A Scottish Honeymoon
|Date: Sep 2012
Submitted by: Anthony Feeney
So PJ and I are married at last. Hurrah! In typical fashion we chose to tootle about Scotland in a campervan for our honeymoon, none of your Tenerife or Faliraki boozy beach shenanigans for us. Give us a big hill, a scrambly ridge and a wee pub with a blazing fire to return to (preferably with a well stocked whisky bar) and we're happy. The original plan was a "tour of the north" to take in Ben Hope, Klibreck and a few of the other northerly Munros but a look at the maps revealed big round hills, long walk-ins and hours of driving through flattish countryside and this was soon abandoned for the more exciting hills around Ullapool and Gairloch. We flew from Derry-Glasgow Prestwick with those highwaymen-of-the-sky Ryanair and were picked up by one of the Rockin' Vans fellas to collect our VW camper. And a wee cracker it was too, metallic blue, fully equipped, went like shit off a shovel.
At our wedding Eric Pirie and his wife Lesley had extended an invite to stay with them on the Monday night, so we set off for Cromdale, just north of Aviemore. Directions to their house included a "Postman Pat bridge", an "isolated horse" and a cattle grid. When we saw said forlorn horse I could do nothing but laugh, reminded of the Irish directions "turn left at the 3rd cow". Anyhow we had a lovely chat-filled evening with soup, cheese and whisky and set off for Ullapool (via the Inverness gear shops) next morning with a cheery "call anytime, make yourselves at home".
Our first destination was Stac Pollaidh (Polly), often lauded by Allen as a "wee cracker" and described in the guidebooks as "one the best half day's outing in Scotland". At only 613m high it's no biggie but the top is a broken ridge of towers and pinnacles that provide some excellent grade 2 scrambling. A soid stone path leads round the back to the col, where you zig east to the first summit then zag west over the towers. It was a blowy day with an occasional light shower but the summits provided amazing views of Suilven, Cul Mor, Cul Beag and the far-off Atlantic. A fine start to the honeymoon. We drove round to Lochinver, parked up in the carpark next to The Caberfeidh pub / restaurant and duly sampled their wares.
Next day we decided to tackle Conival and Ben More Assynt, 2 Munros which are usually tackled together via their adjoining ridge, starting at the Conival end. I must have skim-read the guide book though because I directed PJ into the anti-clockwise loop, past the limestone caves and onto Ben More first. We'd parked the van below the Inchnadamph Inn and started quite late at noon, but figured the 7.5 hour time in the guide was doable before dark, even if we had to walk out the last 2 or 3 km on the track via head torch. The walk in underneath Conival and north round Loch Dubh Mor took nearly 3 hours, followed by a steep grass-pulling climb to the ridge at the end of Ben More. The weather didn't know what to do, one minute the sun was out and we were stripping down to base layers, next the cold wind would start up and it was on with the softshell, then the rain and hail would start and back on would go the waterproofs.
There was 1 wee tricky step on the narrow wet ridge before the Ben More summit but it barely phased us. The main ridge over to Conival provides the meat of the matter and here there were more than a couple of "Oooh" moments, one time breaking out a sling (we didn't bring a rope) to help each other over a particularly wet and smooth slab. The cloud was right down at this point and the weather had settled on strong gusts of wind with occasional stinging hail that seemed to take great delight in finding the end of my nose with eye-watering pinpoint accuracy. The ridge has been described as "flattering compared to the Aonach Eagach" and in truth it wasn't all that difficult, even in the conditions.
When the narrow section of the ridge was over we came upon a couple of large rock towers with cairns on them and I remembered the book describing Conival's summit as a "crown of shattered quartzite". Figuring we had finished the ridge, we took a bearing to the col beyond Conival and plundered off in the mist, visibility down to about 10m by now. We quickly realised the descending terrain didn't match the long flat back of Conival and were slightly puzzled as to where we actually were. So we dropped down lower to get out of cloud cover, had a look around, recognised a few lakes and climbed back up to our last point - we'd only completed half of the mile-long ridge. Back on track we topped out on Conival around 6:30pm, found the col and raced to find the big track before dark really settled in. At the van we changed into dry clothes and had a lovely couple of drinks around the fire in the Inchnadamph lounge bar, which resembled an old university common room, with dark red leather sofas, wood panelling and brass fittings.
We picked up a weather forecast in the inn which declared an OK Thursday / Friday followed by an excellent Saturday. It was right about the Thursday and the sun shone all day. We rolled our eyes and harrumphed but we'd been so itching to get on the hills the day before I think we'd have carried on regardless. We parked up in the Ardmair campsite and took advantage of the weather to dry everything out, then explored Ullapool, supping at the Ceilidh place and dining at the Seaforth. In the Carey Inn we sniggered at the fat old woman with, bizarrely, 3 diamond studs in her right cheek who ordered food at the bar and demanded "Minus! None o' tha' salad shite!" Surely that was a double negative and she should have received extra? Ullapool also had a music festival starting on the Friday but we had plans to be further south to be able do An Teallach on the Saturday by then.
Friday started with non-stop rain till nearly noon and we abandoned a half-hearted plan to do Ben Dearg because we wanted everything bone dry for the Saturday attempt. Instead we puttered round to Gairloch, had an obscenely large hot chocolate and cake, went for a walk on the beach (we were on honeymoon after all) and then made our way to the Corrie Hallie car park for the next day's fun, setting the alarm clock for 7:30am. No noon starts for this 8.5 hour traverse!
