The idea started to take roots after a trip to a second-hand bookshop in Inverness last summer. Leakey’s has a great outdoors books section and I picked up “Exploring The Far North West of Scotland” by Richard Gilbert.
My walking friend Ben was staying at my house at the time and while flicking through the walking guide, he saw a walk: Coast to Coast in a Day. The description was of a route from Inverlael to Bonar Bridge.
We chatted about one day walking coast to coast on what seemed like an amazingly short route of 33 miles. If you take a look at the map of Scotland, you’ll spot a narrowing of the mainland above Inverness.
On closer inspection, two long indents of sea, Loch Broom on the west and the Dornoch Firth on the east, further narrow the land mass in between.
We decided that 33 miles was feasible for one long day, or a two-day back-packing hike.
Let’s add in a Corbett…
Then Ben spotted that there was a Corbett to the south of the book’s route.
With a bit of re-plotting, he came up with a walk across Scotland that started at Inverlael and finished at Argay but also passed by the base of the Corbett, Càrn Bàn.
This would include fewer tracks and trods compared to the more northerly route, but it had the advantage of allowing us to bag a remote Corbett en route.
Two-day walk across Scotland
With a window of good weather in early May, Ben and I headed off to walk across Scotland. This felt like a grand thing to be doing. It was also Ben’s first wild camping trip.
We first dropped off a vehicle at Ardgay, then drove together to Inverlael, south of Ullapool, where there is a fairly large car park.
The start of our route is the same as the walk to the Munro, Beinn Dearg. I recalled the first section of track of around 5km, which Hubby G and I had cycled previously.
Instead, Ben and I were keen to walk the full distance from west coast to east coast so we set off on foot.
We actually started by touching our walking boots in Loch Broom, then headed on to the track that winds upwards and easterly through forestry. The weather was much warmer than we had expected and we wondered if we might have packed more than we needed.
We followed this route to the high bealach as described by Walk Highlands.
You can never be sure what the weather will bring in Scotland and we packed judiciously, although we were also aware that two days of having our packs on our backs would most likely lead to a few extra aches and pains, as well as slowing our usual pace.
The forest track gives way to a path, which is well trodden and winds its way uphill beside the River Lael. There are plenty of small waterfalls and pools to see, which is a good distraction when carrying a two-day hiking pack and walking up to a height of 853m from sea level.
We also had the excuse of stopping numerous times so we could take in the view of the west coast slowly disappearing behind us.
Surprisingly, given that Beinn Dearg is a fairly popular Munro and there were many cars at Inverlael, we saw no one on the path. We stopped for a snack on the shore of a beautiful loch before we climbed higher to reach the bealach where walkers would head south for Beinn Dearg.
Here we caught sight of a walker, but he had headed off before we exchanged any words.
Into unknown territory
From the bealach, we walked into an area that we knew was unlikely to offer a path. Few people would choose the route from the west to reach the Corbett, Càrn Bàn.
As far as we could see was a wild and rugged glen of moorland, peatland and high rise mountains. It was as magnificent as it was daunting. It all looked so vast and uncharted.
I recall looking at my watch as we descended towards the glen base and realised how many kilometres of this rough terrain we would need to walk. My pack was starting to become heavy on my shoulders and as I tried to adjust the straps to bring greater comfort, I felt a tiny moment of despair.
If we had stuck to the original plan, we would have been on a track or path for the entire coast-to-coast crossing. I wondered if we had set ourselves a challenge that would end up being frustrating and tiresome.
As we walked towards an area of large peat hags with soggy bog in between, I fell silent. Normally, Ben and I have an almost endless amount of stuff to talk about from past times when went to school together in Peebles, through decades of life and work and bringing up kids to all sorts of modern day topics.
I am sure Ben noticed my quiet and he was sensible to leave me to contemplate the situation for a while.
Thankfully, not long afterwards, I realised how lucky I was to be surrounded by such an incredible landscape and in a true wilderness away from normal life and people.
