With just two minor snags, I more or less completed the Scottish National Trail. I found it fairly straightforward, though obviously it’s a long old hike and I was helped by the most walker-friendly Scottish spring weather in living memory.
This trail is surprisingly manageable and almost overwhelmingly interesting. In fact I’m still slightly reeling from all I saw, how much I learnt and how it’s broadened my horizons. The first part of this post outlines the basic practicalities of hiking from Kirk Yetholm to Cape Wrath, a total of around 470 miles. The second half is a summary of my itinerary, which you can jump to by clicking here.
The Scottish National Trail was originally mashed up from sections of other trails by Cameron McNeish. His coffee table book Scotland End to End narrates his pathfinding walk along it, in his usual colourful, enthusiastic style.
This book isn’t a trail guide but a souvenir, readable and entertaining with great photographs, although it could do with a few more of the latter and their print quality isn’t great. I hope McNeish gets a chance to tidy the book a little for a second edition, it reads as if it was finished in a slight hurry and the ‘directions’ are a bit redundant as you’d never carry such a bulky tome in your rucksack. You’ll want the book as a keepsake once you’ve walked the trail, but it isn’t your primary source of information for planning.
More practical and in fact the sine qua non enabling resource for the Scottish National Trail is the Walk Highlands website, which provides not only mapping resources but comprehensive directions and downloadable GPX files. For each day I made a laminate of their directions (heavily edited) augmented with notes, stripmaps and detail maps from their website of tricky looking bits. The Walkhighlands route differs in a couple of places from the route in McNeish’s book but their directions worked perfectly for me, a Scottish hiking newbie.
Laminates are heavy so I posted a bunch of them ahead and threw each day’s sheet away as I went, which was slightly heartbreaking after the work I put into them. As I moved onto the Cape Wrath Trail, for which I had a guidebook, my laminates became sparser with 3-4 days on each sheet.
The GPX files were 100% reliable and quickly became my default navigation resource. I used them in the free mapping app OsmAnd, paying about two quid for the contour lines plugin which was invaluable. Lazily, I ended up not bothering with paper maps at all, which I know is not really the done thing in such remote country.
In my defence, the Scottish National Trail is not Munro-bagging but a very long scenic walk through glens, over the odd bealach, along forestry trails, canals and rivers. There are only two summits, one at the start and one at the end.
After my phone battery issues in Wales I’d invested in a new Moto G5 phone which gave me three days’ battery life in airplane mode with Android Battery Saver. This was also my camera as well as my phone and Internet and I carried a spare battery. Why people carry separate GPS’s and cameras when a smartphone does the lot is beyond me.
I must admit, though, there were days when my phone got worryingly wet. My ‘waterproof’ case leaked after a week and I ended up using sandwich bags as usual. Another time I’d consider a more water resistant phone, although the advantage of the Moto G5 is that it’s dual SIM, so pretty much anywhere other than Cape Wrath and Bynack Lodge you’ve a chance of signal on one side of a hill or the other.
Obviously I carried a compass and whistle and in the most remote sections I had Plan B’s (acquired from OS maps in Norwich library) noted on my laminates. I’d have liked to carry OS maps for context and flexibility, but the expense and logistics of acquiring all the maps for the 470 mile trail were prohibitive.
I posted ahead a copy of Iain Harper’s Cicerone Guide Walking the Cape Wrath Trail, mainly for the maps which were useful (and which I should have studied more carefully at Breabag Tarsainn, among other places 😉 ) For the SNT you can throw the first third of this book away, you don’t join it until page 71. With hindsight I might have bought the Harvey CWT maps instead, for their wider context. You don’t really need the book directions if you have the Walk Highlands directions, but then you don’t have to spend days editing the book as it’s already pretty compact.
If I was doing a quick, ultralight Cape Wrath Trail starting from Fort William now, I’d probably just carry the book, a compass and my phone with the GPX files. But that’s easy for me to say, I know the way. Maps give a better understanding of the landscape and you don’t have to keep asking other walkers lame questions like ‘what’s that mountain?’ and ‘is that the sea?’ Too much information is better than too little, especially as the CWT passes through remote country, much of it rough and trackless, and none of it is waymarked. Personally I hope it stays like that.
