Written June 2012

Far West Highlands

After my last Munro-climbing trip in 2010, I plotted the 47 remaining Munros on a map and they clearly fell into four groups: 17 in the west, 23 in the east, 4 in the north and 3 in the south. I was unable to get up to Scotland in 2011, due to delays in buying and moving house (following my first choice of house falling through). By spring 2012 I was eager to resume Munro-climbing, and kept an keen eye on weather forecasts and mountain blogs, waiting for the late heavy snow to clear. A period of warm dry weather at the end of May melted the snow, and with high pressure forecast over Scotland for ten days into June, it was time to go!

I chose the West Highlands for my first trip of 2012. Snow tends to clear later in the east due to the gulf stream and the autumn deer-stalking season also starts later, so the east Highlands would be a better choice for the second trip. Of the 17 Munros in the west, 14 of them could be tackled in a week-long trek between the Falls of Cruachan (by Loch Awe) and Ballachulish (near Glen Coe). For the other three, one was on the Isle of Mull and two were along the Great Glen by Loch Lochy. The travel between these could be made by train, bus and ferry, so whilst logistically complicated, the trip would have plenty of rest days, ideal for getting back on form.

The next choice was the order in which to climb these 17 Munros. The week-long trek logically came first, so I could hit the ground running with a full set of food supplies. I decided to start from Ballachulish, since from this end of the route the Munros are solitary and well-spaced, with the second day of the walk not climbing any Munros at all. The last three days of the trek would involve climbing five, two and two Munros respectively, and so would be better at the end, with a lighter pack and improved fitness.

The Isle of Mull would be next, as this involved the most travel connections, and so due to unpredictability would be better in the middle, rather than at the end. This left the two Munros by Loch Lochy, which would involve a mammoth 24 mile walk out and back from the campsite at Gairlochy. This would be best at the end when I wouldn't have to climb anything afterwards!

The next choice was how to travel to the start of the trip. My first choice was to get a sleeper train from London to Fort William. Then it would be a short bus or taxi ride to Ballachulish. However this was fully booked, so I had to go with "Plan B", and take a brand new sleeper bus service run by Megabus between London and Glasgow. I could then get a CityLink coach to Ballachulish, arriving around 11:30am. The start time was slightly later than for the train, but would still give enough time for a full day's walk.


Tuesday 29th May 2012

The sleeper bus departs at 11.55pm, much later than the sleeper train, so allowed a full day's work in the office, before catching a train from Southampton to London. Since I didn't know my return route, I bought a return train ticket for £39.40, which didn't cost much more than a single. Then it cost £5 to take the London underground to Victoria Coach station. The cost of getting to London rather eclipsed the Megabus ticket price which was only £35! In retrospect it would have been cheaper and easier to get a coach from Southampton direct to Victoria.

I arrived at Victoria Coach Station around 10pm as I wanted to find the right location, and didn't want to be travelling on the underground and walking though London much later. Victoria coach station is not the most pleasant place to be hanging around late at night and I would have been happy for the Megabus to depart a bit earlier. Surprisingly there were lots of coaches departing late at night for locations all over the country. None of these other services have beds, so must make for very uncomfortable journeys.

Finally the Glasgow service arrived and everyone was issued with a card with their bunk number. The coach has both upright seats and beds, so you don't have to go to bed immediately. There was no sign of the advertised complementary overnight pack, including toothbrush/toothpaste, face mask and luggage label. Refreshments were available on a self-service basis, including tea and coffee. The staff didn't mention any of this, but given the ticket cost I could see why the extras weren't being actively promoted.

I sat up for a while chatting to some Glaswegian lads who were working in London and travelling up to visit their families for a few days. The bunks were triple-deckers and I was allocated to a top bunk. I went to bed soon after the bus departed, which was rather precarious twisting and turning through the streets of London, but once on the motorways, I soon got off to sleep.


Wednesday 30th May 2012

Ten minutes before arriving in Glasgow, everyone got an abrupt morning call. Less civilised than the cup of tea in bed on the sleeper train! The bus arrived at 7:45am, and my connection was at 9am, so I hung around Buchannan bus station and stopped in a café to get a cuppa. The CityLink coach ticket was £20 which I'd bought online in advance.

While queuing to get on the CityLink coach I chatted to a couple of German backpackers with enormous rucksacks (23kg compared to my 12kg). I asked them where they were going and they said the East Highland Way (http://www.easthighlandway.com/). They had previously walked the West Highland Way and the Speyside Way and were keen to try this new route from Fort William to Aviemore. I recommended the Cape Wrath Trail (http://capewrathtrailguide.org/, http://www.capewrathtrail.co.uk/) as a possibility for their next trip.

It was great to see the familiar sites of the West Highlands unfolding once again; the wooded shores of Loch Lomond with the Arrochar Alps on one side and Ben Lomond on the other. In Tyndrum the driver was expecting three passengers on a connecting service from Callander. He radioed the CityLink control centre, but they sounded indifferent and transferred him over to someone else, who appeared to say "carry on". We then drove on to Bridge of Orchy where the driver got a call to go back! Muttering obscenities he turned around, drove back to Tyndrum and gruffly told the three passengers to get on quickly. I was slightly irked by the 20 minute delay, but it was great to see CityLink putting their passengers first. Certainly a train wouldn't do the same!

The bus dropped me off at North Ballachulish, and it was then a short walk back across Ballachulish bridge and along a cycle path through South Ballachulish to get to the start of the route. I was heading for Beinn a' Bheithir - one of the few mountains in Scotland that are named separately from their individually-named summits. The mountain includes two Munros, the granite peak Sgorr Dhonuill and the pink quartzite peak of Sgorr Dhearg. The lower slopes of the mountain are surrounded on all sides by vast conifer plantations, and the first few miles of my walk were along a gently ascending forestry track. The Forestry Commission have done an excellent job of signposting the route to these Munros. At the apex of the track, there is a well-constructed path through the trees and out onto the open hillside.

The path continued up a steep corrie, with the last few hundred metres up an unpleasantly loose scree gully. Cloud was still swirling around on the upper slopes of the mountain, but this was rapidly clearing, giving great views combining the mountains of Glen Coe and Lochaber with the seascapes of Loch Linnhe. Soon I was thrilled to be standing on my first Munro of the trip, Sgorr Dhonuill. There was a small metal plaque screwed to a loose rock on the cairn with the inscription: "In memory of Donald Steward Maclaren, Farmer of Lagnaha, who died 2010".

The descent from this peak was quite steep and rocky, with a bit of easy scrambling, and I was soon down at the bealach ahead of the next Munro. Due to the late start, I decided to dump my pack behind a rock just off the bealach, then quickly nip up and down Sgorr Dhearg unhindered. From the summit there were spectacular views of the gleaming white peak of Sgorr Bhàn further along the ridge, and beyond across the glen to the Pap of Glencoe. Retracing my steps to the bealach I chatted to a couple of walkers on their way up, who were impressed at how fast I was moving (easy without a pack!).

