Into the Breach continues as John Archibald and his heroic team of Gurkhas head across Knoydart to Spean Bridge.
Catch up with Gurkhas in the Mist
Into the Breach (contd 2)
The Knoydart peninsula, although seemingly remote and inhospitable to us nowadays, is littered with the ruins of bothies and small hamlets, which gives some idea of what a thriving community it must have been at one stage, before the highland clearances substituted sheep for humans. In his book Gurkha Highlander Neil Griffiths explained that,
“The Knoydart settlements of Skiary, Runival, Barrisdale, Inverdorchail, Inveguseran, Airor, Doune, Sandaig and even Inverie were all destroyed over a violent few days in April 1853 when factor James Grant and his henchmen pushed over walls, slaughtered livestock and herded the terrified cottars aboard the merchantman Sillary for paid transport toAustralia. The Macdonnells of Glengarry had run up huge debts and were selling their land to an English forgemaster who wanted only an estate for the then fashionable black-faced sheep. Sixteen refused to go and, like vermin, took to the hills. Their clansmen, on the whim of the Sillary’s captain, were taken, not toNew South Wales, but Novia Scotia”.
I had first heard of Knoydart as a student through the Dick Gaughan folk song ‘The Seven Men of Knoydart’ who, in 1948, having had their claim for crofters’ rights rejected by the courts, presumably to the delight of the late Colonel Sir Oliver Crosthwaite-Eyre, had ‘staked their claim and were digging drains on (Lord) Brockett’s private land’ on the basis that Lord Brockett ‘had no earthly right, for this was the land of Alba and not the Isle of Wight; when Scotland’s proud young Fianna (warriors), are assembled in the van, they’d show the world that Highlanders had a right to Scottish land’.
The song goes on to say,
“You may scream and yell Lord Brockett,
You may rave and stamp and shout.
But the lamp we’ve lit in Knoydart
Will never now go out.
For Scotland’s on the march again
And we think it won’t be long.
Roll on the day when the Knoydart way
Is Scotland’s battle song”
Although they had lost the legal battle they had established a principle – that the land should be held in trust by the people who live and work on it. This has today become reality through the efforts of the crofting communities of Assynt, Eigg and South Uist. The “lamp that was lit in Knoydart” has not gone out; it burns ever brighter.
We slogged our way across the sodden flood plain at the head of the loch and slowly began to climb through high green bracken, birch trees and rocks till we reached the footbridge over the tumbling Allt Coire na Ciche where it meets the equally tumbling Finiskaig River. The noise of the water was deafening. I was hugely relieved to see that this footbridge was well constructed and in good condition as the prospect of a dunking in that raging, boulder-strewn torrent was unthinkable. You would last about 30 seconds. There are only two land routes into Knoydart, neither navigable by vehicle – the track from Kinloch Hourn along the south shore of Loch Hourn to Barrisdale Bay and the track we were on from Strathan to Sourlies. Without the three footbridges we had crossed this route must have been well nigh impassable when the rivers were in spate.
We continued upwards, feet sploshing through rocky puddles, until the track levelled out into the Mam na Cloich Airde, a narrow valley between towering, mist covered slabs of grey rock. At least I thought it was the Mam na Cloich Airde. Our path was blocked by a large boulder field beyond which stood a steep, impassable cliff. This wasn’t right. We should have been coming to a loch, Lochan a Maim. I checked the map; difficult in the driving rain and wind and with spectacles. I couldn’t see where we had gone wrong. The boys had clambered up and over the boulders but there was no way we could climb the cliff. There was no inkling of this on the map. I backtracked a hundred yards to see if I could pick up the path again, but it was impossible to tell track from stream from surface runoff. A moment’s panic brought out the compass. Had I, through not following the compass in the mist, led us up an incorrect valley going nowhere? With a sense of relief but ongoing confusion I confirmed that we were going in the right direction, so where had we (or more correctly, I) gone wrong? As the mist parted momentarily I saw what looked like a track 200 yards up the slope on the other side of the river. I whistled and indicated to the boys ahead of me. They too had seen it and were in the process of trying to cross the torrent. There was no way I could cross the river where I was so I clambered over the boulders to join them. They had found a spot where the river narrowed slightly and three large rocks were just close enough to allow us to vault between them; in my case with the assistance of strong arms on the far bank or else I would have been back at Sourlies bothy in considerably less time than it had taken to get here. Capt Rajen, whose legs were considerably shorter than mine, didn’t fancy the prospect of that leap. With the close assistance of young Rajiv, who knew a promotion opportunity when he saw one, Rajen found a spot 50 yards upstream where he too made it safely across, just. The look on his face told its own story. It had been ‘a damn’d close run thing’, and I felt thoroughly chastened.