There was no obvious route but we had maps and commonsense and we fell into a contented plod across the rough glen.
At a loch, we chose to hug the left-hand shore, simply because we thought it might offer a better route to the other side. Who knows if it did but it looked fine on the map and on the ground.
The more we walked into the vast and wide glen, the more we began to see the general direction we would go. The mountains on either side sloped upwards to create a long u-shape. This would have been created by glacial erosion millions of years ago and we marvelled at the hand of mother nature.
Of course, this sent Ben and I on another wander down memory lane as we chatted about school geography lessons and other great places we had visited that showcased glacial erosion. I described a trip to southern Iceland, for example.
By now, we had walked about 12km and soon afterwards, we skirted the edge of another loch. Consulting the map, we could see we had another few kilometres to walk to reach a small building, Glenbeg bothy.
Ben had been reading about the bothy and told me it was no longer being maintained by whoever had cared for it before. Sometimes this happens when the repairs are too expensive ,or the building is too remote to maintain. (The Mountain Bothies Association cares for many bothies across the UK but not Glenbeg.)
It would have been a reasonable place to sleep in warm weather but the location didn’t suit our two-day crossing of Scotland and after a look inside we walked on again.
We had been hopeful of picking up a path from Glenbeg bothy to the base of the Corbett. There were bits and pieces of an old track in evidence but it didn’t look like many people had walked the same way as us recently.
The wet terrain undulated and we were both tiring after many miles of carrying heavy packs.
Reaching Gleann Beag, we knew we needed to find a weir, which would mark the location where we could start the climb to the Corbett. Our original plan had been to camp in the glen, leave our heavy packs behind and then summit Càrn Bàn, all before tea.
But that weir took a lot longer to arrive at than we expected. By this point, we had walked 18km, but it had taken us most of the day.
We sat on the wall of the weir at the base of Càrn Bàn and considered our options. We were both tired but we liked the idea of a wild camp up high. It was early May and there was also the chance of midges and the higher you can camp, the more likely it is the wind will drive the biting beasts away.
I don’t think either of us were that keen on the idea of a climb with our packs. Then again, it was still only early evening and there wasn’t much else to do.
At this point, we had abandoned any idea of a Corbett summit, leaving it for the next day.
So, we looked at the map and decided that a loch at around 600m elevation on Càrn Bàn would be where we would aim for – and then we would set up camp. It was “only” around 300m of ascent from our start point of 330m so surely we would be fine.
A tired evening climb on Càrn Bàn
The climb was steep. Thankfully, there is a good zig-zag path, but even so it felt like a slog as we walked with fatigued legs uphill and with our seemingly heavier rucksacks weighing us down.
Ben and I walk a lot of mountains and we are fairly fit but it felt like we were walking at half our normal speed.
Finally, we crested a rise in the mountain slope and saw the loch ahead. By now, it felt a bit too windy. It was certainly windy enough to keep away the midges, but too windy for a comfortable camp.
And so we walked about the shore of the loch for a while trying to find a place that would be fairly sheltered but not on top of a peat bog.
Finally, we settled on small area of not-too-wet ground and set about putting up our tents.
A bit of tent-sion
For some reason, we both decided to set up our own tents individually. Normally, I find it straightforward to erect my single-person tent but I was carrying a tent I’d not used for a while.
I couldn’t fathom the design and how the poles fitted in to form the right shape. With a tired brain and a big of a “hangry’ mood setting in, I cursed through about half an hour of frustrations. I finally worked it out and the semblance of a decent tent came together.
Meanwhile, Ben had been experiencing his own tent issues. One of the sections of poles had bent and broken. This meant the tent lacked the required tension to stay upright.
It looked like Ben would be faced with an uncomfortable night of being wrapped in a flapping tent. But then he spotted a small repair kit that included a short section of plastic tube.
After a but of hammering the broken pole with a rock, we managed to get the plastic tube over the broken pole and that was sufficient to give the pole the strength and tension to form a proper shelter.
