What a great way to start walking again after 4 weeks driving down the coast and a couple of weeks at home. I needed the exercise!
I was a little nervous about being in the wilderness for a couple of days but it didn’t turn out that way and anyway I coped. I was fortunate to have reasonable weather as well; hopefully Scotland’s wettest summer is coming to an end?!
As it turned out I really liked being in the wilderness. Rather than worrying about it I felt quite liberated by it. Stunning scenery helps of course…especially when you can see it! I think it also helped psychologically that I was only out for a few days and so just had to make it to Shiel Bridge.
The best thing though was having my first, really successful wild camp. I was so happy that I managed to light a fire and enjoy being in a beautiful place. Obviously the fact that it wasn’t raining or blowing a gale made a big difference to the experience.
I left Ratagan Youth Hostel in plenty of time to walk the short distance to Shiel Bridge at the head of Loch Duich. From here it was an expensive bus journey (£20) to Inverness, where I was to meet Sally, pick up the hired campervan and head back to Kyle of Lochalsh for 10 days on Skye. I was really looking forward to seeing Skye ‘from the inside’ instead of looking across the water at it.
The bus journey was nice; good views of Loch Ness. I sat next to the cleaner from the Glenelg Inn that I met yesterday and we had a good chat.
I don’t feel like I’ve earned another break from walking but the Skye trip has been planned for ages and I am looking forward to it.
After a good night of sleep I woke to a still morning and the sun was coming up. I did another quick check of my legs for ticks after removing 3 yesterday, but I couldn’t find any. The calm sea was too good a swimming opportunity to miss so I ran in naked.
By the time I was dressed and packing up the midges were out. I was determined to stay for breakfast and I needed to clear the remnants of my fire. I cooked sausage and beans (well re-heated a ration pack), made a cup of tea and tried to dodge the midges.
I was away early and walked a different track out of Sandaig that was easy to follow. I was still on a high after my successful wild camp and so the 4 mile road walk to Glenelg was easy.
The Glenelg Inn had a sign outside saying it was open all day and inviting people in. I decided to test their hospitality (and make use of their facilities). I had an excellent coffee, the best bacon and egg sandwich I’ve had in Scotland, and a nice chat with the cleaner. It seemed like they were used to people dropping in off the hills and they were unfazed by my appearance. I realised this must be normal when I passed the community hall with its advertisement for hot showers inside.
Glenelg seemed like a nice little town on the edge of the wilderness. Glen More comes down to Glenelg Bay and the ruins of Bernera Barracks sit in the middle of the open space.
Not far out of Glenelg is the ferry terminal (jetty) for the 6-car ferry to Skye. It was just loading as I passed.
Here the road ends and I headed off on a signposted coastal path to Ardintoul and then Totaig. The path to Ardintoul was good and there were great views of Skye and then the mainland.
From Ardintoul things got tougher. Firstly the path indicated on the map did not appear to be where it should be. I found the beginnings of a path but quickly found myself fighting my way through bushes and undergrowth. Not easy with a big pack. I knew I had to cross a burn that was rushing through a bit of a gorge so I had to find the path.
I did find a footpath sign, buried in thick undergrowth!
Eventually I came out on a deforested hillside, where my problems seemed to get worse (mitigated by a stunning view).
There had to be a path because I wasn’t about to retrace my steps all the way to Glenelg and then have to come over the mountains. I found a sign for the “dirty 30” and footprints skirting a ditch. I pressed on. Sometimes it looked like there was a path through the scrub, and sometimes it didn’t. I pressed on. I was continually scouring the map and terrain for clues. Eventually I went into a dense forest. There was another “dirty 30” sign and lots of footprints (generally through deep mud) as well as ticker tape tied to trees. Whether this was my path or not was unclear but it had to lead somewhere so I followed the clues. Thank goodness they didn’t use bread…I felt like I was Gretel! The mud was incredible; at one point my pole stuck in by at least 10 inches. Considering this path had an innocuous signpost at the beginning it was not somewhere I would choose to walk. I was thankful when it finally came out above Totaig and I rejoiced in the great view of Eilean Donan Castle at the juncture of Lochs Alsh, Long and Duich.
