Walking the Cape Wrath Trail

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Cape Wrath Trail: why, what, which way?

Another Cape Wrath Trail blog? Having  walked half of this long-distance trail in north west Scotland in 2012, and the second half in 2013 (the link to the second half is at the top of this page) it seemed to me that some prospective walkers would benefit from help with route-finding along a trail that seems bound to grow in popularity in coming years. Because while there are no little signs sticking out of the ground marked ‘Cape Wrath Trail this way’ – yet – this is a trail that long-distance walkers, searching for something different, are evidently tackling in increasing numbers. Owners of hotels, B&Bs, bunk houses, hostels and campsites on and near the trail route are also mostly aware of its existence, which also contributes to the sense that the CWT is set to become a permanent part of the long-distance walking itinerary. So, if you want to walk the trail, do it now rather than later. A new guide by Iain Harper, just published by Cicerone (April 2013), should also increase its popularity – which is good for bunkhouse owners, not so good for walkers seeking splendid isolation in the Highlands. But another reason for writing this is the sense that some strange stuff is being talked about the CWT. Before I went (in June 2012) I met a young bloke working in an outdoor shop who said he’d just followed the CWT as far as Ullapool. Yet when we talked about his route, it became obvious that we were following different trails to the same destination. The route I followed was based on the somewhat eccentric trail described by Denis Brooke and Phil Hinchcliffe in North to the Cape (Cicerone, 1999), which starts at Fort William and immediately heads west to Glenfinnan before turning north. Yet the outdoor shop bloke said he’d walked north east up the Caledonian Canal before turning left and north somewhere or other. He mumbled something about Morvich and the fact that he didn’t tackle the Falls of Glomach because he didn’t have trekking poles (I missed the falls out too, but not because I didn’t have any poles). Then he said that the Brooke/ Hinchcliffe route was out of date because paths they described no longer existed. But this is plain rubbish, since most of the Brooke/Hinchcliffe route is on tracks along moorland, glens and over passes which have been formed over generations. They don’t disappear overnight, even if some information in North to the Cape is out of date.

waterfall

Another CWT sight worth writing home about: the falls at Easan Dorcha near the Coulin Pass

I brief, I wondered later just where this bloke had walked. However, he seems to have initially followed the route favoured by author and TGO editor-at-large Cameron McNeish, who suggests the Caledonian Canal as a starter rather than the scenic left-up-left-up-up-right approach of  Brooke and Hinchcliffe. Although one hostel owner did make comment that the Caledonian Canal route is a pretty boring way of starting this great walk, I’m not suggesting here that the CWT should become standardised. Indeed, surely one of the CWT’s attractions for more experienced walkers is that there is no set route. You can cut a few corners on published itineraries, miss out some short but dull road-walking sections by getting a lift (I and some other walkers I met did so), and still get one of the best, perhaps the best (and few remaining), experiences of true wilderness walking in Britain as you head north. The new Cicerone guide will recommend a new route variation north of Ullapool,  perhaps adding to the sense that the CWT is whatever you want it to be. As long as you walk most of your chosen route, most people would say you have earned the right to say you’ve done it. Or is the issue not that straight forward? Why does  the same laissez-faire attitude not apply to the Pennine Way? Discuss.

The other reason for this blog is to help walkers with some of the trickier navigational moments of the North to the Cape route. Basically, some of the Brooke/Hinchcliffe (B&H) directions read like a child’s idea of a pirate treasure map. At one point you are asked to turn left where there is a tree on a rock in a river. Another section advises walkers to find an important path by scrambling up a steep glen where the river turns south west and shoots out of a gorge. Later they put the fear of God into you by advising that it is crucial to find a certain remote lochan to avoid walking into the wrong mountain pass. This kind of thing is great for those who don’t want or need exact directions; it’s not so good for those who, unlike Ranulph Fiennes, do not have 100% confidence in their navigational abilities. Despite completing several other long-distance walks I fell into this category and I can happily report that if I can find my way for over 100 miles across Britain’s last wilderness (despite losing my compass at one point), then most people can. The CWT can certainly be a rough, tough walk – probably the toughest in Britain – but it needn’t be off-limits to all but a band of ‘been there, done that’ walking elite. If nothing else, you can read the following as a commentary on the route set out in North to the Cape. I aim to complete the second leg of the walk in spring 2013.

Day 1:

You know the feeling: a rail ticket in your pocket; a rucksack that seems far too heavy; and feelings of excitement about the adventure to come. You’re about to start a long-distance walk. This one began with the way-too-expensive Scotrail sleeper to Fort William. At Fort William I had to wait two hours for the ten-minute ferry crossing across Loch Linnhe and from there it was an undemanding hike along the quiet south shore of Loch Eil towards Glenfinnan in blazing sunshine. Towards the end of the loch a friendly crofter gave me a lift to Locheilside rail station on the other side of the loch and from there I finished the journey to Glenfinnan on the train. The alternative was a walk along a busy main road, and finishing the journey by train over the Glenfinnan Viaduct seemed the more interesting option. I offered the crofter some money for his fuel and bother. “Och no!” he said.  B&H suggest you can stay in B&Bs on the southside of Loch Eil. These looked nice but the hostel at Glenfinnan was £14 and that won the argument at this stage of the journey.

