Hiking the Scottish National Trail (part 6): the hardcore Cape Wrath trail

All hiking posts, Cape Wrath Trail, Hiking, Scottish National Trail

Last Autumn I hiked the length of Scotland on the Scottish National Trail. Read part 1, part 2 part 3 , part 4 and part 5.

Day 29: Morvich → Maol-Bhuidhe bothy (23km)

The trail takes us up over a pass to the Falls of Glomach, a mighty 113m high waterfall. We follow a boggy, remote Landrover track to Maol-Bhuidhe bothy (section 30). We’re lucky today: there’s not much rain, so the river separating us from the bothy is an easy paddle. We’d been worried that this bothy would be closed for hunting season, but it’s thankfully open.

A weather warning tells us that 80km p/h winds are forecast the next day, so we have a day off in the recently refurbished bothy. The winds pick up to insane speeds and the river becomes uncrossable. We venture outside only to piss and to collect water from the raging river.

A young hiker called Tom arrives at lunch time, having already walked 23km. He drips water everywhere, stays for about twenty minutes and then continues onwards on the trail. We think he’s crazy, and that he’s taking unnecessary risks to complete the trail. Another guy, also called Tom, arrives a few hours later and sensibly stays for the night.

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The top of the Falls of Glomach

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Inside Maol-Bhuidhe

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Maol-Bhuidhe bothy: our protection from 80km p/h winds

Day 30: Maol Bhiodhe → Craig (24.25km)

We wake to eerily calm weather. I am suspicious. Section 31 starts with a river crossing, and the water’s still flowing in fast torrents. We link together but we don’t pick a good spot to cross. Chris falls as he slips on rocks, but catches himself and pulls himself onto the bank, soaking wet. He grabs my hand and pulls me up.

The ‘path’ up the shoulder of Beinn Droning is non-existent, and we cheat and use the phone’s gpx coordinates to stay on track. Passing Loch Calavie, we meet more deer hunters. They greet us with big smiles; after all, they’re doing what they love the most: their hobby of hunting beautiful stags just for the fun of it, just because they have too much money. They warn us that more rain and strong winds are forecast soon.

The weather changes as we slog up the non-existent trail on boggy ground, past the mountain fondly known as Cheesecake. Fog descends and the wind picks up. We can’t see where other hikers have walked, and the wind is so strong that it shoves me to the ground. Scotland is telling me:

“Ha! You thought you had experienced Scottish weather! But THIS is Scottish weather!”

As I struggle to stay on my feet, I scream at Chris in a terrified voice. There is another river crossing coming up.  New waterfalls cascade down the mountainside.  How will we ever get across?

It takes forever to finally reach the river. The current is too fast to cross safely. We walk upstream through bog and search for a better place to cross, but there is a gorge and a giant waterfall in our way. So we walk downstream, but there are too many fast-flowing burns to cross. We waste twenty minutes searching in vain, and in the meantime the water rises more and more.

The only option available to us is to cross the dodgy wire bridge, consisting of just two wires: one for the feet and one for the arms. I cry and cry. I am terrified of this bridge, and I’m convinced that I’m going to fall off and get swept downstream (where there is another waterfall ready to sweep me to my death).

The wires swing as I step onto the ‘bridge’, out of time with each other. I shuffle slowly as the fast-flowing river skims my shoes, ready to take me away.

I finally make it across. Chris follows more confidently, and makes it all seem like a piece of piss.

Relief washes over us as we reach a Landrover track, which takes us all the way to the village of Craig, and the roaring fire in Gerry’s hostel. When we check the internet we find out that the Met Office has given a ‘severe weather’ warning for today.

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Typical bog!

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Terrible weather on trail

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Loch Calavie

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Hunters

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The wire bridge. This photo doesn’t capture how strong the river is. It looks shallow, but it isn’t!

Day 31: Craig -> Kinlochewe (16.5km)

The Met Office has given today yet another ‘severe weather’ warning. That’s three in one week, and a fourth one is due later this week.

It rains so much here that water manages to seep through my rucksack cover, then through my rucksack, and then through a black bin liner, and onto a second bin liner protecting my clothes.

Section 32 is a typical  SNT day: walking through bog, chopped-down forestry and moorland (whilst sticking to the familiar Landrover track).

