Sunday, 8 November 2015

Ross-shire - Werifesteria

Werifesteria is an old English word and I learned it recently on Facebook of all places. It aptly sums up my holiday week up north, rambling around the autumn woods of Ross-shire. It means "wandering the forests in search of mystery". 

My wandering started on a mountain called Wyvis, a huge whaleback of hill that rises to the north of Inverness. On the map the route up Ben Wyvis looked quite dull as it passed through swathes of pine plantations. But in reality it followed the shallow gorge of the Allt a Bhealaich Mhoir which was stuffed with birch and rowan in the russets and golds of their autumn garb. Early morning sunshine showed off the colours and a gentle breeze ruffled the leaves. 

Higher up, the path left the woods to climb the steep flank of the mountain. Where it crossed boulderfields, I stopped to catch breath and gaze at the rocks which seemed to be on the move. A group of ptarmigan were picking their way through the boulders. Their pale, mottled plummage was a perfect match for the lichen-covered rocks of their high mountain home. Before much longer, they'll be turning completely white to blend with the winter snows.

I gained the top and strolled across its flat plateau. Ben Wyvis is a mountain on the edge. To the east I gazed over the gentle farmlands of Easter Ross and the Black Isle, and the glistening waters of the Cromarty Firth. But behind me to the west were the wilder lands, the mountains and woods of Wester Ross. I headed west.

I wandered up lonely Strathrannoch where a wild, white water river rushed down through an old Scots pine wood and next day I trekked over the hills into Strathvaich. It was covered with a forest of trees just 2 or 3 feet high. An extensive block of new fencing had excluded the deer whose browsing prevents the trees from growing. Here's a supportive argument for re-introducing lynx. Not only do they prey on deer but they also keep them on the move, reducing their browsing impact. I left the dwarf forest and crossed a high, barren pass before dropping down into the beautiful  trees of Gleann Mhor.

Steep slopes swept down to a flat valley where a river meandered through dense woods of birch and Scots pine. A few summer flowers, heather and scabious, lingered in the clearings. On the craggy, open hills above the trees, the air was full with the bellow of red deer stags in their autumn rut. Sunshine filtered through the trees, dappling the track and forest floor and a breeze rustled the birch leaves, sending them down like a shower of golden pennies.  There was a mystical atmosphere to this old place and I pitched the tent for the night deep in the woods.

Next day I followed the river down the glen and eventually left the woods at the isolated hamlet of Croick. I wanted to visit its historic church which was once the scene of a desperately sad story. In the 19th century, the area around Croick was like much of the Highlands with smallhold tenants working the land and living off subsistence farming. Around this time, many land owners decided they could make more money from sheep farming. They forcibly and often violently evicted the farmers who had lived there for generations. In many instances, homes were burned down and people were left with nothing. This most appalling episode of Scottish history became known as the Highland Clearances. 

Glencalvie to the south of Croick was the scene of particularly unpleasant clearances as 18 families were evicted from their homes. They fled to the church at Croick to take refuge in makeshift shelters in the graveyard. And 170 years ago they etched their names and thoughts onto the glass of one of the windows of the church.

On a balmy, sunny afternoon, I pushed open the stiff gate of the graveyard at Croick and slipped inside. In the middle, the little whitewashed church rose into the blue air and the sun cast long shadows of gravestones on the lush, green lawn. I made my way around to the east window where the people of Glencalvie had etched their writing on the glass all those years ago. And sure enough, it was still there today. Handwritten messages from a grim past.

I'd met a stalker earlier near Croick who'd warned me that a big storm was on the way for tomorrow so I pitched up that night in the shelter of the woods. I woke next morning to lashing rain and a wind that had whipped out one of my guylines so that the tent almost flattened with each gust. The trees swayed in the wind as if a hurricane was blowing through. It was a day for staying in the shelter of the trees and Einig Wood with its river of roaring, peaty water provided some relief from the weather. 