It was with many big sighs of relief that we both stood back to admire our chosen camp spot – and then turned our thoughts to eating a meal. We were both very much in need of some cooked food.
We quickly set about boiling water for our camp food meals. Finishing the main and dessert, followed by a nice dram of whisky each, we realised it was only 8pm.
Scotland has a lot of daylight even in early May. Suddenly, we realised we could take advantage of the fairly calm and light night to summit the Corbett after all.
Sunset walking to the summit of Càrn Bàn
The description of the Corbett had not been too exciting but the last thing we needed was excitement. In fact, the reasonably gentle gradient and slightly dull ascent to the top at 842m became utterly amazing thanks to a stunning west coast sunset.
As we climbed, we were treated to a superb backdrop of a sky brightened with yellow and orange hues and clouds hanging below.
It was only as we descended back towards our tents that we needed our head torches. It also felt wonderful to be walking without our packs.
Day two: Walk across Scotland
We enjoyed a fairly long sleep from about 11pm to 7am. We knew we still had a long way to walk to reach the east coast and we planned to make an early-ish start.
A camp breakfast of coffee and cereal bars was followed by striking camp – and then the descent of the zig-zag path back to the base of the glen.
Both of us reported tired legs and feet but we were sufficiently rested to be looking forward to the day’s walking. Although we had more kilometres to walk than the previous day, we also knew there would be far less ascent.
We joined a wide track heading east and settled into a comfortable chatting pace.
But, oh, it was a long, long track and while we enjoyed lots of wildlife, including many flowers and birds, it did seem as if we were going nowhere very quickly.
At one point, two cyclists came past us and we chatted briefly. They were the first people we had talked to since setting off the previous morning. Then a vehicle came towards us and it turned out it was an estate ranger. He asked us if we had seen many rabbits. “Zero,” we answered. We had seen plenty of deer though.
He confirmed some of our bird sightings, including ring ouzels, wheatears and siskin.
We had also heard our first cuckoos of the year and see a ptarmigan the day before.
Following the route of a river along Gleann Mor, we eventually reached a number of estate buildings, which told us we were close to Alladale Lodge.
Alladale describes itself as a “wilderness reserve”. Certainly, there is a wilderness terrain if you choose to discover it, but the estate and buildings seemed rather non-wild to us after our walk across Scotland.
A well-laid track showed us the route towards a public road. It was here that we found ourselves being followed by a car! It wasn’t an ordinary car, but a vintage version and it was being driven very slowly by a woman, while her husband followed her on foot.
It turned out that the couple had been staying at Alladale in celebration of a birthday and they were worried about the bottom of the car hitting the track, so the wife was driving while the husband walked. The idea was that only one person in the car would minimise the weight and how low the car was on the track.
Ben and I fell into step with the man and we passed a kilometre or so walking and talking with him.
A road to the end
Some 15km from the end of the walk we joined a road. I had imagined this would be the easiest section of the whole route because it would be flat and on tarmac.
It turned out to be a challenge. Tarmac is far less forgiving both physically and mentally than trails.
Ben and I suffered with sore feet from the very repetitive action of walking on flat and hard tarmac. I felt a blister forming on the base of my forefoot, which ended up being very sore.
After spending so much time surrounded by wild scenery, the roadside scenery was relatively uninspiring.
Still, we found enough to chat about (as well as a game of I Spy!) to keep us going – and eventually we reached a sign pointing us towards Ardgay.
The settlement is much longer than we had hoped it might be and we felt as if the walk might never end. But it did, finally, when we dipped our boots in the water’s edge of Dornoch Firth to complete the two-day crossing of Scotland.
Despite the last stage being so unexpectedly tough, Ben and I were thrilled with our achievement. I always find an A to B walk to be very satisfying – and I was happy to discover that a walk that crosses Scotland from coast to coast is even more so.
2-day walk across Scotland and a Corbett
Total distance: 65km
Total elevation: 1856m
Corbetts bagged: 85