By now I was pretty tired and I struggled through the last 3 miles along the road to Ratagan. I arrived at the Youth Hostel at 5.05 pm and it opened at 5. Perfect.
I spent the evening washing all my kit and prepping it to be stored for 10 days while I am on Skye. I was very tired and dinner was a very unappetising frozen chilli provided by the hostel. I am so glad I walked this section and really looking forward to heading on to Skye tomorrow.
Twice I was woken up in the night by the sound of scratching on the carpet. I knew it was a mouse and the second time I was quick enough with my head torch to catch it (no electricity remember as the generator turns off overnight). The cheeky thing didn’t even feel the need to scarper so we had a face-off until he finally walked away, totally unhurried.
The sun was out in the morning and the midges were out, although they only bothered you if you stood still. Following a hearty breakfast I set off and immediately had a steep climb out of Kinloch Hourn on the Drover’s track to Corran. The young Frenchman who also stayed in the B&B was just behind me so I waited and we walked together until our paths split.
He is from the Alps but is walking the Cape Wrath Trail because he was looking for something hardcore.
The views were outstanding, particularly through the gaps in the peaks down to Loch Hourn.
The weather was closing in though and before 10am my waterproofs were on and i had 5 minutes of rain followed by 15 minutes surrounded by fog. The waterproofs came off and then the whole thing was repeated a short while later. Waterproofs were on and off for the rest of the morning.
The 9 mile walk through the mountainous landscape and then down Glen Arnisdale to Corran was wonderful. It felt really remote and, even though I have not scaled any peaks, I thoroughly enjoyed walking through the landscape. In some ways it’s more like people would have done in the past: picked their way from A to B around the mountains rather than climbing then. It certainly has developed an appeal with me.
I arrived in Corran, on the North shore of Loch Hourn, in time to walk to the last house, where the shed has been converted into Sheena’s Tea Hut. I love places like this and I settled down next to the wood burner to dry off while I enjoyed soup, a pot of tea and a cake. Perfect.
The weather was clearing up for the afternoon and the rest of my day was a road walk. I was heading for Glenelg and could have walked through the mountains instead of along the coast road, but I didn’t because 1) I’m doing a coastal walk, 2) I would have missed Sheena’s Tea Hut, and, most importantly, 3) I wanted to visit the Ring of Brightwater.
My only preparation for this trek across Knoydart and Kintail was to read The Ring Of Brightwater by Gavin Maxwell. I knew his house, Camusfearna, had been in this area and by studying the map it was easy to work out where it had been. Now that I was so close I became determined to make my own little pilgrimage to see where the otters had lived. So it was only fitting that on the long road walk alongside Loch Hourn I should finally see an otter playing in the water. I have been looking all the way down the West coast and this was my first sighting since Shetland.
The sun came out late afternoon and I was enjoying my walk in this beautiful land. Sixteen miles today was a lot and by the time I arrived at Upper Sandaig I was weary. But I had to walk the extra mile down through the Eileanreach Estate to Lower Sandaig. This area is now all part of a timber harvesting programme, providing wood pulp to the world, and so the landscape is littered with tree stumps. Needless to say the path on the map didn’t exist and I fought my way down the slopes, including a stream crossing balancing on small rocks. (Thank goodness for walking poles.)
And there it was, the ring of brightwater.
There were other people there (as it turns out there’s an easier route from the road if I’d walked a bit further on) who had also come to see the memorials to Gavin Maxwell and Edal the otter. The house called Camusfearna no longer exists (it burned down). There was, however, a rope bridge across the burn so naturally I had to cross it.
As I walked around this overgrown place I suddenly had a brainwave – why don’t I just camp here? It was after 4pm, I was tired of walks and had nowhere to to stay. Perfect. I found a flat spot where the grass wasn’t too overgrown and pitched my tent, right by the beach.
