Highland and Hebridean Bikepacking; the Small Isles and Knoydart Peninsula

Sand, sea, mud, sun, salt and rain. A fairly typical collection of things that could be expected of any summer outing in the Highlands and Islands. And in no particular order of course as the western seaboard of Scotland is well practiced at throwing all of these at you in close succession. Warmth and dryness must be earned in these parts.

It is on these terms that I headed north from Lancaster on Friday 30th June 2017. A mid-summer, three-part excursion loomed during the week ahead. The mountain bike was well loaded with new panniers as well as a handlebar bag from the Alpkit ‘rando’ bike luggage range. Crossing the streets of Glasgow in Friday rush hour, I met Rowan Jackson at Queen Street station for the long but familiar trundle to Mallaig on the West Highland Line. Rowan came well provisioned with some Scottish Ales for us to enjoy on board over a pre-packed picnic meal. At Mallaig, I had arranged the finest in overnight accommodation; the midge infested bog just-off the dog walking path at the back of the town. Practical, given the near midnight arrival and early morning sailing, but far from a glamorous staging point en-route to the isles.

Part 1: Rùm

On Saturday morning, we boarded the homely CalMac MV Loch Nevis for it’s 07:30 sailing. First stop Rùm. Given the bargain of the overnight accommodation, we indulged in the joys of a CalMac veggie breakfast whilst gliding across the Sound of Sleat towards Loch Scresort on Rùm. Arriving just over an hour later, we were greeted by rapidly deteriorating weather, with the cloud descending the Cuillin and drizzle pulsing through occasionally. After disembarkation, we hurried along to the Kinloch campsite in order to get the tents up in the relative dry.

Arriving Loch Scresort, Rùm on the CalMac Loch Nevis.

Rùm is a fascinating island. Historically, geologically, ecologically and culturally. This small  island of little over 10 000 hectares presents formidable terrain that so typifies the Hebridean landscape. The Rùm Cuillin, rises to the lofty height of 812 m on Askival, and offers a most sporting ridge traverse, remarkable in similarity to that which goes by the same name but is far more frequented on the Isle of Skye. The largest of the Small Isles group, Rùm is the centrepiece of these islands of relative geological youth. The Cuillin itself is a remnant central volcanic complex of the UK’s Paloaeogene volcanic province. This represents the most recent (60 million years ago) period of volcanism in the British Isles, associated with the early formation and rifting of the North Atlantic. Similar volcanic process can today be found on Iceland. Any human inhabitation has been limited to the few segments of the island that could be classed as ‘lowlands’, mostly around a smattering of bays (much of the islands’ coast has towering cliffs). Rùm itself, along with it’s named places and mountains owe origin to Old Norse, although there is no evidence of any permanent settlement by the Vikings. For centuries the Highlands and Islands were plied by a series of rival clans, constantly at war with one another until the end of the Jacobite uprisings in 1745. This led to a population boom on Rùm, which at it’s peak in the eighteenth century, reached 443, mostly subsistence crofters living at Kinloch, Kilmory, Harris, Guirdil, Papadil and Dibidil. A series of wealthy landowners with grand sporting and grazing ambitions for the island led to serious depopulation, largely through emigration to Nova Scotia. The island today supports a modest population of around 40 people, with ownership having passed to Scottish Natural Heritage (formerly the Nature Conservancy) in 1957.

After a visit to the Kinloch village shop to stock up on supplies for the weekend, we set out on the bikes to explore the islands’ Landrover tracks. Firstly to the northernmost locality of Kilmory Bay. Site of Rùm’s only large expanse of sand (red, as it is sourced from the outcrop of Torridonian Sandstone on NE Rùm). We battled through a blustery squall and deposited the bikes trackside in order to make the last trudge over bog to the sands on foot. For the bracing paddle and wander along the sands, the sun showed its face through a rare patch of blue sky. Back up the track to the crossroads, we then turned south to complete a full north-south traverse and reach Harris. Overlooking the Atlantic, Harris is a bizarre but spectacular locality. There are extensive crofting remains, but also the most unexpected of features; a gothic mausoleum; burial ground for the wealthy Bullogh family, Rùm landowners from 1888-1957.

Kilmory Bay, Northern Rùm.

