“It’s the sort of long distance route that most keen walkers dream of. A long tough trek through some of the most majestic, remote and stunningly beautiful landscape you could dare imagine”.So says Cameron McNeish in his description of the Cape Wrath Trail. The trail runs for 324 kilometres or so from Fort William to the most north-westerly tip of the Scottish mainland. It is billed as the “hardest long distance backpacking route in the UK”. Just the type of description then that would have brothers, Aidan and Colm Ennis booking cheap flights and lightly packing their bags. They completed the walk in September 2006 and the assessment was “In terms of scale and distance, in the variety of landscapes and geology, in the richness of the countryside, in the highs and lows, there is surely nothing quite like it”.
Section One – From Fortwilliam to Kinlochewe
It is said that anywhere is within walking distance if you have got the time but there is definitely more to it than that. The weather for example is always a factor but for this trip we had agreed that the weather was going to do what it was going to do and that we would just ignore it. An early downpour which began when we were not much more than 300 metres from Fortwilliam also made clear to us not to have any delusions of sunshine. Google had brought us here and was about to lead us much further. I had never heard of the Cape Wrath Trail before but a search for “tough long distance backpacking Scotland” had thrown up its name and Cameron McNeish’s description was tantalising. He had warned though that this first section from Fortwilliam along the coast to Banavie was a bit grim. However distracted by the odd appearance of a few coastal rabbits, a steam engine and the Soldier’s Bridge, we didn’t find it to be so. Unfortunately there was no fine view of the Ben to see us off and we had to be content with the misty top of old Cow Hill.
Above: The first of the nine locks on the spectacular Neptune’s Staircase at Banavie.
We rushed through the village of Banavie to the foot of the impressive series of nine locks that make up Neptune’s Staircase. We took our time to admire Thomas Telford’s engineering masterpiece before picking up the bank of the Caledonian Canal, which was going to bring us along to the entrance of Loch Lochy. If there is such a thing as a perfect canal, then this must be it. It was wide, perfectly clean, well shaded and quiet. From Gairlochy we thought we had a long road section to Clunes but we picked up the Great Glen Way track which eventually brought us down to the shores of the misty and for me, surprisingly beautiful Loch Lochy. We were moving fast but this was a long and slow lake and for the first time I realised the impressive length of the journey that was ahead of us. To be honest, I had never been on an expedition before where the end point was so far away. Cape Wrath was three hundred and twenty five kilometres from Fortwilliam and that was assuming we didn’t get lost or make any other diversions. Usually in Scotland my objectives were one or two day trips, when you are up and down and then done and away. Perhaps all of my mountaineering was a bit rushed. This was going to be very different.
Above: The long expanse of Loch Lochy.
Just after Clunes, we got right down onto the shore of the lake and took in the view across to the Aonachs, Carn Mor Dearg and finally the North East Buttress of Ben Nevis. I also took my first bite of my roll of “Fifteens”; a magical super food of Ulster origin that seemed perfectly designed to sustain ever-hungry men on a long march. On the map, the forest track along the side of Loch Lochy looked so long that I decided not to even measure it and having only left Fortwilliam at one o’clock we knew we were in for a late finish. The track actually turned out to run quite high above the lake and another heavy shower of rain made the place seem a bit dark and oppressive. A feed of juicy and perfectly ripe blackberries brightened the mood however and we headed on. We past a lone walker moving slowly who seemed resigned to a night in the forest, perhaps he would use the curiously sign posted “wild camping spot” a bit further up the track. I wasn’t sure where we would stop but I was determined to get to the head of this lake. The Eagle Floating Pub at the Laggan Locks seemed a bit unmissable but a sign post for the Loch Lochy Youth Hostel ushered us on.
Above: Walking the shores of Loch Lochy.
The next morning, it would have been useful to have been able to harness some of the energy of the fifteen school kids in the hostel who were headed off on their first ascent of Ben Nevis. Their enthusiasm and their obvious pride in the fact that they were accompanying a partially sighted friend was impressive. I was also pleased when they asked if I was running the Ben Nevis race today. Nothing that easy. A few of the other hostellers were also asking us where we were off to. I gave vague replies of north towards Morvich and Achnasheallach. Why was I so reluctant to come out and say that we were walking to Cape Wrath? It was nervousness added to by my aching hips, which hadn’t carried such a heavy load so fast and so far in quite a while. I was afraid of admitting even to myself how far we had to travel, but at least we had started.
Above: The well maintained Caledonian Canal between Loch Lochy and Loch Oich.
