371. Strathan to Carnach Bridge

October 2020

There is an old saying, which I’m sure you’ve heard before. It is better to have tried and failed than never to have tried at all. I had tried to walk around Loch Nevis (between Inverie and Mallaig), one of the remotest parts of the coast, as two out and back walks from either side. I had failed to get far enough on either walk, leaving a gap of coast un-walked of about 2 1/2 miles at the head of the loch. I had tried and failed.

Now of course the sensible course of action would be to either accept I wasn’t going to walk that bit of coast and give it up or try again and stay overnight at the bothy at Sourlies at the head of the loch (a place inaccessible other than by boat or on foot), doing the full route over two days and not two there and back walks. However the problem was that the information I had was that the bothy was closed owing to Covid restrictions, so that option was out. I didn’t really want to walk with all the weight of a tent, sleeping bag, water etc for an overnight stay either and if I could use the bothy I could at least travel a bit lighter (no tent, for example). So deferring this to next year when I hoped and expected the Covid restrictions to have ended (which, as we know isn’t how it played out) would seem the most sensible option, or even try again as a there and back walk in the summer months of 2021, when the days are longest and so I could get further in the hours of daylight.

However it was now October and this was to be my last trip of 2020 so I wasn’t going to back until at least spring next year. I knew that leaving that gap, where I had failed was going to play on my mind and bug me all winter long. I am also very stubborn and don’t like to be defeated so I wanted to have one last attempt in 2020. My initial plan I had abandoned as too optimistic before even trying. My revised plan had also proved too optimistic. I needed another plan if I was to succeed.

Now when in Inverie on one of the previous walks I had spotted in the same direction was a sign to somewhere called Strathan. I had never heard of it and I couldn’t find it on the map. Eventually after laying the various maps out, I discovered where Strathan was. For those wondering, it’s at grid reference NM978912. It is a long way from the coast, about 8 1/2 miles to the head of Loch Nevis I estimated via the path that was marked on the map. However it is at the end of the public road and so it might be possible to try another there and back walk from Strathan to Loch Nevis and try and close the gap I had left from this end. The advantage is I could drive to Strathan so I wouldn’t be relying on a ferry timetable as I was at Inverie. The problem was it would be a round trip of about 17 miles to reach the coast over tough terrain and more to actually cover the gap I had left, so it was going to be a very long and demanding day, but I wanted to give it one last go.

I had a plan to try and make things a bit easier. Although the public road ended at Strathan, the map suggested there were two tracks onwards from there. One ended at a place called Upper Glendessary about 2 1/2 miles from the road and another in woodland at a ford beside the river Dessary in Glen Dessary, which headed a little further on. I had a folding bike, which weighed a ton in the back of my car. Designed for flat urban roads, it was not very appropriate for the hilly roads of the Scottish Highlands. It was even less well suited to off-road tracks in the Scottish Highlands. However I was going to give it a go anyway. What could possibly go wrong?

Well actually earlier in this trip I’d put this plan into action to make it around the south side of Loch Nevis, to rejoin where I’d walked in from the road at the other end. I’m writing these walks up as if I did them in order but I didn’t. So a slight spoiler but I had made it round the south side, so now I had to make it around the north side. Last time I had cycled to Upper Glendessarry (well actually, I had to push a lot of it) and made it back after dark. This time I was going to try the other track, to see if it was any easier and hopefully make it a bit further in before I had to walk. I don’t consider cycling cheating because this part of the walk wasn’t coastal, it was simply positioning to get me to the coast and I’d be walking all the bits actually on the coast.

The part of the loch from this path which emerges at Finiskaig around to Carnach actually has a path marked, unlike the south side of the loch head, so I was hoping this would make things easier.

So I set off from the hotel early, buying a sandwich from the Morrisons petrol station as breakfast rather than having breakfast at the hotel so I could make an earlier start. It was still dark when I set off but it was largely light by the time I had to tackle the horrible long single track road round to Strathan. It is almost a bad a drive as that to Kinloch Hourn. It seems to go on and on and on so it was a relief to finally reach the car park at the end of the road where I parked. (This isn’t marked on the map, but a few parking spaces have been marked out at the end of the road and I was very grateful for that).

Although the public road ends here a track continues, good enough for cars but blocked to the public to drive along via a locked gate.

Knowing I had a similar distance to cover today I looked at the map on the gate. This explained some routes are closed when there is deer stalking, but there wasn’t today. It also confirmed as I feared that all the bothys were closed, confirming this was really my only possible plan.

