Saturday 29 June 2024

Where are the trees? Thinking about the environment along the Cape Wrath Trail.

A solitary rowan growing out of a boulder in An Caorann Mor between Loch Cluanie and Glen Affric

The Cape Wrath Trail, most of which I walked a few weeks ago, is mainly a low level route. There are some high passes but mostly it follows glens. It is a walk through the mountains rather than over them. I was aware that most of the time I was at a lower elevation than my home in Strathspey at 300 metres. It didn’t feel like it though. It felt higher and more mountainous than it is, the surroundings hard and harsh.

The Allt Feithe Chailleach. Just 225 metres above sea level. There should be trees.

The reason, I quickly realised, is the lack of trees. So much of the route is in bare, over-grazed, treeless glens. Being used to the Cairngorms with its extensive and increasing forest cover I missed the trees.

Regenerating forest in a fenced area in Glen Loyne

Paradoxically, the absence is most noticeable where there are trees. The frequent dark blocks of spruce plantations show that trees will grow here as do the rather fewer fenced areas of regenerating forest. The bare land around these forest islands is not natural. It is the result of over-grazing by deer and sheep. And this doesn’t just mean no trees. It means poor overall biodiversity. Inside the fences the undergrowth is thick and lush and there is much bird song. Outside the vegetation is low and species poor. Bird song is absent. In many areas a distant cuckoo was all I heard.

Scots pine forest in Glen Garry

Beginning the walk along the Great Glen I was in woods much of the first day and a half, some of it natural or semi-natural, rather more of it plantation. After leaving the trees in Glen Garry I was only in woods for short periods. Too often the few trees in the landscape were solitary rowans growing out of clefts in rocks or thin lines of mixed woodland along the sides of steep ravines, all out of reach of the deer.

Mixed woodland on the steep banks of the river Douchary

The differences were exemplified by a section between Inverlael and Oykel Bridge in the northern half of the walk. The path descends Glen Douchary through a ribbon of trees on steep banks with the river rushing down below. Life flourishes. Birds sing. The land feels alive. 

Loch an Daimh. A sad landscape after the joy of Glen Douchary.

The glen is left for a walk above long Loch an Daimh. The trees vanish. No birds sing. The land is sour. Life struggles here. This is what the summits far above are like but here it’s only 200 metres above sea level. There should be a glorious forest lining the loch.

Fenced forest regeneration standing out in Glen Loyne

There are changes, shown by the areas fenced for regeneration, often aided by planted native species, but these aren’t that big. Still, I’d rather some trees than none and the resulting chequerboard pattern of healthy and unhealthy terrain is better than nothing, jarring though it looks.

Clear-cut hillside in Glen Garry

In many areas plantations have been clear-cut, leaving ugly devastated sweeps of hillside slashed with bulldozed roads. If left to regenerate these could become new forests in future decades though it takes time for such brutal scars to heal. Some no doubt will be replanted with packed rows of spruce for future clear-cuts, though hopefully not many.

Fine scenery in Glen Gnionhaidh but where are the trees?

The Cape Wrath Trail should be a walk in the woods. It isn’t. It is still an enjoyable, challenging and impressive walk. I wouldn’t want to deter anybody from hiking it. But if you go think about what you see, think about trees. And give support to those who would see them return, who want to rewild the land.

Thursday 27 June 2024

A Hot June Day In The Cairngorms

Loch Etchachan from the North Ridge of Cairn Gorm

Two weeks after I was battered by hail and snow in the Cairngorms  I had the opposite problem on my next venture onto the tops. Heat! Too much heat! And sticky humidity. Not that I’m really complaining. A dry sunny day was actually very welcome.

Too hot for socks! Those ankles haven't seen the sun a while.

Wandering into Coire an Laogh I was soon sweating heavily. My feet felt like they were exploding out of my shoes so off came my socks. My short-sleeved shirt was unbuttoned to the waist. Hard to believe just a fortnight earlier I’d been wearing boots with thick socks, four layers of clothing, two hoods, a warm hat and gloves. Today the essential equipment was sunscreen, baseball cap, dark glasses, and water.


The mountains were unrecognisable. Instead of snow and cold grey rocks the hillsides were green, the rocks warm brown, Instead of a swirling mist full of sleet and hail there was blue sky and high white clouds.

Lochan na Beinne & Meall a' Bhuachaille from the edge of Coire an Laogh

Only one feature remained from the earlier trip. The wind. It was still strong and when the sun was hidden in the clouds cool enough to have me donning a thin windshirt, which came off every time the sun reappeared as I was instantly too hot.

