Cape Wrath Trail 2: Sourlies to Shiel Bridge

Sourlies to Barisdale

I woke up in Sourlies bothy to the sound of singing sea birds and a gentle breeze which whistled through small gaps in the stone walls. My body was stiff and my feet felt sore. The first few steps after getting out of my sleeping bag were always a little painful, but after moving around a bit my muscles soon warmed up. I had managed to dry my base layers by sleeping in them, the inside of my waterproof clothing however was still covered in moisture despite being left on the line during the night. As I had arrived at Sourlies in the darkness, I had no idea what the landscape outside of the bothy looked like. Stepping out of the door revealed a surrounding of mountains, waterfalls and the sea loch, Loch Nevis. The moist sea air had the salty scent of seaweed, and there were intermittent showers coming in from the west, bringing in the kind of misty rain that quietly soaks your clothes.

After taking 12 hours to walk from Glenfinnan to Sourlies bothy on the previous day, you’d think that I’d have set off early to Barisdale to avoid walking in the dark again, but this place was special and it was difficult to leave it behind. Although I wished that I could spend the day there, I set off at 11 am for a challenging walk through Knoydart. Having put on my already wet waterproof clothing, it was another damp start to the day. The path from Sourlies tracks the coastline before crossing a large expanse of marshland and crossing the River Carnach, following it to the north east. Just after leaving the bothy, I spotted some jumpy sheep that looked like they hadn’t been sheared for a number of years – perhaps they had been hiding in a cave. The marshland was made up of deep puddles and spongy water logged moss and it was difficult to cross it without sinking deeply into the ground and getting water in my boots – gaiters helped of course. There is a bridge across the river, but it is in a state of disrepair. I thought it looked a little rickety, but it wasn’t until I crossed to the other side that I saw a sign stating “Warning: Bridge in dangerous condition – use at own risk”. The sign on the other side was face down on the ground.

After following the river for a mile or so, I came across the first river crossing where I was unable to simply step across rocks to get to the other side. I was nervous about this, so I spent 10 to 15 minutes walking up the hill to determine the best place to cross. I found a reasonably shallow spot with only a short section of deep, fast flowing water on the far side. Although I’d thought about river crossing strategies, I had not really decided on which one I was going to take. I had been advised that neoprene socks were a good call because they are grippy and insulating, providing at least a small amount of protection for the feet. Having been unable to buy some in Fort William, my options were either to go with bare feet, socks or in my boots. As it was my first crossing, I wanted to be as safe as possible, so I went through in my boots to provide the most stability. Upon stepping into the stream, it wasn’t long before I felt the cold, refreshing water rushing into my boots and immersing my feet. Walking poles are key for safely crossing in fast flowing water as they give you two additional legs. On the other side I emptied my boots of water, dried my feet, and put on some Sealskinz trekking socks so that my feet would stay (relatively) dry. I did all subsequent river crossings with my bare feet.

I continued following the river, boots squelching away. The views were stunning, with huge rocky boulders, and a number of waterfalls and pools, however I was unable to take many photographs due to the heavy rain, which had put the rivers and streams in spate. Eventually I began the ascent up towards the mountain pass to Gleann Unndalain, and ultimately Barisdale. The ascent was steep, approximately 400 metres with much of it over the equivalent horizontal distance. This was made more difficult by the rough tussocky terrain with large outcrops of rock, and strong gusting winds which whipped the rain against my face. This would have been challenging without a rucksack, never mind my extremely heavy one. Once again, my walking poles were essential for keeping me on my feet and supporting my knees which were working especially hard. My ankles and feet were hurting the most by this point, but at least my clothing was keeping out the worst of the weather and I was fighting off the cold with physical exertion. Towards the top, the grassy tussocks turned into wet snow, which turned into deep powdery snow, and this hid all but the contours of the already vague path. I felt the wildness of this place in my skin and in my muscles and bones. I admit that although I was exhilarated by what I could see and feel, there was a slight fear in me. I had felt it the previous night when walking in the dark to Sourlies, and I felt it now having almost reached the top of the mountain pass to Barisdale. This type of physical challenge in such a wild place, in such wild conditions, was uncharted territory for me, and I was on the limit of my comfort zone.

At the top of the pass, the rain had stopped, and when I finally got a glimpse over to the other side, down towards Gleann Unndalain, the golden light from the setting sun was breaking through the clouds. Although it would be dark soon, I could almost see Barisdale, and the sight of sunlight gave me a huge morale boost. I practically bounced down the side of the mountain to Barrisdale Bay and even the hail didn’t take the grin off my face. The bothy at Barisdale isn’t a traditional bothy. There is electricity, lighting, a toilet, and a kitchen sink, but no fire place. There is also a box in which you are expected to pay £3 for use of the bothy, or £1 for use of the facilities if you choose to camp outside. Being indoors only made it more obvious to me how exhausted I was – more than anything it was clear that I wasn’t carrying enough food. I was carrying a bit less than 2500 calories of food per day, this is the recommended amount for a standard day of city living, but not nearly enough for the amount of exercise I was doing. All of the clothes I had been wearing were wet, so I hung up everything but my base layers, which I would once again wear dry in my sleeping bag. I cooked up an expedition meal, and had a hot cup of vegetable stock, taking advantage of an OXO cube from the kitchen. I boiled some more water and filled up my Nalgene bottle to use as a hot water bottle, climbed into my sleeping bag, and I was off to sleep in no time at all.

