|Distance:||83.3 miles (134.1 km)|
|Meets:||A836, A894, B801, A836|
|Route outline (key)|
The A838 is a lengthy route, crossing the Highlands from Lairg to Laxford Bridge, where it becomes the main west coast route north to Durness. But this 56 mile epic adventure is not enough for the A838 - it then turns east and heads along the north coast to Tongue, where it terminates, after 83 miles, on the A836 a mere 38 miles north of where it started!
Section 1: Dalchork - Laxford Bridge
The road actually starts at an isolated junction about two miles north of Lairg - where the S2 A836 becomes single-track until reaching Tongue. It originally started half a mile south along the track now signposted to the Dalchork Bird Hide; this section of road was flooded when Loch Shin was turned into a reservoir in the 1950s. The original line of the road is very clear on aerial photos.
The A838 is mostly single track for the first 37 miles to Laxford Bridge, although it takes some time for the white centre lines to disappear in the first instance. After crossing the River Tirry on the new bridge built when Loch Shin was dammed, there is a 90-degree left-hand bend at the junction for Achnairn, before a sweeping right at Colaboll which brings the A838 back onto its original alignment. Despite being single-track, most of the road from here until reaching Loch More, some 25 miles distant, has excellent sight lines, allowing 60mph speeds to be easily and safely attained. Extremely short sections of S2 - extended passing places more like, are situated at the few blind bends and crests along the route until you reach the far northwest end of Loch Shin, about two miles beyond the Overscaig Hotel.
The road stays close to the shore at first, running through the scattered community of Shinness, before climbing inland behind the low hills that project into the loch. The road actually reaches its summit here, a whole 157 m above sea level, which considering it crosses the Highlands is a little surprising! We drop back to the loch shore a little before Fiag Bridge at the entrance to Glen Fiag, beyond which the hills above the road are forested. After a couple of miles, the road once again climbs away from the shore to pass the Overscaig Hotel. The loch then disappears behind more forestry on the shore side of the road, and the next water we see is Loch a' Ghriama, a small lochan at the head of Loch Shin.
The hills are getting higher now, rising to nearly Munro level in places as the road threads its way northwards up the banks of the Merkland River to Merkland Lodge. Here the road reaches the foot of Loch Merkland, a desolate looking place hemmed in by steep hills and with no obvious way out at the far end. However, as the road makes its way north along the loch shore, it eventually bends round to due west, and the low watershed between Loch Merkland and Loch More comes into view ahead.
Before reaching Loch More and the isolated hamlet of Kinloch (three houses) at its head, the road runs through a curving valley, known locally as the Leitir Thenisgeag before dropping down quite sharply to the head of Loch More. The A838 follows the southern side of the loch, winding its way through trees and alternately round and over rocky outcrops of the steeply sloping valley sides. In a couple of places, rock cuttings are passed through, with slight evidence of an old road on the shore side in the trees, where retaining walls carried it on a precipitous ledge above the loch. The sight lines along Loch More and beyond are severely reduced, and safety barriers line certain parts of the route along the shore.
At the far end of the loch, we are greeted by the incongruous sight of flashing warning signs for a school at the tiny hamlet of Achfary, which lies directly below the triangular-shaped mountain Ben Stack. The school serves a widely spread community, many of whom live a mile or two off the road in estate cottages and farmsteads. Beyond Achfary the road rounds the northern flank of Ben Stack and follows the southern shore of the strangely shaped Loch Stack, before a rather twisty and slow four or five miles following the River Laxford brings it to the A894 at Laxford Bridge (no facilities here, just four houses). Indeed, there are no facilities between Lairg and Laxford Bridge apart from the Overscaig Hotel. The nearest petrol stations to each end of this section are in Lairg (A836) and Scourie (A894). In 1922, the A838 ended here but was extended further in the late 1920s.
Section 2: Laxford Bridge - Durness
The TOTSO junction at Laxford Bridge has been realigned somewhat over the years, with both arms of the A838 formerly leading to a fork junction with the southbound A894. An interim layout seems to have given priority to the Scourie - Lairg line, but now the Scourie - Durness route is rightly given priority, with the road to Lairg giving way. The A838 immediately becomes S2, therefore, as it takes over the main west coast road, albeit for a matter of metres before crossing the single track bridge. Work in 2012 has now meant that it is only the bridge which is single track, returning to S2 on the far side. The rest of the A838 was originally the B870 in 1922, but quickly upgraded to an A road, and today it is the old B870 route which carries far more traffic than the original A838 section.
As the road heads north, the road starts winding round mountains and lochs, and sometimes just ploughing straight across them. A couple of miles north of Laxford, a left turn leads off to Skerricha. This is the old road, whilst the new cuts through the sides of hills, the fill being used to build causeways across the lochs between, much as was done further south on the A894. Further bends have been ironed out on the way into Rhiconich, where a new bridge takes a straight line across the Rhiconich River. The reason behind much of this work is the fishing port of Kinlochbervie at the end of the B801 which forks off to the left here. Again, Rhiconich is not much more than a few houses and a hotel, clustered around the road junction, at the head of Loch Inchard.
Beyond Rhiconich, the road once more drops to S1, and remains so for the most part all the way to Durness. After cutting through a low pass, the road climbs steadily up to Loch Tarbhaidh, after which a very short sections of S2 survives at the rear of Gualain House. This appears to be a bypass funded by the estate to remove traffic from the front door! Unfortunately the alignment of this section means it is easier to overtake on the single track section, assuming you are unlucky enough to find a slower vehicle ahead of you. This is the summit of the road, which now drops down Strath Dionard, a wide and bleak valley which is awe inspiring for its emptiness more than any dramatic scenery.
