2013 | foot | cape wrath trail—1
Day One, Monday 9th September 2013: Fort William to Cona Glen (to Glenfinnan)
A good clean start. Spent the night at the elegant and traditional Alexandra Hotel and had an early breakfast so as to catch the 07:45 passenger ferry across Loch Linnhe to Camusnagaul. Fort William was deserted at half-past seven save for a pair of hill-walkers in shorts going the opposite way: to tackle Ben Nevis. The ferry is part of a school run, and waited several minutes for a straggler to turn up for the ten-minute trip across the flat calm stretch of water.
The weather was still and dry, overcast but a shred of blue sky augured well. Bands of mist divided the lower ground from hill and mountain tops. Low cloud choked the entrance to Cona Glen away to the south west. The only outsider, I was ignored by the schoolchildren, who were refreshingly full of youthful opinions and outrages and tall stories.
At eight I stood on the quiet single-track road which skirts the northern shore of the loch, laden with backpack and seven days’ food supplies and armed with my hiking staff. The weather improved steadily. I set off past the idling school bus and its incurious passengers, walking easily and rapidly along the tarmac. The road is a gem, narrow and winding and little-used, opening to sudden views across the loch and back to Fort William and the Ben. Well-tended houses and gardens slowly gave way to farmland and forest as the day steadily brightened.
A burdened tug grumbled seawards along the loch for an hour or so. The settlement of Stronchreggan is no more than a few farmworkers’ cottages; soon afterwards the road rises away from the lochside for a few miles. After two hours’ walk I reached the turn-off for Cona Glen—the cloud had largely lifted by then and the glen opened invitingly as I set off along the estate road beside the Cona River. The tarmac lasts a mile or so, serving delightful estate cottages, then becomes a well-made old estate road.
I imagine the fishings are good along the river; certainly they appear to be the purpose of the road. The country becomes remoter and the road wilder. I stopped at the locked estate bothy at Corrlarrach for lunch at noon, having made excellent time—I had planned to camp here but the day was sunny and I was feeling good, so decided to press on. My feet were a little sore from the unaccustomed weight. Apart from nine passing vehicles along the coastal road I had not seen a soul since leaving the ferry.
The glen above Corrlarrach becomes bleak, and there was no shade as the sun blazed down. The landrover track has been improved in places, especially towards its terminus.
I stopped a couple of times at the riverside, and got it into my head to continue to Glen Finnan; despite being flat the upper reaches of Cona Glen are not attractive for wild camping.
Thus by three, despite sore feet, I was slowly climbing the steep old pony track up to the unnamed bealach into Glen Callop. I met a hillwalker at the top, returning from a day on the Corbetts around the head of the glen; he looked askance at my pack and headed off back to Glenfinnan at twice my pace.
The thought of a hot bath and soft bed had firmly taken hold by now—sudden trepidation at the thought of wild camping, perhaps? I descended slowly along a rough footpath to the vehicle track serving a small hydro plan at the top of the forestry, then down past the Callop farmstead and along the forest track toward Glenfinnan. I passed a forest of scots pine: so much more appealing than serried ranks of sitka spruce. By this time my feet were hurting and I had a hot spot on my right foot, but did not wish to stop and pressed on.
After a couple of miles a Forestry Commission signpost pointed to the monument and a raised wooden walkway across the boggy ground and the Callop River to the foot of the Glenfinnan Monument; from there a mile of (very hard!) tarmac led to the tiny hamlet.
The splendid Glenfinnan House Hotel was full save for a family suite at £180, but sent me on a few hundred yards to a very comfortable B&B, where I could finally take off my pack and stretch out. My feet were very hot and sore... A long shower helped considerably, and I donned my “reserve gear” and lightweight camp shoes for the walk to the hotel for dinner. At this point it was clear that I had pushed too hard, and overburdened my feet: a blister was developing on my right heel and the soles were bruised from the weight combined with the rough terrain. Otherwise I felt fine: legs strong, shoulders a little tender but nothing more.
Dinner at the hotel bar was very good, with a distant view to Ben Nevis beyond the monument, and briefly a rainbow as the sun was setting. I slept like a log that night.
34 km and 360 m ascent.
Day Two, Tuesday 10th September 2013: Glenfinnan to Glen Dessarry
Feeling much refreshed in the morning and with a full Scottish breakfast under my belt I set off at eight forty-five. I posted the first pre-paid envelope with the photo card from the previous day at the dilapidated wooden shed bearing a hand-painted Post Office sign, and walked back to the main road, which I crossed and set off up the estate road under the famous railway bridge.
The estate is prosperous and the tarmac road beautifully maintained, with mown verges and grand views of the Lodge higher up the glen. The forests on the eastern slopes are being clear-felled, scarring the landscape. Just below the Lodge, where my route left the tarmac for the landrover track past the Corryhully bothy, I met the gamekeeper, a rather splendid chap in a black landrover, who checked that I was going to stay in the low ground: hunting was foreseen in the high corries later in the day.
