Scotland: the West Highland Way, the Cape Wrath Trail, and More
Jun 11, 2013 at 6:14 pm #1304103
Scotland: the West Highland Way, the Cape Wrath Trail, and More
We (Amy and James) spent five weeks in April and May walking in Scotland. Our trip started at Glasgow Central Station where we followed the Kelvin River Walkway to Milngavie. From there, we walked the West Highland Way to Fort William. At Fort William, we started the Cape Wrath Trail and took it through the western Scottish Highlands to Cape Wrath, the most northwesterly point on Great Britain. Turning east, we followed the north coast to Duncansby Head, the most northeasterly point on Great Britain. Finally, we walked south along the east coast to the town of Wick and from there we took a train back to Glasgow. Along the way, we took a couple of days off of our route and rode a ferry over to the Orkney Islands for a short walking vacation. This trip report will cover trip logistics and general impressions; hopefully the information may be useful to others who might want to walk a part of or all of our route.
Photos: An illustrated day-by-day account of the trip can be found in our photo gallery on SmugMug.
Route: You can download a kml file of our route. Please note that this kml file shows our route and differs in places from the routes described in guidebooks. We also have kml files of alternate routes and additional waypoints; if you’re interested in more info on a particular leg of the trip send us a PM.
We started walking in Glasgow at midday on April 24 and completed in Wick in the afternoon on May 26; we were on our primary route for about 29.5 days (subtracting the time spent in the Orkneys). Statistically, Scotland generally has better weather in May than at other times of the year. The snow has usually melted out of the higher mountains and daylight hours are long allowing lots of time to walk. And very importantly, the midges don’t usually hatch until early June. Every source we have ever seen has said don’t go into the backcountry in Scotland during midge season; they will drive anyone insane.
The Kelvin River Walkway (KRW)
This is an 11.5 mile connector between Glasgow and Milngavie. It starts along the River Clyde in central Glasgow and mostly follows the banks of the Kelvin River. By taking this trail, we could begin our walk from Glasgow without using motorized transport to the start of the West Highland Way. While the route is pleasant, it is nothing special. It does deftly avoid almost any road walking while wending its way through Glasgow. There are a few signs and waymarks, but a map was useful to not go off track. We left Glasgow a little before noon and arrived in Milgavie before 4 o’clock.
The West Highland Way (WHW)
The WHW is a British National Trail. This means it is extremely well way-marked, the track surface is generally good, and lots of people use it. The trail is about 92 miles in length without diversions for provisions, lodging, climbing peaks or otherwise. Technically, the walking was easy except along Loch Lomond where the tread was rough and quite slippery in a few places. There are several guidebooks, including one from Cicerone (The West Highland Way: Terry Marsh; 2010; ISBN-10: 1852843691) and one from Trailblazer Press; (West Highland Way: Charlie Loran; 2013; ISBN-10: 1905864507). We believe it would not be too difficult to walk the route without either a guidebook or map as the WHW is so well marked on the ground.
The scenery was mostly good and was excellent in a few places. While the WHW is not often very far from a road, there is very little busy road walking on the route itself except at the very end as you approach Ft. William (why the WHW is routed on the road is a mystery as there is a fine off-road alternate into central Ft. William). We did not find the presence of nearby roads to be troublesome except on a very few occasions when road noise was a bit too obvious. There are diversions available for those who wish to bag a Munro or two, including Ben Nevis (1,344 meters (4,409 feet)), the highest point in the British Isles. There is also a guidebook titled Not the West Highland Way (ISBN-10: 1852846151) that outlines alternatives for many legs of the WHW for those who want a more off-the-beaten track version of the route.
If you plan to camp on the WHW, be aware that for a significant portion of the trail along Loch Lomond, camping is restricted to designated commercial sites or outside of a mapped red zone. The red zone includes the lakeshore and extends in varying distances up the slopes of the mountains to the east of the trail. While we were successful in finding a fine campsite just outside the red zone, options were extremely limited due to terrain. Fines are threatened for those caught camping illegally inside the red zone, although we never encountered any officials.
As the core of our walk was to be the Cape Wrath Trail itself, we chose to simplify our pre-trip planning efforts and walk the standard WHW route, as it was as much an access path to the CWT as walking route in itself. We had planned to climb Ben Nevis, but snow on the mountain and crummy weather scuttled that option. It took us about 4.5 days to complete the WHW.
The Cape Wrath Trail (CWT)
The CWT is not an on the ground way-marked trail. It is a number of mapped routes through the western highlands between Fort William and Cape Wrath, following a mix of high and low quality jeep tracks, high quality footpaths, faint use paths, and off trail travel. As we walked it, the CWT was 231 miles in length.
