Scotshire Summer Tour Part II: Scotland
Ben Honan, Cecilia Kan, Christopher Bradley, Dave Kirkpatrick, Fiona Hartley, Jack Halliday, Rebecca Diss, Rhys Tyers, Thomas Porter, Ana Teck, Matti Mitropoulos
Monday 30th August
On which the majority of the group drive to Elphin. Two go cycling. One goes surfing. One goes shopping.
Another bright day dawned over Greenclose, the home of the NPC, and us within it. The day before, DKP had taken many of our belongings to the Scottish Highlands. Today we’d drive there to reclaim them.
The final packing push saw us standing beside one red car, well-loaded with gear, and one white car, to be loaded with humans. Jack didn’t make up his mind about joining us until thirty seconds before departure when he got into the front seat. Chris and Matti got in the back and away we went to the A65. There was a large queue at the junction with the motorway. It was to be the last traffic we’d see for the journey.
Serenaded by Jack’s Spotify choices, I drove to my pre-planned first stop: Gretna Green services. Everyone else on the M6 had had the same idea of stopping here. Four sandwiches later, we departed, aiming for Stirling services to meet up with Diss and Ana again.
As we left, Jack spoke from beside me. “Do you have enough burny burny go vroom liquid?”
I didn’t even recognise these words as English. “… What?”
“You know, the burning thing that makes us go vroom?”
“What?” I repeated, driving past the turning for the petrol station.
Jack was struck by the sudden recollection of the correct word. “Fuel!”
“Oh!” After a lot of laughter, I confirmed we thankfully had enough petrol to get to Stirling.
More Spotify accompanied us past Glasgow. Sensing his audience – that is, me – Jack played U K Hun? By the United Kingdolls. Chris and Matti had no clue what to make of this madness. I then had a messenger conversation with Alan via Jack about what our favourite Britney songs are. I’ve always found that the CGI hammerhead sharks in Work Bitch elevate the song into the stratosphere. Prove me wrong.
Stirling services had a Greggs, which thrilled everyone. Chris and Matti were pleased to have finally programmed the GPS units after nearly three hours. Ana and Diss joined us and we stood around in the car park as one has to at services. I suggested I would possibly stop at Dalwhinnie. I find 1hr45min driving stints very comforting.
I was obliged to cry over the cost of burny burny go vroom liquid at motorway stations, to the point that my passengers offered to pay for it. No, lads, this is my burden as driver, and my joy when I receive transport relief down the line. Diss and Ana had left ahead of us, but as they were in a tiny, overloaded car I soon overtook them. We were thrilled; they didn’t notice.
We cruised up the A9 for many miles alongside the Cairngorms, unburdened by a need to stop for breaks even after 1hr45. The suspension bridge at Inverness was not long enough to justify playing Sandstorm. Shortly after Jack and I needed to pee and stopped at a dodgy-looking local services in Tore. We avoided being murdered but still fled without waiting ten minutes for Diss and Ana to catch us.
We were in the heart of the Highlands now, taking in the gorgeous scenery from the A835 as it lopes between the mountains and the lochs. Another hour brought us to Ullapool. We were close to our destination now, though it was still twenty-five minutes to Elphin. A careful descent through the village allowed Jack to spot the relevant red telephone box. 7pm and there we were, at the Elphin Caving Centre, home of the Grampian Speleological Society.
Inside, Rhys, Cecilia and DKP were putting the finishing touches on two giant lasagnes. I felt fairly fresh considering the eight-hour drive; still, I was grateful not to need to think about preparing food. All I had to do was unpack, claim the best bed, and familiarise myself with the facilities – which are really very nice indeed! The kitchen and the sunroom are especially lovely.
Diss and Ana arrived at 7:30pm, so we sat down to dinner in the Grampian’s conservatory soon after. The view looks straight out across the round peaks of Cùl Mòr, while to the far right Suilven's jagged silhouette draws the eye. The sun set as we enjoyed being together on the first proper night of the Scotland tour.
Tuesday 31st August
On which the majority hike to Sandwood beach for sea swimming and surfing. The other three visit Ullapool, then swim in Loch Lurgainn and walk around Stac Pollaidh.
I did not wish to be perceived on Tuesday morning. “Where is the tea?” I asked Jack, knowing I had brought a huge box of Yorkshire to the NPC.
“I don’t know if we bought any,” Jack said, quite gently. Nonetheless the urge to shout or cry or both seized me. I needed tea. So I walked away and turned my back to everybody while I ate breakfast. Thank God that when I finally looked back into the kitchen, the big box of tea was sitting beside the kettle. Sorry Jack.