Leaving the civilisation of the tended road behind I started the climb toward the pass, which seemed very near, deceptively so. Corryhully sits some 60 m above sea level, and the pass is at 471 m.
The landrover track winds on up to a small and modern hydro scheme; thanks to the forestry extraction work the track that far has been improved, but continues ever wilder almost up to the top of the pass, although I doubt a vehicle has been that high in many years. The weather was holding, and cool, and I stopped a few times to drink from streams on the way up. The scenery is majestic: great peaks rising up on all sides, deep green glens riven by white waterfalls.
I reached the top of the pass at twenty to twelve, passing through the old gate marking what had once been the estate fence-line. I saw three hill-walkers, but they were not following my route. The path—which had become rough for the last hundred metres or so—deteriorated further. The initial descent into Gleann a' Chaorainn is steep and difficult, and I threaded my way gingerly between rocks and tussocks of grass down towards flatter ground; at one point the peat gave way and I slipped, luckily no more than a muddy fall.
The path was very narrow and indistinct. The guide warned to cross the burn before it entered a steep defile, and I could see what looked like a path on the opposite side, so after a kilometre I headed out through the deep, tussocky grass in that direction. This proved very slow going, boggy in places and full of pitfalls and deep rivulets. Climbing up and away from the burn I came across some muddy game trails but it took me some time to discover the path I had seen, and then found it was simply the tracks left by an estate Argocat: not a made path but a boot-sucking, boggy trail. Nonetheless it headed in the right direction, toward the bridge over the River Pean which I could see in the distance. I stumbled on, my feet taking a bit of a knocking. The weather held for the main, becoming a little drizzly now and again.
I could see the distant house and buildings at Strathan but expected to climb into the forest joining Glen Pean to Glen Dessarry, however signs at the bridge warned of forest operations and not to enter the forest at all but divert via Strathan. The route was sparsely marked with yellow ribbons on bamboo poles.
I stopped for a late lunch and brew of tea in the rocky and swampy ground east of the bridge, glad to find somewhere to sit comfortably. A mug of hot tea was very welcome. The kilometre to Strathan was wearying: the ribbons were few and the ground very boggy; I followed a narrow trail of trampled grass, crossing several small burns and passing some impressive bogs, sinking up to my knees a couple of times but eventually making it past the ruined old bridge to the new bridge over the River Dessarry at Strathan.
Again the landrover tracks have been improved to facilitate the extraction going on here, and the estate has clearly negotiated that the road to Glendessarry Lodge should be improved too. This walk was easy, although I was again footsore by now, and a steady drizzle had set in. An estate worker passed on an all-terrain vehicle, otherwise I saw nobody. The light was fading early as I headed up grandiose Glen Dessarry, and low cloud partly obscured the mountains of Knoydart which loomed ahead. The flickering cellphone signal sputtered and vanished.
I continued past the new-built and rather forbidding lodge to the estate workers’ cottage at Upper Glen Dessarry, where the footpath starts. The path is very boggy and at times indistinct, and I continued until I was opposite the A’ Chùil bothy. I found a small patch of dry, flat ground amidst the sloping heather and tussocky grass, a few metres above a stream, and set up my tent.
A lovely campsite with a constant gentle breeze which kept midges and condensation away. Having set up and removed boots from aching feet—noting the very large blister on my right heel—I put on my down booties and fleece beanie and lay under my sleeping bag inside the tent to make some tea. At that point—warm and dry—I could not find my firesteel, and searched high and low for it in mounting despair: I must have dropped it when making tea at Strathan. I turned to my weatherproof matches in a little plastic container, only to find that they would not light—not even against the nail file in my toiletries bag. I had not tested them before and had simply assumed... A dark cloud descended and I felt very sorry for myself, munching a cold flapjack and drinking cold water before going to sleep. A sense of having overstretched myself crept in.
22 km and 570 m ascent.
Day Three, Wednesday 11th September 2013: Glen Dessarry
Having slept quite well I was awake at six, my head filled with worries: with no way to light my Trangia, how could I set off into the rough bounds of Knoydart? Would I meet anyone and would they be able to give me matches? Why had I at the last minute not taken an ordinary box of matches with me (as planned)? I was sure that in this terrain I would not make it all the way to Barisdale (where there is an estate bothy and campsite), and thought to walk just three or more likely four hours to Sourlies bothy, hoping to meet someone there or perhaps find some matches in the bothy... I felt despondent as I ate cold porridge and drank some more water.