The people were leaving and I had the place to myself. First thing was a bath in the burn; very cold but refreshing. Second thing was to make my dinner – past followed by chocolate and green tea. Third thing was to light a fire to enjoy the fading evening sunlight and keep the midges away. It took me about an hour but I eventually managed to get a roaring fire. I am not experienced in lighting fires from scratch and I had no paper or kindling so I was pleased I managed to do it. What a wonderful evening sat on a great big log on a deserted and beautiful beach listening to the roar of the fire and the ebbing sea, feeling the heat of the flames and watching the sun disappear over the mountains of Skye. Perfect.
I finally experienced an amazing wild camp. I went to bed utterly content and stinking of smoke.
I was up early as I had planned to walk 15 miles today and, as it has been 6 weeks since I last walked with a full pack, that’s biting off quite a lot, particularly with the difficult terrain.
It was a calm, still morning and quite muggy so the midges were out. So long as I kept walking they weren’t enough of a bother to require long sleeves and a head net. I left the bothy before the Czech guys surfaced.
The tide was in and Barrisdale Bay looked utterly tranquil and totally beautiful. The stillness of the water made for some wonderful reflections, even on a cloudy day.
The water was stunningly clear and I was so mesmerised that I walked past the clearly marked path I was supposed to take. Fortunately I only walked about 50m too far before I reached the edge of the loch.
I just about managed to see Ladhar Beinn poking through the clouds before I turned the corner to walk along the side of Loch Hourn.
The path was easy to follow, a bit up and down, wet and boggy with plenty of stream crossings. Fortunately I am wearing gaiters and my boots, being new, are as waterproof as they can be, so my feet didn’t get too wet. I met a couple of people on the way and they all had wet feet. At least I now know it is a common problem when hiking in Scotland; everyone suffers and no one can dry their boots out.
The cloud seemed to be getting lower even though the weather forecast had been good. I was walking slowly, only about 2 miles per hour. This was a combination of difficult terrain, an extra heavy pack (extra food and water for the wilderness) and being unfit for walking after 6 weeks off. As it transpired I took just over 3 hours 15 minutes to walk the 7 miles to Kinloch Hourn and the guide book time is 4 hours so it is slow going around here.
It is certainly a lot warmer and muggier than when I was last in Scotland. This made for a very sweaty walk today, and also explains the sudden, en masse, appearance of the midges.
I was tired when I reached Kinloch Hourn and found a tea room that I wasn’t expecting. What a joy. Tony offered me a bacon sandwich and I couldn’t refuse. I sat chatting with a couple who were walking the Cape Wrath Way (same as the Czechs), which is a seriously hardcore route that goes off-piste through the mountains, is not signposted and much of it doesn’t have paths. They had wild camped the last 7 nights. I am becoming resigned to the fact that I couldn’t do without washing for that long.
So it turns out the tea room is also a B&B. Perfect. I can afford it and 7 miles was enough on my 2nd day. Besides, it started raining again.
The next 8 miles is rough path so I decided to save that for the morning. I sat in the B&B admiring the view, updating my blog and chatting to Pierre (he’s French), another one doing the Cape Wrath Way and bemoaning the persistent wet feet, bog and lack of paths. A common theme! It rained and the midges came out – the worst I’d seen them. I was glad to be inside.
I had a lovely meal in the pub, which seems like it does good trade. It was time to leave when one of the locals – an odd chap – started boring me to death and then told me if I was coming back to Knoydart he would quite like a partner so the offer was there if I fancied living with him. It was difficult to refuse such a proposal from such a weirdo but somehow I managed to. I walked back to my tent in the dark and the rain. It rained all night on and off so I had unbroken sleep as it seemed like mini tornadoes kept engulfing the tent in strong wind and heavy rain. I thought it would be quiet at night in the middle of nowhere but how wrong I was; crashing waves, thundering waterfalls, howling wind, babbling burns and the pit-patter of heavy rain on the tent make for a noisy night!
