Cecilia is one of excellent group of UK Mountain Leaders that guide our UK treks. She is an Italian with a love for Scotland. Having previously spent time living and working in Fort William, she now comes back each year to work on the trails and mountains here. The Cape Wrath Trail was new to Cecilia, and she has written this blog post all about it.
Think of Great Britain, the biggest island in Europe, nestled up in the North Sea. Then think of Scotland, the northernmost part of the island, a fierce and proud country. And then keep going north, up into the Highlands, along the indented western coastline, with its many sea lochs and remote glens. This is where the Cape Wrath Trail develops, an unofficial long distance trail renowned for being the most remote and challenging of the whole island, going from the vibrant town of Fort William all the way to Cape Wrath.
Most people tackle the trail carrying a tent and everything they need to be self sufficient in the wilderness for a few days; enough to reach the next village safely and refuel, and perhaps grab a hot shower and a cooked meal. This is normally the only way of tackling the Cape Wrath Trail, as accommodation is scarce and it’s not always convenient to reach it on foot.
I had the chance of walking a section of the trail with a group who were definitely keen on the walking but not so much on the camping. So, with the help of my Thistle Trekking colleague Harry and the support vehicle, we were able to tackle the trail with a few more comforts. We would be picked up at the end of each day and drive to the nearest hotel or B&B, making for a more relaxed journey. I was guiding the section of the trail between Kinloch Hourn and Ullapool, and here’s how it went.
Day 1 – From Kinloch Hourn to Shiel Bridge
May is usually a “dry” month in Scotland, with “dry” meaning “slightly less wet than normal”. Jokes apart, May is renowned for being the most reliable month in Scotland when it comes to the weather, but of course this year had to be different. “The wettest May we’ve seen in a while”, some of the locals told us. And so, on a Monday morning in early May, we set off from Kinloch Hourn in the pouring rain. Welcome to Scotland! And I’m not exaggerating, it was literally pouring out of the sky, and it wouldn’t have stop for the entire day (or even most of the week!). With our waterproofs on we battled through the wind and the fog and made our way up to Bealach Coire Mhàlagain, to then descend with beautiful views of the Forcan Ridge, into Glen Shiel. The constant rain filled the streams up pretty quickly, and made for difficult river crossing conditions. But, this was not enough to stop our super keen group, who made it to their accommodation for the night without any issues.
Day 2 – Shiel Bridge to Killilan
Day two started wet but quickly brightened up and turned into a pretty pleasant day. We quickly left Shiel Bridge behind and started climbing up towards Bealach na Sròine. From here, we reached one of the most amazing spots on the trek: the Falls of Glomach. These falls are one of the tallest waterfalls in Britain, with a drop of 113m. All the water that had fallen from the sky in the previous two days meant that river levels were high and the waterfall even more impressive. After a lunch break we started our descent into Glen Elchaig, and a long walk out along the road to the small hamlet of Killilan, where Harry was waiting for us.
Day 3 – Killilan to Achnashellach
By day three we were well “acclimatised” and used to the Scottish weather, so beginning in the rain was not an issue anymore. So we started walking north from Killilan, along the beautiful Glen Ling and down the far side into Attadale. From here there is some busy road walking to negotiate for those wanting a “complete” trail, walking along A890 to a finish at Atnashellach train station. Despite the busy road, the group were keen to walk every bit of the way, and made the most of the afternoon break in the showers.
Day 4 – Altnashellach to Kinlochewe
A relatively short day followed that took us through the Coulin Pass, down to Coulin Loch and over the shoulder into Kinlochewe. The ground was particularly easy and the walking pleasant, so we did our best to make the most of this before the long day tomorrow. The weather, again, didn’t allow for any long stops, so lunch was consumed standing, and sheltering from the wind and the rain behind a small knoll. By now we also should have been able to spot the Torridon Giants, some of the most iconic mountains in this part of Scotland. They unfortunately were hidden behind the clouds. As we approached the end of the stage, and the rain stopped falling, we tackled the trickiest section of the day, boggy and pathless, along the river and into the small village of Kinlochewe. Here the comforts of the hotel awaited us, and we took the chance of sampling some local whisky in preparation for tomorrow.
Day 5 – Kinlochewe to Corrie Hallie
The longest day on this part of the trek but, at the same time and despite the weather that continued to make things harder for us, probably the best. We set off from our hotel in Kinlochewe early in the morning, to make good time along the track up Gleann na Muice and to the mouth of Lochan Fada. From here we abandoned the path and started climbing up north east towards Bealach na Croise, until our stomachs decalred a stop. Given the conditions, strong winds and incessant rain, and the fact that there was no shelter in sight, we decided that extreme measures were necessary and deployed the group shelter. All of a sudden we were out of the elements, quite warm and cozy under our bright orange shelter, and could finally take our hoods off and enjoy a proper lunch break. We were so comfortable that getting out again at the end of our break was not easy. It felt like it had gotten colder, so we didn’t waste any time and started walking up to the col and then down the other side towards the beautiful Loch an Nid. Here the ground became rougher and our feet were quickly completely wet (which actually made the river crossing easier) before we climbed up again to the plateau. With the mountains shrouded in cloud we forged ahead, and amongst the chatting and eating of sweets we made it to the end point for the day well in time for dinner.
Day 6 – Corrie Hallie to Leckmelm
And so we got to the last day, when finally the weather cleared and we could get the best views of the entire week.
Beautiful views over to An Teallach from the previous day and onwards toward Loch Broom and Ullapool. We were finally able to stop for a proper lunch break, take our time, and finish off the day along a beautiful stretch of single track road to Blarnalearoch. We completed our Cape Wrath Trail South at Dùn an Ruigh Ruadh, directly across the sea loch from the start point of Monday’s Cape Wrath Trail North, Leckmelm.
What a week! Some real Scottish challenges were thrown our way but, with resilience and a smile on our faces, we were able to make the most of the trail and have a great experience.
Onwards and Upwards
After saying goodbye to most of the group, relaxing and completing some much needed laundry, Harry and I were ready to welcome a new team. They started walking the northern section of the Cape Wrath trail the next day. We met the group of brand new faces (apart from one enthusiastic walker who joined us for both weeks!) and prepared for the week ahead. Harry and I switched roles for week two, with Harry leading the group and me supporting with the van: a chance to rest the legs after many kilometres.
And so the journey north continued, with much improved weather and many more kilometres amongst some of the wildest and most remote places in the UK. From Ullapool we made our way to Oykel Bridge, then through the mountains of Assynt stopping at Inchnadamph then Kylestrome. We wound our way through the far north-west to Kinlochbervie and finally Cape Wrath, the north-west corner of mainland UK. We walked past some stunning beaches and on the edge of steep sea cliffs, we got blown around by the wind but still kept walking, until there was no more land to walk on.
What a journey, and what a great achievement for everybody in the group! Visiting such remote and beautiful places has definitely confirmed my love for Scotland, and reminded me how much I enjoy working in such a place. Now it’s time to go back home and unpack, tell a story of two about our adventures to family and friends, and look back to some incredible days on the trail. Until next year, Cape Wrath.