Knoydart, Sleat and Lochaber

Date walked: 26/05/2014

Distance: 60km

Knoydart, Sleat and Lochaber

In 1979 I spent the Summer drystane dyking in Knoydart with my stepfather Neil MacDonald. It was the first time we'd spent much time together since I left home in 1970, and the last time we ever worked together. That Summer we became friends, and we both became very fond of Knoydart. I remember one Sunday driving my ancient Puch moped as far as possible up toward Mam Barrisdale (I know, I know, I wouldn't do it nowadays...) and walking over the top and for a bit down the other side until I could see over Loch Hourn. It was a calm day and in the immense stillness an eagle soared almost level with me. I promised myself that one day I would come back and walk all the way down into Barrisdale and beyond.

It's taken 35 years to get round to it.

The plan, following many revisions, was to start off from Kinlochourn Farmhouse, where we'd leave our car, walk to Barrisdale then to Inverie. (We are my wife Fiona, indominable walker and Camino veteran; youngest daughter Isla, aged 18 and terribly fit and active, and me, strong and hard-working but last walked anywhere in 1976 or thereabouts before he could afford a motorbike. "You never do any cardio-vascular!" lament my daughters.) From Inverie we'd catch the boat to Mallaig then the car ferry to Armadale, somehow get ourselves to Kinloch where we'd follow the old drove trail (if it still existed) to Kylerhea and get the ferry back to the mainland. From Glenelg we'd make our way back to Kinlochourn. We'd camp for 4 nights, at Barrisdale, Inverie, and the other two nights wherever we found ourselves.

26th May 2014: Kinlochourn to Loch an Dubh-Lochain. 11 miles

As I handed Joe our itinerary and the car keys - "Just sell it if we don't come back", I joked. "Fine" he said seriously - I recognised an odd feeling I'd had all morning. Woven through the feelings of anticipation, excitement, worry about leaving something behind, etc., there was a chilly thread of fear.

John, our fellow guest at the Farmhouse, is walking the Cape Wrath Trail to raise money for cancer research, and he's finding it daunting. It was hard to ask people to sponsor him and he's worried that he won't make it, then it'll be even harder to face them. We tried to reassure him. I was kind of afraid in the same way. I wasn't frightened of the mountains, the loneliness or of the physical effort. I wasn't worrying about my wife and daughter; they're both fitter and tougher than I am. I was frightened of starring as the white-faced old bloke in a survival blanket being winched up in front of an audience of millions going ' what the hell did he think he was doing?' I've worked hard for 50 years. My knees hurt, my back's buggered, and my feet are sore, and that was just from driving up here. I haven't done any serious backpacking since I was 14. We tried to train for this but we're busy.

So I was scared of failing. I tell Fiona and Isla all this.

"People who aren't scared are the one's who mess up," Isla says comfortingly.
Isla and I watching an otter

It was a fine morning and easy walking; by the time we got to Runival we'd seen a hind at Skiary and an otter at Camas Ban. The sun was shining and it was just beautiful. Fiona was finding the hills a bit tough; too much work having interfered with her '4 miles a day' routine, but she's still smiling. I was feeling fine but the hills were a bit steep too. I was glad I'd had a couple of trial walks and spent time fiddling with the settings on my rucksack so it fitted well. Isla was unstoppable.
me and Fiona having a breather

By 1.30 we were in Barrisdale, where we'd planned to camp the night or maybe stay in the bothy if it was raining. It was starting to pick so we checked out the bothy. It was desperate. Freezing, dirty, stinking, with tattered furniture and Gulag bunks, blistered walls and holes in the mouldy ceiling. It reminded me of Mexican jails in spaghetti westerns. The fireplace was boarded up - apparently because a 'party of Danes' had burned the doors. Not the first occasion Danes or at least Norsemen burnt Barrisdale I guess! Maybe supplying something combustible apart from doors would stop it happening again? We took a scunner to the whole place and ate our lunch under the bridge over the River Barrisdale, grumbling away like trolls. It started to rain in earnest. The bridge leaked onto our heads. The cloudy path to Mam Barrisdale offered an escape route.
long pull up to Mam Barrisdale

The path was good underfoot but it was a long steady pull through the increasing downpour. We
had decided to stop and camp at the first flat place but there weren't any. The whole mountainside was as as wet as the sea. Over the pass was just as bad, so we conferred and decided to head straight down to Loch an Dubh-Lochain.
Mam Barrisdale

We were all fit, Isla was raring to go, Fiona was stoical, I was a bit wet and cold but ok to go on - no option anyway. So we trudged on down the hill.
heading down through the clouds

The path was pretty boggy; couldn't drive a moped up there now. Two of the bridges were spectacularly rotten; it was a case of 'get the fat guy to go first'. There was a fine flat bit at the head of Loch an Dubh-Lochain, so after arguing a bit about whether we'd be overwhelmed if the water rose and whether the midges would devour us we decided we were too knackered to care. Our brand new tents were up in minutes and we were all tucked up snug and warm with a bit of choritzo each. The midges were outside and if the water level came up we'd deal with that when it arose. No fear!

