‘The bothy at the end of the world”. That is how someone from England, even someone familiar with remote bothies, described the Croft House, alias Lochstrathy.
We tend to forget how far from anywhere even Strathy seems to people in the south, when it now takes less time to travel by train from Edinburgh to Paris than it does from Edinburgh to Wick. And to reach the bothy from Strathy you still have to cycle or walk 12 miles of bumpy track into the emptiest heart of Sutherland.
I first overnighted at the bothy nearly 30 years ago, walking across the moors from Strath Halladale. It was even remoter then; the vast forestry plantations which now almost surround the building were still to come and the track had not been improved. Of course, if the Strathy South wind farm is ever built – hopefully not, with such huge schemes moving offshore – this remote spot will be completely transformed into a giant industrial estate. But that lies in the future, and as of now Lochstrathy bothy remains one of the most remote and peaceful spots in Britain.
Fewer and fewer people visit the really remote bothies. Everyone is so busy, with so little time to spare, and, if a bothy trip can be fitted in, it has to be to one within easy walking distance of a road. But what is all this rushing about for? And is not Christmas and New Year a time to stop, and think, and take stock, give thanks for what one has, maybe resolve to “Tak’ tent o’ time, ere time be tint”? Most folk caught in the rush and tear of life could, if they wish, change the way they live. As the radio tells of long tailbacks on the approaches to the Forth Road Bridge and the Kingston Bridge, and on the A80, I look out of the window in the early-morning dark and see the Caithness rush hour in progress: in the distance across the valley the lights of two cars are heading down the road from Halkirk to Glengolly and Thurso. Too many people, like sheep, simply follow the rest of the flock. You don’t have to. You don’t even need to be part of the Caithness rush. For many years I cycled to work at Dounreay and, at this time of year, could ride the entire way through the peaceful dark of the early morning, by Halkirk and Broubster, to be passed by at most a couple of vehicles.
Throughout Scotland there are these remote bothies, less used than ever, where on a winter night, especially midweek, you are most unlikely to meet anyone else. Places where families, sometimes whole communities, once lived – now peaceful refuges from the rush and stress of the modern world. I visit Lochstrathy quite often, being responsible for the maintenance of the place. I too have been guilty of rush, sometimes just cycling out from Strathy or Strath Halladale in a morning and getting back home by lunchtime. More often I take a day, doing any minor jobs required and taking some time to walk out across the flow country to the lovely Strathy Loch or to the secret woods and waterfall of the upper Skelpick Burn.
This time I chose, for a change, to walk in from Forsinard – a route I’d never actually taken before. That gave for a very civilised journey, just 25 minutes on the train from Georgemas, with refreshments available. It’s always a great journey across the flow country, and the recorded, citified announcements seem just a little inappropriate: “The next stop will be Altnabreac. Please mind the gap when leaving the train.” I think there were five passengers on the 8.50 from Georgemas; there is not a great commuter rush to Forsinard or even Kinbrace.
As I set off down the road shortly after nine I could see the RSPB team having a Monday morning meeting in their offices; not even they can escape having to work indoors during fine weather! The sun was just coming up, the sky clear with a northerly breeze and a slight frost. From the kennels at Forsinard Lodge a path heads due west over the moors and, leaving the barking dogs behind, I set off on what for me was a new route.
The ground had not yet frozen and soon the path disappeared into the bog, leaving me floundering with wet feet. I resolved to avoid this section and cut straight across to Forsinard on the return. But the going eventually improved, the path having at one time been dug out like a road. After an awkward crossing of the swollen Ewe Burn by a partly-submerged railway sleeper, the route made a beeline up the next hillside with view north to the Cross Lochs glittering in the sunshine. I was expecting now to enter new forestry plantations but discovered that several square miles of young pine had been felled as part of the peatlands restoration project. Of course, 25 years ago, these plantings were touted as the great hope for the North. Now the fashion is huge wind farms. Will councillors and politicians never learn?
The road, built to service the useless forests, is still extant and I strode along it for a few miles before cutting across more very wet ground to Loch na Saobhaidhe and on over knobbly country to the bothy – the last obstacle being the crossing of the infant River Strathy. If the wind farms are built here, the huge rotating blades will completely dominate this part of central Sutherland and the proposal even has turbines right next to the bothy and towering over it. At present, though, in spite of the plantations which have transformed the area, there is an enormous sense of peace and isolation about the place. Except in one respect. This is the only building for miles, and makes a convenient target for the low-flying jets! The evening was clear and frosty with a magnificent display of stars. On going out for some water there was the roar of an approaching plane with its lights coming straight towards me. I hope my head-torch gave the pilot a surprise as he screamed very low overhead and disappeared west over the supposedly uninhabited wilderness. After that it was a peaceful evening by the bothy fire and a good night’s sleep.
The following day’s walk back to Forsinard began with an icy paddle through the river before dawn. The sun rose over Loch na Saobhaidhe, behind the Griams. I took a route over higher ground to the south, crossing rocky little hills with lochans, before turning east to rejoin my outward route.
The moors were now partly frozen and the walking easier; it is a rare bonus to be able to cross this vast open country on a winter day of low sun and blue sky. The final short cut back to Forsinard proved a mistake, even wetter going than the path, but at least I was able to step straight off the moor onto the road at the station. The settlement is really a little island in a sea of peat. And how civilised to be able to catch a train for just a 25-minute journey to Georgemas and then cycle the four short miles home.
Now the sharp outline of Morven is stark against a red sunset sky; the ptarmigan living on the mountain’s highest slopes are in their white winter plumage ready for the snows which may, or may not, come. The natural world knows nothing of the strange way in which humans tear about and wear themselves to a frazzle at this darkest time of year when the natural thing to do is to sleep.
The hills and moors and peaceful bothies await quietly the new season. Remember these places, when life gets frantic.
9 January 2008
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