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Pilgrimage to Camusfearna

Pilgrimage to Camusfearna

Postby weaselmaster » Mon Nov 19, 2018 11:43 am

Route description: Sandaig (Camusfearna)

Munros included on this walk: Beinn Sgritheall

Corbetts included on this walk: Beinn na h-Eaglaise, Beinn nan Caorach

Grahams included on this walk: Druim Fada (Loch Hourn)

Sub 2000' hills included on this walk: Beinn Mhialairigh

Date walked: 18/11/2018

Time taken: 17 hours

Distance: 45 km

Ascent: 3617m

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Since picking up a copy of Gavin Maxwell’s “Ring of bright water” to read in the tent some months ago, I’ve been intrigued by the man and have read a number of his other books: - the sequels that are largely set in Sandaig – “The rocks remain” and “Raven seek thy brother”; his autobiographical account of childhood “The house of Elrig” and the superb biography by Douglas Botting. There’s also a BBC documentary from 1999, available on YouTube that’s worth a watch. A man of marked contrasts and contradictions: an animal lover who loved shooting birds and set up a company to harpoon basking sharks; a writer touched with genius who could be profoundly inept in many of his dealings in life; an aristocratic rebel who could also be an insufferable snob; a withdrawn neurotic with tendencies to paranoia who could equally be magnetic, charismatic and enliven any gathering. Maxwell had a degree of insight into his flaws – he notes, when he was writing the biography of his early years, he comes across as “far from admirable” which had “not occurred to him previously”. He had a deep interest and belief in psychoanalysis – perhaps a pity that he took up the theories of Freud rather than of CJ Jung, where the emphasis was on the integration of opposing aspects of the personality – something that may have brought a degree of solace to his deeply troubled soul.

Whatever the flaws of the man, as author he had an ability to conjure worlds with his pen and his descriptions of the years he spent at Sandaig – named “Camusfearna” in Ring of Bright Water in a vain attempt to avoid readers discovering the location of his retreat, are gems of descriptive writing. The early sections where he restores the abandoned lighthouse keeper’s croft to a basic habitability, using items washed up along the beach – a Scottish Robinson Crusoe of sorts – and has his first otter, Mijbil, with him are a delight to read. As the books progress the accounts become sadder, an Eden lost as the impact of his popularity and the arrival of “mod-cons” like electricity and telephone erode the tranquillity. Both otters, Edal and Teko, display unpredictable vicious behaviour towards humans- on one occasion severing two fingers from Terry Nutkins who resided there with Maxwell and helped with the animal. The only person “immune” from these attacks seemed to be Maxwell himself, but the otters were from then on housed in solitary pens for the next few years – a far cry from their freedom to frolic in the surf. It didn’t help that the otters hated each other from the moment they met, Edal, the resentful “eldest child” screaming incessantly at Teko and attempting to attack him with murderous intent at any opportunity. Additionally, some spectacularly poor financial choices by Maxwell coupled with remarkable extravagance and downright bad luck turned the idyll into nightmare until the cottage burnt down, killing Edal in January 1968.

A visit to Sandaig was therefore on my radar – when the forecast for this weekend showed full sun and warm temperatures it was just too good an opportunity to miss. A bit of hill planning in the area and we were sorted.

One wouldn’t have reckoned on the arrival of good weather driving up on Thursday night – torrential rain most of the way up to Invergarry, where we stopped to pitch the tent around 8pm in a wee spot we use to break the journeys to the north west. By the morning the rain was a memory and a salmon-pink sky greeted our eyes. We drove through Kintail, then across Mam Ratagan, noting a substantial landslip nearly taking the road with it. Through sleepy Glenelg and on to Arnisdale, where we would climb Beinn Sgritheall. Fine blue skies crossed with white streaks of cirrus cloud, sun sparkling on the sea. We took the usual route up Sgritheall, a straight-from-sea-level slog, as would all our ascents be this weekend. But a fine morning for it, no-one else on the mountain.

There are far too many trees at Invergarry Viewpoint
ImagePB160004 by Al, on Flickr

Loch Hourn
ImagePB160005 by Al, on Flickr

The russet road to Sgritheall
ImagePB160009 by Al, on Flickr

As we climbed we saw Skye appear to our left, the mountains of Achnashellach and Torridon to the north. A raven swooped and tumbled in a flutter of coal black wings, enjoying the morning air. Across Loch Hourn lay the might of Ladhar Bheinn and Beinn na Callich, Knoydart’s sentinels. Last time we’d been here, we had come from the adjacent Corbetts, down a very steep descent to Bealach Arnisdail from Beinn na h-Eaglaise – none of that today, we were having a civilised walk. Across the 903m top and on to the summit with its wrecked trig point. We continued across to the NW Munro Top, stopping en route for lunch. Descent involved a bit of contouring over scree in the gully between the main summit and the Top until we connected with the main descent route.