Barisdale to Shiel Bridge

I was up and out of the door just after sunrise the following day. After following a vehicle track for a short while, you turn east towards Kinloch Hourn. The vehicle track gradually turns into a narrow path between overgrown shrubbery. The path dips up and down, following the side of the loch. Towards Kinloch Hourn itself, some of the path is paved with stone slabs and a wall which drops down to the water of the loch, before eventually opening out to a road and what I assumed were some small boat houses. I was still feeling exhausted from the previous day, and had vague hopes that the cafe would be open. It wasn’t, and there was nobody to be seen. I walked around the loch to the Stalker’s Lodge. Here, there was a small cabin with a sign that says: “Public Telephone”. North of Kinloch Hourn is a mountain pass to Shiel Bridge, with over 1000 metres of steep ascent. I checked my map to remind myself if there was an alternative route to Shiel Bridge, even checking how far it would be if I followed the road to the east. I knew that my only options were to go up and over the mountain pass, which at this point was covered in cloud, or to call a taxi to Shiel Bridge. I headed into the cabin and looked at the phone – it was clearly from an era before mobile telephones had become the norm. The number of a taxi firm was stuck to the side of the phone. I didn’t call it. I thought about calling my partner or family for some morale support. I didn’t.


I set off up the steep forested vehicle track. I had decided to try and make it to Shiel Bridge by foot, with the knowledge that I could retreat back to Kinloch Hourn if it was necessary. After the initial steep ascent, the track levels off and splits up, with one track following the electricity pylons to the north west, and another track heading north to the mountain pass. Heading north, the weather was taking a turn for the worse. There were strong side winds and gusts, and heavy, wet snowfall. I think I already knew deep down that I wasn’t going to make it over the pass, but I had to convince myself, so I continued. Just before the burn, Allt a’Coire Reidh, there is a small shed where I took some brief shelter. I had previously read that in bad conditions it could be used as an emergency shelter. The shed was raised above the ground with short wooden stilts, and inside it was small, probably not long enough for a tall person to lie down in. When standing on the floor boards, they bent in the middle to the extent where I could probably have put my arm between them and touched the ground if I had wanted to. There were small holes in the wall through which the wind was blowing spin drift. It was quite clear why the word “emergency” had been used to describe it.

I crossed Allt a’Coire Reidh by stepping across rocks – there was only one obvious crossing point where I could do this. The water was deep and so using walking poles for stability was difficult, and I very nearly fell into the water with the wind blowing like it was. Not long after I continued walking on the other side, a gust of wind caught my bag and I was blown to the ground. I was already wearing my ski goggles because the wind was whipping snow into my eyes. Looking up at the mountain pass, which was 500 metres higher than I was, I knew that the winds would be raging and visibility would be nil. I also knew that there were additional river crossings and that those rivers would be in spate. After being blown over at an altitude of just 300 metres, I finally accepted that I had reached my limit and made the decision to retreat back to Kinloch Hourn. By the time I got back to the river I had crossed, the rocks I had used were already fully submerged in water, and I was lucky to get back across to the other side without too much difficulty. I was physically and mentally drained, and it took me a long time to get back to the stalker’s lodge. During this time I was feeling pretty miffed about making the retreat, but also happy that I had made the decision to be safe.

The public telephone in Kinloch Hourn was out of order. I was able to use the phone at the stalker’s lodge to call for a taxi to Shiel Bridge – it would arrive in two hours. The deer stalker, Donald, and his wife treated me to a cup of tea, some coconut macaroons and the warmth of an electric heater. I felt pretty shaken up, and even though I was sat there in soaking wet clothes, I was relieved to be off the mountain and to have company for the first time in three days. To improve matters further, about an hour after I had arrived at the lodge, three German walkers arrived and asked to share my taxi. The walk to Shiel Bridge would have been 7 or 8 miles, but the taxi journey was 50 miles (£100) – £25 a head was a vast saving on my part! During the taxi journey, I learnt from the Germans that they had seen my head torch when I had done the night time descent to Sourlies bothy two nights previously, and that they had come within 100 metres of me on the previous day when I crossed the river after leaving Barisdale. Apparently I just never looked back. I found it funny that having felt completely alone for the past three days, that there were three German lads nearby the entire time. They had decided not to attempt the mountain pass at all, and were just walking the Glenfinnan to Shiel Bridge section of the Cape Wrath Trail. On arrival in Shiel Bridge, I checked in to the Kintail Lodge Hotel’s Trekkers Lodge, ordered a pub meal, and drank a couple of pints of stout.

At this point, I seriously considered taking a break from the walk. Of course, after a rest day at the Trekker’s Lodge and stocking up on food, I was ready and raring to get out and walk the next section of the Cape Wrath Trail.

Continue to Cape Wrath Trail 3: Shiel Bridge to Craig

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