One of the most baffling aspects of planning the Cape Wrath Trail, with which the Scottish National Tail culminates, was working out how to get off Cape Wrath and back home. Here’s how it panned out for me in May 2017, with the caveat that of course things may have changed since and you will, I’m afraid, need to do your own research. Further down, you’ll find some ‘what I did on my holidays’ notes on Durness and Inverness (click to jump).
Basically I had to get either back south to Kinlochbervie or east to Durness. From either of these settlements a minibus will then take you to the railway station at Lairg (or on a Saturday morning all the way to Inverness). Both KLB and Durness are a long walk from Cape Wrath.
Personally I’d pick Durness for several reasons. I dislike retracing my steps, Durness is a sweet and interesting place with lots of accommodation (including a large and scenic campsite with a great pub) and, most compellingly, you can get from the lighthouse to the Kyle of Durness on one of the slightly ramshackle but ultimately reliable tourist minibuses driven by Alan, a friendly, helpful English ex-pat, and his amiable colleagues.
Then the slightly unpredictable ferry (without which no trip to Cape Wrath is properly complete) takes you across to Keoldale. From here it’s an easy walk into Durness, although having chatted up some daytrippers on the bus I hitched a lift in their worryingly clean car.
On arriving at Cape Wrath don’t be surprised if the timings of the bus and ferry are a little vague and in fact nobody really seems to know what’s going on. That’s if there’s anybody there at all. This is probably Britain’s most remote and minimal passenger transport service. It operates in the face of many variables: extreme weather, collapsing roads, antediluvian vehicles of questionable reliability, tide times, boat maintenance, military activity including live firing of 1000 lb bombs, and hangovers. Have faith. Alan and his chums have done this for years, they know what they’re about and although return daytrippers are their living they always try to help hikers, sometimes even kindly making special trips to do so.
Nonetheless, because of all the variables, especially the military one, I strongly recommend calling them when you get near the Cape to make sure the bus is running. Bizarrely, I encountered excellent mobile signal on the north flank of Cnoc na Saile, then patchy but usable signal around Rhiconich and KLB. Once you get onto Cape Wrath there’s no mobile signal at all, none whatsoever. The tourist season starts in May and when I got there on May 18th 2017 they were running four bus trips a day, hence four chances every 24 hours to get a ride off the Cape. What happens before May, if anything, is anyone’s guess.
Assuming the bus is running at all, your next problem may be getting a seat. The return excursion to Cape Wrath is pretty popular in good weather. When you enquire, the drivers may tell you the only way to guarantee a one way seat is to book and pay for a full return ticket including the boat both ways. This is a reasonable position when you think about it but in the end I concluded there was an element of leg-pulling in its articulation, although Sutherlanders have such a dry sense of humour it can be hard to tell.
Whether you go for this depends on whether you have an expensive plane to catch. I left it to chance and still got a seat, using the term loosely. Of course it would be illegal for them to allow anybody to sit on the floor in the luggage area. Ahem. As I say, have faith. If you’re injured, blistered, exhausted, on a tight schedule or just fed up and need to get off the Cape, the bus drivers will do their best to get you off somehow but again I’d seriously advise you phone a few days ahead to find out how things stand.
What, though, if due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control there’s no bus at all? With an early start you can get from Sandwood Bay to Cape Wrath in a long morning. I stayed an eccentric 24 hours at Cape Wrath because the weather was amazing (and when would I ever be there again?) However I can’t claim there’s a lot to do there. If I was faced with walking to Durness, I’d probably cut that hike short by heading on from the Cape to overnight in allegedly one of Scotland’s most beautifully located bothies at Kearvaig, another gorgeous beach. I’m told the walk around the Kyle is rough going and having experienced Cape Wrath I can well believe it.
The upshot of all this is that most people allow an entire day in their schedule just to get off Cape Wrath. After weeks of chilling (ha ha) in the wilds, the last thing you need is to have to scuttle and fret. Ease yourself off the Cape gently, I would, after all it was a lot of effort getting there.
The other practical thing you need to know is that from May onwards it’s a very good idea to book the Durness Bus to Lairg or Inverness. On the rainy Saturday morning when I pitched up for what had been described to me as ‘the wifey’s weekly shopper’ it was completely full and backpackers casually queueing were turned away. Luckily I’d taken the precaution of telephoning the friendly Yorkshire (!) couple who run the bus service on the number shown at the bus stop and booking a seat. Sit next to the driver and you’ll learn a lot on this quite long but interesting journey, as well as seeing again a few places you’ve recently trudged past on foot.