The original concept for a CWT was described in a photo essay book, The Cape Wrath Trail, published in 1996 by David Patterson. Subsequently, in 1999, Cicerone Press published a guidebook by Brook and Hinchliffe, North to the Cape, that described a somewhat different routing and also included a number of alternates. Additional versions of the trail have also been described on several websites. At least one of these options has a vastly different start, heading northeast out of Fort William along the Great Glen Way, instead of west or northwest as other CWT possibilities do.
In April of 2013, Cicerone published a new guide to the Trail: The Cape Wrath Trail; Iain Harper; 2013; ISBN-10: 1852846674, with yet another version of the CWT, which among other improvements, eliminated some pieces of road walking in favor of off-trail travel. Note that there are varying amounts of overlap between all of the authors’ described routes. We chose the 2013 Cicerone routing as the basis for our walk. In the end we followed most of the published 2013 primary route, but took three of its alternates: one to avoid circling north of Beinn Eighe between the Ling Hut and Kinlochewe because of really bad weather and warnings in the guide about potentially dangerous stream crossings in high water conditions; the second so we could resupply in Ullapool; and the third so we could resupply in Kinlochbervie. We also more or less stayed near the coast between Sandwood Bay and Cape Wrath instead of the published more interior route because the scenery was better along the coast and the weather was good enough that we didn’t need to use the Strathchailleach Bothy. We would like to thank the author of the 2013 guide for generously providing us with a PDF of the text prior to its publication as our trip was scheduled to start just prior to the release of the book. We found the guide to be very useful, and anyone planning to walk the CWT should obtain a copy. Iain Harper, the author of the 2013 Cicerone Guide, maintains a very fine website with gpx data, a forum, accommodation list, and other useful information.
The CWT is billed as being ”Britain’s toughest trail”. Maybe it is the toughest Scottish long distance route published in a book, but to us, the CWT was not at all a technical walking challenge in terms of the terrain. The difficulties of this walk are primarily driven by what the weather does. Unpleasant weather is a fact of life in Scotland and the chances are extremely high that if you walk the CWT, you will experience many rainy days and at least a couple days with really foul weather. Bad weather can include rain of varying intensity, fog, mist and whiteouts, gale force winds, hail, and snowfall, often in combination. When it rains, the moors and many of the footpaths will be soggy and as a result, your feet are most likely going to be saturated. The sogginess of the ground was amazing, including the fact that even steep hillsides held vast quantities of seemingly gravity defying standing water. Footpaths were often flowing with water and it was often a bit drier to walk off the path in the boggy peat. Crossing streams and rivers will require wading, occasionally knee deep or more in fast current, and after heavy rain some stream crossings will not be possible until water levels drop or you can find a localized safe place to cross.
When the winds reach Beaufort 7 or 8 hiking becomes difficult to impossible, and even at the relatively low elevation routing of the CWT we did have a couple days with gale force winds. Beaufort 5-6 winds were common on our trip. If bad weather and wet feet are not your thing, don’t bother trying the CWT. Keeping your spirits up and finding the mental fortitude to leave a warm and dry bothy and head out yet again into the cold and wet was, to us, the primary challenge of the CWT. When the weather turns foul, staying on route and staying warm and dry could be a serious challenge to a hiker without the right gear and skills.
The route is clearly more difficult than a National Trail or other popular way-marked and/or maintained trails. However, the route itself is not as technically or physically difficult as the HRP in the Pyrenees, the Cambrian Way in Wales, Roper’s Sierra High Route in California, or nearly any route in the canyons of the Colorado Plateau. There were almost no technical hiking difficulties other than steam crossings. Navigation was straightforward when the weather was fair. While crossing large expanses of trackless moor might be wet, we never found it difficult and actually thought most of the cross-country moor walking was fun. There are almost no aggressive or thorny plants other than easily avoidable gorse. We encountered few hidden boggy pits waiting to swallow hikers whole and found the dreaded tussocks to be much less tedious than expected. The CWT avoids the tops (with the exception of the 609 meter Ben Dreavie) and crosses passes in the mountains so altitude gains and losses are mostly relatively modest.
Given all of the above, we think any reasonably fit hiker with some off-trail hiking experience, decent navigation skills, good judgment, the gear and skills to cope with foul weather, and the right mental fortitude should be able to complete the CWT.
The North Coast Walk (NCW): Cape Wrath to Wick
We pieced together this route using two main sources. The first was data from an extremely detailed website published by David Cotton about a 6,266 mile yearlong walk around the entire coastline of Great Britain. The author wrote day-by-day descriptions of his walk including route details and personal opinions about the quality of each section. We also spent a lot of time with Google Earth modifying Cotton’s basic route to eliminate some road walking.
