Cape Wrath

CWT: in review

Giving up is the only sure way to fail. 

Gena Showalter
A gale on my first "Corbett" in a Scotland, Meall a' Bhuachaille (mee-OWL uh VOO-cuh-luh), one of 221 summits between 2,500 and 3,000 feet.
A gale on my first “Corbett” in a Scotland, Meall a’ Bhuachaille (mee-OWL uh VOO-cuh-luh), one of 221 summits between 2,500 and 3,000 feet.

When Bill Bryson wrote his landmark book A Walk in the Woods chronicling his (mis)adventures on the Appalachian Trail, he summarized events by saying, “We walked it,” even though they completed about 1/3 of the actual mileage. His reasoning was they indeed walked and experienced the route in all the harsh weather it could dole out, with big climbs to summits that offered zero views, and with oftentimes quirky people. After 700 miles, it was enough and they moved on to other things.

In our case, the weather was so horrendous, we simply couldn’t keep moving forward in the usual way. Part of that was where we ended up when the heaviest rain hit with two possibly dangerous river crossings ahead in boggy, trackless country. Waiting it out was not an option because there was nowhere to stay but in the tent which was saggy under bent poles and the “escape route” was out a long, single-track road to a highway far from any town.

I was lucky that my partner drove his car to Fort William and once we hitched out, we could take a bus to retrieve it. That afforded us a peak-bagging day of the UK’s highest Munro, Ben Nevis, 4,413 feet above the loch we started from. It added a thrilling twist to the planned walk of climbing into cloud, rain, sleet and finally snow flying directly into our faces all while knowing a hot shower and warm meal awaited us below.

It’s easy to look back now and see how our choices worked out, but at the time, we debated every choice available from my flying home and returning at a more opportune moment, to trading the Lake District for this soggy nightmare, to visiting friends and calling ourselves “tourists” instead of walkers.

But somehow, we persisted.

A deceptive photo at the bealach (pass) near Carn a Bhteabadair that shows clearing skies, when all they were doing was getting worse.
A deceptive photo at the bealach (pass) near Carn a’Bhreabadair that shows clearing skies, when all they were doing was getting worse.
Sea Stack shimmy at Duncansby Head in the Caithness on the far north eastern side of Scotland. (I am trying to stand upright in a gale)
Goofing around on the unfinished Napoleonic-era monument or “Edinburgh’s Folly” on Calton Hill.

Having the car gave us the luxury – and safety – to pick and choose which parts we’d hike, but it added an awkward element of only being able to walk out-and-backs since there were not really any circular routes per se or anyone we knew well enough to pick us up at the other side.

Oddly enough, heading out to a bothy for the night gave us this wonderful taste of how walking is done in Scotland. The Mountain Bothies Association partners with estates to fix up cottages in remote locations, making sleeping out a far more enjoyable experience. Each one was unique in various stages of repair, comfort and location. Twice, we stayed two nights and explored and because of the wretched weather, we had them mostly to ourselves adding a special magic dust to the adventure.

In the end, we walked around 170 miles or so, missing our target of 230. Still, that’s an achievement considering the trip was on the precipice of being axed entirely. It also had the benefit of forcing creative thinking to choose the best spots to walk, and a willingness to let go when the going got so tough, it made no sense to keep plowing forward. It’s unlike me to quit, but calculated misery afforded challenge rather than a death-march, and plenty of stories to share – as well as experience gained.

Callum at the Whisky Castle in Tomintoul, part of The Glenlivet estate, explaining the use of caramel in distillery bottling to create consistent coloring. I chose to purchase two small-batch locally made specialty whiskies (second and fifth from left) after our spectacular private tasting.
“Easy as” on the recently repaired Whaligoe Steps built by herring fisherman to easily access the cove below 250 foot cliffs.
The best “full Scottish breakfast” in Kinlochbervie of all homemade treats ready to raise my cholesterol through the roof.

I know many of you are less interested in the gear I used as opposed to the views seen and puzzles I solved, so feel free to skip these next graphs if you like. Suffice-to-say, I made good choices in taking real rain gear which I wore every day plus a baseball cap which kept the sometime-brilliant sun out of my eyes and the nearly constant rain off my face (the raincoat visor is a joke)

The Granite Gear pack is one of the best I’ve ever used with 60 liters of space plus a “brain” for quick access. I normally only need 50 liters of space, but I carried the three-man Big Agnes tent each time we went out as a backup (Ted carried the poles) plus more clothing. The tent was large and comfortable for both our person and gear, but it proved far too flimsy for the big Scottish gusts. Besides, we bent the poles on day one. This resulted in the tarp touching the inner layer, creating small puddles and subsequently dripping on my head. In the future, I’ll pick up a low-profile double-skinned tent made for these conditions.

About clothes – layers is always the way to go, and, in these types of conditions, clothing to change into from hiking gear was an essential luxury. My rain gear kept me dry, but I was sweaty and feeling scratchy. Putting on fresh socks, tights and a wool top was better than any therapy session. Speaking of socks, my plan to wear a thin compression liner plus the Balega running socks kept any foot problem at bay. We had a little game to see just how long we could keep our feet dry – an hour? – before plunging into a burn or bog. I was wet all day, but never suffered a blister.

At the last minute, I put my clothes, sleeping bag and electronics inside water poof bags and inside a trash bag. It seemed like overkill, but the sheer amount of moisture was beyond comprehension. Even then, my sleeping bag had a kind of heavy dampness, but not so much I didn’t stay warm in the bothies. If you expect rain, go the extra mile. Ted used heavy-duty Sea-to-Summit water proof bags designed for boating, and that might have been a smarter choice than my ultra-light compression sacks.

He also packed his Jetboil. Lately, I’ve moved to the dark side and cold soak all my backpack meals, but on a cold and wet journey, a cup of tea and a hot meal can make all the difference to your mood. Besides, I needed the stove for my mussel feast at Glencoul.

One last note on the specifics of walking in this type of trackless, boggy and steep country – bring trekking poles. I’m always amazed when people on hiker blogs discuss the merits of walking with or without sticks. My first question is, “Have you ever hiked without a manicured trail?” Poles make the walker like a four-legged creature, helping them move with ease and power, while putting less stress not just on their knees, but on all the stabilizing muscles in their legs. They also act as a guide through lumpy ground where trap-door like holes hide beneath benign-looking mossy mounds or rocks lie in wait to trip you in dramatic fashion. This became obvious on a windy walk to sea stacks near John O’Groats in northeast Scotland where each step felt slightly risky and my arms were out as if wings to keep me balanced. A worthwhile investment!

The final day on the Cape Wrath Trail was lush with golden larch and birch, but dangerously windy with spitting sleet.
My church.
A bear encounter with the bronze statue of Wojtek and his Polish handler in Edinburgh.

Being able to squeeze in the Cape in between raindrops was our most valued moment. It was hard, lonely and spectacular heading out there and turned our to be the most satisfying likely because it marked the end of the walk. Strangely enough, when we returned – a feat in itself as the weather increased n ferocity – we were unable to hike anymore.

Our plan was to take in one last bothy and use the remaining days to hike as many of the missed miles as possible. But we were turned back on our way to Shenavall Bothy on Loch na Sealga when the wind built to gale-force and the sleet started spitting in our faces. It didn’t help that the dead-easy track turned to a muddy hellscape and my phone began to fail, making navigating tricky in the high exposed place as the mist came right down.

We descended grouchy and disappointed, quiet as we licked our wounds until I suggested we simply get out of here. My thought was any more time spent trying to get miles was just going to make us more depressed and despondent, and besides it was starting to look pretty “samey.”

Ted had said at one point that even though he’s British, he’s never seen the most Northerly parts of Scotland. It would be a long drive, but we agreed to kiss the Western Highlands goodbye and drive east to Scrabster, John O’Groats, Thrumpster and Wick with their wide open rolling moorland set upon high cliffs above the roiling North Sea. We became tourists, visiting another Robert Stevenson lighthouse (the spitting image of Cape Wrath which we could drive to) walking out to massive sea stacks and down ancient steps to a fisherman’s cove.

We then headed to Aviemore in the Cairngorms waving to the Queen at Balmoral, lounging in the quirky Fife Arms, and climbing a “Corbett” (again in gale though without rain) a Scottish mountain between 2,500 and 3,000 feet. There was even time to have a private tasting at the Whisky Castle in Tomintoul and drive the highest road in Scotland to Edinburgh where the walk ended with a couple of hills on cobble stones.

Did I walk every last step of the CWT? No, I did not. But I kept going and found a creative way to catch its highlights, oftentimes in absolutely horrible weather that even the locals found surprising. Because my partner fetched his car, we had a fuller experience than most, and lapped up all the country could offer. I learned about disappointment, and coming to terms with the fact that things don’t always work out as you planned, that you often have to improvise and that holding too tightly to a given itinerary will, in the end, frustrate and keep you from enjoying what is possible.

As a “peak bagging” kind of gal, it certainly isn’t easy to let go of a goal, but oddly this walk opened up new avenues in my perception of what success looks like and for that, I am tremendously grateful.

