More wonderings in Scotland
This time I pick up on a question posed earlier: the Cape Wrath Trail, could I do that? (See also Wonderings in Scotland.)
It turns out, over the years, that I encountered the Cape Wrath Trail (CWT) many times and travelled along parts of it, sometimes without knowing it, before mapping out the route(s) and seeing whether it was something I could achieve. I have only one image of relevance in my surviving collection; the last from the West Highland Way in Fort William, so I am going to rely on creative commons and donations. Above is one of my own, see end of post.
As before, I begin off the trail in my cycling days. I can’t count the number of times I visited Tobermory, the harbour of coloured houses and hostelries in the Isle of Mull. From there I climbed the island’s only Munro, Ben More (966m), which is among the easier ones. But it was my first solo and, because all the higher points are miles away, the views were stunning.
In those days my habit was to take the passenger ferry, then a small fishing smack, to Mingarry Pier on the Ardnamurchan peninsula. I would then take a diversion the the lighthouse at Point of Ardnamurchan, before an about turn along the southern coast of the peninsula to the small settlement of Salen (not to be confused with the place of the same name in Mull), where there was a small shop and a hotel for lunch.
Soaked in seconds
One day I emerged from the shop and it was clear that heavy rain was imminent. I took perhaps a second to decide I could ride the 500 metres or so to the hotel without getting wet, but as I began peddling the first raindrop hit me and I reached the hotel porch soaked to the skin. I stepped inside, opened the door into the public bar and stopped, dripping on the mat. The rain had stopped as abruptly as it had begun. The landlord, told me to stay put and rushed over to me with an armful of towels. When he was satisfied it was safe for me to enter, he guided me to a bar stool, placing one of those bar-top towels on the seat before asking me to sit. A nice pie and a couple of pints later, I was well-fuelled for the onward journey.
First encounter: It is a strange quirk of the CWT that, having crossed Loch Linnhe, walkers are taken several miles south along the coast to Glen Cona and an off-road route to Glenfinnan. My cycle ride would take me along this section to cross to Fort William in the opposite direction.
There are two main points of interest: the memorial to the supporters of the Young Pretender who gathered there in 1745 and ultimately would be slaughtered at Colloden; and the railway viaduct, these days associated with the Hogwarts Express, and the trail passes beneath it. I only went that far. It is still one of the wonders of the Highlands.
From there I continued to Mallaig, just making the last ferry to Skye, mainly because I wanted to at least see the Coulin, and visit the Old Man of Storr. On a Friday I wound up at UIg, a sheltered harbour, with a cluster of houses, a pub, and a youth hostel.
Party like it’s Portree
As I checked in to the hostel the warden asked if I was going to the dance. Somehow I had missed any reference to such an event and hesitated. “Everyone else is going. I’m going.” he said. Not having a clue what I was in for, I said “okay”, and waited to see what would happen. One concern was that I had agreed to meet some other cyclists at Ratagan Youth Hostel the next evening, some 70 miles away, and starting the day still boozed up would make it feel more like 140. Oh well, in for a penny …
So I cleaned up, put on some of my non-cycling clothes, I probably had a choice of one pair of chinos and two shirts – travelling light with just a handle bar bag and saddle bag, I washed underclothes by hand each evening. “What’s the form with this dance?”, I asked the clientele, and was told that we all wait in Uig Inn from nine o’clock for the bus to turn up. The clock chimed nine and we trooped the few yards to the Inn, got some drinks in, and waited. There was no sign of a bus. A few more came in. Everyone seemed relaxed. Eventually a horn sounded, everyone drank up and headed for the door. Outside, under a lamp post, was a single-decker bus with that swept back, art deco style of the inter-war years. We all piled in and off it set. Immediately, two chaps made their way along the aisle dispensing bottles of brown ale to each of the new passengers. We picked up a few folks from remote places and arrived at the venue at midnight.