I then had a rather awkward descent down unrelentingly steep slopes into Glen Duror, then a traverse around the perimeter fence of a recently-harvested conifer plantation. I was now below 400m, so had to remove a few ticks from my trousers along the way. By the time I reached the floor of the glen I was flagging and quenched my thirst from a burn running around the edge of the plantation. Since it was getting late and I was tired, I looked around for a suitable camping spot, but running my hands across the grass I found the site was infested with tiny ticks.

The only choice was to climb back up the far side of the glen and on to Màm Uchdaich. The 150m climb at the end of the day was an exhausting slog through deep heather, winding up between areas of birch scrub. At the top was a flat ridge, with yet another conifer plantation on the far side. Cloud was now building up and the daylight was fading, making ideal conditions for midges, which attacked me as soon as I stopped. I hurriedly put up my tent, and cooked a quick meal of couscous, to minimise exposure to the ravenous midges.



Looking back to North Ballachulish
Looking back to North Ballachulish
The quartzite peak of Sgorr Bhàn
The quartzite peak of Sgorr Bhàn

Thursday 31st May 2012

It started raining in the night and was still raining heavily in the morning. This was to be an easy day - all I had to do was walk to Beinn Sgulaird and establish camp part-way up the mountain. I waited as long as possible for the rain to cease, but by 10am it was still drizzling, so I put on waterproofs, quickly packed the tent, and hurried off away from the cloud of midges.

Just a short drop down the ridge I reached the entrance to the Glen Creran Plantation. Màm Uchdaich is an old right of way across the mountains from Ballachulish, and the Forestry Commission are obliged to keep this open. A short descent through a grassy firebreak brought me to a forest track. Due to harvesting operations the track had been extended since my map was produced, and I had a few confusing starts down overgrown paths, before deciding it would be simplest to follow the main track out of the forest.

By midday the rain had stopped and I was out of the trees and onto a public road. I briefly chatted to a family who were on holiday, staying in a cottage in the glen. They quizzed me as to whether the forest track was pushchair-friendly, which I confirmed it was. At this point I could have gone up Glen Ure to approach Beinn Sgulaird from the east, but there was a prominent "Private" sign, and in any case the access onto the mountain would have been a traverse across steep pathless slopes. I decided instead to walk three miles down the public road, cross a road bridge over the river, then follow a private road back upstream for a short distance

Deer fencing and steep impenetrable slopes limit the access to Beinn Sgulaird and an approach from the west is one of the few feasible approaches. Fortunately a good hill track (unmarked on my map) just before Taraphocain Farm gave access to the lower slopes of the mountain. This track continues for a mile to an old sheepfold.

From here I headed up bracken and heather-clad slopes into Corie nan Capull, removing ticks as I went along. At one point I heard a dragonfly, and saw it was trapped under wet vegetation. I used a trekking pole to gently free the dragonfly, which perched on the tip of the pole for a moment drying its wings, before flying off before I could take a photo!

Corie nan Capull is a spectacular place, ringed by boiler-plate granite slabs. I camped at the last flat grassy place just before the corrie headwall reared up and the burn was just a trickle. I heard several rockfalls in the night, echoing in the corrie, which was quite spooky.



Deciduous woodland in Glen Creran
Deciduous woodland in Glen Creran
Sunset from Beinn Sgulaird
Sunset from Beinn Sgulaird

Friday 1st June 2012

On getting dressed I noticed a small tick attached to my thigh, which I removed immediately. Climbing up the back of the corrie and along the ridge to Beinn Sgulaird, I passed several sheep grazing at the top of cliffs, the likely culprits of last night's rockfalls. It was nice to start two thirds of the way up the mountain. Within an hour I was standing next to the giant beehive cairn on Beinn Sgulaird, enjoying views down Loch Creran to the Lynn of Lorn. In the other direction I could see up Glen Etive, with Buachaille Etive Mòr and the Black Mount in the distance.

My next destination was Beinn Fhionnlaidh across a vast high moorland, dotted with lochans and bisected by the upper River Ure. I first descended steeply down Coire nan Tulach, then made a beeline for a confluence between two branches of the river. On the way down I disturbed a large herd of deer. At the confluence the river was slow-flowing, stained brown with peat and unpleasant to drink! Heading onwards cross-country, I passed above Airigh nan Lochan, then continued on through thick vegetation to Lochan na Fola. By now I was getting hungry and continued on for a short distance to a pleasant lunch stop by the Allt Bealach na h-Innsig.

After lunch I followed the stream up a charming little wooded gorge, then headed northwards to follow a line of metal fence posts, steeply up the slopes of Beinn Fhionnlaidh. There was a large patch butterworts growing here, with their distinctive banana-skin-shaped leaves and little blue flowers. They are a carnivorous plant and trap insects with their sticky leaves. On the ascent there were great views across to Ben Starav, rising with unrelentingly steep slopes from the floor of Glen Etive to its distinctive summit. These are granite mountains, with many exposed granite slabs on their sides, which shines white in the sunshine. Reaching the bealach I had great views north to Ben Nevis, the Mamores and Bidean in Glen Coe.

It was then a short walk along the ridge to the summit of Beinn Fhionnlaidh. The last section of the ridge has a few easy scrambles, so I left my pack and climbed up to the trig point on the flat-topped summit. I looked back and saw someone just reaching the bealach. Retracing my steps to the bealach I fully expected to bump into them, but was rather mystified when I didn't see them, as there weren't any other summits in the vicinity!

I now had to find a way down off Beinn Fhionnlaidh ready to climb Sgor na h-Ulaidh the following day. Looking at the map, the ridge continued, then plunged steeply down to my destination. The closeness of the contours suggested that this might be a rock climb, so instead I picked a way down the corrie on the far side of the bealach. This descent was probably the steepest of the whole trip, and the initial part was down unpleasantly loose partially-vegetated scree.

I was relieved to reach more level ground, and had a short climb back up to Bealach Caol Creran at 450m.

I removed a few ticks from my trousers on the way, but there weren't any ticks by the burn where I camped. There were several pretty orchids growing in this area - the mild climate of the West Highlands really encourages a wide diversity of plant life.



Ben Starav above Glen Etive
Ben Starav above Glen Etive
Whale-backed profile of Ben Nevis
Whale-backed profile of Ben Nevis

Saturday 2nd June 2012

I worked my way up onto the south west ridge of Sgor na h-Ulaidh, a bit of a slog, but soon I was standing on the summit enjoying views of Bidean and the Aonach Eagach in Glen Coe. The descent initially followed a good path, but the last section above Bealach Clach nam Meileach dropped steeply down through rock outcrops. A few small cairns had been placed to mark the easiest route. I then traversed around the side of Meall a' Bhùiridh, keeping high above the glen, before dropping down to enter Glenetive Forest plantation.

The first section in the forest was pleasant along a seldom-used track, which in places had been blocked by fallen conifers. Emerging onto the main forest road, I had to clamber under several fallen trees, which must make the ascent route non-obvious for those travelling in the opposite direction. Harvesting operations were in full swing further down, and the track had been enlarged and resurfaced to support logging vehicles. There were good views of the pointed peaks of Buachaille Etive Mòr and Beag through the trees.