We were up and away at 8:20am, wrapped up against the chilly morning and eyeing the line of sunshine up ahead where we would step out from the shadow of the bluff on our left. Eventually we did and it was down to base layers as we hurtled along the track towards the steep slopes of Sail Liath. Every climber / scrambler / walker should aspire to be on the hills on such a day, with the sun warming your back, cold clean air in your lungs, sweat on your brow and the promise of adventure up ahead. We made the top of Sail Liath in under 3 hours and headed for the top of Stob Cadha Gobhlach, looking back to spot the couple who'd left the carpark about half an hour before us, now a good 10 mins behind. We couldn't figure out how we'd passed them but hey ho, we'd now have the ridge to ourselves and no danger of queuing.
The ridge starts at Stob Cadha Gobhlach, dropping steeply down and then you're immediately up into the rounded, layered towers of sandstone of the Corrag Bhuidhe pinnacles. The guidebook had unnerved me a little, with at least 3 mentions of walkers who had died on this ridge but I was determined not to dodge out of the scrambling on the easy traversing path much lower down. So up the towers we went, picking any old line and trying to stay as high as possible. Eventually though we reached a face that would require a rope, gear and a set of cojones so we contoured at that point till we found an awkward, nervous move over a slab and up a chimney to the top, our one sling getting another rattle at easing the difficulties.
From then on it was fun, fun, fun in the sun, sun, sun. We climbed every tower that we approached, even if we sometimes had to reverse if we couldn't find a descent. Lord Berkeley's seat came and went, we stayed high and on the edge thrilling at the 500m drop a little over there to our right and horseying along the narrowest sections. I was absolutely buzzing at this stage but it's one thing to put yourself in that position, knowing the risks and your own abilities and erring just on the side of caution, and another thing to look back and watch your beloved do the same thing. My heart was in my mouth several times and I had to remind myself that PJ is eminently capable, doing this a lot longer than I and it was just a natural instinct to want to keep her safe. We reached Sgurr Fiona and I was disappointed that the ridge was over all too soon, even though it had been 2.5 hours of top quality scrambling in some of the finest weather I've ever had in Scotland. I was grinning from ear to ear and wowed by the view - we must have been able to see for 100 miles, quite possibly picking out Ben Hope in the far north.
We stopped for lunch on Bidean a' Ghlas Thuille and met a couple with their 2 young boys who'd made the walk in via Coire Glas Tholl. The father was asking about An Teallach but it was now 2pm, gonna be dark at 8pm and we persuaded him to go no further than Sgurr Fiona before heading back the way he'd come. When we discovered just how crap the boggy track down Glas Tholl was, I worried that they'd still be walking out in the dark with no head torches, no waterproofs, with 2 very tired children over some awful terrain. I fell myself on the descent but luckily the steep ground was so wet and soft only my pride was hurt. Bizarrely PJ and I also got lost near the road in this little rhododendron wood, with a fast flowing river between us and the van but after a bit of plundering about we found a way out. I hope the family made it out unscathed.
Back at the van we drove down to Drumnadrochit, just because we liked the name, it avoided Inverness and it was half way to Glencoe where we planned to spend our final evening. The village, of course, is home to the Loch Ness Exhibition Centre and was full of Japanese tourists. The local pub was so full they wouldn't even let us clutter up the bar to have a drink so we gave them a two-fingered salute and went to the soulless neon-lit hotel instead. The drive down the Great Glen next day was scenic, if a tad coach-laden, and we stopped at the picturesque village of Fort Augustus parking our tiny campervan next to a row of massive French camper-buses. Small and mighty!
Fort William was it's old familiar self, lunch in Nevisport, beer and football in the Volunteer Arms, a traverse of the gear shops then a trundle out to the Clachaig Inn for a dinner of Steak and Ale pie and Wild Boar burger. I'd been sampling many single malts on my honeymoon and got into a discussion with the barman about my favourites, the Bruachladdich, Macallan, Arran, none of that peaty, smoky stuff. So didn't yer man recommend a fine 33 year old Tomintoul as one of the best whiskies he'd ever tasted and offer to pour me a shot? "Sure thing!", sez I, all swaggering and knowledgeable. "That'll be £12!" sez he, all gleeful and brazen. "No problem!" sez I, all white-faced and buckling. I staggered back to PJ, careful not to spill a drop and admitted my foolish entrapment. One thick ear later I was admonished to make it last, which I did for over an hour, nodding and smiling at the barman through gritted teeth.
Needless to say it was a fine, smooth, whisky but the 15 year old Macallan I sampled next would have given it a run for it's money for less than half the price and the 18 year old Glenfiddich I had back in the van was a decent bronze medallist. The next day's hangover put a dampener on an already drizzly going home day. Both PJ and I were a little subdued that our lovely honeymoon was over. We could have spent many, many more days pootling about in the van, climbing the odd fine hill and just enjoying the wild beauty of Scotland. That day on An Teallach has to rate as one of the best I've ever had in Scotland. If you haven't done it already, get it on your to-do list immediately.
25 Sep 2012
Nice one, you two but Anthony you really shouldn't have had the time or energy to write all this on your honeymoon!
26 Sep 2012
I left blank spaces between the paragraphs - you can fill in the gaps. ;)
29 Sep 2012
Hey congratulations to you both on wedding and the adventurous honeymoon! Obviously your'e a good match. The problem with Ben Hope is you spot Ben Loyal from its summit. Must get back there one day. Pssst, Ant; if you do in PJ for the insurance one day marry me next I'd love a honeymoon like that. Congrats, again, Peter