[This walk was completed on the 21st June, 2019]
In the morning, I spread my belongings across the bunkhouse bed and begin to pack my rucksack.
Waterproof trousers, my Garmin, a compass, a whistle, emergency bivvy bag, my personal locator beacon, sun block, midge spray, blister plasters, and enough water and snacks to see me through a day and a night. (Although, I sincerely hope the ‘night’ bit won’t be necessary!)
Oh dear. My little rucksack is bulging and feels very heavy. But, at least I’m as prepared as I can be for the day ahead. I heave my pack onto my back, and head out along the road until I reach the fork with the footpath signs.
There is no obvious footpath around the coast of Knoydart, so my plan is to follow the path that goes over a pass between the mountains, dropping down on the other side to Barrisdale Bay. I’m not sure how clear the path will be, or how tough. The Knoydart Peninsula is supposed to be one of the few remaining wilderness areas on mainland Britain, and I’m feeling slightly nervous.
My nervousness isn’t helped when I spot a man ahead of me with his dog. The man is dressed in full waterproof gear and carrying a machete. A machete!
He goes through a gate, but then he turns off the track and begins to slash his way up a slope, hacking away at the bushes and bracken to clear a trail. I recognise him from the ferry and I guess he is a local. I wonder where he is going and what he is up to?
I go through the same gate, but continue along the track as it winds up a hill through woodlands. At the top of a slope is a ‘Welcome’ sign, with information about the Knoydart Foundation.
I knew the Foundation runs the bunkhouse, and the village shop, but I didn’t realise they owned over 17,000 acres of land as well.
Below me lies a flat area of valley floor that slopes gently down to a marshy bay. Among the green fields are scattered buildings and a small walled cemetery, while a great herd of deer are grazing on the grass.
It looks very pastoral down there, but that’s not the way I’m going. My track runs along the side of valley and heads up into misty, mountainous countryside.
It begins to drizzle, and I stop to pull on my waterproof trousers. Last summer was very beautiful in Scotland, but this summer has been pretty wet and dismal.
Around a bend, and I catch a glimpse of something perched on a hillock ahead of me. Looks like a war memorial of some sort. Meanwhile, next to the track, is evidence of logging activity.
In fact, a little swathe of hillside seems to have been cleared of trees. What a pity! [Later, I learn this isn’t commercial logging, but part of a long term plan to reduce the number of non-native trees on Knoydart and to improve the biodiversity of the area.]
I draw closer to the memorial. The track curves around the base of the hillock and I contemplate climbing up to look at the monument. But I have a long way to walk today, and don’t feel I should be wasting time or energy, so I stick to the track.
Nearby, on top of a small rock, someone has placed another memorial. This is to Joseph John Kilmurray who died in 2015. I wonder who he was?
I needn’t have worried about the state of the path, because the track is perfectly clear and easy to follow. Up the valley I go, making rapid progress – I just hope the mist clears before I reach the mountains at the top of the pass.
This is wild and empty landscape. It’s almost a shock to come across a building. Looks like an animal shed. Maybe a cow shed?
Cows? Uh, oh. And now I begin to come across the odd piece of evidence on the track – cow dung!
The track climbs gently. To my right is the Inverie River, running between banks lined with bushes and stumpy trees, while around me the slopes are covered in grasses and dotted with rocky outcrops.
The mist is beginning to lift and sunlight sweeps across sections of the landscape. Oh, look – another building in the distance… maybe a farm house?
The farm house turns out to be a ruin. I perch my camera on a nearby rock and take advantage of the good light to snap a self-portrait. It’s time to take off my waterproof trousers.
Onwards. I’ve reached the shore of a little loch. Loch an Dubh-Lochain, according to my map. The waters look dark under the low-hanging cloud that seems to have settled over the mountains ahead.
I work out that the name Loch an Dubh-Lochain actually means the Loch of the Black Pond – a very fitting name for this stretch of dark water. In fact, this long valley is named after the loch. Gleann an Dubh-Lochan.
Along here I meet a couple of backpackers, a young man and an older man, maybe father and son. We exchange brief greetings, but they look tired and seem in no mood for a chat. I wonder if they spent the night camping in Barrisdale? And are they heading for my bunkhouse? I take a photograph of their backs as they head off down the valley.
Further along, near the end of Loch an Dubh-Lochain, I see another group of four male walkers coming towards me. They are marching vigorously along, but stop for a brief chat. It’s very muddy up there, they tell me, pointing to their splattered boots and trousers.
The track has dwindled to a path, and now begins to climb the slope at the top of the valley. It’s a gentle slope but, yes, the men are right – it is VERY muddy.
I pick my way carefully, not wanting to get muddy water flooding over the top of my boots. Stop for a breather, take a photo looking back at the loch, and can see the men are making rapid progress down the valley. Are they staying in my bunkhouse too?
Meeting those speedy hikers, I’m reminded that I’m such a slooow walker. Normally, I would be worrying about being caught in the dark, but this is the 21st June – longest day of the year – and it won’t get dark until well after 10pm. It’s only 10:30am now, and I have plenty of time.