Cape Wrath

CWT: Blairmore to Cape Wrath, 24 miles

Walking along the stunning beach at Sandwood Bay. The end of the country (and trail) is near.

It’s haddock again with a poached egg for breakfast. This time, an entire fish and I can’t eat it all. I nick two croissants, decadently buttery, and wrap them in napkins to eat somewhere along the trail.

I’m nervous about this stage. We cross several rivers, including two said to be dangerous in spate. Everything is in spate right now with all this rain, although the last two days have been gloriously dry.

We’re told much of this one will be too and we pack for extra nights, intending a bothy stay near Sand Bay. It’s a bit off trail, but said to be an interesting place once home to a hermit nicknamed Sandy.

We drive to the car park, amazed by all the houses tucked into this lonely place so far north. They look well cared for with decent cars parked in front. Sheep dot the landscape, both black and white. We leave the car near a yard with an entire pack of border collies.

It’s windy and gray and I put on an extra layer plus my raincoat, which I promptly remove as we begin to walk. It’s only four miles to the bay, an easy walk on track in an area maintained by the John Muir Trust.

The trail to Sandwood Bay is easy and popular with many people camping in the dunes.
The day begins clear and still on easy track.
Friendly campers.

Large, fancifully shaped mountains appear with cottony clouds attached as we pass lochans. This is the time to see just how long we can keep our feet dry before we have to step into a burn of bog.

The sun is silvery through cloud and I think about the wind and how the BBC weather service designated its speed. Yesterday was a ‘gentle breeze,’ whereas the day before was ‘moderate.’ Today it’s a ‘fresh breeze’ and I soon realize fresh is actually more powerful than moderate. I don’t know what’s after that, gale I think.

The place is lonely and quiet, but that’s not its history. Many people lived here, a dead giveaway the skeleton of a stone building, but they were forcible removed to make way for sheep.

We see two people coming towards us with packs and swinging arms. They’ve camped at the bay and are headed back before it rains. We can see ahead where the cliffs open to the bay, making it here in record time.

This may be a home to sheep, but it’s also protected for scientific interest. Its extensive dunes and machair make it one of the most species rich and least disturbed places in Scotland. The name ‘Sandwood’ Bay comes from the Norse Sanvatn describing the quality of a nearby loch.

High mountains above lochs with the sun desperately peaking out is a Scottish cliché.
Above Sandwood Bay with our beacon, Am Buachaille seastack, in the background.
The first river was a snap especially after all the fear mongering.

We don’t see much life at this time of year, but marvel at the deep sand and grasses we need to pass through, digging in deep with each step before we reach the beach itself.

Am Buachaille rises straight and proud, one of the most iconic sea stacks. The rocks here are pretty special, part of the Riconich Terrane, ancient gneiss squeezed into colorful layers. These are obvious underfoot at our first river crossing on palm-sized stones smoothed by the water’s relentless tumbling.

I’m taken with the reflection of the sky, gray and silver, in pools on the sand, as well as the light turquoise as waves curl up in the dim light. We snap pictures and I collect a few shells including a massive limpet. Without discussing it too much, we decide it’s far too early to stop and better to head all the way to the Cape.

We have the time, but we’re warned the eight miles is a slog across utterly trackless peaty moorland, remote and tough-going with the North Atlantic throwing all it’s got at you. None-the-less, we’re surprised not to find any hint of herd trail, and the ones we do find take us off in the wrong direction.

Our first challenge os straight up a hill, stepping up strongly with the help of walking sticks on tussocky and mossy lumps. The view is outstanding and we see one hill after another leading to the cape.

What comes up must go straight down, every step carefully negotiated through mud and squishy fluorescent green moss. Our shoes are totally wet from the first river, so neither of us cares anymore where we step. The rain returns a misty drizzle. The ocean is lapis under brooding skies.

Stunning, but slippery, rocks at the ford as Sandwood Loch drained into the sea.
Entering the MOD firing range. They made no provision for crossing the fence.
Ted and Alberto from Glencoul bothy.

We charge on looking vainly for any hint of trail, moving confidently to the first river. I’m nervous, telling myself we can always turn back or walk to the bothy if need be.

Ted spots a loud waterfall and the knot grows in my stomach. Just because we get through doesn’t mean we can get back. Much of Am Lochan à Gheodha Buaidh tumbles over rock loudly like that waterfall. I push upstream and find rocks in line that might work. But when Ted tests one with his pole, it’s slippery with gooey algae.

I move further upstream to find a braid with a sandy bottom. Perfect! I can even step from one island to the next without submerging too deeply. Ted just splashes straight across and I realize that even with one more foot of water, this should be an easy cross back.

It seems we’re spot on the route, but heading upstream throws off our bearings and we contour Cnoc à Gheodha Rhuaidh too low and slightly west rather than north. A compass bearing doesn’t help and we end up having to create a sharp-edge to find the tiny opening between two lochans.

I panic a bit as we leap from tussocky island to another around deep bogs, wondering if we’ll get out of here safely. It’s not easy walking at all, but rather movements that twist, stretch and pull your legs, requiring balance and strength to keep moving, kind of like deep sand in a steep incline.

And it is steep here as I try to pull us closer to our route steeply up a lonely and desolate hill filled with deep, peaty pools. At the top, I look down towards a ravine where I know our second river lies. I take a bearing on a gash in the mountain ahead and start walking overland towards it.

Vast, lonely, dour and desolate.
Constantly wet feet.
Strong walking on trackless moorland.

At no time does it feel easy, but I’m scared of how long this is taking us. Ted says if we want to turn back, now’s the time. I’m certain of the direction and determined to get over the next river, so plow through, oftentimes finding one bit of grass above eroded bog to cross.

It takes us to a fence. We’re entering the MOD (Ministry of Defense) live firing range. Good thing we checked first that no one is shooting today. A white card is in place, but a red one would mean most definitely turn back.

It’s an awkward climb over barbed wire. Someone helpfully affixed thick wire as a hand hold and some posts to climb on, bit we still need to take off our packs and hurl them over before we carefully climb over. Isn’t this a well-used trail? Seems odd to be without a stile.

But that’s only the beginning of our challenges. The Kesgaig river is deep in that ravine, with access itself a challenge. The water tumbles and boils over rocks and I can’t imagine trying to keep my balance while crossing.

So again, I walk up the river and sure enough find a way over at a flatter spot where I step on big shifty stones. Can I get back here if it rains and rises? Sure. I do look back at the spot and make a mental note of the number of signs on the fence so I can find my cross if the weather gets ugly.

Clag and deer in the distance.
For a while, the coast completely disappeared..

Up we go again, steeply on lumpy ground. We’re breathing heavy heading towards Sithean na h-loloireich, a pointy hat of a peak that we contour around. Somehow I take us slightly too far east and we end up having to negotiate three deep gashes in the mountain, dropping in and crossing small streams then crawling out again.

We get to the top of a hill and can see our final hill in the distance and a road! This is right before a cloud of rain comes for us, thankfully at our backs, spitting and blowing.

We drop fast, back into holes, this time all created by ordinance. It’s wet and miserable and our view completely disappears, an odd and fitting end to this wild trail. I’m feeling strong and not at all cold, but it’s bleak here and I’m not sure how much more I have in me.

Just then, we see a figure coming our way. It’s Alberto from Glencoul! He greets us with a smile, telling us he camped at Sandwood Bay last night and will again tonight. Tough guy handling this both ways in a day.

He cheers the mood as we contour another massive ravine, Ted certain he’s found a footpath, only to have each one disappear under out feet.

It’s more of this wet, lumpy exhausting business beautiful in its own drear way before we hop up a hill and hit road. Ted sets out to build a cairn as the sky clears and the sun pops out.

The sky suddenly cleared and the sun came out lifting our spirits and burning our faces.
Cape Wrath from the signaling house.
The light was unbelievable when we arrived.

The massive landscape is beautiful in sunlight, bright and more varied in color. We move quickly around, looking back to islands and steep cliffs, the sun hot. We’re high on steep cliffs, this spot nearly inaccessible to the ocean. Two cargo ships move slowly past.

When the light comes into view, I holler. The northwestern-most point in the UK, no land between here and home. The light is lovely, recently painted white and sandalwood.

We learn it was built in 1828 by Robert Stevenson, part of a dynasty of lighthouse builders and Robert Louis Stevenson’s grandfather. It’s thought coming to this wildly lonely place inspired Treasure Island.

The place is strategic and goes back to the Norse who called it Am Parbh or the turning point where they’d head east toward home. Wrath is a more appropriate name even in this sunshine, knowing there’s little that separates the elements from my helpless self.

The area is in a state of refurbishing with one lone building the only one that appears habitable. It’s ‘The Ozone,’ a cafe and our home for the night. Ted called last night to see if it was open, but the place appears empty, even with an ‘open 24 hours’ sign.

We look around and take pictures, but we’re cold and decide to claim bunks and change out of our wet socks. The dorm is accessed through a machine shop filled with stacked wood, but is lovely inside, clean and bright with crisp white sheets.

At the Ozone. No one showed up, but they kindly left it open for us.
Filtered water from a peat bog, ready to drink.
The night was spooky as the mist came down and the wind rattled and moaned.

