So, it’s that time of year again. Holiday over, all that remains is to once again share my experiences with fellow pilgrims that are repeatedly drawn back to Assynt for that all too brief escape from the dismal reality of modern life . With each passing year it grows increasingly painful to drive out of Lochinver and take one last look at Quinag, say good bye to Loch Assynt and begin a re-adjustment process that culminates with those water cooler conversations at work. The ones where someone asks you about your holiday because they feel they have to, and you respond with a weak joke about it being ‘Ok, but you couldn’t wait to come back to work”. The ones where you mention fishing and their eyes glaze over with boredom or they share their experience of angling that normally involve seeing angry looking men huddled under umbrellas drinking Crest lager down the canal. You try to explain no, we go flyfishing, remote hill lochs, stunning wild brown trout, camaraderie, banter, single malt, mountains, air so clean it hurts…ah fuck it, just read the blog.
Like last year, the holiday prep begins with some frantic last minute tying. I probably didn’t need the extra flies but I did need the extra burst of pre-holiday enthusiasm.
Friday 22nd June
It’s taken stellar amounts of admin, but I’m ready. Stu picks up me and my mountain of shit and we drive over to Otley to drink tea whilst waiting for Count von Tittenstein. Eventually he arrives in the trusty Disco and we peer out of the kitchen window to watch him struggling to load up all our stuff although our view was somewhat obscured by heavy rain so we go and have another cup of tea. When we’re absolutely sure he’s finished we venture out to mount up. Hatches down, vision blocks open, Horst Wessel on the radio and 2 hours behind schedule we grind out onto the Otley rollbahn to pick up the newest addition to yorkshireflyfishing, let’s call him Steve, for that is his name. Steve can usually be found aimlessly wandering around London sporting red braces, a pinstripe shirt and a couple of dolly birds on each arm and has never been flyfishing before. His parents have however made a giant packed lunch for us all, as has Phil’s life partner, so we are overwhelmed with food for the journey up and I relax a little knowing this has just saved me around £30 which would otherwise have been spent on complete toss at the services.
You probably know the drill as well as we do by now. The drive up is through pissing down rain with just the occasional tease of sunshine, like a lap-dancer edging a peek at her monkey or a tantalising glimpse into Steve’s money vault, just enough to give you false hope. As always we’re staying at Red Squirrel campsite in Glencoe to break up the journey. We arrive circa 7:30 and thankfully the rain subsides briefly whilst we pitch tents then it’s a mercy mission out to the Co-Op for a bottle of single malt to spin up our booze APUs. We hit the Clachaig and sink a couple of pints whilst scanning the menu but then get told we cannot order food because it’s 9:03 and food stopped at 9:00. After much bartering we have to pay a £20 surcharge on top of our food bill to bribe the ‘chefs’.
After a few more pints of Scottish real ale we’re back at the campsite and it’s really pissing down so we can’t face getting a fire going. Instead all four of us sit in the Disco for an hour passing around the bottle of whiskey and farting. Eventually a fellow camper takes pity . She wanders over, bravely opens the door and invites us over to join her all female group at their roaring campfire, but stumbles her words as a treacle-thick wall of boff gas hits her square on. The rest of the night is good banter, pouring rain and a roaring fire followed by a shitty night’s sleep as whisky burns holes through my oesophagus.
Saturday – 23rd June
Phenomenal mincing abounds before we finally sling wet tents in the back and drive into Fort William with hangovers to buy more shit because to do otherwise would be an unthinkable break in tradition. Steve walks into Nevisport, pulls out his money clip and spends an obscene amount of money on outdoor clothing whilst the rest of us pay our annual tribute to The Rod and Gun Shop. Not to be confused with the Steve from work who I bump into, 300+ miles from the office, outside a Fort William Estate Agent. By the time we get back on the road for the final leg of our journey it’s knocking on for 3pm and the rain is getting worse. Ugh. We arrive at Dingwall Tesco tired and hungry where Phil goose-steps up and down the aisles loading the communal trolley up with his favourites. Stu teaches me how to deal with relinquishing all control, it’s kind of like releasing a dove of hate into the air. Instead we concentrate on choosing personal goodies. I go for the 12 year old Balvenie Signature and about 60 bags of crisps.
Same cottage 3rd year running and walking in feels as natural as walking into my own flat, just without the police tape. Stu is a bundle of nervous excitement as he hurries us into the ritual drawing of straws and yours truly wins again! I get the best room with its sea view, balcony and sumptuous double bed. The benefits of inviting nice-guy-Steve are reiterated as he selflessly makes us all pizza and doughballs and brings it through to the lounge whilst we watch Spain play France.