This was essentially an industrial barn, emptied for the occasion and the floor covered in lots of straw. The band was just setting up. At the one end were two trestle tables: one for men selling only measures of whisky, no beer or other such weakness; and the other for ladies, providing only orange squash in very small plastic cups. Both were consumed in great quantity! There followed lots of mainly American country and western music, mixed in with more traditional tunes to which the throng danced with decreasing control, until, all of a sudden, the band announced the last dance, a slow waltz. It was almost four o’clock!
We all piled back onto the bus. Most had to be shaken awake as their stops approached, and we finally reached Uig Inn at five. I had no alarm clock, so was worried that I would wake too late to reach the five o’ clock, and last, ferry to the mainland at Kyle of Lochalsh. I don’t recall how long it took, but with a break for refreshments at Portree, I time-trialled the 50 miles to the ferry, arriving with about five minutes to spare: at least with a bicycle you can get to the front of the queue. Miraculously, there was a petrol station shop open and I purchased a large steak and what I needed for a full breakfast. I could afford to take it easy, except I had no lights, and darkness would soon descend, so it was back into time trial mode. I recall that I arrived in the gloaming in just under an hour, which in those circumstances was a good effort. “That is a big meal”, someone remarked as my steak, eggs, fried bread, mushrooms and tomatoes disappeared. Breakfast would be more or less the same, but with sausage (leftovers for a pasta bake that evening -cyclists know you need the calories.
Kinloch Hourn to Shiel Bridge (CWT)
That was not the first time I had visited Ratagan Youth Hostel on the shore near the head of Lock Shiel, where the Old Pretender had rallied his meagre band. I had walked through Glen Garry to Kinloch Hourn and had some tough terrain to cross, a stretch of the CWT, though I still didn’t know it. This involved crossing the Forcan Ridge, just east of The Saddle, the highest of a cluster of Munros. I prepared for this by boiling up some soup and warming some sausage rolls, as I had decided to detour the few yards to the summit at 1010m, and would have a brief rest to gather my strength for the last few miles of descent. And I needed all my strength. Getting down from the ridge was a bit precarious in places, but then I reached the Allt Undulain. In spate. The path and easy way down was on the other side. Looking up towards Saddle, now shrouded in cloud, it appeared as though the Gods were venting their spleens by pouring endless, vast quantities of beer off the mountain. Three was no way I could cross, so began a struggle down the east side of the “burn” before I reached the footbridge, safety, and the road to Ratagan, taking in the last of my sausage roll and soup. Another sound sleep approaching.
Coulin Pass, Kinlochewe, Dundonnell, Ullapool
Several times I began camping trips by taking the train via Inverness to Achnashellach, on the splendid railway to Kyle of Lochalsh. I would then walk through the forestry to pick up the Coulin Pass near Craig. I would then turn south west beside the Easan Dorcha, to stop at a bothy known as the Teahouse, which became a favourite refuge. A few yards away was an excellent bathing pool. Round about were various low hills and pools to explore, and a distinctive wind-blown rowan tree.
From reviewing the Ordnance Survey (OS) and what I recall, the walk through to Kinlochewe was easy going. I did this several times. I stayed once at the hostel, and once at the hotel, but, mostly I popped into the Post Office shop for a few basics and walked on to camp at the head of either Loch Maree, on route to Poolewe and the coast, or, more pertinent here, towards Ullapool.
At least twice I did work my way along the north shore of Loch Maree, all the way to Poolewe. Once I diverted from the generally good path to climb the horseshoe-shaped Ben Slioch , a Munro of 980m. Years later I was interested by an episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, in which Paul Hollywood, the TV baker, discovered that an ancestor had, for several years carried the post between his home at Poolewe and Dingwall on the east coast; three days out, three days back, round trip 120 miles, and Sunday off. It is still available on YouTube here. The rest of the route I had cycled years before.
From Poolewe I think you could easily cycle to the youth hostel at Carn Dearg, about 4 km west of Gairloch. You could also take the bus between Ullapool and Dingwall.
