362. Glenelg to Shiel Bridge

October 2020

On the last walk I had written up I had walked from Kyle of Lochalsh to Shiel Bridge but had then relocated further south to Mallaig. I was therefore focused on walks closer to Mallaig for the rest of that trip (and hence I’ll write them up later, out of order).

Now another month had passed and yesterday I had driven more than 500 miles from home back up to Scotland, this time staying in Fort William, to make further progress with my coastal walk. It was not a pleasant drive at all. It was Saturday the 3rd of October. I had had to drive through very heavy rain for the entire journey (more than 10 hours) and it had been a horrible journey and I was glad to have finally made it, especially after getting stuck for ages on the A82 after a car towing a boat lost control in standing water ahead, spinning out (and flipping the boat) and blocking the road ahead.

That day was later confirmed as the wettest day in the UK ever recorded.  When I arrived at the hotel I had booked (the Premier Inn) a note on the reception desk announced that the associated restaurant (a Brewers Fayre) was fully booked for the evening. On enquiring I was advised this was due to the dreaded “social distancing” meaning it was operating at a reduced capacity and I would need to book a time slot in advance, but they had all gone for today. The same was also true for breakfast and that was also fully booked for the next morning. Well goody goody. I mean hotels don’t provide a kitchen so it would be nice if they had capacity for people staying to actually be able to eat but no. I wasn’t in the mood to go traipsing round Fort William in the dark and the pouring rain so I opted for McDonalds that was next door to the Brewers Fayre. The same was true for breakfast (but I vowed I’d have to find somewhere else, I didn’t want to be living off McDonalds for a week!). In fact I then also find there was no “time slots” in the restaurant for an evening meal the following night, either. Sigh.

Fortunately today the weather was better but with all the monsoons of the previous day I was a bit concerned about how wet everything was going to now be. Some of this walk was to be on roads, but certainly not all of it and I wondered if that was going to cause me problems. Still there was only one way to find out, I suppose!

Having come by car for this trip I’d bought a folding bike with me in the boot of the car. The trouble is I don’t like cycling especially when there is a lot of hills. There are a lot of hills in Scotland! My planned walking route between Shiel Bridge and Glenelg is to follow the dead-end road from Shiel Bridge alongside the south shore of Loch Duich as far as Totaig, which is the end of the road. From there the map suggested there is a path along the coast to Ardintoul Bay and from there a few tracks at the end of which is another path that the map shows leads to the slipway for the Kylerhea Ferry, at the end of another dead end road. From here a road heads inland back to Shiel Bridge. That would make a circular walk but it was a long distance to cover in a day.

The road that goes inland takes a more direct route and is the Old Military Road, also known as the Ratagan Pass. That last word should be a clue that this road is very hilly. However the map showed a car park and view point at the top of the hill. My plan therefore was to drive to this car park. Here I’d use my folding bike to cycle down to Glenelg. I hoped that this would all be downhill so I’d not have to do much in the way of pedalling and therefore largely only have to steer and sit back and enjoy the ride. Then I’d walk back to Shiel Bridge along the coast following my planned route and from then walk from there back to the car park (and extra 2 miles albeit almost all uphill).

So I set off from Fort William for the drive up to Shiel Bridge which took close to 90 minutes and then on to the car park on the Ratagan Pass. This was not as tough to drive as the Applecross pass and I stopped at a fairly large car park at what I thought was the top of the road, so I parked up here and set up my folding bike. There was a lovely view from the car park.

Loch Duich from the Ratagan Pass

Loch Duich from the Ratagan Pass

Now I knew the car park wasn’t right at the top because the road was still going uphill when I pulled off. However the next car park, about half a mile further along the road looked to be lower down so I decided this would do.

I knew I’d have to push the bike for the first part (too steep) but the road just kept climbing and climbing so I had to keep pushing. It was only when I reached another car park I realised my mistake. Further down on the map a picnic spot was marked, but with no corresponding car park. I assumed this would be some wooden benches beside the road (as I have seen before). But in fact it turns out there was a car park there too and that is where I had parked, so I hadn’t actually parked where I had intended at the top of the hill.

Well having pushed the bike this far I wasn’t going to go back now. At least it would cut out some of the walk from Shiel Bridge back to my car at the end of the walk. Finally I reached the top and could cycle down hill. The downhill parts where very steep in places (and narrow) and I had to use the brakes a lot as otherwise I’d pick up too much speed and lose control (folding bikes aren’t really designed for high-speed cycling).