Sunday was our only ‘full day’ on Rùm. Unfortunately the unsettled weather pattern was still very much en-vigour. Our objective for the day was to reach Guirdil on the far-west of the island, possibly via the high ground of the Western Hills. Unfortunately, as we walked up out of Kinloch and across the moorland, the cloud level rapidly raced down to meet us just short of Beallach à Bhraigh Bhig. The thick fog precluded climbing any higher into the hills. So down the far side of the Beallach in thick cloud and drizzle, we wound our way along a relatively well trodden, historical hill path through Shielings and eerie rock formations of the Western Hills. Dropping down a stream gully exiting a small Lochan on the broad exposed saddle before Bloodstone Hill, we eventually popped out of the cloud at around 200 m. Guirdil and the island of Canna emerged below and across the water. At Guirdill, one of the croft houses has been rebuilt as a mountain bothy. A reasonably cosy but basic stone Blackhouse with the loft area boarded out as a sleeping platform. For the trudge back to the east, we followed the long and boggy path out via Glen Shellesder.

Guirdill, with the Isle of Canna beyond.

Overnight Sunday into Monday, the weather stabilised and on Monday morning Loch Scresort was bathing in July sunshine. With our ferry to Eigg at 15:10, there was enough time for a quick walk up to the first part of the Cuillin ridge. We started off up the well-formed hill path behind Kinloch Castle, rapidly obtaining the open moorland of Coire Dubh. Following the main-ridge route as far as Bealach Bairc-mheall we then turned west and summited the outlier peak of Barkeval with a full 360 degree view of the island. A Golden Eagle soared above whilst a small cluster of the islands’ mountain goat population posed on an appropriately heroic outcrop.

Part 2: Eigg

The MV Loch Nevis promptly dropped it’s long-reaching stern vehicle (and foot passenger) gangway onto it’s purpose built landing stage on Rùm and an hour later we were disembarking in an equally efficient manner at an identical facility on Eigg. The Loch Nevis and landing piers on the Small Isles were part-funded by an EU access to remote communities grant, and the facilities have transformed travel between Mallaig and the islands, which was previously a very tidal-dependent affair with most islands requiring disembarkation to a smaller, tender boat to reach the shore, particularly at low tide.

We were staying at the Glebe Barn, raised sixty metres or so above sea level on the islands’ east coast. The old stone building is a well provisioned hostel with fine views from the garden and conservatory from Knoydart to Ardnamurchan.

Eigg has a similar geological and human history to Rùm from the origin of it’s volcanic rocks through to the clearance of it’s once-extensive crofting community. However, in recent years, the island has undergone somewhat of a renaissance through the development of the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust. This unique partnership of the island community, Highland Council and Scottish Wildlife Trust, purchased the whole island outright in 1997, the second example of a community land ownership in Scotland at the time. The population has since increased to just over 100. A wide range of community facilities have been built and most notably, the island has developed the Eigg Electric grid, sourcing power from wind, solar and hydro power sources.

On Monday evening, for Rowan’s final night on the islands, we wandered back down to the community hub of the island, the Galmisdale Bay cafe-bar for a most excellent veggie burger and pint from the Laig Bay Brewing Co. on Eigg whilst overlooking Muck and Ardnamurchan from the outdoor terrace.

Western Bays panorama & Beinn Bhuidhe.
The West coast of Eigg; Beinn Bhuidhe, Cleadale and the Bays of the Singing Sands & Laig.

Tuesday was another sunny one. We headed out across the island to the picture-postcard western beaches of Camas Sgiotaig (the Singing Sands) and Laig. It was low tide, giving access to the interesting formations of the wave-cut platform in the dinosaur fossil bearing Mesosoic limestones found at shore level. We returned to the pier at Galmisdale in time for Rowan to board the lunchtime boat off Eigg to Mallaig via Muck. In order to make the most of the sunshine, I had a quick lunch back up on the decking at Glebe Barn before riding back down to Galmisdale and taking out a sea kayak from Eigg Adventures. It was near enough to high tide, perfect for exploring the flooded inlets of Kildonan and Galmisdale Bays. In the 2 hour trip, I even managed to get up close to the boulder-strewn shoreline of Eileen Chathastail (small islet just off shore at Galmisdale) and the odd cormorant colony.