We set up and still no one comes, Ted nervous we have no water. We take a walk to the signal house above, also a work in progress all boarded up with warning signs that walls might collapse. I find a stream running and we collect water, root beer colored from the peat.

We make dinner in the cafe, finishing just as it goes dark and the lighthouse begins its nightly routine. Still no one here when the mist closes in and the wind picks up, moaning and whistling.

Will John the owner show up late or will we be all alone in this lonely place? Who knows. I only hope the mist is just a sprinkle and squeezes everything out of the sky before tomorrow and our return.

The moaning of the wind stops sometime in the middle of the night with brilliant pink lighting the sky. The air is warm, still, humid. I see squalls far out at sea. Deer run in herds above the shattered countryside.

There’s no way out of here in off-season. The ferry at the end of the road would normally take a walked to Durness, but all that’s stopped now, so the only way out is walking back the way we came.

It’s so nice to walk on road, our stomachs full and we can see the sea stack from here and even a bit of beach. Wouldn’t it be lovely just to march there on this track?

But no; a sharp turn into utter clag begins at the rock cairn and off we go, faster now seeing where we need to contour. That doesn’t remove the challenge of foot placement, the ankle always turning on shifting ground of moss mounds and general squishiness. I fall down deep into a hole opening like a trap door, then sink both legs to the upper thigh in muck.

Ted in the bunk house. No light or heat, but it was comfortable and safe from the howling misery outside.
Looking back at the seastack and wishing this road could take us there.
During an SVT episode I was absolutely leaden.

The rain comes in spurts but the wind is less. Ted tells me after ‘fresh breeze’ comes ‘strong.’ It’s more like a refreshing fan now and we’re cruising through this challenging bit, often splitting off as we choose a route.

The view opens to ocean and a massive gash as we head steeply up. I live for the ups and fly through the maze, my walking sticks like arm extensions feeling and feeding me forward.

But just then I get that gassy feeling in my chest, the sign my SVT is coming on. Not now! It immediately sets my heart beating wildly. My breathe seems fine, long ins and out yet slightly gaspy. And I feel leaden, dizzy.

And yet, she persists. I walk slowly inch by inch until Ted suggests stopping before the wind gets wild at the top. I take s beta blocker sitting in a rock, then inch some more.

SVT is awful. I’m weak, fainty and can’t breath. But it’s not fatal (unless I faint and fall off a cliff) So this determined girl muscles on and crests the summit, knowing downhill will at least keep me from heavy breathing.

And the beta blocker works as we wobble our way from one tussocky bit to the next, ‘spot on’ back to the third sign along the barbed wire fence, across the burn, across the fence, then up more, down, up, across.

It rained all day on and off, but we were strong.
The SVT (Supraventricular Tachycardia) a distant memory and leading towards the second river crossing.
The sea had an unearthly beauty even in cloud.

It’s our hardest two days especially with all the rain, but by far the best because we’re both strong and evenly matched. A middle aged woman with new hips and a pensioner ultra-marathoner unafraid of this wild terrain, and maybe motivated because it’s so wild and unknown.

We finally reach the beach and find the slippery stones as the loch pours into the sea the hardest – well, next to the deep sand up a steep hill.

Loads of people have arrived as we walk out, surprised it feels so far. We march at full speed and I tease Ted that his son is concerned he won’t be fit enough for their next race a few days after I leave.

Just as we pass the last lochan before the houses come into view, the rain really starts to pour, no longer a passing shower but ‘settling in.’ And look what we did heading all the way out and back, pushing hard and returning in the nick of time.

We both feel, as they say in these parts, chuffed.

Nice gneiss.
River stones.
Metamorphic beauty.
Cape Wrath

CWT: Kylestrome to Glencoul, 20 miles

Rounding the head and seeing Glencoul bothy below.

The day begins again with poached haddock and egg for breakfast, plus clear skies with a long pink streak signaling the sun rising somewhere beyond the crags. The birds in my beautiful oak of the orange and yellow leaves are singing happily.

It’s a stunning drive past massive mountains. Scotland was created by ancient volcanos and the separating of land masses. One behemoth reaches straight up like a hat, 90-degree angles on all sides. My favorite light appears, yellow with black in the distance.

We pass the ruins of a castle at the head of the loch, forlornly looking out to sea. The road is wild and curvy, the day (finally) spectacular. A bridge signals our turn, but we never seem to locate a town. Ted leaves his car where as far away from the ‘no overnight parking’ sign as possible.

It seems we’ve entered an estate of some sort. The gate is equipped with cameras, but open for walkers. We walk on tarmac at first, past large homes and rows of Land Rovers and Mercedes. Soon it’s a track and I need to put on my sunglasses, all done with much fanfare since it’s the first time they’ve been worn.

It’s easy walking, barely a puddle to navigate. This fjord or ‘arm-of-the-sea’ is called Glenhue. In it are long lines of black buoys holding up a kind of below surface lattice work for mussel farming. A boat is nearby at work and I think back to my first night in Scotland when I ate an entire pot of mussels and washed it down with whisky.

One of only a handful of clear days along Loch Glenhue.
The sunglasses came out for the first time.
A stalker dressed in traditional tweed and tie along the track, the mussel farm beyond.

The track is not flat along the loch, but rolling up and down, waterfalls crashing down and racing to empty out at the seaweed-covered rocky shoreline. We plod along, passing a stalker dressed to the hilt and tending horses. A posh estate, and one we hope will keep its clients in luxury at the main house and not at the bothies.

There are two ahead – one along this track, and one reputed to be ‘hard underfoot’ getting there with indistinct track on a messy climb. I’m more worried the bothies will be off-limits in the middle of stalking season which runs until October 20.

Ted is sanguine on the subject, though insists we carry the tent in case we’re benighted with no place to stay. But where would one camp in all this damp?

Last night as we studied our route, he stumbled upon a blog which complained about a washed out footbridge. That caused a bit of panic until I assured him we would not cross anything dangerous and leave plenty of time to turn back if need be.

For now, we’re walking on superbly maintained track, a rock wall carefully constructed for safety as we seem to hang against the mountainside. I figure with this level of care, any washed out bridge has surely been replaced.

We make good time walking on the soft grass between ruts, rounding a bend and seeing a beautifully placed set of buildings underneath rocky mountainside. I squint but can’t see any bridge over the swollen river feeding the loch. One step at a time and ‘cross that bridge when I get there,’ I tell myself with a laugh.

The superb track to Glenhue bothy and other estate buildings.
Horses at Glenhue. This house must be used by the estate as it was locked.
We were glad to see a bridge Amhainn a Ghlinne Dhubh.

The bothy is unlocked and carries the circular Mountain Bothy Association sign on the front door. We pop in and check out the two main rooms below, one with a fireplace and two above, just wooden floors with large skylights.

It’s so early in the day – and such a fine one – we decide to eat a few bar then press on towards the more remote bothy. It’s funny how comfortable one can get with the weather. Clear, dry and warm until suddenly it’s not.

Like a joke, a massive cloud builds, swirling in a fuzziness directly where we’re headed. I drop my pack and get out the waterproofs. Clear skies are evidently not meant for the entire day.

And we still have the bridge to locate. Well, this bothy is here, it’s open and there’s plenty of space should we turn around, so we head on all suited up now towards the burn. And there it is! Not only a superbly built bridge, but one reinforced with steel.

This one’s not going anywhere.

So even if it rains all night, we’ll have a path back. Funny though, the trail almost immediately disappears as we leave the bridge. It become a boggy, rocky, bracken-choked mess, with the actual ‘way’ anyone’s guess.

I mean, we were warned. But will it be this messy all the way up and over that head?

After the bridge, the trail disappeared and became wet and rocky.
The view back to the bothy from the boulder field.
In the trees, the trail was awash in mini waterfalls.

We find an trail – what Ted would call a ‘footpath’ and me, a ‘herd trail’ – but it peters out to a choice: up into boulders and bracken or down into boulders and seaweed.

When moving forward, I’ve found we tend to keep moving. You know, that whole objects in motion tend to stay in motion. It’s not a useful principle when hiking, however, especially when there’s no sanctioned path.

Ted hurtles himself into the bracken following the indentation in the grass. But with rocks underfoot, running water and hidden holes, it’s a leg fracture waiting to happen. We stop to check the map and are spot on. Again I wonder if this be the state of the trail the entire way.

We continue pushing through, grabbing rock and wedging feet into odd positions. Should we turn back? I point to a rock above which appears somewhat separate from the boulder field and suggest we aim to it. When we finally reach it, Ted points back at a perfectly clear path by the loch.

Whoops!

From here, it’s obvious track on rock, some long, slippery slabs with water pouring down in fanciful falls. We reach a riparian area filled with gnarled birch and mosses. I step carefully to avoid slipping on any slimy bits.

The mist hits us with drizzle as we contour around a cliff and out onto muddy grass. The view opens back towards the houses we left this morning and the Atlantic beyond. Just when I’m sure the trail has hit the top, it goes on, climbing and climbing through mud and bog. Ted wipes out here, but falls on his arm and is not hurt too badly.

At the top of the head looking out to sea.
Sàil Ghorm and Sàil Gharbh with a curtain of rain and bog in the foreground.
A first look at Loch Glencoul. I’m wearing waterproofs, but the rain was minimal.

