2013 | foot | cape wrath trail—3
Day 6, Tuesday 24th September 2013: Cluanie Inn to Loch Lòn Mhurchaidh
I had returned to the Cluanie Inn on Monday evening, on the last coach up from Glasgow, getting in just before eight in the evening, so in time for a good dinner and a good night's rest. It was with a little trepidation that I set out on Tuesday morning, under an overcast sky with occasional bursts of sunshine.
The route was simple enough to follow: east on the main road for about a kilometre, across the Allt a' Chaorainn Mhòr then left up An Caorann Mòr on a rough landrover track.
The initial climb was steep and vistas of Loch Cluanie opened up rapidly behind me, while the top of the glen itself remained elusively out of sight. I passed several ruined shielings as well as couple of stone sheep shelters.
The cloud thickened and the landrover track dwindled to an unmade footpath near the summit. From the top, at 410 m, I could see down into the confluence of Fionngleann, Gleann Gnìomaidh and Glen Affric—wide open country, the tops of the mountains sadly enveloped in cloud.
In due course the isolated buildings of the Glen Affric Youth Hostel hove into view, as well as the footbridge across the River Affric. The path degenerated for the last couple of kilometres before the bridge—the mapped route at the riverside was not visible, so I followed a boggy trail on higher ground, dropping down to the footbridge; I passed a few old and badly oxidised pieces of aluminium at this point—wartime aircraft wreckage? I had not heard mention of this.
The hostel had closed in mid-September, although half of the annexe building is always open as an emergency shelter. I got there in time for a lunchtime brew up, as planned, which I made in the lee of the building out of the chill wind blowing in from the east.
I then set off westwards up Gleann Gnìomaidh, along a rough landrover track which soon gave way to an old pony track. I always enjoy the simple yet effective art of the track-builders of old: stones edging burns crossing the path and lining the passage through boggy areas, stepping stones or even fully cobbled fords across larger bodies of water.
I was very positively surprised after a few kilometres to come across very new improvements to the old path, clearly made mechanically but nonetheless sympathetically, including extensive gravel surfacing through boggy areas. Presumably this is driven by the estate, perhaps supported by the National Trust for Scotland—I was in any case most impressed, and for a couple of kilometres was able to stride out along this pathway at a good pace.
Too soon I reached the furthest point reached by the contemporary path-builders, however, and a little way short of Loch a' Bhealaich was plunged into some very boggy going alongside the river, intermingled with stretches of very well-preserved old path.
I marvelled at the dramatic cleft of Bealach an Sgàirne on the far side of the glen—the gateway to the west—but continued northwards towards the very top of the glen. The Loch was bleak and cold in the afternoon gloom, and the wind picked up.
I was now in Gleann Gaorsaic, and as per the map the path petered out alongside the loch; I continued cross country along the eastern side of the wide and shallow glen for some three kilometres past Loch Gaorsaic and the smaller and reed-grown Loch Thuill Easaich, fed by a vigorous but easily-crossed burn. I was following the tracks of what must have been an argocat expedition for much of the way—not so much a path as two lines of flattened grass and heather, marginally easier to walk along except where the machine had churned the peat into ugly scars.
The map indicates another path, which I eventually found: an old pony track long disused, and occasionally obliterated by the erosion of the argocats, or simply swamped; the map mentions a footbridge of which there was no sign at all. I had planned to camp by Loch Lòn Mhurchaidh at about 380 m; I reached the lochan at about six in the evening, and it was bleak and uninviting. The path splashed along the lochside and past a tiny beach at its northern end, and I struggled to find anywhere to pitch my tent.
The light was failing, and I chose an elevation just to the north of the loch, deep moss and grass amidst ancient boulders. The tent pegs went in with no effort at all... The weather continued dry though overcast, and I was soon warm in my tent, making my supper.
By eight o'clock the wind from the east had picked up; while great for avoiding midges or condensation in the tent, I began to worry about the soft ground and the tent pegs. By nine o'clock I was sufficiently worried to get fully dressed and go out to check them all: all were holding well, nonetheless I used my walking staff to further secure the peg under most strain from the wind, just in case. The wind was cold, and of course the darkness all around was complete, with the cloud less than a hundred metres higher than the campsite. The wind abated and then strengthened, flapping the tent alarmingly, and I slept badly for fear that the tent would collapse around me.
