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OUT AND ABOUT WITH RALPH: Loch Tuim Ghlais is not as remote as it once was – but still a place lost in time

By Ben MacGregor

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Loch Tuim Ghlais, west shore.
Loch Tuim Ghlais, west shore.

There are few places in Caithness, or indeed Sutherland, where I haven’t been. But there are some I haven’t visited for a very long time.

Loch Torr na Ceardaich and Lochan Ealach Beag are two of the remotest lochs in the county, about four miles north-west of Altnabreac.

A number of years ago I completed an ambition to swim in every loch in Caithness (there are at least 130) and my notes on these two comment “shallow and peaty”! You can read about my swimming adventures in my book, Hills of the North, Rejoice! or see my comments on the Northern Pilgrims Way website.

Nevertheless, these lochs are not as remote as they once were, with hard tracks, which served the notorious Flow Country forestry plantations, encroaching to within a couple of miles. The nicest approach is via the long estate track from Shurrery Lodge.

The morning was fine but windy, and it was only the electric assist of an e-bike that made it pleasurable or even feasible to pedal westward into a force six.

Rippled sand, Loch Tuim Ghlais.
Rippled sand, Loch Tuim Ghlais.

It’s nearly 50 years since I first took that estate road, it was very exclusive and private then but nowadays the wonderful Scottish access laws give you a legal right to pedal, walk or ride the whole seven miles to its end at the fine sandy beaches of Loch Tuim Ghlais.

If you’re not experienced at cycling rutted and stony tracks, best just walk and enjoy the peace, vast skies, and lochs of the empty Flow Country.

As I coasted down the last hill towards the loch, a golden eagle was flying low over the moors, mobbed by gulls, probably heading for its nest a few miles away. It’s always worth making the effort to get to this loch – it’s not a place to hurry, take your time appreciating the ambience of a place which has changed little since the peat started to form thousands of years ago. Sun shone, waves washed, sand rippled.

Leaving the bike, I walked south along the fine beaches of the eastern shore of the loch. Otters and possibly a fox had recently left their tracks, older deer prints were largely obscured by sand drifted by days of wind.

Already my hope of reaching the two even remoter lochs was fading, it had taken much more time and effort to get here than expected. I resolved to come back with a paddleboard or packraft and tackle the two lochs before descending Glen Urlan and the Cnocglas Water to Shurrery Loch. Maybe.

The bridge.
The bridge.

I didn’t remember ever walking right round Loch Tuim Ghlais, if I did it was a very long time ago. Now would be a good opportunity. A deep channel leaves the loch at the southern end and it’s quite a way south before you can cross at a wooden bridge just beyond another small lochan. This is grouse country, and a few birds croaked off from the heather as I made my way across typical rough Flow Country terrain of bog and mossy peat mounds.

The western shore of Loch Tuim Ghlais is probably unvisited from one year to the next. Unless the loch is very high the walking is mostly easy along wet grass or stony shores, though a few big detours are needed where deep peaty channels enter, especially at the northern end.

The wind dropped briefly – and a small cloud of insects immediately rose. The midge season will soon be upon us! And there was the unmistakeable minor-key call of greenshanks, a pair of these iconic Flow Country birds flying low over the water. Large flocks of golden plovers, breeding birds of the flows and high mountain plateaux, have been gathering on the fields near home.

A substantial snack was in order back at the bike before setting off homewards, now with the wind mostly behind me, so I wasn’t too worried that the forecast range for the battery was only nine miles.

Flow Country burn.
Flow Country burn.

The track climbs to an old stables of corrugated iron, earth floor, flapping door and gaping window, much as it was 40 years ago. Yet a very welcome shelter if a squally shower hits! Then you head round the slopes of Beinn nam Bad, glimpse Loch Scye then climb up past another old tin hut and after that it’s downhill most of the way to Shurrery.

A fast ride with a following wind meant that the range still said nine miles when I reached my front door, 19 miles from Loch Tuim Ghlais.

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