Big Bothy Walk #26
A’chuil is the first MBA bothy reached by those on the Cape Wrath Trail; the 200 mile trail that winds its way through the rugged fringes of isolated Knoydart, on to Torridon and the edge of Assynt before the final push across the peat-hagged Parph to the Cape Wrath Lighthouse at the northwest corner of Scotland. It is considered to be one of the most, if not the most, challenging long distance trail in the UK; through the most remote and spectacular of our wilderness, fighting through many constantly undulating areas of pathlessness, never-ending bogs and, above all, the sheer unpredictability of the Scottish weather. Add in the barrage of midges, ticks and horseflies sure to descend on those walking this time of year and any mental energy not yet sapped by the rain may be bitten and swarmed to surrender.
By the time hikers have arrived at A’chuil, those doing the most common variant will have walked 35 miles and most will be ending their second day having had a baptism of fire with the knee deep bogs that plague the Bealach a’ Chaorainn after a steep pull up from Glenfinnan. Several water crossings will have had to have been negotiated, and though many have only walked eleven miles today, it might well have taken seven or even eight hours of battling the earth.
So I was well aware I was going to be somewhat of a fraud having sauntered in from Invermallie along the forest roads that headed anti clockwise around Loch Arkaig (the previous 52 days notwithstanding). Especially as halfway along the loch a van full of DoE marshalls slowed down to offer me a lift to the road end and let me raid the food stash; they had sent off a group of teenagers vying for their Gold award earlier that day and were expecting (hoping) that they would reach Sourlies by nightfall. Mike, the van driver, had been ticking off his list of Munros for the last twenty odd years and would finally complete it next month. His 26 year old daughter would be joining him for his ascent of Ben Lomond to complete the challenge he had been doing for pretty much all of her life.
The landscape once the end of the loch was reached was vast. Every mountain was huge; tearing ominously up out of the land to peer down from the heavens to where you or I might creep, as insignificant as mites, over their toes and then have the audacity announce it an achievement. Here was the very edge of Knoydart, the most daunting and infamous of the Rough Bounds. The vast majority of the peninsula is preserved by The Knoydart Peninsula that aims to support the settlements here without it being to the detriment of the natural beautiful or character and preserve its landscape, wildlife, natural resources, culture and rural heritage.
There are no roads in Knoydart, none that connect to the main road system anyway, and the only way to reach the village of Inverie by the shore is either by boat or by a two or three day walk over the rough, pathless land at the mercy of the weather and the mountains. I passed a sign as I walked towards the tree filled valleys that warned me I was entering remote mountain terrain, to ensure I had enough provisions on me, and enough experience to be able to see through my intended journey.
The provisions I was fine for, I even had extra now thanks to the DoE marshalls. The experience? Honestly my entire faith in myself and my hiking ability was entirely dented and warped by the rescue at Abyssinia. I had no idea how ‘experienced’ I was anymore, or what my ‘ability’ was. I was scared a lot, and, if I’m honest, some of the recent calls to take easier routes had been more because of this fear than I would acknowledge. I had no idea how to deal with it. How the hell do you just persuade yourself that you’re good enough after you’ve nearly drowned in two and a half feet of water? A stupid, stupid, rookie error that surely someone with ability would have recognised?
There was no guide for what to do after just being lucky that you didn’t die. Or there may be, but I have no idea what or where or who to ask about it. I just knew that stopping wasn’t going to be the answer, so I kept moving.
Just two and a half miles past here, to the north side of Monadh Gorm, I plunged briefly down a tree covered slope to emerge in the Glendessary Valley; a broad and tremendous U where the grasses trembled slowly away from the Dessary River to suddenly scarper and lunge frantically up the sudden and alarming slopes of the mountains opposite. The valley rose to a high saddle in the west, that would later close around the disappearing magenta of a setting sun.
A’chuil sat by the edge of the woods I had just tumbled out of. Despite being very basic, it is a busy bothy, and for many that set out on The Cape Wrath Trail, despite their usual high levels of hiking experience, it is their first ever bothy. For this reason my plan had always been to camp at A’chuil; I had been in plenty of bothies and I should allow space for those that hadn’t.
Two men were sheltering and eating a late lunch out of the rain when I arrived. Whilst on the trail, they were hoping to be able to push on further to Sourlies. I told them a DoE group was also heading to Sourlies and they both simultaneously let out a giant moan of despair. Turns out they were teachers.
We sat out the rain in the small left hand dormitory; a wide platform for three or four against the far wall and a desk pushed up under the front facing window next to a fireplace. The right hand room was a sparse living area with stacked chairs and a drying line that hung above another fireplace. A giant, empty frame hung above the hearth; in the bothy book the MO had written that this frame contained a beautiful painting of a Highland scene…but legend had it that it was invisible to liars, vandals and thieves. The liars, vandals and thieves had instead repurposed it to be the container of signatures and short messages.