It feels an eternity before we crest the top and see Loch Glencoul below. It’s not actually a different lake but more another arm of the fjord. We’re high above and stay here for a long time, skirting cliffs below and heading in. Just as it feels we ought to go down, we head up again.

But it’s short-lived and takes us to the most spectacular sight of the day: the end of the loch in a U-shaped valley of rounded mountains and massive waterfalls. Numerous islands sprout up from a gently curving peninsula with a long, rocky beach and nestled within is our bothy.

It’s a long way down and unclear how we get there, but we soon hit a track. Alongside is a fence placed there to protect the replanting of native trees from hungry deer, which we hear loudly roaring somewhere in the hills.

The track is incredibly steep and reinforced at each turn with massive stones. My shoes fit well, so my toes aren’t banging into the front of them, but I definitely feel my shins working to keep me upright.

This steep on zig-zags and we’re there within minutes, a beautiful, strong bridge in place for the river crossing. There’s a large storage shed with a new, metal roof on one section, as well as rock walls closing in animal pens.

Glencoul bothy from the memorial cross.
Bothy life is awesome in fall when you have the place (mostly) to yourself.
Ted heading up the jeep track at Glencoul. The huge rocks were placed to protect sharp turns from erosion.

The bothy itself is part of a house that’s mostly derelict. Only two rooms are set aside for public use, bit they’re beautifully appointed, one with a huge wooden sleeping platform that could accommodate about six hikers.

We snag space for ourselves and begin the business of starting dinner. Ted sits down to get out of his wet shoes and socks and I surprise him with a mug full of whisky – yes, I carried it all the way here and it went down smooth!

It’s not long before it goes dark bit thankfully, the bothy caretaker left candles so we sit up for a bit just as a hiker arrives. Alberto is Spanish but living in England. He’s young and fit, and we wonder if maybe we could have kept going through the hard parts, but decide one flooded river crossing was enough for this hike.

He leaves in the morning, not especially early or in an especially big rush. It’s dry but overcast and we decide to stay and make it s day at this magical place. Breakfast is outside sitting on the orange folding chairs outside.

Just as I wonder if we might have more visitors, a man drives up in an eight-wheeled vehicle. It moves a bit like a tank, or maybe more like a centipede, each wheel able to grab the rock and rough trail as it moves.

Moss and beach at Glencoul.
Stones on the beach at Glencoul.
One of my magnificent mussel feast.

He locks it in the shed then marches our way. Dressed in camo, he carries a gas can on a walking stick over his shoulder. I assume he’ll stay with us and say, “hiya!” His name is Matt and he works as a stalker for the estate, one owned by the Duke of Westminster. So that’s why he’s wearing tweeds and a tie under the fatigues.

And yes, it gets hot being all dressed up. But not now in all this unusually heavy rain. We’re actually happy to hear that wondering if it’s just our wimpy selves unable to manage Scottish weather.

One bit of advice he leaves with us is where to harvest mussels – where he’s walking now, on the rocks beyond the peninsula where the Duke has his private pier.

Of course I suit up, grab a pail and head over. It’s less a pier and more a rock ramp at a cove. At first, I see nothing at all, just seaweed in clumps along large, dark boulders. It’s spongy under my feet as I carefully step on it, reaching the cold water which falls deep quickly.

I spy tightly closed black shells with a tiny bit of blue just above the water. Bug they’re on a rock slightly out of reach. I squish around on the seaweed peering under any rock within reach, and I find one.

It only requires stepping carefully in up to my ankles to lift the heavy seaweed and pluck off several huge shells. They make a lovely plunk in my bucket as I drop them in – 1, 2, 3…27, 28… yes, 28 should do.

The rocks where I harvested mussels, then was visited by three seals.
Matt the Stalker at Glencoul.
Pink sky at night, hikers delight.

Just as I get ready to head back, I hear a massive splash. A whale? Nessie?!? I stand still and wait and soon a head appears. The water is stirred up and I wonder if it’s just my imagination as whatever it was pops back in the water.

But then it reappears, this time with a friend. They move ever so slowly towards me, stopping and peering. To get a better look, the heads pop up out of the water, white faces with black eyes and snouts.

I smile, and back in they go, splashing hard. Seals, three seals just having fun in this wondrous cove.

Soon, there are three, swimming along and stopping for a look. One proves the bravest and comes very close, as far in as the seaweed. He drops under without a sound, appearing only a few feet away to look at me, his mouth opening in a kind of “hi.”

A blue heron flies past and I see a black cormorant drying his wings on a rock. They appear in consort, distracting me as two otters quickly dart from one side to the next, their lithe bodies glossy in this dour light.

Finally I go, ready for lunch. I wash my mussels in the stream to pull of any scum, then boil them in batches of 7 or so in the Jet-boil. Never has there been a better meal.

Later, Ted and I climb the small hill next to the bothy where a stone cross has been placed in memory of two brothers lost in the great war, aged 24 and 25. What grief their family must have felt.

Ted cutting a rotten plank for our fire.
Watching seals at the cove.

We sit outside as the day comes to an end and it begins to get cold. You know I saw that fireplace in the bothy but somehow never considered using it. I give Ted some pointers and he soon sets one roaring, making the room toasty warm.

It must be all the years of thru-hiking when I’d never consider building a fire late at night that makes this whole experience feel giddy and new. But bothy protocol is to never take more wood then you use, so I head outside to see what I can find.

Twigs, damp twigs and damper twigs. I take them inside to dry next to what we built when Ted calls me around the corner. “Ali, what do you think?” He’s found an old useless and wet plank dumped out here from the derelict side of the house. I knew there was a reason for those saws hanging inside!

Ted does most of the sawing, creating pieces small enough for the tiny space. Without an ax, they’re bulky, but slowly they dry and begin to light. I take a shot at it too, and make him laugh with my willful nature, never giving up as I grunt and cut.

There are a few odds and ends in the wood box – a broom bristle, cracker boxes, one mitten – and they’re all chucked in, making a gorgeous light and warming us up. In the end, we create bright red coals but still leave behind pieces for the next visitor.

One of our only clear days in Scotland looking out to Kylesku.
Ted with the two gas canisters at Glenhue bothy; we’re saved!

It’s a cold night under crystal clear skies, the mist laying like puffs of cotton candy on the distant peaks. We earned it, but have to bundle up for the walk back, easier and still lovely. Our plan is to drive north and walk the two days/one bothy to Cape Wrath. But just as we heat up water for coffee, we notice our camp stove gas is nearly out. Does this mean a side-trip all the way back to Ullapool?

It’s steeply up, then slippery down the five miles back to the bridge. I’m pondering our dilemma the entire way because the weather threatens to change again from mostly dry to mostly soaked-to-the-skin wet. I don’t want to delay on this last bit.

As we approach Glenhue, I wonder if maybe someone left behind their unused gas as many people do. It becomes a bit of an obsession as this time I take the lead on the hardest bits of bog and clag, trying not to fall while barreling down through rock, bracken and waterfalls-as-trail.

We make it in one piece, Ted – the expert at downhill – commenting on my good pace. I bang first into the bothy, looking in both rooms, then climbing the steep stairs.

Nothing.

It’s Ted who finds the tiny room in the back, a kind of storage area where not one, but two, canisters sit awaiting our greedy hands.

We’re saved! We sit to have a bar before the long walk on track back to the car. I learn from this that one should always snag leftover gas if intending to move forward, because you just never know.

I also think it’s a good idea to see what else might be laying around for our use on these final days. A can of anchovies, one packet of dried soup, a deflated bag of wine – with some still in it!

11:00 am on a Sunday morning and there’s something to toast – a fabulous few days at the bothy, and enough cooking gas to continue. Yay!

Cape Wrath

CWT: Oykel Bridge to past Salachy, 12 miles

For a moment, the sun burst forth illuminating magical trees in autumn dress.

It’s a leisurely breakfast of haddock and poached egg at the hotel. We’re in a kind of dorm, but get to indulge at the poshness next door. Our hostess Leah tells us they normally close Oct 1st, but only stayed open when they lost a month of business due to Covid.

Lucky us.

As far as a superb rest spot. The weather? Not so much.

Funny how the rain sets in just as we suit up for a day’s walk. Leah also tells us she and her colleagues were amazed we set out in this horrendous weather.

It was the Scots who originated the quip, “It’s not bad weather, just improper dress.” We’re dressed in layers, waterproofs and positive attitudes as we cross the stone bridge over the boiling Oykel and push north, wind straight in our faces.

But it’s a wide track, so we walk side-by-side talking, often having to ask for sentences to be repeated in the din. The guide book describes the fanciful river as the sun lights it up. I imagine it would be. Right now, it’s in spate, pushing hard against its banks. At least the trees changing color offer something for the eyes.

Local poached haddock and egg for breakfast.
Rivers in spate and fall colors.
Curious cows along the route.

We head uphill towards a farm. A man is driving a tractor through deep muck – which we also are forced to walk through. Beautiful cows take a good look at us marching past, thrn scatter even though protected behind a fence. A woman ahead says they always do that when walkers pass.

