Motoring along the glorious Road to the Isles as we do every year (at least once), my mind always wanders to thoughts of walking in the rough hills that bear down on that ribbon of Tarmac.
Normally, this drive is on the clock. We need to get to Mallaig and negotiate the infuriating Co-op to stock up for a week at the rental cottage before making the Western Isles.
This year was a little different though. We had more time at the cottage and had arrived in the Highlands early. Everything was less rushed. This gave me three days to amble though the glens to Inverie from Glenfinnan before heading to Tarbet on the ferry.
My other half dropped me at the visitors’ centre at Glenfinnan on a mizzly Monday morning. The forecast was poor for at least two days of my walk but I didn’t mind. I was relishing a re-acquaintance with this landscape and travel by two feet after the distractions of two wheels.
Given my lack of walking of late – not to mention my lack of walking with a full pack – I felt it important to take my time, to let my body adapt, to see if the muscles indeed had memory.
Glenfinnan was predictably busy. Harry Potter fans lined up for pictures by the viaduct. I was more interested in watching the Jacobite steam meters above me thanks to a fortunate bit of timing. Leaving MacAlpine’s imposing structure behind, I soon found solitude in the glen amid whispering woods and sodden air.
An easy track lead up Glenfinnan past the turning for the lodge and by the time I reached Corryhully bothy I’d regained my rhythm, walking poles tapping out an agreeable staccato accompaniment to my footsteps.
I dropped into the bothy for a while to escape the rain. It felt dusty and dingy and would no doubt be more welcoming with a good fire burning and the lights on – this mountain shelter having the that rarest commodity, electricity.
I crossed a steel girder bridge over the River Finnan which oscillated sluggishly under my weight. Here, the track became rougher and headed upward into dense mist. The wind died but the rain intensified prompting me to don full waterproofs. Although heavy and cumbersome, I was glad of my mountain boots.
Reaching the bealach, I was greeted by a strong ‘facer’ which gave the rain more purpose. I solitary gate marked a boundary and cut an eerie silhouette in the mist. Water dripped off the brim of my cap and my nose. Conditions looked set wet for the remainder of the day.
Soon the gradient eased and a flat-bottomed river valley – for these parts anyway – materialised. Rather than taking the eroded path on the left of the meandering Allt a Chaorainn. I forded the stream and eventually found a very wet estate track on the right. Progress was slow as this tenuous trail at times dissolved into boglach… or was it breunlach?
The soft ground swallowed my ungainly pins on more occasions that I care to recall and I was glad to see the woodland of Glen Dessarry slowly take shape. More squelching steps and I spied the bridge leading to hopefully drier ground in the plantation. My optimism was short lived, however, as the estate had plotted a diversion away from the forest due to lumber operations. This involved more bog trotting and eventually I reached an estate track leading to Upper Glen Dessarry.
I looked at my watch and realised how slow my progress had been over this tricky ground. I was reminded of how difficult I find pacing in these rough hills.
I started hunting for camping spots and scouted some of the slopes higher up the valley. The ground was very wet in likely looking spots. Consulting the map, I spotted the A’Chuil and backtracked. I’d managed to miss this on the trail to the north of the river and found it empty.
I spread my kit liberally over the bothy to dry and I soon displaced the damp chill from my bones. Enjoying the peace, security and seclusion of my home for the night, the comforting calm was shattered somewhat by the arrival of a school party from Devon on a similar walk to my own.
They were a nice group and very considerate. I found it entertaining as they bedded down later in the neighbouring room and ripples of giggles would spread through group until, eventually, the day’s toil took hold and they slept.
The night was wild. The wind raced down the valley and tested the timbers and rattled the windows of the bothy. The morning, by contrast, was brighter and the ridgeline of Sgurr Cos na Breachd-laoid revealed itself (at last).
I collected my belongings and then swept out the bothy, re-supplying with kindling and wood (something sadly lacking when I arrived).
The Devon party had left before me and I paced slowly back to trail to upper Glen Dessarry. My progress was slow as I didn’t want to catch them up and I had the time to enjoy this sublime part of Scotland on my own.
After an hour or so I reached the point where a decision needed to be made. In settled weather, my intention had been to take a stalking track up to Coire na Ciche for a wildcamp and an assault on Sgurr Na Ciche – that shapeliest of mountains. I sat to consider the options, while bright the cloud base was still low and I was adamant that a clear day should be kept for this hill. I was also aware that this weather window, such as it was, would only last for a few hours as conditions were set to deteriorate later in the day.
I decided to stay low and, passing the cairn at Bealach an Lagain Duibh, followed an intermittent trail across rocky hummocks and boggy terraces – the terrain now taking on a distinct ‘Knoydart feel’.
Passing the Lochan a Mhaim with the Devon group far ahead, I stopped again to drink in the scene. A raptor cried and circled above and a gentle breeze whispered through the crags. The sun appeared and drove a hole in the cloud. I pressed on and the sky opened further. I found the spot to ford the river and the path north of the river, only to leave it and clamber up steep slopes to check the conditions high on the hill. Despite the improving picture, the cloud base was still low so I dropped back to the well-defined trail and headed down to Sourlies, stopping to admire the first glimpse of Loch Nevis and some familiar surroundings.
I reached the bothy early and sunbathed. The Devon group soon arrived and stopped to refuel – somehow I had overtaken them. I was in two minds whether to stop after a laughably short day or press on. The group decided to move on and I decided to stay. However, I pitched the tent so I could guarantee some privacy should folk arrive at Sourlies later. In the event, this proved to be a sound decision.
I saw two figures approach along the south shore of Loch Nevis. This is a tough walk at the best of times and the pair showed signs of their labour. They’d walked past our rental cottage at Kylesmorar but things looked quiet. I guessed my other half would be in Tarbet making jam.
The evening had become glorious and I could imagine how Sgurr na Ciche looked right now. This image was confirmed by a group of kayakers who paddled down the Loch to the bothy. Walkers who’d hiked from Glen Dessary soon joined this group. They were part of the same team and would swap transportation mode d’emploi the following day, spending a night together either camping or in the bothy.
My tent was joined by maybe half-a-score more and I soon zipped myself inside to escape the midges and, frankly, the company (!)
Still, the low camp was a wise move. After dark, a squall moved along loch Nevis and made our nylon homes jump and flap all night.
I awoke to rain on the fly. As ever in these circumstances, one coffee became two became three. The catalyst for striking camp came as others stirred around me.
Given the tide was in, I picked a line over the snout of Strone Sourlies. Reaching the valley of the Carnach – now very familiar – I skirted the boggy valley floor and forded the river to the east of the rickety bridge. At the Carnoch ruins I found the path and headed up to Mam Meadail, an interminable slog at the best of times but an even sterner test today in the rain.
Eventually at the pass, the view should have opened up to the village, coast and the islands beyond. Today, my only companion the clag.
I headed roughly west into horizontal rain, shielding my eyes. I retreated into the relative comfort of my clothing and my mind wandered.
Reaching the valley floor, my pace quickened and I dropped into Inverie. I was hopeful of a pint but found Britian’s most remote mainland pub closed, it’s new owner choosing a different approach with a 3pm opening time.
I retreated to the café and revelled in a pot of tea and a rather delicious Haggis sandwich. Soon I saw the Western Isles steaming from Mallaig so headed to the pier. and to an afternoon and evening filled with whisky and friendly, familiar faces.