The Knoydart Diaries

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The Trek and Run Team backpacked around Scotland for three weeks in the summer of 2014, a journey which included a four night stay on the Knoydart peninsula, an area known as one of the most remote places in Europe. We were supported on our journey by the following companies, who provided the resources we needed to make the best of our time there.

We arrive at Mallaig on the Jacobite steam train, a popular service and one that lives up to its billing as one of the world’s most beautiful journeys. Outstanding scenery’s on offer plus the comfort of old style movement, the gentle pull of the engine, the experience of standing in the wood-lined corridor looking out of the rattling windows, the air full of the chuff chuff of sulphur and smoke…

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Then leaving Mallaig station we cross the road, stock up on last minute supplies at the local shop (I prefer shopping in large supermarkets, which is against my generally held views on trying my best to support local business yet still, I find the larger shops are far less likely to cheat you, as this one in Mallaig does us) and boarded the Western Isles ferry to Knoydart.

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A seal, floating on its back in a faint oil slick, bids us goodbye. The ocean’s choppy as we round the headland but visibility is good with the islands of Eigg and Rum off to the left and then Skye filling the forward horizon, and then we turn into Loch Nevis and the waters calm.

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The ferry has a bar downstairs and bunks, toilets and a warm seating area at sea level but I’m excited for the journey and want to feel the weather so I spend the first fifteen minutes on deck. Later the skipper, Trevor, invites me up to his lookout so I climb up there and I tell him of our plans, to wild camp on Knoydart, preferably at a good beach.

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‘There’s a spot I often see kayakers camped at,’ he says, ‘over there, to the left of the statue of Our Lady, and to the right of the peninsula.’ I can see it clearly, a sandy beach and a level looking patch of grass. There doesn’t seem to be a path to it, but we’ll try to walk to it all the same.

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We leave the ferry, tell Trevor we’ll see him in four or five days and then walk left, along the ‘main’ road, a single track of tarmac, for forty minutes until, having crossed a stone bridge, we head left down a more private track that hugs the sea shore. A white house appears on our right outside which a huge Chilean flag hangs limply from an Admiralty-sized pole. The road gives out here so we continue on the stony beach, heading for a glen that I feel must be behind the loch-side peaks I’d seen from the ferry.

(Note; later I was to look on an OS map and saw that the house is called ‘Glaschoille’ and the peaks are ‘Rubha Raonuill’.)

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The beach walking is hard going, it’d be easy to twist an ankle whilst negotiating the slippery foreshore rocks. After twenty minutes we reach a flat area between hills with passable camping options – a few bits of grass surrounded by boggy ground facing a muddy beach. Lamia’s tired and votes to camp here but it feels all wrong to me. It’s not often I insist on pushing on when I’ve a trekking partner who’s so exhausted they just want to pitch camp there and then, but this is a damp valley, and the scenery isn’t anything to get excited about, and that boggy ground looks like it could soon flood if we were to have any serious rain…

So I tell Lamia to stay put whilst I run up the hillside and scope out a route to the beach we’d seen from the Western Isles ferry. The hill’s a bog but passable, and within fifteen minutes I’ve reached a ridge from where I can look down on the beach. I run back’down the bog and say

‘It’s about an hour maximum from here, you’ll want to go on, it’s a beautiful campsite over there.’ She doesn’t want to go, but we push on.

Our boots are waterproof which is lucky as often we’re a few inches deep as the bog over-runs the path. No matter where we divert the water’s there. As is deer poop; this is obviously a place where the wildlife runs free.

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Lamia makes her struggle very audible, huffing and moaning with every step, it’s like hiking alongside a Japanese Anime character. She’s crying by the time we get down the other side of the ridge but what can I do but make her push on, I know she’ll appreciate it in the end and even if she doesn’t we’ve committed ourselves to the hike, we can’t pull out now. We’re both tired – it’s not this journey but the previous eight days of hiking the West Highland Way that’s sapped me of strength – and it’d be dangerous to change plans in this mental and physical state.

The walk from damp valley to glorious beach takes an hour and it’s bog all the way, which makes it all the more miraculous that our camp-spot turns out to be of the softest grass, completely level and relatively sheltered.