To reach the road in Glen Etive, I walked through the yard of Invercharnan and disturbed three springer spaniels. The owner came out and said cryptically "it would have been quicker to take the new track". I soon became clear that he wanted walkers to use a new section of track constructed for the harvesting operations, to reach the road where there is a new car park. I explained that I had come across from the other side of the mountain, so wasn't aware of this new route and in any case I didn't have a car. I apologised for disturbing his dogs, then continued on through gate to reach the road. There was a sign on the gate asking walkers to use the new track. He should put a sign at the other entrance to his yard as well!

I then had a short walk along the road through Glen Etive, which is closely flanked by conifer plantations. There were many rhododendrons along the floor of the glen - these are an invasive species and if left unchecked will soon smother all other vegetation. Nevertheless they do look rather pretty in bloom. Soon I branched off the road down a farm track, which crossed a substantial bridge over the River Etive. This is the only bridge over this river, so is very handy for hillwalkers!

I was now entering the district of Lorn, having spent the previous three days on the Appin peninsula. I followed a track back up the river, initially through a new plantation of birches. The mountains on this side of Glen Etive have avoided the regimented confer plantations that blight the hills in Appin. Soon I was following a good path up Glen Ceitlein. I wanted to climb as high as possible today, since I had five Munros to climb the following day. Bumping into several walkers on their way down I quizzed them as to the best route up, but they were all in a hurry, and their advice was inconclusive.

In the distance I could see a burn tumbling down granite slabs from Lairig Dhochard at 600m. This looked the best bet for a high flat place to camp with a good water supply. Higher up the path, I branched off to reach the burn, and had a charming walk following the trickling water up the slabs, which alternated between branching to spread out over slabs and coalescing in deep enticing pools. Just before the top, the burn was reduced to a trickle and I found a flattish spot to camp. Once the tent was up I discovered the ground was quite uneven and I had a rather uncomfortable nights sleep.



The two Buachailles from Glen Etive
The two Buachailles from Glen Etive
Glen Etive from Glen Ceitlein
Glen Etive from Glen Ceitlein

Sunday 3rd June 2012

Regarding climbing the five Munros I planned to visit today, my guidebook noted "it will take a fit and determined party to complete such a long and gruelling route in one day" and "only the fittest and most determined of parties should consider taking on such a challenge"! I hoped that by starting and finishing the route at high camps, the traverse would be feasible, as this was really the crux of the trek.

I woke early and started walking by 7:30am. The first peak of the day was Meall nan Eun, a rather undistinguished Munro nestled amongst higher peaks. Ordnance Survey have done this peak a great disservice by placing it awkwardly on the corner of three map sheets. Its top is a gently slanting plateau, and it seemed to take a long time to reach the summit cairn perched on the far side of the plateau. There was a good view across to Loch Dochard and on to Loch Tulla on the edge of Rannoch Moor. I could also see the Munros of the Black Mount, which offer a high-level traverse from Kingshouse to Bridge of Orchy, which I'd done back in 2006.

Retracing my steps for a short distance, I continued over the minor peak of Meall Tarsuinn and down to a bealach peppered with tiny lochans. The next Munro was Stob Coir' an Albannaich, a peak with a steep north face. I took a slanting grassy ramp through the steep rocks, then turned right to ascend the ridge for a short distance to the mossy summit. The guidebook said this route could be quick tricky in the other direction in poor visibility. This Munro can apparently accumulate quite a bit of snow in winter, and there were still some large snow patches on its upper north-facing slopes.

The onward route descended across a broad plateau, then dropped down steeply to a bealach. The next section was up a well-defined ridge to Glas Bheinn Mhòr. At the top I met a couple of Geordie backpackers who were out wild camping and climbing Munros using the same approach as me. They said they were on their second round of Munros, but had only got into wild camping over the past few years, and really enjoyed climbing the Munros this way. I continued along the well-defined ridge over Meall nan Tri Tighearnan, passing a dog-walker along the way.

At Bealachan Lochain Ghaineamhaich, the low point before the rise to Ben Starav, I chatted to a posh couple from Henley, who were bemoaning the cold wind. I was quite appreciative of the breeze, as such a long day's walk would have been impossible in sweltering weather. They were on the way to Beinn nan Aighenan, which would be my next objective after Ben Starav (or Ben Satnav as I had jokingly renamed it!). They remarked that we might meet later on the way back from our respective peaks.

To reach Ben Starav, I had to first climb Stob Coire Dheirg, a spectacular peak that has jagged granite pinnacles on its north east face. It is joined to Ben Starav by a rocky arête that can be scrambled or easily avoided by lower paths. At the top of this arête I assumed that I'd reached the summit of Ben Starav and stopped to send a birthday text message to my Mum. There were great views down Loch Etive and across to Ben Cruachan looking for all the world like Mount Doom!

Looking to the right I saw a group of people on a higher point, and realised that I wasn't quite at the summit yet. Reaching the top I chatted to a couple of jolly chaps, one from Oxford and one from Essex. They were staying at Dalmally and had made a late start, but were hoping to climb two more Munros today. They were also heading to Beinn nan Aighenan, but across Stob Coire Dheirg, whereas I was planning to take a more gentle shortcut route to it cross-country. Before descending we played the "identify distant hills" game, and reckoned we could see Ben More on Mull, Schiehallion, Ben Lui, Stob Binnein and Ben More near Crianlarich.

Departing company, I headed down the south ridge, then across a broad corrie to the bealach below Beinn nan Aighenan. I just missed the couple from Henley, who were clearly moving faster than me. I was not looking forward to this final 300m climb of the day, taking it very slowly, plodding stoically upwards. I was a relief to reach the top, and was joined very shortly by my Oxford/Essex acquaintances from Ben Starav, who described this peak as "easy money". We had a brief reprise of the "identify distant hills" game, but it was getting late and was getting chilly, so I soon headed off.

Just beyond the summit I disturbed a ptarmigan with a clutch of chicks. The instinctive response to a potential predator is for the chicks to scatter, and the mother to draw attention to herself, flapping her wings to distract attention away from her young. I duly followed the mother, but yelled back to the people still at the summit to watch out for the chicks. After a short distance the mother flew back to reassemble her chicks. This can take some time and I hoped that my presence had not affected the survival of the chicks I disturbed.

I descended the south ridge of Beinn nan Aighenan, then picked a way down a steep corrie to find a campsite besides a burn flowing into the valley below. It was now around 7pm, so I had been walking for nearly 12 hours! All five of today's Munros are made of granite, at it was great to spend a day on these peaks united by a common geology. The footpaths had all been lined with a fine white granite sand. Just before I drifted off to sleep there was a shower of rain, but it did not last long. Waking in the night I was surprised to see a full moon.