A hill too far
From the head of Loch Fada, I turned north east, and worked by way to the headwaters of Glen Nid, being sure to get onto the east bank to avoid what could be a deepish crossing downstream. In the crags west of Loch an Nid, I watched through binoculars peregrine falcons feeding young. The best overnight stop is probably the bothy at Shenavall, though this can get busy with those wanting to bag the remote Munros in the area. Despite ambition, I never climbed one of them.
The big mountain is just to the west: An Teallach, aka “The Forge”, variously because climbers get hammered or because in the last embers of sunset the tops can appear fiery. This would be a hill too far for me, but some climbers use it as a primer for taking on stiffer mountains, such as the Alps or Himalayas, especially in winter conditions. One such attempt was undertaken in 1966, and led to a salutary film being made in 1985, available on YouTube: Duel with An Teallach (runtime 54 minutes). No spoilers here.
After Shenavall there was a good path and track north east to Dundonnell House on the coast road (A832).
The wee ferry at Allt na Harrie
Today the route skirts the head of Loch Broom, but in my day there was a small ferry, at the end of narrow lane and track, that would take walkers from a small jetty to Ullapool Pier. It was very convenient, but has been unavailable for many years.
Ullapool: I discover the Cape Wrath Trail exists
Except Fort William, Ullapool is the only town on the CWT. In my view, even if you take the bus from Inverlael, it is well worth staying a couple of nights at least, to recharge batteries for the last few legs. There were several places to stay, including B&Bs, guest houses, hotels, inns, a campsite with a view along Loch Broom and inland hills, and one of my favourite youth hostels, also looking out onto the loch. There were several watering holes that I visited a few times, but my firm favourite was The Ferry Boat Inn.
One day, I was lunching at the corner of a large table, by the window, partly reading the paper, looking up to see folks going past the window, when I was joined by three Scots, all wearing plaid. Not any colourful tartan, but ordinary plaid of a salt and pepper colour. I asked if it was heavy, but they said no, just practical, light and breathable when dry, and when dampened by rain windproof. Much better than modern materials, they said. They were doing the Cape Wrath Trail. So then I knew it was a thing.
I am fairly sure at that time, early 1990s (?), that the preferred route was a traverse of Ben Mor Coighach, but this seemed masochistic, especially when there was a perfectly good route to Oykel Bridge, on today’s preferred route, via Glen Achall (I went as far as the Lodge at East Rhidorroch, and returned by Leckmelm and bus), and Duag Bridge.
Blue is the colour
At the far end the corner is cut away and there a some French windows, which I don’t recall seeing open. When I first visited, back in the early eighties there was an unusual feature. Just inside was a perch, home of a blue and yellow macaw. Someone mentioned it some years on: I and others said there was one, but others vehemently denied it in a don’t-be-daft manner. I tell you, it was there; I have not dreamt it!
Most of the rime when I visited the landlord was Richard, a one-eyed, Wiltshireman, who supported Chelsea. He was concerned that his nearest top flight opposition was Newcastle United, where he was going next day, but they were in danger of relegation. From the www this was 1988/89, the old first division and they found themselves in the second division. Gazza left for Tottenham Hotspur, I think the next nearest league opponents would be Sunderland.
Ullapool is a good place to stock up on more than the basics, almost on the last page of the mainland road atlas, probably about seven Andy-length legs, or perhaps four for much fitter hikers. As well as a convenience store, there was a newsagent-cum-party-things-shop, post office, and a splendid book shop – I was quite partial to snuggling with a
wee okay large dram round a lantern, in my cosy sleeping bag as darkness fell. Then, one of the great joys of wild camping for urban dwellers: go outside for a wee, look up, the sky is full of stars! A great wonder every time! Mind you, reading about some of the history, especially the Clearance, brings one down to Earth. I wonder if it’s the same lady proprietor; could easily be. If you are passing, please accept my thanks for keeping me sane and better educated on dark nights camping and train journeys.
