The Glen at the Back of Beyond - Loch Glencoul
I don't know whether the translation is really true, found lurking on the world-wide-web, but it is certainly apt, this really is the Back of Beyond. Glencoul lies at the head of the eponymous loch, reachable only by tortuous paths, or by water. We'd chosen the latter approach, paddling in the 4 miles or so from the lovely hamlet of Kylesku and its magnificent arcing bridge. Said bridge replaced the ferry, where once it could take several hours to wait your turn to cross, for only a few cars could be carried at a time.
Our plan was to paddle our open canoes from the old ferry slipway, setting off at low tide and using the riding tide to aid our journey a little. However, it transpires that low tide means the water doesn't reach the bottom of the ramp, and it was far easier to launch from the small sheltered cove by the fishing jetty a few hundred metres to the south.
Paddling these big lochs in an open canoe isn't something to undertake lightly. Tidal currents need to be understood, hence we were starting on the slack, and most importantly the wind must be low. We are also a little unusual for a group heading into wild country, as we comprise 5 adults and 3 children between 6 and 10 years old. The kids have been doing this all their lives, though, so have more experience than many adults! As it was, the inner loch had been calm as we drove down the hill and though there was a bit of a breeze, the waves were still manageable.
Typically, once our loads of equipment and bags of wood for fuel were loaded, the wind had picked up. As we left the sheltered cove, the kids fascinated by the may sea urchins clinging to the rocks, we turned a headland and ahead of us were dark clouds. Here the loch splits into two vast arms; the northerly one to the narrow confines of Glendhu, and the southerly approach our route into Glencoul. With the wind coming from the northeast, we planned a course that would cross to the shelter of the headland of Aird da Loch, between the two loch arms, hoping then to have calmer water as we hugged the shore. First, though, a 500m open water crossing into a near head-wind. After a group discussion to ensure all were happy, we set off, keeping close together.
Almost as soon as we left the western shore, the wind got up and a squall arrived. Freezing hail pelted us, and suddenly the waves were that little bit bigger, a few with whitecaps, always a sign of approaching the sensible limit in such canoes. Heads down, we paddled hard, taking the waves close to head on. We were fine, but it was hard, chilly, work and we were glad to arrive in calm water beneath the headland, as the sun broke through.
The rest of the journey in was far less exposed, but inevitably we never found the shelter, always the wind was funnelled strait into our faces, sometimes slowing us down so much we felt we were hardly making any progress. The hills closed in around us, the loch now fjord-like, and the glen ahead a wild scene of vast, shining, rocky walls beneath cloud-topped, snow-clad mountains.
As we finally neared our destination at the head of the loch, a magical moment. From the cliffs to our left, a huge shape suddenly launched into the air. With wings seemingly the size of a pair of doors, a white-tailed sea eagle soared above us, chased and harried by a raven that looked tiny in comparison. What a welcome to our wilderness home.
We'd planned to camp somewhere at the head of the glen. However, Glencoul is the site of a snug little two-room bothy, remarkably a former school house on the side of the empty estate house next door. There was nobody else in residence, and this proved too tempting. As we were a fairly large group, we were technically pushing the limits of the bothy code on groups, so I put an entry into the book saying we'd move out and camp if anybody arrived whilst we were wandering the glen elsewhere, and we left one room clear during the day.
Living at the this bothy was a remarkable experience. The next couple of days were simply wonderful. The weather was typically Scottish; we had pretty much everything from sunshine to snow, and one of the kids summed up the Highland weather by complaining "I'm too warm and its snowing". Never was it so bad that we were cooped up inside for long, though, and we spent most of our time exploring the shoreline, or sitting on whichever side of the building was sheltered from the cutting wind.
The afternoon after we arrived, we headed up the glen, for we had a target to attain. Glencoul is the site of Britain's highest waterfall, Eas a' Chual Aluinn, normally reached from above by a boggy path from the Loch Assynt road. We, though, wanted to appreciate it from below, and it was only a couple of miles from the bothy along a faint path to the foot of the falls. At each turn around a heather-clad spur, or crest of a boggy hill, a little more of the falls was revealed, the crest sparkling in the sun before the water plummeted into the almost permanent shade of this deep glen.
Its hard to comprehend that these falls are 600 feet tall. They don't actually look much bigger than some of the other falls of the Highlands, which are half their height, and they're not particularly powerful. When you walk back a little, with your friends perched on a huge boulder at the bottom, you begin to appreciate their size. Opposite, a companion falls, more of a water slide, are seemingly almost as tall, but pretty much unheard of. The strongest feeling, though, is simply of the wild nature of the country here. Rock, scoured by the glaciers, is dominant, the thin soil clinging only to the less-steep slopes and to the valley floor. Water is everywhere, forming ribbon-like streams in the valley, and always under your feet as you tramp through the wet grasses. Yet it is filled with life, groups of deer watching us, seemingly unfazed, and above us a pair of golden eagles soared effortlessly.
Returning to our bothy via the shoreline of Loch Beag, it was abundantly clear that our meal would have an additional course; a starter of freshly cooked mussels. Every rock was covered in them, enough for a royal banquet every day for a year. Good food is a key part of our trips, we always eat quality fresh food where we can, prepared on spot. Later in a trip we switch to dehydrated meals, but these are pre-prepared not bought-in, and are just as good. We take it in turns to cook, and tonight was my turn - Gong Bao chicken. Now we could have a decent starter - steamed mussels tossed in chilli and garlic butter, eaten outside as the sun went down over the immense buttresses of Quinag, and the kids built seaweed islands, and worlds of the imagination, on the shoreline below.
The morning was still and calm, mist clinging to the hills, who's flanks were covered in a thin coating of fresh snow. I couldn't resist, and soon I was afloat on a mirror, alone in my canoe. Except I wasn't along, for soon a face appeared a few boat lengths away. My new companion, a common or harbour seal, was curious and relaxed, and followed me around as I paddled quietly and gently around the rocky islands nearby. Rounding a corner, more seals appeared, four in total, and they each took station around me, seemingly comfortable with my presence. Further research suggests they would be females, probably pregnant, awaiting out their term here before giving birth around May. The dads would be out to sea somewhere, returning only in August to do their bit in starting the following years' generation. It was an immense pleasure to share such a wild and beautiful place with such local residents, afloat on glass-like water beneath the mountain walls of this truly special place.
We'd picked up a castaway before our return to Kylesku, heading out whilst we could before forecast windy weather arrived, and postponing our plans to move to Glendhu to another time. Max, a young French-born resident of Edinburgh with an Irish/American accent, was nearing the end of a 10 day trek through the hills, partly following the suggested line of the Cape Wrath Trail, partly doing his own thing. On day 5, he'd started to suffer from Achilles tendon issues, and during a very pleasurable bothy night with fire, wine, whisky, guitar and song, he'd been persuaded that he could have a place in my canoe to save him the 18km trek out.
Our escape was warmed by sunlight, and though there was a breeze, and modest waves came at us from behind, it was easy enough, following the opposite shore all the way back to the civilization of the excellent and recommended Kylesku hotel, who welcomed us smelly waifs and strays as if we were honoured guests.
What a place Glencoul is. A place where the sea meets the mountains, a wild and empty glen, yet at the same time,a place full of life.