Bynack More

The views were extensive – two weeks earlier they’d been a few hundred metres – fading into the hazy far distance. With the fast moving clouds and the sun coming and going there was an ever-changing contrast between light and dark. The long ragged whaleback of Bynack More seemed to have a cloud permanently fixed above it as it was always dark though.

Cnap Coire na Spreidhe with Beinn a' Bhuird in the distance

Just below the summit of Cnap Coire na Spreidhe I found a sheltered spot to sit and watch the clouds and the mountains. Peaceful, restful, I could have sat there, my mind drifting, for hours.

To the south I could see tiny figures going up and down Cairn Gorm. I’d met no-one all day and decided not to join them. After the previous week at the Outdoor Trade Show with constant conversations and the busy streets of Liverpool and the crowded trains I was relishing solitude.

Ciste Mhearad

Just below Cnap Coire na Spreidhe is the shallow bowl of Ciste Mhearad, whose southern side gathers deep snow every winter. As there hadn’t been as much snow as usual this year and there’d been two weeks of hot weather in May I was surprised at how much was left. The old snow was hard and dirty, with tiny streams emerging from tunnels below it. Big scoops showed where there had been snow holes, a popular activity here.


Leaving this remnant snow I returned to the sunshine. The wind was strengthening now and carving shapes in the clouds. I descended back into the stuffy humidity, pleased with a summer’s day out.

Tuesday 25 June 2024

After The Show: An Urban Stravaig Around Liverpool Docks

Architectural style

The Exhibition Centre where the Outdoor Trade Show is held (see last post) is in the heart of Liverpool's renovated docklands and on the banks of the Mersey. Walk out of the show and there is the river right in front of you.

Just outside the show

After three days in the show looking at gear, talking, and ambling round the warehouse-like hall I felt a need for fresh air and space and to stride out rather than stroll slowly, stopping every few minutes so I decided to have a walk along the riverside and around the docks in the glorious sunshine. 

Redbricks & boats

I had no destination in mind and nothing I especially wanted to see. I just wandered around looking at anything that seemed interesting. There were a few out and backs, a few deadends, a few repeats. It didn't matter.

Here are some more of the photos I took.

Green & blue

Urban wildlife

Ripples in mud

Lock gates

The river Mersey

Boats & houses


Liver Birds

Big wheel turning

What is it about London buses?

Looks tasty.

A grim reminder of how a little fishing village became a major port

The building never stops

Man at work

Note 1: Photos taken with Sony a6700 camera and Sony E 16-50 f3.5-f5.6 lens.

Note 2: The next post will return to the hills. I promise!

Saturday 22 June 2024

Pictures From An Exhibition: The Outdoor Trade Show 2024

Back home from a five day trip to Liverpool for the annual Outdoor Trade Show, which I attended on behalf of The Great Outdoors magazine. Two days on trains - three each way and all on time (just!),  and three days at the show, wandering a huge, bright, noisy, echoing warehouse-like space full of stands promoting every type of outdoor gear. 

Bright lights, straight lines

Despite the artificiality, the harshness of the lights, and the hardness and flatness of the floors (my feet end up more sore than from any day in the hills) I do enjoy the show, though three days is enough. Some of the new gear really is interesting and I'm looking forward to testing items. 

Stoves & pots

Meeting people is the heart of the show though. I only see many friends and colleagues in person at the show and I always think just how different it is to talking to them via a screen. This time I met Francesca Donovan, the new editor of The Great Outdoors, for the first time, which was wonderful. 

Over the years I've got to know quite a few people from brands and PR companies - too many to mention them all here - and it's always good to chat with them. 

This should be interesting!

Away fron the gear standsI had good conversations with Mike Parsons of Outdoor Gear Coach, Henry Iddon, the photographer behind the Mountain Style book to which I've contributed an essay (and which has surpassed its Kickstarter appeal), and Dave Mycroft of MyOutdoors. I was also interviewed by Bob Cartwright of The Outdoor Station for a podcast.

A good idea

Here's a few more pictures of the show, all from my smartphone.

A stand you couldn't miss

There were tents

And more tents

I kept expecting them to move

Shoes I like

Even a dummy dog

Sunday 16 June 2024

My Cape Wrath Trail walk

Along the Allt Grannda

My Cape Wrath Trail walk started in sunshine and ended in rain, wind and cold that had me stopping three or four days from the end. There’s no set route. Start in Fort William and walk to Cape Wrath by whichever way you choose. There are suggested routes though, on websites, maps and in a guidebook, all giving various alternatives.

Start in Fort William

From Fort William there are western and eastern options. Having walked much of the western one in Knoydart last year (see this post) I decided to start with the eastern one which initially follows the Great Glen Way. This makes for easy walking and a waymarked path for the first day or so.