The rain lets off briefly and I pull off my hood. Scotland’s light never ceases to capture my imagination as the sun pops out for a brief moment on gnarled birch near a rushing stream. It’s as if a postcard.

The walking is easy, but we need it. Yes, I’m disappointed we’re not doing every step of this in order, but we’re still out, braving the elements and seeing what there is to see.

The biggest mountains are far ahead and frankly, we’re paralleling a main road across the river, but in rain, we feel off in the wilderness.

Except for the fishing huts along the way, and benches happily used when this area is bathed in the aforementioned sunlight. We skip by heading to a loch where we plan to turn around.

But just as we get to the end of the road and the beginning of trail, the rain really comes down. I am not one to give up – and my friend Ted is an ultra runner, so even less so.

Incredibly easy track along the Oykel River.
One of many fishing huts…
…all of which were open.

But let’s face it, this day is not changing and views – aside from the wee spotlight earlier in the day – are not going to open up for us a half hour down the track.

We retreat to a fishing hut, surprised it’s unlocked. Inside are two benches and loads of chairs, including two for the dining room with velour seats.

We avoid those since we’re soaked and share a candy bar as the rain sheets down. I’m sitting below a small leak, but protected in my rain coat. Was the walk worth it? We both think so since it stretched the legs, burned the chocolate bars and showed us something different in Scotland.

On the return, we pop into each hut, more benches and more velour chairs. The salmon run ended at the beginning of the month, so the place is empty. And turned around, the wind is at our back and the rain feels surprisingly relaxing.

We pass the pretty trees and the rushing burn, the skittish cows and the deep muck and finally the lovely stone bridges where we snap pictures just as the sky turns blue and the sun appears again.

A hot shower awaits and a local cider plus venison pie. My socks are drying on the radiator and I’m refreshed knowing tomorrow’s walk will introduce more steep uphill to views, route finding and soggy, boggy walk.

I can’t wait.

Big smiles after getting out even in miserable weather.

Cape Wrath

CWT: Oykel bridge to Knockdamph and Duag Bridge (Schoolhouse) Bothy, 15 miles

Knockdampf was a bit rough around the edges.

The day opens with mist, but no rain. I see pink out towards Ullapool and mention at breakfast that I spy the sunrise. The ‘Battle Axe’ snaps back, “The sun rises the other way.”

No kidding, just trying to build up the spirits.

I haven’t mentioned the Battle Axe yet, the proprietress of the B&B we chose while it poured rain non-stop for a day. It’s comfortable enough here, if they’d turn on the heat – and reasonably spacious, if only she’d offered a place to hang our waterproofs and dry our shoes.

An unpleasant and inhospitable woman in the wrong business, but we survive and head out quickly to walk the bit in from the other side and tick this section.

It’s a gorgeous drive along the coast, the narrow road curving around lochs which reveal high mountains swirled in mist. Sandy beaches lead to bright green lawns and rows of white houses.

Our turn takes us back into bracken and moss-covered oaks turning yellow. We stop at a stone bridge and a sprawling hotel and buildings including a ‘rod room’ for the myriad fly fisherman visiting this salmon-rich river.

Ted picks up one more package of food he sent forward and we stuff our pack not sure how long we’ll stay out since we have the choice of two bothies ahead. The temperature has dropped and we both slip on another shirt.

Lovely Oykel Bridge, a magnet for fly fisherman.
Sunlight on dew really lifts the spirits.
Ted would call this walking ‘a piece o’ piss’ and it was for sure a contrast to bog.
One of thousands of Scottish burns.

The ‘trail’ is dead easy, just a jeep track with barely any ascent, passing trees in fall colors, bright red berries and ferns curling and brown. We march along easy, lazy and slow keeping our fresh cleaned socks dry as long as possible.

There’s hardly a puddle in this road which skirts a few houses before crossing a stream and heading up out of managed forest into the highlands. We both laugh when we reach a large gravel rectangle with a sign asking all hill walkers to park here. We could have just driven!

Here is a white tin-sided building, the old schoolhouse fixed up as a bothy. It’s beautiful inside, with wood paneling and sturdy sleeping platforms. The main ‘classroom’ is adorned with antique desks and a chalkboard, though its most remarkable feature are huge windows on each side, bringing in glorious natural light.

The school was used up until the early ‘30s at a time when the government wanted to ensure all the country’s children received an education. A distance of three miles was determined to be the furthest any student would need to walk, though this didn’t take into account river crossings, which one family of children managed over the swollen Oykel wearing stilts.

In remote areas like this, the teacher often lived with families or in the schoolhouse itself. This one has three rooms including the class, a possible store and a tiny space just big enough for a platform and chair, perhaps where she slept.

After it was abandoned as a school, it was used for decades as a bothy but became increasingly decrepit. The estate nearly tore it down having to drive by it every day and often with visitors until they worked out a restoration plan with the Mountain Bothy Association.

We sit down and eat bars and I can tell Ted loves the place, particularly the light and airy feel. But off we go for another five miles, this time to the loch we could see from above as we entered this section from the other side.

Fall foliage and Abhainn Dubhog.
Rowan, brilliant against the dour landscape.
Moss and bracken.
Fly agaric.

We cross a rushing Anhainn Duhag boiling loudly as it courses through sharp black rocks. A road leads towards the estate with statues carved from a tree of an otter and a salmon. The trail rises sharply around a ravine and passing a crumbling stone wall, then right back down towards Anhainn Poublidh where we need to ford.

It’s funny that moment you have to get your feet wet. You hesitate before plunging in, knowing from here on out, no puddle or stream matters. I can’t see the bottom and the water is rushing, but it’s an easy cross, both of is calculating how hard it will be after a night of rain.

Like clockwork, the puddles appear, mostly from streams building into falls and crashing through the road, creating mini wetlands and bogs.

The rise is gradual pulling us toward mist-covered mountains and Glen Douchary where we left off the other day. No rain hits us, but no Munros appear either. The land is rolling, yet bleak and desolate. We spot a finger of loch before the bothy, at first mistaking the erect chimney for a person.

It’s easy walking, the negotiating of wet becoming second nature. I have my mind set on staying out here in the wild at the edge of the loch where the deer roar. So we’re disappointed when we see a Land Rover parked next to the bothy along with an ATV.

Beautiful Schoolhouse Bothy.
The desks.
A poem on a side table.

A dog barks and I jump. He’s a small working dog sitting in the passenger side. The window is cracked and I talk sweetly to him. No one is here, though, but sheep and fresh piles of sheep poo.

The inside is dank and dirty. It’s a stone floor with one well built sleeping platform. A side room is stuffed with moldy mattresses and upstairs are two huge iron bedsteads.

We set up chairs on the grass trying to avoid the poo. I make a lunch of garbanzo beans and dill mayo and Ted suggests we sleep at the Schoolhouse.

I can’t say I blame him. The view is less than spectacular over the loch and low hills that are slowly getting swallowed in mist. We’re both skittish about meeting up with someone loud after dark, so after lunch, we head right back.

The sun peaks out for a moment, bathing us in bright warm yellow, the distant hills contrasted in black. Sheep stare as we pass, waddling away like cotton balls on toothpick legs, their rag-doll tails swishing.

Aspen changing color along a river in spate.
Ted easily fording a river. One foot more might have created a problem.
Happy hiker shadows as the sun briefly appeared.
Glorious red moss.

We recross the river and contour the fall colored hills, the clean white schoolhouse glowing like a beacon next to the raucous river.

There’s less to tell because the walk was so easy, but deciding to return is a lesson in itself of being flexible and knowing you have the time to change your mind.

It’s a slippery climb down to the burn to fill our bottles and make dinner at the antique desks, pitch dark by 7:00. My platform is comfortable and in the rebuild, the workers added insulation so I’m cozy warm.

And no one has come to join us – so far.

Knockdampf at the other end of the section we walked previously. It felt desolate and damp here.
The working dog in the Land Rover indicating we would have company at the bothy.
Puddle hopper near Loch an Daimh.

The wind builds overnight and the mist socks in, but no rain really, just endless gray. Still it’s lovely at the antique desks for breakfast, lit on both sides by the six-paned windows.

Over coffee, I watch the golden bracken bending in the breeze and a hawk hovering, absolutely still except for a few moments to flap his wings for balance.

What it he doing, I wonder. Looking for prey is doubtful as he’s facing into the wind. He bends slightly and let’s the draft carry him further away to another hover spot.

Perhaps, I think, he’s simply having fun.

Cape Wrath

CWT: Inverlael to Glen Douchary, 11 miles

‘Bog trotting’ in wind and rain.

The picture on the BBC’s weather page is of a cloud without any drops. Could this finally be a gift of a dry hiking day?

So much rain over so many days adds up and could make river crossings unmanageable. We decide not to risk walking all the way out to the next bothy, and instead make plans to reach it from the other side. If we can hike to a high point today where we can see it, I figure it counts as us walking the section.

Ullapool is a port town, white row houses facing the Broom Loch and the ferry building. Bits of blue sky peek out, the far hills coming into focus as the mist clears.