We enjoyed this route quite a bit. There is some road walking, but traffic was extremely light (even the paved roads were often only one lane wide) and cars were never much of an issue. We walked along miles of very fine coast, on par with other fine coastal walking we have done (and we have walked over 2000 miles of coastlines at one time or the other). There is no formally established trail along most of the coast, and in some stretches the farmers have built barbed wire fences right up to the edges of the cliffs, with no gates or stiles. So unlike the Southwest Coast Path, Pembrokeshire Coast Path, or Brittany Coast Path, this route includes a bit of fence hassle in some areas.
The north coast of Scotland gets substantially less rain than the mountains traversed by the CWT, and this was consistent with our experience. We spent roughly 8 days on the NCW, and had relatively good weather on 4 of them. The total distance covered was about 175 miles.
Our primary navigation tools were paper maps, and an iPhone 5 preloaded with the following maps of our planned route:
– 1:25000 and 1:50000 OS maps (using ViewRanger)
– OpenStreetMap (using Gaia GPS)
– both ESRI and Google satellite images (using Gaia GPS)
We used View Ranger as our primary map application, and occasionally used Gaia for satellite imagery. We rarely used the OpenStreetMaps. We also carried 1:50000 OS paper maps of the route that we made by uploading the GPX routes we created using Google Earth into the map tool provided by WalkingHighlands.co.uk, capturing the screen images of our route displayed on the OS maps, then assembling and printing the captured images using Adobe Illustrator. The iPhone doubled as our GPS and was very helpful, especially on the CWT in bad weather conditions. We recharged in shops and pubs.
If you plan to backpack with an iPhone, it’s important to read the battery conservation section in the article: Instructions for using iPhone as Backpacking GPS/Mapping device.
We also carried some frequently used apps on the iPhone including the Cicerone Guide (in pdf format), two bird field guides, a panoramic camera (Pano), and an offline version of Wikipedia (Wiki Offline – A Wikipedia Experience).
We had hoped that by doing the walk in May, we might have had some stretches of good weather; this was not to be. We experienced at least some precipitation on 25 of 32.5 walking days including 11 consecutive days with rain. We had many days with very strong winds, including several days with gale force winds (one day on the Orkneys recorded 55 mph gusts in the area we were walking). We had snow fall on us at altitudes below 400 meters. We had long stretches where low clouds and mist obscured all views for hours at a time. We experienced combinations of all of the above. Locals kept commenting that it was a very late spring and unseasonably cold and cloudy. In fact, for nearly our entire walk, the buds on the deciduous plans had not yet opened. Daytime temperatures were often in the 40’s, even at low altitudes. Weather reports when we were able to get them were almost always useless as all Scottish weather is extremely local; it can be storming in one glen and sunny in the next one over. The best weather report came from a Scottish hiker who told us “the weather is expected to be mixed”.
For another account of Scottish weather in May 2013, please read our friend Manfred Kopisch’s excellent trip report about his experiences completing the TGO challenge: His west-to-east route crossed our south-to-north route near a pass just west of Sgorr Ruadh, a peak east of Torridon.
Although we did have many cloudy days with reduced visibility and many hours of rain, we had no daytime heavy rain; usually the rainfall was drizzle or light, and for that we are grateful. And there was only once when the wind was so strong that we were physically unable to proceed, and we were able to pick a slightly lower nearby route that made it possible to continue. By Scottish standards, our weather could probably be called dreary, but certainly not as bad as it gets. According to the Met Office Scotland as a whole received 139% of average rainfall during the month of May. In recent years, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2013 have been relatively wet, while the even numbered years have been relatively dry; a betting man might opt to go in 2014!
One of the issues with the wet weather was that it made it quite difficult to find a place for lunch. We were warm while walking, but staying warm while sitting requires adding layers, which is tough to do when it’s windy and raining and there is no shelter from the wind, and we were not inclined to set up the tent mid-day in order to eat lunch. Even if we wanted to set up a tent or tarp mid-day, the ground was often so sodden finding a dry place to sit was a problem. For these reasons we ate lunch in bothies or hotels numerous times; on rainy days we would leave the tent in the morning with a plan to hike straight through until the next known building (generally 8-15 miles away), where we would stop for lunch. With all the gusty, cool, and wet weather, just sitting back and relaxing and enjoying the scenery, as we like to do, was often not possible.
For the most part, finding food was not a significant issue. There are many places to eat or buy food along the WHW, and our best meal on this section was fine pizza at the Green Welly in Tyndrum. There are large grocery stores in Milngavie and Ft. William.
