we had covered 690 miles over the course of the weekend. I’ve no idea how many hours of driving that equates to but it was a lot and I can’t say it was the most restful weekend we’ve ever had!

I’d also like to say thanks to Anna (who is currently 8 months pregnant) for putting up with the frequent stops, being abandoned as I wandered across boggy moorland and putting up with me in general. All in all it was a good birthday weekend.