A journey across burns, bog and bothies - through the Scottish Highlands following the wild and remote Cape Wrath Trail...
Through the Scottish Highlands along the Cape Wrath Trail
WORDS Matthew Jones | PHOTOGRAPHY Hugo Campos
The journey to the very tip of north-west Scotland began, strangely enough, at London Euston station. I was booked on the 21.15 Caledonian Highland Sleeper service to Inverness, and so it was that I found myself standing at Platform 13, with a rucksack packed with all the kit I’d need for five days on the trail.
As I scanned the crowds, I spotted a cheerful-looking young man toting a pack that looked as heavy as mine. It was Hugo, who’d be my walking companion for the next few days. Together, we’d be tackling part of the Cape Wrath Trail, regarded by many as the most challenging long-distance trail in Britain. The route is not waymarked and often trackless, picking up ancient drovers paths, mountain passes and frequently crossing peat bog and high moorland. Its total length is some 230 miles, stretching from Fort William to the Cape Wrath lighthouse, on the edge of Scotland’s remote north-west coast. The wildest stages are the final approach to the cape – the stretch we’d chosen to take on. It would certainly be a challenge, but the words of Ramblers Scotland vice-president Cameron McNeish resounded in my head: ‘It’s the sort of long-distance route that most keen walkers dream of. A long, tough trek through some of the most majestic, remote and stunningly beautiful landscapes you could dare imagine.’ The allure was irresistible.
The Caledonian Sleeper has a long and proud history, dating back to 1873. It serves a curious mix of people, from politicians travelling between Scotland and Westminster to train buffs and of course, walkers. The experience was everything I had hoped it would be, with attendants in Harris Tweed and tartan uniforms and a ‘full Scottish’ breakfast on offer in the lounge car. On board I slept … and woke, and slept again, and woke, listening to the muffled sounds emanating from the gangway and wondering whether we’d arrived at Preston or Carlisle, whether the gradient we were climbing was Shap or Beattock. Then at 6.30am, bleary-eyed, I pushed up the blind of my snug berth and found myself in Scotland. The adventure was beginning.
After a long bus ride, our first day’s walk began at the tiny hamlet of Inchnadamph. We donned our gaiters, flicked out our poles and headed up into the hills. The weather was clammy and the fog was descending as we climbed rapidly along a path that soon faded into the grass. Poor visibility made progress nigh on impossible, and we reverted to map and compass navigation to reach the small lochan of Fleodach Coire. We decided to pitch our tents and camp here, hoping for better weather the next day. Our first day out, and we’d managed little more than 3km – this was worrying. I zipped the door of my tent shut and hunkered down into my sleeping bag with a slight sense of unease.
Fortunately, the sun shone the next morning as we struck our tents, restoring my confidence as we pushed on through clouds of midges towards the foot of Eas a’Chual Aluinn – the highest waterfall in the UK. The terrain morphed into breathtakingly rugged mountain country, offering majestic views of isolated glens and lochs. The day’s walking was broken up by a welcome lunch stop at Glencoul, a stoutly-built stone bothy sheltered behind a hummock of land at the head of Loch Beag.
Bothies in Britain, including this part of Scotland, are largely cared for by volunteers of the Mountain Bothies Association (MBA). These simple but robust shelters are a real highlight for any lover of wild and lonely places, offering a solid roof and the chance to dry out in front of a warm fire. Our day’s aim was to reach a second bothy, Glendhu, which meant crossing a difficult headland via a steep 4x4 track. The track petered out into a rough moorland trail, then plunged through birch woodland that clung precipitously to the side of the mountain. Finally spotting the bothy, we observed a tell-tale curl of smoke from the chimney, arriving to a hearty welcome from two fellow walkers and a cosy fire. They offered us a patch of floor by the hearth – our bed for the night. Inflating our camping mats, we collapsed into sleep.
The next stage took us through Achfary, the heart of the Grosvenor Estate, owned by the Duke of Westminster. The tiny and impeccably kept village seemed strangely out of place with its black-and-white telephone box, post office and smart outbuildings. As if on cue, two ghillies dressed in tweed pulled up in a long-wheelbase Land Rover, a large stag on the flatbed behind them, freshly killed by a stalking party. In such magnificently wild country it seemed a shame that the first deer we’d seen on the trail was a dead one. We followed the road out of Achfary alongside Loch Stack, rounding the head of the loch and setting up a discreet wild camp on a shelf of sand on the opposite bank.
Our next day’s walk took us from Loch Stack to Strathan bothy, via the hotel at Rhiconich and the fishing port of Kinlochbervie. It proved a tough slog to Rhiconich alongside Loch a Garbh-Bhaid Mor, where we were faced with a river in spate. There was no option but to remove boots and socks, roll up our trousers and brave the icy water, wading across using our trekking poles to steady us on the slick rocks.
Passing through Rhiconich, and ignoring the hotel bar that is a popular rest stop for many Cape Wrath walkers, we pushed on to the fishing port of Kinlochbervie, which offered a chance to resupply before reaching another well-known bothy at Strathan. Kinlochbervie is the most northerly port on the west coast of Scotland. It was our first real taste of civilisation after three days in the wilderness and never has a Spar shop been more inviting.