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If ever there was a perfect wild camp spot, this is it! Fresh water running down the hillsides around us in little waterfalls (has to be filtered though as it’s tinged red, like Iron Bru, and I’m not sure if the mineral content is too high for us, or if there’s giardia in it), wild deer to look at now and again, a white sand beach to the east and a pebble beach to the west, plenty of driftwood for the fire and space for about three tents on flat ground and perhaps three more on slightly sloping ground.

The only slight minus point is that the ground is pebbly after about two inches of topsoil which makes putting the tent pegs in a trial, and with some pegs I just give up and hope for the best.

I sit cooking dinner and watch the great lightshow playing out on the peaks of Chruach and Sgurr Coire nan Gobhar, never tiring of seeing one peak darken as another is split by a rainbow, or turning hazy as a squall overcomes it.

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Dolphins glide into our bay, break the rippled surface three times, head towards us then disappear, a short, beautiful story with no ending. Gulls chase an eagle who escapes and then circles far away, nonchalantly.

When the wind dies there’s complete silence (no commercial airlines fly overhead so the sky is clear of vapour trails and noise), then a wave laps, a single, noisy wave.

Military jets do streak past occasionally though, practicing, as they do in the Lake District. If we ever go to war with any countries with mountainous coastlines and fjords, lochs or lakes our pilots will be sure to make no mistakes. Norway, Sweden and Switzerland better watch out. I’ve spent minutes, or is it hours, thinking of the poor souls in Afganistan, Iraq and so on, who have to suffer these airbourne monsters daily through no fault of their own.

Trevor the ferry skipper waves and toots as he passes three times a day. There’s no phone signal here, all is perfect. Unless sickness happens to either of us in which case there’ll be trouble as the rescue point is over two hours walk away. It’d be a struggle if there was a problem, we’d have to walk as boats can only dock if they’re flat bottomed but why would they dock, there’s no phone signal, how would I get the word out that we’re in distress, not waving but drowning? This is the small price of solitude.

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The tide changes by just two metres throughout the day so the scenery, albeit beautiful, rarely changes, unlike my old haunt of Darnet Island in the Medway Estuary with it’s tidal range of around six metres, which looks like a different place at low tide as opposed to high. Grey Herons and Oyster catchers are here though, as they are at Darnet, although they’re also joined by hoards of midges which hang around nose and mouth at dawn and dusk and seem to be immune to even the fiercest of north winds.

We wake at 7.30am, the sun is breaking through the black clouds. Dolphins are making tracks across the bay towards Inverie. I climb high above camp, it’s a quick route, fifteen minutes and I’m at the top of the 104 metre peak that overlooks the tent.

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There are divots all around, every step is a potential busted bone, I hear my right ankle click and crack a few times in my haste to summit and later I’m to nurse a sprain by the fireside. There are fine views to the Cullin mountains from the summit, beyond hillsides of purple heather. It’s windy but with little rain, fine weather for this part of the world.

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Whilst searching for firewood I come across a binbag full of trash, thrown into the heather by previous campers (it’s well above the waterline so it’s been placed, rather than washed, there, I think), as though bagging the trash up is the same as cleaning up and leaving no trace. If this paradise isn’t enough to make campers understand about leaving no trace then… For sure, when the already converted mess up this bad, there is little hope.

On the other hand, I find joy in spotting trash on the beach and racing to it, wondering what it might be. A flash of blue, is that rope? A fish tray? No, it’s a bucket, and suddenly I’m a man of wealth. I have a bucket, to put firewood in, I feel a swelling in my chest, a feeling of contentment. We’ve only been here two days yet it’s primal already, as though we’re the last ones left.

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Rain drives us into the tent after a lunch by the fireside. I lay in the sleeping bag and nurse my ankle.

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No need to get dressed at night to go to toilet, no need to get dressed at all in fact when the weather is fine, the joy of real wild camping. Deer poke slender necks above the ferns at dusk, I see their erect ears outlined against the sunset, they see me from their high position, let off a few barks, gather together, confer, decide that humans are bad news (we agree on that point) and then run.

Tuesday 21st, and there was another hurricane last night to match the one we had whilst hiking the West Highland Way. Rain started at 2pm and continued until 7am, accompanied by huge wind. The tent billowed, imploded, expanded, the inner touching our cowering heads one minute and blowing a foot away the next. I stay dressed through the night in case our tent pegs are ripped out, at times I can’t understand how the tent stays put and am seriously fearful that we will blow out into the ocean any second. Our little tent bowling along, us inside, pitched into the roaring sea. Credit to our tent, magnificently built by Robens, we stay put, although the noise of the storm is so great no sleep is had.