The WalkHighlands directions were almost 100% reliable, and at least one of the very few substantive typos I found has since been corrected. When I downloaded them early in 2017 several discouraging user reports had me worried, but I found they bore no resemblance to conditions on the ground. For example in Glengarry users wrote of very hard terrain and impossible river crossings. In fact now you just follow a bulldozed forestry trail all the way to Garrygualach, where there’s a smart new bridge over the previously difficult burn. I see that now (June 2017) these directions have been updated which is impressive and reassuring.
On the downside, the original WalkHighlands directions are far too wordy for practical use on the trail. I had to spend a long time editing them into a concise format suitable for laminating. I’ve raised this with them but they’re unrepentant, and they don’t want me to make my edited version available to you, sorry. Still, they’re a great resource that must have taken a lot of effort to create, they’re actively maintained and are provided free of charge, so ‘thank you WalkHighlands’, I say.
Ideally you want to reach the Highlands in mid-May before the midges, but the SNT is a long hike and spring is cold in Scotland especially at night, so your time window for lightweight backpacking is short. I set out on April 11th and was at Cape Wrath on May 18th just as the first few midges were emerging. I was exceptionally lucky with the weather but still had to trudge through snowstorms and on more than one morning I awoke in a tent full of ice.
To camp in Scotland in April even on a low-level trail like this you need to be equipped for sleeping out at zero Celsius, or in my case as I sleep very cold, somewhat below.
There are also sections of this trail where you need to carry non-trivial amounts of food. Twice my plan showed I needed to carry eleven meals and once eight meals. I allow 250g of dry food per meal, so that was up to 2.75kg extra pack weight.
To hike 450-odd miles in one go you must from the outset commit to walking light and nimble. My base pack weight was 10 kg including waterproofs, tent and a three season synthetic sleeping bag but not water or food. My pack was a 600g vintage GoLite bought for £48 on eBay. Contrary to advice in guidebooks etc. I wouldn’t consider walking this trail in heavy boots, it beats me why anybody does this. Of course you need boots if you’re climbing Munros, but this is long distance trailwalking, a completely different kettle of feet.
Most people I met on the Cape Wrath Trail walking in traditional boots had blister issues – some had shocking open wounds. Some were also deeply fatigued from lugging packs of twenty kilos or even more, with an additional kilo of permanently wet leather dragging on the end of each leg.
Meanwhile, as heavily-booted hikers despaired of their foot rot and in several cases gave up, I skipped along for 450 miles like an irritating pixy in my Salomon X-Ultra Prime mesh shoes, the burn water flowing through them keeping my feet cool and clean. On cold rainy days and on long stretches of boggy ground I wore Sealskinz waterproof socks.
Unsurprisingly, when I got to Cape Wrath these shoes had worn out, but by then they’d done over seven hundred miles of rough trail walking in total and I’ve just bought replacements for seventy quid. Although the shoes were worn in, a full pack changes your gait and I did have minor blisters on my little toes in the first week; I just broke out the Compeed and carried on.
I followed the same basic pattern as on the Pennine Way, four or five nights of camping then a hostel or BnB to shower, wash clothes and dry out. My income is modest so camping was essential, mostly wild camping not just to save money but because I keep hikers’ hours and sleep better in peace and quiet. The most I paid for a BnB was £50, but that was a more like a country hotel and totally worth it, especially as it snowed heavily that night and the breakfast was vast and delicious. Hostels were around £18-£25.
Generally BnBs were excellent value and the hostels were great too, although a couple were more geared to trendy youths on coaches than to filthy trailwalkers with wet tents. Above all, Scottish people were universally kind and friendly, even in the most unlikely-looking towns I was amazed how they all seemed to have time for a stranger. Short holidays in Scotland have never been enough for this attitude to sink into a dour, suspicious Englishman but now after six weeks up there I think I’m something of a changed man!
Hardly anyone I met in Scotland had heard of the Scottish National Trail and I didn’t meet or hear of anybody else trying the whole thing. As it takes an average walker five weeks (I allowed six) I suppose that’s not surprising. I was surprised how busy the West Highland Way was, even in early spring, and relieved that the SNT only spends a single day on that very popular trail before diverting onto the quieter Rob Roy Way.
Otherwise, it was only once I’d reached the Cape Wrath Trail that I started to meet and mingle with other through-hikers as I’d done on the Pennine Way. Unlike on the PW, though, most were from overseas. Elsewhere, I walked through endless miles of exceedingly remote landscape without encountering another soul.
