Scottish National Trail – peat, pizza and panic.

Day 30, May 10th, Shenavall to Clachan. As dawn broke, I was the first to slide out from among my fellow sleeping bag sardines and slip quietly out of Shenavall, but I did so in good spirits; once everybody had settled into their most comfortable roles and identified their most compatible conversationmates it had been a companionable sort of place. Not only that, I knew that this very next night I’d be sleeping in a proper bed, in a cosy BnB. And not only that, the following night too, as the next day was to be a scheduled and long-anticipated day off. Whoop!

mountain bothies association shenavall scottish highlands

Looking back down to Shenavall Bothy

The climb up to the east is quite steep, then it’s a long but easy hike to the road at Corrie Hallie where there may once have been some kind of shop or accommodation but there is no longer. A sign on a gate thanks loyal customers and apologises for retirement, but from what, exactly, is unclear. Munro-baggers park their posh cars along the A832 here, hence trail hikers must risk the alarming traffic.

After the Dundonnel bridge I missed the diagonal path, staying too low near the river. I had to slither up a near-vertical grass slope to regain the trail which ascends rapidly here. The advantage of this was I saw numerous wild flowers and, if anything, their numbers increased as I climbed. I was particularly pleased to see Heath Pea (or Bitter Vetch) Lathyrus linifolius whose sour roots were eaten by Highlanders of old as a kind of sweetmeat, like acid drops I suppose, and are also an appetite suppressant. Apparently the plant is now being cultivated as a slimming aid, not something I really needed after a month of trailwalking.

It was quite moving to see so many Primroses and Violets, freshly out. Back in the Borders, they’d have gone over by now. Yet again, it felt as if I was the harbinger of spring, bringing the new season and its renewed life with me as I walked from south to north. It must have been me doing this important harbingering, as I didn’t see anybody else on the Cape Wrath Trail all day.

an teallach scotland highlands

Looking back towards An Teallach. This river was a good spot for a Supernoodle brunch.

The two lochans above Clachan are quite different in character, Loch an Tiompain dark and swampy among vegetation, Loch an Fhionn pale and shimmery among rocks. A pair of Red-throated Divers evidently preferred pale and shimmery.

lochan in scotland highlands

Loch an Tiompain

lochan in the highlands of scotland

Loch an Fhionn

The elevation diagram in Iain Harper’s CWT guide shows that from Loch an Tiompain to Loch Broom there’s 400 metres of steep descent. Sadly, I never bother looking at these diagrams. Rather than take what seemed to me a long detour via Croftown, I left the trail and went a bit off-piste, trying to find a direct route straight down to Clachan.

This direct route turned out to be somewhat vertiginous; there were deer trails but they wiggled and disappeared, the grass was wet and slippery, there were a number of small but alarming cliffs. Had I not gone off-piste, however, I wouldn’t have seen so many more wild flowers, nor got to fossick about in the ruined cottage, a strange and atmospheric place and ripe for purchase and rebuilding, if you ask me, the view from it is amazing.

milkwort in scotland highlands

Milkwort Polygala vulgaris, a tiny jewel and a friend from home in Norfolk. Lots of this on the hillside above Clachan

clachan highlands scotland cape wrath trail

Ruined cottage above Clachan, Inverlael Forest opposite.

clachan inverlael scotland highlands

Not much further to slither now. The largest building (centre) is Clachan kirk.

loch broom in the scottish highlands

Looking north-west to Loch Broom

Clachan Farmhouse is a lovely place to stay, I’d recommend it to anybody who likes peace and quiet. I enjoyed my day off here tremendously, and not just because I was blessed with perfect weather for pottering about, resting and generally regrouping. Marie Renwick runs it with calm, understated kindness, as well as doing a full shift on the family sheep farm and being Mum to several (very polite) teenagers. She takes everything in her stride: my complicated Tesco-dot-com delivery, my blagging a lift into surprisingly funky Ullapool to post home my surplus kit, my American fellow-guests telling her she looks like Cameron Diaz (which happens to be true, but I’d have been too polite to say so), and all this while bottle-feeding lambs and providing generous, homely evening meals* at a very reasonable price.  A gold star BnB and well worth the slight detour from the trail.