The cycle along this track was actually not too bad. Most of the time the terrain was smooth enough I could cycle though I had to get off at some of the hills especially the larger ones, and areas where the ground was really rough. As I got further into the woodland these rough areas increased and one was more like boulders on the path so it was a struggle even to push the bike over that! As I headed further in the track became increasingly wet with puddles I couldn’t see to the bottom of. Initially I got off and walked at these but as I gained confidence (or perhaps stopped caring so much about risk…) I began to ride through them. It was a bit of a risk not being able to see the surface under the water and cycling through the water took a lot of speed off but it meant I usually got through with dry feet, with my feet being further off the ground on the pedals. It took me around 50 minutes to reach the footbridge in the second part of the woodland near Glen Dessarry.

When I had arrived at the car park at Strathan a single car was parked there. It had either arrived very early or been there overnight (I suspect the latter), as it and all the windows was covered in dew from the night. Now as I approached the bridge I could see two people standing the other side. I was surprised as the last time I did the walk I saw no one at all.

The bridge was a wide wooden plank bridge, though with a couple of broken planks and I could see beyond it, it narrowed from a track to a path as indicated on the map. So I decided this would be the point I switched from bike to foot.

Woodland near Strathan

I was bit irritated there were other people here, who were not in any hurry to leave as I was hoping to find somewhere discreet to lock up the bike, unseen. I looked around for a tree with a trunk or branches solid enough to be worthwhile locking my bike to, but narrow enough the lock would get around the trunk. I couldn’t see any obvious unless I crossed the bridge so I decided to just leave my bike in the grass beside the river and near the bridge. It seemed unlikely anyone would steal it anyway, as there are likely to be very few people passing and I suspect most that did wouldn’t even notice it, let alone be interested in stealing it. So I decided I’d just lock the wheel to the frame so that if someone did try and steal it, they’d have to carry it all the way, since one of the wheels would not turn.

On crossing the bridge as I suspect the two man wanted a chat and I was happy to oblige. It turned out they were walking the Cape Wrath Trail and had set off from Fort William 4 days ago. They told me I was the only person they had seen since leaving the edge of Fort William and were astonished to find I was able to cycle here. They were even more astonished to learn we were actually only 4 miles or so from a public road, I think they thought they were deeper into the wilderness than they were and a bit disappointed to have seen someone else here! They told me they were splitting the stages in the guidebook into two days each to make things a bit easier but were still carrying huge packs with tents, sleeping bags, food and so on. They asked where I had come from and I showed them on the map and then commented “aren’t you worried about just leaving your bike there” but I explained that no I wasn’t really because someone would have to carry it back anyway (and I know that it’s heavy). We exchanged notes and it turned out our plans for today were very similar. They too were heading along the same path to Finiskaig and Carnoch but rather than then turn left towards Inverie they were taking a more northern path towards up the River Carnach where they told me they thought there was a bothy (I cannot find any record of there being one) but they had tents as well in case there wasn’t. They were concerned about the marshy area marked on the map at the back of Loch Nevis. I was more concerned about the path to get there, having done it before! However I explained I was going there and back so would need to get back to Strathan. They realised I needed to get on to make it before dark so as they were just finishing a hot drink after breakfast pointed me the way and said that they would be much slower, carrying so much weight but that we would likely see each other later, so we could at least look out for each other. I wished them well and set off.

The path through the woodland was unfortunately extremely boggy and muddy and soon I stood in some mud that looked firm but wasn’t and was up over my ankles and now with wet feet. Not a great start! Once out of the woodland things improved a little and I was soon emerging onto the path I had followed a few days earlier.

Path from Strathan to Sourlies

So it was now familiar territory as I climbed up steeply to the cairn on the rocky and uneven path. The cairn is about a mile from the end of the woodland but it feels further.

Path from Strathan to Sourlies

Path from Strathan to Sourlies

From here the route ahead is more down than up (but certainly not downhill all the way). A path is marked on the map heading north from just before the cairn and both times I had worried I might take it by mistake but never saw any sign of it on the ground.

Soon I was down to the two little lochans and I quite liked this section because the path is flatter, going beside the two lochs and also more rocky underfoot so a bit easier going that the muddy boggy areas further back.

Locham a Mhaim

Locham a Mhaim

Path from Strathan to Sourlies

Locham a Mhaim

Locham a Mhaim

All the day I had been hearing the deer, as it was the season for the deer rut, but now I saw some closer to and they made an impressive, if slightly intimidating sight.