We hopped back on to the Caledonian Canal for a while before the track deposited us back onto the road so that we could cross the Laggan Swing Bridge at the head of Loch Oich. A good spell in the Glengarry forest lay ahead which was kept interesting at first by the view into the busy Loch Oich. Soon though we had to drop towards Invergarry and a spell on tarmac before a long pull across to the bridge over the narrows of Loch Garry. We only caught occasional views of the lake but to our left craggy mountain peaks reared up and the high peaks in the distance to our right also showed promise. We made every effort to keep to the grass growing up the middle over the road until we eventually reached the bridge. Aidan bathed his feet in the lake while I considered the next long road stretch ahead.
Above: Ascending from Glengarry.
I had great hope that the hotel at Tomdoun would provide us with a bit of lunch as I was already tiring of my supply of Nutri Grains. It was therefore a great relief to receive first a warm welcome and then a nod towards the cook. This was an angler’s spot and there was no doubt about what would be on the menu. The salmon was good and while savouring it, I mused at how someone could pull in a sixteen-pound brown trout, the size of the one in the case behind me. It would be like trying to reel in your rucksack while it was trying to swim away from you. On our way up from Loch Garry we had passed a house covered in hub caps and the owner appeared at the bar to answer the question of where he had collected the impressive array adorning every side of his lodgings. Mostly from the sides of cattle grids on the local roads that head towards the Isle of Skye it seemed and he was only interested in perfect specimens. After assuring an American couple at the bar that there were no grizzly bears in Ireland, we headed on.
Above: An ancient Scots Pine in Glen Loyne.
We were on the road for quite some time before we finally picked up the track that runs over a ridge into Glen Loyne. It didn’t matter that there were 350 metres to ascend, we were just glad to be off the road. In no time at all we were descending into the glen with its large and erratically growing Scots Pines that seemed to spill into it from a small valley high on the left. Despite a cooked lunch being just a few hours behind us, this place had a strangely wild and deserted feel to it. We had to go in a north-westerly direction for quite a distance up the glen so as to find the narrow crossing point of the River Loyne. I suspected that where we did eventually cross wasn’t quite where the map had recommended and my boots were soaked to punish me for my impatience. I had hoped to camp in the Glen but the place was soaked so we agreed to head for the col beneath Creag a Mhaim which provided the rock solid ground we were looking for.
Above: Loch Loyne from Creag a Mhaim.
The midges made preparing a bit of food tough but mostly for Aidan as I lazed in the tent. When I eventually did venture out I reckoned that it was only about a category four attack with category five still being reserved for the unparalleled intensity of the midges at the Red Squirrel Campsite in Glencoe each June. We survived them and they weren’t quite so bad on the start of our third day which saw us taking the track with its many stone bridges that runs above the Allt Ghunhais and which would bring us to the head of Loch Cluanie. The loch is right in the middle of Glen Sheil and even with the countless peaks that surround it shrouded in cloud, the view up and the glen from there was as inspiring as ever. After tea and scones at the Cluanie Inn we set off up the trackless valley of An Caorann Beag. We sank in the boggy ground near the river for a while before we spied another walker on a track higher up to our right. I caught him and followed his every footstep, as he seemed to be much more of an expert at finding the driest path. The ground at the head of the valley gave a taste of things to come for our descent down into the Fionngleann. It was soaking and we paid the price for wanting to part with the tracks for a while. With me falling down a decent sized hole and two high deer fences to cross, the whole place was, as Aidan put it, “a bit of an obstacle course”.
Above: Looking down a dark Glen Sheil from Cluainie.
Below: Descending the Cam Ban valley to the Fionngleann.
I was thoroughly and deservedly soaked by the time I got to the glen so I reckoned it was about time I put on my waterproof leggings. I also mused at why in the name of god did I thought that I would not need gaiters in Scotland in September. Our descent down the glen took us past the Allt Grannda waterfalls that had been fuelled by the wet morning and were putting on an impressive show. We crossed the two bridges at the end of the glen and turned into Gleann Lichd, stopping to get out of the rain for a few minutes at the Hadden Memorial Hut. As we walked along the valley floor to the campsite at Morvich we got occasional glimpses of the Five Sisters. We had climbed them last year on an equally wet day and I got a flashback of the gruelling descent down off the last peak which looked no more inviting twelve months later. This whole area around Glen Shiel has a special atmosphere though. The confusing network of wild valleys and the sheer multitude of peaks makes the place feel chaotic. It’s like an anti – Glencoe.
Above: The Allt Grannda waterfalls in Glenlicht.
