The Bone Caves, near Inchnadamph, Assynt

ASCENT
ASCENT about 200 metres
DIFFICULTY
DIFFICULTY suitable for families — a fairly good path, with one short steep climb
DURATION
DURATION about 2 hours there and back
START
START grid reference NC 253 179, on the A837 about 35 kilometres north of Ullapool


Annotated painting of bone caves walk route, Elizabeth Pickett copyright NERC (click to enlarge).

This walk in the North West Highlands Geopark takes you up the beautiful limestone valley of the Allt nan Uamh (Burn of the Caves) to the famous Bone Caves, where the bones of bears, reindeer and wolves that once roamed this part of the country have been discovered. The whole walk is about four kilometres long and is mostly on a good path. The walk is suitable for families — but not for pushchairs, take warm clothing and wear good boots, as the weather can change rapidly in the hills. Always take a good map with you when you go out in the hills. Be careful on the final climb up to the caves where the trail crosses a steep slope.

Starting out

1. Waterfall in the Allt nan Uamh, formed where a sill of igneous rock crosses the valley

Start from the Allt nan Uamh car park, about four kilometres south of Inchnadamph, and walk up the path, which passes a fish farm. In about 200 metres you come to an attractive little waterfall with a birch tree overhanging it 1. This waterfall is here because a sill of igneous rock has baked and hardened the sedimentary rocks in the river. The dark grey igneous rock, which was formed when magma was intruded into the older sedimentary rocks, can be seen at the outflow of the pool below the waterfall.

Up the valley

Yellow saxifrage on limestone

Walk up the valley, passing crags of pale cream-coloured Durness Limestone on the left. The limestone is typically covered in a green, grassy sward with a rich flora that includes mountain avens, yellow saxifrage, and lady’s mantle, making the rock type easy for geologists and botanists alike to identify! This is good grazing land, and the remains of many shielings — huts that were used by people tending their animals during the summer — can be seen along the valley. Nowadays, deer are more common in the valley than sheep or cattle.

View up the dry river bed to Creag nan Uamh

About 800 metres from the car park, you reach a small limestone crag immediately to the left of the path 2, and the first view of Creag nan Uamh (Crag of the Caves) appears before you. This stretch of the Allt nan Uamh runs through a V-shaped river valley. Stop to look at the river in front of you. Most of the water doesn’t flow from higher up the valley as you might expect — instead, it is appearing from beneath your feet, at the base of the limestone crag. This is a major spring, the Fuaran Allt nan Uamh. The limestone in this area is so permeable that the water flows through it in a series of caves and fissures, only appearing at the surface at a few points. The water emerging here entered the underground system about a kilometre higher up this valley.

Spring in your step

3. Limestone debris cone on the northern side of the valley

The river bed above the spring is dry, except during periods of heavy rain, when the underground ‘plumbing’ system can’t take all the water and it flows on the surface. Just imagine how much water must have flowed in order to carry the large blocks in the river! Rain also loosens rocks from the crags on the valley sides, and this debris is channelled down gullies to form cone-shaped piles of loose rock at the base of the slopes.

Bear right

The Bone Caves

About 500 metres beyond the spring, where the valley opens out, the path forks 3. Bear right, cross the dry stream bed and climb up to the Bone Caves. There are four caves in the shadow of Creag nan Uamh 4. They formed thousands of years ago, before the last ice age, as water gradually dissolved the limestone along cracks and fissures. The caves here are only shallow and are the remains of a larger cave system that extended over a wide area. Over thousands of years, the valley has gradually deepened, cutting away part of the cave system, and leaving the caves we see today high and dry on the valley side.

Ancient creatures sheltered from the cold

Wolf, Elizabeth Pickett copyright NERC

Landslide derived from Torridonian Sandstone across the valley from the caves

Excavations have unearthed the bones of wolves, bears, lynxes and arctic foxes that took refuge in these caves when Scotland’s climate was much colder than it is now. Reindeer bones and antlers have also been found, but reindeer are unlikely to have entered the caves, and so it is unclear how these remains accumulated. Human artefacts and bones have been found in the caves, but very few have been dated. However, the discovery of a 2000 year old walrus ivory pin in one of the caves tells us that people were here by the Iron Age (~700 BC to AD 500). The caves are now an SSSI, so please do not dig into the floor.

People have continued to visit the caves until the present day. As one of the few limestone districts in Scotland, this valley is extremely popular with cavers. The Bone Caves themselves do not extend far into the hillside, but the entrance to the longest cave system in Scotland, the Uamh an Claonaite, is nearby.

Following the stepping stones home

The bone caves

From the caves, follow the narrow path that continues east beneath the limestone crags, with an excellent view of the quartzite ridge of Breabag in front of you. This path drops down, crosses the often flooded dry river via stepping stones and then follows the river back down the valley. Join the main path again at the fork.

Exploring the Landscape of Assynt

For the full guide book and map go to the BGS Bookshop.