Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Knoydart

Knoydart, a self contained world of sea and summit, is a rounded peninsula in the North West of Scotland, sandwiched between Loch Nevis and Loch Hourn. 
It is a land of crow and deer and glacial debris, a world of water, a rain forest without trees, and a place where it is still possible to have a real, bona fide adventure.  The real magic lies high in the corries, in Coire Gorm under Ladhar Bheinn, and in the lochans between Luinne Beinn and Meal Buide.  In the bealachs and the corries small pools of water glint in the pale sun and gather water for easy drinking for the deer who retreat here to graze in the summer.  Oak, birch and willow line the gorges alongside every stream, and the eye grows used to waterfalls and whirlpools cut deep into the rock on every bend.  The hanging gardens blush with soft pinks and purples, vivid yellows and greens, the landscape is old with people and memory, but not full up like farmland.  The ghosts know their place here amongst the rock pools and the grass and heather steppe and keep quiet stewardship.  We got along just fine, and so will you.

I walked in from the very end of Loch Arkaig, over to Kinbreack in Glen Kingie, a beautiful and lonely place, the bothy immaculately kept.  Crossing the knee deep swamp in the centre of the glen, good grace demanding I ascend the corbett of Sgurr na Fhuarain on its east side, to begin the walk towards Sgurr na Ciche.  After heavy squalls the weather settled for a few hours and I was blessed with a ridge walk of a lifetime.  I was hugely impressed by Gharb Chioch Mhor, sitting on its haunches in a heavy grey tortoiseshell cloak, the fabric of the mountain laid out like the roots of a tree or the fingers in a splayed hand, the sudden chilly rain storm on my ascent, scrambling over cold, wet granite and a burning highland twilight afterwards.  Early the following morning I reached the peak of Sgurr na Ciche in heavy rain and high winds.  It felt more than a little pointless on the top, but I was camped too close not to try in the morning, whatever the weather.

I descended to the beach slowly over half a day, via a slippery, slightly treacherous path alongside a burn draped in cloud and moss and fern and cut down into Glen Dessary to join the track before the lochans filled with tiny slivery trout and whispering grasses.  Passed the ramshackle sea shanty of Soulies bothy and forded the river, walking late into the beautiful Gleann Meadail towards Inverie.  The sight of the sun shining on the sea from the pass an hour before darkness was beyond words.  The west will do that to you, wring your heart out and leave you speechless and hollow, at least it does to me.  In Inverie I spent some time at the community centre looking through old cuttings about the history of the buyout.  The township is famously remote, not connected to the road system.  But Inverie is not cut off, it faces the sea and has a new pier.  The community are forward thinking and newly liberated from centuries of oppression.  High above the town stands a stone memorial to their old landlord, Nazi sympathiser Lord Brocket.  But in the teashop local school kids sell their art projects on DVD, and in the grocers the dozing postman sells political posters, and North African sweets imported through Rotterdam.  It's their land now.  The self determination of the people here is profound and I left the village quietly and slightly in awe.



I moved up the Mam Li to camp amongst the lake labyrinth there, then went high into the Corrie Gorm under Ladhar Bheinn the following morning in good weather, seeing a huge herd of stags.  A vicious down climb off the greasy thin lines of the razor fin that is the Stob a`Chearcaill left me shaky and spent, but also stronger in mind and more confident, at least afterwards.  On Gharb Chioch Mhor and Meal Buide I faired better and remembered how to move on all fours: the feel of granite under my fingers, shifting weight, gauging balance, making the rock my friend.



I didn't see anyone at all for the first three days.  In some ways it was a hard trip.  I spent a while fretting about life outside the walk.  The night before I reached Inverie, the evening of my birthday, I finally arrived in the journey, and was fully present.  It was a relief.  After that night, flow was achieved, my metabolism reset to the walk and I began to engage moment by moment.  This trip was about the walk.  Knoydart is physically demanding and I still hurt a week later.  In the west you walk from sea level to the tops of the Munros, which feels like an extra 300 metres, because it is.  The mountains are steep, rough, and wet.  My bivy bag was overwhelmed with groundwater on one occasion and my feet suffered.  This trip was not about the camps.  The midges were obscene and I would not venture out again for a multiday trip in summer in the north west without an inner for my tarp.  My usual diet of dried vegetarian food was complimented with extra protein - mocca with midge, miso soup with midge, curried rice and vegetables with midge, cous cous with sun dried tomato and... a less funny and more irritating monty python sketch.  At Barrisdale the air simply vibrated.



A reminder again of something I always forget, a simple fact of living outdoors - that winds are solar.  In the evening as the sun set, it would drop to nothing and the hungry insects would redouble their efforts.  In the pre dawn light, I would open one eye and see the hordes just outside my bivy mesh, waiting for their breakfast in the shelter of my tarp whilst the breeze picked up until the sun, if it appeared, rose and the wind stopped again.  I was dreading my last camp but I pitched facing the sea and there was enough wind and rain to keep them at bay for an hour or two.  I walked out on the Glendessary track carved to pieces by a digger for no apparent reason, in the finest weather I had seen all week.  Meeting walkers coming in for a day or two I talked and felt like a veteran, and probably smelt like one too.



It's an utterly beautiful and genuinely magical place, some good estate practices and some not so, without a doubt one of the wildest places I have walked in the UK, whatever we understand that to be.  I experienced a genuine sense of adventure when choosing to venture off the beaten track.  And who needs paths, when there are animal tracks?  I  learnt in Knoydart to have more faith in my ability to wander aimlessly with intent, to stravaig.  Devoted for 6 days to exploring this place and this place only, I sought out rolling grades and contours of sticky rock and oozing moss, and followed the deer - they know it best of all. 



It is good to know there are a few places where the road does still end, where time still bends and a primaeval light can still hold sway.  If only for a few days, until the midges win and the food runs out.

The video?  Loch Nevis and Loch Hourn, the two worlds of water which form the natural boundaries and define the province of Knoydart, are sometimes translated as the Lochs of Heaven and Hell.  Its a dramatic place, hence the dramatic title.  Its feels pretty overblown to me now but I've erased the edit and this is the only version, so I'm stuck with it and so are you.  The two groundrules were: no panning, and tell the story of the place in nature, not the walk or the walker.  Failed then, on both counts.



  • Some history on the area here, it's well worth your time.
  • The music in the video is downloadable here, a thing from an afternoon of fooling around with guitars and loopers at a friend's house a few years ago.
  • The best of the rest of the photos are on flkr here.


This trip was written up as a feature in the May 2013 edition of The Great Outdoors Magazine.

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