The Cape Wrath Trail is a long-distance hiking route in Scotland. It links Fort William with Cape Wrath, the farthest northwest point of the British mainland. Renowned as one of the toughest long-distance walks in the UK, it is not waymarked, has no single recognised route, and there is frequently no actual path underfoot. Due to its informal nature, the length of this trail varies. Most thru-hikes are around 230 miles in length.
My hike of the Cape Wrath Trail took place between June the 3rd and June the 22nd 2015, and consisted of eighteen days of walking and two rest days. My route was 241 miles in length and was based on the itinerary laid out in the popular Cicerone guide by Iain Harper, with a few small modifications. I used the new Harvey Cape Wrath Trail maps for navigation.
The CWT is one of the finest foot journeys of its kind in the UK and takes the hiker through some magnificent wild locations. Its tough and frequently trackless nature makes the route I took potentially tricky in poor weather, requiring good navigational skills, a high level of fitness, and the ability to cope with hazards such as the crossing of swift-flowing rivers. But it’s also truly magnificent. In this series of blog posts I will tell the story of my CWT adventure.
I woke that morning at Glendhu bothy to a gentle tapping sound. The light was streaming through the window but I saw moving shapes obscuring it, blurry through the layer of grime, and in a flash I was out of my sleeping bag to see what the hell was going on.
I stepped outside the bothy and was greeted by three wild ponies who had been nosing at the windows. The animals stood there in the ethereal morning light like mythical creatures from another world. Just another moment of magic on a long and magical journey.
Day 18 would be hard; I had to make it all the way to Rhiconich at trail mile 221. In between lay some of the wildest terrain in Scotland.
My day began by crossing the pass of Bealach nam Fiann, a good estate road crossing the lower slopes of Ben Strome. Despite the developed access track, beautiful wild terrain surrounded me and my mind lost itself in the complex tessellation of rock and water. But I also noticed a worrying pain in my left shin, more pronounced when hiking downhill.
Had I overstretched myself the previous day? It hardly seemed likely; after more than two hundred miles, I had my trail legs and, surely, the risk period for overuse injuries was well past.
But it got worse. By the time I began the steep descent on the other side of the pass, I was wincing in pain with every step and hobbling along like a cripple, using my trekking poles as crutches. It only hurt when going downhill and could hardly be felt on the flat or when climbing. Was it shin splints? A sprain? I didn’t know, but I realised it could threaten my ability to finish the trail.
Time to make some decisions.
There was a road ahead, stringing together a few remote settlements in the wilds. Curiously the option to give up still didn’t occur to me – escape would have been difficult at this point anyway, but I was still thinking in terms of overcoming the challenges of the trail and making it all the way to Cape Wrath no matter what.
However, I would need to modify my plans. The guidebook recommended a very tough route over Ben Dreavie then through the wilderness beneath Sail Mhor and Foinaven, but a quick look at the map revealed that the road gave me an option to bypass these difficulties.
So I decided to take a road walking diversion. Perhaps my body needed an easy day to recover from the stresses of the trail.
The beautiful and mysterious Loch Stack
I started walking and soon settled in to a pace and gait that felt comfortable. My shin twinged on the downhill sections, but they were very gentle on the tarmac road. It felt galling to bypass this section of spectacular wildness, but the road walk wasn’t so bad, and it felt good to be making a good pace for once.
The weather wasn’t bad that day – cloudy, but it only drizzled on and off a few times. The midges were, however, out to get me with a vengeance. I actually had to walk with my headnet on during a particularly bad section.
Probably one of the most scenic roads in the UK
Then I reached a junction in the road, and for the first time I saw a sign showing me just how close I was to the end of the line. It hit me like an electric shock.
‘But I don’t want it to end!’
Road walking is tiring when you do it for mile after mile, and I was pretty knackered by the time I pulled in to Rhiconich at about 8 p.m (but, important to note, still entirely blister free). I was unable to resist the siren call of the bar; within minutes I had a pint of cold beer in front of me and was swapping stories of the trail with the bar staff.
They had seen no other CWT hikers for a long time. What had happened to everyone else on the trail? I had no idea.
I left the bar after an hour to look for somewhere to camp. I eventually settled for a marginal pitch near the river, on a lumpy bracken field, and spent an uncomfortable night besieged by more midges than I’d ever seen in my entire life.
Day 19 – June the 21st
When I woke the next morning, the first thought that crossed my mind – after the ‘Sweet Jesus, look at all those midges!’ moment, that is – was that I only had twenty miles of trail left in front of me. And then I wondered what would happen when I got to the end. What did the end of the trail even mean? I’d been walking towards it all this time, and I still didn’t know.
The beautiful Loch Inchard
This was one of the easiest stages of the CWT and a final opportunity to draw breath before the grand finale. I had a gentle road walk to Kinlochbervie ahead of me, a resupply, then a final short hike to Sandwood Bay. I took my time and enjoyed the views. Fortunately the road walk the previous day seemed to have done the job and my shin no longer troubled me.
I’d originally planned to resupply at the London Stores, a place legendary amongst CWT thru-hikers, but it was closed due to the fact that it was a Sunday. I decided to press on to Kinlochbervie.
Kinlochbervie is a curious place – a fishing port that looks like it would be more at home in Scandinavia or the Arctic than the UK. It has the feel of a frontier town about it and the only general store is a Spar shop near the harbour complex. I had to wait for the shop to open so spent a couple of hours crashed out next to the bay, drying out my gear in the sun.
I also took the opportunity to try ringing through to range control at Cape Wrath to find out if any exercises were planned on the live firing range, but was unable to get through. When the Spar shop opened I made enquiries inside but nobody knew of any planned exercises.
Looks like the Mediterranean!