24 km and 590 m ascent.
Day 7, Wednesday 25th September 2013: Loch Lòn Mhurchaidh to Bendronaig bothy
I slept intermittently, and as the wind increased I spent more time awake than asleep, until soon after 5 am I had convinced myself that disaster was imminent. There was no thought of heating water, as the mini-Trangia does not have an effective wind-shield, and with the tent flapping about I was not going to risk trying to light the cooker in the "porch" area for fear of burning the tent... so I had some cold water and set about packing up by the light of the head-torch. By half-past six I was packed and underway, as first light seeped under the cloud base; the wind continued to blow bitterly.
The old pony track was very hard to follow; the map showed two routes down into Srath Duilleach, one directly down along the burn—the made path appeared to have followed the slightly longer route, and I had no desire to follow a very narrow footpath over the edge of the valley and down the steep gully beside the Allt Coire Easaich.
I therefore climbed to the very head of the glen and then pieced together sections of the pony track and argocat trails until the route down emerged, following the Allt Tarsuinn down a natural flank to Carnach. This was nonetheless a steep descent, and I could see no sign at all of the steeper footpath shown on the map, so was well pleased with my decision.
The going was slow, and it was just on nine before I reached the huddle of buildings at Carnach—an abandoned settlement. The north-east wind was howling down the valley. Nowhere to shelter sufficiently to boil some water, so I continued into the wind, up along a good estate road towards Iron Lodge.
A 4x4 passed me heading for Iron Lodge, and as I walked into the wind I then watched as an argocat rapidly climbed the hairpin estate track east of the Lodge, up into Gleann Sithidh. Ahead of me the track leading to Pait Lodge climbed dramatically out of the head of the valley under the flank called Doire Gharbh, while my route up and north to Maol-bhuidhe remained hidden until the last.
Iron Lodge was so named at some time for its corrugated iron roof, but it now has a solid slate roof and looked in very neat repair.
I followed an old, well-made and narrow vehicle track steeply up above An Crom-allt, hemmed in by mountains, winding up towards an elusive pass. The pass itself is marked by an old estate stone wall with a small, roofless shelter: a great place to sit and finally boil up water for a cup of tea!
Vistas gradually opened up northwards, across the high plateau to Ben Droniag itself, head shrouded in clouds, then more widely to the munro Lurg Mhòr behind it, and towards Loch Monar in the far north east.
Loch Cruoshie came into view, and finally the white bothy at Maol-bhuidhe. The deteriorating track finally disappeared shortly before the bothy; I crossed the stream and was glad to find a clean and dry place out of the wind; although it was now after noon I finally had my porridge and more tea there and took a peek at my right heel, which was bothering me: the anti-blister plaster had vulcanised to liner sock and skin, and formed a further blister of its own… I was unable to remove it so covered it in gauze and replaced the boot.
From the bothy I continued north to cross the Lùb Chruinn where it flows out of the loch: I found a spot where it was only a few inches deep except for a narrow channel cutting under a high peat bank: I managed to leap over onto the bank and thus avoid getting wet at all. Then followed a tough hack through long grass and then deep heather, over the eastern flank of Ben Dronaig for a couple of kilometres, before finding an ancient made stalkers’ path leading down to the mouth of Loch Calavie.
Lovely views north east to Pait Lodge on Loch Monar in the remote distance, as well as back to the bothy. Maol-bhuidhe was permanently inhabited until about 1916 by a gamekeeper and his family of ten (!); a note in the bothy records how a "side teacher" would visit one week a month, rotating on to Pait Lodge for a week and then to another remote house. Then as now, footpaths were the only connection with the outside world.
At the head of Allt Loch Calavie the stalkers’ path led to a wire bridge which fulfilled its purpose admirably and certainly saved me from getting wet, as the river was a good two feet deep.
Shortly after that the path joined an old and faint landrover track, shown on the map as a footpath connecting Pait Lodge to Bendronaig Lodge. Grateful after the deep heather, I turned left and followed this along Loch Calavie.
At the western end a brief climb opened up majestic views into Attadale Forest: north into Bearneas—tomorrow’s route—and south west across a wide and empty valley.
