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  • Ken Ilgunas

Six days on the Cape Wrath

The Cape Wrath Trail is roughly 230 miles long, stretching from the town of Fort William to the Cape Wrath Lighthouse on the northwest point of Scotland. I hiked about forty miles of the trail two years ago to write a Backpacker Magazine article about Scotland’s “right to roam.” This blog entry is about my ninety-mile hike of the northern portion of the trail, which I completed a few days ago. Day 1: Inverlael to Knockdampf Bothy I took a train from Edinburgh to Inverness, and then a bus to Inverlael, a tiny village not far from the bigger village of Ullapool. It was here that I’d begin my meander up an unofficial trail that is, I estimate, 80 percent road, rough track, and trail, and 20 percent wild land. I’d come to the trail because I was finding the routine of city life in Edinburgh vaguely stultifying. I was feeling the absence of something essential in my routine of recycling, tidying, forced jogging, forced walking, and daily grocery store visit. I suppose this trip was forced hiking, concocted for yet more practical reasons of physical and existential upkeep, but there was just a touch of wild romanticism to the jaunt that gave me the tiniest fluttering of excitement.

It took hours for my nausea from the bus ride to pass, and, when it did, my mood didn’t get any better because I found the steady trickle of rain and my raw pinkie toes, that were already on the verge of blistering, irritating. I did, though, enjoy sunset views of Glen Douchary, where there was a magnificent waterfall, which at this dark hour felt sinister and which I kept a safe distance from. Around midnight, I entered Knockdamph bothy, where I intended to sleep. I was a bit worried about startling any fellow hikers, but that didn’t stop me from climbing the stairs to inspect the second-floor room. With each footstep, the staircase floorboards hauntingly creaked, and I was sure I was, with my headlamp and ghostly steps, terrifying someone, if there was a someone. But I was pleased to see that I had the whole bothy to myself. The next day I resolved to be less creepy upon entering future bothies.

Glen Douchary

Knockdamph Bothy, campsite #1

Knockdamph Bothy, campsite #1

Day 2: Knockdampf Bothy to Benmore Lodge

I awoke at 7:30 a.m., but didn’t get on the trail again till 10 a.m. due to general lollygagging and waiting for my oatmeal to cool. Between my sore feet, a few missteps due to poor map-reading, and my general slowness in packing, I realized that, as a hiker, I was very rusty. How quickly do unexercised skills fade! I even felt momentarily disgusted upon savagely plunging my boots, ankle-deep, into cold bog—a discomfort, I’d learned long ago, to be indifferent to.

I determined to speed up my packing every morning, and by the end of this hike, I would have my pack on my back in about twenty-five minutes, which includes time spent taking down and packing my tent.

I spent the afternoon thinking about writing an Op-Ed called, “Scotland Is Ugly” because I think Scotland’s reputation as a land of unparalleled natural beauty is exaggerated and uninformed. When outsiders think of Scotland, they think of the deep-green countrysides, the misty mountains, the coastlines where oceans bash against cliffs. But ugliness abounds. There are tons of homeless people in the city of Edinburgh, where I live. The public has a strange fondness for plastic. There’s trash all over the place. There are too many kitschy shops and a lot of really unhealthy food. But the ugliest parts of Scotland are its woodlands.

I should say that Scottish forests, when left alone (usually in places so rough that they can’t be reached by loggers), feel healthy and alive, even magical. But a whopping 70 percent of Scottish forests are made up of Sitka spruce. The Sitka spruce is a tree from North America that grows straight and fast. These trees, in Scotland, are planted in vast monoculture forests. Walk into one of these forests and all you see are Sitka spruce. There’ll be some moss and grass underfoot, but no squirrels skittering up trunks. No birds flitting from branch to branch. No sign of animal scat. The trees are doing fine, but the forest is empty, quiet, and dead, and because of that, it’s ugly. And then the timber companies clear-cut the forests all in one go, leaving nothing but ugly, barren devastation. I understand the need for timber, but the operation seems to be uniformly carried out with little thought about promoting animal habitat or preserving aesthetic beauty.

Scots are generally unaware of the fact that they have lousy forests because that’s all they know, the same way we Americans unthinkingly accept the land absent of buffalo and skies absent of passenger pigeons as ordinary. The status quo is all we know.