Deer on the path to Sourlies

After the loch I had to ford the river, but it was not too deep.

The River Finiskaig

The River Finiskaig

Once over there is another steep climb and descend where there is then another river to cross, this time with a bridge (not marked on the map).

The River Finiskaig

After this it’s the final descent down to Finiskaig and I could now see Loch Nevis ahead.

Path from Loch Nevis to Strathan

This time I didn’t need to ford the river, as I’d be sticking on it’s north side. Initially I followed the path but the ground was uneven and boggy so I headed instead out into the bay where I could walk on the sand initially, a bit further out (and I knew the tide was going out).

Loch Nevis

The River Carnach

I then turned left and headed to the north shore of the loch where I could see Sourlies bothy. A sign on the gate at Strathan had informed me that all the bothys were closed and locked. The two men I had met walking the Cape Wrath trail had also told me that the Mountain Bothy association website also confirmed all the bothys were closed, but that despite this they had already found one open. I think they were hoping this one would be too in case they needed a backup.

So as I approached I wondered it would be closed and locked.

Sourlies Bothy

It was a very remote place after all and I wondered if anyone had bothered to come out here and lock it. I soon had my answer – it wasn’t locked. No sign saying closed and no lock on the door. Since the bolt was across, I knew it was unoccupied. I was both happy and a little angry. Happy because I like these places and they can be real sanctuary when the weather turns bad but angry that had I known it was open I likely would have opted to stay here and could have done the walk in one day and return to Strathan the next morning rather than take 2 very full days walking here and back twice.

Still I had a look inside. It contained lots of packets of rice and pasta and half drunk bottles of spirits (always a bit wary of touching these!).

Sourlies Bothy

Sourlies Bothy

I checked the top packet of rice at least was “in date” so I wondered when someone had last been here. Whoever it was had left their socks still hanging up over the fire. Yuck! However it was quite cosy and to my surprised contained several copies of the local Ordnance Survey map that I had been using (and now had my own copy in my bag). I was surprised by that as I would have thought people walking to such a remote place would not want to continue without a map (and they are also quite expensive to just leave behind)! Anyway having had a look around it was time to get on.

The path was now marked on the map as actually along the beach so I was a bit worried it would not be passable at high tide. In fact there was a grassy path just above the beach so initially it was easy going. The problem came when I got to the point the path turned north. The beach ended with low but sheer rocky cliffs ahead that the water reached the base off. I thought I was going to be able to follow the beach around so was disappointed not to be able too (I suspect it is possible at low tide).

Near Sourlies

The beach at Finiskaig

So I had to climb up which was a disappointment. The first route I took was hard and soon I realised impossible, I had to go back and found a second route where eventually I spotted a “sort of path” I could follow and make it with care back down to the shore the other side, now at the mouth of the river Carnach.

Finiskaig

Finiskaig

Looking inland a large herd of deer were grazing on the salt marsh around the river. It was a beautiful site and they looked as surprised to see a person as I was to see them!

The next part was challenging. Getting across the marsh. It started OK but soon there were lots of deep pools and streams of water. I would jump across, but come across more. It was difficult and time consuming so I headed back out to the shore to kind of follow the stones at the edge of the river where I found a firmer easier route. However the river split into a few smaller streams and so I had to head back on the marsh where the path turned inland or I’d be following a dead end. The marsh was, well, very marshy and now it was more very long grass with boggy areas underneath I couldn’t see. However I could see the Carnach bridge ahead, so that was good.

Near Finiskaig

Soon I could reach the edge of the river and follow it again now I was passed the other streams. Soon I spotted the place I was sure I had had lunch before, a month or so ago, and turned round.

The River Finiskaig

I stopped there and had lunch again and checking the GPS, yes I was in the same place give or take a metre (I had noted the co-ordinates before). I moved in the right direction until the GPS clicked over to the exact same co-ordinate.

The River Finiskaig

I had done it at last and I was extremely pleased to have made it around Loch Nevis (but you’ll have to wait for my write up of the walk on the south side, which I had already done by this point).

Once I’d finished lunch it was time to start on the return journey.

The River Finiskaig

The awkward walk over the marshes was a little easier now I had found a suitable route past the river but then I ended up heading closer to the deer. They looked a bit startled but did not run away which is good, as I ended up getting closer than intended due to all the various streams through the marsh I was going around.