Wednesday was fine once again, but more unsettled weather was due from Thursday onwards. It was the opportune moment for a long-held ambition to explore the far-southwest of Eigg; the rough heather-strewn ground between Laig and An Sgùrr. I set out following a marked route through the mixed forestry and woodlands that dominate the prominent ‘notch’ or low point across the centre of the island. The ‘notch’ between the high ground of Beinn Bhuidhe (N) and An Sgùrr (S) is that which gives Eigg its name (Old Norse). The west coast is reached abruptly at a change in slope, or moreover an escarpment that runs almost full length of the island above the fertile, shallow shelf containing the rejuvenated crofting village of Cleadale. The cliff-face is formed of basaltic lava flows of the same palaeogene origin as the Rùm volcano and the prominent shelf is a raised beach of early post-glacial times of higher sea level. Passing down through the scarp to Laig farm, followed a fairly rapid, transverse re-ascent, taking a westerly trajectory along a mixture of indistinct hill and sheep paths. A point of historical interest is Poll Duchaill, a long grassed-over hill fort with a prominent position on a high promontory overlooking the Sound of Rùm. I continued now in a southwesterly direction over increasingly rough and pathless terrain until the summit of Beinn Tighe, 305 m was achieved. The effort expended was more akin with a far loftier height. At this point on the circuit I had reached the Eigg pitchstone lava formation, a hard, crystalline rock with column and pillow like texture. This would be followed, west to east as far as the island summit, An Sgùrr 393 m. The Eigg pitchstone was an extrusive lava flow of the palaeogene volcanic period. Interestingly, it initially came to rest infilling a valley floor. The sides of the valley, being formed of softer sediments and volcanic ash were subsequently eroded, leaving the feature exposed as a hard, linear ridge, standing proud and a distinctive feature on the Inner Hebridean skyline. After a fine trundle through spectacular rock scenery, with low points infilled with clear lochans, I dropped off the high ground and back to the Glebe Barn via the Isle of Eigg shop. Cloud cover had increased through the day, but the haziness did not preclude an early evening dip. Neoprene-clad from head to toe, I managed a good 15 minute splash down at Kildonan Bay, with my antics being observed astutely by three grey seals.

Interesting topography of the Eigg pitchstone.
The inticrate landscape of rock outcrops & Lochans of the Eigg Pitchstone formation.

By Thursday morning, the weather had broken. A brisk westerly airflow had whipped up with low cloud (at times thick fog to sea level) and frequent rain. I took an easy morning at Glebe Barn before braving the elements on the bike and heading South. As a means of warm-up I took the bike for a spin along the rough track leading from Galmisdale, past the wind turbines spinning at a high rate, to the abandoned crofting village of Lower Grulin. This is a site of much enclosed land and former Blackhouse stone walls, now buried beneath the bracken standing at little over half a metre high. Turning around for a couple of kilometres and then downhill to the coast, I abandoned the bike at a cliff-top style in order to explore two caves located just around the point from Galmisdale. The tidal Cathedral Cave was first with it’s vast chamber, followed by the narrower but longer ‘Massacre Cave’. The story behind the latter is just as grim as it’s name suggests.

Later that day, I had a fascinating meeting at the school with the current headteacher of Eigg Primary. The weather was keen to stay equally as bad throughout the day and despite high expectations for an end of day clear spell, I finished the day with a blustery, misty and wet ride over to Cleadale where I dumped the bike once again at the track end and jogged over the fields for a final look at the Singing Sands. A group of sea kayakers were in and had setup camp on the grassy area above high tide.

Friday was my departure day for the mainland. The sun was trying it’s best to break through whilst I packed the gear out on the decking at Glebe Barn. I was soon aboard the Loch Nevis with it’s wonderful on board cafe-bar providing morning tea and scone to complement the swift passage to Mallaig.

Back on the mainland, the hustle and bustle of the seaside town of Mallaig was a stark contrast to the island days prior. Fish packing was in full swing on the harbourside with forklifts coming and going. Up at the station, The Jacobite steam train had arrived and disgorged it’s 6-carriage load of lunchtime visitors to the small town for a seaside delight of their choice to the background overture of ever-opportunistic gulls.

Part 3: Knoydart

After stocking up at Mallaig Coop for the final weekend of this 9-day epic, I headed back down to the harbour to board the much smaller, Western Isles Cruises vessel bound for Inverie on Knoydart. The crossing was a busy one, with several large groups quayside with large-quantities of luggage. All of this, including my bike was loaded down a precarious staircase onto a series of pallets on the bow of the ship. The MV Western Isles is timber-hulled with a small cabin, outdoor bench seats an appropriately located and well-stocked tea and whisky bar below deck level. Fully loaded, it chugged out of Mallaig, turning east around the point and into Loch Nevis.

The peninsula of Knoydart is identified as ‘one of the remotest’ in the UK. It is inaccessible by road with a series of high cols and rough mountains forming a formidable inland barrier and two long, deep sea lochs; Loch Nevis and Loch Hourn forming the southern and northern boundaries respectively. Similar to the islands, this is an area of crofting heritage and the usual history of landowners and tenants. Despite it’s relative inaccessibility, Inverie is a most civilised village complete with pub, Post Office, tea rooms and a range of accommodation. A vast swathe of the peninsula is now under community ownership through the Knoydart Foundation with ambitions for community and ecological development of the peninsula. A significant feature of the work of the Foundation is (re-)forestry. Inverie is backed by a large area of conifer plantation as well as smaller pockets of native mixed woodlands. Gradual felling of the plantation has brought an economic income for the area whilst re-stocking with a mixture of planting for the economy and planting for ecology forms part of the ongoing plan.