Stob Coir' an Albannaich
Stob Coir' an Albannaich
First view of Ben Cruachan
First view of Ben Cruachan
Steep granite cliffs on Stob Coire Dheirg
Steep granite cliffs on Stob Coire Dheirg

Monday 4th June 2012

I dropped down into Coire Hallater and picked up a stalkers' path that follows the Allt Hallater down to Glen Kinglass. Less than 100m from the Allt Hallater river there is a tiny lochan which drains away in the opposite direction towards Loch Etive. This geographical quirk must be due to glaciation - had the glacier nibbled just a bit more, the drainage would have been altered!

The lower section of the stalkers' path passed by a small patch of native woodland on steep slopes of the far bank. The path was rather overgrown with bracken and I had to remove several ticks and beat back the bracken before reaching the dusty track through Glen Kinglass. The long track through this glen is a celebrated off-road bike route.

The River Kinglass has a wide catchment and flows deep and wide. The map showed several footbridges, but from experience, I know footbridges can often fall into disrepair, as estates increasingly use off-road vehicles for crossing rivers, or construct wire bridges, which are cheaper to build and maintain. I passed an old suspension bridge, which from a distance looked OK, but I wanted to continue down the track to use a better-located bridge two miles further on.

Looking across to the far side on the river I saw a new plantation of native birch woodland. There are government grants available for planting native trees, and it's good to see estates actively helping restore native woodland to Scotland. The bridge looked to have been recently rebuilt, presumably to allow vehicular access for tree planting. Once on the far side I picked up a rough track through the plantation, but this soon petered out, and I ended up wading through deep vegetation that had grown up beyond the reach of grazing deer.

There was no obvious gate out of the plantation, so I had to climb over the deer fence. The plantation appears to have obliterated the path marked on my map, and it was annoying that no signs were provided to direct people through the trees. At least there were no ticks inside the plantation. I followed the Allt Chaluim up the mountain - my favoured way of climbing Munros is to follow a stream, so you don't have to carry so much drinking water uphill! Looking back down I could see a couple of gates either side of the Allt Chaluim as it enters the plantation - a pity these were not signposted.

In the upper corrie I disturbed a deer fawn, sleeping in the grass by the burn. It jumped up abruptly and ran off bleating for its mother. Adult deer will happily leave their young and can travel several miles from them. The parents heard the cry for help, and barked back as they ran around the lower corrie to meet up with the fawn. I thought I saw the fawn take a tumble, but it was so far away I could have been imagining it.

The upper corrie was rather steep, but I was soon on the ridge, just over a mile from my next Munro, Beinn Eunaich (pronounced Eh-neech, not Eunuch!). At the summit there were several walkers, all who had come from Beinn a' Chochuill, my next destination. I chatted to one chap who was rather confused by my approach from Glen Kinglass until I explained I was wild camping and carrying everything in my small pack! I chatted to another chap with a big bushy beard, who asked where I was heading and where I was planning to camp this evening.

The onwards walk to Beinn a' Chochuill (pronounced Chuckle!) was straightforward along a gently ascending ridge. Views of Ben Cruachan were spectacular from this angle it looked like a miniature-Matterhorn! From the summit there was a great view across to the Isle of Mull and Ben More.

The last section of today's walk was steeply down to a beleach. Looking across to the Cruachan massif, the ascent route for tomorrow looked almost prohibitively steep. It is often the case that routes look difficult or impossible from a foreshortened angle, but in reality can be straightforward.

At the bealach I needed to first find drinking water. I had hoped to camp on the west side of the bealach, which was flatter and had more water, but there was a strong wind, so I sought out a water source first before heading to the more sheltered east side to camp. There was no obvious stream, but a large saturated mossy area drained into a small chasm in the grass. Hearing trickling water, I lay down and reached into the hole to fill up my water bottles.

I then headed to the east side of the bealach and dropped down a short distance to camp. Traversing across the belalach from one side to the other there is a ridiculous line of large wooden posts that mark the route of a tunnel, one of many that pass through Ben Cruachan as part of a hydroelectric scheme. There were many sheep grazing in this valley, and they seemed to be having a competition for the longest and weirdest baa!



Looking down into Glen Kinglass
Looking down into Glen Kinglass
Ben Cruachan
Ben Cruachan
View out to Mull
View out to Mull

Tuesday 5th June 2012

This was the last day of my seven day trek across the granite hills of Appin and Lorn. It would also visit the highest point on the route, Ben Cruachan at 1126m. The Ben Cruachan massif is a sprawling complex of seven peaks over 3000ft of which two are Munros. The Cruachan Reservoir nestles in these peaks, providing both electricity generation and pumped storage from Loch Awe.

The climb up Sròn an Isean from the bealach was much easier that it had looked, and I was soon up on the ridge, and onto Stob Daimh, the first Munro of the day. Morning mist was swirling around the peaks, but this soon cleared, giving another day of great visibility. The next top was Drochaid Ghlas, which involved an easy scramble up pink granite boulders.

On the onward section, I met a few walkers who said "you've got the hardest bit to come", which I doubted! There was an easy scramble around a granite step in the ridge, but other than that there were no undue difficulties climbing up to the pointed rocky summit of Ben Cruachan.

There was a plaque cemented to a summit rock which read "In memory of our friend and fellow climber Bill McCracken who reached heaven's summit on 21st March 2009, Munro Ministries". I really object to people making unnatural alterations to summits, as it destroys the feeling of wildness. If everyone does it, summits soon become overwhelmed with memorials, as happened on Ben Nevis, until the John Muir Trust took action to remove them all. The plaque I had seen a few days earlier on Sgorr Dhonuill was better as it was on a loose rock, rather than being attached to the mountain.

Here I stopped for lunch, leaving my pack on the path. Soon after an elderly couple reached the summit, and checked their precise ascent time against their guidebook, which was slightly obsessive I thought! I apologised for my pack blocking the path, and they joked "how dare you clutter up the mountain with your bag!".

Another couple reached the summit soon after. They were slightly anxious as they were used to walking in the Lake District and considered the Scottish mountains to be "unpredictable". They were considering continuing on around the horseshoe and asked me how difficult it was. I pointed out the granite step and the short scramble down Drochaid Ghlas. The elderly eccentric couple overheard the conversation and piped up that they had a guidebook. They couldn't resist remarking about the book's timings which they said were accurate for ascents, but the author must use a parachute to get such quick descents!

I dropped down amongst granite boulders, with the last section down to Bealach an Lochain on steep eroded scree, in need of some path repair work. The lochain itself was not depicted on the map, but was there in reality! I followed an old fence up towards Meall Cuanail, another Munro top, but stopped for a break a short distance above the bealach. It was only a mile to where I planned to camp, and it was still early afternoon, so I lay down and daydreamed in the sunshine for an hour or so.

Continuing on over Meall Cuanail, I followed the old fence initially on the far side, then dropped down to camp by a stream with good views across the vast freshwater Loch Awe. I could also see a wind farm in the distance - it's a real pity that these are being built within sight of Munros.



Stob Dearg
Stob Dearg
Scramble on granite step on ridge
Scramble on granite step on ridge

Wednesday 6th June 2012

It rained for a short time during the night, but was dry by the morning. My train from the Falls of Cruachan was at 10:52. I descended first to the Cruachan Reservoir, then followed a track around to the concrete dam. There was a metal ladder to climb down the dam which was quite exciting. Surprisingly in this age of health & safety, the general public are permitted to use this ladder!