Mist rising from Loch Lochy. Early morning at my first camp.

I began at the end of the long hot dry spell in May and was in shorts and t-shirt for the first five days, which took me from Fort William to Morvich and Glen Shiel. After that those garments disappeared into the depths of my pack never to emerge again.

Loch Lochy in the Great Glen

The first section along the Caledonian Canal also provides many places for food and drink and I barely touched my supplies until the evening of the second day. The easy walking continues after the Great Glen Way is left and the route turns west along forest roads above Loch Garry. Once these roads run out at the end of the loch everything changes. An intermittent narrow and hard-to-follow boggy path runs through tussocks and heather. The going is arduous and it took me a while to find anywhere to camp. The landscape improves dramatically however, with a feeling of entering the mountains.

Waterfall on the Allt Grannda

The three days from Glen Garry north over the eastern edge of the Glen Shiel hills to the western end of Glen Affric and then west along the Allt Grannda were a delight with fine views, sunshine, and mostly good paths and tracks. The highlight was the narrow gorge of the Allt Grannda where the path winds across the steep hillside high above the river which crashes down in waterfalls and cascades. This section has been a favourite for many years and I was happy to return after too long away.

The excellent path above the Allt Grannda

At Morvich I ate some fresh food and came down with a stomach bug, which was ironic. I know exactly what it was! I spent a day feeling weak and unwell as the clouds rolled in and rain fell. The dry spell was over.

The Falls of Glomach

I left Morvich for a mostly wet walk to Strathcarron via the Falls of Glomach – as spectacular as ever -, Iron Lodge, Maol Buidhe bothy, and Bendronaig Lodge, a meandering route that would be excellent in good weather. As it was the clouds stayed low on the hills and rain fell frequently.

Much of the time after Morvich was like this

The wet cloudy weather continued as I walked through the Torridon hills and past An Teallach to Inverlael at the head of Loch Broom. However the clouds were often were broken and more interesting visually and there were occasional clearances and bursts of sunshine, especially in the evening. This is an area I know well so I could imagine the big hills that lay hidden all around.

Cloud fill Coire Mhic Fhearchair on Beinn Eighe in Torridon

An Teallach did appear though. An overcast sky made for dull, flat light but the mountain looked as splendid as ever. It was the first hill I’d seen clearly since leaving Morvich.

An Teallach

At Inverlael I had arranged to meet my friend Tony Hobbs who was joining me for the next section to Inchnadamph. I had planned on a day off in Ullapool, which is not far from Inverlael, and Tony had said he’d book somewhere. He had, forty miles away in Lochinver! Everywhere in or near Ullapool was fully booked. So we had a pleasant two nights in the Culag Hotel in Lochinver where we met another CWT walker, also here because everywhere else was booked. In Lochinver we heard the first forecast for the much colder, stormier weather to come.

Waterfall in Glen Douchary

Back on the walk we had good weather for our first camp in Glen Douchary though and for a splendid walk along the lovely gorge in the glen and another camp in the sun by Rappach Water.

Tony Hobbs and his dog Lassie in Glen Douchary

The stormy weather began the next day with heavy showers and an increasingly strong wind as we headed up Glen Oykel. Loch Ailsh was in the mist. The forest was dripping. We did find a small open area in the trees for a sheltered camp. No views, just big Sitka spruce, but we were out of the wind.

Tony and Lassie above the River Traligill after we'd come through the bealach 

Back in the full force of it the next day we continued up the glen and then up to the narrow Bealach Trallgil at just over 500 metres. As we came through the pass the wind was ferocious, blasting right in our faces, which at least meant it was unlikely to knock us off the narrow path into the rocky gorge below. Again that evening we were able to find a sheltered site. Here I began to have doubts about going on. The strong NW wind was meant to continue for many more days, bringing colder air down from the Arctic with snow on the tops.

Walking out to Inchnadamph on the last day

By morning my mind was made up. I didn’t want to struggle into this weather just to reach Cape Wrath. I’d stop at Inchnadamph and come back later for the final few days. I’d walked this section before, indeed I’d walked most of the whole route before, and I am in a position to return at almost any time. If this had been a one-off trip far from home I would have continued despite the weather, as I have done on other long walks. But here, only a few hours from where I live, there was no need.

I enjoyed the Cape Wrath Trail as I always enjoy backpacking, moving on each day, camping each night. It was interesting to do a mostly low level walk through the mountains rather than go over them. I’ll write another piece about my thoughts on the environment along the way soon.

I posted some pictures of my camps on the trail here and some pictures of clouds and mist along the way here.