Despite having been born and brought up for the first half of my life in Scotland, and having recently returned there, I have seen and explored little of it. Until recently I believed Fort William to be in the reasonably far north, despite the fact that the most cursory glance of a map reveals it to be only about halfway between Carlisle and Thurso. As part of what I hope will be a series of adventures to explore the rest of the land of my birth, I decided to venture into Knoydart, the region between Lochs Nevis and Hourn, at least partly inspired by the initial stages of the Cape Wrath Trail. The aim would be to reach Inverie, and its pub The Old Forge, the most remote pub in mainland Britain. Also, being of modest mountaineering ambitions, I would try to prefer high level routes where possible.
Day 1 : Glenfinnan to Strathan
I don’t drive, and so am subject to the vagaries of public transport, which in the less densely populated areas of Scotland are more vague than most. I was however able to arrive at Fort William station at a reasonable hour, making the obligatory stop at Nevisport to pick up anything I’d forgotten, including a hat, but not insect repellent, something I was to regret several times over the course of the next few days.
Rather than start my journey from Fort William, I opted to get the train to Glenfinnan and start from there. I had last been in my childhood or early teens and had taken a photograph of the monument during some appalling weather, which has since become an oil painting and present for some recently married friends. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to make a quick stop to take another picture of what is probably one of the most beautiful places in Scotland.
Here my journey began in earnest, walking from the monument under the famous Glenfinnan Viaduct. Since its appearance in the Harry Potter films, this location has brought in tourists from far and wide, these were the last people I was to see for some time, however at the time of writing there was a lot of work going on as part of a hydroelectric project and so I didn’t really begin to feel the isolation I’d been anticipating until I was well past the Glenfinnan Lodge. Here a track diverges to go up over Sgùrr nan Coireachan ( marked with a red dotted line on the map ), which I would have taken had circumstances permitted. I did consider the detour, but it was late ( about 3pm ), and the weather was less than ideal so I opted for the low level route. A little later the skies opened, and I knew that I had made the right decision.
Once out of Gleann Cuìrnean, the route crosses over the river Pean and Brook and Hinchliffe’s guide suggests avoiding the conifer forest and making your way around the edge toward Strathan. However, I found the ground here to be extremely boggy and eventually, in order to make further progress, I had to succumb to getting my feet wet and wade through about 2 feet of marsh water. To anyone attempting this route, I recommend fighting through the conifers to find the track through the forest, or perhaps going along the riverbank where the ground may be firmer.
It was by this point getting dark, and I was tired, so I decided to camp on the first bit of acceptable ground rather than continue on toward Glendassary. Unfortunately I discovered that I had neglected to bring anything with which to light my stove, and so a well needed brew was not an option. In addition, the considerable weight of the stove was now largely redundant and not for the first time I thought about how in future I might save some weight.
Day 2 : Strathan to Sourlies
I woke to find that the predicted foul weather had not yet arrived, and resolved to make an early start. I was packed up and ready to go by 8.00 am, and despite lacking a hot breakfast I was feeling pretty good and made good time along the solid track through Glendassary. I noticed that some fellow wild campers had made good use of the fact that the ground here was much nicer than at Strathan, the first people I’d seen since Glenfinnan. I made a mental note to camp here if I came this way again.
At this point I had to make the first real decision affecting my route, it was early enough that I could opt to traverse the Glendassary ridge all the way to Sourlies, however I was suspicious of the weather, both the MET office and MWIS had forecast rain and high winds on the summits, and so I opted for the valley rather than the ridge. It was a decision I still regret, but at the time it was the sensible one.
As the day went on, the rain and winds failed to materialize. In fact the weather was glorious, and the dreaded midgies took maximum advantage of the still weather and my bare arms. By about 11.00am I made the decision to try to get up onto the ridge and make the most of the conditions while they held. The OS 50,000 map indicates a path from the valley up to the ridge but I failed to find it, and instead improvised my way along sheep tracks and up gullies. While letting my mind wander it occurred to me that Sheep Track Optimization could be an unexplored avenue for heuristic optimization techniques, but I digress ( see Ant Colony Optimization in case you think I’ve gone barking mad ). Eventually I found the crest of the ridge, where there was a clearly well trodden path and a wall, over which was a dramatic view toward Loch Quoich.