Ben’s planned drive and hike to a remote beach (Sandover? Sandwell? Salmon? – Sandwood!) sounded nice but I needed few humans in my life on this day. Likely I was feeling the aftereffects of the long drive the day before. Diss, Ana and I went to Ullapool instead. We located Tesco, the bookshop, and crucially the Ullapool Outdoor shop. £150 poorer and burdened by a bag of Rabagucci, I waddled after the other two for a lunch of fishless fish and chips.
The water was wonderfully clear on the shore. Yet I didn’t feel like swimming in Ullapool itself. Too busy. Ana and I dragged out the OS map, pinning it to the car door while we surveyed possible locations. We spotted Loch Lurgainn: close to a road that was on our way back to Elphin, with a nearby car park and what looked like decent scenery. Diss found an account of a man swimming in it on a dodgy-sounding digging website. Outside Swimming Society? Who needs that?
I attribute the amazing place we picked to our amazing map skills and not to the reality that you can probably swim anywhere around the highlands and find it amazing. We parked right in a large passing place by a small sandy beach that sloped very gently into the water. Lots of swimming and bouncing on tiptoes and photography took place until even Ana was too chilly to carry on. Revitalised, we moved to the car park and set off to walk around the dramatic sandstone pinnacles of Stac Pollaidh. These had towered behind us while swimming. This well-travelled route circles around the peaks, soaking us in the views across the lochs and mountains.
Now feeling very happy, we noticed a small road leading north across the wilderness up to Lochinver. “It’s probably the scenic way home,” I said. Truer words were never spoken: it took an hour and a half to drive back to Elphin this way. The driving was well fun for me. We all cooed over the scenery, including a primary school picturesquely perched on the edge of a small loch with a view of Suilven. The setting sun burnished Loch Assynt and the surrounding landscape ahead in gorgeous pink (we called the mountains ‘the long one’ and thought it was Ben More Assynt, but I now think it was Quinag).
Dinner was almost ready when we got back to the GSG. Everyone had had a good first day. Caving tomorrow? Caving tomorrow.
A few of us drove for many minutes through a beautiful landscape, followed by an hour or so walk to Sandwood beach along a flatter, less interesting landscape.
Honan had a big surfboard attached to his rucksack which made him look really cool. He bumped into another cool surfer en route and they had a cool chat about waves.
The beach was quite nice. A few people went in the very cold water, I read a book on the sand. Eventually we walked around on some rocks and posed dramatically, before heading back.
Wednesday 1st September
Rana Hole and Uamh an Claonaite: Christopher Bradley, Dave Kirkpatrick, Rhys Tyers, Fiona Hartley, Jack Halliday, Rebecca Diss, Ana Teck, Matti Mitropoulos
On which everybody goes caving in Rana Hole and Uamh an Claonaite, except two, who hike up to the caves with the group and then go fishing. A new human joins in the evening.
Rhys had been seized by a compulsion to go caving straight away. Chris and DKP were selected as his companions, and they left first. Time passed before the rest of us piled into my car and drove north. The parking for Rana, Claonaite and ANUS is the same as for the Bone caves, a popular and well-signed walk in the area. The car park thus fills up with campervans and motor homes which may hide potential parking spots, but I managed to sneak in at the back beside Rhys before the masses descended.
Jack and I opted to carry our caving gear up in bags. The others changed at the car in hot sunshine, dust, and an unnoticed lack of midges. This is something we took for granted (I take this for granted in all of my life, actually), but we'd learn our lesson.
Walking up with my gear in a bag was a positive experience compared to wearing my undersuit as is the norm. It did mean I couldn't do a small Bone cave through trip as I was not wearing my oversuit or light at the time. We ran into Cecilia and Ben very near the Rana entrance and picked up the idea that the other three were already out of Rana.
Donning our gear, we dropped into the bizarre entrance shaft of Rana to escape the warmth. Deadly-looking ladders leaned against random other bits of fixed tat and made loud noises whenever kicked, which was frequently. A massive warning triangle for frogs lay on the floor. At the base of the pitch, a narrow sideways crawl featured said frogs and led to soggy bits of wood wedged in a narrow rift to create footholds above the ankle-snatching section. A small wiggle down to the left led to a boulder slope.
Down this was some tape and enough open space to all stand around. The cave had already reminded Diss of Derbyshire, Slov and Wales. Which area would be next? We sent Matti to investigate the main passage continuation and then heard DKP's familiar voice coming out of a stoop to the right. We caterwauled to give him navigational assistance. The three emerged and talked about the quality of the lower areas of cave. Rhys then took a single group photo, proving that we were all actually in a cave in Scotland together. They then headed out, while we carried on down a couple of squeezes to the second pitch.
