The moment I fully realized that my TGO Challenge 2015 was underway, I was standing next to a cairn on top of the mountain pass of Bealach an Sgairne. I was looking down the wide valley that would lead down to the forest in Glen Affric. It was a sunny afternoon and there was no sound except for the wind that blew through the pass.
Twelve days of remote highland areas, wild camping and spending time with like-minded people lay ahead of me.
Following St Duthac’s Way
I had arrived in Scotland the day before and reached Kyle of Lochalsh with the train from Inverness. The clear evening with the silhouette of Skye on the horizon was a warm welcome. A short bus ride brought me to my start point in Dornie the next morning.
Dornie is an interesting location, where three sea lochs meet. They were the main means of transport before roads arrived. Consequently, the iconic Eilean Donan Castle occupies a strategic location here in order to control traffic in the area.
The old coastal road from Dornie led up to a viewpoint, where I could see Loch Duich in its whole length. I enjoyed the scenery, especially since my route would soon turn away from the sea and not lead to many other lochs.
The name of Loch Duich is St Duthac (or St Dubhthaich in Gaelic), a Scottish saint from the 10th century. His name survived in many places in Kintail, Affric and Tain, where he was active. My plan was to follow a St Duthac’s Way for the first two days from Kintail to Glen Affric.
At the end of Loch Duich, lies the burial ground at Clachan Duich. It is the traditional burial ground for clan MacRae. Its old church was dedicated to St Duthac in 1050 AD.
The burial ground is special place between the loch and the glens that lead inland to the start of St Duthac’s Way. From the memorial to the members of clan MacRae, who fought and died in the Great War, I had an excellent view over Clachan Duich.
The road ended at Morvich, shortly behind Clachan Duich. Now the trail that is named after St Duthac led me to the pass at Bealach an Sgairne. Walking along the trail, the sound of traffic and civilization seemed to stayed further and further behind as I approached the pass.
On the eastern side of the pass in an empty highland landscape, the trail got boggier. Since the weather forecast promised rain for the next day, I pushed on until the ground became dry before making camp. Wild camping in a remote Highland glen. That was a good end to a fantastic first day on the Challenge.
Rain in Glen Affric
The forecast was right and the day in Glen Affric was a rather wet affair.
Once I passed the hostel at Alltbeithe, the trail turned into a vehicle track. It was not too exciting to follow and I was happy to meet some company. David and Alan had spent the night at the Youth Hostel and together it was easier to walk through the pouring rain.
We left St Duthac’s Way at the east end of Loch Affric and turned south to reach Cougie.
The family that runs the farm at Cougie, traditionally offers food and accommodation to challengers. Tea, scones and raised our spirits again and we stayed for about two hours to wait for the weather to improve. Staying here in the bunkhouse was very tempting but Alan and I stepped out into the rain for another two hours to camp on the drove road to Fort Augustus.
A new Road to Fort Augustus
After a rainy and windy night, early morning rainbows were the farewell to Glen Affric. The rain however, would continue for most of the day to Fort Augustus.
Once I was up in the moorland near the new power lines, it was clear that the old drove road looked more than a modern access road.
The whole length of the route was a newly built gravel road suitable for heavy trucks supporting construction for the power lines. While this certainly helped to make progress through the rain, it was a rather dull experience.
There where short sections, where the old track was still visible a few meters away from the road. It would have been a different walk on that trail.
It is not a surprise that this new infrastructure (power lines and supporting roads) follows historic rights of ways like the drove road to Fort Augustus. These old routes were often the best ways to cross difficult terrain and that is what the power lines need to accomplish as well.
There are many such road building and construction activities in the Highlands at the moment and they are controversial. That is especially true for people who love the outdoors, like TGO challengers. While I understand the needs for modern infrastructure, I sometimes was surprised by the sheer number of new roads paved through the moorland. I think what makes them look like scars on the landscape is also the fact that they are brand new. Giving vegetation a couple of years hopefully makes them blend in a bit more.
I crossed the River Moriston at Torgyle Bridge and made my way up through the mountain on forest roads. Although I was now nominally walking on a part of General Wade’s historic military road it was another major construction site with newly built access roads.
Meeting Allan, another challenger, was nice. We both wanted to get to Fort Augustus and had part of our motivation washed away with the rain. Together we found the remaining stretch of the Old Military Road leading down into Fort Augustus and were even greeted with some sunshine – and a meal in the nearest bar.
A Great Start
The first three days of the TGO Challenge to reach the Great Glen were full of experiences.
While following historic routes has been a mixed bag just as the weather, meeting people and the Highland scenery however was great throughout.
While following St Duthac was the main theme for the first part of my Challenge, Wade’s Military Roads will the main theme for the next days.
Continued in Part 2:
Please also read part 2 of my TGO Challenge 2015 – The Road to Ruthven Barracks.