We drive back down the road to a car park for walkers near the forestry. A gate keeps out camper vans and I’m surprised to see so many cars and eager walkers, because, in spite of the forecast, it starts to rain again.

Not a problem, I decide, as I’m already suited up for the weather and becoming accustomed to it without (much) complaint. The ‘trail’ at the start is 4×4 track, easy to walk, but somehow impossible to navigate as I immediately charge us up the wrong hill.

Realizing we need to cross the river below, I backtrack muttering under my breath, find the bridge over a narrow and deep gorge, then lead us yet again up the wrong way.

I’d love to say I got us on track after that, but it would seem three times a charm as I march again right past the turn, realizing my mistake a few hundred feet of climb.

Heather and massive mountains in the Northwest Highlands.
The view opening up through the forestry.

All of this is in ‘forestry,’ managed land made up of Douglas Fir and Sitka Spruce, thriving in this rain-drenched environment. It’s lovely walking through, fragrant and sheltered as the rain comes again. Didn’t the Beeb promise cloud only today? But the forests alter the view, obscuring the beauty of the rugged hills.

Soon we’re above, climbing steeply up and over into a kind of wide-open plateau. The huge Munros (mountains over 4,000 feet) surround, but at a distance, their hulk appearing and disappearing in the mist.

I turn on bog-trotting mode, seeing how long I can keep my feet dry with careful stepping on grassy humps and rocks. Once we reach a burn, all that goes away and I splash in, water filling my shoes. Someone recently asked what I wear. La Sportiva Akyra trail runners that are not waterproof. Why? Because once the water flows in over the top, you’re carrying it around with you. These shoes just squeeze it out and eventually dry.

Ahead is a huge cairn, but the well-used, puddly herd trail is well to its side – and it gets harder and harder to keep moving ahead. This is primarily because the ground is a boggy mess, but also the wind has picked up, pounding at us, thankfully from behind for the moment.

The mountains emerge ahead, massive humpy bits seeming to grab the earth like paws of a massive beast. To our left is an obvious cleft that leads down to a glen, but the guide tells us to avoid dropping in this ‘horrible mess that will destroy your spirits.’

Looking towards the bothy we’ll walk to from the other side.
Ted is an ultra-marathoner who trains in this sort of country.

So we keep high, contouring the mountain, the wind smacking us from the side. We must be doing something right, because we come across another cairn.

Ahead, the view opens to hills. Ted suggests we walk to a grassy bit a few football fields ahead. The cairn points the way, but that does not mean there’s a trail, likely because everyone through here found their own way over bog and streams, some carved deeply in eroded peat.

The grassy bit is far enough, my hope of seeing Loch am Daimh and the bothy beyond (somewhere out in the clag) We snap photos standing in islands of deep red moss, then turn back.

And the wind is at a fever pitch.

Ted takes a bearing and we press into it, keeping high this time over the cliffs of peat and bogs of unknown depth hitting our cairn on the nose – just as the rain comes in like a firehouse.

I lead, walking like Yeti and whooping to stay positive. It’s cold and my hand is like a claw, though not sufficiently numb for me to stop and put on mitts.

We find a track now, realizing the large cairn actually served a purpose to send the hiker higher and out of the worst of the ‘horrible mess’ we’d ventured into on our way out.

Just as we find the 4×4 track again, a man passes us on his way to bag a ‘Graham,’ another set of mountains of a particular height. We happily press on, the heather-lined track steeper than we remember.

But on the way down the view opens to the loch and bright green fields below. It’s a decent hike, plunging us deeply into this section with all things Scottish Highlands – bog, wind, rain, steepness and views, as well as a chance to get up close and personal with a new Scottish word, drookit, to be absolutely drenched.

But it’s worth it when a hot shower awaits – and more than a few drams of whisky.

Bog trotter in full trot.
Cape Wrath

CWT: Strathcarron to Coire Fionnaraich Bothy, 7 miles

The rain continues, but the trail is easy.

I sleep like the dead and waken to mist rising off the loch and mountains beyond. The beeb reports rain straight on for weeks, but right now, anyway, it’s sunny. I’ve come to learn you can’t entirely trust the weather report.

We drive along the loch perfectly reflecting the surrounding mountains on a one-lane road with numerous passing places. No one can afford to be macho here; you simply have to pull aside to let others through. The lay-by is almost full of cars likely because as Sandra told us, this is a beautiful trail.

Definitely not at the start in muck and wet cutting through yellowing bracken. We’re so used to it now, we simply tuck in and climb, heading steeply up away from the River Carron.

It’s hot and humid and I’m soaked through with sweat in the bright sun. This can’t be right, I think.

And it’s not. The map which I hadn’t bothered checking has us on the other side of the river. It’s wild and rushing with no possibility of crossing except back at the car.

We try not to slip heading back and see the obvious public path sign taking us through gnarly, moss-covered oaks and ferns, changing color for the season.

The view from the Old Manse as the weather cleared.
Dew at the car park.
Well-signed footpath.

This is a decidedly easier trail, built up with stepping stones and a very easy grade. We easily talk the entire way, taking us less than an hour to reach a bridge missing many of its slats and finally the large stone Corie Fionnaraich bothy.

It was built in 1913 for the fourth deer stalker of the estate, a Mr. K. Maclennan. A photograph shows a dapper balding gentlemen with a bushy mustache and his strongly built wife wearing a fox he killed just for her around her neck.

For his work maintaining the path and other tasks required of a fourth stalker (or hunter) he received the use of this house, sheep, a sheep dog, a cow or two, and a deer fence to protect their potato garden. It’s a lovely place looking back down the glen and tucked beneath several Munros.

There are two common rooms below with large windows and two above, though no bunks. We claim a room, planning to leave gear and continue up towards a loch. But just as we leave, it begins to rain.

I’ll pause here to remind us all that we have become accustomed to non-stop rain. It’s simply part of the experience. And yet Ted and I make faces at each other, saying why bother.

Oaks and birch covered in moss.
Autumn coming.
A good path and footbridge (missing a few slats)

Again, being here at this bothy in the heart of the Highlands with a rushing stream and Munros in a row, we’re already ‘there.’

We sit at the window and make tea, just as six older people show up one at a time, drenched and happy for their walk, but ready for lunch out of the weather. We tell them what we’ve done so far and they say it was an extraordinary summer with no rain or midges.

<sigh>

I counter this is so different from anywhere I’ve been, I’m happy for the challenge – if I survive. As they leave, they promise to keep an eye out for my survival or demise and we laugh.

When the rain pauses, I waddle out in my flip flops, picking my way carefully down well placed stones to collect water. Two more drop in, young women in tights and strong boots who gave up a Munro 2/3rds the way up since nothing could be seen. They warn us about the stalkers and we realize we really aren’t supposed to stay here during stalking season. To this, the taller of the two tells me the client is quite fancy and likely wouldn’t stay in a cold, empty bothy.

The bothy and our lovely home until midnight anyway.
Safe inside.
A very (very) short garden seating.

Empty of whisky, sadly, but we have dinner and cook it up as the rain stops and mist creeps in, wiping out any trace of scenery. We take the chairs outside for a moment, before drizzle returns and chases us inside. A candelabra warms the dark corners and I fall asleep to the river’s song, hoping tomorrow might bring back the sun.

Two minutes to midnight, the door bangs open and a Scottish couple with the thickest accent walks in with bikes, loud and crashing.

“We’ve walked all the Munros and now we’re walking the Corbetts!”

They tell Ted the rain will be continuing and proceed to build a fire, so he grabs up our clothes out of the way. Friendly enough, but wow! Out biking in this weather at this hour? And so loud. (until 2:30 or so) A different world, this.

Ted tells me the man assures him no one can expect to sleep in a bothy. Not with them, one can’t. Funny, in the four others we had lovely, polite neighbors.

<sigh>

The lovely Munro walkers.
Coire Fionnaraich.
Cape Wrath

CWT: Strathcarron to Maol Bhuide, 22 miles

Maol Bhuide (pronounced mee-OWL VOO-tee) is one of the most remote bothies in Scotland.

It’s a lovely, very quiet sleep at a comfortable B&B near Strathcarron. Ted had already paid for the stay and he even sent a box of food there, so why not head up and use it?

The drive gets more and more glorious as we head north again, and shockingly sunny. We stop for pictures at a castle and tea on the loch, the sun bright in and out of light clouds. This time the waiter is gentle and generous, the cook Claire showing me her shortbread just out of the oven and offering a recipe to take home.

We return to this restaurant, The Carron, for dinner. I order ‘squaties,’ from the hermit crab family and like tiny lobster tails. Claire instructs me how to crack off their shell, use the “wee fook” to dig out the sweet, savory meat and then “sook” out the last of the juicy bits from the shell.

Sunshine and smiles at the Eilean Donan Castle.
Claire at the Carron Restaurant is proud of her shortcake and shared the recipe with me.
Finally clear skies in Loch Carron.

I have a cold and have been coughing enough to have to visit the ‘chemist’ and get some medicine. When Ted mentions I caught it from someone in a bothy, the customer in line behind us comments, “A bothy in this weather? Serves you right.”