Sunday – 24th June.
Yours truly gets up and makes shit-hot ham and wholegrain mustard sandwiches for all. Following some medium-level mincing we eventually get into the Lochinver visitor centre to buy permits as usual but tellingly, they’re all sold out and we have to go visit our old friend Peter in his cottage. Those of you who have also been to see Peter will know the impact that has on a day’s timetable. I tell you what though, he’s being kept very busy nowadays because we really struggled to get boats booked on the places we wanted to fish, they were all out. Some were booked up for weeks. The area is getting increasingly popular with anglers and walkers and I guess blogs like this contribute a little bit to that. Great for the local economy but the flip side is that one of the last wildernesses of the UK is changing irrevocably. More on this later.
So, yes, fishing. This is my elective day and I want to fish Lochan Bealach Cornaidh under the shadow of Quinag. but as we drive North of Loch Assynt we start climbing into the clouds and the rain gets heavier. We pull into the car park opposite the path and quickly realise it would be pointless to walk up there when visibility is non-existent and absolutely no respite on the horizon. Commandant Titmouse spins the Disco around and drives us down to the car park opposite the all abilities path to Loch Leitir Easaidh for our hastily improvised Plan B. A couple of jokes are cracked about the fact that we’re ‘resorting’ to fishing an all abilities loch, complete with wheelchair access etc, a marked contrast to our usual macho missions up into the hills. But then it dawns on us, or certainly on me, that we’re all getting on a bit and there may come a time when this place is a Godsend, a time when walking up Suilven is no longer possible. We pushed onto Loch an Ruighein and gave Steve some rudimentary teachings in the dark arts of flyfishing and of course this being Assynt and not some hard-assed rainbow fishery in the Midlands , he caught one within 10 minutes!
I decided to keep walking around the loch having the odd cast until I found the right place to fish and much to my surprise the terrain was some of the worst I’ve encountered in Assynt. I eventually settled into a session on the spit on the North shore and after a short while managed to land a fish, as did Stu.
A couple more followed but I wasn’t right bothered once I’d caught the first and photographed it. I do still get that urge sometimes, the one that drives you to catch as many fish as you possibly can, but it’s becoming less prevalent. Especially on cold wet and windy days like this! We walked back via Loch an t-Sabhail where they fished but I simply fannied around as it looked too shallow and weedy to bother.
My GPS told me I’d covered just under 5 miles during this little mission which came as a surprise. We didn’t fish the first loch, Loch Leitir Easaidh but it does have a boat and a nice shelter, good views and also big fish according to Peter so let me reiterate the fact that if you find yourself no longer capable of long strenuous walks this place will give you a reason to keep going. Back at the ranch we watched England get dumped out of the Euros and drowned our sorrows in Tennants. Assynt 2012 was turning into a weird one.
Monday – 25th June
Unprecedented altruism by yours truly as I make all our sandwiched for the 2nd day running, probably because I’m excited at the prospect of fishing some lochs in the vicinity of Suilven. We start the ‘long walk’ from Glencanisp lodge and the weather is dismal for a mission to such spectacular surroundings, I can’t even see Suilven the Mighty. Without that mountainous Mona Lisa fixing you in a reciprocal stare the ‘long walk’ seems even longer but there was still nothing else I’d rather have been doing with my day because being out in those hills washes away the mental silt that city living lays down.
There are a lot of different lochs around and near Suilven. We made straight for one of our favourites and eagerly tackled up. Even in such murky conditions it’s still a beautiful place and we know there are good fish in it. Not monsters, just good fish. Within a few minutes Stu had caught a cracking example and there were fish moving all around us. I ventured further round the loch until I got to the perfect spot where everything felt right and proper, and proceeded to catch 3 of the best looking fish a man could ever hope to see in his lifetime. I can’t recall exactly what fly did the trick, but almost certainly either Black Pennell, Bob’s bob fly or Mallard and Claret. Fishing a loch from the bank I just about always fish with 2, a bushy bob fly and a more spartan number on the point. Don’t ask me why but the thought of fishing a bushy bob fly on it’s own strikes me as inherently wrong. Loch fishing from a boat I try fish a team of 3 but the patience isn’t always there.
I’ve had a hankering to visit Phil’s favourite lochan for some time now so with a few fish under my belt (not literally you idiot) felt relaxed enough to leave the rising trout and go have a peek. He, naturally, was also keen to return. As luck would have it the weather was starting to perform a very welcome volte face. Regular readers will know where we went, I’ll leave a gossamer veil of security over its location for what it’s worth.
It is a special place and I’m glad I made the effort to visit it, but on the other hand I wish we hadn’t gone that day because Phil’s favourite lochan had acquired a pile of litter.