Reaching an ugly electricity substation, I had to decide on which side of the burn to descend. My map showed a path on the west side of the burn, and the SMC guidebook described a route up this side, but the Cicerone guidebook suggested a route up the east side. I decided to go with the map. A stile into the native woodland on this side of the burn seemed to confirm the route. However once inside the woodland, the path became overgrown with overhanging heather and bracken. I had to keep stopping to remove ticks, and got rather hot and bothered in the humid woodland. At the bottom the route crossed the railway line where a new fence had been constructed to block the route, explaining why it was so overgrown.

Walking a short distance along the main road, I entered Falls of Cruachan station, and passed by the entrance to the new path on the east side, through a short tunnel under the railway. This new path really ought to be clearly signposted from above. Falls of Cruachan is a request stop, and is only open during the summer months. I flagged the train down and soon was on the way to the port of Oban. The initial part of this journey was spectacular through the narrow Pass of Brander, which is shared between the main road and the neck of Loch Awe. The single ticket price was £4.70.

Once at Oban I went immediately to the ferry terminal and bought a return ticket to Mull for £8.80. I wanted to restock camping food supplies and get some fish & chips in Oban, so I decided to skip the next ferry and get the one after at 2pm. I first went to Tesco and bought some cereal, Manchego sheep's cheese, oatcakes, cereal bars and pasta meals. With all the people and the hustle & bustle, it was quite a shock after seven days in the wild!

Next I went to George Street Fish & Chip Shop, and bought haddock & chips. This shop is definitely "high end" - the fish & chips come in a little cardboard box and you get an optional slice of lemon! I sat on the sea front, tucking into this delicious meal. Shortly after I was joined by a middle-aged couple, who were on holiday, staying with friends near Oban. The gentlemen was the Methodist minister on Shetland, and kindly said I would be welcome to stay with them if I ever visited Shetland! They said I could ask in the tourist information office if I wanted to get in touch. Before heading to the ferry office, I dropped into Oban Distillery to find out the times of tours, so I could take a tour on return from Mull. They recommended booking in advance, and gave me a telephone number to call.

The ferry crossing took just 45 minutes. I sat outside on the deck at the stern, enjoying the view back to Oban and the backdrop of mountains beyond. Once at Craignure on Mull, I had to wait a few hours for the bus to Ben More. The bus service, run by Bowmans coaches, connects with every other ferry to take passengers to Fionnphort on the far side of the island, and onward ferry services from there. The timetable said "the Operators disclaim any liability in respect to any loss or inconvenience arising from any failure to operate journeys as published, changes in timing or any printing errors". This didn't inspire me with confidence, so I double-checked the times and location of the bus stop at the tourist information office.

I walked a short distance up the road to the Craignure Inn to pass the time. This 18th century drovers inn has a nice old world charm, with lots of interesting artefacts hanging from the walls. Unfortunately they did not have any real ale on tap, due to the difficulty of getting it to the island, but they did have a selection of bottled ales which were a reasonable substitute. I'd originally planned to get some food as well, but was still full up from the fish & chips at lunchtime. While at the pub I overhead a couple saying that the distillery on Mull was closed because its water source had dried up! I hoped that finding drinking water would not be problem in Mull.

I walked back to the ferry terminal in good time to see the next ferry coming in and several Bowmans coaches arriving (some go to other destinations, such as Tobermory). I chatted to a German lady who had asked a driver on the Fionnphort service if she could get on the bus. The driver had told her to wait for five minutes as he was taking a break. The lady was on her way to a community on a remote island and was heading for Fionnphort where she would be met by a private boat to take her to the island. In this community everyone has to work, and she would be doing lots of cooking as a "working holiday".

Eventually the driver was ready to let passengers on the coach. He took a disdainful look at my backpack and told me to put it in the external luggage compartment. I bought a ticket to Kinloch Crossroads, and asked him to let me know when we arrived there, since I was unfamiliar with the island. The majority of the passengers looked to be locals, who'd been across to Oban for the day to do some supermarket shopping.

Most of the roads on Mull are narrow with passing places, and on the journey we were nearly run off the road by an impatient driver coming in the opposite direction. We also passed a police car with sirens blazing, which must be a rare occurrence on Mull. Gradually the bus climbed up over high pass and crossed over to the far side of the island. The driver didn't took to be the sharpest tool in the box, so I kept an eye out for Kinloch Crossroads. As it turned out the driver had completely forgotten that I wanted to get off here, so it was lucky I was paying attention and walked up to the front when I saw it was time to disembark.

I was now standing at a remote crossroads on the south side of Ben More. The only footpaths go up Ben More from its north side, but no buses run to the north side of the mountain. Surely there must be other people who want to climb Ben More using public transport, and I felt they should make more effort with tourists, either by running a new bus route, or by constructing a path up the south side.

There was nothing for it but to head up through deep vegetation, avoiding patches of bracken where ticks would probably be lurking in high numbers. Higher up I picked up a rough stalkers' path (marked on my map), which traversed around the side of the mountain. I was gradually ascending a shallow corrie, so had to cover two miles before getting above the "tick line". At this level it was very humid and there was no breeze, so I got rather hot and bothered, regularly stopping to remove ticks. Due to the mild maritime climate, the vegetation was deep and lush, reaching higher up than on the mainland peaks, making an ideal environment for ticks.

I also had to take care to stick close to a stream, and kept an eye on the water-level, since I needed a water supply for tonight's camp that was above the ticks. Just as the water was reduced to a tiny trickle, I arrived at a lovely high flat meadow, with low vegetation. From here there was a great view of the rocky summit of Ben More and its satellite peak A' Chioch. To the east I could see Cruachan Dearg and Corra-bheinn lit golden by the setting sun. To the south I had a clear view across to the Paps of Jura. It was really worth the effort and I felt privileged to be spending the night in such a splendid spot.



The harbour at Oban
The harbour at Oban
Cal Mac ferry coming into Oban
Cal Mac ferry coming into Oban
Lighthouse on the crossing to Mull
Lighthouse on the crossing to Mull
Paps of Jura in the distance
Paps of Jura in the distance

Thursday 7th June 2012

The return bus from Kinloch Crossroads was at 16:05, so this would be a very leisurely day. The SMC guide recommended the northeast ridge of Ben More, since this offers an easy but spectacular scramble to the summit. I headed across boulders and scree up to the bealach between A' Chioch and Ben More. The upper slopes of this mountain are all scree and bare rock, and are reminiscent of the Black Cuillin on Skye. In common with the Cuillin, a compass does not give accurate readings of Ben More.

Once at the bealach, I scrambled up the ridge, following the advice of the guidebook to stay on the crest. Gaining height the ridge becomes steeper and rockier, reminiscent of Liathach or the Aonach Eagach, but with no comparable difficulties - just the same sense of exhilaration. It was a delightful scramble up this rocky staircase, but was short and sweet, and I arrived abruptly on the summit. Two walkers were just leaving the summit, but they were too far away to talk to.