We made an early start out from Morvich but I was moving slowly and painfully. My left shin had become terribly inflamed and at first I didn’t think I would make even the first kilometre. We were headed for the Falls of Glomach and at each signpost I experimented with a different way of strapping up my leg. The further up the forest we went, the less likely it would be that I would be able to turn back and fortunately I also seemed to get relief from moving uphill although the downhills remained excruciating. We picked up the path that leads across to the Bealach na Sroine and with the Nurofen Plus kicking in, my shin splints were relegated to background pain for a while. A gully to our right seemed to hide an impressive waterfall and I assumed the Falls of Glomach would turn out to be pretty similar. From the bealach we descended to the Allt a Ghlomach. I couldn’t hear any great roar as we approached the lip of the cliff although the river did seem quite deep and wide as I approached. Another few steps and I was taken by complete surprise by the magnificence of the falls. An immeasurable quantity of water was being funnelled through notches in the dark cliffs at the top before being shot straight down at least 100 metres to a pool way down below.
Above: Descending to the Allt a’ Ghlomaich with Meall Sguman behind.
Below: The magnificent Falls of Glomach.
We dropped into the Glomach’s own valley via the cut out steps to get a closer look. Over a bite to eat we surveyed the lush valley down which the Allt a Ghlomaich flows. Mist hung here and there and I wondered who had been keeping this place a secret? I had been walking in Scotland for the past eleven years and had never really heard of this place. This was the standard by which I would measure all waterfalls in the future.
Above: The Ghlomaich Valley.
As we moved away from the falls and picked up the track that would lead us to Glen Elchaig, the place lost its power a bit. My pain reasserted itself and I worried about the long walk up Glen Elchaig to the village of Killilan. On either side of us were mysterious valleys which I knew people rarely visited and just as few probably bothered with the peaks around them either due to the long walks in necessitated by the estate car park being such a good distance away. The sun came out to ease the last two kilometres into the deserted Killilan with its lonely phone, post box and not much else. While we recovered on the perfect lawn beside the phone box, an eagle hovered around and with nothing interesting available to supplement his or our lunch, we had no choice but to drag ourselves up and walk on down to Nonach Lodge before turning into Glen Ling.
Above: The long and lonely Glen Elchaig.
A farmer instructing his three small kids in archery saluted us while we tip toed across his field and picked up the wet track which would eventually bring us to a footbridge across a difficult tributary of the River Ling. We were swamped by midges at the far side of the river so it was put the head down time so as to reach the forest at Loch an Iasaich. There were fine views of Glen Ling and of the peak of Ben Killilan as we ascended, although it was marred slightly by the electricity pylons that ran up from the valley floor towards our destination. At the top we dived into the forest in the hope of finding a campsite quickly but it wasn’t until quite a distance on at Loch na Caillich that we found a spot dry and flat enough at the side of an estate track. From there we could actually see right down to the Kyle of Lochalsh and across to the Red Cuillin of Skye. It was a stunning end to the day’s walk and we had just enough time to enjoy it before the midges came to feast on us and we on them as they became a nutritious part of our pasta meals.
Above: The River Ling winds its way through Glen Ling.
We made a quick escape the next morning and struck out for Bendronaig Lodge along the deserted estate track on either side of which lay the scars and wastes of the bulldozing job that had created it. But this was an isolated road in a strange and desolate landscape and with the mist hiding the peaks, the place had a very eerie feel. I imagined that Scotland had been emptied of people by some terrible superflu and that we were the first travellers along this valley in years. Once the lodge came into view, there was a bit of a clearance in the clouds and we went for a nose around. There were two small buildings, one of which was unlocked. It turned out to be a palatial sized bothy run by the estate. There were several rooms and even an indoor toilet with instructions on how to operate it by filling it with water from the stream. It put our fight against the midges the evening before into context. We left the track after another two kilometres and aimed for the river above which was the peak of Sgurr na Feartaig and once we got over a high pass beneath that peak, a track would bring us down to Achnashellach Station. Just after the river crossing lay yet another bothy but this one was more like what I thought a Scottish bothy should be. It was sparse and perfect.
Above: Following the Allt Feith a’ Mhadaidh into Glen Bhearnais.