After passing through the woodland the gradients became more gentle and it was mostly gently downhill from there onto the turning for Scallasaig. After that it was a mixture of up and down (but more down than up) and the gradients not too steep so I was able to keep cycling most of the way rather than having to get off and push. As I reached Glenelg I passed a rather curious sign : “Welcome to Glenelg (Earth). Twinned with Glenelg (Mars)”. I thought this was some kind of joke but I later found out it’s actually genuine (though I’m not sure any of the residents of Glenelg (Earth) have been to Glenelg (Mars) to celebrate the twinning)! I didn’t stop to take a photo of the sign (which I now regret), as it was on a downhill bit and I didn’t want to stop so you’ll have to take my word for it.

On reaching Glenelg a toilet was signed at the community hall. I walked all around it but there weren’t any toilets (I assume they are inside the hall but it wasn’t open so I couldn’t go in to look). However I did find a bike rack behind the building so I could leave the bike in a proper rack rather than thrown in a bush, which was nice. Glenelg did have quite a few facilities however including a pub, school and shop (though it was closed).

Glenelg

Just before entering Glenelg the road splits. One part goes to Kylerhea where there is a summer-only ferry to the Isle of Skye (except there wasn’t in 2020, it didn’t run at all due to Covid). In the other direction the road I was on continued down the peninsula to the villages of Eileanreach, Arnisdale and Corran at the end of the road. So now I wanted to head north along the dead-end road to Kylerhea. Fortunately rather than have to walk back up the road there was a footpath that linked them which was good because it was a more coastal route and a shorter route (the latter being important since I had such a long walk to do today).

Glenelg

I went beside the gate and along this track, which was almost a road really passing a couple of cottages on the right and then this large ruined building, which my map shows as remains of barracks, dating from 1772.

Glenelg

Glenelg

Old Barracks at Glenelg

Old Barracks at Glenelg

There was quite a lot still left and I thought it a bit odd that seemingly nothing much had been done with them since (either demolition or restoration). Beyond these I crossed a bridge and continue over marsh to a second bridge this one over the Glenmore River and just beyond this I joined the road that heads to the ferry.

The Glenmore River at Glenelg

The Glenmore River at Glenelg

The Glenmore River at Glenelg

This road soon ran behind the beach, which seems to be un-named.

Glenelg Bay

The beach was marked as having some sand on the map but in reality it was mostly pebble and shingle. There was a little car park behind the beach (unsurfaced) and I continued on the road to a second one. Now there was some sand near the tide line and some cars in this car park, clearly this is the better end, with the sand.

Glenelg Bay

Glenelg Bay

I continued behind the beach and the road then climbed round the bend to descend down to the ferry.

Beach near Glenelg

Kyle Rhea

Here there was a lighthouse and waiting shelter but it was all closed because the ferry isn’t running. However it appears no one told these sheep who appeared to be waiting patiently for the ferry.

Kylerhea ferry (closed)

Kylerhea ferry (closed)

The Kylerhea ferry slipway

This is apparently a unique ferry where the vehicle deck is manually rotated which sounds like an interesting spectacle but I was not going to get to see it today or indeed this year. I headed back up the road to the car park where a footpath ran through to Ardintoul.

My route ahead

I went through the gate and followed the path that was initially more of a track since there are I think a couple of houses along here and also electricity pylons.

Kyle Rhea

Waterfall near Kyle Rhea

Soon I reached a stream flowing down the bank and the path continued to climb until I had glimpses through the trees over Kyle Rhea separating the mainland from Skye. In fact this is narrow enough that the power lines cross it.

Loch Duich near Letterfearn

On the other side, over on Syke, I could see a few buildings. The track soon narrowed to a path through woodland which was quite pleasant and I met my first other walkers of the day along this.

Path near the Kylerhea Ferry

Kyle Rhea

Loch Alsh near Ardintoul

Soon I had reached the edge of Loch Alsh and could look east along the shore, where I could see a shower approaching (the weather was coming from the east today).

IMG_2649

Fortunately most of the rain came whilst I was in the woodland and so fairly sheltered from it as the path soon headed down to the back of the pebble beach which was rather beautiful.

Loch Alsh near ArdintoulLoch Alsh near Ardintoul

Loch Alsh near Ardintoul

There was a bit of a grass path along the back of the beach too. I followed this for a while and decided to break here for lunch. Within 30 seconds drizzle began! Despite this I carried on eating. Just off shore was a fishfarm but there wasn’t any activity today.