On the other side of the valley I can see some moving shapes grazing on the grass. Deer? No, cows! Glad they’re over there.
The hills are alive with water, with multiple silver trails falling down the slopes on either side of the valley. My path takes me over several small streams, and at some points turns into a minor river itself. Despite my efforts to keep dry, my feet, of course, do manage to get rather wet.
Climbing higher, and the path becomes drier, the landscape rockier. There are great views looking back down the valley.
Such a beautiful place, and not a building or soul in sight. I pass waterfalls, and cross over streams. Some are easier to cross than others…
… this one has a bridge but – uh, oh – some of the planks are missing. It may be a small step for a tall man, but it seems a giant leap for me.
I use my pole to test the planks before I trust them with my weight. And I make it across unscathed. Funny what a difference a pole makes. I only carry one, but it helps with balance and gives me confidence when crossing difficult surfaces.
Onwards, the path gets steeper. I’m approaching the highest point of Gleann an Dubh-Lochain, and I’m glad the mist has lifted. In fact, up here the wind has picked up and is blowing into my face.
Ah, this must be the top, because here is the obligatory cairn.
I stop at the top for a rest. Oh, my goodness, the other side looks very black and is that rain down there? Luckily, with the fierce wind, the clouds seem to be moving very quickly. Maybe they’ll blow away soon?
As I begin my climb down the other side, the clouds do indeed scurry away and the sun lights up the view. There’s no sign of Barrisdale Bay yet, and the slopes on the other side still look dark and forbidding, but at least I’m walking in intermittent sunshine.
It’s a steep track to start with, with slippery stones in places, but there is very little mud. I round a series of gentle curves and… oh, now there’s the water ahead. Beautiful.
As I get lower, the wind drops. Little streams have carved out shallow valleys in the hillside, and I walk through small groves of silver birches. These hardy little trees are such a delight – with their beautiful silver trunks and their ability to cling to even the most inhospitable slopes.
I’m hungry, but have decided to reach my turning-back point before I eat my lunch. So, I’m looking for the place where I ended my previous walk. It was near a little grove of trees – but I don’t see anything I recognise yet.
(Because I messed up my planning for this trek, I’d already walked to Barrisdale from the other side. But, since I meant to do this walk first, I have posted it first. Sorry for the minor deception!)
Oh, what a beautiful view. Down there are a few farm houses and the Barrisdale bothy and campsite. The sunlight is constantly changing, and I keep stopping to take photographs, so this section of the walk seems to last for ever!
Finally, I reach a little bridge and a familiar collection of trees. Yes, this is the point I reached before. I can even sit on the same rock and let my feet dry out. It’s 1:30 and time for lunch.
Unfortunately, at this point the sun disappears and the midges come out. I cover myself in Smidge, which means I don’t get bitten, but the wee pests are a nuisance as they hang around my face and try to get into my mouth. After a rather hurried lunch, it’s time to turn round and head back.
I puff up the steep hill and over the pass under the shadow of Mam Barrisdale. The muddy slope is still muddy and my feet get wet again.
By the broken bridge, I meet a couple climbing up the hill – a young man and young woman. He helps her over the broken part. They’re the third group of walkers I’ve met so far in this ‘wilderness’.
Near the top of Loch an Dubh-Lochain, the sun comes out and I grow warm. Time to stop, take off my winter jacket, and have another picnic under a little holly tree.
Funny how the return walk, through now familiar landscape, always seems shorter than the outward walk. I soon reach the bottom of the valley, and begin to meet other people. A couple of joggers and a couple of walkers.
Later, I walk along the road to the pub – The Old Forge, the remotest pub on mainland Britain. It’s nearly 7pm but the place is empty inside, as before. I buy a pint of cider and sit outside on a bench in the sunshine.
I’m the only person sitting in the pub garden, but an old shed and a nearby patch of grass are heaving with people. They are buying alcohol and snacks from the community shop across the road, and seem to be having a private party.
It’s a good end to a good day. Knoydart is a wonderful place, with an ‘island’ feel. I’ve very much enjoyed my time here, even if it isn’t quite the deserted wilderness that I was expecting.
Memorials and Monuments:
- The large monument on the hillock wasn’t a war memorial after all. It was erected by a Conservative MP and Nazi sympathiser called Ronald Nall-Cain, also known as Baron Brocket. The Baron was an absentee landlord and, by all accounts, a rather nasty man. He built the memorial for… well, for himself.
- I looked up Joseph John Kilmurray on the internet, and it appears he owned a London based company and died of a heart attack while walking in Scotland, aged only 50. I wonder if he died in Knoydart?
Later, in the bunkhouse, I get into conversation with a Munro-bagger, and discover why the pub is empty and the nearby shed is full of people. The Old Forge is run by a Belgium man who bought the place in 2012. After one of the locals was banned from the pub, the locals have boycotted the place and have set up their own impromptu bar next door. If only I’d known, I would have joined them!
More about Knoydart:
You can find out more about Knoydart and its colourful, and controversial, history from the following sites:
Miles walked today = 15 miles
Total around coast of Britain = 4,230.5 miles