It was obvious that long sections of the trail would normally be much, much wetter. Apart from some very cold nights, a few dreich days and a spot of bad luck with snowmelt in the Cairngorms, my biggest problem weatherwise was sunburn!
Here’s my full itinerary, both planned and actual.
I walked the Scottish National Trail (most of it) in 37 days, of which four were rest days and the last three an eccentrically slow amble over Cape Wrath. As it turned out I could have come home a week sooner, but other than in the Cairngorms I was exceptionally lucky with the weather. This trail would be harder and slower in normal conditions.
I planned around a rough average of 30 km a day, being less ambitious on what sounded like tougher sections. I’ve left in my original notes on food. The first week’s schedule was constrained by accommodation bookings made long in advance. I’d done this because it was Easter, so I’d figured everywhere would be very busy. In fact I could, and should, have been more flexible.
Day 1, April 10th. By train to Berwick on Tweed. PLAN: Bus to Kirk Yetholm via Kelso. Walk 10 km to Morebattle. Supper Templehall Hotel Morebattle. Wild camp somewhere west of Morebattle. ACTUAL: I missed the last bus to KY as my train was three hours late into Berwick, hence I had to stay at Kelso. I’ll never be able to claim I walked the entire Scottish National Trail!
Day 2, April 11th. PLAN: Morebattle – St Boswell’s ~ 32 km. Lunch Harestanes Visitor Centre,wild camp by Tweed opposite Dryburgh Abbey. ACTUAL: I got the Hawick bus from Kelso, picked up the trail at Crailing and wild camped in the Eildon Hills, which were blooming breezy.
Day 3, April 12th. PLAN: St Boswell’s – Brown Knowe via Melrose 28 km. Breakfast at Melrose and BUY 3 MEALS 0.75 kg. Wild camp on Brown Knowe 55.581, -2.975. ACTUAL: I wild camped in a more sheltered spot on the Southern Upland Way, lower down and somewhat past Brown Knowe which was very exposed in a freezing wind.
Day 4, April 13th. PLAN: Brown Knowe to Peebles via Traquair 26 km. Lunch Cardrona village shop. Camp at Rosetta Holiday Park near Peebles. ACTUAL: a long and lavish breakfast at Cardrona, then as plan.
Day 5, April 14th. PLAN: Peebles to the Bore Stane 30 km. Via shops at West Linton and supper at Carlops (Allan Ramsay Hotel). Wild camp near the Bore Stane. ACTUAL: as plan, except that the pub was too posh for supper, they charged me eight quid for a ham sandwich! Supernoodles for me.
Day 6, April 15th. PLAN: Bore Stane to Ratho, 27 km. Via Balerno (shops BUY 3 MEALS .75 kg) and Slateford. Camp at Linwater Caravan Park. ACTUAL: as plan, an easy day with two lavish meals.
Day 7, April 16th (Easter Sunday). PLAN: Ratho to Falkirk via Linlithgow 34 km. Lunch at Linlithgow. Rosie’s Bed & Breakfast, 115 Oswald St, Falkirk. ACTUAL: as plan and very easy.
Day 8: April 17th. PLAN: Falkirk – Twechar 21 km. Camp at Spotty Dog Campsite, Twechar. ACTUAL: as plan. This campsite was minimal, to say the least.
Day 9: April 18th. PLAN: Twechar – Milngavie 18 km then bus or train into Glasgow to stay with friends. ACTUAL: after breakfast at Kirkintillloch McDonalds I just carried on along the towpath right into the centre of Glasgow, which was easy walking and very interesting.
Day 10: April 19th. Day off in Glasgow, very nice too.
Day 11: April 20th. PLAN: Glasgow to Muir Park Reservoir via bus/train to Milngavie and supper at Drymen (pub 19 km) 24 km. Wild camp near Muir Park reservoir. ACTUAL: I had lunch at the Beech Tree Inn, bought pies at Drymen and camped in a more sheltered site beyond the reservoir, which is exposed and boggy.
Day 12: April 21st. PLAN: Muir Park Reservoir to Callander via Aberfoyle (lunch and BUY 2 MEALS 0.5 kg) 29 km. Wild camp somewhere outside Callander. ACTUAL: as plan.
