Cape Wrath Trail 3: Shiel Bridge to Craig

Shiel Bridge is a small village on the eastern edge of Loch Duich. I had arrived at the Trekker’s Lodge there at around 8pm the previous night, after having to bail at Kinloch Hourn following a fairly treacherous time in the mountains above. During my rest day, the weather had improved, and my focus was on eating, and getting my clothes clean. There’s a small shop with basic supplies 10 – 15 minutes walk from the lodge – here I was able to stock up on chocolate and get what I needed to cook up a hefty portion of pasta. The staff at Kintail Lodge Hotel kindly offered to wash my clothes after the usual hotel laundry had been done and to my embarrassment, I subsequently spent the rest of the day walking around in my thermal underwear while I was waiting for them. The lodge itself was old fashioned but cosy, and it was great to briefly have the company of other walkers, however I was alone for much of the afternoon. From the hotel, I had collected a resupply parcel with an additional 4 or 5 days worth of food, and my partner, who had posted the parcel, also included a poem which helped to raise my spirits:

Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Shiel Bridge to Loch Cruoshie

I set off from Shiel Bridge at 9am the following day. It was a beautiful, still morning and the air was cold and crisp. Initially the trail follows the A87 towards Morvich and then splits off to the east past the Mountain Rescue post and then north towards Bealach na Sròine. The weather was looking a little uncertain, with crepuscular rays falling between large grey clouds. After ascending through some woodland to the bealach, the wind picked up a little, carrying a dry, icy chill. This was a welcome change from the persistent rain of the days before. The bealach made for some tough walking as there was deep snow which would occasionally and unexpectedly give way, allowing my legs to sink in up to above my knees. After a short descent I reached the top of the Falls of Glomach. I was surprised that I hadn’t heard of the falls – they were much larger than I expected and absolutely stunning. The water roared as it fell down the side of the seemingly bottomless cliffside. There’s a small steep and slippery path down to a viewpoint of the falls and I mistakenly followed this at first, but the actual trail contours around to the north west a little before a steep, exposed descent towards Glen Elchaig. Heading north east past Carnach and towards the Iron Lodge, I came across a herd of 58 stags (I counted), who simultaneously turned their antlered heads towards me before gracefully bounding up the side of the hill – an incredible sight.

After the Iron Lodge, the estate track heads north and ascends alongside An Crom-allt before crossing over it. The track became increasingly more boggy and snow cover was intermittent but there was enough to obscure the track at times. There were imprints of deer hooves everywhere. This was a fairly long day at 15 miles and 1100 metres of ascent, but because much of it was over decent track, I had made fairly good time. I walked the final few miles to Maol Bhuide bothy during sunset, and it was fun bouncing along on the spongey waterlogged track towards the bothy as darkness fell. The bothy was beautifully situated, with a small bench outside the front door overlooking Loch Cruoshie. Inside, there was a small room with a fireplace and space for one to sleep – although there was no fuel for a fire, on top of the fireplace were some candles, and to my surprise, a half full bottle of Jura. While I wasn’t able to get a fire going, the candles, a couple of drams of whisky and a hot meal warmed me up nicely for the night.

Loch Cruoshie to Loch an Laoigh

The following morning was bright, but while there were hints of blue sky, it was mainly cloudy. I set off from Maol Bhuide Bothy, hoping to arrive at Gerry’s Hostel in Craig later that day. The way from Loch Cruoshie to the estate track north of Loch Calavie was only about 3 km but was surprisingly tiring and time-consuming to navigate through as the terrain was made up of large (deep) peat bogs and slippery moss. Before reaching the vehicle track, there is a wire bridge across Allt Loch Calavie.  From here, the track follows the side of the loch before descending to Bendronaig Lodge and then heads north to Loch an Laoigh. By the time I reached this point, I was already feeling exhausted – perhaps I just wasn’t eating/drinking enough, or maybe the small amount of whisky I’d consumed the previous night was taking it’s toll…

After being in two minds about whether or not to continue, I decided to spend some time searching out a nice camp site, and set up my tent by a small burn. From here there were brilliant views of the Corbetts to the east and I was briefly treated to some golden sunshine and a rainbow over the mountains. Shortly after this, I saw a heavy snow shower coming in over the loch, so I retreated into my tent to eat my evening meal. That night, the sky was awesomely clear and the milky way sprawled out from the horizon – I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen quite so many stars. One of the things I loved about being in my little red tent is that I only had to zip open the door (from my bed) to see all of this. While a bothy is probably better for getting a good night’s sleep, you just don’t get the same satisfying feeling of closeness to nature and the elements as you do when wild camping.

Loch an Laoigh to Craig

Despite being short in distance, the walk into Craig was one of the most physically painful parts of the trail for me. Shortly after packing up and setting off, I ascended up onto Bealach Bhearnais where the walking is almost entirely pathless. The snow got deeper higher up and the snowfall also became heavier. The difficult thing was that the snow was not only deep but much of it was soft and like on the previous day “gave way” when I stepped on it, meaning that my feet were regularly sinking into the snow, often up to my ankles, knees or higher. There were also many boulders on the bealach, meaning that beneath the snow there was uneven, rocky ground and occasional large air gaps which I would fall into. Coupled with the many ups and downs and steep stretches, this was very physically exhausting and even with my walking poles, it was particularly tough on my ankles. It was difficult, but I was happy to be walking in the snow again.

The top of the pass before descending down to Allt a’ Chonais was incredibly peaceful, and it would have been silent if it weren’t for the sound of the snowflakes landing gently on my backpack and jacket. There was so much snow on the ground and in the air that with the exception of the occasional outcrop of rock I was walking through an almost perfectly white landscape, it really was quite special. I was relieved to leave the bealach and start descending from the pass, and shortly after this I met a path which took me down to the river. Here there are a couple of wire bridges to help you across the water, but neither of them are suitable for use unless you fancy an ice cold dip. I managed to get across without taking my boots off. Although the rest of the walk into Craig followed a vehicle track, I had severe pain in my right ankle, and so it took me a good while to hobble to Gerry’s Hostel.

Gerry’s is a somewhat quirky hostel, and although it was quite a cold building, it was full of warm, kind souls and a cosy fire. I met an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman (and an Irishwoman) who kindly shared their aubergine lasagne and beers with me. They even invited me for breakfast the following day and as they were heading back to Glasgow kindly offered to leave me their leftover snacks as they knew that I didn’t have much. I was spending a lot of time on my own, so it was nice to have a group to socialise with for a change. At this point I was concerned that I was developing tendinitis, so I took an unplanned rest day here to mull over the state of my ankle and enjoy the crackling fire while the rain fell outside.

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