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Trail talk: a birthday reminisce

It’s my birthday this week. Not a biggie, just a day. But a ‘special day’ nonetheless. So I had been casting around online looking for something a little special for Mrs Three Points of the Compass to buy me. Then I came across a name that took me back almost four years, to two days on my Three Points hike across Britain.

Preparing to toast success in reaching my second Point of the Compass in August 2018
Preparing to toast success on reaching my second Point of the Compass in August 2018

In 2018 I hiked across mainland Britain. My walk took in three of the cardinal compass points of mainland Britain- furthest South, West and North, plus the hundreds of miles before, between and after. The Lizard in Cornwall was reached after a month of walking in the ‘wrong’ direction on the 630 mile South West Coast Path and I celebrated that first point of the compass on day 26 but it took another 100 days before I reached my second point- Corrachadh Mòr, the most westerly point of Britain. Dunnet Head, my third point and the most northerly on mainland Scotland, was reached on day 151 and my hike ended at John O’Groats the following day.

The Ardnamurchan Peninsula

Back on the lovely lonely western side of Scotland’s Highlands, I had left the Cape Wrath Trail after one day for my diversion to the tip of the Ardnamurchan peninsula. This is a beautiful part of the country and despite torrential rain on occasion, I enjoyed this part of my walk immensely. The wildlife abounds. I watched three porpoises, including a mother and calf, dipping and rising just off shore. Further on, I sat on a rock for twenty minutes while an unconcerned Otter lay on it’s back in the lapping surf not fifty metres away. We watched each other and, remarkably, I moved on before he did. Buzzards and Ravens wheeled above the relict deciduous woodlands hanging off the hillsides. Occasionally Golden Eagles drifted over my head so low I could see them twisting their head to watch me.

Heading toward my Second Point of the Compass in 2018

I also had an unexpected result. I had been road walking for the first few miles but I hadn’t even realised that there was a distillery out here and I turned up the little entrance road to the reception of the Ardnamurchan Distillery. It was a spur of the moment decision to buy some whisky to celebrate a milestone on my five month hike. But it wasn’t to be. The distillery had only opened in July 2014 and they had nothing old enough legally entitled to be called whisky for sale. This is unlike in the US where there is no minimum age before a spirit can be called whiskey.

Ardnamurchan Distillery, 2018
Ardnamurchan Distillery, 2018
Clear unpeated new-make spirit samples for sale in the Ardnamurchan distillery reception. 2 August 2018
Sat in my tent on a foul evening, I inspected my gift from the staff at the Ardnamurchan Distillery
Sat in my tent on a foul evening, I inspected both my route for the following days and my gift from the staff at the Ardnamurchan Distillery. It took a lot of will power not to dip into it

There were no other visitors and I stood and chatted to Ricky. He sat, enthralled with the account of my journey so far. I explained that I had popped in on a whim in the hope of buying some whisky for my milestone the following day. “Hold on” he said, and called a colleague to mind the reception for him. Five minutes later he returned. “here you are, something decent to celebrate tomorrow with” and handed me a small bottle of amber fluid. We chatted at length until I reluctantly hefted my pack again. Having thanked him, I left him retelling my story to three of his colleagues. Moving on, the road walking was easy. But away from the roads the terrain was difficult and as I walked ever westward careful map and compass work was often essential.

Careful map and compass navigation was essential on Ardnamurchan
Red Deer halt on a rise to look back at the stranger on their hills

The huge volcanic Ardnamurchan caldera is astonishing and while crossing its flanks I had to be careful not to get crag bound or sink up to my waist crossing the peaty slashes that split the slopes. A short film from North Colour gives a glimpse of the landscape from above. At some point in the afternoon, I startled a herd of Red Deer in the swirling mist and rain. They thundered past, each side of me, close enough that I could have reached out and touched them, they climbed the hill beside me for a couple of hundred metres before stopping to look back at the unexpected interloper. That nights halt took some time to find, wet boggy ground and tussocks make for a poor site selection and it was only in the gathering gloom that I finally found a slight rise that appeared a little better drained than the surrounding ground. Later that evening my journal records a little of my situation:

“tent up, rain hammering down. Inside, clothes off, tick-check-nothing found. A clean up and tent wash. Clean dry clothes, all good and warm. A good day. Have enjoyed this. Oc. challenge, all OK”

Thursday 2nd August, 2018, Day 125, Trail Journal 3, Three Points of the Compass
Nights camp on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula. 2 August 2018
Nights camp on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula. 2 August 2018
Celebrating my Second Point of the Compass reached. 3 August 2018
Celebrating my Second Point of the Compass with cask spirit from the Ardnamurchan Distillery. 3 August 2018

The following day I was up early for yet more bog-trotting before re-joining the tarmac, heading ever westward. Just about anyone visiting the “most westerly point” of mainland Britain simply follows the scenic B8007 before turning on to the small winding road out to the lighthouse at Ardnamurchan Point. There is a decent visitor centre there, plus, bonus, a good cafe and w/c. Having stopped for tea and cake, climbed to the top of the lighthouse, looked out to sea, they then leave on the same road. However, despite what many people think, this isn’t the most westerly point. It is actually a small headland about a kilometre south. No-one goes there. Only idiots completing a self-imposed personal walking challenge!