27th May 2014: Loch an Dubh- Lochain to Inverie. 5 miles

Bright sunshine and a cool wind blessed us in the morning! No midges. We had dreadful (some of us liked it) porrage and tea and aired and packed all our stuff slowly. Fiona and I sat about on a rusty iron thing which left dubious brown stains on our backsides for the rest of the holiday. We were a bit stiff but good to go.
better morning

The 5 miles to Inverie was a doddle, past dykes that Neil and I had repaired 35 years before and thankfully still standing.

More deer and a few people. We looked in at Inverie bunk house - spotless, warm, welcoming, full - but we'd always intended to camp at the Long Beach, and so we did. It was great - dry, windswept, nice composting loo and a communal log cabin.
Long Beach, Inverie

We headed into Inverie quite early and had tea, coffee and strange organic coke in the Pottery while watching the world go by; there's always something going on in Inverie. We had fun trying to spot the oldest tax disc - 2002 - and were entertained by the efforts of a film crew battling the midges and the sudden showers to make a programme - as far as we could gather - about 'great railway journeys'. They were a bit out of their depth. We had dinner in The Old Forge which would have been better if all the seafood hadn't been eaten at lunchtime, but the craic was good:-

Local to Isla, "Where are you from, Dear?"


"Och, well, don't let it get you down"

Isla thought this was very funny but then he said the same thing to the smart TV presenter from London who was a bit taken aback.

28th May 2014: Inverie to Aslaig, Sleat. 5 miles walking, 3 hours public transport

Hilariously midgy start to the day with all the campers packing up and breakfasting in midge nets like frenzied monks. We dismantled our tents in a mad rush and fled to the pier - forgetting to pay the very modest £4 per tent so I had to send them a cheque.

The Knoydart Seabridge disgorged a load of glum plumbers and aloof roofers with ladders and pipes and hurtled us across Loch Nevis with a huge surge of power passing beneath a pair of eagles. Important to book this ferry if you've got deadlines - it gets busy. In the distance we saw Sandaig, now rebuilt, where Neil's father was the shepherd in the 1930s. (Sandaig in Knoydart, not Sandaig/Camusfearna)

A hasty breakfast in Mallaig and stocking up on Smidge and meths - a heady cocktail - got us seperated and nearly missing the Armadale ferry. If there's a ferry to be caught we always do this. The next hurdle was how to get from Armadale to Kinloch. Internet research and phone calls had drawn a blank as far as buses were concerned, but we had the number of a taxi and were prepared to hitch, so we weren't too bothered. As it was the Portree bus was sitting on the pier waiting so half an hour later we were abandoned in the layby at Kinloch road-end.

The next stage was only slightly more researched. When we first thought about this walk I reckoned that it should be feasible to walk from Kinloch to Kylerhea ferry, thereby making a circular route from Kinlochourn through Knoydart, Skye and Glenelg. After some entertaining discussion on Walkhighlands - see 'Armadale to Kylerhea Ferry' January 2014 - we followed the route described in Heritage Paths.
from Sleat looking over Knoydart and Morar

It's easy to find at the Kinloch end - just follow the signposted 'Drovers Trail'. There's a very good recently-built path as far as Lietir Fura - maybe 1 mile - then it gets much worse, boggy and indistinct.

Some pioneer has marked it with wee red plastic flags but it's getting very overgrown and several times we found ourselves embrangled like Absalom in head high birch saplings. Slow going. No people, a few deer, lots of ticks. No worries about getting lost - keep the Sound of Sleat to your right and every time you're tempted to go downhill, don't. Wonderful views over the Sound of Sleat and Loch Hourn spread out like a big blue jersey, down to Ardnamurchan past Eigg and Arisaig and away to the North towards Torridon.

We camped a bit beyond Aslaig in a roughish spot and had a nutritious and tasty dinner of choritzo, tinned tomatoes,

onion and pilau rice all cooked in one pot.
campsite with a view of Sandaig

I had a wash in the burn; the midges were so amazed by such a spread of naked flesh that I hardly got bitten. Fiona had a lot of ticks, Isla had none. I had one which fell off when I touched it. When I was a farm worker I don't remember ticks being much of a problem, but we used to do all sorts of things to get rid of them:- hold a hot fag end near them; suffocate them with various products intended for animals like Arsenic or Deildrin sheep dip, Terebene Balsom, or some weird red grease for cows udders; scrape them off with the sharp knife you used for skinning lambs and trimming sheeps feet. All these methods, by the way, are entirely wrong and must never be attempted - it's amazing we survived.

29th May 2014: Aslaig to Gleann Dubh Lochain. 8 miles walking, 1 hour ferry and lift

Terrible midges drove us from our camp site before we could breakfast or indeed do anything, although one of us climbed a tree to escape them then fell out. We walked on following the path, such as it was, through acres of lazybeds curving across down to the shore, breakfasting at the first windy place.

