394 Ockle to Singing Sands (Gortenfern)

[This walk was completed on Monday 6th May 2019]

I drive down the winding single-track road to Ockle (love that name!), where I park at the end of the road, next to a car and an old boat.

It’s a beautiful day. Blue skies and a cool breeze. Perfect walking weather. I follow the farm track up the hill, where a farmer is shooing his sheep into a field.

I’m always nervous when I meet a farmer on a private track, expecting to be challenged. But this is Scotland, with a ‘right to roam’ and he just smiles and wishes me a good walk.

The field is full of lambs. They race off when they see me – straight towards a scary figure, ridiculously tall and dressed in bright yellow overalls.

Oh, I recognise him. It’s the same scarecrow I saw yesterday.

Onwards, along the track, past a couple of cottages, and through a gate. I was a little worried about this walk today, all of which is off-road. A path is marked on my map, but I’m never sure whether the path I can see on paper will actually exist on the ground. No need to worry. The track is easy to follow, even when it becomes overgrown.

I come around a hillock and… what a view! That island must be… Muck, maybe? No, Eigg. And is that Rum behind it?

Check my Garmin, primarily to identify the islands, but realise something else. I’m off the path. I’m heading north, when I should be heading east.

Oh, dear. Lost so soon. Not a good start!

I retrace my steps. Back through the gate and to the point where my Garmin shows the path should run…

… apparently right up the driveway of one of the cottages. Is this right? I look past the cottage and see another rough track continuing up the field beyond the building. Hesitantly, I walk up the drive, past a van where someone is unloading their shopping,  and then through the gate at the entrance to the field.

I’m very pleased to see a little blue footpath sign is stuck to the gatepost. Yes, this must be the right way.

Across a wide, open area of undulating slopes, the track leads gently uphill, and down, and up again. It skirts past a little lake, nameless on my map.

After more ups and downs, the track takes me over the brow of a low hill – and what a view!

I’m looking eastwards now, and the land I can see over the water ahead must be part of the mainland. Having spent so long trudging up and down this long finger of land, it’s a shock to realise I’ve nearly finished with the Ardnamurchan Peninsula.

The track runs parallel to the shore and, although I’m some distance inland, I’ve got great views over the sea. I keep stopping to take photographs. The mountains over there must be… maybe that’s Skye? The view is getting hazier as the day warms up.

A cairn ahead. The only man-made object in view, with one large rock sticking defiantly upwards like a sore thumb.

The landscape ahead is a messy jumble of grassy hillocks, before the land falls down towards a shore, where rocky fingers reach out into the water like a giant set of talons. It’s empty and wild.

The track begins to curve down towards the coast, and I come to another gate. It’s open, but two signs point in opposing directions, indicating that straight ahead is not the way to go.

Here’s another sign by the rocks. Ockle is back along the track, but if I take this narrow path up the hill I’ll come to Gortenfern.

Gortenfern? Where on earth is that? I’m heading to a beach called Singing Sands. Perplexed, I swing my rucksack off my shoulders. Time to check my paper map, have a drink, and apply some sun block. It’s hot!

I eventually find ‘Gortenfern’ written in very small letters on the map. It’s an area of hillside, or possibly a couple of cottages, situated just above the beach.

Ok. Gortenfern is definitely where I need to be heading. Onwards.

The path is narrow and leads inland across the steep slope of a valley, climbing upwards. I feel a twinge of anxiety as I leave the wide track behind, but at least my path is clearly visible on the ground.

The path dips down into the valley, momentarily, and passes through a narrow band of trees, where I clamber over stepping stones to cross a small stream. Then the path heads back up the other side of the valley, back towards the sea, still climbing steadily.

Across the valley, I can see the track I’ve just come along. I’m doubling back on myself.

At the top of the climb, I stop for a breather and to admire the view. Time for a self-portrait. What a beautiful day!

The path curves round and heads away from the sea again. I thought I was at the top of the pass, but I’m still climbing upwards – now along the base of a shallow valley.

The ground is boggy underfoot. I soon lose the path – or perhaps it turns into a stream. I use my Garmin to check I’m still heading in the right direction.

Yes. Onwards and upwards. Will this ever end?

Finally, I reach the top of the climb. What an amazing landscape! Blue hills stretch into the distance, and a long narrow valley with steep sides – almost a canyon – lies ahead of me.