The view from Loch Eil. Not a bad place for lunch.

Day 2: Drumsallie to Strathan/Loch Arkaig – ten miles. The real walking now begins. But first there was an 8am bus journey back down the road to the crossroads at Drumsallie, where B&H’s CWT starts in earnest. This short bus trip had a sour moment when a passenger on the bus quickly ordered me not to sit towards the front of the bus because local school children sat there (which is exactly where he and many other passengers were sitting). He then barked: “You’re lucky to get on the bus!” Matters weren’t helped when I later realised I’d missed my stop and had to walk back up the main road to the trail start at Drumsallie. No matter. Almost everybody I met in this part of Scotland after this more than made up for this bloke’s evident dislike of walkers/the English/human beings under 65.

Sign to Strathan warning that you are about to leave the known universe

The trail begins with an easy walk north and east along a rough track beside and above the river Fionn Lighe. As the track turns east the vast bulk of Gulvain, a 987-metre high Munro, shows itself. Just before Gulvain you turn left off the track and begin the gentle ascent north over boggy ground to a rocky outcrop called Gualann nan Osna. B&H  remark that there is a ‘faint path’ heading across this ground. There is certainly a faint 4×4 track heading in the right direction and I would recommend taking this to make life easier. But after a while the track peters out and you are left to find your own best way over the rough terrain. It’s tiring and the terrain certainly slowed down my usual quick marching speed. However, the profusion of pretty bog wild flowers here, as well as the occasional leg-breaking hole in the ground, should help keep your mind off the leaden feeling in your legs.

After a while the beast Gulvain shows its face.

The descent from Gualann nan Osna down the other side to the Allt (burn) Camgharaidh is also rough and steep and I had to backtrack around several shallow gullies to find the best way down. Where you come out at the river depends on your route down the hill. But no matter where you descend, you face another, much steeper, ascent of the glen in front of you to reach Strathan and Loch Arkaig. At this point I did wonder if I could I just follow the glen north all the way to the loch. But OS shows there is no path from the river outlet to Strathan and so I had to accept another ascent. B&H’s comical advice at this point is that you should turn left at the burn ‘at a point identified by a tree on a rock’, walk upstream for about 1km and then head NW up the side of the glen. Trouble is, there are a lot of rocks and a lot of trees in and near the river. And, depending on where you come down from Gualann nan Osna, you might be north or south of the tree-on-rock. So, I decided just to walk upstream for a while until I could identify the pass out of the glen. This takes you further into the wide, yawning – and empty – green glen of the Allt Camgharaidh. With no other people around, and no sign of any habitation, I could see why the author Tom Atkinson called his book about North West Scotland ‘The Empty Lands.’  After walking an estimated kilometre, and unable to line up my OS map with the shapes of the peaks and tops along the top of the glen, I decided to head up the shortest way I could find. A steep walk/scramble got me to the top and, lo, I soon saw a path and the line of iron fence posts that B&H say take you over the pass. From this point I had the first panoramic view of Strathan, Glen Pean and Glen Dessarry where I would be walking the next day. There is a very steep and pathless descent to the glen below and, once there, you face a very boggy walk to Strathan (my right leg disappeared up to the thigh in the bog at one point). I wish now I’d camped somewhere up Glen Dessarry because my pitch at Strathan soon became midge hell. I escaped by walking to placid Loch Arkaig as the sun went down, and inspecting the ruins of the Jacobite-era army barracks, dated to 1745 by OS. Wilderness was one reason I was doing this walk – seeking out a few reminders of the Jacobite rebellion, and learning some social history of the glens which supported it, and later suffered Hanoverian vengeance as a consequence, was another.

That’s Loch Arkaig down there. Strathan is between the loch and the forest.

Day Three: Strathan to Sourlies bothy at Loch Nevis –  nine miles (or thereabouts). On the face of it, it doesn’t seem right that you should have to walk the best part of ten miles west to the sea on a route to the north. Yet west to salt water is exactly where B&H send you. And this is perhaps because while there is a signposted hill track heading north east from Strathan, it takes you to Loch Quoich – while, towards the west, the path heads straight to Loch Nevis via some lovely little lochans – and there’s a popular little bothy to stay in on the beach a few miles beyond it too. And the route gets you right into the heart of Knoydart. Whatever the reasoning, this should be an easier day walking. I was fortunate to do it on a day of blazing sunshine.  As you head west on an easy track you see the A’ Chuil bothy over to the left (perhaps to be considered an alternative to camping at Strathan) and after that you are soon approaching a large area of plantation and deciduous woodland. As you do  you can clearly see the mouth of the pass ahead. B&H recommend you skirt around the edge of the woodland en route to the pass but, having already missed that path at Upper Glendessarry, I decided to go through the forest on wide tracks and paths which ultimately join up with the ‘official’ path. I’m glad I did because the woodland walking beside and over numerous burns, some slow moving, some roaring with white water, was rewarding. The going becomes rougher in the pass but the way is obvious. Even so, I completely missed the iron gate that B&H mention as having seen in 1983.