*to bona-fide Cape Wrath Trail walkers, subject to availability and pre-arrangement.

clachan kirk at loch broom in scottish highlands

Graveyard at Clachan Kirk, Loch Broom behind.

And, if the weather has been dry and both the tide and the river are low*, the detour isn’t that bothersome as if you don’t mind wet feet (ha ha, you’re walking the Cape Wrath Trail…) it’s perfectly easy to paddle across the River Broom just north of Clachan, where the water shallows over a natural weir of rocks just before it enters Loch Broom, and then to head directly east to the clearly visible phone box at Inverlael. Well, there was the small matter of a barbed wire fence, but once I’d scrambled over this I looked back and saw a gate 20 yards further along it. D’oh!

river broom inverlael scotland highlands

The (on this day) easily paddleable River Broom at Clachan. As you can see from the extensive riverbed, paddling isn’t always possible here. There’s a bridge at Inverbroom.

Day 32, May 12th, Clachan to Duag Bridge. Revived and restored, not least by Marie’s lovely breakfast, and unusually hygienic in both body and apparel, I removed socks, insoles and trousers and bravely paddled the Broom*, having reconnoitred possible crossing points during my previous rest day.

*NB in normal wetter conditions this would be quite impossible I should think, it’s a pretty big river. If you want to try it, don’t walk north along the road from Clachan as the roadside channel is tidal and deep. First go through the gate opposite the farm to the east, then walk north along the path between the two lines of gorse bushes. If in any doubt don’t risk it as the riverbed rocks are slippery.

The long pull up through Inverlael Forest is made much easier by the zig-zag track. I was slightly burdened by an upmarket Leki trekking pole that somebody else had dropped. It’s always a quandary what to do when encountering good and useful gear that’s clearly fallen from a pack. Personally, unless it was something mission-critical or expensive like a phone, I doubt I’d bother retracing steps for lost gear (I always carry spare gloves and hat – the items you see lost most often). Someone who drops a pole clearly wasn’t depending on it.

I had no use for a spare pole, it was a pointless burden, but then again I couldn’t bear to see it lying wasted – it was muddy and had clearly been there for several days. I resolved to carry it to the next bothy, where perhaps a new owner would be glad to find and adopt it.

inverlael forest in highlands of scotland

Looking back to Clachan (farmhouse arrowed) from Inverlael Forest. An Teallach behind.

I was somewhat more burdened by a lavish cargo of Mr Tesco’s finest comestibles. At the time of writing, the Tesco-dot-com van from Ullapool delivers along the A835 on Tuesdays and Fridays (they claim seven day delivery, of course, but strangely all days other than Tuesdays and Fridays were ‘unavailable’ to book). I’d got to Clachan on a Wednesday but Marie kindly put the perishable luxuries for my day off in her fridge – she’s a trouper. Even I couldn’t manage six Creme Caramels on top of all the other treats I’d ordered for the last meal of a man condemned to Cape Wrath, I donated four of them to her kids.

Highland communities have so embraced the convenience of the Tesco-dot-com van it’s a miracle any village shops are left north of Fort William. Locals at Invershiel told me that forty Tesco vans a day go over the bridge to Skye! From the number of such vans I saw buzzing about in the most unlikely and remote places, I don’t consider that implausible, and I wasn’t rude enough to ask whether counting Tesco vans on the A87 is what passes for entertainment at Invershiel. Having acquired a taste for jelly babies back in Bealach Bearnais, I’d added several packs to my order via the WiFi at Gerry’s. Modern life, eh?

Iain Harper describes the Allt na Lairige as “a horrible mess that will destroy your spirits” and from the look of it I’d say he’s right, even those whose spirits are fortified with jelly babies would do well to stay safely above this nightmarish peatscape, as I did.

peat bog in scotland highlands

The Allt na Lairige, from a sensible distance.