The SNT trailnotes warn that the last part of this section involves a “frustrating battle through undergrowth”. It also involves burn crossings, so we detour to the main road and walk on asphalt for 3.5km. And thank god we do: we cross on a bridge and pass a river that is so insanely strong that there are waves. Trees, which had once been on the banks, are submerged in the river, and they’re clinging on for dear life.

We arrive in Kinlochewe at 3pm, visit its well-stocked shop, and dry our stuff out at the bunkhouse.  Oh! I love Scottish bunkhouses’ drying rooms!!

We meet another hiker called Pete, and together we all check the weather forecast. Completing this trail is becoming an ordeal. It’s really not worth risking our lives to get to the top of Scotland, and I am fully prepared to quit at any time.

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The rivers are as strong as the sea

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Day 32: Kinlochewe -> a few kilometres before Shenavall (25km)

We have amazing weather today! We can actually see views of mountains on section 33! How many other amazing views have we missed because of bad weather?

We sit at beautiful Lochan Fada, admiring Scotland in its sunny glory. We haven’t seen any deer fences for miles, so it really feels like we’re in the wild. We hike up the eastern slopes of Sgurr Dubh and then slog through the bog down the other side, disappearing into deep holes that swallow our legs.

We paddle across a river (thank you, sunshine!) and follow the distinct but muddy path, filled with little toads.

We set the tent up as the stars come out and bats flit through the sky.

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Low river!

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Low river again 🙂

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Day 33: Shenavall -> Inverlael (21km)

The Fisherfield mountains are dramatic as we hike section 34 through the rain. We descend to lovely birch trees, through farmland and past lochans. We arrive in Inverlael in the evening.

There’s a weather warning for tonight (surprise surprise). Storm Callum is due to hit, with winds of 80km p/h.  We knock on the door of a house and ask the man inside if we can camp at the empty house in front of his. He isn’t particularly bothered.

But as we’re cooking our dinner, he strides up to us with his friend, seething with anger.

“You can’t camp here! It’s a private estate!” he yells.

“Everywhere in Scotland is a private estate!” I reply.

“Go and camp in the woods.”

“But there’s a severe weather warning. Strong winds are coming. It would be really stupid to camp under the trees.”

“Well, if you WILL hike the Cape Wrath trail in October, what do you expect? If you don’t move I’m calling the police.”

I’m really upset. I have travelled in many countries, welcomed. But here in Scotland, I’m yelled at to get away from rich people’s houses. There’s no sense of hospitality, no empathy. That man would rather we were crushed to death under falling trees than camp close to his house.

Other neighbours allow us to camp next to their house, and the wind howls around us but doesn’t touch us as the house’s wall protects us.

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You’re never too far from a fence in Scotland

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Camp!

Day 34: Inverlael -> Ullapool: 8km

It’s an 8km detour to Ullapool. The hostel here is amazing, and the people who run it are the most hospitable people we could possibly meet: just what we need after last night! Ullapool’s got everything a hiker needs: places to stock up and even a great outdoor shop. We spend two days here.

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The view from Ullapool

Day 35: Ullapool -> Schoolhouse bothy: 27km

Because we detoured to Ullapool, we join the CWT on the alternative route of section 35 (depicted on the Harvey CWT map) from Inverlael to Oykel Bridge.

We follow a Landrover track (quelle surprise) past a quarry and then a loch, all the way to Knockdamph bothy. This hut feels cold and unfriendly, and we continue onwards to Schoolhouse bothy. There’s lots of beautiful deciduous trees in this section, putting a big smile on my face. But that smile’s soon wiped when my last hiking pole breaks.

Schoolhouse bothy was built in the 1800s and is complete with school desks and a blackboard. It’s a lovely, insulated bothy. A young hiker called Steve is also staying here. He’s walking the CWT and is worried about the rivers, so will hike with us.

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Quarry

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Knockdamph bothy

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Schoolhouse bothy

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Day 36: Schoolhouse bothy -> Loch Ailsh (20km)

We walk with Steve on a Landrover track to the Oykel Bridge hotel. It’s closed for the season, scuppering our plans of relaxing with a cup of tea.