The lodge and bothy at Bendronaig came into view as the clouds were lifting in the late afternoon. I had made good time after my early start, and reached the bothy just before four o’clock in the afternoon: I considered pressing on, but the forecast had suggested further wing bringing clear weather, so I decided to stay in the bothy. It is famous for having a flushing loo (with a bucket to fill the cistern from the burn outside).
A few chairs and a table, some candles and windows opening out to beautiful views… Somebody had passed through earlier in the day but I had the place to myself that night and slept well; when I did awake late at night it was to the sound of a gale blowing outside, and I reflected that I had made the right choice to stay there that night!
21 km and 600 m ascent.
Day 8, Thursday 26th September 2013: Bendronaig bothy to Craig
Thursday dawned clear and bright; I was up early, awoken by the low braying of a couple of stags in the low pasture.
I had slept well, and was soon fed and packed and set off under a cloudless sky into a picture-postcard day.
I headed north along a landrover track along the Black Water to Loch an Laoigh, the lovely views of Bearneas unfolding with every turn.
Bendronaig bothy does not get morning sun, but I could see across to the even more isolated Berneas bothy as it basked in sunlight on the western side of the valley. Deer were calling, the sun was shining, the wind had vanished: a blissful morning.
As expected, the rough landrover track ceased when it reached the Allt Coire Seasgach, and the ancient stalkers’ path was at first hard to find, but then led faithfully on up around a flank of Beinn Tharsuinn towards the pass.
The made path only took me to Coire Beithe, and then followed a couple of kilometres of boulders and heather, climbing fairly steeply up to the pass—all compensated for by the magnificent views and splendid weather.
I reached the Bhealach Bhearnais at about eleven, and spotted a hillwalker heading up the ridge to the munro Sgurr Choinnich on my right; I was delighted, at the top of the pass, to come across a well-worn climbers’ track leading up from Pollan Buidhe far below. The broad valley of Glen Uig led off to the north east and north west, while ahead of me Sgùrr nan Ceannaichean towered.
On the steep descent from the bealach I came across an inviting boulder and sat down to have a good look at my right heel: the new blister had largely torn away, so in the still sunshine a set about gingerly trimming away the dead skin with my penknife, before finally wrapping the heel generously in gauze and micropore (as I should have from the outset…). Although still tender, from that moment the healing set in.
The climbers’ track blended with an old stalkers’ path and led down to quite a long wire bridge across the Allt a’ Chonais before joining up with a good landrover track leading on to Glen Carron. I passed a couple of climbers headed intently for the munros, as well as a pair of mountain bikers cycling to Glenuaig Lodge.
Gradually the landrover track descended, under the impressive Creag an Ardaich, from mountainous country into forestry and then into gentler landscapes at the valley floor. Shortly after crossing the railway line I reached the well-signposted Gerry’s Hostel at Craig, a settlement of about four houses.
The independent hostel appears to be a left-over from happier days; mine was the first entry in the log for ten days. Still, it was warm and dry, and Gerry made a fire in the common room for me, and I slept soundly. I went to sleep undecided about whether I could continue as I was unsure about my heel.
18 km and 570 m ascent.
Day 9, Friday 27th September 2013: Craig to Kinlochewe
The cloud had returned but the rain held off. My heel was so much better than before that I decided to press on for at least a day, as today’s stretch promised to be easy. The first kilometre is along the surprisingly busy A890, to an informative signpost indicating the start of the old drovers’ right of way over the Coulin pass.
Glad to leave the road I headed steeply up into the forest, where the way-marked path switches back and forth and the view down Strath Carron widens with every step. Soon the estate road leading to the pass was reached, and the walking was then an easy climb along an old but well-maintained track, leading out of the forest and onto moorland.
Despite a low cloud base which shifted but would not lift, the views across Glen Torridon to Liathach and Beinn Eighe were spectacular, as were Beinn Liath Mhòr and Sgorr Ruadh to the west.
The rest of the day’s route out to Kinlochewe was laid out before me. The road led down into a broad, forested valley nestled around Loch Coulin; I crossed the River Coulin on a very sturdy stone bridge and passed active logging operations.