A bit of drippy exploration eventually revealed the right way on; beneath the base of the pitch down a climb to a rift, which you traverse/bridge along to a section of stacked boulders. Up and down a handline climb pops out into bigger chambers with the sound of water further in. Some walking and then easy sandy crawling past a couple of labelled features took us to the Great Northern Time Machine. A fun 5m climb down a waterfall soon terminated at a sump pool.
The way out was uneventful, and we fulfilled our secondary objective of rescuing frogs. All caving clubs are part of Frog Rescue Incorporated. Whether the frogs appreciate it or live longer on the surface is no concern of ours. I'd say the lower reaches of Rana are worthwhile, but the entrance series is rather naff.
Time above ground was spent eating snacks and slowly realising that midges were present. The midging was still fairly minor compared to the horror to come. We wandered up and down the slope looking for Claonaite for a while. Ana and Diss were the successful party to find the cave. The midges were increasingly interested in us so we hid in the first chamber and gibbered about the description "don't put your weight on any individual boulder". I at least had to one-arm superman down the small hole through the rubble choke, putting all my weight on anything that would hold it, so I'd like to thank this description for nothing but worry.
Now, Claonaite. Described as the premier Socttish cave, I felt it had standards it might not live up to. Even though I think the bottom of Rana is worthwhile, I was feeling a bit uninterested in caving after it, and searching for the cave had added to my apathy. But once we were through the boulders I could hear water. There was a climb down a waterfall, and thus my interest was rekindled...
I soon took up a pole position that I didn't really relinquish. In fact, I got further away from the group the wetter (and colder) the cave got. Wet to the knees? Okay. A watery crawl to bypass a sump? Sure, I'll do it first. Climbing down more waterfalls? Splashing through a fun, noisy streamway? Count me in! My favourite feature was a long, linear rift: each wall has been formed from different types of limestone, so one side is mostly smooth and the other mostly knobbly, and they're different colours from one another. The cave was basically a miniature water park and I enjoyed it immensely. I actually had to be summoned back to the rest of the group with a whistle.
After a couple of down-sections called the Watershoots, we had to traverse over the second sump and got into crawling passages that were a bit mean on the knees after so much standing up. We reached a third sump. Given the coldness of the water we headed directly out rather than looking at any extra passages. Great little cave. This is absolutely worth a trip.
Outside the evening was gorgeous - for about three seconds. Then the midges found us. Jack changed outside the cave; I refused. Then Diss lost her glasses for ten minutes. We were eagerly assisted by midges in looking for them. Thankfully they were relocated without having been stood on. Once this was done we marched down the valley at pace, to stay ahead of the midges.
Forty minutes later we reached the car park. My car alone remained. But we were not alone. I unlocked the car from ten metres away; tried to remember exactly where I'd placed everything; mentally prepared to change at speed. I opened the car; everyone grabbed their stuff; we all picked our places to make a stand.
And the midges descended. The change was severely unpleasant. Any exposed skin gained many very attentive friends. So did unexposed skin. Complaints and exclamations floated about the car park.
Eventually, Jack ran past me. “Are you having fun?”
“You know I’m not!” I cried, swooping repeatedly down to my kit bag, having to put each item away in constant motion. At a run I shoved my stuff into the boot and leaped into the car. Doors slammed, windows hummed, and the engine growled as I accelerated out onto the road to blast away our keen companions. After a frenetic and noisy minute, most of them were gone. Sadly the itching feeling remained. Thankfully there were no midges inside the hut when we got back - and were were late enough that once again we'd dodged making dinner.
We went caving! I made the big-brain decision to carry my kitbag to the cave, slung over a shoulder with a piece of small-mil cord. Apart from the cord slicing through my shoulder the hike up was quite pleasant, an attractive valley with at least one pond producing a seemingly infinite stream of water.
Rana was first. Rhys rigged the entrance pitch off a bendier-than-you-would-like metal pole straight down, which was followed by a short traverse to an in-situ ladder, which he also rigged. IIRC the description warned of lots of water / a duck to continue, but it was very dry (it had been very hot the past week). We meandered around for a while, saw some nice pools and big chambers, and headed back out. We bumped into the other group on the way out and had a group photo. There were lots of little frogs at the entrance, so we each took a few in our SRT bags, 'rescuing' them to the dry sun-scorched surface above. I'd say the cave was fairly average? Worth doing, though probably only because there aren't a lot of caves around.