Hold on to your arm rests. Whoever you are, you are the product of forced sodomy, you wretched fucking waste of cell division. What kind of mindset can seek to visit a remote place of such beauty and yet simultaneously choose to ruin it? How can someone deliberately leave enough rubbish to fill a bin bag to bursting all the way up here? We had to carry that litter for 2 hours back to civilization. I genuinely hope you get what’s coming to you.
The lochan has a reputation for being very dour and although a couple of fish made their presence known we didn’t get any offers and after an hour or so we rejoined the other 2 back at base camp. Speaking of camp, there was a one-man tent pitched on some high ground back at the loch where the others were, its owner probably inconsolable that his solitude had been royally fucked over. Myself and Phil were surprised to see both the random camper and Stu and Steve for it seemed a dead cert that the latter would have capitalized on the by now glorious weather to climb Suilven.
It transpired that Steve had missed out on the chance to catch his first glimpse of some of the best views in Scotland because Stu had got stuck in a bog, then the pair of them had started fretting, and got scared. Or something. I had a last cast or two whilst the late evening light brought with it a drybrushed Martian red effect, and even managed to land one last fish before tackling down. Such glorious sunsets do not detract from the reality of that long drag of a walk back though, and we didn’t get back to the cottage until 12:30. I collapsed into my comfy armchair armed with a Pot Noodle, some beer and a few cheeky fingers of Ballvenie.
Tuesday 26th June
A grand morning, as I have described it in my little notebook that accompanies me on every fishing holiday now. It’s warm and sunny, Steve makes us all egg sarnies for our packed lunches and I have a pre-lunchtime snifter of whiskey to ‘get myself going’ then slip my hip flask into my fishing waistcoat. As the lovely, soothing warmth performs a capillary action through my system I decide to never ever do that again, that way lies madness. A supply run is performed and we’re tooled up with pies from the Lochinver Larder to accompany the sandwiches then it’s on to pick up a Ledmore estate permit for Stu’s elective, Loch Urigill. Located South of Ledmore Junction, sort of over Borralan’s shoulder, this loch is nearly 2 miles long and catches the breeze somewhat but has a good reputation for holding plenty of fish. Indeed, Sandison describes it as a ‘the ideal place to take beginners’! Speaking of Borralan, the Altnacealgach Inn is vacated and up for sale, we were gutted and I’m sure plenty of other thirsty Assynt anglers will be.
The loch is reached via a forestry track off the A837, then a short stroll down to the ‘boat bay’ at An Totag. I have to confess I was slightly underwhelmed with Urigill at first, it seemed to be a bit ‘Borders’ with it’s rolling hills and plantations.
Nor did I fancy bobbing around in a boat all day, to be honest. We motored down to the Southern shore and failed miserably to beach our landing craft of shame, and had to try again further along the bank. An argument ensued as Steve had the audacity to challenge the Beachmaster before we eventually piled out. Bangalore pies were deployed and Dog One was open! Everyone tackled up and a volunteer was sought to bank fish whilst the rest bobbed around in the boat – needless to say my hand went up quicker than you could say “personal space”. I waved them off and began fishing.
Whilst the ship of fools set up their first drift I quickly got into fish and proceeded to have whale of a time catching small but zesty trout, despite the weather taking a turn for the worst. I fished around the whole of the South East corner and caught into double figures, losing many more.
As an added bonus a couple of Tornado GR4s turned in over the loch and overflew at some considerable velocity which as you may have realized by now excites me greatly. My opinion of Urigill improved not only through caning fish out but also by the different views that opened out through the day, particularly of Suilven. By God it got cold though, didn’t feel much like summer and the guys in the boat were suffering even more with the added frustration of not catching many fish. By about 6pm we’d had enough, shut down operation Urigill and retired to the Caber Feidh for a pint, followed by a boozy session at the cottage. Again.
Wednesday 27th June.
A troubling morning. It’s Phil’s elective and he’s off to Loch Bealach a’ Mhadaidh out in the Boondocks. Steve is joining him but Stu doesn’t want to go. I want to go but it’s a long walk, it’ll cripple my feet if I go, and I’d be leaving Stu on his own. I decide to base my decision on weather conditions but it’s sunny, it’s cloudy, it’s warm, it’s cold, it’s dry, it’s raining. Eventually I decide to join Stu on Loch Culag, also known as the School Loch, for a leisurely day boat fishing and Phil drops us off at Peter’s cottage so we can get the boat key.