Resupply on the CWT requires advance planning, as there are multiple day stretches along the primary route where no food can be obtained. Groceries can be purchased in Ft. William, Shiel Bridge, Kinlochewe, Ullapool, and Kinlochbervie. The stores in Shiel Bridge and Kinlochewe have a very limited selection and proprietors who don’t appear to like their customers. The SPAR market proprietor in Kinlochbervie, on the other hand, was extremely gracious and helpful, and we ate a meal of hot meat pies in the store’s aisles while doing our shopping.
Buying meals along the way is possible in scattered locations from cafes, pubs, and hotels, although opening days and serving times vary a lot. We had excellent meals at the Glenfinnan Hotel, in Kinlochewe at the Whistle Stop Café, and at the Oykel Bridge Hotel. Our other meals were adequate as fuel, but not memorable.
Finding food was not an issue on the NCW, with many grocery stores, pubs, cafes, and restaurants along the way.
Food costs are much higher in Scotland than the US and with the pound worth around $1.53 during our walk, things were only worse. A typical pub meal for two would be in the £20-30 range. We spent about $23 per person per day and ate about 20% of our meals in a pub or restaurant. The rest of our meals we ate out of our packs.
We don’t cook on our trips, so we did not pay attention to what is available in terms of freeze-dried meals in the shops. Our staples of yogurt, bread, crackers, peanut butter, cheese, tuna, dried fruit, nuts, cookies, and chocolate were always available in some form or another. Hummus and carrots and peppers were often available. We found pre-cooked chicken pieces in sealed packets, and these proved to be a nice addition to our larder. We also ate canned kippers, to which a older English woman we were conversing with during a hotel lunch enquired in a perfect upper-class Edith Evans accent “You eat them cold?”
We camped most nights on this trip. On two occasions we set up inside of fishing huts, once in a barn, once on a bird watching platform, and once in the ruins of an ancient church. We also spent a night in a B&B in Kinloch Hourn, 2 nights in bothies, 2 nights camped just outside of bothies, and finally, in the Orkneys, inside a odd small public building at a beach, called the Waiting Room, where we had attached bathrooms with hot water and electricity.
The Right to Roam laws in Scotland pretty much let you camp anywhere you want as long as it isn’t in someone’s yard. However, campsites in the mountains of Scotland can be difficult to find. Vast areas are undulating bogs with no really solid, flat, and dry surfaces. Stand on what seems to be a solid piece of ground for a few minutes and you slowly start to sink. If you find a dry place, it is often covered with tussocks or other large lumpy plants. There is rarely shelter from the wind as there are no trees outside of the forest plantations, and these are generally not usable as campsites as the ground had been bulldozed into an irregular surface prior to planting. When available, sheep grazed pastures with stone walls around them can provide good campsites. Sometimes there are beaches at the edges of lochs, but don’t count on this. Usually there are a few flat places near the bothies that can be used for a tent if you prefer private sleeping quarters over sharing the bothy with other hikers who might snore. We were always able to come up with something that was at least acceptable, but it required forward planning each day and stopping earlier or later than we might have liked.
A bothy is a small unstaffed shelter widely found in the Scottish mountains. These buildings are often old farmhouses or shepherds’ cottages and are open for free public use. There is a long tradition in Scotland of using bothies as both emergency refuges and planned places to stay on a backcountry trip. They usually have a fireplace or two, although fuel may not be readily available. Most were reasonably tidy considering that they are open to the public. In practice, these buildings were incredibly useful for getting out of the bad weather, if nothing more than for a dry place to eat lunch. We spent the night in a bothy on two occasions and ate meals in them many times.
Given that we were in Scotland during the prime hiking season, we saw surprisingly few long-distance walkers. We saw lots of day hikers and a few thru-hikers on the WHW; many of the thru-hikers use baggage transport services and stay in B&Bs, so they just carry day packs. On the CWT, we ran into less than a dozen people who were out on overnight trips. We did not cross paths with another person thru-hiking the CWT until after we finished our walk, when we met an Englishman in a pub in Durness who had finished a few hours after we did. The proprietor at the Ozone Café at the Cape Wrath lighthouse told us that about forty people had finished so far in 2013, but he wasn’t specific as to how many of those had hiked the entire route. None of the hikers we met were using light-weight backpacking techniques and many of them were carrying truly monstrous loads.
We bird on our walks and Scotland did not disappoint. We added four species to our life-list: Arctic Loon, Great Skua, Black Guillemot, and Common Scoter. Given that we have spent a lot of time birding in the England and Wales, we were pleased to see so many new birds. Overall, we observed around 120 species. Pipits were by far the most numerous passerines and few raptors were seen. The best bird of the trip was the Eurasian Oystercatcher; this bold, lively and strikingly marked shorebird was seen everywhere, surprisingly to us even deep in the mountains, in woodlands, and all over the moors. Its raucous beep beep call as pairs careened about always helped to cheer us up, even in the worst weather.
