412 part 1 – Sandaig

[This walk took place on 6th July 2019]

I’m back in Scotland, and this time I’m travelling in my lovely Beast. The Monster bike has been left behind, and I’ve brought a new companion with me… more on that later.

Yesterday, I drove the 400 miles (and 8 hours behind the wheel) up from Manchester, and struggled through high winds and lashing rain to get the Beast up the steep Ratagan Pass. I crawled through a deserted Glenelg, along a road full of potholes and puddles, and wondered what on earth was I was doing here?

Scotland seemed far too wild and much too fierce for little, old me.

I was planning to spend the night at the viewpoint overlooking the mouth of Loch Hourn.  Perhaps I should just try to get some sleep, and then turn round and head back home?

But, as I approached the viewpoint, the rain died out, and the evening sun suddenly appeared from under the clouds and bathed the Beast in a golden light. Ah. Thank you Scotland! Perhaps we’ll stay after all. I leapt out into the gale, and snapped the photo below on my iPhone.

The Beast in sunshine after the rain, Ruth's coastal walk, Sandaig, Scotland

The rain had stopped, but the wind continued all night, shaking the sides of the van as if it wanted to hurl us across the Sound of Sleat. I didn’t dare pop the roof up.

This morning is dull, but the wind has lessened. The clouds are high and the air is dry. My plan today is to walk to Glenelg, have lunch in the pub, and then continue up the coast road to where it ends. But first, I will drive a little further along the road towards Glenelg and park in a familiar layby.

This time, I’m going to visit Sandaig.

Sandaig is where Gavin Maxwell lived with his otters, and is a place made famous in his book, Ring of Bright Water, which was also made into a film. Although I had seen the film as a child, I have never read the book, and confess to not remembering anything about the story. Before I came on this trip, I did read up on Maxwell’s life – an uplifting, but ultimately depressing, history.

I head down the track, which leads through a little woodland…

… past a small quarry and then into a logged area, where my track joins a rough forestry track. I turn left along the track. A sign warns of dangers, but there is no evidence of any recent tree felling. The old stumps are overgrown with bracken.

I come to a fork, and walk past the turning, before realising I’ve probably missed the route. There are no footpath signs to show the correct way to Sandaig, so I’m glad I’ve got my Garmin.  I think I need to turn right here, and follow this track over this bridge.

 

My track crests a rise and gives me a great view across the water. I check my map. Those little rocky islands below are the Sandaig Islands, but I appear to be going in the wrong direction, because the track is running high above the water and heading away from Sandaig.

In preparation before this trip, I watched a TV program featuring Clare Balding. She was guided down to Sandaig, and the route involved crossing a stream along a very precarious rope bridge – well, it was more of a rope than a bridge, to be accurate. So I’m feeling rather anxious, and fully prepared to turn back if I can’t find a safe route down.

But, just as I’m about to give up, my track does a U turn. Good. Now I’m heading the right way – and there are the islands, dead ahead.

I reach a wide turning place, where the track ends and a narrower path begins. It slopes downwards, and I soon see a bright, flat area ahead, along with a curving beach and a surrounding hedge of fir trees. That must be Sandaig.

Someone told me that this special place had been ruined by logging, so I’m relieved to see there are still some trees standing, and any felled stumps are covered by undergrowth.

Bright specks are moving out on the islands. Kayakers. They’ve pulled up on a little patch of sand and I wonder if they’ve been camping there overnight? I take a photo with my camera lens on full zoom.

Further down the main path, and as I get close to the flat meadow, I notice a narrower path leading off to the right, and follow it through a muddy piece of woodland, past the ruins of old cottages, over a wire fence…

… until I reach a pretty stream, fed by a waterfall tumbling down rocks. I gather this area features in the book, Ring of Bright Water, and is where the otters came to play.

For one moment, I wonder if this is where I’m supposed to cross the water by using a precarious rope bridge, just like Clare Balding. But, I can’t see any rope, and the ground on the other side is rough and untrodden, so I decide that can’t be the way to go.

I could retrace my steps and rejoin the main path but, instead, I follow the bank of the stream downwards, and soon reach the flat, open area. Here, I’m faced with a jungle of coarse grasses, which I have to fight my way through.

Out on the water, I can see the kayakers have left the islands and are on the move again. Wonder where they’re heading?