Loch Alsh near Ardintoul

Loch Alsh near Ardintoul

I was now approaching Ardintoul. Like a number of settlements in this area it is inaccessible by road the houses only being reached on foot or by boat. At Arindtoul Point there was some industry and a jetty with the access being blocked so I followed the track behind passing a derelict barn and a burnt out house.

Ardintoul

Burn out house at Ardintoul

Ardintoul

It didn’t seem the nicest of places to live! I headed back to the shore now the other side of the pier and followed the path along the shore passing another house. According to the map a path runs along the coast here to reach a ford, continues over the ford and after about 100 metres turns inland into the wood.

Ardintoul

Well I found my way along the shore OK but at the river there was no sign of a ford. The river was in spate and there was no obvious place to cross. This was my first day of this trip and later in the week I’d be wading through rivers far deeper than this. However today I was less confident and less keen to get wet – I still had a long way to go and no confidence that even if I could get over the river I’d find the path the other side.

This was probably a good decision, fellow coast walker Jim Morton tried to go this way, found the path didn’t exist and tried to head back down to the shore only to fall and have to be rescued by helicopter and taken to Inverness hospital. He describes what happened here. Fortunately Jim recovered and was able to continue his coastal walk a few days later, but in hindsight it makes me glad I didn’t do the same and try to follow this “path”.

So I headed back, an alternative seemed to be to follow a track inland to a house where the map suggested there was a path into the woodland, which crossed the river and joined the other path so I could continue east.

The trouble is behind the house I could find no evidence of a path at all. I tried everywhere but could not see a path at all. Instead I decided to try to head inland and get close to the river. Then I could head up stream beside the river until it was narrow enough to cross more safely. Eventually I was above but close to the river but the ground was boggy and uneven and in places to steep. I could also hear the water was still rushing through the valley so suspect it was going to be hard if not impossible to cross here. As I descended I headed towards the river and was amazed to emerge onto a proper path right beside a bridge! Where it had come from and how I was not able to find it I’m not sure but I was pleased also to find a bridge since no bridge is marked on the map. I crossed the bridge, admiring the view of a waterfall just inland of the bridge (that would be why the river sounded so loud) and continued on the path.

River near Ardintoul

This climbed seemingly relentlessly up and up through woodland and I was becoming a bit concerned I was going the wrong way but each time when the path seemed to be heading the wrong way it would turn back the right way. I reached the top of the trees and got brief nice views but soon the path headed back into woodland, now descending.

Loch Alsh near Ardintoul

I knew from Ruth’s blog that this part was hard and muddy. One thing I had learnt from her blog was that the route of the path is not always obvious in the woodland but that there was some red hazard tape. This was a very useful tip because the path was still marked with this hazard tape (not sure why) and at such regular intervals it was a great help guiding me the way. She wasn’t wrong about the boggy ground either. Woodland can often be drier underfoot as the trees absorb much of the water (on the other hand they also block much of the sunshine which means less evaporation) but despite this it was well over ankle deep mud in places and this made progress slow and difficult.

Ardintoul Wood

Ardintoul Wood

The woodland is quite thick and dark and seems to go on for longer than the map would suggest. Eventually I emerged again now with fine views over Dornie and the beautiful Eilean Donan castle that I had visited on my previous visit to Scotland.

Loch Alsh from Ardintoul Wood

Loch Alsh from Ardintoul Wood

View down to Dornie and Loch Alsh

View down to Dornie and Loch Alsh

Now I was descending down to Totaig, going in and out of the woodland and soon heard voices. No not in my head but actual people the first I’d seen for several hours who were intermittently climbing up and I found collecting blackberries. The path was much better now, more a track really.

Loch Alsh near Totaig

I soon reached an information board which mentioned this walk is part of something called the “Dirty 30” which probably explains the hazard tape marking the route. It also warns that the walk from Glenelg is 8 miles and you should “plan for a full day out” and that “there are some steep and rough sections and the route can be difficult to find in some places”. Well they are certainly not wrong about that! It’s not an easy walk and the path is not easy to find.

Still now I was only a short distance fro the track and then the end of the road at Totaig. Now back on the loch side I reached Totaig and the end of the road by the slipway. I headed down onto the beach and stopped for a snack and drink stop on the beach, my phone buzzing for the first time since this morning as it had finally picked up a signal. This was such a beautiful place to stop with the wonderful and much photographed Eilean Donan castle across the loch.

Eilean Donan Castle at the mouth of Loch Duich

Totaig

I still had another 8 or so miles to go but at least I knew it would be easier now that it was road all the way. The road hugged the shoreline and since it was a dead-end road there isn’t much traffic.