After the steep descent into the Achnashellach Forest we headed off in the wrong direction on a forest track for a while but managed to correct ourselves in time. There was a substantial river between the road and us and I wasn’t entirely sure if there was a bridge to get us across. A track led us to the river edge and it looked like we were in for a long wade. It was only knee deep though and in the rain on the other side, I quickly put my boots back on and got sorted out. Maybe we would find lunch soon. After thirty metres through some scrub I was looking at another river. We were on an island and I was not amused. We waded again and I took off towards the road – where was this train station? It was now pouring and there was no sign of it. The GPS was unearthed from Aidan’s bag for the first time and said we were a kilometre up the road from the station at Lair. We hoped to reach Kinlochewe another seventeen kilometres further on that evening, so we turned our back on lunch and a few minutes of shelter and fought our way to and over the railway line and then into the Coulin forest. After another steep climb up a cut down forest slope in the rain, I reckoned that this had the makings of a tough day.
Above: Crossing the first half of the River Carron.
After we got over the Coulin Pass it felt like we had steeped into a different country. The track we were following along the valley floor was wide and well maintained. The place had a much more managed look about it. There was still no sign of anyone, not even at the collection of houses at Torann-cuilinn. The mountains were changing too. Looking over Coulin, you could see the low peak of Sgurr Dubh but behind it there was something bigger and more dramatic going on. The mountains of Liathach and Beinn Eighe made their presence felt even though they were covered in cloud. I scowled at a few hikers who were relaxing in a holiday home on the side of the road and who were watching us through their window – how dare they be so lazy. Despite the advice of Cameron McNeish we dived into the forest, oddly convinced that we would find the elusive track that he couldn’t. Our track record contraindicated our ability to do so but low and behold there it was. It was mucky and horrible and followed the line of a firebreak but it was a definite path and made up for our messing about back in Achnashellach.
Above: The Falls of Glomach.
After we left the forest for the long-winded slopes of the long-winded ‘Carn Dhomhnuill Mhic a Ghobha’ we experienced yet again that frustrating occurrence known as the magical track. This is an obvious track that you are carefully following backed up by even a compass bearing and which suddenly and without warning stops. What follows is a half-hour of sinking in dirty bogholes and pulling through heather and the roughest possible ground until again suddenly you spot the track running along beside you. It mockingly says to you that I have been there all along, my god weren’t you useless to lose me and think you fool of what you would have spared yourself had you stayed on me. After picking up the track for the last few metres we were swallowed up by another forest plantation. The guide had recommended skirting the whole forest but we had travelled so far by now that the details that I had read the night before were starting to get a bit blurred. There is no ground in the world worse to travel through than cut down pine forest and after much clambering and cursing we picked up a decent sized track that wasn’t on the map but which seemed to be heading in our intended direction. The energy levels were seriously running down. For the first time we had run out of food and I resorted to some carbohydrate mix. We were about to cross over onto our fifth map, which Aidan dug out from his bag and a quick glance confirmed Kinlochewe wasn’t more than two kilometres away. The track came to an abrupt halt however and we were off over more fences and walls and through fields until a river presented itself. This one was wide and fast and I was not crossing it. We decided instead to follow a rough track and a trail of fantastically bright mushrooms along the right bank. The last two kilometres of a long day can really break your heart but finally we arrived at the bridge in the town of Kinlochewe.
Above: Looking back on Beinn Eighe.
We shared the bunkhouse with two huge dutch bikers and one of their lone slim countrymen who was also heading to Cape Wrath albeit at a calmer pace than ours although he looked fitter. I didn’t feel fit at all. I hadn’t put back on my entire shin strapping set up after the second river crossing at lunchtime and my shin had now become a strange shape. As I soaked the floor of the Kinlochewe hotel with melting ice I wondered whether or not to go on the whiskies. They seemed to give the Scottish great fun and might have done as a replacement for the anti inflammatories, which had run out. I had carried a good stock of them from the start but had reckoned that if I needed more than I was carrying then I ought to get myself to a hospital. We resupplied the next morning and after a hearty breakfast we struck out on what I had planned would be one of our easier days.
Section Two – From Kinlochewe to Cape Wrath
Leaving Kinlochewe we finally got the views we deserved of Torridon and Beinn Eighe. This was a tantalising place and like so many of the areas that we had already seen since we had left Fortwilliam would have to be returned to be explored. I imagined how Torridon would look covered in snow and decided that I had been spending far too much of my time in Scotland in winter further south in Glencoe and Lochaber. We followed the A track lined with colourful mountain ash began to bring us along the Abhainn Bruchaig to the Heights of Kinlochewe. Along the track we passed a horse and hillworker who told us they were over from Skye dragging stags off the hills. It was interesting to discover that with all our technological advancements, the horse was still being relied on for this type of work. The mighty horse was certainly much more attractive than an evil quadbike. The track forked as we came to the top of the hill and we spent some time figuring out that the very official looking signpost for the Bealachs of Gorm and na Croise had things the wrong way around.