Day 13: April 22nd. PLAN: Callander to Comrie 27 km. Chippie at Comrie. BUY 5 MEALS 1.25 kg. Wild camp outside Comrie. ACTUAL: Starting to find these days fairly easy, I camped quite a way past Comrie.
Day 14: April 23rd. PLAN: Comrie to Loch Freuchie 30 km. No facilities. Wild camp at Loch Freuchie. ACTUAL: Loch Freuchie is sheep country with nowhere polite to camp, I camped in a wood further on.
Day 15: April 24th. PLAN: Loch Freuchie to Aberfeldy 20 km. BnB at Aberfeldy, Balnearn House, Crieff Road, PH15 2BJ. ACTUAL: as plan, and very nice too, superb breakfast.
Day 16: April 25th. PLAN: Aberfeldy to Blair Atholl via Pitlochry (lunch). 29 km. Camp at Blair Atholl or Bridge of Tilt. ACTUAL: At Aberfeldy it started to snow and the forecast for the next night was extremely cold, consequently I cut this day short and booked myself into the excellent SYHA Hostel at Pitlochry for the night instead.
Day 17: April 26th. PLAN: Rest day at Blair Atholl. BUY 8 MEALS 2 kg. ACTUAL: Pitlochry to quite a way up Glen Tilt, where I wild camped.
Day 18: April 27th. PLAN: Blair Atholl to Bynack 27 km no facilities. Wild camp near Bynack. ACTUAL: I walked up Glen Tilt in continuous heavy rain to Bynack Lodge where unfortunately due to the rain and snowmelt I couldn’t get across the Bynack Burn. Being alone and lacking experience to judge when the rivers might fall again I turned back towards Blair and ended up wild camping again back in Glen Tilt.
Day 19: April 28th. PLAN: Bynack to Glen Feshie, 21 km, no facilities. Wild camp or bothy at Glen Feshie. ACTUAL: I trudged and hitched back down Glen Tilt and got the train to Kingussie where with slight difficulty I found a BnB room.
Day 20: April 29th. PLAN: Glen Feshie to Kingussie, 24 km. BUY 7 MEALS 1.75 kg. BnB at Kingussie, Greystones, Acres Road, OH21 1LA. ACTUAL: a nice day off at Kingussie attending the Local History Festival. Greystones BnB is truly remarkable.
Day 21: April 30th. PLAN: Kingussie to Laggan 24 km. Wild camp somewhere near Laggan. ACTUAL: Back on plan, in fact I camped quite a bit further up Strathspey.
Day 22: May 1st. PLAN: Laggan to Blackburn of Corrieyairack ~ 35 km. Bothy at Blackburn of Corrieyairack NH 3817 0289. ACTUAL: as plan, except that having walked more like 35 km the day before I was at the bothy by 2 pm!
Day 23: May 2nd. PLAN: Bothy- Fort Augustus ~ 5 km. BUY 11 MEALS 2.75 kg. Hostel at Fort Augustus, Morag’s Lodge, Loch Ness, Bunoich Brae, Fort Augustus PH32 4DG. ACTUAL: this planned rest day at Fort Augustus ended up coming rather soon after the unplanned rest on day 20.
Day 24: May 3rd. PLAN: Fort Augustus to Allt Ladaidh via Mandally 28 km. Wild camp in forest near Allt Ladaidh grid reference 230 003. ACTUAL: Glen Garry is hopeless for camping due to the tree felling. I was lucky to find a pitch eventually at Garrygualach, a long day!
Day 25: May 4th. PLAN: Allt Ladaidh to Cluanie 29 km. Possibly Cluanie Inn 01320 340238 for dinner. Wild camp past Cluanie. ACTUAL: arriving at the friendly Cluanie Inn well ahead of plan I used their WiFi to book a bed at the amazing Alltbeithe Youth Hostel.
Day 26: May 5th. PLAN: Cluanie to Morvich, 26 km. Morvich Caravan Club site, Inverinate, IV40 8HQ. ACTUAL: a nice short day from Alltbeithe along the Affric – Kintail Trail, I was at Morvich by 2 pm.
Day 27: May 6th. PLAN: Morvich to Maol-bhuidhe, 23 km. No facilities. Bothy at Maol-bhuidhe. ACTUAL: as plan, surviving the long-dreaded Falls of Glomach.