Ecologist and forester Aldo Leopold wrote that, “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” In other words, we, who are ecologically-aware, are afflicted with the ability to notice the world’s wounds. A first-time tourist of the Highlands may be awestruck upon seeing the dramatic hills. But now I mostly see just emptiness. I think that I should be seeing a thriving Caledonian forest. I should be seeing an ecological community of wolves, beavers, moose, and all the bugs and birds that make such a place feel alive. But no. Just brooding mountains, dead forests, and the domesticated sheep and deer herds that are little more than sapling-devouring pests.

I’m no ecologist, but I often find myself living in a world of wounds. And Scotland’s a country covered in wounds. No one wants to walk across a countryside in a constant state of disgust, but that’s often what I do. I try to set aside my criticisms and enjoy Scotland for what it is. I take comfort in knowing that there are experts who want to re-wild Britain and who want to convert agricultural land into wild land. But take this observation for what it is (and this is an observation from one highly critical wilderness snob with no real science education): Scotland, and Britain as a whole, may have the worst biodiversity in the world, given how Britain is a relatively warm and certainly well-watered country that could support so much more life.

The Schoolhouse Bothy

A clear-cut Sitka spruce forest

Campsite #2. You can see the Sitka spruce on each side of the photograph.

Day 3: Benmore Lodge to Glencoul Bothy

I increasingly hear peers say, “We’re getting old!,” as an explanation for an injury, illness, or premature fatigue. I’ve heard my friends say it. I’ve heard people on my softball team say it. It’s one of those things you hear often enough that you weirdly feel compelled to repeat it, even if you don’t think the words contain much truth. Perhaps it’s one of those conformity-implanted sayings that we utter to fill in conversational blanks. It’s a comforting-to-hear self-effacing acknowledgment of one’s fragility. But it’s also ridiculous. And dangerous. 35 is not old. Neither is 55. I have a friend who is fit and regularly hikes, and he is 70. The thing about “We’re getting old” is that you’re in danger of making it come true the more you say it. Those aches and illnesses and the premature fatigue are more than likely the product of poor exercise and diet, and to blame physical problems exclusively on old age is to dismiss the root causes. I’m young. I don’t feel old at all. And my aches and pains on this hike are only due to the fact that I haven’t been on a real multi-day hike in over a year. Be careful what you say. You may get what you utter. I also started thinking about the problem of the dwindling inner life force in middle-age men, an age classification that now more or less describes me. One of the most energizing life forces that can fuel a young man involves getting a woman, whether for sex or something more. This fuels a man to better himself, to keep himself in shape, to strive and do and accomplish. Things change, and a lot of men tend to let their bodies go and they lose a bit of their wild spirit. (I’m sure there are parallels to the female experience, but let me focus in on what I’m most familiar with.) I think one of the challenges for such men is to find a way to jumpstart this life force, perhaps by finding an energizing passion or committing to a larger goal that has nothing to do with a mate. We need to trick ourselves into finding a substitute life force, and trick is probably, hopefully, the wrong word. If done right, this might allow us to bypass middle-age doldrums and advance into our senior years with momentum and verve. Or maybe I’m just overly preoccupied with aging and death, and some acceptance of changing focuses, bodies, and energy levels is a necessary thing. Yet, it seems women age much better than men, and I sense it doesn’t have to be this way. Are hikes like the Cape Wrath a good enough remedy? Are wild hiking trips for a few weeks or cabin visits for a few months of the year good enough? Will they pump sufficient energy into the soul and make the rest of the year more livable? My instinct tells me that mere “escapes” are not good enough, but maybe. These were my thoughts as I walked under a warm sun and cloud shadows. The scenery had shifted from the grotesque tree farms to the south to a hilly land of bare rock and short grass. While the countryside was still lifeless, at least it seemed more authentically lifeless. We find the Antarctic landscape or a Greenland glacier beautiful (even if they’re deadly and uninhabitable) because they exist in something close to their natural state. They are what they are and they’re beautiful for it, whether or not they’re capable of being a suitable home to a bug. So it’s not necessarily fertility or biodiversity that dazzles us; it’s authenticity, it’s purity, it’s sustainability. And here, farther north, things felt a touch more ecologically-correct, even