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Gairloch in North-West Ross-Shire
Part IV.—Guide to Gairloch and Loch Maree

Chapter XV.—Loch Gruinard, by William Jolly

OF all the sea-lochs in the West Highlands, I long thought that Loch Duich, the southern branch of Loch Alsh, bore the palm on the mainland, not only as viewed from the road above the kirk of Loch Alsh, but as enjoyed on the surface of the loch itself, amidst its picturesque and elevated peaks. But after seeing Loch Gruinard,, many years ago, in its smiling and varied beauty, homage has been divided. Yet the two scenes are scarcely comparable, so different are they in type,—the one with even shores and unbroken surface, and closely beset by towering mountains; the other open and expansive, and varied with numerous isles. Each is to be admired for its own sake, and both reveal somewhat of the wealth of scenic loveliness created by the union of "the mountain and the flood" in our beautiful land.

Seven miles from Poolewe is Aultbea, with the smooth green Eilean Ewe in front of it, in the middle of Loch Ewe, a transcript of southern cultivation amidst Highland crofts. Before descending on the village the road rises high above the sea, and shews a wonderful view. At your feet lies an upper reach of Loch Ewe, called Tournaig Bay, in calm, smooth as a mirror, which forms the eye of the picture. Beyond it stretches a rolling plateau of bare parti-coloured rock in front, and a screen of great summits round Loch Fionn and Loch Maree behind. You can distinguish, from the left, the fair Maiden, the pointed Beinn Aridh Charr, the bright Beinn Eay, the dark Beinn Alligin, and their numerous fellows, onwards to the lesser eminences behind Gairloch. The crowded sandstone peaks, crowned with the white Quartzite, like Beinn Eay, look in the distance like the white crests of gigantic billows suddenly arrested in wild tumult and transformed to stone.

Near Aultbea you turn to the right, and cross the neck of the peninsula of flat Cambrian sandstone that terminates in the Greenstone Point. Near the top of the ridge the road passes through several long serpentine ridges of gravelly debris with countless embedded blocks. These are the lateral moraines of the huge glaciers that pushed their resistless march from the mountains above out to sea. They are good and patent examples of their class, interesting as existing so far from the parent source of the great ice-sheet of which they were the enclosing walls, and which has left its footprints in well-marked scratchings and polishings on all the exposed rocks round.

A little beyond the highest and best moraine a point is attained where the whole expanse of Loch Gruinard suddenly comes into view. It forms a broad bay, land-locked on right and left, and open to the Minch on the north. On a day of sunshine and shadow it is truly a fair and picturesque scene.

The free sea in front is soon broken up by islands. Eilean Gruinard lies to the right; Priest Island is the nearest in front; and behind it is an archipelago of rocks and islands, of varied size and outline, called by the pleasant name of the Summer Isles. Bold headlands stretch far beyond. To the left is the wide Minch, with the low lands of the Lews in the dim horizon, terminating in the Butt. On the right the bay is enclosed by the indented shores of the mainland, at the entrances of Great and Little Loch Broom.

Inland extends a long succession of mountain summits, similar to those already seen above Aultbea. Over Rudha Coigeach, tower the great peaks round Loch Assynt and Kyle Skou, conspicuous among which is the cone of Suilven, flanked by Queenaig and Canisp. Next comes the mountain group of Coigeach, crowned by the broad Beinn Mhor. Then, isolated and steep, the dark double-»peaked Beinn Gobhlach heaves itself between the two Loch Brooms, and, being separated entirely from the rest, stands as a grand centre to the picture. Finally, closing the line to the right, rise the domed Sail Mor and the pointed peaks that stand round Loch na Sheallag.

This wide expanse of mingled sea and shore, island and mountain, becomes an indelible memory, especially under a favourable sky, bearing with it the proverbial joy.

One extraordinary feature of the scene is the absolute want of trees, except a few at the head of Loch Gruinard. The country looks to the eye as bare of wood as Caithness or the Uists.

But more remains. Descend the road a short distance, and climb a slight eminence on the left, which will tax the strength of none. From its top, low as it is, a still more magnificent prospect may be had, unusual in its sweep and remarkable for the number of hill tops in sight. At one glance your eye commands the whole series of mountains comprised in both the views already obtained, from Sutherland to Applecross, the peaks crowded round Loch na Sheallag and Fionn occupying the centre of the splendid circle. In the far north, in clear weather, the isle of Handa at Scourie is distinctly seen, and under very favourable conditions Cape Wrath itself is reported at times to be visible. Behind you, to the west, appear the outlines of the Lews and Harris, the shadowy representatives of Atlantic lands. This remarkable outlook should by no means be missed.

