Cycle Touring Scotland

Day 9 – Thursday 20th June
Stac Pollaidh to Suileag Bothy

During the night I had discovered that my tent was not midge-proof, at least not from a midge invasion. Thousands battered the outer door, and inevitably some managed to find their way under the outer sheet. Once inside, it turned out that the cunning ones could creep through the breathable mesh area and into the inner tent. Fortunately, it seems the purpose of life for a midge is a paradox; batter the tent door as if you’re life depends on it to get inside – once inside batter the roof as if you’re life depends on it to try and get back outside. Trapped inside they were an easy target, although my killing spree meant the inner roof of my tent was a blackened collage of smidged midges come the morning. Packing down the tent was not a pleasant experience as the thousands lurking outside now had a moving target. But, after the quickest pack-down of the trip so far, I was able to relax with an breakfast tea in front of Stac Pollaidh (the steam kept the midges away), before setting off up the mountain.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Czech guy showed no signs of emerging from his Skoda so it was to be a solo expedition after all. All geared up with hiking poles and knee supports I set off over the wind exposed ridges, and crucially, away from the midges. The route map by the road had shown a circular route around the mountain, so I hadn’t been expecting to reach the distinct craggy and steep summit visible from the road. However, around the back of the mountain was a secondary path, zig-a-zagging through the jagged rocks to the twin peaks of Stac Pollaidh, where I met two South Africans from Cape Town at the top. The wind was fierce, but the views far-reaching across the expanse of Assynt. It’s a truly unique landscape, with the distinctive outlines of Suilven, Canisp and Cul Mor rising in isolation out of the depths of the lochan spotted flatlands. The fact that these mountains are all individually dispersed amongst the flatlands seems to add to their character and uniqueness.

Looking out to sea on the way up
Suilven
Suilven, Canisp & Cul Mor

I took it nice and slow on the way down, protecting my knees due to previous hiking related maladies, meeting plenty of people on their way up. By then it was just past midday, and the deserted car park of the night before was overflowing with day walkers, yet still the Czech chap was uncertain about doing the hike – “hmm maybe tomorrow”. I had certainly found someone even more frightened of the weather than I was, he could be waiting weeks for a sunny day here!

Back on the road I bumped into Robert, an exuberant Austrian cyclist with thighs thick as tree trunks. It’s no wonder why either; he was doing over 100 miles a day, and was currently into the Scottish wind too. Still, he seemed impressed that I had just climbed the summit ahead and took a photo of me in front of it for his scrapbook (I hope), so I wasn’t going to shatter his illusion that it really wasn’t a tough hike! After being up in Orkney (“ah it’s not all that man, it’s like the farmland I see every day in Austria”) he was on his way back to Austria, via Ben Nevis, the Lake District, Snowdon, France and Switzerland. According to him Austrians have a custom that they have to climb the highest peak wherever they visit, though I can think of a few Brits who also abide by this, aka me on this trip.

He downed his litre of milk and we were off again in opposite directions as I turned onto the more or less coastal road up towards Lochinver, in the hope of finding the hiking path there towards Suileag Bothy. I had been informed by the Swede from the Tolsta Bunkhouse (who was also an avid eccentric cyclist) that this road was not hilly. I’m not sure if he went as far as saying ‘flat’. To be fair, from the view at top of Stac Pollaidh this area does look relatively flat in comparison to the mountains dotted inland. But as I set off up the road I began to doubt whether he had ever actually cycled on it, or if he was just a much fitter cyclist than me. The small steep hills along the coast are set within a labyrinth of boggy marshes and lochans, and the result is that the road goes up and down every single one of these hills. It’s certainly not the hardest road in Scotland, but when you are expecting a relatively easy road after a morning hike it becomes more arduous.

Views from the up and down road to Inverkirkaig

With the weather closing in I was relieved to find a book & coffee shop at Inverkirkaig, where I could also ask for directions on the path to Suilven. The cake and slice selection inside was delectably mouth-watering and very reasonably priced, leaving the considerable dilemma of which to choose. There was Date Cake, Carrot Cake, Coffee Cake, Spiced Apple Cake, Pineapple Cake, Apricot & Oat Slice, Chocolate & Muesli Slice and Chocolate Shortbread, and more. Eventually I went for one of healthier looking options in the Apricot & Oat Slice, it didn’t disappoint. I relaxed in the cafe until closing time, and discovered that the path out to Suileag Bothy began from Glencanisp Lodge on a road from Lochinver. Before setting off I enquired if they had any leftover cake, and was rewarded with a huge slice of Coffee Cake. The calories certainly helped keep me going during the upcoming struggle to the Bothy…

On the road from Inverkirkaig down to Lochinver

After reaching Lochinver on the coast I made my way back inland towards Glencanisp Lodge and the path to Suileag Bothy.

That path from Glencanisp Lodge to Suileag Bothy is not one I would recommend to someone on a laden touring bike, unless you are as determinedly one-track minded (and stupid) as I am. The stony path begins cunningly; its flatness lulling you in to thinking it’s simply an easy walk to the bothy. And so by the time the terrain changes half an hour later, it’s too late to turn back. Progressively it continues to get steeper and rockier, so much so that I would have to stop, remove all the pannier bags, and make separate trips up and down before finally lifting my bike up. Dusk setting made the journey even more unbearable, as I was not only in a rush to make it to the bothy before dark, but also to escape the midges, swelling in numbers as the light faded. I suppose that in the middle of the day, with the absence of the midges and no worries about light it may not be so bad. And if you have simply walked this path you may be questioning why I am complaining so much. But try pushing a 30+kg touring bike over it. Or don’t bother if you have any sense.

On finally reaching the bothy the first door was padlocked, filling me with a sense of dread about another night with the midges that thankfully lasted only seconds, as a Belgian couple opened the next door along. Inside was shelter, sweet sweet shelter from the midges and the rain. Friendly chatter with the Belgians kept me from cooking for a good while, so I was even more thankful for that Coffee Cake earlier. They were on a budget road tour around Scotland, but had found ‘budget’ accommodation rather expensive, so had taken the wild-camping option most nights. Not always easy on the mainland due to the excess of accessible campsites understandably in the most obvious and nicest camping spots. They were heading back to Lochinver the next day, but I couldn’t bear the thought of the path again so soon. On the plus side, spending another night at the bothy meant I wouldn’t have to wear cycling shorts the next day. What a treat!

My only photo of the way out to Suileag Bothy…apparently I was too pre-occupied by trying to make it there before dark to take any more!

Cycling route and stats:
Distance – 20 miles
Route – https://www.komoot.com/tour/110143318
Duration – A good few hours
Ascent/Descent – 1525ft/1375ft

Spot of Bothy:
https://www.google.com/maps/place/Suileag+Bothy/@58.139788,-5.1469607,640m/data=!3m2!1e3!4b1!4m5!3m4!1s0x488e2e8f0826a115:0x69d97b68c523b8e6!8m2!3d58.139788!4d-5.144772

The Bothy