Cape Wrath Trail: A Short History

Cape Wrath coastline
The battered coast of Cape Wrath

North to the Cape

“We make no apologies for the fact that this is a very tough walk, not to be attempted by inexperienced walkers”

So begins the original guide to the Cape Wrath Trail, ‘North to the Cape’, written by Denis Brook and Phil Hinchliffe. In 1983 they devised and walked this route connecting Fort William with the far North-West tip of Scotland, Cape Wrath. It wasn’t until retirement that the authors we able to re-walk the route (in reverse) and write it up as a guidebook to what is widely considered the UK’s most challenging long-distance walk.

In devising this route Brook and Hinchliffe gave themselves 6 criteria to help create a challenge but rewarding trek.  The route must:

  1. pass through a variety of scenery
  2. avoid long hauls over featureless moors or along uninteresting straths
  3. use, as afar as possible, designated paths whether or not they are defined on the ground
  4. pass, if possible, interesting geographical places
  5. be divided into stages, each one a good day’s walk in length
  6. not pass, by design, over high peaks

There are now a number of variations on the theme, one which avoids the wilds of Knoydart and instead leaves Fort William for the Great Glen, rejoining the original trail in Morvich. We think Brooks and Hinchliffe made a pretty good job of sticking to these important criteria and we love leaving Fort William early in the morning on the short ferry ride across Loch Linnhe.  For the most part we stick the original route.  Each year we complete the trail in three stages: The Knoydart Expedition, Cape Wrath Trail South and Cape Wrath Trail North.  Our South and North sections are available back-to-back 3 times a year, and don’t require any wild camping.  Once each year we link all 3 to give you the opportunity to complete this challenging and wonderfully varied trail in one go.  It is definitely a highlight of our calendar.

Cape Wrath Trail An Teallach
Looking back to an Teallach
CWT Glen Shiel
A high mountain pass into Kintail
Sandwood Bay am Buachaille
Sandwood bay and the am Buachaille sea stack

A Variety of Scenery & No Featureless Moor or High Peaks

The Cape Wrath Trail more than satisfies these criteria.  The route includes the remote sections of Knoydart and Fisherfield, the dramatic Torridon mountains, huge waterfalls, changing geology and rugged coastline.  To move through these ever changing landscapes really highlights the progress northwards and interest is maintained throughout.

Use of Designated Paths

The paths and tracks we follow on the Cape Wrath Trail have become more worn and obvious as the route is repeated, by us and others. For the most part we walk on track, path and trail of varying difficulty, but there are still sections where there is no path to follow. Connecting Lochan Fada(Long Lake) and Bealach na Croise(Cross Pass) deep in the Fisherfield mountains is one example where care and a compass could be needed on a misty day.

Cape Wrath Trail Glen Elchaig
A view down Glen Elchaig
Cape Wrath Trail Fisherfield
Now, where has that path gone?
Falls of Glomach
High single track above the Falls of Glomach

Geological Interest

From the glaciated fjord-like landscape of Knoydart, through the terracing of Torridonian Sandstone to the “Cradle of Geology” of the far North-West this route has geological interest and some!  The Cape Wrath Trail winds it’s way through billions of years of geological history.  The rocks which make up the North West Highlands were formed and shaped by tropical humidity, hot dry desert and numerous ice ages.  When the British Isles emerged out of the collision of two continents 430 million years ago, many of Scotland’s distinctive mountain ranges rose up in what is termed ‘The Big Crunch’.  These were then carved out and worn down by successive ice ages into the recognisable peaks we see today.

This sense of deep geological time is visible in the 3 Billion year old Lewisian Gneiss along the coastline of the North-West, and the process of glaciation also clear from the isolated mountains.  The name Inselbergs, or Island Mountains, is given to the iconic stand-alone mountains of the North-West.  Here they were either capped and protected by Cambrain Quartzite whilst the sandstone or gneiss around them was ground down by glaciers (e.g. Quinag), or they stood above the ice-sheet as nunataks (e.g. Suilven) and the stone around them was slowly and powerfully taken away by ice.

And we walk through all this geological history in just under 3 weeks!

Loch Hourn Knoydart
Looking down to Loch Hourn, Knoydart
The glacier gouged flanks of Foinaven
Cape Wrath Trail Torridon Mountains
Liathach(L) and Beinn Eighe(R), Torridonian sandstone capped with quartzite

Manageable Stages

There are a number of ways to break up the stages of the Cape Wrath Trail and over the years we have tailored our Cape Wrath Trail to suit our walkers.  We now manage to cover Kinloch Hourn to Cape Wrath without the need for a tent!  Only the Knoydart Expedition requires you to carry full camping kit.  Without the need for overnight kit it means we can walk a bit further in a day. There are sizeable days through Fisherfield on our southern section and the mountains of Assynt in our northern section.  Despite the respite of a bed and shower the Cape Wrath Trail remains a challenging and extremely rewarding undertaking.