Picking up a mobile signal, Hugo took the opportunity to call through to range control at Cape Wrath. Much of the land around the cape is owned by the Ministry of Defence, which uses it as a live firing range for army, navy and NATO forces. It is therefore essential to check whether military exercises are planned before crossing the perimeter fence. We were informed that no training was taking place that week and we were free to continue our walk, subject to the standard guidance – never to touch any military equipment, debris or ordnance (‘it might explode and kill you’, warned the range controller on the other end of the line), to wash our hands before eating and to clean shoes and boots thoroughly. At the fence, red flags are also flown during the day and red lamps lit at night during firing periods, at which time access is prohibited.
We wouldn’t find ourselves approaching the range limits until the next day, however – first we had to reach Strathan. We crossed a swathe of peat bog as evening descended on the wildest section of the walk yet. The wind sang through the tussocked ground and a vague track traced a line through mire and sunken peat.
We’d had a taste of bothy life, but at Strathan we learned its true meaning from MBA Maintenance Organisers Hugh Macgregor and Bob Tateson, who happened to be there repainting the bothy’s roof. As the rain began to hammer down, little in the way of painting seemed likely, so Hugh and Bob reverted to the second great pastime of the bothy volunteers – storytelling. As the Scotch was passed around, they regaled us with tales of working parties, epic walks and months in the wilderness. Bob, a retired schoolteacher, nonchalantly revealed that he’d once survived a Scottish winter up here in a custom-built tent, completely alone save for his cat. ‘I had three visitors in six months’, he said, ‘all of whom had promised they’d come and see me – probably to check I was still alive. I wasn’t lonely; I like my own company – and the cat seemed happy enough.’
Strathan lies a few kilometres from Sandwood Bay, one of Britain’s most isolated and spectacular beaches. Nodding farewell to Hugh and Bob, we followed the nearby river to Sandwood Loch, which flows out into the bay. The grey weather gradually brightened, and as we passed between grassy dunes onto the unspoilt sand of the beach, we enjoyed a rare interlude of Scottish sunshine.
Eight miles – and an MoD perimeter fence – now separated us from the cape. Consulting our Cicerone guidebook, we were invited to head inland across rolling moors. The chance to walk alongside North Atlantic clifftops seemed impossible to pass up, however, so we stuck to the coastline. After a while we came to the barbed wire fence marking the edge of the live firing zone. With no red flags flying, we crossed a stile, noting the warning signs attached to the fence.
We trudged onwards, passing lochs, climbing humps of land and then making a long, gentle descent through energy-sapping bog. Then, as we crested the last hill, the tip of the Cape Wrath lighthouse hove into view. It was our first sighting of the end point of the trail, the ultimate goal for us and so many other Cape Wrath walkers. The lighthouse gradually grew larger and larger, and soon a crop of derelict buildings and a dilapidated courtyard emerged, clustered around its base.
Walking between these buildings, I gazed up at the lighthouse’s stolid, inscrutable mass, built in 1828 by Robert Stevenson, one of the Stevenson line of illustrious Northern Lighthouse Board engineers. The cliff-edge dropped away a few metres from its tapering granite sides, and I looked out across a featureless expanse of ocean, where a solitary yacht tacked in the wind. We discovered an odd little cafe in the outbuildings, where we ordered sandwiches and hot soup from the owner John Ure, who along with his wife and pack of Springer spaniels are the only residents of this surreal little complex. It must be a lonely life, I thought to myself, as I leafed through the trail logbook. It contained few records of completion for the month, reinforcing the remoteness and isolation of our location.
We headed inland along the only road that enters and leaves Cape Wrath, aiming for the large and charming bothy of Kearvaig – the northernmost bothy in Scotland, blessed with its own private beach. Finding it deserted, we watched the waves crashing on the beach as screaming gannets wheeled and plunged into the water. Ensconced in the bothy, I sat in a rickety wooden chair cheekily inscribed ‘King of Kearvaig’, meditating beside the window on the austerity of life on the trail, the rugged, remote beauty of this incredible part of Scotland, and the country’s liberal access code that makes such a walk possible. It was impossible not to be happy here. And somehow, after five days on the trail, and despite being more than 650 miles from my front door, it was starting to feel like home.
TIME/DISTANCE The 230-mile Cape Wrath Trail runs from Fort William to Cape Wrath. It can be split into numerous stages, the most dramatic of which are the final four sections from Inchnadamph (a total of 49 miles/79km or 4–5 days’ walking). The 804 bus runs from Inverness to Durness via Inchnadamph, operated by D&E coaches (T: 01463 222444 or email email@example.com). The Caledonian Sleeper (www.sleeper.scot) to Inverness departs nightly (except Saturdays) from London Euston via Crewe and Preston.
BOOKS & MAPS OS Landranger 9 & 16, Explorer 442, 445 & 446. Harvey long distance route maps (1:40,000) XT40 – Cape Wrath Trail North. Walking the Cape Wrath Trail by Iain Harper (£14.95, Cicerone, 9781852848170).
ACCOMMODATION Other than the hotels at Rhiconich and Kinlochbervie, the only options along this part of the Cape Wrath Trail are to camp or use the bothies at Glencoul, Glendhu, Strathan, Strathchailleach and Kearvaig. A lightweight tent, sleeping bag and comfortable mat are essential.
FURTHER INFO For information on access to the Cape Wrath area visit www.visitcapewrath.com.