At the top I had views across to the islands of Ulva, Coll, Tiree, Jura, Canna, Eigg, Muck, Rum, Skye and the silhouette of the Outer Hebrides on the horizon. It was beginning to cloud over and a cold wind was picking up, so I didn't hang around for long. I decided to take a different route down, initially following the south ridge, then descending scree to Maol nan Damh. I dropped down further to Am Binnein and stopped there for lunch. I still had four hours before the bus, so I daydreamed for an hour or so before continuing.

The descent route dropped down much more steeply to the road than my ascent route, so I would be in the "tick zone" for a much shorter period. Looking down from above it was easier to avoid patches of bracken. The last drop down to the road was a bit awkward, but once on the road, I quickly removed the unwanted ticks.

I then had a few miles to walk along the B road back to Kinloch Crossroads. In places there was grass growing in the middle of the road, showing how quiet the traffic is on Mull. The B road is popular with nature lovers, and apparently sea eagles, otters and seals are common sights. There were many yellow wild Irises flanking the road. I could also see long-beaked Oyster Catchers feeding on the foreshore.

At the bus shelter I was soon joined by a lovely French lady who was visiting Mull on holiday. She was waiting for her friend who'd gone to investigate whether the hotel on the far side of the bay sold refreshments. She was getting rather anxious as the 16:05 bus is the last bus of the day, and her friend was not back yet. We soon saw her friend in the distance, and she arrived back with minutes to spare. The hotel served cold drinks, but did not serve tea or coffee! They remarked that there are not many footpaths on Mull, I said that people come to Mull mostly for the wildlife, rather than the walking, and there are more established areas for walking in Scotland for walking. They actually quite liked it and put it in positive terms: "you have to find your own path".

By now it had started raining, so it was good to be in the bus shelter and off the mountain. Several private buses passed by - I tried flagging them down to no avail. Eventually the Bowmans coach arrived. It was the same driver as before - he gave my rucksack a dirty look and pointed to the luggage compartment without even bothering to say anything. My overall impression was that Bowmans Coaches have very poor customer service and a disdainful attitude to tourists. Their attitude seems to be "we're the only service, you can take it or leave it". It was a relief to be back in Craignure at not at the mercy of Bowmans any longer.

I wanted to spend a second night on Mull, to prolong the island experience, and also because it would be quieter and cheaper than spending a night in Oban. Just along from the ferry terminal is Shieling Holidays Campsite. Before walking to the campsite I called Oban distillery to book a tour for the following morning, and luckily got the last space on the 10am tour.

It was still raining heavily so I put on my waterproofs and plodded along the road to the campsite. Arriving at reception, a girl with a bike was checking in before me. The chap serving asked me to fill in my details (name, address and phone number) on a computer to speed up the check-in process.

He explained to the girl that all the camping pitches are on Astroturf to avoid wear and tear on the grass! He handed over a hammer, for driving in tent pegs. He also explained that everything on the campsite is made of white PVC, which they use because it is easy to wipe down! The toilets, showers and common room are all metal frames covered by white PVC.

It is also possible to hire what they call a "shieling", which is the same type of PVC structure, fitted out with beds and a kitchen for self-catering. The cost of camping was £9.50.

I followed a track uphill for a short distance uphill to the top of the campsite, with good views over the sea. The girl was struggling to get her pegs into the Astroturf, so moved to a smaller pitch, where she could put pegs in the grass, but keep the tent on the Astroturf. My titanium pegs went in OK, through the Astroturf and into the gravel underneath. Having been wild camping for the past week, it was rather bizarre to be camping on an artificial surface, almost like camping on a carpet!

The girl, who's name was Jenny, headed off to find the bath tent. I was hungry and headed off to the Craignure Inn, where Jenny said she might join me later. The pub was heaving, and I bought another bottle of "real" ale, and ordered vegetarian haggis, neaps and tatties, with a side order of chips. Jenny came in about an hour later, and seeing my food, ordered the non-vegetarian haggis, neaps and tatties. She was from near Sheffield, and was an NHS physiotherapist, specialising in getting elderly people active after injuries.

She was on a two week cycle tour of the western isles, sometimes wild camping on beaches, stopping at tea shops for lunch. We exchanged tips on camping food. I rather liked her idea of travelling around the islands by bike, using the excellent network of Caledonian Macbrayne ferries, who charge nothing for a bike. Being used to early nights, we headed back to the campsite around 11pm, struggling to finish our drinks.



Ben More from Camp
Ben More from Camp
Extensive scree slopes on Ben More
Extensive scree slopes on Ben More
Northeast ridge of Ben More
Northeast ridge of Ben More
View from summit of Ben More
View from summit of Ben More

Friday 8th June 2012

I got up early to catch the first ferry at 8:45am, arriving back at Oban at 9:31. I stopped into the railway station to buy a ticket for Spean Bridge (£23.40), which would depart at 12:56pm. I called Gairloch Holiday Park to see if I could book a place for tonight, but the chap said that camping was "first come first served". I then walked the short distance along the sea front to Oban Distillery to join the 10am tour. Tickets for the tour cost £7.

The distillery is one of the oldest in Scotland, built in 1794 before the town of Oban developed around it. The distillery is also one of the smallest, and it takes just 7 people to operate it. These days the barley is malted offsite, which is more economic. The first room of the tour was just to show the old malting equipment. Photography was forbidden in all subsequent rooms in the tour due to the fire risk from alcohol vapour. In the next room the barley was being mashed in a large copper vessel, allowing enzymes developed during malting to convert the barley starch into sugar. This produces a sugary liquid called "wort".

In the next room were large wooden vats, where the wort is mixed with yeast and allowed to ferment to produce a rudimentary beer called the "wash". The next room contained the two unique gas-lamp-shaped stills, where the wash is distilled. The output from the stills goes through a brass chamber with glass windows, which is kept carefully locked as part of the taxation regulations. We then went outside, past the huge chimney and past bonded warehouses to a room containing several exhibits. This room showed the process of rebuilding American bourbon casks, and decanting the whisky into the casks.

As a special treat we were all allowed to have a taste of cask strength whisky (~67%). A giant syringe was used to extract the whisky from the barrel. The glasses were signature Oban whisky classes, which were allowed to keep, and given boxes to store them in. In the final room of the tour we were given a full shot of 12-year old Oban whisky (in another glass!), with some crystallised ginger to compliment it. At the gift shop I bought a 20cl bottle for £12.50.

After the tour, I walked to Tesco and bought a few more supplies for the next few days. By now it was lunchtime and I searched around for a suitable place. I didn't want fish & chips again, and the only other places seemed to be quite expensive and touristy. When I'd got off the ferry earlier, I'd seen some of the locals going up a flight of stairs to a café on the first floor above the shops on the sea front. I decided to try this out, and it turned out to be a rock n' roll 1950s style diner. The prices were good and it had an excellent view over the harbour, so I took a table by the window. It was now less than an hour until my train so I double-checked with the waitress that the food would come in time, and ordered a vegeburger and potato wedges, with a cup of tea.