Loch Duich, Letterfearn

Half a mile or so later I reached the first houses of Letterfearn, Druidaig Lodge, crossing a stream and boat house just after.

Loch Duich, Letterfearn

The village is rather spread out along the road and soon I reached a little bay which seemed to have the centre of the village to it’s south end.

Loch Duich, Letterfearn

There wasn’t a pub but I soon passed this shelter on the left.

The Veranda, Letterfearn

Called the Veranda it had comfortable looking seats overlooking the beach and loch and I suspect sort of doubles as the village pub and meeting place. Photos adorned the walls but I wasn’t quite clear if it was private or for the public to use, so I continued walking.

The Veranda, Letterfearn

I continued past the old school house and another seat on the shore with a fish artwork tied up next to it.

Loch Duich near Letterfearn

Again is it private – not sure, so I continued walking.

Loch Duich near Letterfearn

Beyond this there is another fish farm and then a pleasant white building, not sure if it’s a church or another old school but it looks to have been converted to a house.

Near Letterfearn

Loch Duich north of Ratagan

Loch Duich north of Ratagan

Just after this there is a footpath to the right. I’m tired, because this walk was tougher than I had imagined and I still have a long way to go. I suspect the footpath might lead me to the other road, the Ratagan pass where my car is parked. I’m tempted to try this and come back another way to finish the walk but I know if I do that it will take another day out and I’ll make less progress. The path is rather vaguely signed as “Forest Walks” which doesn’t offer any hint as to whether I’ll be able to get through and in any case it’s marked off with a large orange plastic barrier and “STOP” warning of forest operations. Well it’s a right of way so I suspect I’m legally permitted to still walk it, but the fact it might well be a long walk that goes nowhere, there is likely to be logging and it’s all uphill is enough to put me off trying. So I keep o the road.

Path to Ratagan Forest

As I near Ratagan a sign, obviously intended for motorists going the other way warns “Eilean Donnan Castle” and goes on to make clear this road is a dead end and people visiting the castle need to be on the other side of the loch at the A87. It seems from the sign, SatNavs have been directing people looking for the castle down this road on the wrong side of the loch!

Loch Duich near Ratagan

The road soon crosses another stream and I enter the village of Ratagan. This is the largest place I’ve been since starting, a similar size to Glenelg. It has a youth hostel but it’s closed down no doubt due to Covid, that has closed everything else.

The Youth Hostel at Ratagan

There is a bus stop just beyond with a chair inside which I consider using but no, I’ll press on.

Ratagan

Loch Duich at Ratagan

Loch Duich at Ratagan

At the edge of the village the road up to the Ratagan pass is just above and to my right. Once again I consider trying to take a shortcut but persuade myself to press on. It’s not that I’m not enjoying the walk it’s just that it is really too long, I’m tired and time is getting on. I press on to the junction of the coast road and Ratagan Pass.

Loch Duich at Ratagan

Loch Duich at Ratagan

To get back to my car I need to turn very sharply right and follow the Ratagan pass. However to complete the walk I need to walk to the bus stop on the A87 at Shiel Bridge and back again. That’s about ¾ of a mile ahead and back again. I am awfully tempted to leave it for another day. But I also know that if I do that it’s quite a distance to come back for a tiny walk and it will mess up my plans for later walks on this trip. So I plod on, my pace now dropping because I’m tried and getting a bit irritated by the increasing traffic now that the roads have converged. The road soon crosses a stream then a tight bend and finally I cross Shiel Bridge over the river Shiel to reach the A87.

The River Shiel, Shiel Bridge

Just to make sure I cross the road to the bus stop where I got off the bus before. Now I have really closed the gap and it’s just time to walk back.

Shiel Bridge

The walk back to the junction drags, but now I have the steep bit to come. This morning I was irritated that I’d parked before the intended place lower down the hill. Now I’m glad of that, since I won’t have to climb so high! Still the road climbs and climbs, twisting and turning.

Loch Duich

Loch Duich

There isn’t so much traffic now but it’s a long and steep climb up all those hair-pin bends. It’s a relief to finally reach the car park and my waiting car, though the car park is now filling up with the usual array of motorhomes that seem to turn most car parks into campsites at night. After a sit down and a rest it’s now time to drive over to Glenelg to retrive my bike. The drive takes longer than expected as the road the other side is narrow and bumpy (as I found when cycling it earlier). I make it back to Glenelg to retrieve my bike and now have a 90 minute or so journey back to my hotel in Fort William but at least the drive is simple once I am back onto the A87 but it’s gone 8pm when I get back to the hotel. You have to book a time slot for dinner due to limited capacity for “social distancing” and there are no “slots” free for dinner at all, so I have to settle for food bought from the nearby Morrisons supermarket instead. (I thought I’d better not make it McDonalds 2 nights running).