After ploughing through the coarse grass, I manage to rejoin the main path. It leads through tamer grassland – a pretty meadow really – towards where a large rock lies alone.

This is the memorial to Gavin Maxwell, and a plaque tells me his ashes are buried here. There are some dead flowers lying at the foot of rock, and I replace them with a few wild flowers I find close by.

The naturalist had a sad end to his life. Never able to recreate the literary success of The Ring of Bright Water, he slid into poverty and alcoholism. Eventually, he lost his home – and one of his otters – in a terrible fire.

I walk through the meadow to the beach, and then walk along the length of it to where the river meets the sea. Mine are the only footsteps on the sand.

Walking back to the other end of the beach to pick up the path again, I see a derelict cottage lies against the slope. I try to imagine what it was like to live here alone, without running water or electricity. Gavin Maxwell must have been tough.

Out at sea, something bobs in the water. An otter? No, they’re all long dead now. It’s a seal.

I take one last look across the meadow, towards Maxwell’s memorial stone. The dark slopes of the mountain behind – Beinn a Chapuill – make a fitting backdrop.

Climbing the path away from Sandaig, the sun comes out in patches across the landscape, and I keep turning round to take more photos of the meadow and the beach.

I’m really glad I made this detour to visit Sandaig. It is a beautiful spot and an atmospheric place. Splendid, but sad.


You can read about Gavin Maxwell on Wikipedia and a more detailed account of his life in The Telegraph.

Route:

About Ruth Livingstone

Walker, writer, photographer, blogger, doctor, woman, etc.
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17 Responses to 412 part 1 – Sandaig

  1. JacquieB says:

    So, who or what is the new companion? Oh the suspense – hurry up with the next instalment – please 🙂

  2. Jayne Hill says:

    We visited many, many years ago by boat and I found it a terribly sad and lonely place. TBH, I couldn’t wait to leave 😦

  3. Rambling Lea says:

    Ring of Bright Water is a wonderful book. Well worth reading.

  4. Lovely post Ruth.
    I must go there sometime, so evocative.

    • Definitely worth a visit if you’re ever in the area. Actually, the whole Glenelg peninsula is worth a visit. Totally beautiful.

      • Yes, when I was regularly walking in Scotland I was usually in the mountains Munro and Corbett ‘bagging’. Always meant to return and explore more places but somehow other lands beckoned, there is still time. In fact I have recently walked the John O’Groats Trail which you will enjoy along the coast from John O’Groats to Inverness in due course. That completed my ‘end to end’ mission.

  5. Rambling Lea says:

    Ring of Bright Water is a wonderful book. Well worth reading. I read it again recently & still loved it.

  6. jcombe says:

    “I crawled through a deserted Glenelg, along a road full of potholes and puddles, and wondered what on earth was I was doing here?

    Scotland seemed far too wild and much too fierce for little, old me.”

    I loved that write up and I know exactly what you mean. I have felt similar experiences before especially when walking (or driving) in some of the remoter parts of Scotland. The weather can change much more quickly and can be quite severe and at times you can feel isolated when there is no mobile signal, no radio, no people and no buildings visible.

    However those feelings don’t usually last long as it is so beautiful and wild that that is what makes it so enjoyable.

    • Glad I’m not the only one to have that sort of discomforting experience, Jon. Of course, as soon as the rain stopped and the sun slid out, the landscape changed in a blink from menacing to magnificent.

  7. Eunice says:

    When I read your first mention of Sandaig in a previous post I wondered if you would realise the significance. I saw Ring Of Bright Water at the cinema when it first came out in 1969 (I love Val Doonican’s title song at the end) and I bought the book several years later – I’ve watched the film on tv a few times since then. I would have loved to visit Sandaig when I stayed in Arisaig a few years ago but the logistics of getting there were just too much for me at the time so thanks for posting this, at least I’ve been able to see it through your eyes 🙂

    • Definitely worth a visit if you’re up this way again. But it’s a long way from Arisaig by road, and it’s not an easy route. I think the drive back to Mallaig took me over 3 hours!

  8. Karen White says:

    That golden hour photo you took on arrival is gorgeous!
    The book and the film both make me cry. It’s sad to think that Gavin Maxwell’s life became so dismal. I’m sure I would feel the atmosphere too, if I were to visit Sandaig.

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