In compensation for the rather grim terrain, rounding Beinn Bhreac I had my first and only decent view of a Golden Eagle (I’d previously seen another soaring very high over the Coulin Pass). This bird was hunting, quartering low and determinedly just above the vegetation, tilting and stalling like an enormous harrier, peering keenly this way and that from below its barn door wings. It was vast. Reaching the edge of Glen Douchary it allowed the updraft to flip its huge bulk upwards a hundred feet or so in an instant, as if just for fun, before peeling away into the void like a missile. To use the word correctly, it was awesome.

Lacking the amenity of wings, I found the steep and marshy descent into the glen rather trying, but the views were nice.

scotland highland glen

Glen Douchary to the north-east.

glen douchary scottish highlands

Glen Douchary to the south.

glen douchary scotland highlands

The ruined sheepfold near the river (C on Iain Harper’s map, page 122).

It was again quite clear from the width and depth of the riverbed that in wetter conditions crossing the River Douchary could be extremely challenging.

scotland highland glen river

The River Douchary – not always as easy as this to cross, I’m sure.

In fact, it’s all a bit wild and woolly up here. You could feel very exposed and alone, if you let yourself. But, fear not, shelter is at hand in the form of not one but two lovely bothies and reaching them is simply a matter of descending one of Scotland’s most beautiful glens. Oh, and then yomping round a very draughty loch.

Completely unobvious, though, is on which side of the river one is to undertake said descent. According to Harper, the right (east) bank is best. According to WalkHighlands you should keep to the left (west) bank at the sheepfold, then cross just above a waterfall further down. I followed Harper and crossed at his point C (page 122) but it subsequently looked to me as if in fact the west bank would have been easier walking, with a clearer path. The risk you run with that option is that the lower crossing could then be really problematic if the river is a bit boisterous.

glen river scotland highlands

If you take the west bank option for its better path, the top of this waterfall is the lowest point at which you must cross to the east bank, on which I’m safely standing (you can see the path coming in from top centre). I suspect Harper’s higher crossing is safer in wet conditions.

Either way, Glen Douchary is subsequently stunning. It must be a wild swimmer’s paradise, one beautiful swimming hole after another, crystal clear and glowing greenish above the strange, pale rocks of the river bed, strung like beads of bottle glass along the gorge. Perfect, I would have thought, for a wetsuit and abseil adventure, like coasteering but without aggravating salt. Or sharks.

As someone who’s phobia of sharks is so pronounced I can neither use bubblebath nor sit for too long on a toilet, small pools of completely transparent fresh water are the only places I might actually be tempted to wild swim. Might. I’d have to electrofish them first. An eel can take a toe off, you know.

cape-wrath-trail-scotland

At the lower end of Glen Douchary things all get a bit troublesome. The trail is faint and elusive, the sides of the gorge steep and alarming, the quintessential Cape Wrath Trail terrain (left) was hard going, the optimal route entirely unclear.There are two burns to cross that are both in steep-sided mini-gorges of their own.

It’s a relief finally to reach the windy shore of Loch an Daimh, at the north-east end of which lies the snug and capacious haven of the Knockdamph bothy with its comforting fireplace and, on this day, a large bag of exotic and mysterious transatlantic trail foods abandoned by some generous (or jaded) American. I acquired a polybag of what appeared to be freeze-dried space potato and a long life chicken palaeo-bar, made in Texas, which was ultimately one of the strangest things I’ve ever eaten, and I’ve eaten some pretty hairy stuff. As it was only three in the afternoon, and I had no firewood to warm this large building, I packed away my debatably edible acquisitions and moved on.

scotland highland glen loch

Loch an Daimh perfectly funnels any north-easterly breeze.

mountain bothies association scotland highlands

Knockdamph Mountain Bothy

knockdamph mountain bothy scotland

scotland highlands

The old sheepfold at Knockdamph, its inwardly sloping corners giving a strange Mesoamerican feel. Not that I’ve ever been to Mesoamerica.

schoolhouse-mountain-bothy-scotland1It’s another 6-7 km at least to the Old Schoolhouse bothy at Duag Bridge but worth it, I’d say, as this is a charming and unique place with a light, scandi-style interior. Quirky school accessorising includes desks and lovely old books, including some particular favourites from my childhood which I daren’t mention in case they’ve since been pinched by passing bibliomaniacs, I hope not.