What would have been the central room was instead knocked through from the living area in an arch to lead to an empty room, raised a foot above the floor of its neighbour. Another dormitory.
Throughout the floors were lined in dark floorboards with the interior walls painted in white. Whilst the basic space of the bothy had gathered a fair few knick knacks, the littering situation was nowhere near as bad as in bothies on other trails. No random rubbish bags placed around for others to collect, no food wrappings strewn around the floor, no piles of unburnable crap jammed into fireplaces. What there was though, were empty bottles of alcohol. Lots of them. Filling up the high shelves in the living area.
This is a particular kind of bothy littering I never understand. Someone is able to carry a full, heavy glass bottle of whisky in, but somehow the empty one is now too much to take out?
I set up my tent and waited to see who my bothymates would be. A group of men in their early twenties arrived first; they had packed enough food for every day of the next three weeks but had gone super ultralight for the rest of their gear purely to accommodate their food. It seems they understood that there would be shops en route to Cape Wrath, albeit sparsely situated, but they just quite liked the challenge. One would even send me his fascinating spreadsheets that had compared absolutely every brand of every item available of both gear and food and, with a traffic light system, been able to pick the most suitable ones in terms of cost and weight and, in the case of meals, calories combined.
“To be fair most of those aren’t things I’d even consider. I just got really into collecting data”
They were also attempting to design an ultralight tent of their own and were testing out ones currently available to mark their flaws. They already had made some prototype; some had been more successful than others.
A solo Irishman turned up next, already with every scrap of skin covered and a headnet on. There are some people that all the insects just absolutely flock to and, it appeared, he was one of them and suffering massively for it. As we stood outside I was relatively unbothered, but he squealed as the few early midges found the small piece of exposed skin on his wrist. His initial plan had been to make it to Sourlies, but between the bogs and the bugs it seemed wiser to call it a day. He would set up his Zpacks tent further down the hillside from my tent and find out in the morning that he had selected an area where the water descending the ground liked to pool. I hope his luck improved.
Next a group of three that were crossing Knoydart to Inverie. Two of them were Ukrainian refugees being taken out on their first ever hiking trip by their host’s far more hardcore brother. The kindness of their neighbours had seen sleeping bags and shoes and coats donated to them for the hike, none of the clothing was suitable, the shoes were already suffering and the male of the couple had forgotten his sleeping bag. They managed to uphold a brilliant sense of humour and sat outside, even after the midges furiously arrived, completely in awe of the landscape. If they made it then they would either never hike again, or want to hike forever.
A few others arrived for whom it was their first bothy. They would go inside and be very loudly delighted. I had clearly been very bothily spoilt, because I didn’t think this was a particularly great bothy at all. I wish I could have seen their expressions once they arrived at Maol Bhuidhe or Kearvaig.
The area behind had not always been plantation, from the mid 1800s both A’chuil and Glenpean over the hill had been outposts of an absolutely enormous sheepfarm; a sprawling community of isolated cottages that centred around Strathan where the school doubled as a church. Prior to that, each bothy would have been part of a settlement. During the Jacobite Uprising, barracks was built near Strathan in an attempt for the English to gain a foothold over the Highland rebels. It would be the sheer inaccessibility of the Highlands that so frustrated the English that would give urgent birth to the Ordnance Survey. Clearly, better knowledge and better maps were needed to continue all their oppressing, so they set up the OS, originally a military organisation, to properly record the land. Ordnance Survey maps are still considered some of the highest standard of cartography in the whole world.
With a bothy overflowing with people, three of us had our tents outside and, as each group disappeared into the woods and proudly returned with a stack of logs and twigs each, the fire became a joint mission. Wood was sawed, fireplaces filled, flames lit and all our damp shoes lined up and hung above the warmth.
As for the DoE kids? It seems no one had seen them at all. Lets hope the marhsalls didn’t end their day on a retrieval mission.
For more information about bothies, visit the Mountain Bothies Association website
If you are visiting a bothy, please be sure to follow the Bothy Code
When hiking in Scotland, familiarise yourself with the Outdoor Access Code
Owner: Glendessary Estate: 01397 712406
Fuel: Deadwood and fallen timber available in nearby woodland
Water: Burn runs behind and to the right of the bothy
Notes: Open all year, but deer control takes place between 1st July to 16th February with the critical perios being between 20th August to 20th October. A sign is affixed at Strathan road end when stalking is taking place, and you are asked to stay to low level routes and ridges at these times.