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the Watershed Epic

Leg 5 - Rough Bounds to Achnasheen

The really wild west

The descent to the head of Loch Quoich had its moments, but it seemed to be more like the overall direction of the Watershed; northwards. After some 40km of walking (and climbing) due west from Laggan, and above Glen Kingie and Glen Dessary towards Sgurr na Ciche, it was just grand to be heading north again. Loch Quoich, like so many of the lochs hereabouts is a hydro electric creation, with the main dam at its eastern end, and two small dams at the west. The area round these dams had been marred by the remnants of construction – rotting concrete plinths, tracks, and debris. But nature has a way of re-claiming for itself these places. First a few pioneer plants find a toe-hold, then a few more, to a point where there were more wild flowers growing there than elsewhere in the area. Wild thyme, orchids of various sorts, tormentil, and many others created a tapestry to wonder at.

Sgurr a Choire-bheithe – the most westerly point on the Watershed

The remains of a dead sheep near the end of the second dam created a pong, so I headed rapidly up the steep slope onto Druim Chosaidh, and then along the ridge to the westernmost point on the entire watershed – an arête before the summit of Sgurr a Choire-beithe. I gave this bold monolith a hug and a kiss, in recognition. Not quite done with Barrisdale Forest yet though as I went up and down a few more times in this truly magnificent area. A primeval kind of landscape that looks as if it had just bubbled up from the bowels of the earth quite recently, and the mere dusting of green in the cracks and folds just served to emphasise the massive arcs and slabs of rock.

The Rough Bounds is no casual description.

As I descended into the corrie below Ben Alder on a calm sunny evening, I found deer standing reflected in the placid waters of a loch. The backdrop of high snow crested crags completed the magnificent scene. But it changed soon enough as I encountered the vast bog and peat hags that form the watershed between Lochs Ericht and Pattack. A squelcher on a grand scale. Culra Bothy for the night gave good shelter, and good company with other fellow travellers.

Looking west over Kinlochourn

This area must be very near to the heart of Scotland. Somewhere just south of here, at Drummochter perhaps the complexity of Scotland’s physical geography is very apparent, for there is another big watershed over the Cairngorms. A number of major river valleys radiate; the Garry/Tummel/Tay complex, those of the Angus Glens, the Dee, the Don and Avon all bring us back round in a vast anticlockwise sweep to the Spey. But all this is on the east side of the watershed of Scotland, for all drain into the North Sea.

Towards Glen Shiel

I had had hopes of a cup of coffee (I do miss it when I’m trekking) down at the café in Kinlochourn, but it was shut. So I headed back up to the watershed through a delightfully wooded gorge to camp beside a reed ringed loch, which oddly, has a couple of monkey puzzles growing beside it. A cuckoo mocked as I sought to avoid the midges.

Precariously perched cairn on South Glen Shiel ridgeThe next day, I rolled two into one, and in spite of being well into the cloud most of the time; I had a stomping good day, and completed all the way north to the Glen Shiel ridge. Munro baggers have created paths that skirt two of the five tops on this part of the ridge – for no other reason than that they aren’t of the Munro status. I scoffed as I took in all five whilst walking at an angle of 60 degrees to counter the strong wind. Not another soul was seen on the hill that day.



Day off at Ratagan, and a necessary re-supply with food that had been sent ahead to await my arrival. And yes, a good cup of coffee (or two) at the Pottery café over in Glenelg. A lift back up to the watershed in Gen Shiel and over the hill to the bothy below Ben Attow. Weather improving all the while (as they say on the BBC forecasts). Vistas in every direction opening up again. Glimpses of Loch Duich were seen round the great buttresses on the Five Sisters. The north and south ridges of the same name framed Loch Cluannie. And the view down Glen Affric to its series of wood fringed lochs was stunning.

Lochan and clouds in remote area near the head of Loch Monar

`You won`t see many folk in that wild area` came to mind, and it was very true. The back of the catchment areas of Monar and Mullardoch offered a real feeling of remoteness. But I did have a brief rendezvous with Kyle at Iron Lodge for another re-stock with food which he had kindly mountain biked in. Then onwards into more in-aptly named `forests` (hardly a single tree in sight).


The Ocean and the Sea

Another great peat hag near Iron LodgeOne of the finest experiences on the epic so far then occurred. On two consecutive days, on Sgurr a Chaorachain and Moruisg respectively, I could see salt water on both sides of Scotland. The Minch (linked to the Atlantic) round Raasay and Trotternish caught the summer sun on the one hand, and a slice of the Moray Firth south of the Black Isle showed clearly on the other. This superb experience seemed to bring the whole east : west business together; to make sense of the watershed of Scotland. I stood in wonder and awe on both occasions.

And finally, down to the A890 a few miles west of Achnasheen, a lift to Inverness, and the pleasures of `civilisation`, most notably, a shower.

Back to nature

One of the questions I have been pondering as I have made my way northwards on the watershed has been, `how wild is it, and the nature of the wildness?` This has perhaps come out in the story so far. The three themes for me have been geography, landscape and people, and I find that on each of these, the notion of wildness rings very true. The enormous geological and glacial forces which put the watershed where it is today, shaped by the passing of millions of years put our wee sojourn in the area into perspective. But the landscape that has formed and been clothed since the last ice age has been partly undone by our efforts; mainly in the effects that sheep and deer grazing have had on the many areas that are described as `forest` on the map. Natural re-generation of most of these by native trees has been halted by over grazing.

Loch Calavie near Ben Dronaig

It would be very tempting to become pessimistic about this disrobing of the watershed and the countryside. But in my lifetime, and more particularly, what I have found as I’ve made my way along the watershed has been an encouraging picture. Nature has reclaimed for itself some of the areas where the scars of an industrial past and mineral extraction are slowly fading. The current grant and tax regimes are beginning to have an effect where scraps of ancient woodland are being protected. Some areas have indeed been replanted with native trees, and the wildlife is the richer for it.

In the distance I could see some of the John Muir Trust properties, and recalled a discussion on Schiehallion with JMT staff not long after they had acquired it. Nigel Hawkins spoke of the vision they had of a ribbon of native woodland stretching from one side of Scotland to the other. And he could, in the minds eye, see it; small pieces in a linear jigsaw slowly but inexorably being saved or re-established, with their own Schiehallion somewhere in the middle. I was inspired by that brief glimpse of a vision on that winter day. And I have seen that other bits of a much bigger and wider jigsaw are appearing. But there is much still to do.

Loch Monar looking East

Why the great interest in native trees and woodland? They are the key to the emergence in the landscape of a greener cloak, which will in turn offer a much more varied wildlife in all its forms. But people in these areas must make a living too, there has to be a viable economy – the local people are the stakeholders in these areas. So the necessary change will need to be encouraged with the right approach.

The great wild areas which this leg of the epic journey covered offered time and scope for contemplation. The `solo` experience of wild places, which John Muir himself was so passionate about was really beginning to weave its spell on me – not in the sense of escape from reality, but by way of inspiration.

Skye from the hills of West Monar Forest