The heavy rain didn’t stop until 10 am so I languished huddled in my sleeping bag. Fortunately the easy route to Barisdale is only 8 miles along a track so I had plenty of time. The poor weather meant I discounted taking the more scenic route that involved climbing Ladhar Beinn (thanks for the tips Rohan). I was glad I waited for the rain to subside because I didn’t get rained on for the rest of the day although it was very damp and, judging by which peaks I could see (not many!) the cloud base rarely lifted above about 600m. Oh well, I’ve come to expect it now.
On the bright side, I still had stunning views and the walk was so beautiful that I think I smiled the whole way. The first section followed a Land Rover track up the valley that holds the meandering Inverie River to Loch an Dubh-Lochain.
Just as I exited a small wood there, on a hillock at a bend in the valley, was a memorial. It is certainly in a great spot even though it was put there by the hated Lord Brocket to commemorate his father.
From the loch the path became a track that was very wet and occasionally became a stream. Nonetheless, it was a path and it led up Mam Barrisdale, a 450m col.
I still couldn’t see many of the mountains but the view back down the valley was amazing and over the other side turned out to be just as good.
As I walked down into Barisdale (the map has spells it Barrisdale and the signpost Barisdale – I’ve no idea which is correct) there were great views back up Gleann Unndalain (debates on how to spell Glen as well!) and along Glen Barrisdale. I still couldn’t see Ladhar Bheinn.
There were some very strange large rocks on this slope; they looked almost like chopped tree trunks with their curves and rings.
All of a sudden Barrisdale Bay came into view. The tide was out and I think the sand made it look even better. I had walked from the Loch of Heaven (Loch Nevis) to the Loch of Hell (Loch Hourn). Both are very beautiful and help to cut off and border the Knoydart peninsula.
There are no roads to Barisdale, but there are about 4 dwellings. I assume these people have boats, although I didn’t see any nearby. I did pass 4 people walking from Barisdale to Inverie and they were on a yachting holiday and had been dropped off to walk from Loch Hourn to Loch Nevis.
Barisdale Bothy was empty when I arrived at 3 pm after a very leisurely walk. It had two 6-person bunk rooms and a living room with a table and chairs, and a sink with running water. There was also a toilet and basin; provide your own toilet paper. As there was no one else there I was able to enjoy a strip wash and launder my smalls (I am a clean freak I’ve decided). Dinner was chicken massaman with potato and rice (British Army rations – thanks Chris), a cereal bar and a cup of green tea (no milk required). Yum.
There was nothing to do, no phone signal or internet on Knoydart, and the midges were coming out so I settled for an early night and a bit of reading (am on to A Butcher’s Broom by Neil Gunn). At 8.30 two Czech guys arrived after walking from Shiel Bridge (where I hope to be in 3 days, albeit via a different route). They were soaked from the knees down and kept saying they couldn’t believe how boggy the land was and how difficult it was to walk with no paths. I sympathised!!!
Despite an early night I didn’t get much sleep as have a bit of a cold and was coughing a lot in the night.
Not a bad night’s sleep on the floor of the ferry office. I was treated to tea and an apple turnover for breakfast while waiting for the ferry and chatting to the ferry drivers.
Heavy rain was forecast and it was coming in waves but fortunately the crossing was eventful. There were 2 Air Force officers from Lossiemouth on my ferry, heading to Inverie for the weekend. Oh those were the days! As the ferry approaches Inverie Bay, having crossed Loch Nevis (the Loch of Heaven), it passes a strange, and large, statue of a Madonna on the Rubha Raonuill headland.
Inverie is a small town, population about 100, and the capital of Knoydart. I was impressed by the effort that has gone into the community, starting with the home-built ferry terminal building (a wooden hut) that is a welcoming sight on a rainy day. There were a line of land rovers parked outside it – I think everyone has one to get about the 7 miles of road around Inverie that is not connected to anywhere outside Knoydart. Truly remote.
The Knoydart Foundation was set up and bought the land for the community in 1999. There is lots of information on the struggles with landowners in the Ranger’s office. The most notorious landowner was Lord Brocket, a Nazi sympathiser, and apparently Hitler was a visitor at Inverie House in 1937.
