Date walked: 14/09/2023
Time taken: 120 hours
I was curious to discover Glen Etive as I noticed how often it cropped up when people were asking for suggested walks. I had visited Glencoe and Rannoch Moor previously, but never walked along Glen Etive. So this was my opportunity. I chose mid-September in the hope the midges would be gone (which was nearly true) and the weather not too bad (which again, was nearly true).
Day one. Manchester to Rannoch Moor station and setting off across Rannoch Moor. Distance: 7kms. Ascent: 52m.
I caught the 7.25 Transpennine Express train direct from Manchester to Glasgow Central. On arrival, I had just under 2 hours to wait in Glasgow so got a breakfast baguette from Greggs and ate it at the station. The strong Glaswegian accent of the woman serving me was a challenge to understand, especially as she was asking if I wanted a square sausage, and I had no idea what this was! I played it safe and went for bacon.
My onward train departed from Glasgow Queen Street, just a short walk through the busy City Centre. The station was buzzing with people, and I was surprised how busy was my train to Rannoch (which goes on to Mallaig and Oban splitting at Crianlarich). It is a popular line, but fortunately I got a seat and had no one sitting next to me. At the very first stop (Dalmuir) the doors on one carriage would not close so we had to wait nearly an hour till a pair of orange clad engineers arrived and fixed it.
So I arrived at Rannoch Moor station nearer 4pm then my scheduled time of 15.09. The station is delightful, a vision of the past, how pretty rural stations used to be. Brightly painted, clean and welcoming. There is a tea room which was closed, but in another room there is an honesty box for drinks and snacks. I didn’t need anything apart from water to fill my bottles, but what a nice trusting place. It helps to restore one’s faith in human nature.
A 4x4 track heading west through woods was clearly visible and signposted, so I set off in good spirits and bright weather, though with a fresh breeze blowing.
The path soon leaves the lochside at a beautiful lochhead beach.
And heads through the woods on an undulating path, easy walking.
I emerge from the woods after a couple of hours and start looking for an overnight pitch. The moorland is rough and covered in tussocks of grass, so it is not easy to find a comfortable spot.
I pick the best I can find, though still a bit uneven, and the wind is blowing strongly now making pitching the tent tricky. Once it is all up, I move inside and enjoy a welcome cup of tea then eat a rehydrated meal. I am not heading out again, so start to read Ernest Hemingway’s Nobel prize winning book Old Man and the Sea, before bedding down.
Day two. Rannoch Moor to Kingshouse. Distance: 13kms. Ascent: 50m.
It was a chilly night, but thankfully the wind died down. My alarm was set for 7am and I have my usual cup of tea and a breakfast bar. It is a wonderful remote setting with a view across the loch and a magical cloud inversion.
I make my way back up from my overnight spot to rejoin the path heading due west along a rough, muddy and sometimes unclear path. After about an hour of difficult walking, a 4x4 track appears, and I am curious why it has been built to here, the middle of Rannoch moor with no habitation anywhere close. Perhaps it is to service the electricity wires which are running directly alongside the path. I refill my water bottles and continue making good time as the track turns into a gravel road.
It is cloudy but dry with no wind; perfect walking weather. Kingshouse comes into view and I arrive just after noon. I was last here when walking the West Highland Way with my son in 2009.
I had planned on having a full meal here so was disappointed to find it was only pies or sausage rolls. A steady stream of walkers on the WHW arrive over the lunchtime. The hotel has been modernised since my last visit with a posh hotel entrance and a welcoming walkers’ bar.
My plan was to continue along Glencoe and then into the Lost Valley where the MacDonalds hid their rustled cattle, and spend the night there. So I followed the WHW north for 3kms, but when the WHW turned off east towards Devil’s Staircase there was no continuation of the path along Glencoe, so I would have been walking along the busy A82 with fast cars streaming past. I did not fancy this ,so turned back and returned to Kingshouse for my overnight stop.
There was a cluster of other tents and the bar was buzzing with loud chatter. I ate in my tent then enjoyed a pint in the bar before heading to my sleeping bag for the night.
Day three. Kingshouse to Gualachulain at the head of Loch Etive. Distance. Distance: 19kms. Ascent: 0m.
I breakfast in the hotel bar and then have a leisurely departure. Today is downhill all the way along Glen Etive.
The scenery and setting is magnificent ...
... but it is spoilt by a single track road running all the way down. It is a hot and sunny Saturday so there is a steady stream of cars and campervans driving down, and later back up, necessitating stepping aside to allow them to pass. There is no proper roadside path so I am having to walk along the road; not kind on the feet; and because the road is so close to the river, many people stop and pitch their tents or park their vans by the roadside for an overnight stay. It spoils the beauty and tranquillity of the setting to my disappointment.
After a few hours of walking, the road diverts slightly away from the river so becomes less conducive to casual roadside camping and the traffic density eases. The road enters woodland and passes through the hamlet of Dalness before returning to follow the river more closely. I spot a stag grazing gently.
The loch comes into sight but cars and vans are still heading along the road to spend the night at the lochhead parking and camping area. I arrive about 4pm and decide not to go any further as the ongoing lochside path is on steep ground so I am unlikely to find a good camping spot. But I do not want to camp too close to the other tents and vans at the lochhead as I fear it might be noisy on a Saturday night. So I walk another 400m along the lochside to a lovely spot by a jetty reaching out into the loch. I set up my tent and just hope no one else will arrive later - which thankfully they did not.