I shan’t pretend that we feel utterly remote here. It is lovely, and there are special moments when we feel like, as I’ve already said, the only people left (although with all the beauty and none of the sadness) but there are always signs of civilisation wriggling into our day. As well as Trevor’s ferry there are two supply boats that shuttle to and fro up to six times daily and when there’s no wind (rare) their motors fill the air for ten minutes before they appear, and ten after they disappear. And then there’s the red trousers brigade and their sailing boats, for once preferable in our eyes, silent as they are except for the tap of rope and fixing on mast.

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The distance to our second campsite, just before An Cnap and below Chruach Peak, is about six miles and takes three hours or so to walk, back over the boggy hill, past Inverie ferry dock, the tiny white village and Long Beach campsite and then across the river from where a swampy path take us to a 4 x 4 track leading out onto a grassy headland.

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A feature of the walk is the thick, lush forest that flanks our left side, it’s so like Sri Lanka, we can see and hear waterfalls often, one looks like it could deliver a perfect shower, flowing free over the cliff via an overhang and falling into a foot round space onto a flat slab of granite. And it’s sunny most of the way too making this a perfect wild walk, so few fences or humans, so much water, easy going.

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No humans? The tiny village does have a few milling around but we avoid them as we don’t want to risk getting mixed up with Tabitha and Tarquin and having to discuss what subjects we studied at university or what our second home is like; they seem friendly enough but still, we came here for the country not the people (I get the impression that on hot summer weekends Inverie could be wall to wall red trousers and Barbour jackets so be careful when you visit).

Gulls scatter as we appear and purple thistles, yellow flowers and swaying long-grass reminds me yet again of Darnet. The headland’s a fine spot; if the weather was guaranteed you’d have colonies of nudists/hippies here for the summer such is the depth of real beauty on offer but alas it rains too much here for casual campers. It could also be a venue for those wanting a month to themselves, not to prove anything but just as an antidote to the madness that can creep up on you in the modern world, you know those times, when you’re made to feel odd for not wanting to work a sixty hour week or aspire to anything other than staying afloat in as much comfort as you can scrabble together over a lifetime of servitude.

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On spring tides I guess you’d have to camp high but high tide comes and goes and it’s a good three metres from our tent so I relax. An eagle circles, squarks above the pines that line the bay, below a thick bank of black clouds; soon the sun will dip towards Skye.

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We listen to the sporadic peal of Oyster-catchers and the rush of the river emptying into the bay. We could be living in any year in the last few thousand, there is the sort of complete darkness and occasional bursts of silence enclosing us that are so rare nowadays but which I imagine were the norm for our ancestors.

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I get up at midnight to pee and am in awe of a starry sky so bright I’ve only ever seen the like whilst deep in the Egyptian Sahara. We have a full rainbow over the bay at breakfast.

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A little rain sees us on our way and cools us as we walk back to the ferry dock, where locals still leave their bikes unlocked – leaning against the wooden lean-to that is the ‘terminal’ – as they visit the mainland for a few days.

It saddens me to see so many people clambering onto the smaller supply boats that also act as ferries, that arrive ten minutes before Trevor’s ‘Western Isle’ boat. The smaller boats have no shelter (passengers joke that you get a free shower as you travel if you sit near the stern), they’re very noisy and they turn a scenic journey that deserves to be savoured into a fast commute to be done ASAP. I don’t like seeing the decline of the romance of travel so graphically illustrated, especially by travellers smart enough to go to Knoydart. They should know better…

But that sadness quickly passes, and we stand up front of the ‘Western Isles’ ferry, looking to the horizon where the Isle of Skye, our next destination, broods under black clouds.

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I love looking at a sky that seems like it’s going to dump a bucket-load of bad weather on us, knowing that it won’t bother me in the slightest, such is the quality of our tent. And the subject of weather is a good note to finish on. If I offer any advice at all regarding a backpacking tour of Scotland it’s to get the best quality tent, boots and waterproof’s that you can afford. For us that meant Helly Hansen trousers, Jack Wolfskin jackets, Keen boots and a Robens tent; invest as much as you can in quality, you won’t regret it…

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