Eventually we dropped down to Kylerhea landing up by the undersea cable marker at the South end of the beach and strolled through idyllic old hayfields full of bluebells and meadow flowers to the ferry.
crofts at Kylerhea

It's a wonderful route, but not many people will bother to follow us if it isn't improved - drained would do the trick - and publicised.

"I used to go on this when it was the Ballachulish Ferry", I said to the polite young fellow taking the ticket money. He gave me the sort of look you would give a talking fossil, together with some advice about buses to Corran:- "I think there's a bus on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, but you have to request it the day before". No good for us then.

We walked briskly to Glenelg, Fiona was much faster than us on the road, where Isla and I were a bit faster on the hill. We passed Bernera Barracks, grim and indestructable-looking. We had an excellent lunch at the Glenelg Inn, though the nice lassie serving looked a bit aghast when we tottered in, grim and indestructable-looking with our packs, our stained backsides, my stop light face, Isla's wild thing hair, Fiona's thirst for gin. We had a council of war over pastrami sandwiches. We had the remains of today plus tomorrow to get to Kinlochourn. There was no chance of a bus or a taxi to Corran, so we could either walk up Gleann Beag to Kinlochourn - 16 miles, or we could try and get a lift to Corran and walk up Glen Arnisdale to Kinlochourn - 9 miles. We decided to walk as far as the Gleann Beag turnoff, hitching as we went. If we didn't get a lift, 16 miles it was, and we would have to try and do at least 6 miles today.

As it was the second car along was lovely Stephanie who said "I wasn't going to Corran but it's my day off and I've nothing to do so I may as well take you". Fantastic! So half an hour later we're sitting in Sheena's Tea Hut admiring the blackbird's nest next to the serving hatch and having tea and biscuits.

Then we were away up the glen on a good road except for the precipitous bealach which was like a near-vertical pebbly beach
crossing the River Arnisdale

until we found a good place to camp at the narrowest part of the glen below Creag nan Crionach about 5 miles from Corran, next to the remains of an ancient circular stone bothy (or pile of stones, according to some of us).

We made a another pilau followed by chocolate. Freezing winds kept the midges at bay.

30th May 2014: Gleann dubh Lochain to Kinlochourn. 5 miles

We were all a bit cold in the night but the absence of midges in the morning was worth it. 2 cups of tea and porrage! We packed up the tents for the last time. It's great that tent manufacturers have finally realised that tents are not always packed under factory conditions and the bags are bigger nowadays. I remember the desperate struggles to get my 'Blacks Good Companion Minor' back into its bag.
good track from Glenelg to Kinlochourn

A cool brisk wind made for good walking; the path back towards Glenelg looks fine but there's a very steep climb according to the map up over Bealach Aoidhdailean and I'm quite glad we're not faced with it first thing in the morning - if it's called Bealach anything watch out! We're all in good form if a bit short of sleep after our chilly night. I guess we're pretty fit after all and while some of our kit is a bit makeshift (Fiona had to borrow a rucksack at midnight the night before we left having forgotten whom she lent hers to) we've got great tents and good bags and our packs aren't too heavy. We're careful to the point of regimentation to drink plenty, stopping every 45 minutes to drink at least half a pint; well, at least, most of us are. We're just drinking out of the burns; only problem round here I suppose would be a carcase upstream. Ideally should have brought some purifying stuff.

On along a good path and the last few choruses of 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down' and then we're climbing the steep path towards where the Glenelg path meets the Sheil Bridge path. It's a great walking route; it's easy to miscalculate how much time and effort can be spent if you're having to pick your way like we were on Skye. Stopped overlooking Loch Hourn for a last lunch of noodles enlivened by weird Moroccan rose petal sauce, then dropped down the steep rocky track to Kinlochourn.
looking over Loch Hourn

Felt quite emotional as we walked along the road to the farmhouse and Joe and Isabel's welcoming
tea and scones.


We'd come a long way and we'd all done well together; we'd shared great experiences:- the amazing scenery; the wildlife; the good people we'd met; the successes and the discomforts; the vast empty silences. A lasting impression for me is the ancient route we'd followed and its memories of past people:- lazybeds dug with the cas chom and enriched by creels of seaweed carried on their backs, beaches cleared of boulders to haul out boats and drystone cleits for fishing gear, the sentinel rowans by the scattered stones of their homes. I think Raasay poet Sorley MacLean felt the West Highland landscape kept the essence of the departed people ever present, imagining their innocent, carefree spirits passing and repassing eternally along ancient roads now shrouded and hidden:-

the road is under mild moss
and the girls in silent bands
go to Clachan as in the beginning

and return from Clachan
from Suisnish and the land of the living
each one young and lightstepping
without the heartbreak of the tale.

I hope those of you who read this will be tempted to follow this route and be young and lightstepping yourselves!

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Comments: 6


Activity: Mountaineer
Pub: The Lochindaal hotel
Mountain: Penyvan
Place: Islay
Gear: my Dad's crook
Ideal day out: along the shore then up into the mountains

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Trips: 1
Distance: 60 km

Joined: Jan 10, 2014
Last visited: Dec 17, 2014
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