Many of Scotland’s place names reflect a distant past when evangelical monks wandered the country trying to convert the locals during the so-called Dark Ages. Many of these priests left an indelible mark, and were canonised as Celtic Saints; and one such was St Mael Rubha (who’s name we find in Loch Maree) who preached in the Northwest Highlands over 1300 years ago. In 672 he established a monastery on a remote peninsular in Wester Ross overlooking the islands of Raasay and Skye; in what was at that time Pictish territory. Although Mael Rubha came from Bango rin Ireland, his monastic community was named in the Pictish language as Aporcrossan (meaning the confluence of the Crossan River).
Eventually, around the 10th century the Pictish tongue gave way to the Gaelic language still spoken in the area; and the monastic community and wider area became known (and it still known) as A’ Chomraich, which means the ‘Sanctuary’; a reference back to the safety afforded by the monastery in what were wilder times. The boundary of this sanctuary was marked by several crosses, of which a couple still survive – and it is probably because of this, along with the similarity to Crossan, that the area was rendered into English as ‘Applecross’.
The monastery is long gone, and for a thousand years the fertile western slopes have been given over to farming and famous for breeding healthy and tender cattle. The only issue was getting them to market. The route along the coast was long and arduous (no road until the 1970s), swimming to Skye is untenable and to the east lies a great barrier of mountain with few natural passes. But, one does exist. Climbing from the Applecross shore the Bealach na Bà – the Pass of the Cattle, boasts the greatest single ascent of any road in the British Isles, from sea level to 2054ft at the summit; and is the third highest road in the country. It must have been some effort to steer a herd of cattle over this imposing crossing. The route down the other side is even more treacherous, if that was at all possible.
Today, most people get to Applecross from Lochcarron by taking the reverse route east to west. This section of the road is the closest we get in Scotland to the kind of road you see in the Alps, with tight switchbacks and severe gradients as the road ascends rapidly up the hillside to the Bealach. Coming from either direction, on a clear day the views from the summit across to Skye, Knoydart and Rhum are staggering. I doubt though that the drovers taking their cattle over this fearsome pass, would have tarried long to enjoy the vista.