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On the path to a dark, silent forest of spruce

Caithness has few really good paths. There are plenty of rather boring forest tracks and roads, but if you want a good long walk you have to be prepared to read a map, cross pathless country and tackle obstacles such as ditches and wet ground.

There are plenty of places where good, signposted paths could be made but in general there has been neither the will nor the money to do it.

A piece on the radio about walking old drove routes inspired me to explore an old path near Reay I hadn’t been along since I don’t know when, probably around 1990. I used to visit this country quite often but since the moorland was ploughed up and planted with trees I have rarely been back, other than for the occasional run along the new forest roads.

A couple of miles south of Dounreay are the two low, rocky hills of Creag Leathan and Creag Mhor – better known as the Gatepost Hills – on either side of the entrance to the Achvarasdal Glen. This used to be open moorland; uninterrupted and almost uninhabited Flow Country stretched some 40 miles to the south. Now the glen is under a dark, silent forest of spruce while wind farms threaten further.

Look at the OS map. From Achvarasdal a track is marked, heading south through the gap between the two hills. This used to be a good walk; you could carry on into the moors, passing the Broubster lochs or picking up a little track which led south of Reay for five miles to the old stables at Gleann Dubh. I reckoned it could still make a good round walk, using forest rides to link up between the various new and old tracks.

I doubt that many others will get far. Just south of Achvarasdal the track ran into an obstacle. One of the most difficult obstacles I’ve encountered on a path for many a year. The track, which had already been wet and muddy, disappeared into a true mud wallow worthy of hippopotamuses. Not even wellies would have coped. Beyond the morass, a slow-moving burn; on the other side a group of hungry, bellowing coos clarting in the mire and hoping for a tractor bringing another silage bale. On either side of the track were thickets of gorse. I’m not one for giving up, but didn’t fancy a knee-deep, freezing mud-wallow pursued by frisky cattle. Instead, a detour to the east should have provided an easier crossing point.

The burn, though, was flanked on both sides with a dense thicket of gorse undergrown by brambles. Progress beyond the edge of the field was blocked by another deep, muddy burn.

Retreat to the road? Never! I fought my way slowly through the gorse and brambles, foot by foot, eventually sliding down to the edge of the burn to remove boots and socks and paddle through the icy water. The far bank, too, was guarded by gorse and brambles and I was in considerable danger of falling backwards into the water while balancing precariously to put my boots back on, before another prickly scramble to finally reach the open field. After that, a few wet patches and the odd fence in the way of regaining the path were but nothing.

Just three miles from Dounreay – how about the local community council putting in for some of that community fund to make a decent path and bridge? It would be well worth it, as beyond the impasse it is still a lovely walk up into the little glen. There’s a standing stone and the track passes below the hills into a peaceful, open clearing with the burn below and rocky slopes above. You could be miles from anywhere and, not surprisingly, there is no sign that anyone ever comes here. Alas, though another proposed wind farm could change everything.

A couple of roe deer cantered off as I scrambled up the steep hillside to the little rocky top of Creag Mhor, a spot I can’t have visited since the trees were planted some 25 years ago. For once the view was a bit of an anticlimax, with Dounreay close and the familiar country around the site well displayed, while forests stretched southwards. At least the proposed wind farm has not yet been built.

While they will never have proved an economic success, the huge Flow Country plantations have at least grown, if slowly, and now have an atmosphere all their own. There is a wild feel to these miles and miles of empty forests where the wind blows and the roe deer browse and a few woodland birds flit in the branches.

Wide forest rides are wet and tussocky but provide routes through, one of these led me east from Creag Mhor, eventually to pick up the northern end of the forest road coming up from Broubster. Here was a clearing with a locked caravan trailer where Christmas trees had been stacked for loading.

It was a cold, bright morning with a keen wind and, after all that rough country, I was happy to stride south along the good forest road for three miles.

Just north of Loch Thormaid the road skirts a deep gully to the west, you might miss it if you don’t climb up onto the side to look. Reputedly this was made by the fairies who were working to drain the Broubster lochs but were interrupted before their task was finished. Which is as well, as these are still beautiful sheets of water, though not with the atmosphere they had when surrounded by open moor.

I followed the fork of the track which climbs up to Claise Breac, remembering a story told by the gamekeeper some 30 years ago of how he was following the tracks of suspected poachers who had ventured out onto the frozen Loch nan Clachen Geala. He then managed to trap his quad bike in the bog and badly ricked his back trying to lift it out… now it is all under those dark, silent trees.

From the end of the road one of those wet, rough forest rides curved downwards to an open strip of ground along the Achvarasdal Burn, another clearing and forest ride took me up to the junction of two tracks heading south to Reay.

This is well-known country, a popular run known as The Reay Classic does an eight-mile circuit of these tracks. Here is a tall platform for spying/shooting deer with a notice at the foot of the ladder – “No access unless authorised and trained”. A better way of encouraging all passers-by to climb to the top would be hard to devise.

Now, with time getting short – I was only out for a morning’s walk – I strode briskly northwards down the grassy track. I still can’t get used to this glen being forested, not open singing moorland as when I first knew it. But likely things will get much worse, the track leads through the heart of the planned Limekiln wind farm, several dozen turbines 150 metres tall – that is 500 feet – are to be erected across the whole of this forest. I just cannot believe what people are trying to do to our countryside. This walker certainly won’t be back if it ever gets built.

Rather than follow the track into Reay and walk back along the road, I opted for a direct shortcut from the edge of the forest. Definitely not to be recommended.

The country south of Reay is surprisingly rough and wet, paths are best kept to. But at the end of the walk I didn’t mind too much getting wet and muddy. More of an assault course than a walk, this, over the top of two of those little rocky hillocks so characteristic of this area, down through an area of failed tree plantings where deep heather hid water-filled holes, leading onto wet cow-churned tussocks. Then a splash through ankle-deep bogs to an impassable ditch… a detour to where a farm track crossed, over a hillock, down across a field of churned mud and a final paddle through the freezing Achvarasdal Burn to at last regain the good path in the Achvarasdal woods.

I’d love to see a few more proper paths in Caithness. That through the Achvarsdale woods is lovely, but too short. An extension for two miles south to the Gatepost Hills, with a climb to the top of Creag Mhor, would make a good start.

But scrap the idea if the wind farm goes ahead and build instead a trail around Dounreay and the new low-active waste pits which will be scenic compared with what this route would be like then!