Camping with a view all the way out of Loch Reasort to the Isle of Scarp beyond.
Let me tell you how the next part of my adventure became the most terrifying. It should have been dreamy, but I made a couple of fairly serious school girl errors...
I always planned to camp on the close-cropped lawn in front of the Morsgail bothy (once used as a fishing bothy by the Morsgail estate, and now boarded up and ratty), but my tired feet would not take me that far. Instead, they halted at the first two ruined black houses I came to, and were unwilling to try a final river crossing for that day.
The black house ruins were charming; large rectangular enclosures with well preserved doorways, windows and fireplaces, now largely filled with brambles to the possessive delight of the perky stonechats (chlacharan in gaelic*) to whom they are now home. I often wonder why you only see brambles and nettles close to human settlement; but it holds true if you think about it.
The stonechats rapped out their alarm calls at my arrival, so I gave them some space and headed for the shore nearby. The grass was long, and there was a huge log lying in it. I couldn't help it. The pack was off before I could think about it, and I sat down on the log. Feeling the very human welcome of the settlement around me, I savoured the longed for view all the way out of Loch Reasort to Scarp beyond. The evening sun was on my face and my limbs were extremely weary. I noticed ears of oats and barley among the long grasses around me. I knew these were self seeded from crops grown here not so very long ago.
There was nothing for it; the tent had to go up. Right here.
I stomped out a flat spot and pitched. Within a few moments midges descended, so I hopped inside, kicking my boots off into the porch before zipping up the mesh and taking the photo at the top of the page.
But then.... panic set in.
I had forgotten to take off my comfy walking socks, and what were these tiny specks making their way up my legs?? I whipped the socks off and threw them outside. Trying to stay calm I rummaged in my pack for the first aid kit and found the tweezers- and my glasses. These creatures were miniscule, but I knew all too well what they were: ticks. Dozens of them. And the smallest ones, like these, are often the carriers of lyme disease.
I made sure that everything that might have had contact with the grass was outside, and the mesh was shut. I suddenly felt as if the beautiful natural world out there was armed against me. A mass of tiny teeth, and unlike the midges, which will only drive you insane, the ticks carry a disease that can kill you, and nearly did kill me back in November 2021.
The next exhausted hour was spent pinching tiny ticks off my legs with the tweezers. I knew I had to do an utterly thorough job, as missing even one would leave me vulnerable to a disease that had once before, almost stopped my heart.* The light was fading, so I was pleased to locate my headtorch. It hadn't seemed very necessary when I was packing, as it doesn't really get dark at this time of year, but I threw it in out of habit rather than choice. Armed with the headtorch reading glasses, and tweezers, I diligently fought back.
I desperately needed to eat, and drink, but ticks had to come first. An invasive force of tiny parasites were steadily making their way up from my ankle line towards other parts of my body which would eventually make them impossible to find and remove. I had to work fast. They were a fraction of a pinhead in size and looked very similar to the myriad of tiny freckles and dots that are a feature of my own skin. As a result I frequently tweaked myself with the tweezers, and kept revisiting the same freckles with an extra nip just to be sure. There were quite easily fifty or so to find on each leg; with some of them already underneath my knees or starting up the thighs. But I would not be beaten.
Having thwarted the immediate threat posed by the mass invasion originating from my socks and leggings, I had to check my whole body. I knew that I was going to itch and fidget all night if I wasn't absolutely certain I had got them all. Whilst vowing ALWAYS to wear gaiters from now on, I stripped bit by bit, systematically checking as I went. I found a horrible beast embedded below my bra strap, engorged with my blood. I had to use every millimetre of stretch and bendiness to reach it and pluck it out. The tick remover did its job, operated by fingertips alone, and I was very relieved to see that the foul bug still had all its legs. This meant it hadn't left anything embedded in me! I squidged it with the tweezers making it pop like a berry. Spiteful I know. I do love nature, but this was war.
I sat there, a prisoner in my tent.
I realised why more people don't do what I am doing.
I was hungry, but there was no way I was going out there to set up my stove and cook. Even the porch of the tent was a 'no go' zone.
A cold supper for me then.
This consisted of: a packet of salted peanuts, half a Pepperami, some very crumbly stale scone and a smarties chocolate bar. I was craving fruit, but the garage at Leurbost where I did my camping shop on the way to Mangerstadh was not heavy in dried fruit, and it's just not practical to carry fresh fruit. I made sure I drank some water (although I did not want to go out in the night for a pee) and the last thing I remember is the soft comfort of my sleeping bag. Exhaustion took me and I slept right through till the stonechats' chorus.
The next day continued dangerous.
I woke with a headache. I hoped it was going to be a dull day. I prayed for cloud cover. I was all too aware that I had too much sun yesterday, and although training had kicked in well enough for me to have packed a head torch, it had NOT ensured the inclusion of a sunhat, or sun cream. I was so disappointed in myself. I could picture the sun cream in the door pocket of the car. My intention had been to pop it in my pack before saying "Bye" to Daryll, but I hadn't followed through. I could already feel the heat of the sun through the tent. Disaster! Neither heat exhaustion or sunburn are fun, and I was still a long way from home, with a whole mountain to climb, on this, the last day of my journey.