“spent an arduous hour splashing, sploshing and cursing the horrendous bogs, dykes, watery rushes, sodden fields, precipitous drops and awkward landscape for just a mile out to Corrachadh Mòr. I can see why they don’t promote this place as it is hideous to get to”

Friday 3rd August, 2018, Day 126, Trail Journal 3, Three Points of the Compass

Having walked out to the little craggy headland I was slightly resentful that it wasn’t even midday as there were ruined stone steads and short rabbit cropped grass that would have made for a superb wildcamp. Instead, it was obligatory photos and I pulled my little bottle from the pack.

My two-good-mouthfuls sample was warehouse release maturing spirit. It was less than two years old and matured in Olorosso/Pedro Ximenez (PX) sherry casks and was 53.8%. Because of its youth, no doubt it was pretty rough when I drank it. Sadly, I made no tasting notes, simply that I enjoyed it. I was a bit knackered, high on achievement and even with such a small volume, the spirit went straight to my head. I may have had a fun time getting out to the headland, but my journal also records my return to the road while light-headed. Thankfully, careful map and compass work was not essential at this time:

“”sploshed into a couple of bogs I should have avoided on the hour long splash splosh ‘where the hell am I’ trek back to the same clamber over the same gate”.

Friday 3rd August, 2018, Day 126, Trail Journal 3, Three Points of the Compass

I actually met Ricky again. Later that day I walked to the most westerly post office in Britain to post a bundle of maps home to Mission Control. Ricky had the day off and was also in the little store and he asked me how I had got on. I relayed a story of bogs- “Aye, I thought that when you showed me the map. There may be a path shown on it but I doubt anyone has walked that route in forty years”.

Kilchoan Post Office stamp from journal

By the 6th August 2018, I was back on the Cape Wrath Trail and my adventure northward continued. There were many such memorable moments during that five month hike across Britain but I never forgot that Scottish distillery. I never forgot the welcome I was given. I never forgot the serendipity of being able to toast a milestone on a long hike through the unexpected kindness of another.

So what of my birthday reminisce this week? Browsing online, I came across a mention of that distillery I visited in August four years ago en route to my second point of the compass. The Ardnamurchan name alone was sufficient to bring the memory flooding back and I immediately dug out my trail journal to read my poor, barely legible, scant notes. I am so glad I do made the effort to keep a trail journal. There are pages more than I have shared here and each line is a memory.

While I knew there are another couple of years before Ardnamurchan release their first ten-year old whisky, I found that they have been selling limited bottlings of their developing spirit so that whisky lovers can follow its development. By all accounts there has been a growing excitement and appreciation too and the limited batches have been selling out ever more quickly. Ardnamurchan are a medium sized distillery that produces around 400 000 litres of alcohol per annum. With such excitement being generated it is perhaps unsurprising that just about all the batches released so far have quickly sold out. It helps that independent bottlers Adelphi, owner of the distillery, have been keeping prices ‘reasonable’. Though she wasn’t aware of it at the time, Mrs Three Points of the Compass immediately ordered a £45 bottle for me. This is Ardnamurchan AD/04.22:02 Single Malt Whisky, the first core release of 2022. It is a 50/50 combined 2015 and 2016 vintage peated and unpeated whisky- 65% from ex-bourbon and 35% from ex-sherry casks and bottled without chill-filtration or artificial colouring. 46.8% ABV. Most distilleries will dilute their product to 40% or 43% and chill filter to remove the natural oils and fats that can clump together to create a slight haze when cold water or ice is added to the drink. A process called flocculation. I don’t add either to my glass so seldom experience this. It becomes less of an issue with whisky bottled at 46% or above hence Ardnamurchan eschewing chill-filtration. They also sterilise their water under UV rather than filter so their whiskys can still retain high levels of naturally occurring minerals. Flocculation can occur as a result of these.

Everyone wants to know more about the food and drink they are consuming. Ardnamurchan have taken this to the extreme by including a barcode on the bottle’s label. When I followed this link I am provided with more information than I could ever wish. This includes the name of the farm that supplied the Concerto barley, the name of the field where it was grown, the temperature of the water when mashing, hours of fermentation, yeast varieties and so on. I am also told that mine is 169 of 25200 bottles, also that Kelly Combe bottled it on 26 April 2022.

It is a potent spirit and there is a lot going on. I won’t detail my tasting notes here as that is personal to everyone. Notes provided by the distillery are below, however I have excluded the more flowery prose.

Nose: Toasted marshmallows, minerals, orange oil and popcorn.

Palate: Salted popcorn, bitter orange oil, toasted and charred marshmallows, smores, pebble beach, mineralic, sea salt, briney, lime cordial, dark chocolate, smokey old fashioned.

Ardnamurchan AD whisky- a first glass
Ardnamurchan AD whisky- a first glass

That can be the nature of a long trail. Years later you can be transported immediately back to it. Anything might trigger this, such as a snippet of music, a scent, a trail journal, a photo or, in my case this week, a simple place name.

6 replies »

  1. This is a most excellent story, Jools, thank you. Serendipity keeps me going on a long trail too.
    Many happy returns.


  2. Best wishes! I enjoy your writing tremendously, thank you. As for the lot of gear/stuff you mention I can follow your lead, but here, what a pity, all those whiskey bottles look tasty, but in practice I never enjoyed them :-). I stick to the old good tea.


    • Cheers Macias, it takes a lot of perseverance, trial and error, just have to make the effort 😉


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