The other standout species for us was the Northern Fulmar, which was found in large numbers in colonies along the north coast cliffs and on the Orkneys. This dignified bird is a magnificent practitioner of the art of updraft aerobatics. Watching the birds as they maneuvered only inches from the cliff faces in high erratic winds was fascinating. And not to anthropomorphize too much, it was obvious a lot of this activity was for their own entertainment.
When we reached Gills Bay, we needed only two more days to walk to Wick and would arrive a few days early for our reserved train seats back to Glasgow. So we decided to take the Pentland Ferry from Gills Bay to St. Margaret’s Hope in the Orkney Islands.
The Orkneys are a collection of about 70 islands and islets (skerries). While on the islands, we enjoyed visiting some 4000 year old stone circles, and the remains of a Neolithic village at Scara Brae. We also walked across some interesting upland moors which support breeding populations of a few bird species which are difficult to find in other places in Britain such as Short-eared Owl and Pomarine Jaeger. The people were very friendly, the pace of life seemed quite relaxed, and while stark, the islands we visited were strangely beautiful. The weather was again mixed with rain the first afternoon, gale force winds all the next day, and low clouds transitioning into a gorgeous sunny afternoon on our last full day. Our early morning ferry ride back to the mainland was on glassy seas. The cost for the ferry was £28 per person round trip. Food is available from cafes, restaurants, and shops in most small villages and all towns. Finding campsites was not difficult.
Overall Assessment: was it satisfying?
I personally enjoyed the walk and am happy to have done it. The CWT was scenic, often well removed from the trappings of civilization, unpopulated with other walkers, and had a lot of integrity. Having heard so many positive things about walking in Scotland from other hikers, I was pleased to finally get there and see some of it. Other than for weather, the walking was a lot less challenging than I expected. More difficult walking could be done climbing certain routes on at least some of the Munros, but from what we have been told, even most of those can be climbed via non-technical routes. The mountains have a stark and isolated beauty to them, but are rarely truly dramatic. The numerous loch and lochans add a lot to the landscape. The colors are muted and dark.
Would I take another long walk in Scotland? Maybe, but there are a lot of other places to see and I did not leave with the desire to get back there as soon as I can. But, I have no regrets for having taken this trip.
I’ll first try to first describe what I like in a trip. I like to get into the flow of the walk: wake up, eat, walk, eat, walk, set up the tent, eat, sleep, and repeat. I like the feeling of having a route in front of me and a pack on my back and the freedom each day to move forward on that route, with nothing to plan and no decisions to make except how much food we need to buy to carry us forward to the next grocery store. I like the absence of obligations, the absence of schedule, and the sense of independence.
I like to be in pleasant scenery, stellar scenery is a bonus, but not required for a long walk like this. I like diversity of habitat and scenery. Abundant bird life is a big bonus, abundance more important than diversity.
Biting insects are a show-stopper for me, and I will go to great ends to avoid hiking around mosquitoes or black flies or midges; Jim and I have aborted hikes due to mosquitoes.
I like to receive a warm welcome from shopkeepers, locals, and other hikers – I find that hiking and cycling brings out the happiness and kindness in people, and a long walk defuses my general pessimism about the state of humanity. I like being completely disconnected from news for weeks at a time.
What’s not on this list? I don’t care about challenge; I prefer to hike the easiest route to a summit and feel no need to test my limits. I’m willing to push myself hard when conditions demand it, but I wouldn’t design a trip in order to seek challenge or adversity. For European hikes I don’t care about wilderness; for that I think North America is fantastic and there’s no need to travel overseas. In fact, what Europe offers that we don’t have here in North America is the opportunity to walk long distances through settled landscapes, through farm yards and fishing ports and across sheep fields. I think the two types of hiking, wilderness and settled landscapes, are very different and complementary experiences.
On a good trip, I’ll occasionally have the I’m the luckiest person in the world today feeling. On a great trip I’ll feel that way every day.
While I enjoyed our hike, I never achieved the luckiest person in the world feeling. A few things conspired to put a damper on things.
First was the weather. Our rain gear and tent worked, and our clothes were never wet and we were never cold, so at any given time the weather was not an issue. But day after day of cool (~40-55 F), grey weather started to feel very dank. On the core of our trip, on the Cape Wrath Trail, our notes say we had 80-100% cloud cover on 12 of 17 days. Only two days were “mostly sunny”. I reached the point where I was excited if I could see a blue patch anywhere in the sky. The clouds were usually low, seriously obscuring views of the mountains. There are some logistical issues about cool grey weather that prevented the care-free lifestyle that I prefer on a long hike. For example, if I stop walking when it’s 45, windy, and drizzling, I need to put on more layers to stay warm. But to put on more layers I’d need to take off my raingear and expose my dry layers to rain. Weather that includes bursts of rain alternating with dry and sunny spells is much less hassle than hours of endless drizzle. On many days we would leave the tent with a plan to hike through until a known building (bothy or hotel) where we would plan to stop for lunch. Between bothies and hotels/pubs/shops we were able to take shelter in a building at least once every day, often for lunch, so it was a viable strategy. The strategy works just fine, but there’s no opportunity to sit down for five minutes at a fine vista and just take in the scene, and no opportunity to spread out for lunch and have a nice mid-day break. Call me a California wimp.
