Unlike Wales, Scotland isn’t easy to get to if you are a Londoner, but it’s worth the effort. England and Wales have treasures both secret and famous for the walker, of course, but the sheer size of wilderness and challenge in Scotland dwarfs both.
Start and finish
Start is the south-easternmost point, helpfully signposted by the former British Railways, and where my cross-England walk is planned to finish sometime around 2017. Finish was the north-westernmost point Cape Wrath, so no boring bits along the A9 to John o’Groats. Cape Wrath is about the most evocative name there can be for the end of an undertaking such as this, and one I had toyed with for as many years as I can remember.
In 2007, I headed up the coast to St Abbs, tracked over to the Southern Upland Way, then crossed the Lammermuirs. The following year I rejoined the coast at Longniddry and then headed through Edinburgh by cycle paths and the Union Canal to Falkirk. 2009 saw me complete the lowland section by continuing along the canal system to Kilsyth, passed through the moors and low hills of the western Campsies, crossed the Forth near Flanders Moss and finally took a route through the Menteith Hills to the small town and tourist hot-pot of Callander in the Trossachs.
The high hills are only a step away from Callander, and in 2010 I crossed Corbetts, including Ben Ledi, then Munros through Breadalbane via Killin and Glen Lyon to Rannoch, where my old friend Dave Travers met me. We headed off to Benalder cottage bothy for some munro-bagging before crossing over to Corrour. This set me up in 2011 to cross the Lairig Leacach and Great Glen, and hence join a variant of the Cape Wrath trail to the Cluanie Inn. The Trail is not a set path like the West Highland Way, more an opportunity to use one’s ingenuity to find a way to the ultimate destination (although the recent Cicerone guide and its associated web site are now a great help).
Continuing in 2012, I crossed the remote country north of Cluanie to Achnashellach station on the Kyle line, and the following year continued through Kinlochewe to Oykel Bridge. That just left the magnificent final 80 miles through Sutherland, the focus for 2014.
I don’t consider myself a great Munroist, and have never felt the urge to devote myself to the ascent of all 284 Munros, Scotland’s 3,000ft peaks, but I’ve picked up a few over the years and picked up a few more in this walk. I don’t sneer at the Corbetts either, the hills between 2,500 and 3,000ft. Often they are overlooked by their more glamorous neighbours, but that can be a plus point, for there may be fewer people around, and more navigational challenge, as many Munros have busy baggers’ routes to the summit. Just as demanding though is trackless moorland, and there’s plenty of that, especially in Sutherland!
Quite apart from the difficult terrain, there are two, linked, great challenges for a Londoner in crossing Scotland a bit at a time. First, there’s no guarantee of ending a stage at a place where anybody actually lives. Second, there’s no guarantee that it’s practical to travel up from and down to London at all easily.
All of which made the planning more fun. These challenges really started to kick in north of Loch Tay. I’m a B&B-or-pub sort of person, but even in Wales the odd bunkhouse or bothy was needed, and they became a regular feature for me in Scotland. But the Cape Wrath Trail is rightly seen as a backpackers’ route, and so over the last two stages I packed a tent, to give the flexibility and indeed safety that the Trail demands.
As far as the central belt, the London – Edinburgh rail line and the vaguely reasonable bus services along the east coast made travel to and from the walks fairly straightforward. The 2008 walk was reliant on the excellent local rail services into and out of Edinburgh.
From there the Caledonian sleeper came into its own. One of the world’s great rail journeys, it is particularly valuable, time-wise, from Perth and north thereof. In particular, the train crosses Rannoch Moor to the splendid isolation of Corrour, where I picked it up in 2010 and returned in 2011. Achnashellach is on the Kyle line, and Oykel Bridge within hitching distance of Lairg on the North Highland line.
Getting back from Cape Wrath was another matter entirely. I stayed overnight at the wonderful Kearvaig bothy before leaving the headland, and then spent at night at the bunkhouse in Durness. Durness to London? Easy, bus, train, train, train, 13 hours. And it works!
In total, the walk is 442 miles long. For a table of distances and times, go to my Cross-Scotland table (PDF file, Acrobat Viewer required).