On this morning with fog lifting from the loch under a brilliant blue sky, I hack my way up to Bealach Attan Riarridh, the trail obvious and hardly wet. The sun’s in my eyes and the waterproofs are still in my bag. The mountains seem more spread out here as we climb, losing the loch below and entering an empty space of brown grass on humps rising higher and higher.

It’s easy walking and we talk most of the way, arriving at a lochan turning silver as clouds begin to move in. I’ve mentioned the light in Scotland which I find so unusual. The sun will set a spotlight on the grass, in a warm glow while leaving a range of peaks in the distance absolutely black. And it changes quickly, the light in an oval ahead and then moving to be right on me.

Looking down on the Bendronaig bothy from Bealach Alltan Ruairidh.
Loch Calavie is surrounded by towering Munros.
Much of the day had easy walking on track.

The lightplay continues as we reach the bealach and look down on Bendroanig Lodge in a bowl of Munros, one draped in a rainbow. There’s a road here that we’ll follow in the glen once we descend. Also a bothy where Ted hopes to base tonight. I secretly want to head in further to the second bothy, but right now have to contend with bog underfoot.

We pick our way carefully as the massive Munros ahead go fuzzy indicating rain on the way. We stop to put on rain gear as it hits us, not heavy or cold but insistent for about ten minutes, followed by a ‘fresh breeze’ as often predicted in the weather – not fast or dangerous, but felt.

The going is slow, so we cut over to the road which takes us in long strides past a dam snd across a bridge at rocky rapids. It’s uphill to the bothy, tucked in by a stream and next to a house with a Range Rover.

I find it an odd spot, and when we try the door, it’s locked. A bummer, for sure, but it’s only 1:00 and the sun is back out, so we sit on the stoop and have a snack. Since I really wanted to walk to the next bothy, I’m perfectly happy and Ted agrees we should move on.

The weird bronze-colored mushrooms at the bothy.
‘Squatties’ at the Carron.
Fuzzy friend.

It’s easy walking still up a jeep track and out of this wide glen. It takes us to a new valley surrounded tightly by mountains. Deer run across our path. It’s said they ‘roar,’ but it sounds more like one of those Swiss toys for children when you tip it over and then back up, it moos.

We’re in a misty fuzz as the rain comes down near Loch an Laaig. Signs point to the best routes up several Munros. Someone has anchored a blue rowboat at the far shore.

The trail follows the loch around and we cross its outlet and head up on boggy ground. A trail shoots down and Ted is certain we should take it, but my gpx tells us to keep following this trail.

Soon we see timy Loch Croshie and a white rectangle on the other side next to a rushing river which must be the bothy. But how do we get there? We’re very high up here and it seems we contour the hills to get down. Below us is churned up earth of deep, muddy bog that we have to skirt unless we want to sink in to our elbows.

We probably should have taken that trail back a ways. But do we turn around? Never! Instead we try and find a way down, hopping across the wettest bits and avoiding holes made by rushing water.

One of only two days I hiked without rain gear. My feet were (mostly) dry until the ford.
The bothy in glorious evening light. It got clear and cold and we saw millions of stars out the skylight.

It’s a long, frustrating meander as the sky clears and the white rectangle turns into a house. I don’t stay dry, but I don’t fall either, following Ted who trains on hillsides like this and is far ahead.

As we level off, it becomes obvious the stream can’t be crossed. I consult the guide and realize we came too far over and need to backtrack towards the loch where it’s shallow on rocks.

But here we walk in wetlands with only mossy islands to support us in a sea of deep water. I hop from one to the next, careful of where I stab my stick. Each island hump is wobbly, so I squeal as I move forward, uncertain which one will give way.

Miraculously, I stay upright and Ted yells back, “It gets better.” No more humps, just water and grass to a cross and the right trail. Hey, at least we know how to return.

The first step where the water is fastest and deepest is a doozy off the eroded and slippy embankment, but now we power up to the stone Maol Bhuide hut painted white. At first Ted can’t open the door, but it’s just a tricky latch and we’re in.

The Mountain Bothy Association has installed skylights and we choose to sleep in the loft where we can spread out all our gear in a large and clean wooden space. We get water for dinner outside as the sun sets down the glen creating its magical spotlights on the tops of Munros and a long shaft first yellow then pink against the rocky and grassy hills.

Two young men in shorts and gators show up and take over the common room. They’re walking just to Ullapool this year and racking up massive miles each day, even walking in the dark.

At first we feel bad we stopped the thru-hike, but then remember the misery of non-stop heavy rain – and the danger. We’ll have to walk back the way we came tomorrow, so it’s not quite like moving forward, but things change when you see them from a new perspective.

This compromise of walking what we can still had its challenges of lost trail, locked bothies, rain and bog. And it was absolutely beautiful, especially here where we’ve stopped for the night.

No, our compromise of a ‘Cape Wrath sampler platter’ suits us just fine and no meal tastes as good as one eaten after exertion and with a lonely and wild view in the Scottish Highlands.

And here’s something cool – I can see stars out of the skylight.

The sunset poured straight down the glen and lit the Munros on a magical evening.
A tablecloth of mist on Lurg Mhor, one of the array of Munros that towers over Loch Cruoshie.
The common room in the bothy. It was absolutely lovely in here when the rain came the next day.
Cape Wrath

CWT: Side-trip: Ben Nevis summit, 11 miles

Coming out of cloud on the beautifully paved Ben Nevis trail.

The sky clears overnight and I am so warm, I sleep only in a tank top with half my bag unzipped.

Promptly at 5, the rain returns, slashing from the side, the wind blowing and making a racket. Ahead is the highest bealach yet plus two rivers with warnings that it could be extremely dangerous to cross in spate

It’s not simply a matter of following a trail because there is no trail, just a boggy, rocky soup of maybe a herd route.

I can see the closest hills, but this is full-on, all-day soaking rain, truly having ‘settle in.’ The tent is wet, our waterproofs and shoes are wet, our spirits are wet.

Needless-to-say, I’m disappointed.

Over the pass is another loch and a B&B where we made a reservation somehow suspecting after six days, we’d need a shower and a real bed. I have to admit, I am the stinkiest I’ve been on any hike. Sharing a tent must be a misery.

Ian and Ted have walked to the tea house to try and find a ride out – perhaps with someone in a camper van, or the couple we met at Barisdale who likely have to give up their bid on any Munros.

But it’s 20+ miles of curvy mountain road to the main route. Do we try and hitch in this awfulness and will the unfriendly couple be willing to offer their phone?

It’s funny how you get drawn into wanting to move forward. I know we have the strength, but it will take eight hours and we’ll see nothing but driving rain in our face.

Perhaps the weather will improve in the coming days. I hear they had drought all summer with high fire danger.

<sigh>

Ted complains that the weather isn’t being fair and that people really ought to help more. When I point out we chose Scotland and this trail requires a fair amount of self-sufficiency, he tells me I’m not being helpful.

It stops raining for a few minutes and I look out. Gray and miserable, the wind pressing at the tent. When I suggest we pack away our sleeping bags in case the pole snaps, Ted tells me we need to buy a better tent. This is not fun.

I hear a noise. It’s a couple walking past with their dogs. When I call out, they obviously can’t hear me over the crash of the river. I’m utterly useless just sitting here. I really wish we’d stayed at the bothy in Barisdale.

The view from the tent.
An unhappy forecast.

Ian returns and tells me they managed to catch a ride with three of the geologists who just happen to be headed our way. What luck!

They’ve come from Oxford up here to study the fault lines. Usually their time is spent in Central Asia helping populations determine where it’s safe to build.

But today, they’re in what they describe as the literal ‘middle of nowhere,’ winding along on a one lane road filled with potholes and puddle, the cliffs squeezing out the last day’s rain.

I ask about the geology here and am told it’s mostly ancient sandstone and mudstone from inland seas squashed at high temperature into gneiss banded metamorphic, which accounts for the brilliant mica and bright white quartz. Igneous intrusion adds another property of hardness, making this place a climber’s dream.

But not today as I’m left wondering how shoes make purchase in constant damp. The driver takes the curves at a clip and in the back, I’m whipped about feeling my stomach in my throat. The open window keeps me from hurling, but makes it cold on this nearly two-hour drive.

The geologist gal mentions she got interested in geology when she took a course on Aran Island. The weather was so wonderful, she fell in love with digging around. She adds those who had bad weather on their course chose lab work instead.

It’s not long before we meet the main highway up Great Glen, busy with traffic. A young man in shorts, a T, spats and backpack walks along the highway looking miserable.

Ted calls Fiona to ask if we can come early and bring Ian too. I can’t feel my toes, so jump into a bath as she takes our dirty clothes and chucks them in the wash. At the pub, we order local fare and the waitress is downright rude to me as I attempt to choose a whisky.

The rain is relentless, but the morning opens with clearing skies. The next bothy is about 15 miles in with a dangerous rocky ravine to navigate next to massive Fall of Glomach. So with sadness, we decide to catch a bus back to Fort William and fetch the car, perhaps finding a less drenched area to hike.

Gorgeous Sgúrr an Airgid near Shiel Bridge.
Trying a peaty and smoky local whisky at the Kintail Hotel. The waitress was sadly rude and unwelcoming.