The path leads down the sidewall of the valley. It’s a tricky descent, with the path narrow and crumbling, and the slope falling precipitously below me. At times the earth has slipped away completely, and I’m stepping from one precarious tussock of grass to another.

Glad I’ve got my poles. Carefully, and very slowly, I work my way down. Too steep to stop and take photographs.

Finally, where the valley flattens out, the path joins a track. I’m grateful to be on solid ground and now I can relax and pick up my pace. I walk alongside a bank of trees and, further down, the track runs past a little lake – Lochan na Glaice.

It’s not the prettiest of lakes, with a scummy surface and stagnant-looking water. On the far side I spot movement. Deer! The first I’ve seen for several days. They watch me cautiously from the safety of the far side of the valley.

The track continues down and comes over a little ridge and then… ah, at last, the sea! And that must be the famous beach. The Singing Sands.

I lose sight of the sea as the track takes me through woodland. It’s lovely down here, with the shade and patchy sunlight, birds singing, a cuckoo calling.

My track joins another track. Which way to go? There are no signs to guide me. I decide to turn left as that, according to my map, is where Gortenfern lies, and from there the map shows a track leading down to the shore.

Turning left turns out to be a mistake.

I arrive at a group of newly renovated house, where the track, so clearly marked on my map and on my Garmin, appears to have turned into someone’s back lawn. On the other side I can see the vague remnants of tread marks continuing through the trees, so I cross the grass quickly and uneasily.

This is an ancient road – or so it feels. Overgrown and no longer used, but still visible as a route, it curves through a mature woodland of silver birches, down towards the sea.

I emerge in a rough field next to a boat house. There’s the beach ahead. Just need to climb this rusty old gate…

… and discover this unexpected river. Lucky the tide is out and the water is very shallow. Tread gingerly over the slippery stones and splash across.

Sand, glorious sand. A beautiful blue-green sea, with gentle white-topped waves. What a perfect place!

It’s good to be walking along a proper sandy beach again. Now, where are these singing sands?

Remembering the whistling-sands beach of Porthor, in Wales, I walk to the top of the beach where the sand is dry and tread across it, scuffling my boots along. Listening. But there is no sound of singing.

Stop scuffling my boots, and begin to plod back down towards the waves. And then… oh, I think I can hear my footsteps thrumming. The sand – so smooth and unruffled – is acting like the surface of a drum! Or, maybe, this is all just my imagination.

I’m not alone. A group of walkers have appeared at the end of the beach.

Having walked alone all morning, I feel some mild resentment that other people are intruding on my private beach.

I’m hungry and need to eat, but the wind is chilly, so I move further along the beach, to where the sand is broken by outcrops of rocks, forming numerous small sheltered alcoves. Here I look for somewhere smooth to sit, but the rocks are either too jagged or too wet from the outgoing tide.

I return up the beach, and discover the other walkers – a group of five mature men – are sitting on the sand with their backs against a rock, eating their lunch. I walk a little further, to find my own sheltered patch of sand, and settle down to eat my own picnic.

A shouting sound makes me look up. Two of the men are heading towards the sea, barefoot across the sands, and squeal when they reach a strip of cold water.

I watch them paddling for a while, and decide I’m definitely going to keep my boots on. The air is chilly and the sea must feel even colder.

Time to go. But I’m not going to follow that overgrown old track by the boathouse. There must be an easier route out of here. Where did those men come from? Up there, somewhere.

I walk up to the top of the beach, plod across a strip of vegetated sand, and pick up a proper track. Here an alarming sign is stuck to a couple of trees. ‘DANGER. UNEXPLODED MUNITIONS.’

Bit late to tell me that now! Thank goodness I’m still  in one piece.

This track rejoins another track, the same one that led me astray to Gortenfern. I would dearly love to turn left at this point, and continue eastwards along the track towards Kentra Bay and the hamlet of Arivegaig. In fact, that was my original intention when planning this walk, but I simply couldn’t work out how to get back to Ockle and my car.

[LOGISTICS: The distance between Ockle and Arivegaig is only 9 or 10 miles by foot. But the distance from Arivegaig back to Ockle is 25 miles by road, and involves steep climbs up the lower slopes of Ben Hiant. Impossible to cycle in one day – for me, at least! I could have walked on a few more miles to Acharacle, and tried to catch the one-and-only bus heading west at 3:15 pm. But, even if I’d made the bus, it would have dropped me off on the main road at the turnoff to Kilmory – with another 4-5 mile hike along the road, on foot, before I reached Ockle.]