I decided to focus on feeding and hydrating myself as well as possible before thinking more about my problems. It was an absolutely stunning morning and I was pretty certain that after a cooked breakfast and tea, the problems would seem easier to tackle.
I unpegged my tent and efficiently transferred everything to the pebble beach before packing it away. Then I set up my stove, took paracetamol, and resolved to enjoy my surroundings. I chatted with the stonechats for a while, mimicking their happy 'chlacs' and 'peep's and adding a few variations of my own whilst balanced on a rounded rock looking out over the ripple free water. My eyes surveyed the bulbous jutting cliff face of Sron Ullabhal*, and its magnificent mountainous company forming the skyline opposite.
Then I ate noodles, and sipped tea while my headache subsided. The sky only became clearer, and bluer, and I would be walking into the sun all day today. Never mind, I could use a T-shirt as a veil and cover most of my head, face and neck like that. Nothing for it but just to press on.
Feeling just a little better, I tottered across the river and followed the shore towards the Morsgail bothy. Lazy beds have been dug all the way to the shore here, so I was forced to climb up and own, up and down, over them, or walk on the loose and slippery pebbles of the shore. It was a toss up, and neither was easy, until I reached a gate in a well built wall. Here I felt as if I was entering someone's property, and in that way, the Morsgail bothy has a very different vibe to the scattered black houses around it.
There is a rectangular walled enclosure to the front, which, like the fank, is incredibly well constructed from the local stone. Like a small squre field or garden, it slopes down to meet the banks of a wild river flowing from the Harris hills into the head of the loch. This yard has the most mesmerising view of those beloved hills, showing me their more unfamiliar north faces, and this morning with the sun still relatively low, they were glowing in highly defined full rocky splendour, golden, tinged with pink.
Last time I was here (on my way to Dirascal during lockdown) the bothy had been locked and the windows completely boarded up. Today, when I reached the doorway, I found that it had been kicked in.
Feeling inquisitive, I stepped carefully over the broken door and tentatively nosed inside. The first thing I saw was a row of pegs in the hallway. On them hung a set of old rat eaten waterproofs, some cobwebby wading breeches, and a perfect light coloured canvas wide brimmed hat! Mice had nibbled it, but it was there. Just waiting to save me. I dusted it off and popped on. It fitted perfectly.
An investigation of the rest of the ground floor satisfied me that no-one was going to ever miss this wonderful hat. The staircase was collapsing, and much of what had been upstairs had fallen through the floor into downstairs. The kitchen had a Marie Celeste feel to it, with mugs and pots left to dry on a drainer and a rusted out gas burner for cooking. I picked up one of the two gas cylinders, and yes, there was gas inside. There were also plenty of rusty tools, rope, glue, tins of paint and cement-all spoiled with damp and time. It looked as if there had been the intention, many years ago, to do the place up. I took particular notice of the peat cutting tool and the garden spade and fork. My imagination firing again, as it had a Tealasbhaigh, I recognised these as vital to survival should there be occasion to try and re-inhabit these settlements in a future dystopia. The future settlers would also need to harvest the seeds from the self seeded wild oats and barley. Ceann Loch Reasort held some vital keys to self sufficiency out here, far from roads and shops.
There were rat eaten waders, which had been cut down into make shift shoe-wellies, and also old salmon landing nets, now well chewed, rotted and holey. Only a few decades ago the salmon running up this river would have been so abundant you could have just stood in the river and let them leap into these nets.
Perhaps one day they will leap again, uninterrupted.
*'chlac' is a word for stone in gaelic. The onamatapoeic quality of the word works perfectly for the call of the chlacharan, which has been likened to two pebbles clacking together, a few times, rhythmically, before being followed by a shrill 'peep'.
*'Sron' means 'nose' in gaelic
*I contracted a rare form of Lyme disease which, in the second stage, attacked the sinal atrial node in my heart, preventing it from sending the electrical signals which cause the heart to beat. This is known as complete heart block. My good old heart kept beating anyway, but much more slowly and everyone seemed to expect it to stop at any moment. I will never forget Dr Asgari, at Raigmore Hospital in Inverness, the consultant who's brainwave came just in time to avoid a pacemaker being fitted. A month of antibiotics cured me completely. Lyme disease can manifest in so many different ways that it is notoriously difficult to diagnose, and if it goes to the third stage, you will never be rid of it entirely. If you are bitten by a tick, be on the look out for an unexplained fever any time up to about 6 weeks after the bite. This was the tell tale symptom that I failed to link to the tick that I had removed weeks earlier. Another month passed after the fever before my heart started to go haywire.
The famous 'bulls eye' rash doesn't always happen, but the fever will always occur as the first stage of the disease.