We spend a lot of section 36 on forestry track near the river Oykel, and then come to Loch Ailsh. The loch has posh hunting lodges at the water’s edge. We go to find the gillie to ask him if we can camp near the loch. (A gillie is someone who manages the estate on behalf of the millionaire owner, who usually isn’t there). We don’t find the gillie, but we find his wife, who tells us rudely that camping is banned here and that we must hike until we pass through a gate, far out of sight of them.

Once again, I wonder what my actual rights are under Scotland’s laws. I’m left with a feeling of bitterness. A wealthy hunting family holidays in one of the houses on the loch, while we’re moved on out of sight.

We find a good camping spot a couple of minutes out of sight of the gillie’s wife.

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Nowhere is sacred. Every inch of land is up for grabs in Scotland

Day 37: Loch Ailsh -> Inchnadamph (16.5km)

The three of us head up towards mount Conival, contour around its slopes and over a saddle. Suddenly we see deer everywhere. Two stags seem to be competing for the female deer. Steve tells us that stags charge at people, so I’m nervous as we pass a massive stag who is staring intently at us.

I’m nervous about crossing the Traligall river, but we’re in luck: today it’s a small stream! We follow the lovely river all the way to tiny Inchnadamph. This village – and a newly built castle, complete with deer skulls –  is owned by Edmund Vesty, who owns 70,500 acres of Scotland. Edmund’s brother, Eton-educated Baron Vesty, owns land in Essex, Argyle, Ross and Cromarty. I am disgusted once again by the rich, who have carved up Scotland and made it their hunting playgrounds.

Stags roar loudly in the night. (Yes, stags roar!!)

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Inchnadamph

Day 38: Inchnadamph -> Glendhu bothy

Wow! What a day! Section 37 is the best part of the SNT. We walk on a path past lochans, and the rocky terrain makes us feel like we’re really in remote mountains. For once we’re not walking in bog! Rock cairns lead us up over the pass. This feels like the wildest place in the UK: free from human interference (apart from the cairns!). I have trouble staying on my feet as the wind gusts reach 60km p/h.

We pass big waterfalls,including the biggest waterfall in Britain.  We reach Loch Beag and eat lunch on its pebbly shore. Three inquisitive seals poke their heads out of the water, looking intently at us.

“SHIT!” I screech suddenly. A stag is laying in the grass just a couple of metres from us. He stares at us calmly. Is he injured? Was he in a fight?

As we walk past him, we marvel at how we have just seen the highest waterfall in Britain, then seals, then a stag, and all within twenty minutes.

We arrive at Glencoul bothy, beautifully located at the water’s edge. We continue up a steep Landrover track and descend on a slippery, rocky path to Loch Glendhu. We arrive at Glendhu bothy as it’s getting dark. Stags roar around the bothy in the night. What a beautiful location.

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Me and Steve

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It’s rocky! There’s no bog! At least for now…

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Loch Beag

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Glendhu bothy

Day 39: Glendhu -> Loch Stack (19km)

We say goodbye to Steve, who has more time constraints than us so will skip the hike up Ben Dreavie. We walk up the only (small) peak of the CWT (section 38), and it’s worth the extra effort, with views of the mountains and the sea.

The way down is pathless and boggy, and we descend to a loch, then onto the river Laxford. We continue on to Loch Stack, where there is an abandoned building at the water’s edge. We camp there, using the building to shield ourselves from the typical strong Scottish October wind.

The wind changes direction in the night and pounds the tent.

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Cold up on Ben Dreavie. The trail could be anywhere. But I am prepared, with my compass, map and phone gpx coordinates all round my neck!

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Deer fence

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Camping next to the abandoned house at Loch Stack

Day 40: Loch Stack -> Kinlochbervie (17km)

We have a late start as we wait for the rain to stop. We hike onto the slopes of Arkle mountain and then through a pathless bog to the shore of Loch a Gharbh-Bhaird Mor. We follow the eroded path along the loch edge.

Suddenly, I drop my phone in a boggy puddle and watch in slow motion as it begins to sink. I grab it with a cry.

We paddle across the Garbh Alt river, arrive in tiny Rhiconich and use their public toilets (they must have won their campaign to ‘Save Our Toilets!’ which is plastered on the wall).