The train arrived on time and was heaving with people. I sat behind a group of Americans, who were complaining about the lack of luggage space, and they were wondering if the train was strong enough to cope with so many people! The train departed on time, and we retraced the route past the Falls of Cruachan, and on to Tyndrum.

There are two stations at Tyndrum - a lower and an upper one. The train from Oban to Glasgow takes the lower one, whereas the train from Glasgow to Fort William takes the higher one. I could have changed at Crianlarich, further south, which is shared by both routes, but I felt like a leg-stretch, and it was only a short walk uphill between the two stations, arriving at Tyndrum Lower at 13:59, with the onward train departing from Tyndrum Upper at 14:32.

The train was heaving and I couldn't even get a seat, until some backpackers got off at Rannoch. The weather was excellent and there were great views across Rannoch Moor to Buachaille Etive Mòr, the Mamores and Ben Nevis. The train arrived at Spean Bridge at 15:54.

My initial plan was to walk the 2½ miles along the road from Spean Bridge to Gairlochy Holiday Park, past the Commando Memorial. However just outside Spean Bridge I saw a new path, and an interpretation board, illustrating a new off road route to the Commando Memorial. I was debating whether this would be worthwhile when a couple came up the path. I quizzed them about the route, and they said it was really nice, and there might be an off road route all the way to the campsite.

The path dropped down through native oak and birch woodland to the beautiful banks of the River Spean. A short distance along there are the remains of a viaduct over the river that formed part of the Invergarry and Fort Augustus Railway Line. This line connected Spean Bridge with Loch Ness, where passengers could take steamboats along the loch to Inverness. The line was built at huge expense including two viaducts, eleven tunnels and "Swiss Cottage" style stations. The service never really took off due to lack of demand, and ran from 1903 to 1946. It would make a great route if it was ever restored.

The new footpath followed the old railway track to reach the remains of General Wade's High Bridge over the River Spean. The first shots of the Jacobite Uprising were fired here in 1745. Just a few pillars of the bridge remain, and an iron walkway that was installed between the pillars in 1894. There are now plans to restore the bridge.

The new footpath now left the track-bed of the railway and headed uphill. I considered following the railway track all the way to the campsite, but it looked rather overgrown. I followed the new footpath along the route of General Wade's military road for a short distance. The path then backtracked towards the Commando Memorial, but I was heading in the other direction, so climbed a gate and continued along Wade's road across a field and onto the main road, where it was a mile's walk downhill to the campsite.

The reception room was in a chaotic state, with piles of old leaflets for nearby tourist attractions piled up everywhere. I rang a bell and the chap I'd spoken to earlier on the phone came out. I paid for two nights camping at £7.50 per night. He explained that he hadn't realised that I was a backpacker when I spoke to him on the phone earlier, and that he always allows backpackers to camp as they don't have a car to go elsewhere. I asked him about the old railway track, and he said that it was possible to follow it directly from his campsite, along the River Spean to meet up with the new footpath. He said that he was happy for his paying customers to use it, but didn't want the general public walking across his land.

The owner also explained that there'd been a railway station where the campsite is now. I put my tent up in a corner of the camping field and headed off to explore the route of the old railway.

Climbing over the gate at the back of the campsite, I passed a general dumping ground for old caravans, boats, cars and furniture. Once beyond this eyesore, the route was fantastic, with great views of the deep River Spean gorge, surrounded by native woodland. Further on there were fallen trees to negotiate and several places where the track bed was flooded and the path took to the slopes on either side.

The last section was really overgrown, but there was always an obvious way through and at last I connected up with the new footpath (where I'd been earlier). It is a great shame that this route is not open to the general public. The campsite owner ought to create a route for non-residents to avoid walking through his campsite. With a bit of maintenance, he could have a beautiful off-road walk from Spean Bridge as a selling point for his campsite. On the way back I saw two large birds of prey circling over the river. From their size my gut feel was they were Golden Eagles, but they weren't close enough to be sure. Once back at the campsite, the midges were out in force, and I took refuge in my tent for the rest of the evening.



Craignure Inn on Mull
Craignure Inn on Mull
Oban Distillery
Oban Distillery
The seafront at Oban
The seafront at Oban
Ruined railway bridge over River Spean
Ruined railway bridge over River Spean
River Spean in a dramatic wooded gorge
River Spean in a dramatic wooded gorge

Saturday 9th June 2012

Today's walk was to tackle two Munros above Loch Lochy. These are rather solitary and represent the highest points along the Great Glen. In retrospect I wished that I'd climbed them when I'd walked the Great Glen Way. They certainly would have been more interesting than the interminable forestry plantations that blight most of the Great Glen Way. They are in the same SMC guidebook section as the Knoydart and South Glen Shiel Munros, and I was looking forward to putting this section to rest.

This would be a marathon 24 mile walk, hence staying for two nights at the campsite, so that I could do the walk with just a day pack. The first part of the walk followed the road down to the Caledonian Canal, then followed the Great Glen Way for 3½ miles along the shore of Loch Lochy. For the last 1½ miles the Great Glen Way follows the road, which is typical of the laziness of the designers of this long distance footpath. The only interest along the road section was a concrete plinth used during WW2 as a practice landing craft for embarking and disembarking drill. A bit further on there was a sign to the Clan Cameron museum, and a note that this is no longer a vehicular through-route to Loch Arkaig.

On reaching Clunes Forest plantation, I was now at the base of my two Munros. I took a track uphill through the forest, which doubled back on itself, then terminated at a point where the open hillside could be accessed. The SMC guidebook recommends this as a descent route following a traverse of the two Munros, but it would be nearly impossible to locate this point on descent from above.

A trace of a path lead me out of the forest, then I waded through deep tick-ridden vegetation. The only saving grace was the steepness, and I was soon out of the tick zone and out onto the open hillside. Many orchids, white and purple, were growing in this area. There were good views down the Great Glen to Ben Nevis and Fort William. I could also see Loch Arkaig and onwards to the Munros of the northwest highlands. After the steep start, the angle relented to a shallow slope it took over a mile to climb 300m up to Meall Coire Lochain. To reach the first Munro of the day, I had to drop down a short distance along a narrow ridge, before climbing up to Meall na Teanga.

On the summit there was a chap and his young daughter, who'd travelled up for the day from Inverness to climb this Munro. There was an excellent view across to Knoydart and the Munros around Glen Shiel and Glen Affric. There was a prominent pointed summit on the horizon, which was perhaps Màm Sodhail or Càrn Eighe, the highest peaks north of the Great Glen. The chap said that the onward path was easy to follow as I bid farewell to them.

The path dropped down Meall na Teanga's north ridge, then traversed around the side of Meall Dubh to reach a prominent bealach. On the way down I met a chap wearing a "Pete's Eats" T-shirt, who'd walked up from the north end of Loch Lochy. I asked him if there was a direct way down to the Great Glen Way from the bealach, but he hadn't seen one.

