Bealach na Ba
|Bealach na Ba|
|From:||near Kishorn (NG837422)|
|Length:||14 miles (22.5 km)|
Bealach na Ba (Pass of the Cattle) is a mountain pass in Scotland. It is part of the C1087 and connects the A896, a main road across Wester Ross, to the village of Applecross, and is well-known for its challenging geography and hairpin bends.
The description "pass of the cattle" is a rough translation anyway. This road is a traditional drovers' route from the Western Isles to the markets in the Central Belt. From Skye, the cattle would have been swum across to Applecross via Raasay as an alternative route to crossing near Kyle. From Applecross the ascent is then difficult, but possible, and the descent, well... read on to find out!
It is suggested that the route became a properly constructed road in c1826 as part of a poor relief scheme (This postdates Telford's roads). By that time, steamers were already starting to make occasional visits to these remote parts, and within a couple of decades Applecross had become a regular port on Steamer routes. Nevertheless, the road east was still well used, and survived to become a public highway in the Twentieth Century. Despite the road's importance to the community it serves - as much so as many of the B-roads in the Highlands - it was never classified, and this is probably due to the steepness and height of the pass.
By the 1960s, moves were underway to provide an alternative, low level, coastal route.
We start on the A896 north of Kishorn, and cross the valley floor at the head of Loch Kishorn. From here there is little hint of what lies ahead, except for the rather daunting view of mountains lying in front of us. Immediately after the bridge over the River Kishorn, we turn left and head south, already starting to climb away from the loch shore. A junction on the left provides access to the Kishorn Yard - a major oil-industry construction site for a decade from the mid-1970s, and now a fish-farming site and transhipment port - and then the road turns a little more to the west, edging away from the lochside.
By the time we reach the 100m contour, we are almost heading north, although a series of bends sees us cross the Russel Burn and head south once more. The road is getting much steeper now, and a series of switchback bends sees us enter the mouth of Coire na Ba. The road then straightens up, although still wiggling as it climbs the contours. To either side the cliffs are closing in, and ahead there seems to be nowhere for the road to go. Some of the passing places are a little tricky too, requiring some precision driving to allow the traffic flow to continue.
As the road swings slowly to the left, climbing up the narrowing chasm, there is a good view ahead, and it isn't too difficult to plan where you are going to meet oncoming traffic. Ahead is a different matter though, as the road disappears. We have now passed the 300m and 400m contour, and still the road climbs. A curve round to the right takes us into the upper corrie, where the valley floor seems to rise up to us and level out. The road ahead is now visible once more, but so is the series of barriers zigzagging up the pass.
A sharp left hand bend takes us across the 500m contour, but ahead is a much scarier proposition. The barrier that had been in view is now so far above us on the steeply rising hillside that it has become invisible, and it is only its memory that tells you of the bend ahead. It is the first of the hairpins, and while there is plenty of tarmac for the turning, the apex of the corner is impossibly steep. The best route is to take a wide swing, and remember first gear!
The road is now slowly turning to the left, around a blind rocky crag and this is the steepest section. As the gradient eases, the road turns back to the right, and briefly passes across a boulder-strewn hillside, before steepening once more. All the time, the barriers are visible ahead, showing that a left-hander is not too far away, and sure enough it soon appears. The photo may not look too bad, but it is still a hairpin, albeit with slightly less tarmac to help you round.
Once more, you can see the barrier crossing to the left ahead, and once more a steep climb leads you to the next sharp bend, although you should be able to keep it in second this time. Don't get too excited though, as ahead there is another hairpin taking us around to the right. After that, the climb lessens, the road straightens, and you might even make it in to third, depending on the traffic ahead!
Once at the top of the hairpins you really expect to find some indication of the summit fairly soon. However, it is roughly half a mile to the car parks, and all the time the road continues to climb slowly, the surrounding landscape being so lumpy that the summit isn't revealed until the final possible moment. And then there is the view.
Depending on the weather, ahead lies a stunning view across Applecross Bay, the Inner Sound and so to Raasay and Rona, with the darker line of Skye's Trotternish peninsula beyond. To the north, the barren wilderness of Applecross is seen, with bare rock rearing up out of the heather everywhere. However, perhaps the finest view is to the south. Cross the wide car park on the left-hand side of the road, find the cairn and take a look. The Cuillin on Skye may be basking in summer sunshine, looming menacingly out of the heavy clouds or hidden completely from view, but their presence is majestic, a series of sharp spiky summits that mountain climbers respect and yearn for in equal measure.