Arriving at Inverie pier some 45 minutes after Mallaig, the offloading procedure commenced via a similar staircase. Upon taking account of all my bike bags, I loaded up and cycled through the village and on to the Long Beach campsite. This is a basic facility owned by the Knoydart Foundation with a lovely turf-roof wood cabin for cooking and generally escaping the rain/midges and the most luxurious composting toilet ever seen! After striking camp, I re-loaded one pannier with some provisions and headed off on the bike back through the village and took the only metalled road on Knoydart; that which runs west from Inverie to the cluster of houses  and pier at Airor. The road climbs steeply out of Inverie Bay and winds its way across heather moorland with a grand outlook to the southwest over the Sound of Sleat to the peninsula of the same name on Skye. The outlines of Rùm and Eigg form the distant horizon.

Long Beach Campsite.
Long Beach campsite, Inverie Bay, Knoydart.

After a comfortable night in the tent at the Long Beach campsite, it was an early start on Saturday in anticipation of a long mountain day. The objective was a high level circuit dominated by Ladhar Bheinn at 1020 m. The SMC North-West Highlands hillwalkers’ guide describes the southern slopes, the more accessible side of the mountain from Inverie, as grassy and less interesting than the various northern corries looming above Loch Hourn. And so defined my challenge! In order to get the most out of the mountain, I began the day with a 12 km walk-in via a series of Glens to reach the remote Coire Each on the northwestern face of the mountain. Initially, this was on good forest tracks leading away from Inverie and along Gleann Guiserein. The terrain soon became more unfrequented and the tracks gave way to some quality open hill hacking. The steep climbing began in Coire Each where the final 600 m of ascent was taken within just 2 km via steep rock and turf onto Stob a’ Choire Odhair, the north Top. From here a fine ridge separating Coire Each from Coire Dhorrcail lead to the summit of Ladhar Bheinn. I passed the first and only other summiting party of the day just below the summit; a group of young people on hillwalking day from the camp at Barrisdale Bay. They were out with a leader from the Loch Eil Outward Bound Centre on a 14-day mixed activity expedition. The summit was quite atmospheric, with the cloud just clipping and sometimes clinging to the leeward side of the spatula-like ridge of Ladhar Behinn. It was not a day for hanging around, so after a few obligatory photos, I headed off eastwards towards point 849 m on Aonoch Sgoilte ridge. The latter is a long crooked finger of a ridge that points in a southwesterly direction towards Inverie. A long and undulating downward traverse leads to the broad, peat filled col of Màm Suidheig just below 500 m before the ridge turns back uphill. An unwelcome heave on the leg muscles brought me to the final summit of the day, Sgùrr Coire Chòinniechean, immediately above Inverie Bay. The tent was a mere 779 m below. The final descent was steep and the thickening cloud started to produce some light drizzle. Unfortunately, the menu of the Old Forge pub at Inverie was well outside of my budget (luckily I had checked it online in advance so had sufficient supplies for the whole weekend) and so I settled in at Long Beach for an evening of cooking, resting and well-earned tea drinking in the tent.

Ladhar Bheinn & Coire Dhorrcail.
Ladhar Bheinn and Coire Dhorrcail from point 849 m on Aonoch Sgoilte.

Grand Finale: From Knoydart to Lancaster

The Western Isles Cruises timetable is well matched to that of the West Highland Line. Even on a Sunday, there is an early boat from Inverie to meet the 10:10 Mallaig train departure south to Glasgow. It meant another early rise and shine at Long Beach. The overnight deluge had eased at around 05:00, leaving a damp, misty and still atmosphere. Ideal midge conditions. Until this point in the trip, the sea breeze had generally kept the worst of the Scottish midges at bay, but during the Sunday morning pack-up, they were out in force. In anticipation of my exit from the tent, a thick black cloud had prepared themselves on the other side of the fly screen. Covered head to toe, and the bags largely packed and ready I made a short and swift exit on the bike to the relative safety of the pier.

The boat ride back to Mallaig was a fitting end to the trip with the sun breaking through here and there. On the weekend, the smaller but faster outboard motor boat of Western Isles Cruise plies the Inverie route. This makes short work of the crossing and I was soon loading my luggage for the short ride from pier to platform at Mallaig with 15 minutes to spare. The train pulled out on time and clattered it’s way past the Silver Sands of Morar and Arisaig before turning inland toward rapidly deteriorating weather at Lochailort. For most of the journey south to Glasgow, the hills were cloaked in cloud as the fully-loaded sprinter train wound its way southward and rain pattered on the windows.

The trip had been epic, in all senses. 9-days of the very best of Scottish summer sunshine, rain, wind, sand and salt in this spectacular yet modest Hebridean maritime landscape.

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