We take the short walk to the loch from Peter’s and my heart sinks a little. The loch looks smaller than I’d realised and reverberates to the sound of children playing out at the adjacent primary school. I’m not a total mean old bastard, but the background noise of happy children laughing and playing (oh God I sound terrible) is a stark and possibly unwelcome contrast to what we’re used to up here. Even going for a pee becomes a logistical nightmare requiring the utmost care and discretion. The wind is coming from the South East so naturally our drifts are in roughly the same direction but they don’t last too long as the loch is so damn small, not helped by half of it being too shallow to fish. I’d always though that this place was suited to nothing longer than an evening session and here was validation, alongside cold, wind and rain. Nevertheless we both caught fish, 3 or four each, and Stu managed a good one not too far off a pound.
By 6pm we’d had enough and dropped the key off with Peter, engaged in more discussion…then walked on to the Caber Feidh for a slap up meal and a couple of pints. I was up for a proper boozy session but Stu wanted to get back to the cottage to watch the second half of whatever match was on so after 2 pints we were up and away. My repeated protestations that it would in fact take more than 15 minutes to walk the 2 + miles back to the cottage were ignored until about..oooh..15 minutes into the 40 minute walk.
Back at the ranch we have a few beers and sugary treats until Phil and Steve turn up round about the time I’m getting vaguely worried they may both be dead although that would leave at least one spare Bombay Bad Boy and a lot more Tunnocks to go around. They’ve had a good do up at Bealach a’ Mhadaidh but the weather was grim bringing with it lousy visibility. They did however imadvertantly stumble upon some wreckage from the Avro Anson that crashed nearby during the war. I mentioned the story of this in last year’s blog, here’s the link to an in-depth account. http://www.peakdistrictaircrashes.co.uk/pages/scotland/scotlandn9857.htm
Thursday 28th June
Another of Stu’s elective days. Our creeping malaise and lack of forward planning means we didn’t manage to get a boat on Sionascaig as he wanted, but were booked on Veyatie. However the weather is straight up shit, not suitable for boat fishing on a big bit of water so that idea goes out of the window as well. We end up with a rough plan to go fish Loch Cul Fraoich on the Stoer Peninsular out on the North West tip of Assynt and so set off on a journey into madness, Father Ted meets Apocalypse Now. The driving rain meant we were in no rush to get fishing so decided on a scandalous detour out to the Drumbeg Hotel for a pint only to discover they don’t open until 5. We slowly wind our way back out onto the Peninsular, past Clashmore and onto the lighthouse on some bizarre sightseeing trip, still anxious to avoid fishing in the driving rain. The lighthouse is a lighthouse as advertised but the heavily signposted tea room is actually a kettle in the back of a van. It’s still a beautiful part of the world but the wild and rugged charms of Assynt seem even more …wild…out here. Isolated and weather beaten crofters’ dwellings, pouring rain and a sinister absence of human beings all add to a peculiar atmosphere. Just as Captain Willard encountered ever more disturbing and outlandish events on his journey up the Nung River so our mission descended further into madness as we finally arrive at the lochside.
As we sat in the Discovery watching the rain a small group of people in whispy ponchos and shorts appeared over the horizon and made a beeline for us. When they got near these dripping wet oddities stopped, spread out into an evenly spaced line and stared at us. We peered back nervously through cuff-cleared half moons, unsure what would happen next. Nothing happened, after 5 minutes of intense staring they broke the line and carried on walking. Show over, we clambered out of the wagon and tackled up whilst Phil showed commendable motivation by donning the float tube of justice.
2 hours we spent in the pouring rain, 3 people on the bank and one out in the float tube. The Assynt Angling website suggests this loch can be dour and that my friends is an excellent description. Not one fish was caught, which is very unusual for a bit of water round these parts. There’s not much else I can say about our day on Fraoich. I had a burgeoning poo which fought me all the way, I thought I heard a low flying turboprop but then decided it was a powerboat, and some seagulls flew around. I can’t really tart any of this up, it was just an odd day with nothing to show for it. We carried out a tactical withdrawal back to the Caber Feidh for another slap-up meal and some booze.
Friday 29th June
It’s my 2nd and final elective and we’re off to Fionn Loch, unsurprisingly. Despite this being our last full day in Assynt we dawdle for the entire morning, perhaps in the forlorn hope that Stu would make a token round of sandwiches for the holiday. We eventually leave our cottage and perform a lightning raid on Peter to get the key for the boat. Stun grenades and balaclavas ensure we exfiltrate before he even has time to react and Phil deploys all his FHM driver of the year techniques as we blast out of Lochinver GO GO GO perched on running boards shooting our way out.