The cairn tells us that we are at 2053feet (626m) above Sea Level, and now it is time to descend. To get the most of the whole experience, you have to descend westwards to the beautiful fishing village of Applecross, strung along its remote rocky coastline. Then, you will start from sea level once more on the return, or if you were seriously scared by the outward journey, there is always the long and tortuous coast road to get you home safely!
The Descent to Applecross
After the death-defying bends and climbs on the ascent, the descent seems pretty tame. The first half mile descends steadily, but undramatically, along a gently meandering route, before steepening significantly. On the right, one of the passing places extends into a small gravel parking space, leading onto a steepening rock slab. There used to be a bench too, but that is long gone.
Just past this viewpoint, the road takes a sharp left round a fairly blind corner, before the one and only true hairpin on the descent from the summit. However, it is not as severe as those on the ascent. This point gives a good view of the handiwork (literally!) of the road's original builders as it follows a long stone causeway down the hill. The road has turned right, and briefly heads north, but soon a gentle curve brings us round towards the west again. We drop back below 400m, and then pass through a series of sharp bends, zigzagging down to the bridge over the Allt Beag.
After the bridge, we turn to follow the stream's western bank, and as the road and stream slowly diverge, we see trees ahead. They soon form a barrier between us and the stream, and then the road turns slowly to the left. They drop away to the right, making room for a couple of houses, whose driveway we soon meet. There is now a different plantation on our right, with a sharp left-hander along its edge. We can now see the edge of the village ahead, and the near hairpin round to the right comes as a surprise, with a side road continuing ahead at the second part of the bend.
This is the final stretch, with just 20 or 30m of descent left, and the road widens to S2 as we approach the junction. Ahead of us, the wide sandy Applecross Bay stretches out, and to the left is the village centre with a shop, community-run filling station and world-renowned pub, not to mention plentiful car parks. Time for a break before we go back and do it all again!
A Personal Account
Written by Toby Speight ("bealach na ba" on SABRE) back in 2002:
For those that don't know the Bealach na Bà, it's a single-track road joining the village of Applecross to the A896 at Kishorn, passing through some spectacular scenery on the way. The name is "Pass of the cow" in Scottish Gàidhlig; it's often seen in the plural as "Bealach nam Bò" - pass of the cattle. It doesn't matter what you call it - by any name it's a great road.
I first travelled along it in the summer of 1993. I was camping at Torridon with the university's Hillwalking Club, who had just arrived (I'd spent a week walking there from Glenfinnan). Having had a big day out on Liathach on the first day, I was less than impressed (to put it mildly) when I awoke to find it raining on the second. It wasn't the kind of day to be up on the hills, but of course I was the only one who felt that way, so I was left to amuse myself.
I'd never been to Applecross before, and it seemed a worthwhile objective, so I packed some food and stood at the roadside with my thumb out. Very quickly, I found myself in a comfortable car heading along the wide (two-way) road towards Shieldaig. This coastal part of the A896 is newer than that through Glen Torridon; it was built in the early 1970s to link the two dead-end roads, forming a huge loop around the Coulin and Ben Damph deer forests. It's notable as it's the only significant length of two-way road in this area. (I think the A890 road along Loch Carron to the south, bypassing the Strome Ferry, is of a similar vintage, but that's much lower quality, mostly single-track - more like an upgrade of the existing forestry tracks - and very prone to landslip/rockfall.)
Disembarking at Shieldaig, I set off on the coast road where the post-bus gave me a lift along the few miles to Ardheslaig for free, as he'd finished his round and was off duty. From there I began walking, as vehicles were somewhat infrequent. The Applecross Coastal Road is also from the early 1970s, built to link the tiny crofting communities scattered around the coast, and incidentally providing an all-weather route to and from Applecross itself. Proof of its success is that there are still scattered dwellings along the line of the route, whereas on similar, but roadless, coasts, inhabited dwellings are greatly outnumbered by ruins.
After an hour or so, the next lift took me along the fairly straight and flat coastal strip to Applecross. This section gives excellent views seawards in good weather, out to Raasay, and beyond that, the jagged Cuillin Hills of Skye - undoubtedly the most mountainous range in Britain. Applecross is a pleasant little coastal village, with a shop and (at the time) a filling station, and the usual tourist facilities. There's a beach, but on this particular day that wasn't really an attraction!
The next section of road was what I'd come to look at. Standing at the junction in Applecross, a surprisingly short wait was ended by the last-minute decision of the driver of a butcher's delivery wagon - a 16-ton box van that I was to discover is the practical maximum for this road. This man and his mate had my dream job, driving out all over the Highlands from their base in (I think) Aberdeen.