ImagePB160013 by Al, on Flickr

Steep face of Beinn na h-Eaglease
ImagePB160014 by Al, on Flickr

Sgritheall from the 903m top
ImagePB160020 by Al, on Flickr

View west
ImagePB160021 by Al, on Flickr

Sunbeam fingers on Loch Hourn
ImagePB160022 by Al, on Flickr

ImagePB160023 by Al, on Flickr

NW Munro Top
ImagePB160025 by Al, on Flickr

Looking ahead I saw the Marilyn of Beinn Mhailairigh: a handsome peak being hemmed in on its northern aspect by the spread of plantation conifers – I intended to climb that at some point over the weekend, but now seemed an ideal opportunity – only around 1.5km from the descent route from Sgritheall and a mere 200m extra ascent. It would also give views down to Sandaig. So we spent an hour crossing over short grass, deer fences and some bog to reach the summit. Well worth the time spent, providing some superb views of Sgritheall into the bargain. Our descent was a little more interesting than the book route – we found then lost the path and had some excursions through steep tree lined slopes before we met with it again. But our way was pretty – fabulous mosses growing around the trees bringing green softness to the wood.

View to Beinn Mhialairigh
ImagePB160028 by Al, on Flickr

ImagePB160031 by Al, on Flickr

ImagePB160032 by Al, on Flickr

and again
ImagePB160033 by Al, on Flickr

Towards Skye from summit Mhiarairigh, Sandaig islands visible
ImagePB160035 by Al, on Flickr

Sandaig Islands zoomed
ImagePB160036 by Al, on Flickr

ImagePB160037 by Al, on Flickr

Mossy descent
ImagePB160038 by Al, on Flickr

ImagePB160039 by Al, on Flickr

ImagePB160042 by Al, on Flickr

It was later than I had hoped when we finally made it to the road, with perhaps 2.5km to hoof it back to the car. Allison was flagging and I wanted to get down to Sandaig before nightfall, so I left my rucksack with her and ran back to collect the car. Sandaig is situated midway between Arnisdale and Glenelg, and we arrived at the parking place just after 4pm. We then had to load up the rucksacks with the gear we’d need for overnight. I had noted the WH route and took my GPS with me for the short walk down to the bay. Choosing the right-hand fork takes one down by the river and past Mij’s waterfall but one then has to use the rope-bridge slung between two alders to cross the water. Interesting when you’re carrying a large rucksack.

Sandaig/Camusfearna in 1950s

ImagePB160043 by Al, on Flickr

The narrow track through the woods
ImagePB160044 by Al, on Flickr

ImagePB160045 by Al, on Flickr

Once across the river the memorial to Edal is right ahead, under a large fir tree. Festooned with offerings of stones and shells. A few strides away is the large boulder under which Maxwell’s ashes were placed – this marks the site of the Camusfearna cottage, of which not a rock remains. Across the field is the decaying holiday cottage that belonged to his friend Raef Payne, looking much the worse for damp. We found a flat spot where the grass meets the shingle to pitch our tent, just as the daylight failed. We sat eating our dinner looking out to sea over the glorious little bay. Before long the light faded, but I was sure I could see the outline of an otter frolicking on the shore. Commonsense told me it was no more than the waves stirring the fronds of seaweed along the shoreline, but if we can come to an imaginary place to see a house that no longer exists, then I can see an otter.

Edal's memorial
ImagePB160046 by Al, on Flickr

ImagePB160047 by Al, on Flickr

Maxwell's boulder
ImagePB160048 by Al, on Flickr

ImagePB160050 by Al, on Flickr

Raef Payne's old croft
ImagePB160051 by Al, on Flickr

A little slice of heaven
ImagePB170052 by Al, on Flickr

ImagePB170054 by Al, on Flickr

The deeply comforting roll of the waves ahead of us and the plash of the waterfall behind lulled us to sleep. The occasional shriek of a heron as it patrolled the water’s edge and the breeze stirring in the marram grass were the only other sounds overnight. We woke to a fine morning – pink sky again, the surrounding hills lit by alpenglow. With the low sun, Sandaig itself remained cast in shadow but this didn’t stop us exploring the Sandaig islands, accessible at low tide. There’s a memorable episode in one of the books where Maxwell is arriving back at Sandaig around midnight in the midst of a storm, on one of the darkest nights he has experienced, finds the small dingy used to get ashore gone, grounds his boat on a shelf of rock and clambers onto one of the islands with Jimmy Watt and has to find his way back to shore in the pitch dark. We clambered over the same islet, much easier in full sunshine.

