Day 27, May 7th, Maol-bhuidhe to Craig. Not only is this next section of the Scottish National Trail probably the most wild and isolated in terms of terrain, there’s a variety of possible routes. This was quite confusing for a Scottish hiking newbie like me, used to more firmly established trails. It isn’t necessarily a problem, though. I found it added an extra dimension of interest. Even though I ended up cravenly following the standard route, being forced to evaluate alternatives has given me more confidence for future ‘off-trail’ hikes.
From Maol-bhuidhe, Iain Harper’s CWT book suggests heading around to the south and west of Carn Poll-eisg, then at Bendronaig Lodge either walking west to the facilities and train at Strathcarron or rejoining the SNT route up to Bealach Bhearnais. Cameron McNeish’s SNT route also crosses the River Ling at Loch Cruoshie but then heads north-east up to the beautiful and isolated Loch Calavie. This looked so pretty on the WalkHighlands website I felt I had to see it, and I wasn’t disappointed. There was also the small matter of my having their handy GPX waypoints in my phone, which I found very reassuring on my first solo hike in the Highlands.
Loch Calavie was stunning, and my early morning stroll around it was enlivened by the strange moaning ‘song’ of its resident Red-throated Diver.
After such isolation the descent to Bendronaig brings a shock. The whole valley of the Black Water is being despoiled with building works and ugly tracks, presumably for hydro or one of the other usual suspects. You have to be alert for traffic on these tracks, even at a weekend.
After a depressing trudge past JCBs, cabins and trucks around Loch an Laorgh, the track peters out, thank goodness, and the trail up to Bealach Bhearnais is mostly, says Iain Harper, ‘rough trackless ground’. He’s not wrong, this is a challenging little hike although my own energy levels were luckily boosted by a bag of jelly babies dropped by another hiker. Thanks very much if they were yours, I was hungry, and it didn’t help that Bealach Bhearnais kept reminding me of sauce. As further inspiration there are also increasingly wonderful views to the west and some jolly interesting multi-coloured rocks, if you like that sort of thing.
At the top of the bealach I was greeted by a view that looked virtually identical to the one in the other direction. Not that I was getting glen fatigue, or anything. I was also smacked square-on by a stiff and very cold easterly wind, which I realised must have been making life quite miserable at home in North Norfolk while I’d been hiking in warm Scottish sunshine. A Facebook post to that effect elicited an appropriately annoyed reaction from shivering friends and neighbours.
During the whole of this rather long stretch I met just two other walkers, both, quite frankly, of a somewhat eccentric mien. I felt I was beginning to blend in. Also frankly eccentric is the wire bridge over the Allt a Chonais at Pollan Buidhe. I paddled. You’d have to be desperate to try using this contraption with a full pack, I’d have thought, although I suppose something similar would at least give walkers a chance over the Bynack and Geldie Burns. As there is vehicle access all the way up this glen, I don’t understand why a safer crossing over this fairly narrow river can’t be made much more simply and easily from scaffolding poles.
It’s still quite a long hike down to the A890 but there’s a grand view over your shoulder of Sgurr nan Ceannaichean and some remnants of lovely native pine forest in the valley below the trail.
Gerry’s Hostel is a total delight even though, bizarrely, there wasn’t one single female guest on this particular night which gave the place a slightly monastic feel – the male dorm was completely full. Simon the owner, who inherited the place from his eponymous and sadly deceased father, is a friendly chap and determined to maintain the hostel’s character. Three old railway cottages knocked together, the building features authentic (and still very much in use) wood-fired ranges and facilities include a wide selection of vinyl records with which Simon will regale you as suits his mood. Legendary.
Day 28, May 8th, Craig to Lochan Fada. It’s a steep little pull up the old pony track to the Coulin Pass.
Towards the top of the pass you start to encounter yet more extraordinary devastation, not to mention a constant passage of enormous dusty trucks, which would take a long time to slither to a stop on the loose surface. You need your wits about you; mine took some locating after a convivial evening at Gerry’s then a dawn start.
