Monday, 26 June 2017

Northwest - The Lochalsh Trail

I always said that I would never walk waymarked trails until I was too old and crusty for dragging myself up hills. Well, never say never. With a couple of spare days on holiday, I was looking for a wee wander in a quiet corner on the west coast and came up with the idea of the Lochalsh Trail, a 30-mile circuit from my starting point at Shiel Bridge.

I took a super path that starts beside the campsite at Shiel Bridge and climbs into the hills, zig-zagging over a wee pass before heading out to the pretty little bothy at Suardalan. It’s an aptly named spot, originating from the old Norse, Swarddale, combining sward (an expanse of grass) and dal (dale). It’s an open place with big views and winds that send waves of movement through the grasses.

Heading on from Suardalan, I followed a green, leafy track down into Gleann Beag. What might have been a wearisome few miles on tarmac was livened by the swathes of bluebells beside the road and the fascinating brochs, dotted through the glen. Brochs are stone roundhouses dating from approximately  2000 years ago. They are double-skinned and at Dun Troddan you can still climb the internal staircase.

At the bottom of Gleann Beag I popped out into the lovely wee seaside village of Glenelg and wandered round the coast to the Glenelg Ferry that crosses the narrows at Kyle Rhea to Skye. I wasn’t taking the ferry but I knew there was coffee and tablet at the honesty box at the slipway.

The Lochalsh Trail now enters one of the loveliest corners of the country as it follows the coast round to Totaig. A narrow path meandered through bluebell woods above the sea and above the woods I was excited to see my first sea eagle.

The trail dropped to the beach and crossed the shoreline at Camas nan Gall where the view opened up to the flat-topped peak of Dun Caan on Raasay to the north. I pitched the tent here, on a sward of green grass between the woods and the beach, and watched the sun sink, casting its peachy glow over the hills.

Next day the trail rounded Ardintoul Point and then climbed up briefly in deep forestry before emerging above Totaig where a grassy knoll opened up views from Skye to Kintail and the backside of Eilean Donan Castle. From the pretty little cottage at the road end at Totaig, it was a long plod along the road back to Shiel Bridge. Thank heavens again for the millions of bluebells that  lined the way and livened the walk.

Fact File
All the photos on Flickr: click HERE.
Start/finish: Shiel Bridge
Transport: Citylink Glasgow to Skye bus
My route: I took the path that heads south from the campsite following the Allt Undalainn and crossed the pass to the ruin at Bealachasan. Crossed the dear fence and then followed the edge of the fence to the south to join a forest track that goes to the bridge at NG889173. Immediately after the bridge on the right a small path heads to Suardalan. An obvious path continues south from Suardalan and then swings west into Gleann Beag (ignoring the path east to Kinloch Hourn). Walk down Gleann Beag and turn right at the bottom for Glenelg. Continue through the village and opposite the village hall a footpath heads to the left – follow this to the far side of the bay and continue along the road towards the Glenelg ferry. At the back of the car park above the ferry a gorgeous footpath starts and heads round the north coast of the peninsula to Totaig – where it enters dense forestry the route is marked by red and white tape. At Ardintoul Bay I followed the OS map which showed the route heading round to the last cottage and continuing as a footpath. I didn’t find that continuation but scrambled up through bushes and joined a path coming in from the right so I’m guessing the footpath actually starts from the main track that heads back over to Bernera. At Totaig it’s a walk along the road back to Shiel Bridge but it’s quite nice and there’s almost no traffic.
Tips: Campsite and wee shop at Shiel Bridge; wee shop and hotel at Glenelg; showers for a donation at the village hall in Glenelg. There is a local bus that goes up the Totaig road to Letterfearn on request which you could use to cut out the road walk at the end – run by Macrae Kintail.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Knoydart - Paradise

A May time meander across Knoydart, one of my favourite areas of Scotland. And an overdue visit to my favourite spot in Knoydart - Sourlies. All of this in one of the best spells of weather for years.