Claonaite was more fun. A bit of crawling around until you reach the streamway which we more or less followed until the end. It's definitely impossible to avoid getting wet: we got splashed climbing down little waterfalls, flat-out crawling in puddles and a bit of wading in waist-high pools. I'd imagine it could be a bit spooky in wet weather? I don't really remember if the cave was all that pretty, but I had a lot of fun going through it.
When we returned to the surface, there was brief chat of popping over to ANUS just to say we'd been there, but we decided this was a vastly inferior plan to just going home, so home we went.
Thursday 2nd September
On which six go hiking before swimming in Loch Lurgainn, and five go to Lochinver and Achmelvich Bay.
We went to Lochinver and had some vastly overrated pies. Then we went to a very attractive beach (much more accessible, and maybe nicer, than Sandwood). Everyone went for a splash in the pretty water while I got some chapters in.
Friday 3rd September
Cnockers and Lower Traligill: Fiona Hartley, Jack Halliday, Thomas Porter, Ana Teck, Matti Mitropoulos
On which five go caving to Cnoc nan Uamh and Lower Traligill Cave. Three accompany the cavers and then continue up Gleann Dubh to hike two Munros. Three cycle between Lochinver and Drumrunie. One leaves in the evening.
A crack team of Jack, Ana, Fiona, Tom and I set off up the well trodden track towards the Traligill caves. A scenic 50 minute hike led us straight to the entrance of Cnockers, the hiking team splitting off halfway down to ascend Ben More. A stereotypical cave entrance in the side of a hill invited us into a short crawl to the main streamway. Deciding to do the dry section first, we started in a pleasant ‘thrust plane’, after which we had no clue where to go, the description promising ‘obvious walking passage’. Fiona and I followed a crawl that just kept going and going, up through soft mud, over some precarious boulders, through a wet stooped shuffle and through a narrow chamber with a small number of stals. I kept pushing through a very tight crawl indeed but after a short while even I turned back as this was clearly not the ‘obvious walking passage’.
Back at the thrust plane, down a different short crawl we eventually did find the promised walking passage, which we followed down until a pristine crawl of extremely soft moist mud greeted us. Presuming this would sump in wet weather we cautiously followed it down on hands and knees. The only reward we were given was extremely muddy oversuits and quite a few encounters with worms inches from our faces. So we turned around fairly quickly.
Now onto the wet section of the cave, starting at the main streamway. Walking downstream quickly brought us to an easy squeeze with the river rushing water down our wellies, very reminiscent of craionaite we had done a few days prior. The rock had been shaped in the same unique manner, with deep channels peppering the walls and floor, leaving sharp skeletons to navigate through. A few wet climbs led us down the path of the stream, and we emerged at a pretty opening to the surface, where the passage widened to let the water spread out over 10m or so of rock as it flowed down the 45° surface. We exited here.
But entered again. As there was still more of the cave to see. Following the slanted floor down, we navigated through a fairly tight walking section, trying to keep our oversuits as dry as possible, somewhat successfully. After a while the water calmed a bit, and we eventually reached the fairly unaspiring sump, and headed back.
Keen to do more caving we walked 10 minutes to Lower Traligill cave, hoping for a relaxed end to the day. From the very start the cave was a similar 45° angle to the second entrance to Cnockers, but this time with a very low parallel roof, forcing us to scoot semi-upright uncomfortably across the wall. To make things worse, the cave walls were coated in a persistent thin layer of black mud, which made Jack retrospectively refer to it as the ‘dogshit cave’. About 15 minutes of scooting led us to a slanted rift leading down to the sump, where we found a divers rope and not much more. I described it as having ‘no redeeming features’ – no pretties, no fun climbs, just uncomfortable scooting. The only feature of note was that we could hear the deep rumble of the waterfalls of nearby caves reverberating throughout the cave, but that just made us wish we were there rather here. 2/10, would not recommend.
In Cnockers we went from Uamh an Tartair, the dry entrance, to Uamh an Uisge, the Waterslide. Travelling between the two entrances via a tight, occasionally sharp streamway with a few free climbs over waterfalls was pretty fun. The Waterslide is worth seeing and doing. Ahh, water - when it's not being dangerous, it makes caving a lot of fun!
We reached a sump pool a lot sooner than I expected. Reading around, I think this can be bypassed. I'm not saying I'd go back to specifically do this, but if I'm in the area... I'd probably take another look.