The post, minus its sign, iron gate and cairn mark the official route through the pass – if you can find them

The reason why I missed it was because I was following another track through the pass; the reason I found it was because I had a sudden feeling that I was in the wrong pass and walking to the wrong loch. This was because, from the forest, another glen descends south west to the sea and empties into Loch Morar. Like the one to Loch Nevis, the glen to Loch Morar contains a lochan – and I could now see a body of water ahead. Speaking to some Scottish walkers I met later, it is not unknown for walkers to mistakenly follow the path to Loch Morar.  The end result was that I backtracked, and it was only by backtracking that I saw the iron gates and the cairn, which confirmed I was where I should have been. The body of water I had seen was the secluded Lochan a Mhaim and spending some at its side, enclosed by mountains, should be an occasion you tell yourself that following the CWT was a very good decision.

Lochan a Mhaim: a little bit of heaven on earth

As the track begins to descend, it enters a narrow gorge which forces you to clamber from rock to rock and jump from one side of the river to the other. OS marks it as a path, but it doesn’t deserve the title. And after a while you come to a dead end, which is the sheer drop of a waterfall. At this point the path exits sharply from the gorge and you descend to sea level via a hillside path.

at this point you will be looking for another exit from the gorge

B&H remark that the descent to Sourlies is ‘unsparing, undefined and steep in places.’ It is steep, yes, but it is on a clear path and, as you descend further, you may, as I did, enjoy intoxicating natural perfumes blending the smells of wild flowers, wood and water. The path finally delivers you at Sourlies bothy. In June, the main drawback of the bothy was that I had walk a good quarter of a mile back to the River Finiskaig to collect fresh water because the springs around the bothy had dried up. Why? It was a peculiarity of British weather systems  that while the rest of Britain was suffering heavy rain and floods, the North West Highlands were in a prolonged dry period that had left many springs and mountain burns completely dry and reduced rivers to shallow trickles. I had brought two trekking poles to help negotiate these rivers and it was now apparent that they were unnecesary – which was a good job because by this stage I had broken one of them and lost the other.

early morning visit by deer to Sourlies

Sea pinks on the shore of Loch Nevis

Looking towards Sourlies from the River Finiskaig

Day Three: Sourlies to Kinloch Hourn – 13/14 miles. This day’s hard walk ended as it began, with a clamber over rocks beside sea water. B&H say that you ‘may well have to scramble’  to reach the headland next to the adjacent glen. What this means is that when the tide  is in at Loch Nevis then you have to scramble over some big, big boulders to get around to the mouth of the River Carnach in the glen next door. Since the tide was also covering the path that crosses the strath of this glen, I had to walk to the right of the glen and only crossed to the left of the river when the glen narrows. B&H recommend that you camp a little further up the river at the end of the previous day and if, like me, you stayed at Sourlies instead, then you should soon be passing the area they favour where the river is marked by crashing waterfalls, big pools and snake-like twists as it heads deeper into the glen and Knoydart. Although the path becomes vague in places, it follows the river, which heads north west, north (at last) and north west again. As the river changes direction, the glen steepens and narrows and the sense of seclusion (or isolation) grows greater. And throughout this section of the walk, the stoney round top of Ben Aden looks down on you, like the All-Seeing Eye of Sauron. For a while, you may feel like you have entered a forgotten world.

Into Knoydart…

However, you surely won’t have forgotten that somewhere up ahead B&H will ask you to exit the glen in a dramatic and tiring fashion. At a point where the river turns south west and comes out of a gorge, they say, ascend the ‘very steep side’ of the glen to find a defined path that will take you over a pass and down to Loch Hourn. Well, I thought I could see where the river turned south west. But a gorge? May be. Then I thought: if I could follow the river to Lochan nam Breac, further up the glen, I could pick up the ‘defined’ path from there without all the hassle of having to go up the side of the glen. Then I thought: why didn’t the people who came this way before me build a little cairn, or an arrow, showing the right way. How selfish of them not to. Then I thought: I can’t get any further up the glen to the lochan because there’s a cliff in the way, so this is surely the right place to ascend. Then I thought: but which way? Since there were a multiplicity of steep surfaces and rock faces I went for the nearest slope I could scramble up, the one covered in bracken, and hoped I would find the path eventually. B&H say you must climb for 100m ‘or so’ but after an estimated 100m ‘or so’ I still hadn’t seen anything. However, it was flattish on the top and so I wandered around a bit until I saw what seemed to be a winding path fit for the name. I turned left and went on. Needless to say, I hadn’t built a little cairn or an arrow at the bottom either. But the clue to finding the right location is that you ascend the glen where you can’t follow the river on its left bank any more. It all seems obvious now. (Post-script: one walker I met recently said she had got lost on this part of the walk and spent an hour fruitlessly chasing tracks along the river rather than going up the glen. What she did was to keep walking into the gorge (she climbed over the cliffs which mark the end of the path) and saw what she thought was the track beside the river below. When she realised it was actually an ‘animal track’ she had to scramble upwards out of the gorge).

is this 100m ‘or so’ from the bottom of the glen? Anyway, that’s Lochan nam Breac in the distance.