Day 28: May 7th. PLAN: Maol-bhuidhe to Craig, 24 km. Gerry’s Hostel, Craig Achnashellach, Strathcarron, IV54 8YU. ACTUAL: as plan. Gerry’s is great!
Day 29: May 8th. PLAN: Craig to Lochan Fada, 29 km. via Kinlochewe (17 km, shop) BUY 6 MEALS 1.5 kg.+ fuel. Wild camp at Lochan Fada. ACTUAL: as plan.
Day 30: May 9th. PLAN: Lochan Fada to Shenavall, 16 km, no facilities. Bothy at Shenavall. ACTUAL: as plan, the bothy was very busy.
Day 31: May 10th. PLAN: Shenavall to Clachan, 19 km. Dinner at Clachan. Booked TESCO DELIVERY, 11 MEALS at least 3 kg food total also gas/meths for stove. BnB 2 nights with dinner, Clachan Farmhouse, Clachan, Lochbroom, IV23 2RZ. ACTUAL: as plan. Clachan farmhouse is lovely.
Day 32: May 11th. PLAN and ACTUAL: Rest day at Clachan Farmhouse.
Day 33: May 12th. PLAN: Clachan to Knockdamph 22 km. Knockdamph bothy (has stove). ACTUAL: I got to Knockdamph pretty early so pushed on to the Old Schoolhouse bothy which turned out to be much nicer.
Day 34: May 13th. PLAN: Knockdamph bothy to Loch Ailsh, 27 km. Bar lunch at Oykel Bridge Hotel, wild camp at Loch Ailsh. ACTUAL: I was at Loch Ailsh by late morning. In a fit of madness, I pushed on all the way to Inchnadamph where having got lost and then jogged through pouring rain to beat competitors, I bagged the last bed in the excellent hostel.
Day 35: May 14th. PLAN:Loch Ailsh to Glencoul bothy, 27 km. Bothy at Glencoul (fire). Push on to Glendhu + 6 km if supplies low, (fire). ACTUAL: I got even madder! A bloke at the hostel claimed heavy rain was forecast for May 15th and hence I’d never get across the Garbh Allt. Trying to beat the forecast rain, I yomped all the way from Inchnadamph to the River Laxford, around 40 km, phew!
Day 36: May 15th. PLAN: Glencoul bothy to Loch a’Garbh, 30 km, very tough, no facilities. STILL MUST HAVE 4 MEALS, at least 1 kg of food. Wild camp at Loch a’Garbh. ACTUAL: Loch Stack to Sandwood Bay, where despite ominous skies the forecast rain still held off until the morning and I had the place to myself, not to mention a massive stock of food.
Day 37: May 16th. PLAN: Loch a’Garbh to Sandwood Bay, 20 km. Via Badcall (shop, 10 km) lunch at shop and BUY 3 MEALS + treats, ~1 kg. Wild camp at Sandwood Bay. ACTUAL: being already at Sandwood Bay, I had a lie in as the forecast rain finally arrived, then strolled to the nearby bothy at Strathchailleach.
Day 38: May 17th. PLAN: Sandwood Bay to Cape Wrath, 13 km. Ozone Cafe at Cape Wrath Lighthouse can provide informal accommodation. ACTUAL: Strathchailleach Bothy to Cape Wrath where I spent the day in warm sunshine and the night camped on the cliff top, supporting the Ozone Cafe by buying lunch, dinner and breakfast.
Day 39: May 18th. PLAN: Spare day. ACTUAL: Minibus and ferry to Durness, camped at Sango Sands campsite and ate in their excellent pub. The minibus and ferry can be unpredictable, allow a whole day to get off Cape Wrath.
Day 40: May 19th. PLAN: Spare day. ACTUAL: explored around Durness, a nice little place. To see Scottish Primrose I ended up walking at least 15 km.
Day 41: May 20th. PLAN: Heading towards Inverness. ACTUAL: on Saturdays the minibus from Durness goes all the way through to Inverness, where I bought new clothes (!) and stayed in the excellent SYHA Hostel.
Day 42: May 21st. PLAN: At Inverness. Bazpackers Hostel, 4 Culduthel Road, Inverness, IV2 4AB. ACTUAL: as plan, and very interesting too although one day in Inverness is quite enough to see the sights. Day 43: May 22nd: Home on the first cheap train!