Sourlies is a distant place on a remote peninsula. There's only a small bothy there now but nearby ruins and a hidden graveyard hint at a time when there were more people here. I trekked into Knoydart from the train station at Glenfinnan, the arches of its famous viaduct providing a doorway to six days of paradise. 

My calling points, if you can call them that, were Sourlies, A'Chuill Bothy, Barrisdale Bay, Kinlochourn and another lovely wee bothy, Suardalan. The approach from Glenfinnan uses the tight pass of Mam na Cloiche Airde, a rough rocky place softened by the sparkling waters of its twin lochans. 

The first view of Sourlies from here is way down below. The bothy nestles on a shelf of green grass between the lower slopes of Sgurr na Ciche and the pebble beach at the limit of the sea loch, Loch Nevis. It sends a long finger of sea deep into the hills here and when the tide is high and the sun is out, it fills the contours of the land with water that's a dazzling Mediterranean blue. 

Ringed plovers nest on the beach, scraping a shallow nest among the pebbles, and cuckoos fill the air with the unmistakable sound of early summer.

I left Sourlies to the north, walking into the "wild interior" of Knoydart along the beautiful, rugged glen of the River Carnoch. When the tide is out you can leave Sourlies by walking along the beach and over the salt marsh which is covered with sea pinks in early summer. But if the tide is high you have to climb over the headland. The advantage is that up here you can look down on the water as floating clumps of seaweed cast their shadows through the see-through sea to the sandy bottom. 

There are otters and wildcats in Glen Carnoch - I've seen their prints in the wet sand. 

A stiff pull at the head of the glen puts you on the route to Barrisdale Bay and then the stunning path along the shores of Loch Hourn to the little hamlet at its end, Kinlochourn. It's 22 miles from the nearest A-road and the tarmac ends here, making it the longest dead end in the country.

A beautiful walk from Kinlochourn through bluebell woods and empty terrain takes you through to the pretty little bothy at Suardalan, sitting out on its own on a grassy knoll surrounded by fields and hills. It's a beautiful and peaceful place. 

A little pass then cuts through the western end of the ridge on the south side of Glen Shiel. I've always thought of it as being quite Alpine in character - a zig-zag narrow path, the mountains all around and cattle grazing on the green grass of early summer. 

The noise and bustle of Shiel Bridge were a sudden jolt out of the paradise of the last few days. But days like that stay with you forever.

Fact File
All the photos on my Flickr site.
Start: Glenfinnan railway station
Finish: Shiel Bridge for Citylink bus between Glasgow and Skye
My route: From the train station I walked north up Glen Finnan passed Corryhully Bothy and then through Gleann Cuirnean towards Strathan but turning west before the buildings to pass A'Chuill Bothy. Crossed the river and joined the path heading west through Glen Dessary and then through Mam na Cloiche Airde. There is a river crossing at the top which can be tricky after rain. The path then drops to Sourlies. From Sourlies I followed the path north up the River Carnoch and climbed out of the head of the glen to join an excellent stalker's path that crosses over the Mam Undalain and descends to Barrisdale Bay. There's a bothy here as well and informal camping. I took the path along the south shore of Loch Hourn to Kinlochourn which is a stunning walk. There is a wee tearoom at Kinlochourn. Just passed the hamlet heading east on the road there is a sign to the left marked for Corran. I took this path but continued through to Srath a Chomair on what's commonly called the pylon route as you are following the pylon line to Srath a Chomair. From there I took the route heading northeast to Suardalan Bothy (a lovely wee bothy) and then headed east to the bridge over the Glen More River. At the other side I took the track to the right and where it ended I continued up the side of the deer fence to reach a stile over the fence. This put me at the ruin at Bealachasan. From here I took the path that passes over a small pass south of Sgurr Mhic-Bharraich and then descends to Shiel Bridge.