Once on the top the path winds steeply up to the broad pass and then begins to drop steeply towards Barrisdale Bay on Loch Hourn. In retrospect I wish I’d stopped the day’s walking at Barrisdale Bay and stayed at the bunkhouse there, which costs £3 a night and has luxuries like running water and a flushing toilet. Had I stayed I would have spent the afternoon exploring the beach. But after a coffee and a good read of the guest book, in which one visitor describes being chased to the bunkhouse by a banshee and uses the words ‘I shit myself”, I decided to press on to Kinloch Hourn at the end of this big sea loch. B&H warn that it’s a tiring, tortuous path and so it proved. I heard later that two Americans had tried, and failed, to ride this path on mountain bikes they’d brought over with them from the USA. Part of the path near the side of the loch was also being repaired and so, once again, I had to clamber over boulders hanging over sea water. But three hours later I was at the end, it was pouring down – the only big soaking of the entire walk – and I was knocking on the door of the B&B at the tea rooms. Yes, the people at the B&B had a room. And their names, they said, were Mary and Joseph.

coming over the pass before dropping down to Barrisdale Bay

Day Four: Kinloch Hourn to Shiel Bridge – 9-10 miles. The tiny community at Kinloch Hourn was fresh and rain-washed the next morning and a nice bloke from Aberdeen gave me his new compass to replace the one I’d lost the previous day. With my trekking poles lost or broken, and the compass having been dropped somewhere beside the River Carnach, I didn’t at this point feel like I should be trusted with the navigation of the Beardmore Glacier. Nevertheless, the path was clear enough as it steeply ascended the side of the loch en route to the big pass to Shiel Bridge via the Forcan Ridge.

goodbye Kinloch Hourn

As you come up from the loch there is an awkward split in the path. The lower path continues downhill and leads to Lochan Torr a Choit, which you can see in the middle distance. The higher path, the one you want, is marked by a slightly delapidated green sign. After a while following this you will get to the lonely estate shelter that B&H talk about. The sign they reproduce in the book is no longer there.

The hut

The hut looks over to the impressive ridge Sgurr na Sgine which was, as they say, shrouded in mist. Although OS has a pass marked here, this isn’t the way out.

Sgurr na Sgine ahead

The path continues around the hill and, where it peters out at the next burn, the Coire Mhalagain, you are directed to turn right and head up to the pass, called Bealach Coire Mhalagain.  B&H write that there is no “formal path” at the burn. This is true, but I could see vehicle tracks heading up and down the burn on the far bank. The one going upstream should help you negotiate the rough plod for a while but when this also runs out you are left to pick your own way to the steep bottom of the pass. It’s a very rough pass, furrowed by shallow gullies and strewn with boulders towards the top. “Steep ascent. No path,” remark B&H.  I was initially confused by this pass because I had been expecting to see a lochan at the bottom of it. Although I still think it’s difficult to tell from OS where the lochan is in relation to the top of the pass, the water creeps into view at the far right-hand end of the pass as you come over the top. A boulder field lies around you at the top of a slope that drops steeply to Glen Shiel. Just above you and to the left rises the sharp jagged profile of the Forcan Ridge. Below the ridge, among the grey boulder field, is a prominent line of rocks that hides the rough path that takes you down from the pass. I had lunch among these rocks, wondering where the path would take me next.

Follow the boulders

Coming down from the pass, heading over the round top of Meallan Odhar, I met three English walkers coming up – the first people I’d seen since leaving the B&B that morning. A little below here the path heads steeply down to Glen Shiel and the main road to Shiel Bridge. B&H, always keen to direct walkers away from the handiwork of human beings, suggest you don’t go that way but descend into the adjacent glen of a burn, the Choire Chaoil, which runs parallel to the road. I took their advice and soon started to rue the decision since it entailed a two-hour plod over rough ankle-breaking terrain.

The way ahead from Meallan Odhar. Loch Duich in the background.

Nevertheless, this pathless route had its compensations including plunging waterfalls and passing among grazing horses in the later afternoon sun. After an age, you meet up with the hard, formal path coming down Glen Undalain and this delivers you directly to the campsite at Shiel Bridge. You should pick up a mobile phone signal here – the first since Glenfinnan.

