Lochaber and the Great Glen

Planning doesn’t always work out how one thinks it might. A long Grey Corries day never happened, and instead became a straightforward half day, but against that the Great Glen crossing was splendid and acquaintance with the South Cluanie Ridge made as intended. Add in two famous Highland hotels and a couple of contrasted bothies, plus improving weather, and another fine traverse ensued.

Below the Grey Corries

Stage 18, Wednesday 8 June 2011: Corrour to Lairig Leacach, 8 miles

This year’s inductee to the delights of Corrour rail station was my younger son Adrian, then 18. Quite what he thought about the path north beside the rail line he’s not yet fully let on, but suffice to say its first half mile or so is a brute, with sunken duckboarding barely making possible a dry-shod start to what on the map should be a doddle. Things do improve however, particularly after the landrover track to Creaguaineach Lodge joins in after a mile-and-a-half. After leaving the lodge, it’s back to path, at first through a pretty little dry valley, before rejoining the strath. Rain came over here, and my continual promising of the bothy as ‘over the next rise’ was probably not appreciated.

When reached, we brewed up – soup, the tea bags still being in the kitchen back home – and waited for dry before bagging Adrian’s first Munro, Stob Coire Easain. On the descent from here Adey’s calves stiffened up. A very fit cyclist – a few weeks later, he cycled to Rome – it seemed that the hill took out the wrong muscles. Just before nightfall, three German postgrads panted in through the returned rain, with fresh food, dry logs and firelighters, and made the evening much more agreeable than it might have been.

Stage 19, Thursday 9 June 2011: Lairig Leacach to Spean Bridge, 8 miles

In Lairig Leacach bothy

Father and son in Lairig Leacach bothy

Shortly after this picture was taken, I made an offer of 0, 1 or 2 Munros, down from the projected three or four, but I knew the answer. No hills today. It was slow progress down the track for Adrian, poor thing. The Germans, whose parked car we had passed earlier, passed us a mile or so from Spean Bridge, but to give Adey credit, he refused to seek to blag a lift, having set himself the target of reaching the village. There was then a lot of time to kill before the B&B opened: one can only do so much looking round the Scottish Woollen Mill. For dinner, the Old Station Restaurant is thoroughly recommended, and on the way back to our B&B the sun lit up the Grey Corries in spectacular fashion.

Through the Great Glen

Stage 20, Friday 10 June 2011: Spean Bridge to Invermaillie, 10 miles, 7 on route

High Bridge

General Wade’s High Bridge

Home day, as always planned, for Adrian; I waved him goodbye on the late morning train. So, effectively another half day for me. Today’s height profile mirrors Essex more than the Highlands, but heights don’t mean everything, and this is a splendid little walk. There’s a new path in just the right place, a few yards beyond the Aonach Mor hotel, which takes you away from the busy main road and heads for the River Spean. As discovered yesterday, it’s a furious river, fast-flowing and broad, and always of interest. Bridging it was key to first the political and then the commercial domination of the Highlands; indeed the walk starts at Telford’s bridge in the village centre, and passes two more that have not stood the test of time.

First of these is the bridge of the old rail line to Fort Augustus, c1900. If the main West Highland line was always a risky financial venture, this spur was even more so, surviving in passenger use only for barely 30 years, with freight traffic hardly more successful. Its building reflects conflict though, in a way; the aim was to force a line through the Great Glen to Inverness, undoubtedly technically feasible, but the northern city was ‘owned’ by a rival company, which did not fancy the competition. Conflict is more overt a little further on, with General Wade’s High Bridge, the most substantial of the military bridges built in the late 18th century to provide troops with speedy movement to quell post-Culloden clan uprisings. It served its job long enough, but was not well built, and the present Telford bridge was built to replace it. It as at the High Bridge that the new path turns back towards the village, via the famous memorial to the commandos who trained in the region, but I took the course of the military road for a few hundred yards, up to the road to Gairlochy.

Gairlochy, barely a hamlet, is an important spot on the Caledonian Canal, and now for walkers and cyclists on the Great Glen Way. It was the site of a rare Telford miscalculation, his original single lock below Loch Lochy proving insufficient, a second being required after severe flooding broke the original. From here I joined the Way for a couple of miles northwards, thus avoiding the road, and taking in the good views back down the loch to Ben Nevis and across to the hills above Laggan. Indeed in early planning I had pondered staying on the Way into Laggan, but had decided on a direct cut to Tomdoun. This took me past Achnacarry‘s little church – built only in 1912 – and into the little village of that name, seat of Clan Cameron and hosting a small museum to the history of this famous Highland family. This gave me a good excuse to break for a little while and blag a cup of tea from the museum keeper, before setting off to Loch Arkaig and a deviation to Invermaillie bothy for the night. No problems here in fire-building!