The tent was warm and dry; I packed my things and just before I started to pack the tent itself I discovered the firesteel in the middle of the groundsheet: it had been under my inflatable mattress the whole time! I felt like a chump, but did not wish to unpack now to make tea and promised myself tea at the top of the pass. A squall of rain soaked the tent just before I could pack it. By eight I was underway, heading slowly in steady rain up along the path, which was very wet.
The cloud had descended so that visibility dropped to a hundred metres at times. I proceeded a mile along the edge of the forest, twice slipping on the boggy path, making very slow progress. My feet hurt already. My glasses were misted up. I came to the Allt Coire nan Uth in a defile and wondered how to cross it: there were several options. I chose a spot and prodded various rocks with my staff, chose three and thought through how to step across. The burn was some eight feet wide at that point and steep and fast-flowing. The first stone rocked and rolled away as I stepped onto it, and I fell, knocking my left hand and shoulder against a boulder and losing my footing; I ended up sitting in the water up to my waist. Luckily I had my staff and could lever myself up without having to leave my pack, and I waded through the pool I was in to the other side. I was shaken and dismayed. I quickly climbed out of the gully and walked on a few hundred yards to warm myself, then stopped to consider.
I had lost my glasses. The stream I had crossed did not even warrant a mention in the guidebook, which warned that the path would later deteriorate, a steep descent ahead was slippery when wet, and a tricky river was to be crossed to reach Sourlies; thereafter there followed a couple more potentially difficult river crossings. Considering that I had not seen anyone and the boot tracks on the path were at least a couple of days old, I felt very exposed, worried that should I fall and hurt myself it might well be a day or two before anyone came past; there would be no mobile signal for a couple of days, so no immediate cause for Fiona to raise the alarm. I decided—and it was hard—that it would be foolish to continue, given the isolation, my relative inexperience, the deteriorating weather, and my sore feet, which would not carry me confidently. So it was that I re-crossed the burn—at another place 30 m lower, wading through a shallower pool of water—and retraced my steps. A number of the little unnamed burns crossing the path were noticeably a little higher and fuller already. After an hour I was back where I had camped. My feet were soaked in my boots.
The trudge back down the empty land rover track was not fun. I knew that this was a bad place to bail from, being at the very far end of Loch Arkaig, but hoped for a lift; my only plan was to get back to Fort William and regroup. I could not think of any other way forward, and felt rather sorry for myself. Near the estate gate I passed the sign pointing to Tomdoun, 18 miles away, and for a moment thought of heading there, but my heart was not in it.
I was lucky to be picked up by a timber lorry at the estate gate: a huge vehicle with articulated trailer and laden with logs. The driver was happy enough to take me with him, explaining that he was an independent contractor, on a five-year contract to remove timber. As the behemoth surged powerfully along the narrow and winding road he explained that he would drive to a timber store some 16 km along the loch. Once there, he would unload and return. I was glad to be seated warm and dry for a while and enjoyed the ride. After he dropped me off, just short of Ardechive, I set out walking along the very quiet road. No cars passed for a while, and when they did they were going in the opposite direction.
My feet hurt but the thought of stopping was even worse: I feared I might not be able to start again. In improving weather and ever gentler countryside I walked along the road to the end of the loch and the very welcome rest spot at the Eas Chia-aig waterfalls, where the Forestry Commission has thoughtfully placed benches and tables. There I finally unpacked my aching feet, applied a dressing to my blister, then put on dry socks. I had a quick lunch but did not wish to tarry; I was off any maps I had carried at this point and did not know how far it would be to the next village.
I trudged on, through the Mìle Dorcha or Black Mile where nine-inch-deep moss covers the ancient stone walls beside the road, past the houses at Clunes, past grand, new-build villas at Bunarkaig. Midges were out along Loch Lochy. Gairlochy was still 4 km away, my feet were really hurting, and I was down. Two vehicles passed going my way but would not stop for me. I then saw a little bus heading for Bunarkaig and guessed it would return: two minutes later it did, I flagged it down, and was soon its one passenger, headed for Fort William. The driver was kindly and told me of the poor weather forecast for the Knoydart area and suggested I try the Travelodge in Fort William.
An ignominious start to my Trail... but enjoyable and instructive nonetheless in its own way, and now impossible not to continue. I soaked my sore feet in the (tiny) bath at the Travelodge that evening before hobbling downstairs to a bright and friendly all-day diner, the “Great Glen”, and by evening was already planning next steps, although it was plain that I would need a day or two to recover...
±18 km and 150 m ascent.
Rest Day, Thursday 12th September 2013: Fort William
I spent two nights in Fort William, tending my feet and buying matches and planning and sending some things home. The soles of my feet recovered quite well, the blister less so. I was bruised and scraped from my fall in the river, and without glasses everything was a little blurry. Nonetheless I resolved to continue at least a little, taking a more easterly route to avoid the rough bounds: I wish to return there, but not alone.