The Cape Wrath Trail. Section 01. Ardgour, Knoydart and Kintail
28 April – 4 May
The train arrived at Fort William in the afternoon after it’s spectacular journey from Glasgow. The weather was good but the tops of the mountains were slowly vanishing in the developing cloud. I found the pier where the small passenger ferry crosses Loch Linnhe about 8 times a day to the west side on the peninsula of Ardgour. It took 10 minutes to cross and arrive at the start of the Cape Wrath Trail. I was the only passenger and once I disembarked the ferry headed back in a shaft of light in a darkening sky.
I started down the quiet road which I had to follow for 10 km. The cloud now obscured the summits on the east side of Loch Linnhe, but some higher snowfields shone through the mist. There were a few small hamlets along the road but it was largely deserted. Moss covered everything. Most of the trees were deciduous and only the sycamore, eager to grow fast, had some small lime green leaves unfurling. The oak and birch were barely in bud.
After 10km the road passed Cona Glen house, a magnificent highland lairds house which must date back a few centuries. It was surrounded by an oasis of green pine forest which stood out against the dull brown of early spring. The house was rich in features, but looked cold.
It was here I left the road and followed a track west up Cona Glen. The rain which had long threatened finally arrived. I past some estate houses of the Conaglen estate and a cluster of magnificent sequoias which had withstood a good century of storms. The estate looked well run and was having a purge on its feral and rampant rhododendron groves.
I followed the track up in the drizzle for a couple of km until night started to fall. I found a nice campsite on a mossy bank beside a tumbling stream. It was cold and miserable setting up the tent but I was soon in my bag listening to the large drops dripping off the boughs of the bare oak tree I was camped under. It was a short day of 3 hours and just 13 km but I felt quietly tired.
The rain continued until I slept, but the morning was full of promise. I left my mossy grove beside the waterfall and headed up Cona Glen. The Glen was a delight with a gentle track heading up the north side of the river. In the lower half there were frequent pine forests and grassy glades. Highland cattle grazed beside the track. Most had new calves beside them so I was wary of them and their sharp horns.
As I continued up the glen the hills on each side became more craggy. Even in the sun the drab browns and yellows of early spring failed to inspire me to the same extent as the vibrant greens of the pines and meadows. About halfway I can across the old blackhouse of Corrlarach, which had been restored. There was a good drying breeze so i paused here and put the damp tent out.
The top half of the glen was largely treeless, but the drab colours were more than compensated by the craggy gnarly mountains, often, and unjustly, overlooked by hillwalkers as they dont reach Monro status (3000 ft). Many of these ancient mountains still had snow in their folds.
Near the head of the glen the grassy track veered up the hill to the NW to cross a pass. I followed it up until it disappeared into a wet path. Water oozed into my shoes as I had deliberately chosen to do the hike in trail shoes. At the pass the path dropped down to the large open Callop valley. I followed it past Callop farm and then just before the main road took a track on the south side of the river hoping for a bridge at Glenfinnan.
Luckily there was a bridge and it took me over the deep dark sluggish river to Glenfinnan Monument. This is a tribute to the Highlanders who followed Bonnie Prince Charlie nearly 300 years ago, most of whom died. There is a cafe here which I could not pass before the final 4 km up to Corryhully bothy.
These final 4 km started by passing under the renowned Glenfinnan railway aqueduct. It then carried on up up the glen on a tiny tarmac road which wove between groves on the grassy valley floor. There were deer grazing around Corryhully bothy when I arrived at 6 after a 9-hour 24 km day. There were already 3 in bothy and before long there was some lively chat. The bothy was very rustic but it had electricity and the gamekeeper, Alistair Gibson, had just dropped off a bag of dry wood.
I slept very well on the floor and woke to a beautiful day. I left before the others and headed up the glen with the sun melting the nights frost and warming my shoulders. The skies were blue and it was completely windstill. The walk up the glen to a pass was gradual. Large gnarly mountains rose steeply on all sides. To the north was a huge horseshoe with 2 munros and to east was the long ridge of Streap.
After the pass any remnant of the path disappeared and i had to find my own route down the valley for 2 hours until I got to Glen Pean near the west end of Loch Arkaig. There was a tremendous view up Glen Pean to the sharp mountains around Loch Morar.