Deer on the marshes at the back of Loch Nevis

Deer on the marshes at the back of Loch Nevis

Eilean Maol

Now back to the cliffs the path around seemed much easier on the way back and I was soon back down on the beach heading for the Bothy.

Finiskaig beach

I was surprised that I still hadn’t seen the two men I saw earlier. They were meant to be coming the same way and I was already on my way back, but no sign. I hoped they were OK.

This time before approaching the bothy, as the tide was out I took a shortcut out over the bay with the tide now a lot lower to rejoin the path near Finiskaig. I now climbed up and reached the bridge over the river.

Approaching Loch Nevis

Approaching Loch Nevis

It was as I was just beyond this that I saw the red jackets of the men I saw earlier ahead, making their way towards me.

We had only had a brief chat of course but both of us having spent the day in such a remote area I think we were both pleased to see each other and could exchange notes on the routes ahead and I think they were pleased the bothy at Scouries was open. Happy now that we both knew we were all OK and our plans had worked out, I continued back.

Loch Nevis

The return was tiring but the weather much improved and the light now beautiful.

River Finiskaig

River Finiskaig

River Finiskaig

The walk seemed to take a long time and I suddenly realised I wasn’t exactly sure what point I would have to turn off at the woodland to get to my bike as that part of the path was quite narrow. However when I got closer I came to what I thought was the right path but it was only when I entered the woodland I was sure it was the right path. It was beginning to get dusk as I emerged by that bridge and my bike. I was glad to be back to it, but I still had a long way to go.

The journey on the bike back was quicker than on the way here as more of it seemed to be downhill. However what did surprise me was the water. There had been quite a bit of rain during the day and there were many more parts of the track wholly or partly flooded than had been the case this morning. I went through many deep puddles at speed with more confidence than was really warranted. The bike was taking a pounding as many were very uneven underneath and I was a bit worried the tyres, not meant for off-road cycling would not take it and I’d get a puncture, or even bend a wheel. Fortunately the bike did take the punishment without issue. I didn’t even fall of (though I did come close at one point). I let it reach faster speeds than on the way there which made for a bumpy ride but a faster journey.

What did surprise and shock me was to come across this small landslip.

Landslip on the track to Strathan

Landslip on the track to Strathan

It didn’t entirely block the track but it had happened during my walk because it wasn’t there this morning. It does bring home how remote this area is and how vulnerable the infrastructure is (I think this track does serve at least one property). Of course it was small enough a shovel ought to be enough to clear it, but as I say it was still a surprise.

Track near Strathan

The bike ride did drag and the last bit it was pretty much dark (and I had no lights with me), so it was a relief when my car came into sight. I could sit down for a much earned rest and change out of my wet socks and shoes. I had left a drink in the car too so that was welcome.

I was really pleased to have completed my objective to walk around Loch Nevis (though you will have to wait for the next two walks to read about it all) especially so before the winter, as I then knew the walks I had to start next year would be very much easier, which was welcome. It would have been a demanding walk if I could stay over in the bothy. It was even more demanding that I couldn’t (albeit frustrating to learn, too late, I actually could have done) and had had to do it there and back and I was on a bit of a high that I had achieved it. The walk had taken me to some extremely beautiful and spectacular places and one that very few people ever get to see and I was quite proud of having done it.

There is no public transport possible for the walk. Probably the nearest place is Inverie, which has a ferry to Mallaig.

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

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7 Responses to 371. Strathan to Carnach Bridge

  1. Wow. That was some walk and took determination and guts. You’re much braver than me. Shame you couldn’t count on the bothy being open, but I suspected it would be. Well done!

    • jcombe says:

      Thanks Ruth. Yes I was quite determined to do this having started it (perhaps in hindsight I shouldn’t have started but…). Yes I also suspected no one would go to such a remote location to lock the bothy, but I also didn’t feel happy taking the risk it would be open (or that I’d get there, find someone else there who might insists that the Covid rules meant no one else could use it). Still at least I made it.

  2. tonyurwin says:

    Well done Jon. I’m impressed with your determination. Another fine adventure!

    • jcombe says:

      Yes, it was the thought of not having finished a planned walk for my last trip that made me push on, as I knew it would bug me all winter in wondering how I was going to tackle it, or worrying I’d fail again.

  3. thorntonworm says:

    Wow – that was an adventure – and makes pretty gripping reading. Well done!

  4. Pingback: 372. Strathan to grid reference NM8423394235 | Round the Island

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