Above: The sides of An Teallach disappear into the cloud.
We abandoned the track for the long pull up to the Bealach Gorm. We hadn’t fully revived from the day before and I decided that my hearty fried breakfast had maybe been just a bit too hearty. We had entered the Letterewe wilderness with its abundance of lakes and valleys and its mixed bag of high and more gentle peaks. The hills seemed to roll before the bealach but after it we were channelled into the long and steep sided valley of Nid. On the left hand side lay strange slabs and startling rock bands while on our right we could see deer taking it easy on the craggy slopes of the aptly named Creag Rainich. After we left the valley, we began to climb up the slopes of An Teallach. What a complicated looking mountain. From our side and in my mind, it was like a fortress made out of all sorts of rock with lots of towers and its steep cliffs as an impenetrable defence. The limestone ridge of Coir a’Ghiubhsachain had me thinking of the Burren and distracted me from the plunge off the mountain down to Corrie Hallie and the road to Dundonnell.
Above: Looking back on the dark towers of An Teallach.
We walked wearily along the road but for a hundred metres my pace quickened as I spied a sign on the road which I convinced myself would be for food and lodgings. I cursed the pet and craft shop as we passed it. We crossed the Dundonnell river in search of a place to camp and we climbed up towards a waterfall and found a good flat spot above it. There wasn’t much shelter, which would mean no midges and we had a clear view back to An Teallach – perfect. With the tent up I headed off to put my leg in the stream. It was super cold and at first I could only keep my foot in for a few seconds but it wasn’t long before I could bear it for longer and as I laughed maniacally I could actually feel the swelling being washed away. I could think of nothing in the world that would have given me more relief. It had been six days and one hundred and eighty five kilometres across a remarkable swathe of Scotland. The pain became pleasant and I worried that I had crossed the line into craziness or at least hyperthermia. There was a forty-kilometre day ahead of us tomorrow and we were to be up at five. Time to sleep.
Above: At the end of Day Six with An Teallach behind.
The path brought us past a handful of small and silent lakes before we began the steep descent to Croftown and the River Broom. We could see right down the mighty Loch Broom to the civilisation of Ullapool but we weren’t headed for there. A mile up the road brought us to a lonely telephone box whose door hadn’t been opened in at least a year and which was due to be decommissioned but which like the rest of indoors Scotland had still been made a no smoking zone. The straight path through the Glensguaib forest eventually and inevitably became confusing and we had to abandon it for the climb up into the land of Inverlael. We had yet another huge piece of Scotland to ourselves and a fine piece it was too. There were rightfully no tracks to follow along the stream which brought us down to the River Douchary. We had lunch on the floor of the glen and contemplated where would be the best place to cross the river. Is there ever a better place to cross than the spot right in front of you? Do you follow the river up or go down and hope for the ford suggested by the map? Down we went and the river deepened and fastened as more and more busy streams joined it. The sides too got steeper and in the end we waded. As we did, the long high plateau of Rhidorrich reared up on the far side of the glen. This was a thoroughly empty place. On our way across to Loch an Daimh we stumbled into the hidden steep sided valley of a small stream. I disturbed a few deer who had been grazing in the shade on their perfect lawn on the small valley’s floor. When was the last time someone had dropped into that place?
Above: The view up Glen Douchary from the valley floor.
Below: One of the waterfalls on the course of the River Douchary.
We stopped for a breather at the ruined boathouse at the end of Loch an Daimh. From here it was a path and then an estate track for sixteen kilometres or so to Oykel Bridge. Unfortunately I was a bit uncertain about Oykel bridge’s exact location as it was off the map and I actually hadn’t brought the map that it was on for weight reasons as we weren’t to be on it for long. I was certain though that it was going to be a tough walk from where we were now. My feet were good and raw and I wondered whether trench foot had yet been diagnosed by doctor’s in this century. Before we left the shores of the lake we finally met two fisherman who were staying down at the ‘big house’ and who seemed quite amused that we were planning to walk all the way to Oykel Bridge that evening. After crossing a ford and a bridge we entered the Einig Wood on a wide estate track. This was a huge forest and it went on and on, twisted and turned and went up and down and somehow I lost our intended track. The GPS had no useful news but I counted on all the tracks leading to the same place – Oykel. We eventually hit a road and were headed for a few houses. I flagged down a farmer in a jeep who joyfully told us Oykel Bridge was “about ten miles from here”. Clenching my walking poles tightly, for once I listened carefully to the directions I was being given and we strolled on.