The Bealach na Bà starts off innocuously enough, rising gently above the village along the top of the plantations. It turns gently right to follow the valley up, climbing gently but persistently, and we made steady progress. I can't remember whether there was any oncoming traffic, but we would have technical right-of-way as the uphill traffic, and moral right-of-way by being bigger than everyone else!
By the time we reached the summit of the pass, we were well and truly into the cloud, but subsequent visits have revealed that this is one of the best viewpoints in Scotland when it's clear. But not today, and in any case, I was just a passenger in a working vehicle, so we must continue. The descent starts with half a mile or so of easy road, but after a sharp left-hand bend, it gets steeper. Descending in first gear, the vantage point of the forward-control cab was slightly unnerving, perched as I was on the engine cowl with my feet against the windscreen - if that were to give way, I'd be sure to slide out and bounce down the road!
We swept around the next (right-hand) bend at 5 mph or more, then I saw the next one. It's a left-hand hairpin, and so tight that on the way around, the front wheels were at the very edge of the road and the cab was right over the drop - which, in the mist, appeared infinite. If the descent was scary to start with, by now it was positively bowel-slackening! We were able to navigate this corner in one movement purely by virtue of kind(?) predecessors having scraped the safety barrier and pushed it out to lean over the edge and make a slightly wider road!
The road straightens out a bit now, having chosen a course to take it gently down the left-hand side of the valley. Sgùrr a' Chaorachain rises steeply to the left here - there's some very good rock-climbing on the sandstone cliffs above. I couldn't see that on this first visit, though - even if it hadn't been misty, they rise too steeply to see from the middle seat of a HGV.
I hadn't realised that we had lost less than half our height by this stage, so was somewhat surprised to find us at the head of a steep valley again - the one we'd descended into was merely its upper corrie. At this level, though, the mist was clearing, and we were soon faced with a dizzying prospect right down to sea level.
Still in low gear, we continued inevitably downwards into more comfortable territory. We crossed the Russell Burn, which is a good place to park and walk up into Coire nan Fhamhair ("Coire nan Arr" on the map) for its fantastic mountain scenery (and more rock-climbing on Cioch Nose), and continued down to meet the A-road just beyond the turning for the old oil-rig construction site on the shore of Loch Kishorn. This industry has proved a fickle one on the west coast, as unlike the east, building rigs out here is only really viable when the east coast sites are at full capacity, due to the higher costs of transporting materials in and products out, and the fact that the skilled workers are all in the east. I think the construction site has been re-opened, probably more than once, but I wouldn't want to bet on its long-term future.
I finished my journey in several more stages via Lochcarron, Achnasheen and Kinlochewe along A-roads which, despite being mainly single-track, seemed very tame in comparison to the Bealach na Bà. It's sobering to think that until very recently, it was the only land-based link fit for vehicles in the whole of the Applecross peninsula. Before the coast road, residents had to travel on foot or by boat; I'm told that the postman had a 20-mile round to walk every day!
Unsurprisingly, with the road climbing to 626m above sea level, a little bit of snow on a normal road can mean that there are 6 foot drifts on the summit of the Bealach na Ba. There are snow gates at either end, and winter closures can last weeks, although perhaps not as often, or for as long, as in years gone by.
The Coast Road connects all of the small settlements along Applecross's North Western shore, and also provides an alternative route when the Bealach na Ba is impassable in the winter months.
It generally follows the line of the footpath that was the main land route for centuries, and the postman's regular 20-mile round in all weathers. From Applecross Bay, it follows close to the sea (the footpath climbs above, and is an enjoyable walk) to the aptly-named bay at Sand. Just past the bay is the turning for torpedo testing station that prompted the building of the road; also there is a car park close to a rock shelter thought to have been inhabited around 7,500 years ago - only just after the last glaciation here. The road continues north past the small crofting hamlets of Lonbain and Kalnacille (which has at least fifteen known spellings!) and through Cuaig to reach its northernmost point at Fearnmor. We now turn right along the south shore of Loch Torridon and pass a succession of coastal settlements, including the former end of the road at Ardheslaig, reaching A896 just south of the pretty village of Sheildaig, with its famous wooded isle (intended to provide timber for warships, but eclipsed by new materials).
One can imagine how the crofting townships along this coast would have fallen to depopulation and ruin as elsewhere in Wester Ross, had not the military station required all-weather access.
The coast road was opened in 1975, and around that time the ferry service to Kyle from Toscaig, at the southern tip of Applecross, ceased operating.