ImagePB170057 by Al, on Flickr

ImagePB170059 by Al, on Flickr

ImagePB170064 by Al, on Flickr

Heather Island
ImagePB170066 by Al, on Flickr

I'm guessing this is the rock shelf that the boat beached on
ImagePB170067 by Al, on Flickr

Returning to the tent we brewed another cup of coffee and sat watching the waves. After packing up the tent we had another walk around, spotting the rusting remains of the boat trailer for his Polar Star hidden in rushes by the wall, tidied up Edal’s memorial and noted a well-hidden large green tent tin the trees that looks as though it’s a permanent residence for someone. We walked up to the waterfall, where in Maxwell’s estimation the soul of Camusfearna resided and where he believed he'd return after death. Then we set off up the steep track that was blasted so that he could drive his heavy Landrover down to the croft rather than having to bring everything in by boat or by knapsack.

Mij's waterfall
ImagePB170070 by Al, on Flickr

The sun gradually reaches Sandaig
ImagePB170071 by Al, on Flickr

ImagePB170073 by Al, on Flickr

Back at the car we unloaded the rucksacks and prepared to return to the present day. Drove back down to Arnisdale and parked at Corran with the intention of climbing Beinn na h-Eaglease and Beinn nan Caorach. Although most people climb these two hills in an anticlockwise direction, I decided we’d ascend Beinn na h-Eaglease first – it’s the more impressive of the hills rising to a shapely peak. But unremittingly steep, again from sea level. Again we deviated from the WH route, coming to the top of Beinn Bhuidhe by way of some gentle scrambles up the crags. As we neared the summit we met a man on his way down. He was quite warmly wrapped up, whilst we were sweating in base layers and wishing we’d donned shorts. Summit achieved, we set off steeply down the north-eastern slope following the fencepost line. A large group of young stags milled about below us, watching and dithering as to what to do. Some set off down the western slope, others the eastern and by the time we’d reached the lower ground most had come up again from their chosen route and gone the opposite way. We continued round to the lumpen Beinn nan Caorach, dazzled by the sunshine. As we neared the top we could see a pair of eagles suspended high in the air above the top, hanging in the updrafts. As we watched they flew off, then returned at speed and sparred with each other, white underfeathers flashing in the sunlight. Marvellous.

ImagePB170075 by Al, on Flickr

ImagePB170077 by Al, on Flickr

Eaglease and Caorach
ImagePB170078 by Al, on Flickr

Summit Eaglease
ImagePB170084 by Al, on Flickr

ImagePB170086 by Al, on Flickr

Over the flat bealach to Caorach
ImagePB170089 by Al, on Flickr

Summit looking towards The Ben in the distance
ImagePB170091 by Al, on Flickr

Descent was by the standard route – I looked across at Beinn Clachach, which was on our menu for the next day and thought it would be easy to take in its summit from here. However, this was not allowing for two things – it was already gone 3.30pm and the summit is not the 618m spot marked with its name on the map, but the 643m top more than a further kilometre distant (Allison did try and convince me of this). In the end I conceded it was not a mountain to be descending by headtorch and grumblingly wandered along the track towards the car – we still needed to locate a tent pitch for the night. We scoped out a couple of areas near the Celidh Place/Visitor centre (which has a sign up saying no overnight camping on its grounds) and managed to find somewhere close by.