if I still hungered for the sign of a hare or a distant herd of European bison. I’ve been reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, and one thing I like about it is the non-cynical way she views humans’ potential relationship with nature. In one passage, she tells the story of when she asked her students if they thought humans have ever done anything good for nature. Paraphrasing, the students cynically responded, “No, all we ever do is screw things up.” But Kimmerer, drawing from her indigenous background, explained how humans can, through thoughtful intervention, expand biodiversity, such as with planned burnings to create vibrant meadows. This all had me thinking that, one day, I’d like to see people working as “eco-farmers.” Rather than extracting resources for profit, these ecologically-trained eco-farmers would work solely to increase biodiversity and promote healthy ecology. In other words, their job would have everything to do with growing and nothing to do with extracting. They would have nothing to do with maximizing crop production, or producing crops whatsoever; it’d all be about producing and maximizing life. An eco-farmer in Scotland might strive to replant indigenous tree species on her acre of land, trap bird-hunting house cats, or create habitat for reintroduced wolves or lynx. Aldo Leopold was a sort of eco-farmer. In the 1930s, he bought some worn-out farmland in Wisconsin with the goal of reviving it. For decades, he and his family replanted nearly 40,000 trees. What is work more honorable than that? Eco-farming jobs would address the problem of rural depopulation since it would provide steady work for rural families, which could be a family trade passed down from generation to generation, much like old-school farming. And it’s a complicated job that would be hard to robotically automate. We’d need countless well-trained human eco-farmers to, generation after generation, rejuvenate healthy ecological systems on the micro and macro scales. As I walked up the east side of Meall an Aonaich, someone, who’d been camping by an alpine lake, started closely following me up the hill. Having someone directly behind me, after having the whole landscape to myself for the previous two days, felt weirdly invasive. When we approached the top of the mountain pass, I said hello. He was a young, affable Frenchman named Antoine. We briefly talked about fishing (he’d caught a trout the night before) and Alaska, where he’d gone on a several-week hike in Denali National Park. To give him space, I let him advance ahead of me as I snacked, but I soon regretted it as I thought we might have had a good chat, which would have served as a pleasant interlude of sociableness on an otherwise solitary trip. I’d never see him again. By Loch an Eircill, another small alpine lake, I met an Englishwoman and two Englishmen, who stopped to chat as I sat on the ground drying my socks and airing out my feet. One of the men took the liberty of picking up my boot and examining the sole, criticizing the maker’s use of “nipple-like” rubber grips. Later, at the Glencoul Bothy, I reported this hiker’s “minor impertinence” in the bothy journal. When they walked away, I realized my zipper fly had been wide open for the length of our chat. I’d only been hiking for three days, and already I was forgetting the niceties of civilized life.

Allt Sail au Ruathair

Campsite #3, the Glencoul Bothy

The entry in which I reported the impertinence

Day 4: Glencoul Bothy to north of Ben Stack I walked the perimeter of a couple of big lochs to Glendhu bothy. After filling up my water bottle by the creek, I took off my boots for my first of several feet airings, which was part of my daily foot-care protocol, which also included at least three sock-washings a day at creek crossings. As I walked around the cool grass near the bothy under a warm sun, I began to remember old sensations. Having my bare feet on the ground felt like meeting an old friend. It felt profound, and I told myself that I ought to evoke these sensations more often.

Despite the morning’s enchantments, I’d spend the greater part of my afternoon morbidly ruminating. Morbid rumination (the term I use for “darkly dwelling on things that bother me”) is probably my worst psychological flaw. I try to manage it (it gets really bad when I’m fasting), though, more than often, I simply let it run wild. And sometimes a hike, even in an enchanting countryside, is the perfect time for morbid thoughts to flourish. So I had lots of disagreements in my head with friends and acquaintances. I imagined scenarios in which people laughed at me. I thought of old slights and disagreements. I thought of minor impertinences and what I’d say the next time they happened. Sometimes these mental discussions would end dramatically with me thinking about saying, “You will not besmirch my character!” After one of these especially ridiculous lines, I sighed, yelped “Wow: man, can I ruminate!” at the inanity of it all, and was finally able to enjoy less rancorous musings.