I’d been put off this bothy as it has no stove or fire but the evening was so warm I decided to risk it. In fact it’s extremely well-insulated and very cosy. I was joined overnight here by a friendly and sensible Orcadian called Fionn, a completely charming and most intelligent Orcadian, in fact an utterly estimable chap all round. OK, OK, he gave me a tin of beer (and, strangely, didn’t seem to want a Leki trekking pole in exchange). Cheers Fionn, it was great to meet you. I’ve bought one of the stoves you recommended, it rocks, thanks for the tip.

MBA bothy scotland

Approaching Duag Bridge, Old Schoolhouse bothy arrowed.

MBA bothy scotland highlands

The Old Schoolhouse bothy at Duag Bridge (I haven’t cheated and acquired a bike, that’s Fionn’s)

schoolhouse-mountain-bothy-scotland

Not completely happy to be so vividly reminded of school, we had desks just like these…

 

Day 33, May 13th, Duag Bridge to Inchnadamph. On this whole ultra-wild stretch of the Cape Wrath Trail there’s but one outpost of civilisation, the legendary and lovely Oykel Bridge Hotel. Staying there was a bit out of my budgetary comfort zone but it’s actually pretty reasonable value if you consider dinner is included and they also now have bunkhouse-style rooms adjacent to the main building. I was sorely tempted but couldn’t quite bend my schedule to suit, however to my email checking they offered bar lunches to non-residents they’d replied with a very friendly ‘yes’, so that was the plan.

A plan scuppered by my arriving there at 9.30 am. With heart-warming flexibility and friendliness they rustled me a delicious bacon and sausage bap from the breakfast leftovers, and some lovely hot coffee. Nor did they turn a hair when I settled my grubby carcase into one of their elegant armchairs and used their WiFi extensively. I’d cheerfully have paid a tenner for that much hotel-grade niceness but the bill was substantially less than that, what decent people.

With slight reluctance, I left the hotel’s warm conservatory and turned my severely sunburnt schnozzle to the north-west. This is the final big push to Cape Wrath, but it starts very easily with a scenic stroll up Glen Oykel. Cuckoos were again superabundant, by English standards, and very active. I came upon a chilly Slow-worm trying hard to cop a few rays, poor thing, in the middle of the path. What he (or she) didn’t know was that a Hooded Crow was working the trail edges for its breakfast, not a hundred yards away. I picked up the reluctant reptile, avoiding its tail of course, and tucked it safely, I hoped, into the heather. It probably came crossly straight out again, and got eaten.

scotland reptile

The chilly Slow-worm, rather vulnerable in the middle of the trail.

scottish highland farm glen river

Approaching the farm in Glen Oykel

The farmer in Glen Oykel is a friendly Englishman and happy (as I subsequently learned from other CWT-ers) to turn off his tractor and tell his life story to any passing hiker. Luckily he’s a very interesting man and it was well worth leaning on my poles to learn a lot from him in a short time, while his beautiful cattle munched their fragrant haylage. Don’t start him on the EU, though.