It’s an Assynt tradition now, sweatin’ and a humpin’ our way up the path alongside the river Inverkirkaig on the Friday. The familiar smell of wet bracken, cloying moisture laden air, the occasional nip of a cleggy, , and the anticipation of seeing THAT view again.
We took a detour to show Steve the falls and decided to have a bite to eat whilst there. As we dug out some snap we couldn’t help but notice the roiling black clouds coming in off the sea , swallowing up everything in their path like a menace from Mordor.
Eventually it became clear they were going to come our way so we all dug out our waterproofs to prepare. I say all, but when Phil delved into his rucksack he discovered that a) he’d left his waterproof jacket in the car and b) Tricksy-Steve had quietly slipped a rolling pin into his pack-up.
When the rain came I initially thought it was snowing, so large were the drops, and boy did it rain. Hard, savage monsoon rain that mercilessly hammers you and despite wearing guaranteed waterproof everything, rain like this WILL find a way in. We simply sat in a huddle like cowled monks and hoped it would pass but instead we were treated to the added bonus of thunder and lightning. I always enjoy a good thunderstorm but when the clap and flash were simultaneous even I lost my enthusiasm out on this exposed hillside, towering as I do above my diminutive comrades. The lightning was hitting very close by, so close you could smell it, and the flash became brighter than a thousand suns as it bounced off the puddle we were now hugging. Steve suffered a catastrophic lack of moral fibre and began wailing uncontrollably in between urging us to go back to the car. It was a very uncomfortable 40 minutes, to be fair, albeit also very exciting.
When the storm finally moved over we set off walking again and discovered that the bone dry path had turned into a fast flowing burn in under an hour, several inches deep. Prior to our arrival in Lochinver there hadn’t been a drop of rain for 6 weeks! Bastard! Nevertheless, the Suilven vista was there waiting for us, my favourite bit of rock, with just enough cloud for contrast and it continued to brighten up as we motored along the loch to the neck
Here, we unassed ourselves onto the beach and tucked into some fodder before tackling up and getting down to some fishing. Phil and Stu went back out in the boat whilst myself and Steve fished off the bank but I hadn’t even put 5 minutes in before the Suilven tractor beam had got me. I got them to come and ferry me over to the Northern shore of Fionn and set off on a solo ascent carrying my 65 litre rucksack and a wagon load of shit including a DSLR & 400mm lens. It takes about 40 mins from beach to base and it seemed as if the weather was getting better with each passing minute – by the time I reached the start of the path up the saddle it was glorious and I thanked my lucky stars I’d decided to do this.I worked my way up the path at a nice steady pace and was reminded how much harder this route feels than coming up the North side of the saddle. Whilst taking a good long rest half way up I was surprised to see someone approaching the base of Suilven. Who was it? Why look, it’s Steve in all his outdoor finery! I waited for a while so he could get in earshot at which point I could hear him occasionally fretting about the path, but he was making a good pace so I set off to ensure I was still first up.
On the saddle the view was magnificent, and it was surprisingly quiet up there, hardly a sigh of wind. A red faced Steve eventually joined me, pouring with sweat and city-boy expletives after a tougher than expected climb. “I say…What a b-b-b-bally frightful climb that was” stammered city boy. Possibly.
I tied to pick out Phil and Stu at Na Tri Lochan which I knew they were going to walk over to but couldn’t see them even with my monster zoom lens! Thankfully Phil has kindly donated a great picture of Stu at one the the 3 lochs it consists of.
We proceeded up to the highest summit (Caisteal Liath or ‘Grey Castle’) at 2398 feet where another and much longer break was taken whilst I fired off a hundred or more shots with the camera and Steve savoured the climax of his first ascent of this iconic mountain. I could see out to various landmarks including Lochinver, Stac Pollaidh, Cam Loch, Urigill, even Borralan.
I had hoped to head over to the other end of the beast, Meall Meadhonach , but it was knocking on towards 9pm and we both agreed it would be best to leave a good ol’ margin for error so we reluctantly began to pick our way down. Coming down the scree can be a bit tricky, especially when you keep leering at Stac Polly, Cul Mor and other such visual treats! Once off the gully we paused to sit on a giant slab of rock and drained our hip flasks whilst soaking up the last heat of the sun as a final gesture of enjoying the walk we’d just done. Back on the shore we watched the sun set over Fionn and in essence, over another fishing holiday.
PS If you are going to Assynt to fish, buy this book
If you have already been to Assynt to fish, buy this book
I’m only a few chapters in and already I’m realizing this is one of the finest bits of writing I’ve come across in years, helped perhaps by my ability to visualize all the places in Assynt he mentions. Seriously, this is just as much of a ‘must have’ as Cathel’s book.