But a problem now almost cut my trip short. I had drunk all my water when I arrived at my camp spot, but was not concerned as I was right by the loch. But when I filled my bottles, it was SALTY! I know the loch enters the sea at its southern end, but that is some 40 kilometres away. I had assumed (incorrectly as it turned out) that the inflow of fresh water from the River Etive would keep the northern end fresh. But no. So without any water, I would have needed to turn back and retrace my steps to find fresh water upstream. Luckily, two kind campervans filled one bottle each from their supplies which enabled me to continue, confident that I could refill the next day from streams running down the hillside into the loch.
So once this was sorted, I ate and settled into my bag. I could hear some distant noise from the top end of the loch so was pleased I had not camped there.
Day four. Gualachulain at the head of Loch Etive to Bonawe (where the loch heads west towards the sea). Distance: 19kms. Ascent: 50m.
I had been warned that heavy rain was forecast for today and tonight, and when I emerged there was indeed a complete change in the weather. Dark threatening clouds filled the sky, though it was not actually raining. I had a breakfast of rehydrated granola to get me all the way to Oban, then packed up and set off by 8.30am. I have finally left the road, which I was walking on the whole of yesterday, but the lochside path is difficult walking. It is muddy, up and down, covered in ferns and with a few tricky scrambling sections to negotiate. It is tiring and slow going.
Fortunately, after about three hours an unpaved road appears, so the walking becomes much easier, though it is still through woods, so I get only occasional glimpses of the loch and no views of the surrounding mountains. It is raining slightly as I continue on the forest road for about four hours. There is no one else around, it is beautifully peaceful, but the walking is a bit monotonous and tedious. I have not seen any other walkers since leaving Kingshouse where they were all following the WHW. This is not a well-trodden route.
I arrive at a quarry which is about the point where I am planning to stop for the night, but there is nowhere suitable to pitch my tent. The ground is uneven and covered in ferns and trees, and the quarry has made a mess of the roadsides with dirt and dust. I continue searching but the weather is feeling threatening, so I want to get pitched before heavy rain sets in. It is always a dilemma when looking for a camping spot in difficult terrain: do I take the first possibility even if not ideal, or do I press on in the hope of finding somewhere better?
Given the threatening weather I decide to grab a tiny space by a public bench. I have no idea why the bench is placed here as it is not overlooking a beautiful view but the quarry!
However, it has a rough, flat space in front of it and I decide it will have to do. I manage to get the tent up and inside before the heavy rain starts, but everything is a bit wet from the steady drizzle which has been falling. Once inside I am not venturing out again.
Day five. Bonawe (where the loch heads west towards the sea) to Oban. Distance: 24kms. Ascent: 120m.
In the night I heard stags bellowing, but not close to me; and in the early morning I was woken by a loud crashing noise from the nearby quarry. I am up at 6.30am and away by 8am. There is nothing to tempt me to linger! Thankfully the heavy rain during the night has stopped.
From the quarry onwards it is a gravel then tarmac road, with no better places to camp, so I am glad I stopped where I did last night. I am now walking alongside the loch, unlike yesterday when the trees obscured the view, though it does then veer off inland and up before returning to the loch. I pass a few houses as civilisation starts to appear, and the Connel bridge across the mouth of the loch comes into view. It is a grand example of Victorian engineering. It was opened in 1903 to carry the railway, and was the second longest span after the Forth rail bridge. It now carries road traffic since the rail line closed in 1966.
I cross on the narrow pavement and for a short stretch walk beside the busy A85, before thankfully taking a narrow, traffic free road following close to the railway line. This is through pleasant country outside Oban, but becomes the longest uphill section of the whole walk. Not especially steep, but relentless; and frustrating when I am so near the end and just want to get there.
At the summit there are a couple of old railway cottages and a settlement of ramshackle caravans. A friendly lady calls out and offers me a coffee, but I prefer to press on. She reassures me it is downhill all the way into Oban; and she is correct. I arrive at the outskirts of the town and head into the centre where I have a room booked at the Premier Inn.
I arrive at 2pm and hope my room might be ready even though check-in is officially 3pm. A rather officious lady tells me it is a £10 surcharge for early check-in. I thought she might have looked on the computer to see if my room was ready but no, £10 for early check-in. So I leave my sac and head into the town for something to eat and return after 3pm.
My resupply parcel has arrived with clean clothes, comfortable trainers and shaving kit. After a few days wild camping it is always a pleasure to sink into a hot bath and put on clean, fresh clothes. In the evening it is out for a beer and fish and chips before settling into a proper bed.
Day six. Oban to Manchester.
I breakfast in the hotel and walk the short distance to the railway station. The train is busy with walkers and tourists but I again manage to get a seat with no one next to me. At Glasgow I walk from Queen Street station to Central station and catch my train to Manchester to arrive safely there at 16.22, the trip over.
Overall, this walk was something of a disappointment. Rannoch moor on the first two days was the best, as it is wonderfully remote and wild. But thereafter: I didn’t make it to the Lost Valley, Kingshouse didn’t do full meals in the bar, the road along Glen Etive was busier with traffic than I had expected, and the extensive road walking was hard on the feet. When I did leave the road and follow the lochside path, it was through woods which obscured the view; and my final camping spot by the quarry was not the best. But I have walked the length of Glen Etive, and Scotland still has the most amazing scenery and impressive mountains. I will be back.
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