There is a classic Highlands loch-side walk, which runs for 14 miles from the village of Morar on Loch Morar ending at the landing jetty at Tarbet on Loch Nevis. The path hugs the shore of Loch Morar for much of its route, passing through the village of Bracara, the settlement at Bracorina and the hamlet of Brinacory and, when you reach Tarbet, it is possible to arrange to be picked up by a small ferry operating out of Mallaig and to be whisked back to civilisation across Loch Nevis, and so preventing you from having to retrace your route. It sounded like the perfect day-trip while I was staying in Morar.
Doing a little bit more research before I embarked on the walk, I discovered that Ruth Livingstone had done the walk before me as part of her endeavour to walk around the entire coastline of the British mainland, the adventures of which she recounts on her excellent blog site. It was good to hear another solo woman’s account of walking in a wild part of Britain.
I was also interested to read another section of Ruth’s blog, which was entitled Killer Cattle and about a walking group called COWS––Cattle of Walkers Safety––who had started their own blog called Killer Cows. I say ‘interested’, but privately I probably meant ‘amused’. I had often met with cows during many of my own walks in the British countryside, and I had always found them perfectly peaceable creatures.
But that was before I began my walk to Tarbet.
The start of the walk was simple enough, following the tarmacked road almost as far as Bracorina. The day had started misty, but there looked as though there was the prospect of fine weather ahead, and I had deliberately started early so that I did not feel rushed to catch the ferry.
In fact, I had left the matter of returning on the ferry slightly to chance. Although I knew that it was scheduled to travel that day, I had not actually booked a ticket; slightly chancing to fate that I would still be within an area of mobile connectivity to call the boat mid-walk. Lucky providence.
At the point that the road ended, a large gate gave access to a muddy, slightly rocky trail, and an encouraging sign indicated that the route to Tarbet was only 5½ miles further. It was still scarcely mid-morning; it seemed as though the journey ahead was going to prove a breeze.
And then I met the cows.
There was one large cow and her calf, and a line of shaggy, brown heifers, and they were all blocking the path ahead. I advanced a few paces, expecting them to disperse, but they held their ground, resolutely. The large cow began a loud, doleful baying. I tried to see if there was any way to skirt around them, but the ground on both sides of the path was insurmountable. What was I to do? I decided to wait it out. Trust in the fact that the cows would lose patience in blocking the route quicker than I would lose patience wanting to cross it. It all came down to a battle of wills. The cows versus me.
Five minutes; ten minutes. Still the stalemate continued. And then a breakthrough. A couple of the heifers began to move off; a couple more followed; finally the large cow and her calf slowly retreated. I decided to give them time to get right away before I began to advance.
Only then did I realise the cunningness of the cows’ plan. There had been no question of retreat; more a matter of retrenchment. Rather than move completely off the path, the heifers and the large cow had simply found a place where they could block it even more effectively. And, in addition, they had rounded up reinforcements.
Now, the heifers had been big; the large cow had been bigger still; but the half a dozen bovine bovver-boys that they had managed to muster to bulk out their ranks were frankly enormous. It convinced me that there was a secret auroch breeding programme at work in the Highlands. I have never seen such big beasts before. Also, these were not dumb creatures. They had lined up in a defensive formation, which could have been straight out of the pages of Sun Tzu. The heifers set up an initial blockade, protecting the cow and her calf, whilst the monster bulls formed a second line of resistance, which was essentially impregnable. As if in acknowledgement of their victory, the entire herd began a synchronised chorus of menacing bellows, which were sufficient to have me quickly backtracking the way I had just come.
I felt quite aggrieved at being so helplessly thwarted. After all, the route was a recognised right of way; I would have had the law on my side if I had simply forced a passage, except I didn’t think that the cows were any great respecters of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 or the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003. In this instance, it was simply a case of might is right.
So, I never got to Tarbet. I never needed the ferry across Loch Nevis. I merely retraced my steps, recognising with each retreating footfall the wisdom of Ruth Livingstone’s sage warnings regarding killer cattle.
© E. C. Glendenny
Travel writer E. C. Glendenny likes to assert her right of way.