Durness is a very nice, peaceful and interesting place, I spent two nights at the friendly Sango Sands campsite where they told me they always have room for a CWT-er and backpackers don’t need to book. The supermarket next door is excellent, opens long hours and even does hot pastries for breakfast but there’s also another more traditional and very friendly food store downhill near the TIO. A short walk towards Smoo you’ll find in various draughty-looking ex-military buildings an SYHA hostel and also a very characterful café with (oh joy!) cafetiere coffee and remarkably cheap BnB, which had I not already put my tent up I’d have been tempted to try.
It teemed with rain both nights – don’t make the beginner’s error of camping at the absolute lowest point by the pond to get out of the wind – it floods! The site is scenically, albeit breezily, located and has an excellent pub that offers great food and (when I was there) a top notch pint of Orkney Dark Island. It’s a short walk from the interesting Smoo Cave, into which you can take a boat trip if you’re so inclined.
Much of the architecture around Durness is of military origin, which gives the place a quirky, hand-me-down atmosphere.
The geology of this whole area is fascinating with some of the oldest rocks in the world let alone the UK, I wish I’d known about this BGS excursion website beforehand. At the excellent and helpful tourist office there’s also a countryside ranger who can give you top natural history tips. This was a good thing as my main reason for spending a day off at Durness was to do a spot of plant twitching.
I badly wanted to see Scottish Primrose Primula scotica and without inside dope from the ranger I doubt I’d ever have spotted the very small number of these tiny jewels that grow at the furthest end of Faraid Head. Finding them turned into quite a long walk in the end, but again I was blessed with good weather.
Below, Spring Squill Scilla verna (there were hundreds of these), what I’m claiming as Scottish Scurvygrass Cochlearia officinalis ssp scotica (just because it was very petite) and of course Bogbean Menyanthes trifoliata.
I turned up here a day earlier than planned and promptly scoffed a huge hot meal of deerburger and chips at the nearest café to the bus station, it was great. The only budget digs was at the SYHA Hostel which is a bit of a stroll out of the city centre past many bafflingly vast shops including a Morrisons so large that to a man who’s just walked the SNT it’s like landing on a completely alien planet. The hostel is great too, large and friendly with an excellent drying room and big self-catering kitchen, mostly full of east european builders and oriental coach trippers.
A further massive feast of Mr Morrison’s reduced items ensued, once I’d bought new clothes in the H&M sale and argued about trail shoes in several outdoor shops including one very good one and another with the most offhand staff I’ve ever encountered, even in an outdoor shop.
There’s a day’s worth of stuff to see and do in Inverness (but probably not much more) and the city centre is compact and walkable. I spent my second night at the quirky Bazpackers Hostel, pre-booked. Bazpackers is great and by all accounts the budget stay of choice in Inverness, it’s often full. Be warned though they have a draconian ‘no gas cylinders’ policy and if they see gas while you’re rummaging in your pack they’ll make you put it outside the back of the common room.
This wouldn’t be a problem except that the common room door is not unlocked until 7.30 am. If you’re getting an early train, you won’t be able to retrieve your gas. I’d been given several nearly full cylinders by fellow-CWT-ers who were flying home. As I was sleeping in the annexe, I had to promise to hide them outside it somewhere. Conscientiously I poked them into the neighbours’ hedge and was pleased to find they were still there the next morning.
A big advantage of the annexe is that it has its own small 24/7 self-catering kitchen so you can still make breakfast however early your train. In the evening this was occupied by Argentinians, sucking the aromatic maté tea they always try to press upon you with the enthusiasm of crack dealers. It can be hard to explain that given the choice between a drink that smells like one of my less successful compost heaps and a delicious pint of ale in the truly excellent Castle Tavern, conveniently right next door to Bazpackers, I’m always going to pick the pint, muchas gracias.
As at Fort Augustus, the bunks in this private hostel were metal and squeaky. Above me this time was luckily not a weighty Finn but an impressively willowy young woman (Bazpackers is co-ed) who seemed to be having some trouble fitting her long legs into the available bed length. All night the poor girl kept curling and uncurling her constrained limbs, accompanied each time by a deep sigh and a surprisingly long outburst of bunk squeaking, as if a family of chatty mice were circumnavigating my head on rusty bicycles.
Things to do in Inverness: walk along the river, see the castle, go to the theatre, visit the museum, annoyingly closed on Sundays and Mondays. Have lunch – I slipped up here, only after lunchtime did I notice that several of the city’s most upmarket-looking restaurants were offering very reasonable set lunches. Contemplate war crimes and some pretty murky history, eat gelato, visit an incredible palace of secondhand books, buy whisky, get cheap coffee in Wetherspoons. Annoy the staff in outdoor shops by saying ‘I’ve just walked the Scottish National Trail in these shoes, you know…’. Cook a virtually inedible supper in the hostel kitchen from the random stuff on the free food shelf plus the deeply weird Texan palaeo-chicken bar you found in the bothy at Knockdamph. Get the train home.