After a number of miles of not very much then, except crossing the River Dionard, you reach the Kyle of Durness, and then Keoldale. From the end of the short side road you can get a passenger ferry across the Kyle of Durness; on the far side a minibus takes you out to Cape Wrath, the most north-westerly point on Great Britain. Despite being an adopted road, there is no vehicle ferry, and the passenger ferry in spring 2016 had a capacity of no more than half a dozen people, or less with bikes. A slight climb then takes the road across to Durness itself, on the far north coast.
Section 3: Durness - Tongue
The road briefly becomes S2 as you enter the village, dropping down past the bunkhouse and hotel to the village square. Here a junction sees the main road turn sharp right, whilst the left turn leads out to Balnakeil and some spectacular walks in this remote corner of the Highlands. Durness is the largest settlement on the whole A838 with a population of around 400 and new houses being built, but it still feels tiny, with the small Spar store and unattended petrol pumps. A little further along, past the campsite, another car park marks the short walk down to the spectacular Smoo Cave, which you can have a tour of if the weather is good. There is also a youth hostel should you want to hang around for a while.
The road through Durness doesn't take the most logical route, making a great loop inland at the back of Sango Bay, whilst a minor road makes a much more direct short cut. Beyond the cave, the road quickly drops back to single track, and although there are a number of short wider sections from here on, few permit overtaking. Just beyond Durness is the township of Ceannabeinne, which was abandoned in 1842. It was one of the last victims of the Highland Clearances and resulted in the Durness Riots. The story of what happened there and a description of what the village would have been like is given on a series of plaques standing next to the ruins of the village. The sole remaining building is the old school house that stands on the hill above the road.
The road now starts to snake its way around Loch Eriboll, undulating along the hillside to the west, between scattered cottages. Some houses lie down on the loch shore, accessed via steep snaking drives, but most are along the roadside. Once again there is not much else other than the views and a few houses, but the views can be spectacular. At Poll, at the southern end of the loch, the road drops to the shore and crosses a stream on an old stone arch. It then slowly turns and winds around the boggy southern end of the loch, before a short run up the waters edge on the east shore.
Turning inland now, the road climbs slowly at first, before steepening as it reaches Eriboll Farm, where a short, old realignment exists. The loch remains in sight throughout, and a mile or so further on some tight bends bring the road back down to the shore. The spectacular and prominent near-island of Ard Neackie is now visible ahead, with its old quarry and lime kilns, and at the junction, the A838 starts a long straight climb up the hill, two way once more. After a couple of bends, another long straight passes the lone cottage of Heilam, with the old road now its driveway.
Before reaching the north coast again the road finds a gap in the mountains to pass though and so leaves the dramatic Loch Eriboll behind to wind through the hills to Hope, at the northern tip of Loch Hope. Much of this short section has been improved, and is largely S2, but the bends remain, despite some realignments, making fast driving difficult and overtaking near impossible. It is lucky therefore that traffic is light, and the scenery stunning, making both points easy to live with! Hope is a tiny settlement of a few houses, and so quickly passed, with the road climbing steeply once more, through a series of switchback bends.
From Hope to Tongue, the road is fully upgraded to S2, and there are lengthy sections of completely new alignment making progress much easier. For those wishing to go a little slower, and enjoy the scenery, the road is well enough aligned to allow faster traffic to pass easily most of the time. After climbing out of Hope, the road crosses a barren moorland called A'Mhoine, with dramatic views of lochs and mountains to the south. The coast to the north is hidden by low hills. After some short realignments largely alongside the old road, the A838 now forks left and skirts round to the north of Loch Maovally, whilst the old road remains to the south. The old and new roads then cross several more times before starting the descent.
The hill down to the Kyle of Tongue is not as steep as that up from Hope, but the road is still twistier than it has been, largely being an online upgrade of the old route. Upon reaching the Kyle you are saved from another lengthy detour southwards by a causeway and bridge that cross the Kyle (although before these were built the road ran round the bottom). Tongue itself lies up the hill to the south, and the old road to Tongue House is quickly picked up, to reach the village centre between the Hills. Here a final hairpin rejoins the old road, and a new straight climb lifts the A838 up to the A836, the road it started on over 80 miles earlier - the A836 has taken just 35 miles.
The A838 is little changed from the road first allocated the number in the 1920s. Certainly, apart from the realignment at the start at Loch Shin, there is little to suggest any substantial realignments until beyond Laxford Bridge, although a few very minor improvements exist along the shores of Loch More and Loch Stack. From Laxford to Rhiconich, the road has been heavily improved, but from there to Hope the only realignments are at Gualin House and Heilam. The last few miles into Tongue have seen considerable change however, with the whole road rebuilt, often on a new alignment.
The history of a road such as this is difficult to trace, with many older maps having little distinction between footpaths, bridleways, tracks and roads. However, it is known that the A837 to Lochinver was built (as a road) in the 1820s by Joseph Mitchell, a protege and former assistant of Thomas Telford. That route was the first of a number he built in his role as Inspector of Highland Roads and Bridges, which paid particular attention to filling in the gaps that Telford was unable to complete. It seems likely, therefore, particularly when looking at such features as the bridges, that he was responsible for much, if not all of the original A838 route.