A second thing that put a damper on my enthusiasm for hiking in Scotland is the extreme paucity of campsites. Jim is a master campsite finder, he prides himself in his ability to find campsites. However, the peat and heather habitat is just not conducive to laying down a tent, and it was not unusual while on the Cape Wrath Trail to walk for a couple hours without an opportunity to camp. For this reason, we found it necessary to plan our daily stopping point well in advance, foregoing some nice spontaneity.
It is perhaps due to the persistent low clouds, but I did not find the scenery to be as stellar as I had expected. The mountains, as I far as I could see them, were attractive but not stunning, and for me they were not worth the relatively high risk of multiple days of grey weather. That said, the weather was never clear enough that we were interested in climbing to the top of anything; perhaps the views from the tops (when the cloud cover is high enough so as not to obscure the visibility) would be breathtaking, I can’t say.
I also started to crave more habitat diversity. The occasional tree plantations (and clear-cut slash fields) were, to me, quite unattractive. It’s necessary to avoid June-August (due to midges), so we took our trip before the flowers bloomed or the deciduous trees flushed their leaves. The landscape is a very pleasing and lovely palette of soft textures and soft shades of grey and beige and brown; but I did start to crave some highlight colors or strongly contrasting textures. On the Cape Wrath Trail, my favorite places, by a good margin, were the tidal lochs, which had great diversity of scenery (not to mention abundant bird life); my most memorable spots were along Loch Linnhe, Sourlies Bothy on Loch Nevis, the trail along the edge of Loch Hourn, the trail along the edge of Loch Duich (near Shiel Bridge), and especially Lochs Beag, Glencoul and Gleann Dubh (near Glencoul and Glendhu bothies). I suspect I would have found the mountain scenery more appealing if I had been able to see more of it. On the whole, I found the scenery on the North Coast Walk to be more satisfying than the scenery on the Cape Wrath Trail; again that assessment might be entirely different if I had been able to see much of the mountain scenery.
And finally, something that dampened my enthusiasm was almost certainly luck of the draw and not inherent to hiking in Scotland, and in the grand scheme of things really not important. In all of our long hikes (we’ve taken about 15 hikes of 4-6 weeks) we have never had a local person be unwelcoming. On this trip we had two different women come out of their houses to strongly object to the fact that we were crossing their fields, and a third person who, upon inquiry, told us we were not permitted to camp anywhere in a valley and must return 5 miles to a caravan park. We had a bartender at a pub (Rhiconich Hotel) be so rude to us that we couldn’t wait to get out of the building, even though it was raining and blowing a gale. I’ve hiked enough to come to expect a neutral if not warm welcome and I was really taken aback and not all that pleased. Jim just let it roll off his back, calling them the local cranks, but it kind of got under my skin.
I should put all these negative comments into context. I enjoyed the trip, but I think the main reason is that I love walking, love camping, and enjoyed Jim’s company. I have no regrets about taking the trip, however, I wouldn’t plan another trip to the mountains of northwest Scotland due to the risk that I could have bad luck and get one of those 150% of normal rainfall years. The Scottish highlands are wet enough without that risk! If I knew that at least 30 or 40% of daylight hours would have reasonable visibility I would probably feel differently.
And finally, here’s my short assessment of the actual routes.
The West Highland Way is a reasonable option for somebody who wants to follow a maintained trail. However, the routing and scenery are not as interesting as the CWT, so anybody with the skills would do well to choose the CWT instead of the WHW. For what it’s worth, of the major trails in the UK we have hiked, I enjoyed the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path, Southwest Coast Path, Offa’s Dyke Path, and Wainwright’s Coast to Coast more than the WHW.
The Cape Wrath Trail is very well thought out and expertly routed. As discussed earlier in this post, the terrain is not challenging for somebody who is used to hiking off the beaten path, it was in fact far easier than I had anticipated. The route follows valleys and crosses passes, avoiding ridges and tops. This makes sense, given the extreme challenge of the exposed ridges in bad weather. If we had had clear weather, I’m sure we would have wanted to climb high to get bigger views, and those side trips would have been possible from the route. The bothies are a fantastic institution and I thoroughly enjoyed them, I would not even consider recommending this route if not for the bothies!