It turned out the haylage was a problem. Due to the extraordinarily dry weather, of which I was the grateful beneficiary, the grass in the glen had not grown enough to turn the cattle out, and he was running out of stored feed for them. It was getting a bit touch and go, apparently, although judging from his very large house I don’t think affording a few tons of emergency pellets would have been an insuperable problem. Especially considering that his are posh cattle, Gascons, no less, an exceptionally hardy breed from the French Pyrenees he’d personally chosen after extensive research for his retirement hobby farm. Er, yes, retirement hobby, he was in his seventies. Having sold his commercial farms in England, he’d evidently been able to buy a large swathe of the Highlands, build a vast house and farm there for fun on the proceeds.

scotland highlands cattle

Very pretty Gascon cattle in Glen Oykel.

gascon cattle in the scottish highlands

The Gascons are crossed with Limousins (? – I think he said) to produce these pretty calves.

Glen Oykel generally is something of a leisure facility with a vehicle track and numerous fishing huts. Higher up, though, it gets wilder again.

glen oykel scotland highlands

According to the farmer, this massive burn was caused by backpackers wild camping and took every fire engine in the north-west Highlands “pumping the river nearly dry” to control. How embarassing.

scottish highlands salmon fishing river

Higher up Glen Oykel

glen oykel in the scottish highlands

…and higher

Eventually a baffling but sternly-signed diversion is reached…

scotland highlands backpacking cape wrath trail

Baffling diversion. Oh well…

This leads by a slightly roundabout route to the stunningly gorgeous Loch Ailsh, where according to the plan I was supposed to camp. However it was barely two in the afternoon and I was getting into my stride, not before time, you might say, after an entire month of backpacking. Also Loch Ailsh is all a bit well-groomed, with a proper road along it and a small but apparently permanent settlement around Benmore Lodge at the north end. I decided to forge on, blithely, into what Iain Harper calls “challenging country that should not be under-estimated”. Ahem.

scotland highlands assynt

Loch Ailsh is seriously pretty.

Much of the trek along the upper Oykel and through Benmore Forest is straightforward contouring, although pretty boggy, but once you pass Carn a’ Mhiodair and Creag an Fhir Eoin and approach Conival the terrain becomes really rather challenging and the best choice of route obscure.

Here, pretty much everything below the 350 m contour is an implacable, impenetrable peat hag, far worse than anything remaining on the Pennine Way. It’s tough going and you should only venture a direct route downwards to the Allt an Dubh Loch Mor towards Am Bealach if the ground is exceptionally dry. It was, so I did, but it was still hard, and the steep climb back up to Am Bealach is hard too. Harper advises sticking to the 320m contour all round, and I would comply with this advice in all but bone dry conditions.

scotland highlands assynt mountains

Upper Glen Oykel and the Assynt Global Geopark, looking towards Ben More Assynt.

scotland highland hiking assynt

Appalling peat hags and groughs at the foot of Am Bealach, Conival above.

peat bogs in scottish highlands

Appalling peaty displeasure, looking back down the Oykel from Am Bealach, and in failing light. Even in dry conditions, this short section is is some of the hardest going on the Cape Wrath Trail.

When you reach the top of Am Bealach the trail becomes rocky and even a little exposed as it keeps high above the Allt a Bhealaich which falls away into a gorge.

scotland highlands

…even a little exposed

The light was failing and it looked like rain. I’d been thinking of camping but the terrain around Conival had been so awful and such hard work, I was suddenly gripped by a wild and deranged vision of a bar meal at the Inchnadamph Hotel (they’d replied with a friendly affirmative to an email enquiring if such treats might be available to non-residents). Transfixed by the idea of steak and chips, possibly even ice cream, I strode with single-minded nonchalance along the friable cliff edge in encroaching darkness. It started to rain. The WalkHighland directions seemed unusually simple. I was winging it on the navigation. I thought that as I could see the sea to the west, in alluring sunlight, all I had to do was jog in that vague direction.

scotland highlands

All I have to do now is jog towards the sea, and that will be Inchnadamph…

Friends, readers, blogfans, the one time you must never, ever wing it on the navigation is when it’s getting dark and starting to rain in the Scottish Highlands. I got lost. Even with the GPX waypoints, I got lost. At this point, I have to tell you, the WalkHighlands directions, for the sole and only time on the entire SNT, are inadequate. I strongly advise carrying a map here. The one in Harper’s book would have been sufficient, had I studied it carefully. The 1:25k OS, which I’ve subsequently studied, is if anything more confusing.