Rhiconich to Cape Wrath
I never did get round to visiting the famous waterfall Eas a’ Cual Alainn, the highest in Scotland, or those hills after whom are named famous race horses, Arkle and Foinavon, bare as they appear. Arkle was among the most successful mounts of the early-mid-sixties, guided by jockey Peter Taafe to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup thrice on the bounce, King George VI Chase twice and the Irish Grand National. Foinavon famously won the Grand National as a 100/1 outsider.
So, my penultimate leg began, though it had not been a plan, even at that late stage, at Rhiconich. After leaving the Durness-bound bus, I set off along the road overlooking Loch Inchard, passing the new fish dock at Kinlochbervie, whichlooked closed, then Loch Clash and beyond to the boundless blue-green of the ocean, towards the Isle of Lewis. My objectives were to camp at Oldshoremore, walk on the beach and visit Sandwood Bay, before returning to Rhiconich to take the bus to the World’s edge.
When I returned to my tent, two ladies approached. The had bought a large flounder from the fish dock and asked to share. I did! I selected a few vegetables and took my cook set over to them. Travelling by car, they had a heavier duty two-ring hob, but I used mine to make a parsley sauce. It was a lovely afternoon, and as the light would last, we headed for Sandwood Bay, about four miles away. Navigation, even in twilight, would be easy enough along the good footpath. And what a delight and wonder is Sandwood Bay?!
On the way back I decided to check my provisions to see if Cape Wrath was attainable. I had stocked up to an extent for a full English at both Oldshoremore and Durness, where the shop opening hours were rather mercurial. I also had most of a loaf, butter, a pack of ham, and some chocolate. There would also have been tea and porridge, so, foodwise, things looked good. I had heard there was a minibus about three o’clock from the lighthouse to take me across the Kyle, so I would not have to walk back again, though I could manage a night at Kearvaig Bothy on the coast and possibly a camp somewhere, sacrificing time in and around the township, including puffin-watching, and a further visit to the wonderful visitor centre, which I see is now closed. I would be safe.
So, early fry up and pack up, and on my way. At least the first few miles were easy going. I made a bit of a song-and-dance of crossing the outfall from Sandwood Loch, which was shallow, but beset by slippery rocks. After that I probably kept too near the cliffs, but passed over the knoll Cnoc a Gheodha Ruadh easily enough, taking in a sandwich and some tea, and studied the ground ahead. Two chaps made steady progress away to my right. We joined company soon after, and they had done the whole trail. By then I was flagging, and decided to stop for another sandwich and a cuppa, checking out a gully leading to the road. Oh for some walnut layer cake! The chaps took some hot soup and pressed on so they were about a quarter mile ahead. I struggled through the soft gully, but made it up to the road with a sugar boost from my chocolate – a favourite dark-chocolate bounty. In hindsight I should headed for the road earlier. One forty-five, and about 2.5 km, just about one and a half miles to go. The other chaps were almost there and a few other coloured tops stood or sat in front of the lighthouse, sheltering from the chill wind that was suddenly much more searching. And there was the minibus. I plodded along the firm track and made it, touched the building as the minibus driver said “Well done”, not knowing I was something of a fraud, though I did tell him later, and, “we’re going in 25 minutes”. I dropped my pack and found the other bounty. then took up my binoculars for a few minutes, before arranging a group photograph, which ought to be in my treasure box, along with the ticket they gave to finishers of the Cape Wrath Trail. That was the last run of the year, being 30 September; phew!
A can of beans
One day, I thought I would try to get an overview of Durness township (no drones back then), by climbing a small hill only a short walk from the youth hostel. On the OS map its name is Ben Ceannabeinne. I overheard someone in the pub ask how it was pronounced. The barman said, “we just call it the can o’ beans”. I suspect it is more properly “Ben Shannaben”, but don’t quote me.