The North Coast Walk was a terrific piece of coast walking. Of the three major legs of the trip, it was my favorite. The scenery is on par with other coastal walking we’ve done, and the weather on the north coast is, on average, significantly better than in the mountains, so there’s a greater chance of having reasonable weather. (The average May rainfall on the north coast is 40-80 mm, versus 100-200 mm in the northwest highlands.)Jun 11, 2013 at 7:04 pm #1995761Roger CaffinBPL Member
@rcaffinLocale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Wonderful trip report. Thanks!
CheersJun 11, 2013 at 10:02 pm #1995823Richard NisleyBPL Member
@richard295Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
Thank you very much for sharing your adventure with us! Your pictures and narrative beckon me to do a similar trip.Jun 11, 2013 at 10:19 pm #1995828ManfredBPL Member
Amy & Jim,
Thanks for the thorough trip report. Even after seeing all your photos and hearing from you directly, it was still a joy to read.
I concurr with your observation that the weather differed severely between the coast and the mountains – I can certainly attest to this. Your knowledge about birds is a great addition to the backpacking experience.
ManfredJun 11, 2013 at 11:40 pm #1995841Fred ericBPL Member
@fre49Locale: France, vallée de la Loire
Thanks a lot for this detailed trip report !
Scotland is one of my favourite place to hike, and your link to David Cotton website looks like a very interesting source of information.
I need now to plan my 2014 TGO route :)Jun 12, 2013 at 10:58 am #1995946David ChenaultBPL Member
@davecLocale: Queen City, MT
Thanks for the massive detailed writeup Amy, very useful for prospective hikers.
I've been impressed with TGO challenge photos for a number of years now, and pondered whether I'd like to do it myself some day. The wilderness issue is the one things holding me back. My western NA bias is obviously strong, in that if I see more than 5 people a day it tends to color a trip, and I prefer and attempt to do routes where I'll see no one. Hiking through areas shaped primarily by human impact seems besides the point. I worry that Scotland wouldn't be up to snuf in this respect, and your report gives me more to ponder.
Thanks again.Jun 12, 2013 at 11:26 am #1995957Marc EldridgeBPL Member
@meldLocale: The here and now.
Amy and Jim
Thank you for sharing your excellent adventure. Your trip reports are the best.Jun 12, 2013 at 1:29 pm #1995990Stuart RBPL Member
Hi, I'm glad that you mostly enjoyed you hike in Scotland. Your assessment is pretty accurate and I have just a few comments to make.
Weather – you were unlucky here. I usually expect a week or two of settled high pressure weather in May, but it did not happen this year. April and May were a little cooler and wetter than normal and March was freezing, so spring has been delayed – insects (including midgies), flowers, birds are all late. Unfortunately the weather is not predictable here at any time of year. I agree that day after day of mist shrouded hills and brown boggy moor does wear thin, you have my sympathy here. Ths is part of the reason for the relative popularity of day hiking up hills.
Wild camping – I find the best spots are in a bend in a stream, where the gravel has grassed over. But I agree, you can walk several (or many) miles from one suitable spot to another.
Your final comment about a few less than welcoming locals – this kind of behaviour is totally unacceptable. It is uncommon, but not unheard of. I can only apologise on their behalf.Jun 12, 2013 at 2:05 pm #1995999
Regarding David C's comments and wilderness. We talked to some British hikers while in Scotland who were unaware that in the US Wilderness with a capital W is a legal term. I suspect that many non-American readers of BPL may already know this, but I thought I'd elaborate for anybody who isn't familiar with the US Wilderness Act
In the US, a Wilderness Area, by legal protection, has no road building or building of any permanent structures (other than trail signs). Motorized vehicles are not permitted. Grazing is not permitted. Commercial activity of any sort is not permitted.
It was a brilliant moment when federal policy was set, in the 1890s, to exclude grazing from National Parks. Thank you John Muir. To the best of my knowledge, the only areas in the Scottish mountains (and most of non-Scandinavian Europe) that are not grazed are the areas that have no grazing value. There's little to no fertile habitat that's not grazed or farmed. On ridges and tops you can get away from tractor/jeep tracks, but in valleys there are plentiful tracks, and frequently the ditches dug to drain the peat are visible and the peat harvesting trenches are visible.
To put this in perspective, the neolithic village that we visited on the Orkneys, Skara Brae, is about 5000 years old, and they were raising sheep and cows. I have not read a specific history of grazing on the Orkneys, but it's not unreasonable to assume that the Orkneys have been grazed continuously for the last 5000 years – about a third of the duration since the last glaciers retreated!
