Backpacking Over Scaraben and Morven

Between Dunbeath and Kildonan lies a vast area of rough ground. The map’s lack of paths promises a fair helping of collarwork but the traverse is worth the effort. Geology, conglomerates and quartzite over sandstone, creates hills which rise above a low, boggy floor with nothing to block views. I could see from the Cairngorms to Assynt and from the Moray Firth to the North Atlantic. The views emphasised the remoteness of the hills I climbed. Morven’s summit is 10 taxing miles from the train home. You might see day walkers who have driven to Braemore. Descend the west flank of Morven, however, and you are on your own.

Public transport can be a bit iffy in the Northern Highlands. Stagecoach haven’t always run the buses their timetable says they will run and my journey home was entertaining. On the last day of April, the bus did what it was supposed to do, dropping me at Dunbeath for a gentle six mile stroll along the lane to Braemore. This is one road I was able to enjoy. Delightful weather and long, moorland views.

The bridge at 0862096 exists and could have shortened my route to Scaraben, with some fence crossing. I preferred to walk on to the end of the road for the stone bridge over the Berriedale Water. Braemore is pretty and there is a stile giving access to the open hillside, which was very wet till it steepened for the final push to the ridge.

Much of Scotland was visible from East Scaraben. I made the mistake of continuing with just a short sleeved base layer under my windproof for the walk to the main summit and was very cold because of the wind by the time I reached the shelter around Scaraben’s trig point. I continued after food and dressing properly.

During the descent from Scaraben’s third, 608 summit, weariness and a realization that the vegetation was unsuitable for camping set in. Scanning the slopes of Smean, I spotted two green patches in amongst the brown mix of heather and tussocky grass. One was clearly too sloping and the vivid green of the other, smaller patch could have meant wet Sphagnum. I investigated and found a water source and a pleasant lawn. Home for the night.

A heavy dew settled during the night and froze before dawn. The early sun dried my Duomid while I breakfasted but the day was dulled by overcast before I set out for Maiden Pap. Conglomerate buttresses make the hill look difficult from a distance. It isn’t.

Smean’s summit gave an easy scramble. Then it was time for the steep, 400 metre ascent of Morven. A path simplifies the ascent through heather and boulder scree.

My many mentions of long views might be getting tedious but the terrain creates them. St John’s Head on Orkney stood out. Foinaven and some hills, probably the Dearg group near Ullapool, we’re visible through the haze. To the south, things were murkier as the bad weather forecast by London-based weather people edged a little closer. As the cold wind was no longer being countered by sunshine, I decided to head over Cnoc an Eireannaich and down the Kildonan Burn to the train.

Looking back, Morven’s conglomerate, stood out from the rounder, quartzite hills I had climbed. The ridge from Small Mount westward gave the easiest walking surface since leaving the road the day before. The map gives Cnoc an Eireannaich a height of 517 (518). Arrival at the summit showed a cairn which was higher than the trig point.

The wind was so strong, the phone vibrated as I tried to photograph the map height’s explanation. I was amazed the shot came out and amazed again a minute later when I put up a bird of prey. “That’s big,” was my first thought. I spent the next 10 minutes persuading myself that I hadn’t got close to a golden eagle but a sighting of a buzzard, with white, wrist patches, later, when I was down in Kildonan gave a definitive answer. The buzzard was much more slender than the bird I disturbed. So, it was an eagle.

The Kildonan Burn was enjoyable initially but then palled as I passed several dead deer, quite a few in a sheepfold at 933254. Long streamers of algae made the water look non-potable, a shame as I was dehydrated. A side stream was cleaner so I stopped for a brew. Reinvigorated, I pressed on down to the Field of Gold. Just before the gold workings is a steep sided gorge, with gorse handily placed to catch anyone who tumbles from the airy sheep tracks.

At the station, lights came on shortly before the train was due, which seemed a promising sign. Nothing happened for several minutes. Then, an engineering train came from the wrong direction and stopped to tell me, the only passenger waiting, that the passenger train was running 50 minutes late. A motor had broken so the train had returned to Inverness for a replacement unit. Keeping me informed was a nice touch and the train did eventually get me home.


