I’ve been strangely slow to write this post. I’ve dithered and held back. Weeks have passed. It’s almost as if while this blog remains incomplete, I’m still living the trail, I haven’t put it to bed. Part of me is still out there, among that amazing scenery.
There’s also a feeling of inadequacy. Having walked the entire length of a country on my own oldie feet, over five weeks with little intellectually to do but gaze and ponder, I feel I should now be able to come up with some grand philosophical denouement, epitomising a nation in a flamboyant sweep of rhetoric. Sorry. Must try harder.
Scotland has been my lifelong neighbour and casual familiar, yet having travelled its length it now feels if anything newer and stranger to me. Much of what I ‘knew’ about Scotland has been exposed as facile assumptions and trite clichés. I’ve walked more or less from its beginning to its end, but culturally I still feel I’ve barely dipped a toe in its deep and swirling water. Even though physically I was intermittently soaked in the stuff, not least at Sandwood Bay where the forecast downpour finally arrived and pelted onto my tent for hours. Around midday it cleared up.
I was in an odd position, not to mention an altered state of mind. Many trail walks end in a fluster, a scuttle or even a bit of a struggle. The catching of the train or plane, the getting back to work, the expiry of the visa, the last push to the finish before being overtaken by cumulative fatigue or niggling injury. The ‘race against time’ that forms the standard narrative trope of every TV adventure.
Thanks to the spare days in my plan, the generally benign weather and my recent forecast-fuelled acceleration, I’d found myself at Cape Wrath not just in good time but with three days to kill. I was fit as a flea and had plenty of food. There was nothing to do but simply live out a non-trivial segment of my lifespan among this strange and lonely landscape. After a brunch of rather peculiar convenience meats from the London Stores, I resolved lazily to wander to the bothy at Strathchailleach and investigate its reputedly mysterious paintings.
Day 36, May 16th. Sandwood Bay to Strathchailleach.
The tide was out so crossing the outfall from the loch was thankfully easy. Looking back to my lonely campsite I saw other walkers arriving, and several tents going up. The steep little climb up from the beach was enlivened by interesting stripey rocks and numerous wild flowers; thousands more of the frail, ghostly Heath Spotted Orchids, lots of Dwarf Willow with its bizarre bright red fruits, Lousewort of course but above all hundreds of blooms of the gorgeous Mountain Avens Dryas octopetala, a nationally scarce arctic-alpine which I’d never seen in flower before.
Strathchailleach Bothy is a completely charming place with a singular history, well documented elsewhere. In brief, a gentleman called James ‘Sandy’ McRory Smith occupied it as his home for some forty years, much to the annoyance of the Mountain Bothies Association. Even more so when, after agreeing to allow walkers access to the building in exchange for the MBA funding major repairs, he reneged, intimidating walkers away in even the foulest weather and allegedly on occasion threatening them with an axe.
There being two sides to every story, he also had local friends and supporters and although reclusive was nonetheless on his own terms very much part of the Cape Wrath community, walking weekly to collect his pension from the London Stores and drink (to spectacular excess) in the KLB Hotel. He was clearly a unique and creative ‘character’. His artwork, which still decorates the bothy, is remarkable.
After an early life of tragedy and vagrancy, Sandy settled at Strathchailleach for one very good reason. Uniquely (I believe) in the MBA network, this bothy has an unlimited supply of natural, ready-to-burn fuel, in the form of an adjacent peat bank. The peat has been undercut by the burn and where it’s exposed the wind dries it out. All you have to do is cut it and carry it to the bothy in the wheelbarrow provided. In fact early in the year you don’t even have to cut it, the river in winter has done that for you, leaving handy lumps of air-dried peat along its course, ready for you to pick up. It’s all extremely convenient, by highland bothy standards.
Now all you have to do is know how to light a peat fire, and this was my first ever attempt. There’s a knack to it, which eventually, despite a woodburner being our primary heating at home, I only acquired by studying the bothy book. It’s no good expecting it to ignite and smoulder straight away, not even with a fire lighter. You need to make a very hot fire of kindling (traditionally heather roots, not least because that’s all there is) before you’ll get small lumps of peat to burn.