In the meantime, we bag a peak – the conveniently placed Munro, Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest mountain. I shouldn’t be surprised the trail is packed with hikers, many totally unprepared in tights, holding a waterbottle in their bare, exposed fingers.

Being the highest and easily accessed, it’s so popular, the locals have ‘paved’ the tourist trail with massive stones. It’s 4400 feet above the loch at sea level, so no walk in the park, but after the wild roughness of bog trotting all week, we keep a steady pace from start to finish.

Rain comes and goes and we get views of Loch Linnhe and the start of the Cape Wrath Trail. When we reach the halfway point at a lochan, the trail is more gravel heading right into mist.

I consider once of twice turning back since it feels silly to exert so much up into colder and harsher weather without any view, but we press on, the wind blowing cold rain in our faces.

Dozens come down, looking mildly miserable and I say hi to everyone. A tiny pug hops over the rocks ahead of one man, two women in fur lined hoods and down are drenched to the bone.

We soon hit the massive rock piles, cairns to mark the way and keep walkers from walking directly off the vertical gullies. Our feet pick through slushy snow, thankfully not too slippery. For about 200 yards, it’s steep going and the cairns disappear in mist.

Two men come down at Ted asks how far. “Just ‘round this corner, mate. Mind the cliff!” Three massive mounds mark the danger zone and I look down a yawning chasm. The wind blows wildly, gale force as we press up to a group of wind breaks.

I go towards the door up rocky stairs into an emergency shelter hoping to dress more warmly, but Ted suggests we head straight down so as not to lose the footprints.

Up until now, the wind was at our back. Turning around, we’re smacked with ice. My fingers and toes are numb, but there’s nothing to do but watch my step on the steep bit, carefully placing each damp sneaker on a snow-covered rock and heading towards the cairn coming into view.

It’s easy trail up 4400 feet to the summit of Ben Nevis.
The snow, wind and cold was so intense, I didn’t dare take a photo until I was near the end of the hike.

Just then, it begins to snow massive horizontal flakes. Moaning as I go seems to help as does a few, “You’re ok, al. You’re ok.’s

We’re out of snow and on rock now, just rain and wind, the temperature noticeably warmer. Down and down, I think how easy it is to ascend and ignore just how long the descent will take.

But soon, the lochan is in view and we’re below the cloud, views coming into view. It’s essentially stairs all the way down, tiring on the quads but never slippery. All along the way, the builders created escape shoots for the rushing waterfalls and it’s frankly a luxury.

I finally feel the cold in my bones as we drive back to town. It takes a hot shower and wrapping in my bag to warm up. I can’t help but wonder how it would feel trying to warm up in a wet tent or stone bothy.

At this moment, I’m sitting with a traditional breakfast in a Weatherspoons in Fort William with a plan now to head back into the highlands and see what might be salvaged for the rest of this trip.

Was it a risk to come in October? Sure, but locals tell me it’s difficult to predict weather at any time in Scotland. This past summer was in drought and oftentimes, fall is glorious here.

Truth is, I walked about 60 miles of the Cape Wrath Trail, a fourth of it and had absolutely glorious experiences of bog trotting, bothy sharing, passing showers followed by rainbows and a bit of making up the route as I went. I survived a wipe out and went on to bag the biggest Munro of all and have come to know a new part of the world as a walker.

I didn’t succeed in the goal I set out to achieve, but as the British would say of this few weeks in the highlands, it was all rather good.

Wet and cold with my friend Ted on Ben Nevis. We both thought hiking through mist for 2,500 feet was kind of silly.
‘traditional’ breakfast only a backpacker should eat on a regular basis
Blissful with the highland hiker in Fort William.
Cape Wrath

CWT, Day five, Barisdale to Kinloch Hourn, 7 miles

The ‘campsite’ with paybox. I found the only areas free of puddles.

Waking up dry, warm and able to stand as I sort my kit is a luxury I’ll never take for granted. That and being able to turn on a faucet for water.

The mist is down today and I’m so glad we had such a great day yesterday. Sure, it rained, but there were clear spells with gorgeous light in full sun. Today, the Munros are in cloud.

We sit in chairs for breakfast and are warned by the English couple the seven miles to Kinloch Hourn is tough, even if it only follows the loch around. And making matters worse, the end has no bothy and the B&B is sold out. There is a café (usually called simply ‘kaf’) at the end, but it’s shut more often than open.

We bundle up in waterproofs and a good attitude as rain comes down already. It’s easy on a road past wetlands and seaweed/filled beach. You should see the Isle of Skye on a clear day, but we’re lucky to see the ridges close by.

Soon we leave this road and head right up on the head. The trail is clear if rocky and wet, but I splash through most everything at this point, my double socks glistening with bits of sand and shiny grit. So far, the strategy of a polyester compression sock with running socks over it is working, keeping chafing at bay.

The short but rough walk along the loch is in absolute ‘rubbish’ weather.
A military plane (?) flying under the cloud on Loch Hourn.

We’re now an unlikely trio, though we seem to move at about the same pace. The bump in my head has receded, likely because it was my metal cup that broke the fall and I only suffered a glancing blow. But my hand is stiff and might have come down hard in the fall too.

We’re told this section will take four hours and right away Ted wants to know the terrain. I tell him it’s three big climbs and five small. The trail is obvious and the rain stops enough for us to see the shape of the loch and the mountains holding it in tightly.

Houses appear along the way, some with a motorboat anchored nearby. It’s lonely here, yet surprisingly lovely. Bracken ferns are everywhere, mostly brown now and curling at the edges. Ted walks ahead and is swallowed whole in one overachieving tunnel.

Trees with bright red berries are the brightest bit aside from Ian’s blue jacket. A pine with spreading branches out of Dr. Seuss creates an arch to walk through.

It’s not a day for rainbows, but the rain abates when we hit the first of the climbs. It’s only 100 feet or so up, and the trail is easy going. But down is another story, the path like a trench where rain water logically collects. We all take care after yesterday’s wipe out, some of the steps huge from rock to muddy bit and then grass under a few inches of water. At a wooden bridge, Ian slips as if on ice and nearly loses his balance.

It’s all dreiche on the loch walk as the rain settles in.
Even in mist, the scenery is wild and lovely.

Someone has cared for this trail and built rock supports so the trail won’t erode into the loch. At one bay, a cormorant swims past, an eye warily trained on us before he dives under.

What I think is the second rise but actually is the third, takes us higher still with a view to cliffs and two birds – hawks, eagles, buzzards? – soaring above. I plod through puddles, but nothing is very deep like yesterday.

We cross several burns, raging now from the recent rains but not dangerous. The sheer quantity of water is hard to imagine – in the loch, crashing off the cliffs and spitting on us from above. A couple comes the other way happy to be out on a day walk and he comments that it’s mild today. Very, very wet, but I see his point since it isn’t cold.

The path hugs the shoreline, going up at an angle on rock. It’s tough all wet and wearing a pack, but we manage to shimmy up, Ian giving Ted a hand with his trekking pole.

I’m happy I was wrong that we don’t climb another head but rather enter a rhododendron tunnel, bright green and damp. But it’s the final challenge before we’re let out on a road. I see buildings and charge ahead, hungry for real food and starting to feel soaked through.

The final bit before road and lonely Kinloch Hourn.
The Tea House owners were undecided about our coming in, but did so in the end.

Ian is skeptical, certain we’ll be disappointed, while I hope they’ve had a cancellation and we’ll get a room. A man is sitting inside when we arrive, the rain pouring down now. He tells us they’re closed.

Ted steps forward, replying how he phoned and is disappointed. The man’s wife appears to tell us her mother has died. I fear Ted might sound scolding so butt in to say how sorry we are, and that I’ve come from America and heard such lovely things about their cafe (actually a tea room)

The woman is furious and snaps at me that she didn’t bank on her mother dying. Oh dear. I had no idea I was being offensive. I apologize and step back into the drenching rain.

That’s when Ted makes himself look old and suffering (at least that’s what he told me later) and they invite us in, but not without leaving our rucksacks, shoes and waterproofs in a store room and coming inside wearing borrowed crocks.

By the time we sit down, cheese sandwiches are made, hot coffee is steeping and three large slices of chocolate cake arrive. We’re warm and dry, well fed and well watered too after we order three pints. But the stay is short-lived and we’re shooed out to make room for the guests – a group of geologists.

There’s a faucet in the courtyard to fill up and we wander across the bridge to a grassy patch with a pay box to camp. I find the patches without puddles and we wait for a brief clearing to set. The poles are bent and one side sags, but I soon fix it my shoving my trekking pole in place to keep the rain fly off the inner bug net.

Mossies cluster so it’s quickly in, each of is with our own door and vestibule to store our packs and shoes. The floor is damp, but on the thermarest it’s dry. It’s a huge space, big enough to stow all the wet gear.

The rain comes in spurts followed by short spells of clear sky. The river is loud and a few gusts keep things cool. I imagine it will be dry enough and warm enough here, but is tomorrow’s hike even possible? The road out winds a slow 22 miles, and the trail ahead is a rough and messy 12 or so to a B&B with two tough river crossings in the middle.

All that can be done now is prepare for an early start and decide in the morning whether to continue. What an adventure!