Filming with an iPhone 7 Plus


Apart from enjoying a lovely morning, the aim of today’s hike was to find out how well an iPhone 7 Plus and a Gorillapod work together as a video filming set up for backpacking.  Sadly, I can’t show you the results as this blog doesn’t accept video so you’ll have to take my word for the acceptability of the product.  It’s plenty good enough for me and would look fine on YouTube.


However, my interest lies in a set up for backpacking and there is a problem.  Filming on a cold day absolutely demolishes the charge in the battery.  Viewranger claims I was out for 2 minutes under 4 hours.  Filming occupied the first 3 hours and, in that time, the battery charge dropped from 100% to 21%.  For the walk home, I put the phone inside my jumper and listened to a podcast.  For this leg of the walk, the charge dropped from 21% to 20%.  So, for backpacking, the iPhone and Gorillapod set up would need to be used sparingly even though my Anker battery pack is pretty huge.


The Gorillapod is part of the problem.  It’s head is stiff and not easy to deploy.  Getting the tripod out of a rucksack, attaching it to the phone and setting it up would be tedious enough to keep me from shooting video except when highly motivated.  Today, I kept the iPhone locked into the Gorillapod and held the phone in my hand.  The legs of the tripod lay along my forearm.  This set up was convenient and very easy to use but exposed the phone (and my hand) to the cold wind.  A permanently attached tripod could also be a problem if I chose to take a side trip up Suilven on my next hike.


I’m hoping my next trip will take no more than 5 days between power sockets.  Even so, discipline will be crucial.  Using my iPhone, a Gorillapod and an Anker power pack will get me the results I want so, failing a lottery win, that’s what I’ll be taking.


Rainy days and Fridays

Tens of thousands of midges exerted a noticeable pressure on exposed skin as I took the tent down. The couple of bites sustained were a testament to the power of Smidge. As soon as I reached the road, a headwind sprang up. Then it began to rain. Not an auspicious beginning to a day, which, amazingly, was brilliant.

The road to Syre shows Flow country at its best and the road onward to Altnaharra was even prettier, although the traffic was quite heavy. At Altnaharra, I could have gone directly to Tongue but the riding was so good, I decided to head on to Hope. More gorgeous riding and great views of Ben Hope.

Um, Mackay Country.jpg
Guess which country

At Syre I had had a good chat with a Lands End to John o’ Groats walker. Two oncoming cyclists didn’t stop to chat but, in fairness, they were going downhill with a following wind. On the Hope road I met two pairs of cyclists, the first fast day cyclists, who twice caught me snacking, and the second were fully loaded tourers heading I know not where.

Ben Klibreck
The Hope road.jpg
The Hope road
Loch Meadie.jpg
Ben Hope from Loch Meadie

The hill up from Hope was harder than I remembered but the descent was brilliant. I went along the coast lane and up through the woods to my friends’ croft. Great welcome and a nice way to end two fabulous days of cycling. The Watten, Westerdale, Altnabreac, Forsinain, Kinbrace, Syre, Altnaharra, Hope route offers a scenic tour of Britain’s remotest roads. Gorgeous.

The Kyle causeway and Ben Loyal.jpg
Kyle of Tongue causeway
Ben Loyal.jpg
Ben Loyal

The End

From Strabeg bothy to Wick

Strabeg is one of those bothies with plumbing. Allegedly, indoor ablutions are possible with judicious application of a bucket of water. For this reason, the collection of drinking water from the river directly below the bothy is unwise. Personally, I much prefer simpler bothies. A table by a window is all the furniture needed.


Although the bog between the bothy and the road was fairly dry, I had been lucky to get my bike through without taking a dip in the nastiest bit so I made a wide loop on the way back to the stone-walled field where sheep graze. A little while later, I was pedalling the short distance to Tongue and a convivial evening with friends.

Next morning was wet but, crucially, for the first time, the wind was on my back so I set off for Wick and the end of my circuit of the Northern Highlands. In nice weather the loop through Skerray is gorgeous and unmissable. Today, though, I just wanted to finish off my tour. Instead, the hills on the road to Bettyhill nearly finished me off. They were demanding in the poor weather.