The route here is freakishly baffling. I ended up too far south, on trackless moorland, in near darkness and in teeming rain, real Scottish stair-rods, the kind of rain that feels as if it’s actually bruising you and through which you are more swimming than walking, water pouring off your hood as if someone is hosing your head and needless to say pouring straight into your map and/or phone, through its suddenly inadequate sandwich bag.

The only thing that matters here is that you must end up, sooner rather than later, on the north side of the River Traligill. How you do this is up to you, but I certainly don’t recommend my method which involved several knee-deep peat hags, a vertical slither down what was by then verging on a waterfall and some pretty hairy rock-hopping over a deep and rapidly deepening torrent. Study the map, I would, and find the correct route down into Gleann Dubh, which the Gaels didn’t call the Dark Glen for nothing.

Finally passing the comforting sign to the caves, I saw some way ahead of me a fellow CWT-er, stumbling through the stair-rods with the slightly meandering body language of a very tired hiker. I’d already given up hope of the hotel, and, remembering that when I’d looked at the hostel booking site it had been full, I’d resigned myself to camping. ‘What, though’, I’d been thinking, ‘what if they’d had just one cancellation or no-show? Just one. There might be just one dry, warm bed. There might be…’

Now, peering down through the gloaming (no more photos, sorry, it was quite dark), I realised, with the preternatural perception and steely focus of a starving Inuit tracking the world’s last Walrus, that if there was after all just one dry bed, this guy ahead of me might be on course to bag it. With superhuman determination, I literally jogged past him in the teeming rain. I scampered soggily into the hostel and there was indeed just one bed. Just one. Yes please, thank you, squelch, dribble. I then discovered that with the stress of being lost and out late in bad conditions I’d evidently been gripping my poles too tightly. The nerves in my hands were so shot, for a while I couldn’t sign the form.

When my trailfellow arrived five minutes later, water pouring off him as if he’d been dragged from a lake, I felt terrible. ‘Don’t worry’, he mumbled, through a curtain of drips, ‘I have a bivvy bag’.

The hostel at Inchnadamph is a truly great establishment and well worth a visit, even though on this night it was chock-full of geology students (very well-behaved, but hogging the low-bandwidth WiFi). I was told that as it was by now almost eight o’clock, food at the hotel was unlikely, so I bought a frozen pizza and a packet of frozen peas (I felt I needed vitamin C).

As I was eating these, starting to feel safe and pleased with myself, an older Englishman enquired whether I’d seen the weather forecast. Unable to access the Internet, I hadn’t, so he produced what he claimed was the latest printout, with grim relish. It showed a 24 hour dry interlude then 36 hours of non-stop heavy rain. ‘None of you Cape Wrath Trail people will get across the rivers further north’, announced my informant, with what seemed to me quite inappropriate satisfaction.

Remembering the Cairngorm river crossing fiasco, my heart sank to my boots, well, to my damp and grubby bare feet. Every single source of CWT information includes dire warnings about the Garbh Allt, a legendarily difficult river crossing north of Arkle. According to this weather forecast, it would be in full spate just when I was due to reach it. Good heavens, gosh darn it, I said to myself. Or something along those lines.

Observing the small pond around my pack, I arrayed all my soaking stuff in the drying room, trying to suppress rising panic. I had a nice hot shower, panicking slightly. I found the bedroom and panicked even more, but this was because it was as hot as an oven. I later found (from its other occupants, whom I re-encountered further north) that my meteorological consultant, a denizen of the same dorm, had turned the heat up to maximum and sternly instructed them it was to remain so. Luckily by the time I turned in he was snoring loudly and the thermostat was by my bunk. I turned it to zero, and managed a few hours sleep before waking at 4.30. In a panic…

 

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