After taking some magic hydration tablets to undo whatever wine does to your body, I joined DKP and Diss on a lovely hike up Ben More Assynt / Conival. The temperature was fairly cool, which was really nice to hike in. The way up gradually revealed more and more of the landscape, it was kinda fun to see how many lochs you could see as you got higher. Unfortunately the peaks, and the endless ridge that connected them, were in cloud the entire time so we missed out on the spectacular views. I was hoping we'd get a cloud-inversion as we ascended but alas we did not. Still, walking around in clag has its own eerie appeal. Towards the second peak we realised that we were completely drenched as all the moisture in the air was condensing onto us. The path connecting the two peaks was a bit tedious: a lot of ups and downs that feel a bit endless. Eventually we reached (what we believed to be) the second peak, and rapdily decided it was time to turn around and get out of the wet. The way back was longer than I expected, I spent the final hour thinking we were five minutes from the end. At one point Diss lightly breezed past a rock which nearly collapsed the entire mountain, but it didn't, so it's all good.
Saturday 4th September
The final day of activity sees five taking a boat tour of the Summer Isles, while the other five hike and swim.
The adventures of Ragworm Bogwalker and the Dangerous Perambulators.
Breakfast was the usual crumpets with cheese, one each with gherkins, tomatoes and red onion pickle. My back and knees still aching from the caving of yesterday, I was in favour of a relaxed hike. As we had been hiking several times this week, our ritualistic faffing was conducted with cold efficiency and we were ready to leave by 10:30.
A swift drive through the scenic highland mountains brought us to the wanky shooters lodge which guarded the entrance to our stroll. Us mere commoners had to park outside the grand gates, forcing us to trek up the gravel track up to the Halliday✝ of our choice. While not a Honan✝✝, it still promised picturesque views at the top, overlooking the lochs filtering into the sea.
After half an hour of tireless ambling, it was democratically decided to abandon the civilised path meticulously engineered for us – instead we would blaze our own trail through the undergrowth. Here, Ragworm Bogwalker began to make his appearance. His presence gradually descended upon us perambulators as we hopped from stone to rock and rock to stone across the marshy wilderness, our footsteps becoming lighter and nimbler; through his strength we resembled mountain goats, effortlessly crossing this impassable swampland. His aura attracted a heard of deer, briefly galloping alongside our group in perfect harmony before breaking off to celebrate Ragworm’s return in peace.
After hours in a trance-like state, we peaked the mountain in an ecstasy, soaking in the panoramic view as our reward before descending. Like an avalanche we flew down the mountain, treading in sync with Ragworm’s heartbeat in our ears, meandering through the boulderfield of danger with complete confidence. With every metre closer to the sea, we felt Ragworm’s hold on us fade, until we arrived at Ben’s car, refreshed and in awe of the power of Ragworm Bogwalker.
✝ A Halliday is defined as a hike which provides ‘thorough enjoyment’, as decided by Dr Jack Halliday of Bishop's Castle.
✝✝ A Honan is defined by a hill who’s peak reaches at least 800m above sea level. Also referred to as a ‘Half-mile Honan’.
The rest of us became tourists for the day and went on a boat-tour of the summer isles. We saw some seals, and watched dolphins show off for a while. We even technically went caving. We docked back in Ullapool and had some fish and chips.
Sunday 5th September
On which the majority leave Elphin for further adventures, either elsewhere in Scotland or back home in England.
After a flurry of packing and some cleaning, the cars departed: Rhys and Cecilia for Manchester, Ben to the Isle of Lewis, Dave and company for London-bound trains leaving Carlisle, and Dissana for the Cairngorms. Of course I did miss all of the chaos surrounding Imperial cavers on tour, but only briefly: less than two hours of solitude passed before Kat and Dewi of the NPC arrived, bringing some rain and a quieter tone for the rest of my time at the GSG: one with less snoring, for one (sorry you know who :x).
I would visit Allt nan Uamh Stream Cave on Monday with other cavers staying at the hut (Andrew and Jo). The shortened name ANUS is sort of regrettable when said to cavers, never mind strangers (so I didn’t say it), but the cave was quite enjoyable, being full of sand, interconnecting levels, loops of passages, and a heck of a lot of engineering at one of the sumps. Plenty to explore for a couple of hours.
I changed alone at the public car park, which is clearly less intimidating than being in a group, because a few members of the general public spoke to me. "Are you a diver caver?" one asked. Another approached and told me things about the local caves that I already knew. I mock slightly, but it was nice to see that people are interested in strange gear and the area.
I didn't have to cook a single thing thanks to all the leftovers; "Here's a meal my serfs prepared earlier," I would say each evening. Of course, I did have to do all the washing up in the end. But that is my preference.