Above: Resting on the shore of Loch an Daimh.
Oykel Bridge was surrounded by trees and was perfectly positioned in the valley and I sped up for the last few hundred metres. That was the longest I had travelled in a day in quite some time and I had been so absorbed that I hadn’t taken a single photo all day which is strange for me. There is a hotel and not much else at Oylel Bridge and it is a very popular fishing spot. It seemed empty and we reckoned some food and a shower wouldn’t go astray. However there were no spaces we were told or didn’t they like the look of us? We were looking decidedly rough in fairness and we certainly weren’t the cleanest. Eventually though the fishermen arrived back and I felt we would have needed a dinner jacket and to have been drinking brandies to have stayed there anyway. Not many fish had been caught it seemed although one man had experienced “a classic rise” and some more had managed to find a good fishing shop in Inverness. A retired Zerox salesman described the delights of dinner at the Oykel Bridge Hotel including the succulent roasts and fish dishes that astounded them every night. We got our burgers from the bar into us and left them to it. Apparently there was a great camping spot a kilometre down the river but I had no intention of walking much further or in the wrong direction. Instead we followed the track up the River Oykel for a while. Aidan found a passable camping spot but I wanted somewhere near cold water so that I could stick my leg and feet in it for at least an hour. We settled on a truly dreadful spot just up from the river. In the morning I realised that we were in a stinking, soaking smelly bog and that it was without competition the worst campsite we had ever chosen but just then it was somewhere to lie down. Tomorrow was potentially another forty two kilometre day that would bring us all the way to Kylesku and after wrestling with how early we should get up and thus how far we would walk, we agreed a slightly shorter day might be in order. Back to back forty kilometre plus days might be a bit much.
Above: Looking in to the beautiful valley of Carn nan Conbhairean.
Below: Views from the remote and stunning section from Benmore Lodge to Kylesku.
We woke up to a stench but at least it was a beautiful morning. As Aidan said it is never a good sign when the ground is so bad that they wont even plant trees on it. First this morning the River Oykel was to be followed all the way to Loch Ailsh. We weren’t walking long before I knew we were going to go all the way to Kylesku by that night. I now liked the idea of pretty much walking the whole way across a Landranger map in a day and better still this section was hailed as “tough and remote”, just the way we like it. Glen Oykel is obviously a fisherman’s paradise and the path along the banks of the river is well maintained for their use. The famous fishing stretches are signposted and there are benches as well as the odd shelter here and there. As we turned northwards towards Loch Ailsh, the mountains of the Benmore area came into view. They weren’t huge but they certainly looked interesting and the long distance from the road surely meant that they were seldom trod. From Benmore Lodge another ‘magical’ track brought us up along the slopes of Meall an Aonaich. A huge sweep of land lay below us to our right and a variety of curiously shaped peaks were scattered around on the far side. At a stream running from the beautiful valley of Carn nan Conbhairean we gave our feet a long bathe. The sun was belting down at last and dry feet in dry boots felt very strange.
Above: The secluded lake at the source of the Abhainn an Loch Bhig.
Below: Looking across Glen Bheag from above Scotland’s highest waterfall – Eas a Chual Aluinn.
We had to creep along the base of Ben More Assynt for a few kilometres before we were due to plunge ourselves into an area of map which looked completely unreadable. We finally lost the track for good and made our way down steep ground to Gorm Loch Mor. From there we headed northwest and climbed into the chaos. There were boulder fields at the end of streams and all sorts of side valleys and our way seemed to twist and turn and go up and down through what must be the most unusual valley in Scotland. We came out in the area above the Eas a Chual Aluinn waterfall which is Scotland’s highest. We lost our way for a while as you should in such a place but the GPS got us back on track and we climbed tiredly up to Loch Bealach a Bhuirich. As I reached the high point and began to head down, I was stopped in my tracks. Way off in front of me was the calm sea with peaceful lines of cloud on the horizon and countless small islands running into it from the shore. There was the dark Quinag, a faultlessly carved mountain with the sun setting at just that moment behind it. There was Loch na Gainmhich seemingly at its base while the other small lakes and the whole inlet of Loch a Chairn Bhain reflected the perfect late evening Autumn sky. Does being at the end of a such a long day make such a scene more beautiful and more intense then you would normally find it? Perhaps so, but starting the descent downwards there was not one single question in the world that I needed an answer to.