In the glen of the Allt a Choire Chaoil

Day Five: Shiel Bridge to Camas-Luinie in Glen Elchaig – ten miles? Glen Shiel was the scene  of a brief firefight between Hanoverian and Jacobite forces in 1719, the year of the second of the three Jacobite rebellions. The battle took place on June 10 near Loch Duich ‘at the narrow north western exit of the glen just above Shiel Bridge’ according to Christopher Duffy in The ’45 (Cassell, 2003). The redcoats used mortars to shell a combined force of Highlanders and Spanish troops, which caused the Scots to retreat and the Spaniards to surrender. After Culloden in 1746, Bonnie Prince Charlie was sheltered by allies near the glen. An account of an attempt by Peter D. Brown to retrace the Prince’s escape route across the Highlands, indeed across some of the terrain just covered in this part of the CWT, can be read at  http://www.1745association.org.uk/Long%20March.htm. But, for now, Shiel Bridge was important because of several outstanding attractions – showers at the campsite and a shop at the nearby filling station where I restocked with food for the next leg. After a spell of road-walking on the A87 down to Loch Duich, the path turned north east past the busy caravan site at Morvich. By coincidence a certain charity athletic event was taking place the same day and so this area was full of competitors warming up in preparation for their 50-mile run-and-bike event. One or two nodded a friendly hello, some gave me a snooty up-and-down look and a few seemed to regard this small part of Scotland as off-limits to anybody not wearing shorts and a number. A burly bloke in a pony tail ran past and spat at the ground near my feet. I kept walking to the nearby Kintail Outdoor Centre, which is marked on OS as a place of tourist interest. I thought I’d have a quick break there. Just inside the door there was an older man who quickly asked me who I was and what I was doing there. This seemed to be a strange question since I was wearing boots, gaiters, walking trousers and had a bulging 45L rucksack strapped to my back. Was there a place to get a cup of coffee? No, it was a private hostel only open to groups. How much did the beds cost? £16 on average but, as he said, it was only open to groups. Etc, etc. After all this I was keen to get walking again and disappear into the landscape. The outdoor centre, by the way, is owned by the National Trust for Scotland.

Event sign. But jogging unlikely with a 45L rucksack on your back.

B&H here suggest that CWT walkers follow the path upto and around the Falls of Glomach a few miles to the east, returning down Glen Elchaig. This is basically a big scenic detour and I’d already identified a different and more direct route into Glen Elchaig on the map. Beside this, I had heeded the warnings of B&H and many others about the path up the side of the gorge of the falls and, knowing that I don’t handle exposure-at-height very well, had determined to avoid it. So I followed the track – marked Glomach Falls – along the river Abhainn Chonaig and finally into the Dorusduain Wood, a large and very dense conifer plantation stuck on the glen side which has been described by campaigners such as the Scottish Wild Land Group as a ‘huge visual intrusion’ which would benefit from ‘rewilding’ with native species. ‘Rewilding’  is very much a live issue in Scotland and there was much evidence of it on this walk in the days ahead. Here, as you follow winding forestry tracks through Dorusduain Wood  you should notice that the conifers are so dense that almost no light filters through to the forest floor. But the OS’s mapping of these tracks is accurate and so after some gentle walking the map showed that I had to leave the track to Glomach Falls and head more steeply north into the forest. After tackling a very, very steep gravel path the way levels out on a poor path that heads over the pass between the stoney round tops of Carnan Cruithneachd and Creag na h-lolaire.

above Dorusduain Wood

The path remains poor and relatively obscure as it winds down and across the face of the hill into Glen Elchaig, occasionally skirting the top of rock faces. Looking back when I finally got to the bottom I could see no trace of the path on the hillside. OS then shows the path crossing the river Elchaig near Cragog in the glen. But this is one of those rare OS errors because there is no bridge – something to bear in mind if you come this way when the river is in spate. Fortunately, the water level was low in June and I was able to dash over to the northern bank. B&H’s end point for this stage is the hamlet of Killilan. Since there is nowhere to stay there they must assume that walkers will wild camp. But there is a bunkhouse close by, at the glen’s other hamlet, Camas-luinie, which is where I now headed as I plodded north west up the road and recrossed the river through a field of Highland Cattle to the farm at Coille-righ. B&H state that they didn’t test the “viability” of this route; well, it is viable and a little further along it delivers you straight to the White Falls Retreat bunkhouse and cottages at Camas-luinie.

The path to Camas-luinie

Of all the glens I was travelling through Glen Elchaig was the one that most interested me – in part because of its ‘secluded’ reputation, in part because of its noble beauty and in part because it remains populated, but only barely so. In The Drove Roads of Scotland (David & Charles, 1973), A.R.B. Haldane said that the glen was probably used by drovers moving their cattle from Skye in ancient times. Farmer and bunkhouse owner Willie Nicolson, who brought me two farm eggs for breakfast, also talked about some aspects of the glen’s social history and later gave me a book about the glen, Beloved Over All: Glen Elchaig In Kintail, written by his late aunt Isabel M. Nicolson. The front cover shows an old-time illegal whisky distiller called Ali Mal as he merrily pours a glass of his spirit.  “Near where you came through the kissing gate on the way here did you see four stones sticking out of the ground?” said Willie. I had and had wondered what they were for. “Well that was where he used to live and had a whisky distillery.” His aunt’s book is full of stories about local people and the stories behind the place names, places and hill tracks that people used to walk to get about before the age of the car. If you want a real feeling of isolation, said Willie, go up to Loch nan Ealachan to the north of the glen, or Loch nan Eun, which translates as Loch of the Birds, to the south. “People always talk about Knoydart being the last wilderness,” said Willie. “But it isn’t, the real wilderness is the land around here, it’s just that there’s nothing specific to attract people there.”