But by the afternoon the wind had intensified and it was clear that I would struggle to find any cover to pitch the tent out of its blasts. I was a long way from anywhere. I crossed a bridge and something made me take a track to the left. By some kind of magic, there was an old barn tucked into the trees. Its walls and roof were made of corrugated iron, once painted a bright bluish-green but now faded and peeling. At one end there was an open-fronted store and I settled down there out of the weather. The wind rattled the place and rain dripped from the eaves but it was out of the wind. As the light faded, there was no respite in the weather so I pitched the tent inside the barn. After dark, the clouds cleared and a good moon flooded the barn with silvery light.

The storm passed overnight and the following day was dry and bright as I set out on the long walk through to Ullapool, a west coast fishing town where I'd catch my bus home. I was blown away again but this time by the spectacle of the autumn colours as I trekked out to Corriemulzie, a remote lodge in the hills. 

Morning sun set the landscape alight as it illuminated the fiery orange deer grass that now covered the slopes. Every river gorge and stream gully was filled with birch, rowan and alder creating a tapestry of greens, golds and yellows. And as the route climbed higher, the mountain massif of Seana Braigh dominated the view ahead. Its beautiful scuplted ridge rose to a pointed, rocky peak. 

A thin line on the map high in the hills suggested a path through to Glen Achall and on the ground when the time came, a charming, handmade sign for Ullapool had been placed at the junction out on the lonely moor. The path passed high and as it did so, the rocky cluster of the Assynt peaks poked above the lower hills. 

As I descended into Glen Achall, the double-topped Beinn Ghobhlach took over the view. From this angle it looked like a flat, table mountain. The change in Glen Achall was palpable. Almost on the west coast, it benefits from a slightly warmer climate and on that day it seemed to be clinging onto late summer with greens dominating over golds. The sun shone, birds sang, cattle grazed and it was warm like spring. I followed the glen's river west as it snaked lazily through the valley, below wooded, rocky escarpments.

Glen Achall is a long, long glen and by the time I was trekking down into its lower reaches, the light was fading. The trail had passed through open fields and meadows but the glen narrowed here and was engulfed once more by the woods.  I put up the tent in a copse of birch. The dark hours were filled again with the bellow of stags and the screeching of a night-time owl.

It was still night when I unzipped the tent next morning and made a quick breakfast before starting out on the final couple of miles to Ullapool. It was raining heavily but as I approached the village there was just enough grey, grainy light to make out the shapely bulk of Beinn Ghobhlach ahead. I stopped suddenly as a stag emerged from the woods, crossed the track and then lingered just a few metres away on a small mound. He was a beauty, a ten-pointer, and perfectly silhouetted against Beinn Ghobhlach. All was still and quiet in the half-light of morning as we stared at each other for what seemed like several minutes.  Then he melted away again into the trees. 

The stag. The woods. The mountain. It was a beautiful moment and will forever in my memory embody werifesteria, the mystery and magic of the forests.

More photos on Flickr.

Fact File
Start: Garve by Inverness to Kyle train or Inverness to Ullapool Citylink bus.
Finish: Ullapool to catch Citylink bus to Inverness.
Map: OS Landranger 20
Route: In Garve take the back road opposite the station that passes the cemetery. At the next junction in 1km turn left. After another 1km take a forest track to the right signed for Silverbridge. When it meets the A835 turn right and walk along the road for approx 2.5 km. It wasn't too busy and there's a wide verge then a good section of old road. About 500m after the farm at Achnaclerach take the forest track to the right. After it crosses a bridge it junctions with the footpath up Ben Wyvis. If doing Ben Wyvis as a single trip, this approach is perfect for cycling. After Ben Wyvis I walked another 3km north on the road then took the track up Strathrannoch. I followed the track north then west over a small pass into Strathvaich then north passed Loch Vaich and down into Gleann Mhor. I followed the track northeast to join a road into The Craigs and then turned left at the next junction to Croick Church. I followed the track that continues northwest from Croick up Strath Cuileannach. It passes high before dropping down into Einig Woods. A right turn at the main track in Einig Woods took me down to the barn. I retraced my steps and continued west to Duag Bridge where there's a bothy and onto Corriemulzie Lodge. About 4km after the lodge, the track splits. I took the right split and at grid ref NH285921 took a footpath to the right. It passes above a lovely water-filled gorge then drops down to Loch an Daimh. I picked up the track that travels west to Ullapool through the beautiful Glen Achall.