This had been a tough walk. Really I’d probably covered too much distance today, what with the cycling on top of it, but I was really satisfied to have made it and in a single day. I knew others had found it tough (or even had to be rescued) so I was glad to make it through unscathed too. Despite the length and sometimes tough terrain it had been a really beautiful walk along the stunning Loch Alsh and alongside the Isle of Skye and it had been good to avoid having to walk alongside a main road (as on the other side of the Loch). I knew however that I was approaching Knoydart and so my next few walks were unlikely to be any easier!

Here are details of the public transport that can be used for this walk (to avoid the cycling that I did):-

McRae Kintail route 712 Corran to Kyle of Lochalsh: Corran (Friday only) – Arnisdale (Friday only) – Glenelg – Glenmore – Ratagan – Shiel Bridge – Inverinate – Dornie – Reraig – Balmacara – Kyle of Lochalsh – Badicaul (Friday only) – Erbusaig (Friday only) – Drumbuie (Friday only) – Duirnish (Friday only) – Plockton (Friday only).

The bus runs between Glenelg and Kyle of Lochalsh once per day on Monday, Tuesday and Friday only. The section between Glenelg and Ratagan operates by request only during the winter months (October to March) but will run as normal during the summer (no need to request). You need to request by calling 01599 511384 before 9pm the previous evening. On Fridays the bus will operate to/from Corran by request only again by calling 01599 511384 by 9pm the evening before. It also runs on beyond Kyle of Lochalsh to/from Plockton on Fridays only (this part does not need to be requested).

Here are the complete set of photos for this walk : Main Link.

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8 Responses to 362. Glenelg to Shiel Bridge

  1. tonyurwin says:

    That looked a tough day, but stunning scenery despite the gloomy weather. i remember Jim’s post on this. His story in his interviews seems to have changed as his journey has progressed. In recent interviews he refers to it as a cliff collapse, but originally he said he was trapped and tried to jump down into a tree. A little less heroic. 🙂

    • jcombe says:

      Yes I think I’ll go with what he said at the time, rather than what he has said since. I must admit seeing what happened to him certainly made me feel I had made the right decision not trying to find that path!

  2. owdjockey says:

    Hi Jon, yes I used the same method to get around this peninsular. The cycle ride down to Glenelg was a white knuckle ride! I found the same route finding problems at Ardintoul, but got there in the end. Suprised you missed the Caisteal Grugaig Broch on the steep descent into Totaig.
    To complete that ‘annoying’ bit out to Shiel Bridge, I carried on up the Ratagan Pass, back to the car, drove to Glenelg, picked up the bike, drove back over the Ratagan Pass dropped down parked the car, rode the bike to Shiel Bridge, then walked the bike back to the car. Looking forward to your next bits.

  3. I remember Ruth’s travails here so it was good you had her experience to help you out a bit. We got a puncture in Glenelg so spent rather longer there than anticipated! We had intended to get the ferry across to Skye and then drive back over the bridge. Didn’t happen. At least it was a glorious day, and sitting high in the cab of the truck which towed the car back to Kyle made the views even better.

    • jcombe says:

      Sorry to here you got a puncture. I must admit some of the roads in that part of Scotland appear to be a long sequence of pot-holes intermixed with occasional stretches of tarmac. I guess punctures are probably fairly common, I’ve been lucky so far. I do want to get that ferry to Skye but unfortunately it wasn’t running when I was here, but I do plan on going back and walking around Skye so perhaps it will give me the chance to try that little rotating ferry.

  4. snowgood says:

    Have to be honest – I’ve never had a good experience in Fort William. For a town relying on tourism the whole mindset seems to be “take it or leave it”. If perhaps it was populated by willing East Europeans with polite smiles it could be transformed. As for McDonalds – it offers another eatery in the town – but i limit myself to their coffee (not more than 2 a year). Food? No chance.

    • jcombe says:

      Well McDonalds certainly wouldn’t be my first choice but I think by that point it was a case of McDonalds or nothing, so I opted for the former! The town did come as a bit of a shock having been used to the small towns and remoteness further north.

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