Although the day was still and warm the cloud was building and I wanted to get to the bothy at A’Chuil without lingering in the sun. I picked up the track in the forest just after the River Pean and followed it round into Glen Dessarry. The forest was short and uninteresting, but it soon brought me to A’Chuil bothy.
Ian and Tom from Corryhully turned up soon after, and we sat in the sun and chatted the afternoon away. After a few hours another 4 middle aged men turned up. The 7 of us gathered round the fire after supper and chatted. Initially the conversation was muted but it soon became rowdy.
Our room rose at 6 and I was dragged out of bed by their enthusiasm. There was talk of heavy rain coming in mid afternoon and I wanted to be in Sourlies Bothy by then. We left at 8 with Tom and Ian, who slept in the other room, just getting up.
It was cold and there had been a mild frost but the skies were turning opaque with high mist. I followed my 4 middle aged roommates along the road into the forest but we soon parted. Beyond the forest the mountains rose steeply on each side of the valley especially to the north. These were the “rough bounds” of Knoydart with steep rocky hillsides full of outcrops and sharp peaks. In the valley the stream curved up rocky grasslands to the pass.
I was excited about dropping down the other side. I had never been to the head of Loch Nevis or visited Sourlies bothy before. Just a short distance down the valley were two small lochans. Sandpipers darted away from the patches sandy shore,chatting excitedly, as I approached.
Beyond the lochans the rough path crossed to the north side of the valley. Luckily I saw it’s feint route up over a rocky shoulder otherwise I would have descended a steep deer track down a ravine. The path I took climbed slightly and then made a series of zig-zags down to Loch Nevis.
There were some grassy pastures between the swamps and rocky outcrops. Beside these pastures were some ruins of long forgotten croft houses and some lazy beds. The descendants of those who toiled here once, now probably live in New Zealand or Canada.
One of these ruins, a barn of a croft house, lay in a green pasture beside the loch. It had been restored with a new roof and a sleeping platform for 4. As I arrived at 1130 it started to rain. The bothy was cosy and I was glad to call it a day and looked forward to a lazy afternoon listening to the rain pelting the roof. Before long Tom, Ian and the 4 lads from Wigan turned up and the lively conversation and banter started off where we left it at A’Chuil bothy. The rain got heavy in the evening and kept up until we fell asleep.
In the morning there was some lingering mist but there was the promise of blue sky out to the west. Everyone was going different direction so I headed off to the Carnach valley. My route took me along the shoreline but the tide was too high to follow it so I climbed over some small buttresses. The bridge over the river was gone so I had to wade it through slightly swollen waters after yesterday’s rain.
The Carnach valley was dominated by Ben Aiden, a heavily buttressed and steep mountain covered in outcrops. There were a few chinks in its ramparts but not many and it looked a difficult and imposing hill to climb.
I sloshed up the soggy path to the west side of Ben Aiden and then started to ascend a deep rocky gorge with budding alder and birch. There was a lot of birdsong and two cuckoos were also singing. As the gorge rounded the bottom of the west ridge it opened up a bit.
I now chose to go straight up the steep craggy hillside which was the west ridge of Luinne Bheinn rather than do two side of a triangle. The hillside was covered in brown grass and crags. I wove a route up until I met the well made and probably ancient stalkers path. I followed its easy incline to the saddle. I had been lucky with the weather and there were large patches of sun and blue sky.
I was in awe of these mountains. While Ben Aiden was perhaps the craggiest they were all very gnarly and challenging. I thought about going up Luinne Bheinn but saw grey weather coming in and left it for a future project.
The descent was all on a good stalkers path and I made good time down past some pine tree copses and fenced areas which were regenerating without the ravenous winter appetite of deer. I had already passed 10 corpses of deer today who had succumbed to starvation due to lack of grass and the hard winter.
As the path descended a beautiful view over the grassy bay and turquoise seas of Barrisdale bay unfolded. One of the buildings I could see was a simple bothy, provided by the estate, and I was going to make it my home for the night. Showery weather was developing out west and I rushed to get there before it rained.