It was with some relief that we gained the track and a few minutes later reached the west end of Lochan a Mhaim, wedged between Druim nan Uadhag and Druim Coire nan Laogh. The track must have crossed the river a short distance downstream but I had missed this in the deluge. As a result, only good fortune had prevented a potentially injurious dunking. We had however lost half an hour, which might be critical if we were to have a meal that night.
It was a majestic place, the only sound the rushing waters from the surrounding mountain sides. I was puzzled however as to how a loch could be formed at the highpoint of a valley that fell away at either end. Presumably some quirk of glacial deposit formed enough of a barrier to hold back the melting ice waters. The waters of the loch were clear and still, but I wouldn’t bet money on catching a trout in them. On a sunny day it would have been glorious. On a wet misty day, it was still glorious. The sense of isolation and immensity was overwhelming. I felt minute in the great scheme of things. We then met two doughty souls fromSwitzerlandheading for Sourlies bothy (presumably the one with the roof). It says much forScotland’s mountains that even Swiss people want to come and immerse themselves in its wild places.
Forty minutes later we reached the coll between Meall na Sroine and Garbh Chioch Mhor (GR912949). From here it was seven miles downhill through Glen Dessarry to the ruined hamlet of Strathan and its adjacent ruined barracks. The track was treacherously rocky, muddy and slippery and was crossed every few yards by a stream, some quite large. On more than one occasion I was saved from a nasty slip and tumble by my two walking poles. Some weeks previously I had read an article by the sensitive and normally astute Times columnist Matthew Parris where he had made disparaging reference to ramblers who used walking poles. Sorry Matt, you are wrong, wrong, wrong. Walking poles are a Godsend; they reduce the strain on hips and knees by 60%, they are an indispensable aid to both going uphill and coming downhill on rocky tracks and in crossing streams where they provide additional balance. Even the Gurkhas used them (well, one). I will hear no man say he is agin poles.
The walk out down Glen Dessary in the gathering gloom seemed to go on for ever. The presence of a pine forest to our right meant that we were getting lower, but the track was rough with many a short but steep down-and-up as yet another stream crossed our path. I came to one roaring torrent with no obvious way to ford it as all the boulders were covered by at least 6 inches of fast, white water. Arjun, coming up behind me, did not break stride as he walked straight across using the submerged boulders as stepping stones. Compared to what they face on a regular basis inNepalthis was obviously child’s play. I gulped, strode after him, and made it safely across. God bless the infantry.
It was a weary crew that eventually made it to the Landrover track at Glendessarry House, although we still had another couple of miles to go. To the right, 400 yards across the valley of the River Dessary I spied a herd of about a dozen deer, much to the delight of the Gurkhas.
Kal took imaginary aim with his walking pole and fired off a round, but surprisingly for a Gurkha infantryman, he missed.
Half a mile further on we came across a magnificent 12-pointed red deer stag lying regally in the heather just fifty yards off to the right of the road and apparently intent on ignoring us. The Gurkhas were mightily impressed. So was I. I had never seen a wild twelve pointer so close. Unfortunately the fading light prevented a repeat of the kind of photo opportunity I had witnessed earlier in the day with the highland cattle, but in retrospect I concluded that it was probably just as well as the stag was unlikely to have been so accommodating as the highland coos.
My cell phone had been out of cover since leaving Mallaig and so I had been unable to call Temple and warn him of our late arrival. I was concerned that he would be concerned. I had estimated that we would arrive at Strathan no later than8.00pm, but it was now after8.30pmand it would take us at least 45 minutes to drive back toSpeanBridge, so we would be too late for dinner.Templewas indeed very relieved to see us emerge from the gloom and in one piece. He had begun to imagine all sorts of worst case scenarios, including him being in completely the wrong place.
As we drove back to Spean Bridge along the north shore of Loch Arkaig the general consensus was that, despite the rain, the midges and the arduous nature of the day’s trek (which I am sure is more than the 17 miles stated on the signpost at Inverie) it had been a good day. A very good day. We were ready for a pint, a hot meal and a bath.
We reached the bar of the Spean Bridge Hotel at 9.20pm to be informed most apologetically by our friend the good Pole that the kitchen was closed, however the hotel’s fish and chip shop was still open if we wanted to pop out of the hotel and round the corner. We said that we would love fish and chips, but that we weren’t popping round any corners. Not wishing a standoff with six trained killers, fish and chips for eight was served in the bar, along with the best pint I had tasted in a long while, and chillies.
We were wet, stiff, sore, tired and hungry, but had survived to fight another day. More importantly we were now a team, bonded in the rigours of the day’s toil. Tomorrow would be a stroll by comparison.
Catch up with Gurkhas in the Mist