Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Scottish Trail Report

The Scottish Trail, or Scottish National Trail to give it its full name, is a 865km hike, end to end, through Scotland that will take somewhere between 4-6 weeks. Starting at the end of the Pennine Way, in the borders, it winds its way slowly north along a mix of established trails, tracks, canals, road links and at times tough trackless terrain, to finish at the most north west tip of Scotland, Cape Wrath. This was to be my warmup hike for the much longer Continental Divide starting in June. It did that job nicely!

Loch Glencoul

I want to be clear from the start that this isn’t really a trail but a route. I’ve hiked many trails worldwide and mostly that word means that there will be some sort of way-marking, or blazing.  Normally it also means that there will actually be a path of some sort to hike on, forget that with the Scottish Trail. There isn’t one marker the entire length of the trail, and there are big sections up north that are completely trackless, a trail without any markings or track is normally call a route. Down south you will often be hiking on existing way-marked trails so navigation is relatively easy, it just a case of remembering to turn off one trail and join another, up north you join the magnificent Cape Wrath Trail (described as Britain's toughest trail) which again is certainly not a trail! This is a tough and rough section, that is often trackless and over remote challenging terrain which needs careful navigation. I met one American guy on my way home who felt calling the Cape Wrath Trail, a trail, was misleading and would encouraged hikers that may not have the necessary skills to take it on, I completely agree. These are both routes and not trails. That's not to say the pre Cape Wrath Trail section is tough, it isn't, but do not expect to have any help with route finding.
Cape Wrath Trail

Cape Wrath Trail is often rough and trackless

The Scottish Trail was devised by Cameron McNeish and officially opened in 2012. It's difficult to say how many have thru-hiked this trail but I think it's still in single figures. It’s a trail of two very different halves and gets progressively tougher as it heads north. The first half is generally easy hiking on established trails including the St. Cuthbert's Way, Southern Upland Way, West Highland Way, Rob Roy Way and Great Glen Way. These routes will be linked by tracks, roads, canals and other rights of way before, bam! the Cape Wrath Trail kicks in and the toughness level goes up by around 10 levels! 

Kirk Yetholm and the start of the SNT
Easy hiking on the St Cuthbert's Way

Southern Upland Way

This isn't my normal type of hiking route and I generally prefer a higher, more remote, experience but there was still much to enjoy on this hike. The Southern Upland Way has always been a favourite of mine, the Pentland Hills were a new pleasure, as was the Falkirk Tunnel and the amazing engineering masterpiece that is the Falkirk Wheel. The Cairngorms were my local playground for many years so it was good to catchup, and the whole Cape Wrath Trail was a delight. 

Peatland Hills after some overnight snow
Falkirk Wheel boat lift is a masterpiece of engineering
Falkirk Tunnel
Glen Feshie and the Cairngorms
Cape Wrath Trail
There were of course areas that I didn't enjoy so much and they were mainly the link sections, I don't like road walking and there is plenty on this hike, the canals from Edinburgh to Glasgow soon became tiresome and are as tough as road walking on the feet, the Great Glen and West Highland Ways are trails I’ve never got excited about. All long hikes have sections like this and overall I have very fond memories of the Scottish Trail. It certainly fulfilled it’s aim and warmed me up for the CDT. 

Canals can be nice but soon get tiresome

Great Glen Way at Fort Augustus
If you are interested in hiking the trail then the place to start your planning is at the Walkhighlands website. Here you will find detailed information on each section along with gpx tracks of your route. Everything you need is on this excellent website and that makes planning for the Scottish Trail very easy. I will only add my personal details on travel as nothing else is needed. The easiest way to get to the start at Kirk Yetholm is to take a train to Berwick-upon-Tweed. This is on the main east coast rail line so has a very regular and fast train service from most major cities. If you are flying into the UK then you can get a train direct from London or Edinburgh. From there you take a bus to Kelso and then a further bus to Kirk Yetholm. Getting back from Cape Wrath take the tourist minibus (£6 and only if space allows) or hike to the ferry (£4.50) , and a further 3 km hike/hitch will get you to the town of Durness, where you will likely have to overnight, before getting the morning minibus down to Lairg. Lairg has a direct train service to Inverness, which has an airport, or you can get another bus/train south to most cities (including Edinburgh and London). 
People still leave offerings at the Cheese Well as they have done for centuries 
Rain, snow, wind and hail. Scotland has it all.
Highland Cow on the Rob Roy Way
Rob Roy Way
Overnight camp Rob Roy Way
Resupplying on the trail is fairly easy, particularly the southern half, as you often pass through towns with good facilities. The final Cape Wrath Trail section is much more remote and I sent a resupply box to the post office at Kinlochewe to cover the final 6 days. Generally thought I only needed to carry 3-5 days food and could have carried less. Water is never an issue in Scotland, it's everywhere! Accommodation including B&B’s, hotels, hostels, campsites and bothies (free open shelters) are widely available though can often be expensive, I used 3 hotels, 1 campsite and wild camped the rest of the time. Wild camping is normally legal in Scotland but there are some areas of the trail that will be affected by a new bylaw that bans lochside camping. 
Glen Tilt, Cairngorms
Overnight camp, Cairngorms
Bothy, Newtonmore
More rain, Cluanie
Cape Wrath Trail Bothy
I hiked in May which is generally a good month for Scotland. Weather is often fine and more settled and it’s too early for the bugs to be an issue (with the exception of ticks). Daytime temps will be perfect for hiking and not too cold overnight. Not this year! This has been the wettest May in Scotland that I can remember and 3 out of 4 weeks were seriously wet, the ground was saturated to the point that you would sink to ankle depth with every step, the rivers where very high and sometimes difficult to cross. It rained, snowed, hailed, thundered and occasionally the sun came out, not the best hiking weather. It was never cold though and didn't even drop below freezing, normally at this time of year I would expect the occasional night down to around -5C. 

Cape Wrath Trail wild camp

Rivers were high and some difficult to cross
More from the Cape Wrath Trail
Bring gear suitable for very wet and windy weather, your hike might not be as wet as mine but it knows how to rain  in Scotland , so don't skimp on the waterproofs.  Footwear should have a good deep tread to cope with slippery and muddy trails. A tent that can cope with exposed campsites is recommended as is a sleeping bag that keeps you warm at 0C, you can wear extra clothes should it be colder. Keep your gear dry with a good waterproof pack liner. Gas and meths (alcohol) is readily available in many places, I took meths but often saw gas canisters. A gps will be very hand up north. Hiking poles are useful when slipping in the mud.

The SNT isn't waymarked but you will follow existing trails down south
Rob Roy Way

Falls of Glomach
Cape Wrath Trail
Loch Glencoul Cape Wrath Trail


Distance (measured) 867.6km
Ascent (measured) 22460m
Hiking Time (measured) 236.4hrs (9hrs avg/day)
Hiking Days 26 (33.3km/day avg)
Days off 1

Overnight Temp 13.2C (high) 0.5C (low) 5.8C (avg)
Humidity 98.5% (high) 62.1% (low) 83.1% (avg)

Sandwood Bay near journeys end
Cape Wrath in the distance
Cape Wrath