Pete Scullion ventures out to the western fringe of Scotland, ready to sleep under the stars on a remote beach. But he didn’t count on life-threatening weather. Will he tough it out? Or make it work?
Words & Photography pete scullion
The phrase ‘West is best’ is one to which I have subscribed for many a year, and this outing into Scotland’s west coast could not have supported that theory better. While an icy wind was bringing winter storms from Russia, giving the Met Office its first-ever red weather alert for snow, the shore overlooking Muck, Eigg and Rum was bathed in the warm glow of a February sun. With the Beast from the East looming, what better way to fly in the face of the usual tabloid hyperbole than to head to a beach in the West Highlands for a wild camp?
Faff before freezing.
As London ground to halt under a dusting of snow and the usual panic buying of bread and milk, despite being told not to travel, we were winding our way along the Road to the Isles under a blue sky. Heading past the island where Dumbledore is buried and the Glenfinnan Monument stands tall, we reach an unassuming car park that gives no clue to the bounty beyond and where we are going to sleep – a beach of bright white sand. Joining me on this topsy-turvy outing are the same two Fort William locals who trotted through bog and around spiky venison in Glen Quoich with me in November. Miles and Mikayla are always keen for an adventure, and our destination is high on their list of favourite spots.
The faff quotient is high, owing to the winter temperatures demanding more layers than we know what to do with, just to be sure. Add to that the necessities of sleeping under the stars in February, and it is some time before the wheels are rolling.
With the small isles silhouetted on the western horizon, we begin weaving our way through the crofts that still make a living in this wild part of the world. Even this late in the day, the sun does its best effort to keep the temperature sensible when we are out of the wind. The easterlies are on our backs and the winter storm seems more distant than ever as we leave the tarmac.
Land of the silver birch.
There’s a clear view across the sea towards the imposing peaks of the Black Cuillin and Eigg as we make our way down the old flag paving towards the silver birch wood that lines the crest of the hill. The going is fast, then slow, then fast again, as bog has taken back the ground that once paved the way to and from the crofts. A clatter through the birch feels almost claustrophobic, compared to the open hillside at the summit of the path, but we’re making good ground on rock and moss. This is one of the few places that feels like proper bike riding on the outward and return legs, but if we were after a big bike ride we’d have perhaps gone elsewhere. The beach is what we are here for.
Tyres skitter to find grip under braking as Miles and Mikayla make haste through the birch, while the wind howls overhead. Dappled light makes the going difficult with the falling sun casting dark shadows in between its golden rays. The fast singletrack is, however, short-lived, but what it lacks in quantity, it more than makes up for in quality.
Home of the deer.
As we reach the first of many crofts, we stop to take in the view and work out where the path goes in this open field that looks freshly mowed. As we slink around the stone walls of one of the smaller crofts, a young red deer buck stands to attention, clearly not fazed by us at all, taking a moment to clip some grass before scratching behind his ear.
Fast, flowy turns carved down the open field soon give way to trackstands and leg-dangling as duckboards are the only route across the bog at the bottom of the field before we swing high to stay above the cliffs that approach ahead of us.
Ruins of crofts lie all about as we begin to gain height again and it’s not hard to wonder how busy a place this would have been back in the day, with men tending the fields and hauling fish from the sea in equal measure. Now so many crofts lie empty; the few still used are inhabited by those looking for sublime solitude. With only the wind and the soft crash of waves on rock, you’d be hard pushed to find somewhere more secluded – but that’s exactly where we’re going.
Between a rock and a wet place.
The tortured sound of tyre churning frozen bog is the only thing that rises above the din of the Siberian wind urging us south and west. Thankfully, that’s the direction we want to be heading in so we’re grateful for the gentle push. It’s hard to overstate the view to our right at this point. To our left is the tall hill that marks the end of Scotland and the start of the Atlantic Ocean – we’re on a sliver of land that lies between the two. To our right is North America, with Scotland’s smaller islands providing intimidating fixtures on the near horizon.
Slowly and steadily we gain our height. Bog again giving way to rock and gravel, only to vanish into bog again. We’re soon picking our way through a deep, steep-sided gulley, ice lingering where the sun hasn’t had a chance to warm. Above the gully we’re hoofing our way along a rocky path perched high on sea cliffs with our destination obscured by monoliths that have fallen from the cliffs above.
Big yellow taxi.