It was a glorious day for walking the ridge, with a good path and plenty of opportunities for easy and totally unnecessary scrambling. The huge peaks of Garbh Chioch Mhòr and Sgùrr Na Cìche ( which rather amusingly translate as ‘Big Rough Place of the Breast’ and ‘Peak of the Breast’ respectively ) command awesome views of Knoydart and beyond.
Descending the ridge from Sgùrr Na Cìche it gradually became obvious that the gusts of wind were increasing in strength and in frequency, and that the long heralded foul weather had been merely delayed. The path had long since disappeared to give way to some fairly nondescript peatbogs, and it became clear I was not going to get off the ridge before nightfall. There was a lochan at about 400m that would have been an idyllic spot but for the fact it offered no shelter from the, by now, impressive wind blowing from the direction that I had come. I found a reasonably sheltered spot on the south side of the ridge, set up the tent and perched on a rock to watch the sun set.
Day 3 : Sourlies to Inverie
The weather arrived sometime during the night. The tent however performed admirably, staying rock solid in the face of every blast of gale force wind and every torrent of rain. Lighter tents are available, but for once I was glad to carry a bit of extra weight for something solidly constructed ( The tent is a Hilleberg Akto for those interested ). I remember listening to the noise of rain and wind and wishing I could get to sleep, only to drift off and the next thing I knew it was morning.
I woke to find that the trickle of water I had heard from a nearby stream now sounded like a full blown waterfall, though thankfully it was nowhere near the tent. It was a miserable morning, and I took my time about packing up. The rain was easing off, but I nonetheless decided to get off the ridge as quickly as possible rather than take the longer route toward the beach at Loch Nevis. Visibility gradually improved, but the going was difficult and it was the best part of an hour before I made the footbridge.
Here I was somewhat surprised to meet a couple of walkers who had spent the night at Sourlies Bothy ( ‘Luxury’, apparently, though they wouldn’t have had my views ). They had already crossed the bridge, conveniently demonstrating that it wasn’t quite the death trap it looked. Actually it was pretty solid, though it swings disconcertingly if you try to cross at speed. From here a good stalkers path climbs to the bealach at the head of Gleann Meadail.
By this time I could practically taste the beer at The Old Forge, and struck up a pace that would make a mockery of Naismith’s rule. I noted on the map that I could have taken another high level diversion here over Meall Buidhe, but again I was thwarted by the weather. As I approached Inverie, signs of civillization began to appear: the odd outbuilding, landrover tracks, highland cattle. I made it to Inverie by 4pm, and went straight to the pub where I met a walker who had come south over Ladhar Bheinn, immediately making me feel like a wimp.
Inverie, and home.
There is a perfectly good campsite at Inverie, and a bunkhouse, but I felt that I’d earned a small amount of luxury and decided to try my luck at the B&B, Knoydart Lodge. I popped my head round and managed to disturb the owners, Bob and Morag, and their guests having dinner. Luckily there was a room available.
Knoydart Lodge puts many of the hotels I have stayed in to shame, the bedroom had a huge double bed and breakfast the following morning was fresh and cooked to order. That evening I had dinner at the pub and returned to Knoydart Lodge to while away the evening chatting to Bob, Morag and their guests, who had brought guitars, a mandolin and an accordion to have ‘a wee tune’. My version ( actually Travis’ version ) of the Britney Spears hit ‘Hit me baby one more time‘ caused some hilarity but was, sadly, not really up to scratch. I was able to redeem myself with a few bars of Rachmaninoff on the piano until I reached a mental block probably caused by too much whisky.
The following morning, while well rested, I decided to expedite my route home by taking the local ferry to Mallaig, and thence the train back to Edinburgh via Fort William. Unfortunately there was a considerable gap between connections at Fort William and so I was forced to spend a few hours in The Grog and Gruel. Life is hard, sometimes.