But there are other matters besides the scenery that will interest not a few. On the shore, where the road strikes the coast, the picturesque old chapel, amid its overgrown graveyard, will draw the antiquarian and the sentimentalist to observe and to meditate. The sandstone cliffs will attract the geologist; and these should interest even the common traveller. The coast consists of a series of steep cliffs, whose unusual redness arrests the eye. Here, hidden away, as it were, in this remote bay, occur two patches of the Trias, one of the rarest systems in Scotland, only a few scattered patches representing that comparatively modern epoch, here enclosed by the two most ancient systems of Britain, the Hebridean gneiss and the Torridon sandstone, as elsewhere explained.

Beyond the sandy bay to the east, the shore rises into high precipices, unusually contorted and picturesque, with isolated stacks and projecting capes, which shew varied forms and remarkable " weathering." A footpath leads down the cliff, and should be followed to the beach. There one of the old caves, excavated by the sea in a crack of the Trias, has been enclosed by a wall and put under lock and key. It is regularly used as a chapel by the Free Church, and there numerous worshippers gather on Sabbath, and, seated on the boulders that form the pews, listen to sacred words and sing their weird Gaelic psalms. This cave is cold and comfortless compared with another at Cove on the other side of Loch Ewe, also utilised as a church. This other is formed in the Torridon sandstone, and is roomy and dry, and well seated with planks laid on stones. The entrance is festooned with wild plants and flowers, and the interior shews a full view of the open bay and the land beyond. Worship under such conditions must be at once picturesque and impressive.

Close to this cave on Gruinard Bay another exhibits a still more interesting sight,—a modern example of the ancient cave-dwellers. It is the home of an old woman of seventy, and a girl her sole companion. The front of the shallow cave has been rudely closed in with stones, turf, and cloths, leaving an opening above through which escapes the smoke of the peat fire. The interior is barely furnished with the simplest of necessities. The fire is close by the door on the left, and the bed lies on the ground on the right just under the open roof, though protected by the projecting rock. The old dame seemed bright as the sunshine when we visited her this summer (1886), and declared that, though rough, the place was more comfortable than it looked. As she drank her simple cup of tea from the top of a box, after putting some clothes to dry upon the shore, with her wrinkled but intelligent face, her Gaelic Bible her only literature, the wild rocks round, and the splash of the restless waves in the ear, this simple, solitary old woman looked as picturesque and pathetic an object as I had ever seen, much more so than the wildest of gipsies at a camp fire. But this is not the place to enter into her story.

Beyond this the road passes through two townships called Coast. These stand where an interesting junction occurs between the Trias system and the Torridon sandstone; while a little further on exists another junction between the Torridon sandstone and the grey contorted gneiss.

The numerous blocks along the shore, mostly foreign to the ground, are monuments of the great Ice Age.

At the very head of Gruinard Bay a large white mansion may be seen embosomed among trees. That is Gruinard House, situated at the mouth of the Gruinard river, perhaps as out-of-the-world a dwelling-place as may be found in broad Scotland. Towards this point the traveller should make his way either by the good road past Fisherfield, or still better by boat from Coast.

The position of the mansion is admirable, being cosily set close by the pebbly shore, on the edge of a fertile old sea terrace, enclosed by crags, knolls, and mounds. These are wild and steep, and clothed with trees and shrubs on their lower flanks, but bare and grand above, one lion-shaped precipitous rock being specially striking. The place is protected from every wind but the north-west, and has a climate as genial as in the south of England. A road runs by the side of the river, which has cut its way through a rocky pass and plunges over a cataract of huge boulders in foaming grandeur. Beyond a little school you come to a flat green meadow, the bed of an ancient lake. At its far extremity the dark craggy peaks of Ben Dearg form a powerful picture, which has been well rendered in a painting by Weedon. Crossing this plain and ascending the steep ridge at its head, you there command a grand view of the great mountains that enclose Loch na Sheallag,—that is "the loch of the hunting,"—the very name shewing that the old Celts looked on this region as the peculiar habitat of wild creatures. The lake itself is hidden by high ranges of the Hebridean gneiss, but you get a full view of the precipitous peaks which rise right from its waters. On the left you have the great mass of Sail Mor, the pointed Scuir a Fiann, and Scuir an Fhithich, the Raven's Rock ; and on the right the grand purple peaks of the bold Beinn Deargs, an unusually fine group, excelled by few in the Highlands. In some features Loch na Sheallag and its mountains surpass those of the Fionn Loch, grand as these are. The whole scene is one of remarkable wildness and grandeur, and of unexampled solitariness.

The traveller may return by road to Gairloch back the way he came. But if he is able to face it, he should recross the Meikle Gruinard river, and, ascending the Little Gruinard river, which drains the Fionn Loch, reach Poolewe by the skirts of the mountains, through as rough and picturesque a country as could well be imagined. He has still another course open to him, which will bring him back to the common-places of life. He may order a carriage from Dundonell Hotel, at the end of Little Loch Broom, ten miles distant, or he may take himself thither on foot. There he will find a most comfortable resting-place, and he will certainly think himself fortunate in seeing also the picturesque combinations of glen and mountain, wood and water, which adorn the beautiful Loch Broom.


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