The route crosses the plain above the loch, passing the very well-kept houses at Coulin and Torran-Cuillin, before heading up into the forest plantation on the southern flank of Carn Dhomhnuill Mhic a’ Ghobha. After following a forestry road a footpath branches off and leads out of the forest to an old path across the Fèith an Tairbh moorland along the Màm a’ Ghiubhais.
Much of the forest plantation shown on the OS map on the descent to Kinlochewe has been felled, and the Coulin Estate is planting native species to replace the Sitka; the path has been rerouted but is well—if sparsely—marked, and I made good progress down towards my destination, as far as the edge of the clear-fell at the ford over the Allt a’ Ghiuthais, where a last way marker pointed offhandedly across the stream past some ruins, and where I could not find any vestige of path.
I finally followed some deer tracks along a fence to a gate, then a very faint track across a field to the next stream, beside the river A’ Ghairbhe. At that point, after trying to push through trees and bushes down to the stream, I decided to skirt the low ground, headed back up to the deer fence, and followed it for two rough and tedious kilometres to the forest edge just above Kinlochewe; from there it was a couple of minutes down to the village and hotel.
I had a booking at the excellent Kinlochewe Hotel, so my room was ready (I arrived at about three in the afternoon; I had thought to get there for lunch), and I enjoyed a hot bath before heading out to explore the village: two tiny shops, a filling station, a caravan site and the bustling Whistle Stop Café. I enjoyed my lazy afternoon, ate extremely well at the hotel in the evening, and resolved that I would continue with the next two-day section into the Great Wilderness.
17 km and 500 m ascent.
Day 10, Saturday 28th September 2013: Kinlochewe to Strath na Sealga
A long day, and I should have set out early… but the hotel breakfast was only served from eight, and the village post office (I had to send back almost all of the original resupply parcel I had posted to myself here) only opened at nine, so the plan was to be underway soon after nine. Drizzle fell intermittently from low cloud. Breakfast was great; my boots were dry after a night in the drying room, and all was set. I was delayed at the post office as apparently my home address was not registered in the system… but eventually I set off just after half-past nine, down past Incheril and then along a good estate road towards the Heights of Kinlochewe. Drizzle set in and I donned my cape, only to overheat and decide that a little drizzle wouldn’t hurt (and the drizzle ceased and the rest of the day was dry!).
I had been walking for just over half an hour and had just about reached the Heights when—to my surprise that there was any signal—my phone rang: the hotelkeeper, did I have my room-key in my pocket? Indeed I did, despite its enormous fob, for my hiking trousers have big pockets… so I turned around and he kindly drove out and met me. Very kind of him, order was restored, but I was now running rather late for what was a long day.
I followed the vigorous Abhainn Bruachaig up to the Heights, at which point the valley divides and I headed north north east up into Gleann na Muice, through a large area where native species are being planted. The landrover track climbed steeply and crossed the Abhainn Gleann na Muice by a stout wooden bridge, then opposite a place called Airigh Shalach, where the map shows a junction, the right-hand fork is the one more used by vehicles and climbs over the valley side, while a good made-up stalkers’ path continues up the glen: here there is a solid signpost with one arrow unfortunately pointing right instead of up, indicating the route to Dundonnell via Bealach Gorm or Bealach na Croise.
As admonished in all the guides I ignored the wrong arrow and continued up the glen; the path was clearly being widened to about four feet, and sure enough after a couple of miles I came across first a shovel and then a small tracked excavator, abandoned for the weekend, with which the estate was very sensitively improving the old stalkers’ path. Presumably the improved path will lead all the way to the stupendous views at Lochan Fada.
The old path continued, waterlogged here and there and a little overgrown, and gradually, as the clouds lifted, although they did not clear, the view of the Great Wilderness opened up in front of me: Lochan Fada bracketed by Slioch to the south, A’ Mhaighdean to the north west and Beinn Tarsuinn, Mullach Coire Mhic Fhearchair and Sgùrr Dubh to the north. The path led me to the edge of the loch, where I could see a rough track emerging from the gash of Gleann Bianasdail to the south west.
At this point the guidebooks suggested following a faint track north and then north-north-east, directly up the hillside for just over a kilometre to pass Creag Ghlas Bheag, before contouring round at about 560 m into Coire Mhic Fhearchair and then descending to the Bealach na Croise at 424 m, in order to avoid the boggy basin lower in the corrie.