The rain was on and off all day but I managed to walk to the campsite and put my tent up without getting soaked. I did have to duck into the tea room to avoid one heavy shower on the way but that wasn’t a hardship.
I went on a short walk around the town and up the hill to the viewpoint.
Knoydart has 3 Munros but there was no point in tackling one for the views today as they were invisible in the cloud. I settled in Britain’s remotest pub for the afternoon and evening and was joined by a bunch of musicians who were having a traditional music jam session with their accordions, flutes and whistles. There is a lovely feel about this small community; there clearly is a vibrant community here. Hydro electricity powers the town and they are keen on all things ‘green’ (the campsite has a compost toilet). There are some wondeful-looking tourist houses, with great views and hot tubs. I am content with my tent by the beach, although I won’t be taking advantage of the fire pits and ready-chopped wood as it’s unfortunately not dry enough to sit outside for the evening.
Fortunately I phoned ahead to book dinner in The Old Forge pub as it gets very busy. For £4 I can get a shower here too. With 4 days in the wild coming up I think I’m going to take advantage.
I was up early after a comfortable night on Maggie’s sofa. Due to a technical hitch with the shower I had my first bath in ages and then it was a dash across Glasgow City centre to Queens Street train station. Maggie even provided me with a packed lunch, I was feeling very well looked after.
The train to Fort William was running late and was packed full, although no one sat next to me and I don’t even smell at this point! I sat back and enjoyed the scenery as we headed up some amazing valleys and seemed to be following a bit of the West Highland Way. In spite of the usual low cloud I’ve become used to in Scotland that does its best to obscure the views, the journey was picturesque and the train’s trolley dolly was excellent in pointing out landmarks if she came past you at the right time.
Although the train went all the way to Mallaig I disembarked at Fort William in order to catch the Jacobite steam train that runs twice a day from Fort William to Mallaig. This is the same one that I had watched go over the Glenfinnan Viaduct, the one that Harry Potter catches to Hogwarts.
What a treat. The scenery was stunning and the sights and sounds of the steam and the train whistle made it a fun trip. This time I was the one waving from the train at all the spectators as we rode over the viaduct.
I arrived in Mallaig and went straight to the ferry ticket office as I had a notion I’d catch the last ferry to Knoydart and camp there (there are no campsites in Mallaig). Unfortunately the ferry was fully booked, but fortunately the man in the office very kindly offered me the chance to sleep in the office (a bit like a portacabin) overnight. Bonus. Somewhere dry, warm, with a toilet, a kettle and wifi for the night. I didn’t need persuading. This gesture is a good example of Highland friendliness towards strangers. I was left to make myself at home and given the keys to lock the door. I merely have to open the office up for the boat skipper in the morning!
It was nice to be back in a familiar town and I headed to the Clachain Inn for some dinner (my 3rd time in this pub so I must be a regular). My overriding impression of the day was a good feeling to be coming back to the Highlands. I really like it up here; the people, the scenery and the wildlife.
It was a 5 hour train trip from London Euston up to Glasgow Central. I should have tried to doze but instead filled my time with watching the World Athletics Championships streamed into my iPhone and bits of the Eurohockey. Oh, and I also looked out of the window!
Maggie picked me up from Glasgow station and drove us back to her flat in Renfrew. I met Maggie when camping in Northumberland and she said to contact her when I passed by Glasgow…so I did! It was lovely to meet her again and she very kindly put me up for the night and arranged to take me out in Glasgow.
I spent a fabulous evening with Maggie and Allan. We went to the Hilton for fillet steak (delicious!) and then afterwards to a pub called Lebiwskis Pop Up (?) where there is a Thursday night jam session. Allan and Maggie were excellent hosts and great company, and I was very appreciative of Allan treating me to such a wonderful dinner. The live music topped off a lovely evening and I thought the musicians were very good, particularly Kenny on the keyboard (he bought me a drink) and Big Paul on the guitar. This was a jam session for rock musicians of a certain vintage, a pretty good vintage by the sound of it!