Above: Descending along the side of Loch Bealach a Bhuirich.
Like the mountains the day before, Carol Ann’s house was full of frogs. Last night, a stunningly bright full moon had lit up the final five kilometres on the tarmac but the late hour had meant that all we could order at the Kylesku Hotel was dessert. We had found a B&B up the road though and our fine breakfast overlooking Loch Glendhu and watched by countless model and toy frogs filled us up again for the day ahead. I had also asked for a bit of lunch and despite being told that she hadn’t much in the house, we got a huge lunch that lasted us for two days. In fact I still had remnants of it a week later in the Pyrenees. It was another beautiful morning and we hoped to get as far as Rhiconich although there was quite a distance to travel. Before the impressive bridge at Kylesku we saw our first signpost for Durness, which would hopefully be our route exit village close to Cape Wrath. This was our eighth day walking but I still wouldn’t believe that we were actually going to reach Cape Wrath. I would only be convinced once I was finally standing there. We climbed high up above Loch Glendhu and enjoyed once more the sight of Quinag and Ben More Assynt. We also got a better view of the Eas a Chual Aluinn but it was just too far away to be impressive.
Above: Loch Glendhu from Kylesku.
Below: Looking back on Kylesku with Quinag behind.
In the Achfary forest, we got our first taste of a strange breed of an evil and super sticky insect. This guy was a classic creepy crawly – it took a while to notice he was there and flicking him off didn’t work as he hung on to your skin or scurried around in your hair for all he was worth. They seemed to be unique to this small part of Scotland, as we didn’t come across them anywhere else. A bit more covered up, we moved on. Being used to Irish villages we normally expect to find at least a pub at the centre of even the smallest habitations but Achfary like most Scottish villages just about had a telephone box although for uniqueness it was painted black and white. Leaving the village we finally crossed on to our last map which felt like quite a milestone. Our route took us around the slopes of Ben Stack and I had to resist the very strong temptation of just going up and over it. Our feet suffered in the heat and just beyond Lockstack Lodge we dropped them in the stream for as long as we could bare the rapidly gathering midges.
Above: Looking down Loch an Leathiad Bhuain and Loch na Creige Duibhe while ascending from Kylestrome.
Below: The view across Loch Stack to Arkle.
We headed in the direction of the striking peak of Arkle and climbed a little bit too far up its slopes before correcting ourselves and heading for the super blue Loch a Garbh-bhaid Mor and the long valley which would bring us down to the out of sight Rhiconich. There was no clear path through the wet ground and we moved slowly. At the Garbh river we faced another wade and as usual I wandered up stream so as to find a better spot to hop across. I had just the place I thought but a third of the way across it didn’t look quite so good and now the midges had me. They had appeared in their millions and there was no escape. Standing on a small sloped wet rock I bent down to take off first one boot and then the second and slung them around my neck. I deserved to fall in but just about stayed upright and rushed over to the far side. I couldn’t stop; I was being eaten alive and strided quickly in search of a few seconds peace to throw back on my boots. The insects had got the better of me this day and I had had enough. At Rhiconich we needed red meat and Aidan ate what was probably his third steak ever. Both previous times had been after huge days on the hills with me too.
Above: The Loch a’ Garbh – bhaid Mor with Arkle behind.
It was Sunday and we were in the endgame. Just outside the hotel we were offered a lift up to Blairmore which is the townland near to Sandwood Bay. I was delighted to be able to answer that as we had walked from Fortwilliam we had better not take a lift at this stage. We were actually at the sea now and the full tide and the sunshine meant that our winding route along Loch Inchard to the fishing village of Kinlochbervie was as good as it possibly could have been. Sandwood Bay was billed as a magical spot and there seemed to be quite a few campers and walkers on their way back out after spending the night there. I wasn’t expecting too much and a few garish tents camped in the green field beside the Loch seemed to confirm that this place was a bit over-hyped.
Above: The sea stack of Am Buachaille as seen from Sandwood Bay
Below: Sandwood Bay.
Below: A long time coming
It was strange though to be walking on sand after such a long spell in the mountains and we walked right out to a rocky outcrop at the edge of the sea. There were a few small groups around but it was quiet enough. I looked out to the sea, looked across to the unlikely sea stack of Am Buachaille and then lay down. It was early afternoon and this was the first day when we hadn’t much further to go and the hype I discovered was true. There was something about this place which surely hadn’t changed much since the Vikings had shored up there many centuries before. The Bay was reputed too to be the headquarters for every mermaid on the north-west coast and to be fair they had picked the right spot. So too had the young couple to our left on the beach with their dog and their young boy. What an excellent place to spend a Sunday afternoon – a visit here was the anti trip to the DIY store. We took our time finding a spot for the tent. All that was left was the walk out along the coast to Cape Wrath itself.