Back in the hills

Stage 21, Saturday 11 June 2011: Invermaillie to Tomdoun, 15 miles, 13 on route

Meall na h-Eilde (L) and Meall an Tagraidh

Meall na h-Eilde (L) and Meall an Tagraidh

A good night, and an early start for me. Between Loch Arkaig and Tomdoun there are two Corbetts and a forest in the way. I took the higher of the former, Meall na h-Eilde, which has a straightforward approach up Gleann Cia-Aig before an ascent on rough grass to the summit. From here the north ridge was none too tricky, later bearing NNW half way down to drop into Coire nan Saobhaidh, where there is a faint access track. This soon hits forest, not dense pine wood, but ancient Caledonian forest now being restored. The track always takes an obvious line as it swings NE, but that didn’t mean it was always easy to follow – I saw not a single boot print till near to the settlement at Greenfield, where a resident told me it was from their own walk earlier that day! The uncertainty, with a recognition that to go off line could lead into difficult and disorienting terrain, plus many fallen trees, led to slow going; but the reward was three miles of quiet road walking to the Tomdoun hotel, a eulogy to which appears below.

Stage 22, Sunday 12 June 2011: Tomdoun to Cluanie, 13 miles

Many walkers on the Cape Wrath trail – not a set route, just a determination to reach Cape Wrath across country from the Great Glen, and hence my line from now – find themselves making this crossing. Once, a motor road linked the two hotels, but this was severed with the raising of Loch Loyne for hydro-electric use. Now, the most practical way is along Glen Garry, with beautiful views west, cross the low(ish: 1500+ft) pass, the Mam na Seilg, into Glen Loyne, and then climb again, on a path which runs round the base of the South Cluanie Ridge, one of the most famous multiple-Munro days out.

Gairich above Loch Poulary

Gairich above Loch Poulary

I had a choice from the summit of the latter path. In bad weather it’s easy just to drop down a short way to the old road, but with light winds and cloud-free hills, an ascent to the ridge beckoned. No thought, of course, of doing the whole thing, but time enough to pick up the first two Munros, Creag a’Mhaim and Druim Shionnach.

The stalker’s path to the top of the first is a joy; the ridge between the two continually narrows to culminate in a short arete direct to the second summit; and immediately below this the first walker I had seen all week (other than Adrian) told me about his sneaky easy way off. Not the north ridge; doable but craggy, scrambly and unpleasant, he reckoned; instead, drop down grass towards Coire an t-Slugain, then descend just beneath the north ridge crags to Loch a’Mhaoil Dhisnich. It was a doddle (might have been tricky to keep on line, though, in mist). And he reappeared at the Cluanie Inn later, and insisted on buying me a whisky, not the other way round!

Back to Rannoch

Forward to Kintail and Wester Ross

Accommodation

Tomdoun hotel

The Tomdoun hotel in 2011

Lairig Leacach bothy is just a single room, but even when the German party arrived we could have squeezed in more. Inverour guest house in Spean Bridge was welcoming and they’re accustomed to walkers. I was apprehensive on my way to Invermaillie bothy, having heard of problems with both flooding and ‘Glasgow anglers’, but I had the place to myself on a gloriously sunny evening and morning.

The Tomdoun hotel went straight to the top of my recommend places in Scotland, up there with the Culm Valley inn in Devon, for similar reasons: a host who took their considerable personality and imprints it on the hotel. At Tomdoun, it was first names only, no-one ate alone, and a hazy distinction between management and visitors. BUT passing the road-end on my way back to Cluanie in 2012 the hotel sign had CLOSED written across it. Indeed, the business was liquidated a few days later. One hopes it re-opens soon, with a sympathetic owner. The Cluanie inn is famous with walkers too, and rightly so, but it’s more of a ‘business’ than Tomdoun, though undoubtedly good at what it does.

Map

Zoom in for detail up to 1:50,000
Open Space Web-Map builder Code

Lairig Leacach bothy below Stob Ban

Lairig Leacach bothy below Stob Ban

Ben Nevis across Loch Lochy

Ben Nevis across Loch Lochy

Clan Cameron museum

Clan Cameron museum

forest above Greenfield

The forest above Greenfield

Below Druim Shionnach

Below Druim Shionnach