Beautiful blue skies above cloud inversions don't last long in Lochaber. Bleary and grey with damp sleet was the Sunday morning greeting and little hope of it improving. However I was up and packed for an adventure as my neighbour had texted the night before to say he was heading to Mallaig for a few hours and did I want dropped off near a secluded bay for a few hours so I could go searching drift wood and he'd pick me and my finds up on the way back. He was fairly sure that the bay in question would have some good stuff as apart from the archipelago of Muck, Eigg, Rhum and Canna, there was nothing to catch anything drifting from Nova Scotia. We called in to pick up his colleague at Glenfinnan and his wife, who is also a colleague, decided she and her 2 and a half year old daughter would come for part of the walk to have a wee adventure themselves. So we altered the plans for a drop off further on at a more accessible point and I would walk around the coast and meet at the layby nearest the original bay at 2pm. This allowed for 4 hours of raking around the coast and my companion would turn back and drive her and her daughter home at a suitable point. That point came sooner than expected as the coast line was rugged and the sleet was biting.
With Bear Grylls survival programmes in mind, I slogged on alone in a mindful state, ignoring slushy bogs and examining fallen rocks and sheltered coves. There was precious little drift wood, but I'd imagined a roaring fire when I got to the bay so gathered fallen tree branches broken into twigs to add to my pre-packed fire raising equipment of newspaper and fire lighters - and a lighter as I'm not too good with rubbing sticks together.
Layers of clothes plus effort were keeping me cosy as I was wearing a rucksack full of spare clothing and carrying an empty one for beautiful and rare specimens from foreign parts.
Not so long ago, someone had made a shelter here and I imagined the simplicity of the Hermits life, gathering wood all day to keep warm and finding food.
These thoughts were happily consuming my attention, but to get to the next cove involved negotiating that rocky promontory on the left of the above picture so I decided to cut over the hill thinking my bay would be the next one. But it was a much wider piece of land than I'd expected and my next find was a more recent shelter than the last......
Right! That looks a wee bit more recent - and resourceful.
Yikes! This is particularly out of focus due to speed and fright but below that sign is a much more recent looking structure that looked occupied. That was it! I was off like a bullet.
Whilst intent on a quick exit, I couldn't resist taking a photo of what was a slabbed path and I was curious about the hanging rope.......
It was attached to a sign which said 'Old Inverlochy Castle' and pointed to the ground. As I continued my flight, I noticed large footsteps in the snow. I couldn't be sure whether they were going towards the shelter or away. I passed a large metal shovel which could have been for clearing the snow, a potential murder weapon and handy tool for burial. A large viaduct appeared ahead, but the footsteps and path continued under the bridge. So dragging my rucksacks and still clutching a large bush of dried heather which had seemed a sure bet to get a fire started, I puffed my way up on to what I assumed was the safety of the road. But it wasn't. It was the West Highland Line. And no sign of the road. Now I do know about the law, Scotrail, health and safety and all that, but when faced with certain death at the hands of a deranged Hermit, and the irregular train service on the Highland line, it didn't take long to decide that a sprint across the bridge was preferable to the unknown below. Me and my cargo staggered over the long bridge, listening intently for the singing noise that an oncoming train might make on the metal rails, but hearing nothing above my pounding heart. Once off the bridge, I was effectively on a causeway with flooded plains on either side so I pushed onwards to a humped back bridge ahead. At last. This must be the path to the bay which was my original destination. Equilibrium quickly returned. A left turn would take me to the arranged meeting place and a right turn, to the bay. About 20 minutes took me over bog and jagged rocks to an old settlement of about 7 houses nestled in a sheltered bay. Not a bit of driftwood in sight. Nor wood for a fire. Thankfully I hadn't shed my load in panic so I picked a house and set up camp, thinking I could soon dry out my socks and make Mr Grylls proud.
No smoke without fire, they say. Hmmmmmmm. Not exactly the case here. And the only food I had any chance of catching was the shell fish clinging to the rocks in the first cove I'd been in. And they would have to have been smoked.
I did find a nice wee pot that would have done for cooking anything, had I had the gumption to forage it. Thankfully I'd brought a flask of home made soup and a supermarket sandwich. And with only an hour to go until my rendezvous, my feet were unlikely to fester. Note the heather bush to the right of the picture which turned out not to be as flammable as I'd hoped.
In times gone by, the main access to this bay would have been by boat, and the Hermit in the neighbouring cove wouldn't have been a Hermit at all, but a fellow fisherman. With that thought in mind I made my way back up the hill to a dry lift home.
My neighbour looked askance as I regaled him with tales of terror. Did I not consider that the Hermit might have been a woman? Ok, but she definitely had bigger feet than me. And was it a woman thing to assume one was likely to be murdered? I don't know, but I had just finished Fiona McBain's book - Glasdrum - which is set on this very coastline and there was plenty murder in that. He sighed and apologised for the lack of driftwood.
Back home, the chopper was hovering around Ben Nevis and there was a full team call-out for 3 missing walkers. And this morning, there was a report of a stranded train on the West Highland Line between Arisaig and Glenfinnan. Thankfully the report said it was a landslide and all 5 passengers were safe, and there were no reports of a crazed woman running along the line, clutching a big bunch of heather. You don't need to look for drama in Lochaber. It's here anyway.
Fiona McBain is at the Highland Bookshop in Fort William tomorrow night at 6pm Jan 23rd.