Loch Calder

However, after Bettyhill the hills got gentler and the weather improved. Reaching Bettyhill had been tough but the tailwind and regular snack stops, the best on a fisherman’s seat above Loch Calder, saw me reaching Watten with gas in the tank. My Thorn xTc is a substantial piece of steel. Nevertheless, the last eight miles went by at a decent lick.


I had not gone to John o’Groats, preferring to get home and finish the tour instead, which doesn’t mean the North Coast 500 is a bad ride. Far from it. It’s possibly, with the modifications I rode, Britain’s best cycle tour. It’s just that I’m not Britain’s best cycle tourist. I hadn’t prepared properly and so the route took ages. The North Coast 500 is a route for riders with miles in the legs, the section from Applecross to Scourie being likely to hurt anyone who is out of shape thanks to a lengthy succession of steep hills. But prepare properly and a ride from Inverness, down the Great Glen, out to Ardnamurchan, joining the North Coast 500 after a visit to Skye, is as good as it gets. The scenery is staggeringly beautiful and the friendliness and courtesy of most of the drivers I met was a very pleasant surprise.

Noss Head is worth a visit

My next task, one I suspect I’ll enjoy, is completing the tour properly by following the NCN Route 1 variant to John o’Groats via Orkney. At my current rate of progress, I’ll be getting back to you on that subject maybe in October.

Death of an Akto

My old Akto was inevitably going to fail sometime soon as its flysheet was showing clear signs of UV damage but my mistake hastened its end.  Regrets?  A few, but mainly I was glad it had failed in Glen Nevis, near a choice of gear shops, rather than on Mull.

This had been my second Akto and I did not like it as much as I had liked the first because of the arch over the door.  My first, simpler Akto had lacked this feature.  Sooner or later, complexity tends to cause problems with backpacking equipment, usually at the worst possible moment, and that arch did cause a couple of problems.  However, this post is about my mistake, not Hilleberg’s.  Let’s just say I wasn’t completely distraught when the flysheet tore catastrophically.


What did I do wrong?  Tightened the guylines before walking away from the tent.  I had woken to sleet and low snow on Ben Nevis just opposite the campsite.  After only two days of cycling from Tain, I did not need a rest day but I did not fancy cycling in the prevailing conditions so I sorted out the tent, put on my waterproofs and hiked into town for some serious nutrition.


At about the halfway point on my hilly walk the rain stopped and a little later the sun came out. The day warmed up and the vegetation started to steam.  By the time I reached Fort William, I was wishing I had put on sunscreen.  The temptation to go back to the tent, pack up and cycle down to the Mull ferry at Lochaline was not strong enough to overcome the fact that I had already paid for another night on the campsite.  Instead, I had a good lunch then walked back to the campsite.


The sun had completely dried my tent and tightened the fabric and guys.  The tension had been great enough to tear the black end of the flysheet almost completely off.  The damage was far too great for repair.  I salvaged the good bits – the poles, pegs and footprint before putting the rest of the tent into the bin.  Nearer home, I would have cut the groundsheet off the previously damaged inner and retained that too but there was a limit to how much I was prepared to haul round the North Coast 500.

I hiked back into town and bought a Wild Country Zephyros 1.  Perhaps not an exceptional tent but great value.  Once back home, a quick scan of my Photos album revealed numerous images of my Trailstar and Golite Cave but very few of the Akto.  It seems I never did take to that second Akto.

Down the Great Glen

The SUSTRANS web site is not a favourite of mine.  Usability, particularly on smallish phones, doesn’t appear to have been a priority for the developers.  However, the OS map showed that my route was using NCN 1 into Inverness and bits of NCN 78 onward towards Fort Bill.

The first section, via pleasant lanes to Dingwall was fine but the section between Dingwall and Inverness isn’t great.  It uses cycle paths beside dual carriageways and climbs long, shallow, pleasureless hills through OK scenery.  Till North Kessock I was just making miles.  North Kessock’s promenade and the steep climb on to the bridge were the highlights of this stretch.

Once over the big bridge, I headed for the River Ness and followed it through town.  My intention was to repeat a route I had used back in the 80s down the south side of Loch Ness.  Thanks to heavy traffic on the B862, Dores Road, and a damaged NCN 78 signpost things worked out a little differently.