We begin section 39 and slog along asphalt for another few miles to Kinlochbervie. A local woman called Joyce chats to us and invites us to camp in her garden. She’s from Ayrshire. (I’ve decided that Ayrshire is by far the friendliest part of Scotland). We use the house walls to shield ourselves from the battering Scotland winds.

Tomorrow the Cape!!

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Day 41: Kinlochbervie -> Cape Wrath (26.5km)

The wind is a relentless 50mph as we follow a Landrover track to stunning Sandwood Bay. We have lunch in beautiful sand dunes which are covered in lime green grass. If it wasn’t so windy this would be an idyllic spot for camping.

We begin section 40 and wade through the first of the potentially problematic rivers which separate us from the Cape.

Up and down, up and down, up and down we hike on the cliff, panting as the bogs and wind take our strength.  We finally make it to the MoD firing range, climbing over the fence which warns us that we might die.

By now the fog is so thick that we can only see about 100 metres. It’s so disorientating that I need to check the phone to get my bearings. And it’s a good job that I do, because I realise that I’m leading us towards the cliff edge.

The wind pushes relentlessly against us, our bodies complaining as we battle onwards. We finally make it to a Landrover track. We don’t see the Cape Wrath lighthouse until we’re metres away from it.

As the wind howls and it gets dark, a man called John answers the door of the lighthouse and warmly invites us in.  John and his daughter Angela make us feel welcome, cooking us vegan soup and braised tofu. It’s a fitting way to end the trail: drinking tea and eating hot food in a rickety old lighthouse.

John and Angela have made a new bunkhouse in the old engine room, and they fire up the gas heater for us. They live without electricity up here, exposed to the elements at the tip of Scotland.

We’re told that NATO troops from different countries come and train up here, testing their bombs and leaving craters in the ground.

John congratulates me as one of only a handful of people who have completed the Scottish National Trail.

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Sandwood Bay

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The lighthouse! Finally!

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A celebratory meal at the lighthouse

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Thank god.

Days 42 and 43: Cape Wrath -> Keirvaig bothy -> Main road

At this time of the year, there is no way off the trail other than to walk to the nearest road. We hike on a Landrover track to Keirveg bothy, passing military storage containers filled with racist cardboard human targets. I’m disgusted.

Keirvaig bothy is famous for its remote location and it doesn’t disappoint. We spend the afternoon foraging for driftwood.

The next day, getting from the bothy to the road, is the most difficult of the whole trail. Winds batter us. We hike on a hilltop parallel to the river as the gusts keep throwing me to the ground.

I want to curl up in a ball. I cry. But I tell myself again and again, “I have to keep going if I want to get out of here. There’s no other way.”

We paddle across a stunning estuary, through farmland and make it to the road. Before we know it, we’re hitchhiking southwards, away from the Cape, and back to Inchnadamph, where we had been only days before.

We stay at the lovely hostel, and we’re told that the Oykel river – which we crossed just a couple of days before – has burst its banks. There’s a few hikers still on the Cape Wrath Trail, and I think of them and hope that they don’t take any stupid risks in this crazy weather.

We hitchhike south, back down to the Cairngorms, and meet up with my Mum and Step-Dad who have been following my progress for two months now.

The Scottish National Trail has been a test as the weather has thrown everything it can at me. Would I recommend the trail? Yes!

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Racist targets

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Keirvaig bothy

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*It took me 41 days to complete the Scottish National Trail. But I had many days off (I’d never been to Scotland so was making the most of it), so in total I spent around two months hiking. 

For preparation I studied Oldie Outdoors’ tips.

I also studied my OsmAnd map app before I went and worked out where every single supermarket/food shop was on the trail! 

I highly recommend buying the Harvey map of the Cape Wrath Trail. And waterproof cases for your phone and maps. 

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Hiking the Scottish National Trail (part 6): the hardcore Cape Wrath trail

  1. Fantastic, all the best bits and some great memories for me (because I can’t tell it’s so windy in your photos). Congratulations on completing the SNT, it is a bit of a hike.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Andrew! I’ve walked technically trickier trails..it was just the weather and the river crossings that made the CWT such a challenge. But it was worth it!

      Like

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