Forward momentum slows once more as we approach the cliff edge again, all the while careful not to catch pedal or feet on the heather or rocks beneath us. A fall here would be big yellow helicopter territory. Things are made harder by the sun, now starting to march towards the horizon, the contrast between dark and light playing havoc with our eyes, but, my word, the view is something else. We’ll take what we can get though, as the sky is still clear with just enough cloud to make things even more stunning.
Finally, we have our overnight spot in sight. Bright white sand slips into turquoise water under dark cliffs as the sun starts its distant lap of the horizon. Once last clatter along the rocks that must have made up yet more crofts, ghosts of a bygone age before the Highland clearances.
Reaching sea level, the white sands look both out of place and yet perfectly at home at the same time. Grass leads from the cliffs to the sand, almost golf course-like in its quality, where before bracken and heather clung to rocks and cliffs. Shells in their millions mark the height of the last tide rather than seaweed, and the sand is so white it doesn’t seem possible it could have come from the stones above.
Playing with fire.
After taking the time to enjoy the sun’s uninterrupted descent into the sea, our attention turns to gathering fire making materials. We’re clearly not the first to enjoy the beach’s natural wonder and someone has done much of the legwork for us, plus bone dry bracken is the ideal firelighter as well as being in no short supply.
As the sky turns from golden hour to inky darkness, nature is king. We get out of the wind as seals poke their heads inquisitively above the gently rolling sea, and cormorants make their usual low-level dash across the water. The most obvious presence is the moon. Rapidly approaching its peak, when the cloud clears, lights aren’t really necessary unless we’re going for more bracken to keep the fire stoked. The stars seem somewhat subdued with the amount of light being reflected off the moon – it never really feels like night-time as the day seems to march on.
The fire becomes the sole focus for the next few hours. There’s something uniquely primal about a fire that means we’re struggling to leave it alone even when it’s burning well. Constant trips to try to find something that will get the flames higher keeps us entertained – cardboard biscuit packaging is inventively employed to get the heat up a few notches.
With the fire going, the rotation for wood and bracken collection sorted, the isolation really starts to creep up on us. We’ve not seen any animals since the buck way back at the crofts, the seals have slipped away into the sea, and we can’t make the birds out against the sea now that darkness has fallen. Only the piercing peep of an oystercatcher shatters the quiet, and even then they are few and far between. The lighthouses on the smaller islands, usually a constant reminder of how dangerous these waters can be, are not going about their metronomic business.
It almost seems that the world has left us behind, or vice versa maybe. No phone signal, no computers, no nothing other than us, the fire, our bikes and the moon. We’re left to simply enjoy each other’s company, something all too easily forgotten it seems these days – ignored in favour of staring at a phone screen. We muse about how different our two adventures have been, a mere three months apart. November brought a balmy day for bog trotting through history, a moment of calm before the winter storms started in earnest, and this, a chilly day, again out west, not a million miles apart but with a considerable temperature difference courtesy of some Siberian air.
With the temperature dipping as the last light of day fades into the sea, dinner takes over from tending the fire and watching the stars. Body heat is at a premium and we’re glad we spent so long tending the fire, as we’d rather not find out what it would be like without it. Warm food is a slice of heaven, even though we have a sheltered retreat – the easterly wind finding its way into the bay and chilling the bones for but a moment, before resuming its dash south and west.
Hot aches become the chat as the food starts to thaw out our extremities and we’re all too sharply reminded that it is winter. Inactivity and the happiness of sitting next to a well-tended fire has made us complacent about reality, but the ground has started to freeze around us. The wind, while not a constant presence, hunts us down momentarily to make a point about how wild these wilder places of the world can be.
As we prepare for getting horizontal, hands slow and lose their dexterity, lens and autofocuses freeze, and the wisdom of our mission to sleep outside with the impending maelstrom heading to Scotland’s southern quarters comes into question.
It doesn’t take long before a unanimous verdict is reached to abort for the comfort and safety that fish and chips can offer. The beach isn’t going anywhere and we can return with daylight and warmth. Despite the moon, we need our lights to navigate this treacherous stretch of coastal path in the darkness and we fear they would cease to function if too cold. Almost as soon as we’d agreed to make the dash back to the car and civilisation, the wind rose as if to hammer home the wisdom of our decision. Knowing when to throw in the towel is key on winter missions, though even a summer trip can have its hazards when as isolated as this.
We’ll be back. West is still best.