Careful navigation was recommended, and in view of the low cloud I had my compass at the ready, but the air was clear and the sun was trying hard to break through, and I was able to use lines of sight. No faint track was visible; I came across it after about 400 m of rough heather and bogs (I suspect it must start almost where the stalkers’ path ends and follow the west bank of the stream there). For a while the climbers’ track led where I wanted to go, but at about 480 m it crossed the Allt na Creige Glaise and headed for the summit of Beinn Tarsuinn, which was not on my agenda.
By now the heather was shorter and bare and rocky slabs meant it was easier to head cross country. I reached the small knoll at 576 m and the corrie was laid out before me: an expanse of peat hags reaching up to about 520 m in places. Above the peat were crags, and a number of large erratics had come to rest between the two. I plotted a route from one prominent stone to another, then set off, aiming to cross the Allt Coire Mhic Fhearchair at the confluence of two tributaries. This worked well, and I picked my way with care, very aware of the isolation. The views out to Slioch were wonderful.
Having traversed the corrie I made myself descend to Bealach na Croise (the temptation is to stay high), and had to cross some peaty ground; as promised in the guidebooks and not shown on the map, I encountered a faint climbers’ track at about 400 m on the northern slope of the bealach, and slowly followed this.
The view was fantastic: in the far distance the white bothy at Lochivraon gleamed alone in a broad, empty glen around Loch a’ Bhraoin to the east, while to my left my route slowly crept into view, north to Loch an Nid.
The track became intermittent lower down, disappearing entirely as I reached the low ground; I waded through long grass to meet the Allt Cùl Doireachan as it enters the loch, and hardly got wet feet crossing it. I then found the very rough but clear track on the east side of the loch and headed north. By this time it was four o’clock.
Loch an Nid is very picturesque, and to its west streams run noisily down huge bare rock slabs on the shoulder of Sgùrr Bàn. A number of ruined shielings and patches of grassy land witness that this was once a populated valley. The track continued, now opening up to views of Strath na Sealga down below, curving left around the foot of Beinn a’ Chlaidhemh.
I had decided not to walk all the way to the bothy at Shenavall, but to camp at a stand of trees at the bend in the valley short of the estate building at Achneigie. Here the valley bottom becomes broad and grassy, and clearly cattle had summered here until recently.
The stand of trees is very picturesque against the background of An Teallach rising majestically behind, and made a great camping spot. Some midges tried to chase me off, but in general the lightest of breezes stirred and kept them away. My tent was up by six, and as darkness descended soon after seven I had eaten and was snug and comfortable in my tent.
25 km and 650 m ascent.
Day 11, Sunday 29th September 2013: Strath na Sealga to Dundonnell
A short day today. It dawned windstill and cloudless, and the sun slowly crept up behind the hills to the east and illuminated An Teallach to the north and Beinn Dearg to the west.
I took it easy and enjoyed the peace and view. Finally I packed up the tent and set off just before nine, starting with a stiff climb up the rough landrover track out of the valley and up onto the Sàil Liath plateau.
The views were gorgeous as I climbed up: across to Beinn Dearg, down over Loch na Sealga, and of course dominated by the many peaks of An Teallach.
The track must be a challenge to drive, yet is clearly maintained and used. The plateau has its own bleak beauty, pockmarked with lochans which glistened silver in the morning sun, and as I crossed its summit distant mountains appeared in the north and east.
Soon after the clear footpath from Shenavall joins, the landrover track plummets down into the prettily wooded Coire Chaorachain and then continues steeply down Gleann Chaorachain for a couple more kilometres; autumn was clearly in progress already in this north-facing valley.
The estate track meets the A832 at the snow gates at Corrie Hallie, and I followed the lightly-trafficked road north west for about 4½ km, past Dundonnell House, to the flat lands and past the Mountain Rescue post to the Dundonnell Hotel. This was to be my end-point for this section of the CWT, and it served me well: copious cups of tea and sandwiches and a hot shower and generally time and space to unwind. I enjoyed a good dinner, slept well, and caught the 08:50 bus to Inverness the next morning.
12 km and 320 m ascent.