Walking out of Glen Elchaig

Day Six: Camas-luinie to Strathcarron – 11 miles. I was sad to leave Camas-luinie and would have gladly stayed a few days in quiet Glen Elchaig, which is a world way in feeling from busy Loch Duich, with its tourist traffic passing to and from Skye, just over the other side of the hill. But I also knew that the walk north to Loch Strathcarron and Stathcarron looked relatively easy and so was in harness early after a luxury breakfast of porridge – and scrambled eggs. After skirting Killilan the path leads into Glen Ling, following the River Ling which descends via waterfalls under a cliff face. The path “bifurcates” at some point, say B&H, employing an unnecessarily obscure word. They mean it splits, so you keep to the lower one near the river. Further on the path crosses a burn and you need to find a bridge 100m upstream, state our favourite guides. No, the bridge is right there. After this the track moves more or less gently uphill and away from the river as it passed out of the glen and into a plantation.  Here, I followed B&H’s advice  to seek out Loch an Iasaich and was soon glad I had made the diversion.

Loch an Iasaich

From here you are on an undemanding descent to the formal gardens at Attadale at the north end of Loch Carron.

One of the pleasures of doing the CWT is summer is the profusion of wild flowers. Here, in about one square foot of grass on the walk down to Attadale, are four or five typical bog wild flowers including bog cotton and bog asphodel.

B&H suggest you “follow the road”  a mile or so up to Strathcarron from this point but it would be perfectly excusable to hitch a lift or even get the train from the stop at Attadale to the next station at Strathcarron or Achnashellach in Glen Carron. That’s because the road to Strathcarron, the A890, is busy, initially steep, has blind bends and no footpath. Unfortunately, if you’re at Attadale, the only way north is via the road or the railway. I trudged up the road and, while dodging camper vans, at least had the advantage of seeing how the mountains in this area near Torridon were changing shape. In contrast to the jagged stony beasts to the south,  some of the mountains visible around Strathcarron are more whale-backed and hide their bulk in thick low clouds, as if sulkily reluctant to show their true face.

Approaching Strathcarron

Apart from the hotel at Strathcarron, one of the main draws of the hamlet is its Post Office and community shop where you can restock. However, you shouldn’t go hungry around here as there are also shops at the next stage stop, Kinlochewe. And there are supplies available at Gerry’s bunkhouse, a few miles up the road from Strathcarron, which is where I headed after a night at the Strathcarron Hotel – or at least in a field over the road, which is where they let me camp when I found out all the rooms were full.

Day Seven: Strathcarron to Achnashellach – eight miles. In their guide, B&H recommend that walkers now have an easy day and walk up the road to Achnashellach Station where they can stay at the nearby Achnashellach Lodge. But since the lodge no longer appears to be in business, you’d be better off spending half the day lazily exploring the Strathcarron area and then devoting the afternoon to plodding up the road to Gerry’s Hostel on the A890. Or, you could avoid the road walking by getting a lift to Achnashellach Station and then continue the walk to Kinlochewe. As it turned out, I had met a character at the Strathcarron Hotel the night before who offered me a lift to Gerry’s Hostel, a few miles beyond the station. And so, after a hot £7.50 breakfast at the hotel, I was at Gerry’s Hostel at mid-morning and wondering what to do with myself.  Since I’d walked a few miles of B&H’s recommended route north of Strathcarron the day before, after setting up the tent at the hotel, I didn’t feel too guilty about missing the tiring trudge up the road. And I now fully assuaged my walker’s guilt by doing the first part of B&H’s official route north from Achnashellach Station. I rationalised it as a scouting mission and an opportunity to follow an old track up to the Coulin Pass which Gerry told me about with the aid of one of his old 1:50,000 scale maps. This track cuts steeply upwards through the forest north of the A890 and marks the route of an old drove road between Torridon and Craig – which is where Gerry’s Hostel stands.

Sign to the old path to the Coulin Pass

Although the track is yet to be noted by the OS Explorer map for this area, it is marked by a big Scottish Rights of Way Society sign on the road about a kilometre south of Gerry’s Hostel. I’m confused by this sign because the ‘Ettrick Shepherd’ and Scottish writer named on it was known as James Hogg, not Thomas (there’s also a framed extract from James Hogg’s writings on the wall of the Kinlochewe Hotel on the route ahead).  But if this sign name is a mistake by the society, it wouldn’t be the first since there’s a really confusing one near Kinlochewe which gets the names of two passes mixed up. Whatever the case, the track marked by the big green sign on the A890 is a short cut to the Coulin Pass if you decide to stay at Gerry’s Hostel. And since I had the day off, more or less, I followed the path up to the pass and round back to Achnashellach Station – following B&H’s official route in reverse, in effect. They call it a “steady climb along a well-defined, well-maintained, but very rough path, with fine backwards views” – but doing it in reverse means the second half is a descent back to Glen Carron, of course. And never mind the backwards views, there are some fine sculptural cairns to see on this path too; more land art than the usual piles of stones.

Cairn or sculpture?

Cairn or land art?