Rolling stones

You’ll have gathered that I was underwhelmed by the cycling so far.  My opinion was to change.  NCN 78 shows the Great Glen at its best and is well worth researching even if that does mean doing battle with the SUSTRANS website.  NCN 78 avoids the first part of the Dores Road and I wish I had known that as the B862 was busy and fairly narrow.

Where NCN 78 rejoins the road, life improved.  First a cycle path got me off the busy road and then a quiet lane took me away from the traffic.  The lane brought me to a T junction where the NCN signpost had been rotated on its pole.  The obvious route was back to the B862.  It looked as if that way would have me in Dores in just a few minutes.  But there was something about the left turn which drew me on.  Maybe it would offer a quieter route to Loch Ness.

It didn’t.  It climbed beautifully and brutally, through native woodlands and by the McBain Memorial Park, for about 600 feet of ascent.  The top came at a cross roads near Loch Ashie, where a cold headwind made itself known.  A section of moorland brought me back to the B862 high above Dores.  I had no intention of dropping down to the loch, where I had been told that camping was possible.  A littered pitch with fire rings wasn’t what I wanted so I headed on, towards Fort Augustus.

And I might have made it but for some roadworks.  Twenty minute delays were advertised so, after an unsatisfactory conversation with the young man holding up the traffic, I pushed my bike up into a plantation.  Confident that no one else would be visiting my chosen piece of forestry, I found a side track and pitched on it.  Only a roe deer objected.

Forest pitch

The condensation on my tent next morning was astonishing.  Aktos used to have a reputation for internal dampness until backpackers realised the Laser was worse but I had never seen anything like this before.  And the drizzle was surprisingly cold.  The conditions were too much for my camera.  It refused to work, unlike the construction crew, who had been audible since just after dawn.  I snapped a shot of the tent with my phone and headed down to find out how long the road workers were planning to hold me up this time.

Not at all, as it happened.  The light turned green as I reached the road.  However, things still weren’t great.  Outside the forest, the precipitation was sleety and my cycling clothes felt inadequate.  Also, the road works went on for two miles.  I was unable to get between the lights while they were on green and so I had to edge past big machines doing dangerous things.  The arseholes on this project had not given a minute’s thought to cyclists.

At least my anger was warming me up.  The weather improved and the route was brilliant.  Really good scenery.  I rode through Errogie and Whitebridge then up to a summit which I remembered.  Last time here, a coach load of German tourists had cheered my brother and me as he just beat me over the crest.

The Great Glen

The plunge down to Fort Augustus was great fun.  I bought snacks and then headed off along the towpath of the Caledonian Canal.  The riding was easy and the views were gorgeous.  In a car, I have never enjoyed the Great Glen.  NCN 78 is totally different.  Great riding, although the person who designed the gates can’t have had any experience with a loaded touring bicycle.  The gates require lifting the bicycle a good eighteen inches.  I guess they had unladen mountain bikes in mind.

I really enjoyed the ride down to Caol.  Heavy traffic in Fort William needed a lot of care but the last couple of miles down Glen Nevis to the campsite were quiet.  The campsite has improved and grown a lot since my first visit, when a drunken Scot had called, “Lochaber no more,” once every two minutes for the entire night.  The person in reception said they take behaviour seriously nowadays.  Maybe they do.

My thanks to the musical excellence of Snarky Puppy and to the quaffability of Hobgoblin for making this reminiscence possible.



A Double Bob Graham Round

Obviously not by me.

Nicky Spinks’s achievement is truly astonishing.  And I like the way fell runners support one another.  Roger Baumeister, the only other person to have run a Double Bob, was tremendously encouraging.  Joss Naylor also turned out to give support.

Fell running is another world as far as I am concerned.  However, one of Nicky’s other record attempts, trying to complete the Bob Graham, Paddy Buckley and Charlie Ramsay Rounds in the shortest cumulative time has set me thinking.  Could I backpack the three rounds inside a fortnight?

Maybe you youngsters could complete the three rounds inside a week.  For charity.  It would be a change from the usual Three Peaks fundraisers.