The ridge is about a mile long, rising towards the southern end to 383m, (1,256 ft), and presents a sheer cliff face to the approach. So, I followed the stalkers’ path to climb from the other side. As I got closer. a loud bang echoed from the cliff. This was something of a wake-up! I looked round, but saw nothing to suggest an explosion, no blown out windows or plume of smoke, and I continued. After a second loud bang, I was behind the hill and heard nothing out of the ordinary until I reached the top. It was pleasantly warm and I was soon sitting down to a picnic, which being not far, was more lavish than my usual fare; tiger prawns, olives, dressed salad, half a bottle of still-chilled white, and even a drop of brandy! These were leftovers from last night’s dinner at the pub. My trusty binoculars lay at my side and I began to study the township.
As I was about to tuck in, I saw something streaking along the top of the sea cliffs toward Cape Wrath. It was jet fighter aircraft. Moments later there was a moderate bang and some rock debris flew up. Then another, bigger plume of rock rose skyward. This must have been from an aircraft above cloud level. I think the target was Dislic Rock, about 1km NNN of the lighthouse, which they pounded for about twenty minutes from both high and low level. After that I had the most enjoyable lunch, before a saunter back to Durness and a nap. Assuming this was some kind of practise, the only time that fits with my being there would be the second Gulf War, 1990, in which Iraqi forces were ousted from Kuwait.
Durness Visitor Centre
Several times I visited this visitor centre (easily five-stars), which gave a thorough history of the township, all the way from ancient dwellers at Smoo Cave, through the war years, when it was part of the Chain Home radar system, and was central to organising shipping convoys, to modern features and places to visit. It appears it has survived Council budgeting and other hazards since. Faraid Head, which I imagine was improved by decommissioning of the MOD facility, was a treat, with coastal views and a tame puffin colony. Balnakiel Bay, where the Kyle of Durness reaches the sea is a beauty. Some of the wartime buildings have been converted to small craft workshops, which I mooched round one driech afternoon.
You could also get back home via the red bus that went mainly along the coast, all the way to Fort William, change for Buchanan Street in Glasgow, or take the train to Queen Street, Glasgow, and the train onward, perhaps the sleeper or a more conventional train all the way to Penzance. (These days you have to pass through Inverness.)
If you are to undertake a backpacking or other trip to the Scottish Highlands, such a long distance trails, so that you will visit isolated areas, you must give careful consideration to the range of equipment to take, and how much you are able to carry. In time you will become accustomed to the how much, how long, terrain, how to pack your bag (so you don’t have to empty it when you only want your stove and a teabag), what foodstuffs you want, especially if you have a food intolerance. If you are a beginner, you can test all-up weights in your house and on local walks. You should also work out how to make emergency equipment, such as first aid, safety and communications, and how to contact Mountain Rescue, readily available, if only to rescue someone you stumble upon.
Back in my day, unless you were a writer on the great outdoors, you had to supply all of your own kit, and, though ready meals were appearing, modern ones are different gravy. One woman, who was obviously very well-organised, in her finale video thanked suppliers of clothing, tent, stove, cook pot, meals: pretty much all of her gear. Well done! (It is not a one-way street; the suppliers want feedback and publicity.)
I appreciate there is a lot of nutritional science behind these meals, but it’s still hard to beat porridge and a full English, with a rest en route to brew tea, warm soup or a pie, and “fortified” tea and walnut layer cake (more calories than butter!}, watching the sunset and the stars reclaiming the darkness, before the sleep of the dead.
Above are images of my own Coleman titanium, lightweight gas burner. The AAA battery is purely for scale – in the lower image it stands at Cape Wrath – held up by the flow adjuster. The bottom of the burner engages with one of those small canisters of butane, making it surprisingly stable on a flattish surface. The two parts simply screw together. I did take my Trangia for more substantial meals, but that was just perfect for a quick brew up, sometimes with some foil to keep the wind off. Sadly there was no time to show this burner off at the lighthouse.
So, how much of the trail did I do? Approximately 77 miles out of the 200.