(Not) the summit of Beinn Clachach
ImagePB170092 by Al, on Flickr

ImagePB170093 by Al, on Flickr

The last light over Skye
ImagePB170097 by Al, on Flickr

A very windy night ensued, and surprisingly no sound of the sea, given that we were pitched just by the beach. Not much sleep was had and despite being under the covers by 6pm it was still a struggle to get out of bed at 7am. Druim Fhada and Beinn Clachach were the hills for today – although looking out at the glorious Cuillin ridge as we set off, being across on Skye would have been a delight. That was the problem with this unexpected weekend of summery weather in the heart of November – too many options! Anyway, Druim Fhada is a cracking hill – we’d climbed it previously from Kinlochhourn and as a result, missed out on the three Simms that grace the ridge before attaining the summit. Another warm day, when coupled with another steep and unrelenting ascent made for hot bodies. There are numerous ups and downs along the ridge, often ending in craggy drops that need to be skirted around. Across Loch Hourn, Ladhar Bheinn rose out of the water, her twin shoulders reminding me that I want to to a full horseshoe circuit one day. We looked down upon Barisdale Bay and later, Kinlochhourn where I could make out the white estate house. The final peak is guarded by two deep lochans – once around these the final scramble up to the rocky summit.

Druim Fhada from Corran
ImagePB180099 by Al, on Flickr

ImagePB180101 by Al, on Flickr

ImagePB180105 by Al, on Flickr

The big curve of Ladhar Bheinn
ImagePB180106 by Al, on Flickr

Barisdale Bay
ImagePB180109 by Al, on Flickr

Looking at the final summit
ImagePB180110 by Al, on Flickr

Towards Kinlochhourn
ImagePB180112 by Al, on Flickr

ImagePB180113 by Al, on Flickr

Summit view
ImagePB180115 by Al, on Flickr

Despite the sunshine it was cool in the wind as we made our way down the northwest slopes descending to the River Arnisdail. Some crags to be skirted, some very steep grassy sections but then safely down on the track. It was now coming on for 1pm and I really wasn’t sure we had time to do Beinn Clachach before the light expired – I remembered the ascent as a very steep one – so I reckoned we should just head back to the car, there being the additional matter of 200 miles home to be undertaken. The track was commandeered by the Hielan coos we’d met on our last visit – or relatives of the same, lying down in the sunshine. Very pointy horns these beasts have, when you need to negotiate between them.

ImagePB180116 by Al, on Flickr

1011m ascent for a Graham of 713m!!
ImagePB180117 by Al, on Flickr

Back at the car it was 16.5 degrees – this is the middle of November, mind! We set off around 2pm, noted several cars parked at the start of the walk to Sandaig on our way past. As we drove along the Clunie dam we noted thick white stuff on the ground under the trees, looking like white ash from a forest fire. Whatever can that be? We thought, until the low temperature detector beeped on the car – 3 degrees! Frost!! I’ve never seen such a contrast in temperatures in the middle part of the day – temperature inversions in the early mornings yes, but not mid-afternoon. We noted the road towards Invergarry had been gritted too. Strange times we live in.
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Re: Pilgrimage to Camusfearna

Postby Alteknacker » Mon Nov 19, 2018 1:07 pm

Brilliant report, and - the icing (frosting?) on the cake - superb weather!

I had to read this as soon as I saw the magical word "Camusfearna". I remember reading RoBW in my very early teens and crying my eyes out when the road workers killed one of the otters. I read a lot at this time, but I recall few of them. This one I recall vividly, for it made a massive impression on me.

Sgritheall looks wonderful - as indeed it did last December when I viewed it from Bhuide Bheinn. Have to get back into Knoydart....
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Re: Pilgrimage to Camusfearna

Postby Collaciotach » Mon Nov 19, 2018 11:16 pm

Cracking area and superb weather ..enjoyed that :clap:
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Re: Pilgrimage to Camusfearna

Postby past my sell by date » Tue Nov 20, 2018 11:33 am

Yes Maxwell's is a very sad and moving story - and Ben Sgritheal is a great Munro
Thanks for posting
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Re: Pilgrimage to Camusfearna

Postby BlackPanther » Tue Nov 20, 2018 4:36 pm

You couldn't have dreamed better weather for such a memorable trip!

Of all the hills in this corner, Druim Fhada is my favourite. We spent ages playing rockhopping games on that ridge! And I think we met the very same group of beasties on the way down :lol:
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Re: Pilgrimage to Camusfearna

Postby weaselmaster » Tue Nov 20, 2018 7:44 pm

BlackPanther wrote:You couldn't have dreamed better weather for such a memorable trip!

Of all the hills in this corner, Druim Fhada is my favourite. We spent ages playing rockhopping games on that ridge! And I think we met the very same group of beasties on the way down :lol:

Yes, it's a great hill, the interest belies the lowly height. We did take your route along, thanks too :D
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Location: Greenock

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