You may be able to design Scottish hiking routes (like Manfred's) that avoid valleys (and associated jeep tracks and sheep) and in which you'll see few other hikers, and you'll feel like you're in wild place, but you won't find healthy diverse ungrazed ecosystems like you are used to in designated Wilderness Areas in the US and Canada.
As I said in the original post, hiking through these "settled" landscapes is enjoyable for me as a complement to Wilderness Areas, but don't go there expecting Wilderness. Oh, and I'm a total sucker for baby lambies – they rate very high on the cuteness scale!
I have listened to podcasts from many years of the TGO Challenge from http://www.theoutdoorsstation.co.uk/category/podcasts/
It sounds like a heck of a good time, primarily because of the social life and bonding with other hikers. If you're considering hiking a TGO Challenge (which I haven't done) it's well worth listening to the podcasts from prior years.Jun 16, 2013 at 11:44 am #1997180Tom ClarkBPL Member
@tomclarkLocale: East Coast
Thanks for sharing the story and photos.
TomJun 17, 2013 at 6:37 am #1997370marc DBPL Member
Thanks for the report.
I also enjoyed your Pyrenees report, lots of useful information for when I go later this year.
A shame about the weather. When its good, the hills are completely transformed and its a totally different experience, but yes, day after day of 'dreich' grinds you down. You were unfortunate, as I had several days getting sunburnt on the west coast in April, while wild fires raged all around as it had been so dry.
As said previously, hiking in Scotland is often better done as a hit and run affair, taking the windows of opportunity, and switching locations when required. We often get more high pressure days in the winter too.
As for rude people, I too can only apologize. Its incredibly stupid, the whole economy of the Highlands depends on tourism.Aug 22, 2013 at 1:59 pm #2017682John ToppingBPL Member
@johntLocale: Peak District
Another great report using a format that I have shamelessly appropriated for my own post-trip reports. It's a shame that you didn't get better weather but it seems that the "May good weather" pattern hasn't held true for a number of years now. Indeed the impact of the late Spring meant that I even enjoyed a relatively midge free trip in July this year, which is unheard of (the enjoyment bit particularly and I think my bug aversion might even rival your own….)
Scotland does certainly lend itself to opportunistic trips (clearly not very practical from NA!) and IMO the best of Scotland is gained by getting high and often in winter rather than through low level routes. This does tend to increase the difficulty of the terrain and compares with anything I have done in the Pyrenees and the Alps. I have posted photos from Scotland before but here are some more from quick hits this year (with a couple from Nov 11) but it is notable that these weather windows are typically only 2-4 days long usually.
Thanks again for your excellent report.Aug 22, 2013 at 2:33 pm #2017703
Thanks so much for adding photos to the thread. I like your suggestion that Scotland lends itself to "opportunistic trips". We were often frustrated knowing that we were passing through beautiful scenery that we couldn't see. If you lived nearby and could hike in those hills when the visibility was better that would be more reliable than traveling from North America and taking your chances.
AmyAug 26, 2013 at 11:52 am #2018743Wim DepondtBPL Member
@wim_depondtLocale: The low countries
Again superb writing Amy. You’ve set the benchmark a long time ago (so…, hmm… what TR – read: next destination – can we, humble BPL’ers, expect in the near future?)
Although your conclusions were mixed, I still find your collection of photos superb and the CWT still remains on my radar. My plan however is to use the Bothies and B&B’s extensively, thus keep camping to an absolute minimum.
– weather wise, the west of Scotland receives significantly more rainfall than the east.
– another well written trip report – with better weather – of the CWT: http://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/Forum/viewtopic.php?f=9&t=2875
PS: I recently discovered your detailed post on the Big SEKI Loop and promptly ditched my plan to hike the JMT in favour of a – slightly personalised – Big SEKI Loop. Thanks for that.
WimAug 26, 2013 at 12:08 pm #2018750
We're glad you find our trip reports useful. Jim and I try hard to write them in a way that is useful to others, and not just a long narrative about the details of our experience.
We are headed back to SEKI next week and eager to enjoy the (usually) fine weather in the High Sierra. If you have any detailed questions about the Big SEKI Loop, feel free to send a PM.
And finally, we studied that walkhighlands trip report (and several others from walkhighlands) prior to our trip. They have an excellent collection of trip reports to peruse.
Best, Amy & JimAug 30, 2013 at 10:37 am #2020170Wim DepondtBPL Member
@wim_depondtLocale: The low countries
Hi Amy and Jim,
We might meet – I 'll start my hike on 7 September @ Lodgepole, ending 19 September @ Whitney Portal, doing a clockwise 'Q-figure' loop (visiting Elizabeth pass twice and with a bit of off trail walking – http://caltopo.com/map?id=7M7J).
Trailheads choosen on the basis of public transportation.
WimFeb 16, 2017 at 6:59 am #3450739
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