Once past the hydro construction at Coulin it’s still a trudge along bulldozed tracks but the hike is enlivened by amazing and constantly developing views of Beinn Eighe to the west. Cuckoos were everywhere; the Highlands in general seem to be a real haven for them, considering how they’ve declined in England.
There follows the notoriously frustrating descent through allegedly impenetrable herbage into Kinlochewe. Opinions vary on how to tackle this. There is in fact a faint track through the initial woods, but it meanders bizarrely and one is repeatedly confronted by new deer fences, necessitating counter-intuitive changes of direction.
Harper suggests sticking close to the river. In trying to do this, I ended up confronting collapsed stiles over barbed wire fences in the middle of an absurd bog, on the far side of which, in the river, were large stepping stones one of which was critically missing, leaving a gap far too wide to jump over the deep water.
In the end I slithered my way up a steep slope back onto higher ground, where I found a faint but distinct trail along the edge with the A’ Ghairbhe river down below to my left. If you want to wimp out and head down to the A896 I think you’d need to do so much earlier than this, by following the forestry track downhill to the north-west from about 584 026. Oddly enough, right in the middle of the most baffling section of the mystifying woods, there’s an International Appalachian Trail waymarker, the only one I saw on the whole CWT. Very helpful.
Even less helpful was the proprietor of the Kinlochewe Post Office, where I’d anticipated with a glad heart posting home the heavy trail crampons and several other surplus bits of pack weight. ‘The Post Office closes at eleven’, he deadpanned. It was about quarter past. He wasn’t interested in discussing the issue. I suggested that if he could find a plastic bag and a bit of tape, I’d wrap my items and entrust him with both the package and a tenner, he could keep the change. He was completely uninterested (and he’d have been quids in as when I did post my stuff eventually from Ullapool it cost me all of £2.90). Ironically, he was wearing a Monty Python t-shirt. I was literally hopping with frustration, recalling the friendly Post Office at Kingussie with its big sign saying ‘if the shop’s open, the Post Office is open’.
I was restrained from telling him what I really thought by the pressing need to also buy food from his surprisingly good and extensive selection. The contrast between his blank uninterest in helping with a postal problem and his clear enthusiasm for stocking his shop considerately and widely only further amplified my cognitive dissonance. Scottish people everywhere having been so universally helpful, I feared I could only account for his strange attitude on the grounds of his being English. Had I known the hotel down the street was delightfully friendly under its new (also, reassuringly, English) management and offered an excellent lunch menu, I wouldn’t have bothered with the Kinlochewe shop at all.
Restored by a pint and a bit of guitar practice (‘I don’t even know why that guitar’s hanging up there’, said the new landlord, who’s from Warrington, ‘it just came with the pub’) I trudged along yet another vehicle track, past a village school the half a dozen pupils of which, their heights ranging from two to five feet, were taking turns to have a rugby ball thrown at them by one of those jolly male teachers who thinks being thumped in the chest by a pointed leather projectile builds character in a child. It built my character, alright. To this day I cry ‘eek’ and run away when any kind of ball approaches me.
The Heights of Kinlochewe is a sheltered green valley, tucked away high in the hills like a miniature Tibet. The hydro has paid for a vehicle track all the way up there, so needless to say several chi-chi holiday lodges have popped up too. In the picture below you can just see a red JCB (left of centre) digging foundations for another.
Above the Heights the devastation of the bulldozed hydro tracks continues.
Eventually this peters out, thank goodness, just where both Iain Harper and WalkHighlands refer to a ‘confusing sign’. Either I blinked while passing this sign or somebody must have now removed it, as I failed to experience the predicted confusion and hence felt rather short-changed. The going levels out onto a proper moorland path and a wonderful panorama arrays itself ahead: the Fisherfield to the north and Slioch and Beinn Lair to the west. Stopping for a bite at Loch Gleann na Muice I met a characterful mountain biker who, to my delight, spontaneously shared an extremely uncomplimentary opinion of someone we’d both recently encountered.
I’d randomly decided to camp at Lochan Fada without knowing anything about the terrain and, as it turned out, the few patches of the lochside that aren’t either boggy or a shingle beach are pretty stony. I did find a little patch of flat peg-friendly ground eventually and once I’d stuffed myself with Supernoodles and a few slugs of Scotch I must admit I did indulge in feeling modestly pleased with myself. It was an utterly gorgeous evening and a completely wonderful spot at which to spend it.
