Soooo … we hiked out to Sandwood Bay in Sutherland, Scotland, for an overnight wildcamp. The weather forecast had given us 18 hours so we decided to go for it and the walk out was gorgeous, brilliant spring-blue skies, the mountains still with snow on them and the tundra-like landscape full of larks. The little lochans shone like mirrors, and all the time, at your back, are the hazy blue peaks of Stack, Arkle and Foinaven.
We passed the old ruins – they are out there in the picture, just above the middle, imagine living out here! There’s no road except the track we were walking in on, the nearest ordinary road was four miles back, but people used to as the remains of these old buildings show. Back then, it was your own feet and a pack-pony. The quiet, hearing nothing but nature’s own sounds is wonderful, we both wished we could live there. It’s artificially empty as the many tenants of Sandwood were evicted in 1847 as part of the Highland Clearances, and the stones from the abandoned clachan used for building projects elsewhere. The result of this unhappy period is that people now have over a mile of beach more or less to themselves.
The path climbed round the shoulder of the hill and there it was, Sandwood Bay stretched out before us. We’d made it to the high dunes – and my, are they high! Now to find a place to pitch camp.
As we walked into the dunes I was asking for the spot, the place for our camp, and round the next dune there it was, a flat, grass-covered hollow which would just fit our tents. Others had used it before us as the campfire circle showed. That suited us, we would need a cook-fire. We pitched up and settled in before going for a walk.
Like I said, the dunes are high and the slither down through the soft sand to get to the beach was exciting, the dogs loved it, we followed more cautiously. Looking down the final slope there were just three sets of tracks in the sand. It was that wonderful feeling that isn’t quite loneliness or isolation, it’s aloneness. A solitude and seclusion that lets the natural world in. It allows otherworld in too.
Out there at the end of the cliff is a stack. It’s huge. The scale in the picture tells you just how huge, it must be over half a mile away for where we stood.
It’s called Am Buachaille, a great vertical 240-foot high sea stack, the colour of dried blood, separated from the shore by a deep channel. Am Buachaille is Gaelic for The Herdsman, and the idea of The Herdsman percolates through many of the old stories of Britain. Down where I live, in Herefordshire, we call him Custennin and know him as the uncle of Olwen who marries Culhwch – you might like to read the story here. He’s the brother of her father, the giant Ysbaddaen, and is himself a giant too, and he’s the Keeper of Animals, the Herdsman. The keeper of animals is one who looks out for all of the natural world, so he’s one we should all take notice of too. He has quite a lot of similarities with Pan, and he gets into the Merlin stories too.
Fiona and I went to visit Am Buachaille individually. We always want to do this with special places, go of ourselves, by ourselves, able to focus on the place and its spirit without the distraction of another human being.
I always feel so good when I’m in one of his places. I walked across the sands to him as the sun was going down, feeling the pull from the great stone pillar and wishing I was young enough and strong enough to get out there and climb him myself. People do climb him, as they do most of the stack around the coast, he’s a difficult one and has claimed some blood as exchange for allowing human feet on his body.
I stood on the beach a good few hundred yards away from him and felt him greet me as I greeted him. He seemed to chuckle as though he had a secret which amused him but he wasn’t letting on. I asked him to show me how I could help him.
As I went back to camp a pair of ravens danced and tumbled overhead, I heard them call to me that everything would be fine, we’d be all right. As I looked back over the mountains I saw the clouds building, all purple-blue, over the peaks of Stack, Arkle and Foinaven.
Fiona had the fire going, we cooked and ate our venison, made a brew and snuggled down in our tents. The evening felt good, even though we’d both seen the clouds. I crawled into my tent, stretched, relaxed, and began to slide down into sleep.
Woooomph! The wind came. We learned later it was the back-end of a force 9 gale. It howled and rattled and shook and snapped our tents all night long, we didn’t get a wink of sleep. I dropped into a dream-doze as the dawn came and dreamed of the ravens again, they told me it would all be OK.
Come the daylight, the wind was still blowing as Fiona stuck her head out and shouted, “We’d better get the hell off this hill!”. As many of you know, I’m old and crippled with rheumatoid arthritis and osteoporosis so Fiona was worried in case I wouldn’t be able to make it after a night of no sleep. She checked I was fit enough and insisted I walk in front so she always knew I was still standing, that’s proper procedure when you’re out in the wilds, slowest person first.
We packed up at lightning speed, called the dogs who were having the whale of a time hurtling round the dunes after rabbits, and set off up the hill. You remember I said those dunes are high? Going up near vertical soft sand is hard and painful, it hurts the back and the legs, we really wished we had four legs like the whippets!
As we got to the top of the first hill, with me panting and having a rest, there were that pair of ravens again. They were hovering and calling, and again they told us we would be fine despite the wind and rain, and four miles of hard walking in bad weather ahead of us. The way now went down then level for a mile, much easier going, we paused by a lochen for the dogs to drink and there were the ravens again. We had two streams to ford, the first one more deep and difficult with lots of boulders in it. Blow me, there were the ravens watching over us. Then again at the second stream they flew over low and on up the track in front of us. We waved up to them, thanking them.
Finally, at the end of the four miles, there was the gate to the car park. Bliss! I hadn’t been altogether sure I could make it but Fiona urged me on, kept me going – what are friends for? Then, there, circling over the car, were the ravens yet again. Fiona drove us home.
I got out of the car to open up the cottage. ‘Look!’ Fiona pointed up to the sky.
Yes, the ravens had come to make sure we made it all the way home. Amazing guardian birds!
#wildcamp #wilderness #Scotland #SandwoodBay #ElenSentier