The bothy was simple with 3 rooms and as I remembered it from 25 years ago. I was alone. It was a bit of a mess but the lochside setting with the magnificent craggy, outcropped, mountains of Knoydart surrounded it on 3 sides, with the fjord-like Loch Hourn on the forth. As I settled in a downpour arrived. Like yesterday it was another short day of 5 hours and just 14 km as I wanted to savour this area rather than blast through looking at my feet.
It was raining most of the night and all morning. I only had 12 km to walk today which I guessed would take no more than 4 hours so I waited until midday when it seemed to become more sporadic. The mist lingered however and the views were more atmospheric than spectacular.
The tide was out as I walked past the modest Barrisdale House to the jetty. Plovers and curlews were foraging on the exposed sands and flew off with loud alarm calls as I approached. Out to the west towards the mouth was the Isle of Skye, framed by the steep sides of the loch. The track ended here and a path continued along the south side of Loch Hourn to the end some 10 km to the east.
The track climbed over spurs as it made its way from one bay to the next. There were scattered pines and the birch and rowan were now bursting into leaf. In one bay I saw two cuckoos chasing each other. After a couple of km the loch narrowed and there was a strong current flowing out of the upper basin. On the far side was a lonely house, perhaps an old croft house which had now been restored.
The drizzle rarely returned but the atmospheric mists lingered and obscured the mountains. The streams were swollen and a couple of the the larger burns would have been difficult were it not for wooden footbridges. In most bays there were old ruins but at Runival and Skiary the old crofts were still intact. Indeed Skiary was a rustic guesthouse with access down a 3 km path or a short boat ride.
Soon the path rounded a corner and the hamlet of Kinloch Hourn appeared. A short push through dripping rhododendrons brought me to the end of the tiny road which connected Kinloch Hourn to the rest of the world. There was a tearoom here which also did very reasonable bed and breakfast. With the threat of rain very real it was an easy choice and I was soon under a shower with my clothes on a drying rack. It was a sociable evening at the B and B with 2 other CWT hikers, Craig and Bernard, and a Belgium family.
The last day of Section 1 was from Kinloch Hourn to Shiel Bridge and it went past the bottom of the Forcan Ridge. Unfortunately it was drizzling and the mist swallowed everything above 300 metres. I walked past the tired looking Kinloch Hourn Lodge and through the woods around it. These woods were largely mixed conifers with an unhealthy amount of eucalyptus, which seemed to be taking over.
Out of the woods I followed the track under the powerline for the Isle of Skye over a saddle and down into a hanging valley with a great view down Loch Hourn to the west. Here I left the powerlines and followed a track across the boggy hillside, wading a burn, until I reached the Mhalagain burn, which I also had to wade over.
I followed this burn up towards the mist. Here I caught up with Craig and Bernard and we continued up as 3 into the mist and on up to the Bealach Mhalagain pass at about 700m. The weather was now awful with driving rain, mist and a gusty wind. Bernard, who was from Mediterranean France, looked miserable in his minimalist lightweight gear. Craig, being a Scot at least knew what to expect. I left the others at the top and traversed across the soggy mountainside to a saddle. From there the renowned Forcan Ridge headed up to The Saddle mountain. Just the lower ramparts of the ridge were visible and it looked interesting.
As I photographed the others caught up and we descended together keeping to the north of the stream to avoid a buttress of crags. Our lightweight shoes were no match for the hillside which was awash with water. How I longed for my boots with the hard heel to plant in the wet grass. We all slid at least twice on the descent to the valley floor.
Once down we had to wade a small river which was not quite in spate, but powerful nonetheless. On the other side was a rough track down to Shiel Bridge. The rain eased and I noticed there were tadpoles in the puddles. Cuckoos sounded in the strip of deciduous woods along the tumbling river. The birch were now almost in leaf,and the larch almost a luminous green, but the alders were still just in bud.
Before long we reached Shiel Bridge and the rain stopped and the mist cleared. The topography prevented up seeing back up to the Forcan Ridge and The Saddle but on the other side of the valley the Five Sisters of Kintail soared high, their summits still clad in snow fields.
The others camped here while I continued another km to the Kintail Lodge Hotel where I had a room booked and a resupply box waiting.