Above: The tide goes out on an (almost) deserted Sandwood Bay.
We weren’t swept out to sea overnight despite the concerns of a group of students who were convinced we were camped in a tidal pool and as we set out the Cape Wrath Lighthouse was still in night time flashing mode. We followed the coastline as closely as we could on a rough track which brought us up and over a few small hills. I wasn’t sure how I would feel when I arrived at Cape Wrath. I had experienced quite a few doubts about reaching it and yet we had done it in just under ten days. Over the years I have had my share of epics on cliffs and mountains and am no stranger to big routes and big days on the hills but the Cape Wrath Trail had been something extra special. In terms of scale and distance, in the variety of landscapes and geology, in the richness of the countryside, in the highs and lows, there is surely nothing quite like it. Straight up it had been the toughest and the best expedition I had ever been on.
Above: Aidan and Colm at Cape Wrath.
Below: The Cape Wrath Lighthouse
Below: On the journey to Durness.
We had a good nose around Robert Stevenson’s lighthouse and photographed it from every direction. We tried for a cup of tea at the edge of the cliff but the last of the fuel had finally evaporated. Deprived of the distraction of the stove, there was nothing to do but look around. For the first time there was no more land in front of us and instead the coastline wandered eastwards towards Faraid Head and Durness and on and on again after that. Our next stop in two days would actually be a small village called Borce, high in the French Pyrenees. We waited for the minibus which would be followed by a small ferry boat, a jam packed fisherman’s car, an empty bus to Inverness, two trains, two planes and another car journey. However, the first twenty minutes being driven at breakneck speed in a minibus with no suspension away from the most north-westerly point in mainland Britain were the most fun. What great fortune, to be able to make the exceptional journey from Google all the way to Cape Wrath and from there to anywhere.
Above: On the Cape Wrath Foghorn at the very very end.
How we walked it.
It took us 9 Days and 22 and half hours to walk the 324 kilometres from Fortwilliam to Cape Wrath. We left Fortwilliam on Friday the 1st of September 2006 and arrived at Cape Wrath on Monday the 11th which gave us a day to spare on the time that we had allowed ourselves. This was quite tight and necessitated several very long days back to back. Cameron McNeish recommends about 14 to 16 days while “North to the Cape” breaks the route down into 21 stages. Allowing two full weeks would be the best plan. We carried a lightweight two man tent and an MSR stove and camped on six of the ten nights staying in a hostel (Loch Lochy), a bunkhouse (Kinlochewe), a B&B (Carol Morrison, Ferry House, Kylesku, Sutherland Tel: 01971 502268) and a hotel (Rhiconich) on the other nights. We carried two to three days food at most times and picked up what we could along the way but Kinlochewe was the only place with a shop of any size for most of the route. Kinlochewe was also the only place where we could get medical supplies and we also used it to post home any maps we were finished with. We kept our packs as light as possible but with food and water they still weighed about 16 kgs. There wasn’t a lot of time for reading books so I would have left that out at least.
Above: Descending the Sail Mhor with the mighty mound of Arkle behind.
How we walked it:
- Day 1 – 30k Fortwilliam to Loch Lochy
- Day 2 – 30k Loch Lochy to Glen Loyne
- Day 3 – 33k Glen Loyne to Morvich
- Day 4 – 35k Morvich to Loch na Caillich
- Day 5 – 27k Loch na Caillich to Kinlochewe
- Day 6 – 30k Kinlochewe to Corrie Hallie
- Day 7 – 42k Corrie Hallie to Oykel Bridge
- Day 8 – 42k Oykel Bridge to Kylesku
- Day 9 – 30k Kylesku to Rhiconich
- Day 10 – 20k Rhiconich to Sandwood Bay
- Day 11 – 12k Sandwood Bay to Cape Wrath
Above: Descending to the Achfary Forest and Loch More from the Bealach nam Fiann.
References: (1) Cape Wrath Trail Route Notes by Cameron McNeish at www.capewrathtrail.co.uk
(2) North to the Cape, A Trek from Fort William to Cape Wrath by Denis Brook and Phil Hinchliffe. Published by the Cicerone Press.
Above: The view up Loch Glendhu from Kylesku.
Written by Colm Ennis. Photos by Colm Ennis and Aidan Ennis.
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