Day Eight: Gerry’s Hostel to Kinlochewe – nine miles or so. After breakfast and a good rummage  through Gerry’s piles of yellowing outdoor magazines, I was back down to the road to find the old track up to the Coulin Pass again. It’s a hot pull with a heavy rucksack but once the terrain levels out you are soon at the entrance to the pass, marked by a fence and a magnificent broom bush, and the path to Kinlochewe. With good weather this day’s walking may provide the best views so far as the distant view of Beinn Eighe, shining white with quartzite, signals that you have definitely entered the realm of the ancient Torridon peaks. But before heading on, turn left at the bridge over the River Coulin and you will come to the waterfalls at Easan Dorcha and surely one of the smallest, neatest bothies in Scotland – the Tea House, as it’s called. B&H suggest you could have lunch here – but you can also spend an hour happily browsing the guest books and collection of that little magazine you often find in out-of-the-way places like this, Rough Stuff. By the way, there are also some notes in the hut suggesting that the windows in the bothy have been installed back to front.

Food to buy at Gerry’s Hostel

Collection of bottle tops at Gerry’s Hostel

Guest book at The Tea House

The Falls at Easan Dorcha, in the guest book

Under the bridge at the River Coulin

The track to Coulin

From the bridge the track drops to Coulin and Loch Coulin. At the tip of the loch you turn right and enter a wood via a gate, walking uphill on a rough boggy path that may be hard to find. “The direction is clear; simply keep to the ride,” write B&H. In fact, if you keep parallel and close to the estate fence that ascends through the wood and you’ll soon find the way. At the top the path breaks out into open moorland with clear  views over to Beinn Eighe. The second woodland of the day, above Kinlochewe, gave B&H same problems since they report that blown trees meant it took them an hour to cover the 1.5km through it – not that they were meant to walk through it at all. In a rare  moment of pique, they shrilly report that “pedants” had removed signs put up by the landowner that advised walkers to trek around the boundary of the forest – and that this removal could have literally caused the death of inexperienced walkers. I find this hard to believe because the forest isn’t that big and your instinct, even if lost, would be to walk north and down hill to the road to Kinlochewe. But that was in 1997 and things have changed a bit since  then since Coulin Pinewoods is now a sloping landscape of bleached wood, the whole lot having been felled to encourage growth by native species. You can follow the boundary fence around it if you want, but there is now a clear, if rough and semi-bulldozed track through the middle of it that comes out just south of Kinlochewe. But although green on the map, the ex-plantation here should be a white blank since it’s now more like a post-apocalyptic landscape from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, with row upon of row of dead bleached stumps and brash.  In fact, this whole site is designated as a SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) owing to its lichens, dragonflies and native pinewood species – although the condition of this latter feature is currently classed as ‘unfavourable.’  However, the wild flowers pushing through the debris are a  reminder that new life is coming through the soil.

Coulin Pinewoods restoration in action

Although B&H suggest you next keep the river on your right and the fence on your left after leaving the forest (or rather ex-forest), I lost the path and ended up splashing over the water where I could to the A896  which goes directly to Kinlochewe past the entrance to the Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve.  I stayed at the Kinlochewe Hotel (the attached bunkhouse was full) and filled up with supplies at the big village store and Post Office. But first, before checking in and before buying more breadrolls and cheese, I stopped at the Pumpkin Cafe and sat down to latte and chocolate cake. After the last few days it seemed like utter luxury.

Beinn Eighe

Day Nine: Kinlochewe to Lochan an Nid and a bit further – 11-12 miles. Today should be the only day you really need to use a compass – a point pressed home by B&H who remind you that it is “CRUCIAL” that you locate a certain loch above Kinlochewe in order to find the right pass (Bealach na Croise) to continue north. Or what? You might walk into the wrong pass, they say – presumably Bealach Gorm, which is where you would end up anyway if you followed the arrows on the misleading green sign on the path up from the village. That sign is on the alternative route north – the ‘bad weather route’  as B&H call it. Basically, there are two ways to get to Loch an Nid via Bealach na Croise from Kinlochewe. One path bears left from the village and first heads up to a large body of water called Lochan Fada via Gleann Bianasdall. This is the one B&H use on their official route. The other bears right and climbs steadily to the same loch on a wide track past the Heights of Kinlochewe. This is the one I followed for the simple reason that it looked easier than the other one. But near the top, you’ll see the small green sign that wrongly directs walkers to turn right to reach Bealach na Croise. Ignore it and continue straight on or you’ll get badly lost. B&H don’t mention this sign. The second chance to get lost comes after you’ve reached Lochan Fada and are asked to navigate a short distance to a second, out-of-sight, body 0f water, the much smaller Loch Meallan an Fhudair.