After buying my supplies, I set off along the little coastal road leading to Sheigra and Sandwood Bay. I’d last come this way about six years previously on a sea cliff climbing trip. There were numerous newly built houses – holiday homes, I guessed – that I hadn’t noticed on my previous visit.
Amazing views everywhere
Looking back to Kinlochbervie
When I reached the car park for Sandwood Bay, I met two men walking towards me with backpacking rucksacks. I immediately recognised fellow CWT hikers and stopped for a chat. It had been such a long time since I’d seen anyone else on the trail that I had started to think I was the only one left.
These guys were southbound section hikers heading for Ullapool. They’d camped at Sandwood Bay the previous night after crossing over from Cape Wrath, and informed me that the terrain was relatively firm with few bogs. Music to my ears!
In contrast with most other sections of the trail, the path to Sandwood Bay was very busy with day hikers. I must have met a dozen or more people on the short section of well-drained path leading to the sea.
The weather took a turn for the worse, though, and unfortunately I didn’t get much of a view as I descended towards the dunes.
My first view of Sandwood Bay
As it began to rain, I spent some time looking for the best place to camp. Sandwood Bay is undoubtably the best wild-camping location on the entire CWT, with a huge variety of flat grassy pitches. I selected a sheltered spot amongst the dunes and topped up my water supply from the nearby freshwater loch.
Unfortunately I didn’t get the coveted Sandwood Bay camping experience of watching the sun set over the ocean. It chucked it down with rain for fifteen hours and I spent the evening in my tent.
Day 20 – June the 22nd
When I woke the next morning, I knew that I couldn’t put it off any longer. This was my final day on the trail. Only eight miles remained between my wild camp and the farthest NW point of the British mainland.
But the sun was out at last, and I could enjoy Sandwood Bay at its best.
After walking across the beach I had a river to cross – actually a little deeper than I expected – then a sandy cliff to climb. From the top of the cliff I was thrust immediately into the rough and serious terrain of Cape Wrath.
The final stage of the trail is almost entirely trackless and offers the hiker a choice of route: stick to the coastline or plot a course further inland? I’d heard that the inland route was easier, so I picked that. The twinge in my leg seemed to have gone but I didn’t want to take any chances this close to the end.
The terrain was bleak, open, largely featureless, and involved map-and-compass navigation right from the start. My first task was to locate the remote bothy of Strathchailleach.
A typical Cape Wrath scene
Strathchailleach has a fascinating history and I was looking forward to seeing the amazing wall paintings left by its last permanent occupant, James McRory Smith. They didn’t disappoint. Although I didn’t stay the night in this bothy, it was a memorable place to brew a cup of coffee and spend half an hour.
The kitchen area
The most colourful bothy in Scotland?
Unfortunately it started raining again when I was at the bothy, and low cloud came back in with a vengeance. The bogs were pretty vicious on the line I ended up taking, too. It felt like the CWT was throwing everything it had at me right at the end.
I set my compass and contoured around the hill. After a while I came across the barbed wire fence marking the edge of the live firing zone.
The CWT guidebook emphasises that it’s very important to check with range control beforecrossing into the live firing zone. I had tried to phone through the previous day but got no response. Due to the hill fog, I could see no red flags flying on the fence, and I optimistically assumed everything would be fine. Over the fence I climbed!
Onwards. One more hill to climb and contour around, then a long, gentle descent through bog. I saw a hard-surface road in the distance leading around one final headland. My last navigational act of the trail was to set my compass due north.
When I reached the road, I met a sentry parked with a landrover. He told me that the RAF was about to commence bombardment in fifteen minutes! When I told him I hadn’t seen any red flags he was quite good natured about it, and told me it would be safe to wait at the lighthouse until the all-clear was sounded at 4 p.m. He told me that I was allowed to stay at the Kearvaig bothy that night, but that I would have to be escorted to the edge of the exclusion zone the next morning. I got the impression this sort of thing was a regular occurrence.
So I began the final walk towards the end of the trail. I walked around the side of the last hill, and the lighthouse came into view.
I entered the courtyard in a daze. A minibus had just arrived with tourists to see the lighthouse, and when someone asked me where I’d walked from, I told him (truthfully!) that I’d come from Fort William.
The end of the CWT
It was an emotional moment. I walked to the edge of the cliffs and looked over, perhaps seeking an extension to the trail, but there was no more north. I had come to the end.
The rock of Cape Wrath: big, scary, but also beautiful. Rather like the trail itself.
I went back to the odd little cafe in the outbuildings where I ordered a cup of coffee and leafed through the trail register. I saw a couple of familiar names in there, but it contained vanishingly few records of completion for the month of June – a far cry from the fifteen or so aspirant thru-hikers a week I’d heard about all the way back at Glenfinnan.
The attrition rate that month had been brutal. But I’d survived the Cape Wrath Trail.
After the bombing had finished and the all-clear was sounded, I walked a few miles along the coast to the charming bothy of Kearvaig, which was to be my final bothy stay of the trip (and also the northernmost bothy in Scotland). It proved to be the best bothy of all, in a stunning location and lovingly maintained by the MBA.
I watched the waves crashing on the beach and listened to the screech of gannets on the cliffs. I sat in the chair beside the window and thought about the amazing journey I’d experienced – the austere sublimity of life on the trail, the warping of time and space back to their proper dimensions, the evidence of things not seen. I knew the trail had changed me. And I think I understood at last what it meant.
“As long as I live, I’ll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I’ll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm, and the avalanche. I’ll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can.”
Are you looking for a more in-depth guide to hiking the Cape Wrath Trail? The best resource online today is this excellent planning guide from Outdoors Father, including crucial details on logistics, river crossings, alternative routes, and more. Get your copy here.