The smell of a peat fire is unique and once lit it will smoulder and warm your bothy all night, easily getting going again in the morning. To light and tend a fire of peat you’ve gathered yourself at Strathchailleach is suddenly to feel as close as is still possible to the traditional life of the old Highlands. For anyone with any imagination, it’s a completely extraordinary experience.
Day 37, May 17th. Strathchailleach to Cape Wrath.
All that remained of my Scottish National Trail, after a companionable night at Strathchailleach with several other CWT-ers, was the stroll to Cape Wrath itself. Having looked at the OS map and thought ‘oo-er’, I’d saved until this very last morning a laminate with unusually detailed navigation info and a printed map. Even so, I found that Cape Wrath being so featureless it’s remarkably hard to find and stick to any kind of trail. In poor visibility you’d have to just walk a bearing and even on this bright, sunny morning that’s more or less what I ended up doing.
The vegetation was deeply strange; sedge, lichen and moss, dwarf willow and some scrubby heather punctuated by hundreds of the small, pale orchids dancing in the low, dawn light and the chilly breeze like will-o’-the-wisps.
It’s necessary literally to climb over a fence to get into the military training area, I suppose this is to emphasise that nobody’s accepting responsibility for your safety. As the road to the lighthouse finally came into sight I fell into the deepest bog I’d encountered on the entire SNT, one leg went in well above the knee. I managed, but even so, much though I might have preferred to have Cape Wrath all to myself at the climax of my long adventure, I was actually slightly pleased there was another hiker in hollering distance.
Even with the road in plain view, you can’t then just head north-west without blundering into the canyon of the Allt na Clais Leobaimich, you need to divert somewhat north-east to avoid this. All in all, it’s easy to see why Iain Harper says this very last stage “can feel like one of the hardest”.
I’m only too painfully aware I didn’t completely complete the Scottish National Trail. Some other day I will trot over Wideopen Hill (blooming train) and another day I’ll camp in Glen Feshie (blooming river). Nonetheless I’d walked a pretty arduous 450 miles and anyone who’s ever walked a trail of anything like that distance will know that this was a moment of mixed emotions.
Not least because the lighthouse at Cape Wrath looked quite unlike the kind of rather manicured National Trust ‘heritage’ we’ve all become used to. Not to be unkind, it looked more like a junkyard, with derelict minibuses and other vehicles, piles of rusting ironwork, fallen walls and roofless buildings.
Adding to the general strangeness of finishing a trail in such surroundings, it was barely nine a.m. and there was nobody about. Could it really be true that there was a café here, and a twenty-four hour one to boot? I knocked on what seemed to be the door. It swung open. By itself.
From another, seemingly unrelated, door appeared the pale head of John Ure, a quietly-spoken but kind and friendly man to whom everyone immediately warms, despite his slight resemblance to Lurch from the Addams Family. Yes of course I could buy a mug of tea and some cake. Yes, if the weather turned bad that night I’d be welcome to sleep on the café floor. Supper would be available, and a cooked breakfast too next morning, if required. Beguiled by John’s impish humour and his clear love of his unusual home, I resolved to spend the next 24 hours at Cape Wrath.
The sun came out, the wind dropped to a merely chilly breeze, by reputed Cape Wrath standards the weather was absurdly hospitable. Ramshackle minibuses and their cargoes of slightly shaken-looking tourists in clean, expensive outdoor gear came and went. I fossicked pebbles, climbed to the trig point, pottered about the cliffs and explored the derelict radio station. Various CWT chums turned up, some left, some camped.
After supper (a hiker’s portion of decent chicken curry) I pitched Britain’s most north-westerly tent right on the very tip of the cape. After I’d made a small donation to a good cause of his choice, John kindly invited me to a private party involving a tin of cold beer.
Blow the details, as far as I was concerned I’d walked the length of a nation.