The view back south from Lochan Fada

Using the compasses I’d been given at Kinloch Hourn (it was a new orienteering compass) I set a bearing for the loch and headed up over rough ground – there is no path – to two prominent rocky knolls. From there I expected the loch to be visible. It wasn’t, so I headed to the top of the next mound. When it still wasn’t visible I wondered if I’d gone wrong. Far over to the right the landscape opened out into a vast natural amphitheatre and I could see water shining over there. But that seemed miles away. Surely the loch wasn’t that far? I moved to the  left and stumbled across peat gullies to another mound. Then, by chance, I looked behind me and the loch was there. As I had lunch by the unruffled black water the silence was broken by a startling eerie cry. Snipe?  This is a good location in which to contemplate Cape Wrath Trail’s tough reputation. To me, the reputation can’t be due to the length of the daily sections;  many long-distance paths have much greater daily mileages. The rufty tufty assessment really comes down to the sections of rough, pathless walking – like today – compounded by the sense of isolation and distance from human community. Here, beside Loch Meallan an Fhudair, Kinlochewe wasn’t that far away on the map, but the combination of mountain peaks, rough trackless terrain and grey cloud and water at that loch made it seem very distant. And there had been other days, like today, when I had seen no other people after setting off in the morning. You can’t say that about the Lake District. But isn’t alone-ness what the solo walker is seeking on walks like this? And when alone-ness starts to feel more like loneliness, don’t you gain sight of the emotional landscape that lies within your own hidden self?

Contemplating loneliness and alone-ness

Ironically, as I was finishing lunch at the loch,  two walkers I’d briefly met the day before went past on their way down to Bealach na Croise – the narrow pass to Loch an Nid that B&H describe as feeling “very closed in and isolated.” The pass is visible from the loch and B&H’s words are accurate. As you plod from the loch the jaws of the pass seem like portals to another world and any feelings of isolation you have up here have will probably be magnified.

A rarely seen example of a human being heading down to the pass

In fact, although I had been planning to camp beside Loch an Nid, the narrow loch on the other side of the pass, the even greater sense of isolation caused by the mountains on both sides of it, and the rain storm that blew in, made me want to keep walking. The map showed a building to the south of the loch and I wondered whether it was a bothy. It turned out to be a pile of stones but by the time I’d retraced my steps the sun had come out and the loch didn’t feel that isolated. The craggy tops and smooth rock faces enclosing the loch now looked interesting rather than forbidding and I began to see why B&H recommended the site as a fine place to wild camp. Even so, I decided to get more distance under my feet and followed the little river that flows into the loch from the north, towards An Teallach, tomorrow’s path to Dundonnell and one of the walk’s great views of a glacial landscape.

Day Ten: An Teallach to Camusnagaul – ten miles or thereabouts.  The evening before I’d camped beside the river within sight of An Teallach, at the point where the path to the bothy at Shenevall splits from the path to Little Loch Broom. It was obviously good for fresh water, but bad for midges, and so I packed quickly and early and cooked breakfast half way up the steep wide track to Dundonnell. Making coffee in a midge-free breeze also gave me the pleasure of soaking up one of the walk’s greatest backwards views: the wide, glacial landscape that includes the terrain back to the mountains enclosing Loch an Nid. I could imagine hunter-gatherer people living down there in ancient times. I was glad I’d come this far.

The view back

Since there are no fiddly navigational problems between here and the main road on Little Loch Broom, I took a leisurely pace across the moorland on the top and lazily filled the water bottle at springs and little water falls when it pleased.  On the way down to Corrie Hallie and the road there were several people coming up, including an undergraduate geologist. We talked about the rocks of the area and I asked him about some sheets I’d seen on the moorland above Kinlochewe two days earlier. At first I’d thought they were patches of snow but as I got closer they turned into big pegged out white sheets. I assumed they were part of a university ecological research project. Did he know what they were for? “Oh, I’m only interested in the rocks,” he said. “When I see flowers and plants I just kick them out of the way.” At Corrie Hallie, you can continue over the hill to Ullapool. However, I was booked into the Sail Mhor Croft bunkhouse at Camasnagaul, a few more miles up the road, which left a problem as to how I was going to get to Ullapool the next day. When B&H wrote their book there was a foot passenger ferry service to Ullapool operated by a hotel. That service (and the hotel) has not existed for a few years now, so if you are committed to getting to Ullapool from here  then you are either walking from Corrie Hallie to the main road to Ullapool or getting a lift the long way round. In truth, I hadn’t given the matter a lot thought but the bunkhouse owners persuaded me that getting a lift early the next morning would not be a problem. This was a nice change from the standard advice never to hitchhike that is published by Lonely Planet etc. And the bunkhouse people were right, it wasn’t a problem since the fifth driver that went past the next morning stopped and dropped me off right outside the Youth Hostel at Ullapool just as breakfast was finishing.

Day 11: Camasnagaul to Ullapool – 28 miles (by car)

early morning wildlife watchers on Little Loch Broom

The view from Ullapool

The barracks at Strathan

The A’Chuil bunkhouse across the river in Glen Dessarry

Making lunch above Lochan a Mhaim

Finding the path to the pass to Barrisdale Bay

B&B at Kinloch Hourn

The path down to Glen Elchaig

Through Glen Ling, listening to Mogwai

To Torridon and Beinn Eighe

Outdoor magazines at Gerry’s Hostel

first stop at Kinlochewe

Where the path splits to Shenevall bothy on the way to Corrie Hallie

ENDS. All photographs in this blog were taken, for better or worse, with an HTC Sensations XE smartphone.

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