Once the sun started to drop and the friendly pair of Ravens who’d called by to entertain me with some extraordinarily intelligent interaction had departed to roost, I got to bed pretty sharpish. Even with my total inexperience of Scottish camping I could work out that a completely clear evening sky at 310 metres altitude in early May suggested the possibility of a somewhat cool night. Sure enough, by midnight the flysheet was completely stiff with frozen condensation.
Day 29, May 9th. Lochan Fada to Shenavall Bothy. I had my chilly campsite entirely to myself and when for the last of several times I was woken by the cold, just after dawn, the silence was uncanny. There wasn’t a breath of wind. I debated whether to wriggle violently in my sleeping bag to generate warmth or leave the tent and jog violently along the beach. Yet again the sky was clear and I could already sense the sun’s warmth. Soon enough it would be roasting me to medium-rare, so I decided to savour the chance to shiver and moan for a bit.
Luckily not for too long, though, as when I did prise apart the frosted flysheet flaps and stick my head out, a staggering sight greeted me. The lochan was still as a mirror and the surrounding mountains were reflected in it as perfectly as if they’d been Photoshopped. It was unbelievable, something I never thought I’d see in Scotland.
Had I been a wild swimmer I’d have had a once in a lifetime immersion in completely pristine water, not to mention pneumonia to show for it. On the rare occasions I stay in a hotel with a pool, I always try to be up at dawn and first in – stepping into glass-flat water is an amazing experience. At Lochan Fada, sadly, I was put off by the frost and my lack of a wetsuit. However I did, for the one and only time on the SNT, persuade my phone to take a panorama…
By the time I’d packed up the tent, which doesn’t take long, the breeze had risen again and the beautiful reflections had completely disappeared.
It’s quite a climb up to Coire Mhic Fhearchair but, contrary to Harper’s warnings, I found the navigation straightforward in the bright, warm sunshine. The only tricky bit was crossing the streams at the south end of Loch an Nid.
Where the river bends north-west into Strath na Sealga there’s a pretty wood that was suddenly alive with familiar garden birds, Great Tits, Blackbirds, even Robins. Also of ecological interest was a small family party of Hillebergs, with a lone Coleman parked at a respectful distance, like a Hyena attending Lions.
A lot of people wild camp in this wood, it seems, and some of them clearly don’t bother to carry trowels. Yuck. This reminded me that I’d been warned of possible hygiene issues around the very popular bothy at Shenavall but I found that this early in the season these had not yet developed, thank goodness. It was, however, absolutely chock-a-block with Munro-baggers. I bagged the last space on the floor, at three in the afternoon, and by dusk there were half a dozen tents around the bothy and several more down by the river.
The sitting room was packed with characters, one of whom was regrettably loud and assertive. Having arrived early, I’d carefully set the fire with dry twigs I’d picked up in the wood and one of my precious firelighters, but this wasn’t good enough for him. I was forced to physically prevent him from dumping a mass of sodden, claggy old bogwood on top of my nifty arrangement. Mountaineers, eh?
The talk was all of summits, nobody seemed interested that I’d walked there all the way from the English border (well, nearly, drat that train…). I hardly liked to embarass my lowly trail shoes by placing them among the assembled company of B3 boots, some of which were those swanky orange alpine ones that cost hundreds of pounds.
One thing I will say about Shenavall is if you have to nip out for a nocturnal comfort break, be sure to take your headtorch and your GPS. Regulars have told me that you do have to watch your step around this bothy in summer, the main reason, apart from high traffic, being that it’s a long walk to find anywhere secluded.
Even when you do find anywhere secluded, this bothy is so popular there’ll probably be someone else already occupied there and you’ll have to go even further afield. It would be embarassing to have navigated your way across the Fisherfield, then get lost while performing essential functions in the dark. Luckily, the comforting candlelight shining through the bothy window was a useful navigation beacon. With the warmth of the fire and the sardinesque sleeping arrangements the bothy was also agreeably snug, on another pretty parky night.