Anyway, I’d decided the easiest way to tackle this section was to do a there-and-back walk today, followed by another there-and-back walk tomorrow. (At this rate, I’ll never leave Ardnamurchan!)

So, I turn right, and head westwards, picking up my cross-country path again. The route back up the steep side of the mini-canyon seems even more perilous than my journey down the same slope this morning. Concentrate hard. This is not the time to slip and injure myself.

It’s a relief to meet up with the track along the north shore.

I take photos of the islands and, suddenly realising I have a phone signal, send WhatsApp messages to my daughters.
“Overlooking Egg and Rum.”
They think I’ve made the names up, and I didn’t even mention Muck!

The views are even better this afternoon, and there’s the cairn I noticed this morning. I’m nearly back at Ockle now.

I reach my car safely.

High points: A glorious day of walking, in perfect weather, along a path through wild terrain, to reach a beautiful beach. This, I think, will always stand out as one of those special gold-star walking days – one I’ll remember for ever!

Low point: Discovering the singing sands were… well, not exactly singing!

Miles walked today = 11 miles (only 1/2 in the right direction!)
Total distance walked around coast = 4,124 miles


About Ruth Livingstone

Walker, writer, photographer, blogger, doctor, woman, etc.
This entry was posted in 22 Highlands and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to 394 Ockle to Singing Sands (Gortenfern)

  1. owdjockey says:

    Hi Ruth. glad you enjoyed this section and pleased you stepped out of your comfort zone to experience. I managed the very early school bus on the Kilchoan road to Acharacle and walked back to my car. The next section will see you out of Ardnamurchan and into Moidart.When you get to Mallaig you will have to decide how to tackle Knoydart
    May I suggest leaving your car in Arnisdale and getting a taxi/pubic trasnport back to Fort Willaim then Mallaig – catching the ferry to Inverie use the Bunkhouse in Inverie, walk to Kinloch Hourn book a room at Tony’s B&B, then walk to Arenisdale the following day. The walking is along well-trodden paths and the distances well within your capabilities. Most of the route is along the Cape Wrath Trail and would be something to really remember. Your walking experience has been leading up to this. Book the accommodation and you will have no need to carry food or camping equipment. If you need extra information please contact me.

  2. What a lovely sounding day, and excellent pictures and commentary. I could almost be there.
    I find, apart from the obvious, walking alone is hard when you’re not certain, and feel like you might be trespassing – with two of you there’s more bravery and devil-may-care. You feel more like chatting and engaging with home owners, to see if it’s okay and so on.
    Hopefully by now you’re out of Ardnamurchan 🙂

  3. Trish Lane says:

    Fabulous views. Envious of your walk, in Scotland I’m still on the southwest coast path which is beautiful but more crowded

  4. chuckles4th says:

    Beautiful photos and great descriptions .. I look forward to reading your posts as I plan my own coastal walk next year. Thank you.

  5. Chris Elliott says:

    Ruth – beautiful photographs as usual. This bit all the way up to Cape Wrath are my favourite. Brings back many memories. Just a word of warning re the Inverie to Kinlochhourn stretch. Yes it is doable in a day (although i did it in two as I was carrying all my kit). But the climb to get up and down to Barriesdale is high and quite tough and the path to Kinlochhourn is not nearly as level as the OS map would have you believe. It is also quite difficult underfoot as a lot of the path is more like a river bed, but maybe in Summer it is easier. It is a fab section though. You’ll be stopping all the time to take photographs assuming the weather holds!

  6. Karen White says:

    Fabulous post and photos. Perhaps the sands only sing in certain conditions.
    I am pleased to realise that I am now only 5 months behind your actual walk and I think it’s only taken me 5 months to read from the beginning of your journey.

  7. Karen White says:

    I just found this about the singing sands.

    ‘The beach is renowned for its singing sand, a predisposition caused by the shape and size of the sand grains and the silica content. To ‘sing’ the sand also needs to be of the right humidity. The sound is caused by wind blowing over the surface or by the shuffle of feet or boots through the sand.’

    • There is another ‘singing sand’ beach in Wales. When I scuffed my boots through it, it really did sing – or made a pleasant musical noise anyway. But only above the high tide mark. I tried doing the same here, and was well above the tidal reach, but could hear nothing. Maybe it was too damp from rain and mist.

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