On the far side of the bealach, a well-constructed stalkers' path zigzags up the hillside. The path passes close to a burn, and I quenched my thirst from its clear waters. It was a bit of a slog up to Sròn a' Choire Ghairbh, as I was now getting quite hungry. At the summit I sheltered behind the cairn and had some lunch. There were great views along the Great Glen to Loch Ness and onto Inverness, and back in the other direction to Ben Nevis and Fort William. It was disappointed to see another wind farm blighting the landscape in the distance.

It was a relief to be standing on the last Munro of this trip, but I still had a long way to go to get back to the campsite. As the Great Glen Way didn't sound like a possibility, and I didn't want to go back over Meall na Teanga, I decided to go around to the west, down Gleann Cia-aig and along a forestry track down to the road. The initial descent from the bealach followed a stalkers' path, then I headed cross-country to reach the glen. A new deer fence had been built along the floor of the glen, and half way along there was a high gate, which I entered to reach the river Abhainn Chai-aig.

I came across a fine example of the English sundew Drosera anglica, much rarer in Scotland than the round-leafed sundew Drosera rotundifolia, which I'd seen many times over the past week. Sundews are carnivorous plants that attract insects with bright red colours and glistening drops of mucilage, loaded with a sugary substance, that cover its leaves. The sundews have evolved this carnivorous behaviour in response to their habitat, which is usually poor in nutrients or so acidic that nutrient availability is severely decreased. The plant uses enzymes to dissolve the insects - which become stuck to the glandular tentacles - and extract nitrates and other nutrients from their bodies.

Just before entering the forestry plantation, I saw a sign announcing that the forest track was closed for harvesting. The diversion was a pathless route through Gleann Tarsuinn, which would have added three miles to my walk. In any case it was off the edge of my map, so I had no choice but to continue. As it was Saturday, I hoped that no one would be doing harvesting at the weekend. After a short distance down a little-used forest track, I came across a massive area of flattened trees. The track had all but disappeared, and I clambered over bouncing branches to reach a resurfaced track.

The forestry commission have quarried additional stone from locations along the hillside to improve this track for harvesting vehicles. The improved track must be at least double the width of the original track. It was then straightforward to follow this new track all the way down to the road. The section of public road is called Mile Dorcha, the Dark Mile, due to the narrow lushly vegetated wooded valley, flanked by moss-carpeted stone walks. Reaching Clunes I saw a beautiful group of red deer grazing in a field.

I now had a rather long and boring walk, back the way I came along the Great Glen Way. On the last section away from the road along the shore, I took a short cut to avoid a newly constructed footbridge over a burn. I was amazed to see an entrance archway decorated with lanterns and a sign reading "Fairy Forest". An extensive section of this conifer plantation has been decorated with fairy scenes. In one location there were over 100 cuddly toys laid out in an amphitheatre. Objects were arranged in thematic scenes: cat ornaments, garden gnomes, nautical (lighthouses, seahorses, starfish), mushrooms, music (CDs, recorders, whistles, trombone). Some of the funniest arrangements were a welly boot tree, and a tree decorated with "magic tree" air fresheners.

There was an umbrella stand with the poem "we the woodland fairies say, to little folks who come this way, if you would like our world to view, but falling raindrops make you blue, our brollies will keep you dry, but leave them when you say goodbye". Back at the start there was a box containing a visitors' book and donations, with a note saying that nearly £300 had been raised for charities and local fund-raising events. I spent nearly half an hour wandering around all the scenes, which must have taken months for someone to create.

The whole thing looks very unofficial and really enlivens the Great Glen Way, which is generally rather dull. I have slight reservations about the general untidiness (rain-soaked and animal-nibbled cuddly toys), but at least it's not in native woodland. The cleanup job would take days, if the owner ever decides to clear the site.

Spirits recharged I headed on for the last two miles, feet aching, and dived into my tent to avoid the campsite midges. I had been walking for over 12 hours! Being Saturday night the campsite was much busier, and everyone was using head nets as protection from the midges. A group of youngsters arrived in a car, they had northern accents and sounded like they were not expecting midges. Even though they didn't smoke they drove off to the shop at Spean Bridge to buy cigarettes in the hope that smoke would ward off the midges.

Now the trip was essentially over, I didn't have a plan for how to get back to Southampton! I was keen to get back in a day on Sunday, as Monday was my last day of leave, and I wanted a full day at home. Given these constraints, the train was the only feasible option. I found out from National Rail enquiries that the first train from Spean Bridge was at 11:55am, changing in Glasgow, this would get me to London by 21:21pm. I knew it would be expensive, but the only other option would be to take the Megabus from Glasgow on Sunday night, arriving in London on Monday (and I didn't have an easy way of making a reservation on this).



Loch Arkaig with Knoydart in the distance
Loch Arkaig with Knoydart in the distance
Heath Spotted-orchid
Heath Spotted-orchid
Great Sundew or English Sundew
Great Sundew or English Sundew
Red deer grazing at Clunes
Red deer grazing at Clunes
The Welly Boot Tree
The Welly Boot Tree

Sunday 10th June 2012

It rained heavily in the night and by the morning the rain had stopped, but my tent was dripping wet. The midges were atrocious, and I had to run away from my tent several times before the tent was packed away. I set off along the railway path, to enjoy the off-road route to Spean Bridge in its entirety. At Spean Bridge I bought a Sunday newspaper from village shop to read on the train. Attached to the hotel is a greasy spoon café, and I bought fish & chips to eat before getting on the train.

I bought a ticket to Glasgow (£26.30) to keep my options open. The conductor was really helpful and brought me a schematic map to show the route between Glasgow Queen Street, and Glasgow Central (for the London train). Arriving at Queen Street at 15:31, I decided to go directly to Glasgow Central and buy a ticket. The price was a staggering £123.60 to London, which is not that much more than a return, but at least it included travel on the underground.

I got some food for the journey from the co-op, then went back to the station. It was a Virgin train and I had to search through several cabins before finding an unreserved seat. At Preston a young chap got on and sat down next to me. We chatted all the way to London. He was working in London as a mechanical engineer on control systems for buildings. He was also into hill walking and was familiar with the Lake District and the Scottish Highlands, having gone to university in Edinburgh. He had climbed Mont Blanc with a friend, and I was interested to hear about his climb. He was interested in my trips to Nepal.

Reaching London, I hurried onto the Northern Line, as I wanted to catch a train to Southampton at 10pm. This train arrived in Southampton just before 11:30pm and I got a taxi home. From Spean Bridge it had taken nearly 12 hours to get back to Southampton.

The trip had gone exactly to plan, which was surprising given all the transport connections. I was really lucky with the weather - it only rained at times when I wasn't climbing Munros, mostly during the night, and I'd had good views from all 17 Munros on the trip. It was satisfying to complete three sections of the Munros guidebook, and I only had 30 Munros left to do.

The mixture of wild camping and official campsites, with trains and ferries was very enjoyable, and added variety to the trip. After completing the Munros, it would be great to continue this pattern, perhaps with a trip to explore the western isles.



Remains of General Wade's High Bridge
Remains of General Wade's High Bridge
Sheep on disused railway embankment
Sheep on disused railway embankment