Bugs skittered out of bushes. I walked past two horses diligently scarfing up grass. The day was so warm I napped on the peak of Ben Dreavie, just behind a big boulder that blocked the wind. My body felt strong and fit, despite the constant foot soreness. I applied my third coating of sunscreen. Every few miles I’d hear the new rush of a waterfall. Small birds whistled sweet songs in the thick of blooming gorse. I was having a grand time.

Glendu bothy

Ben Stack in the distance, I believe

A land of rock of grass

Outbuilding near Lochstack Lodge, where I ate dinner

Ben Stack

Campsite #4

Near Rhiconich



Day 5: North of Ben Stack to Strathan bothy

They day started off cloudy, but the sky became clear again by midday, making this the third straight day of sunshine, which was a remarkable treat given that northwest Scotland gets around 180 inches of precipitation a year. I surprised myself with my mileage, cruising to the village of Rhiconich by 9:30 a.m. I arrived at the Strathan bothy by 5:00 p.m., and although I had plenty more sunlight, I decided I’d rather have the comforts of a bothy than more miles. Bothies are one of my favorite features of hiking in Scotland. You never know who you might meet in one. Plus, the bothies have more history and character than AT trail shelters, not to mention a fourth wall. One of my simplest pleasures is to read bothy journals from start to finish. I find something cozy and nostalgic about reading of other people’s journeys in an old musty book. It brings me the same feeling of nostalgia I get when reading a newspaper from fifty years ago, perhaps because I feel strangely connected with people I never met and will never know. Each journal is like like a one-of-a-kind book, written by a thousand authors. Indeed, most of the entries are quite dry and boring. (“Came from ___. It was soggy and we were happy to find this cozy spot. Thanks MBA!”) But I enjoy looking at the names, where they came from, what their handwriting looks like. Sometimes you’ll find the odd poem or drawing that lights up a page. I could spend hours going through these old books, and that’s just what I did in the Strathan bothy. Here’s my lightly edited bothy entry:

I’ve had two bothies to myself, and this might be my third if no one arrives tonight. Where is everybody? This is some of the most beautiful country in the world. These bothies are gifts. There ought to be thousands coming out to hike the CW, the way they come out to hike the Camino or AT. Of course I don’t want that. It was wonderful having a whole landscape to myself for the better part of a week. I suppose I’m just sayin I’m surprised that these experiences aren’t more sought after. I’ve been living in Scotland for 1.5 years and have gone on many hikes, but it was these last few days on the CW when I think I finally fell in love with Scotland.

Campsite #5. You can see the Strathan bothy on the far right. The Atlantic ocean is straight ahead.

Photo on wall in Strathan bothy

Strathan bothy

A mythical tale.

How about that handwriting? He/she was from Lithuania.

Day 6: Strathan bothy to Cape Wrath Lighthouse to Durness

I woke at 4:00 a.m., which wasn’t hard to do, since I’d gone to bed early and because the days are so long at this latitude that I first saw daylight around 3 a.m. My goal was to walk to the Cape Wrath Lighthouse before 2 p.m., so I could get a lift on a tourist bus that takes people to the ferry at the Kyle of Durness. I surprised myself with how swiftly I moved, climbing over a couple of mountain passes, and completing ten miles of entirely wild walking by 10 a.m. (It helped that I was no longer hauling 8-10 lbs of food.) It was a surprise and joy to finally see the lighthouse, which had just gotten a fresh coating of paint. The lighthouse is an arbitrary end point to the unofficial trail, but having some monument at the end of a long walk provides a sense of closure, much the same way the high peak of Mount Katahdin ably serves as the end point (or beginning) of the Appalachian Trail. This northwest point of Scotland has been called “Am Parbh,” derived from Norse meaning “turning point,” because this was the point where Nordic ships would turn east to head home. I caught my lift, followed by a ferry, a bus ride, and a train ride back to Edinburgh.

Cape Wrath Lighthouse

Cape Wrath Lighthouse, with a fresh coating of paint

Feeling rejuvenated, on the ferry over the Kyle of Durness


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