Scotland is a country that has no shortage of spectacular scenery and breathtaking long distance footpaths. I have been very fortunate over the last few years to have spent a lot of time leading on the West Highland Way for Thistle Trekking and it is a true beauty, but having recently spent three days walking the Affric Kintail Way I can categorically state that it’s worthy of consideration next time you are looking North of the border.
After a long day behind the wheel I drove through Inverness and followed the shores of Loch Ness (no sign of the Monster) to the bustling town of Drumnadrochit. I checked in to the Loch Ness Inn Bunkhouse . It is one of the best bunkhouses I have ever stayed in with super clean facilities, comfy beds and it’s stumbling distance from the homely Brewery Bar, you can also sign up for breakfast at the restaurant although this was a treat I reserved for the morning after I’d completed the way! When I had been reading about walking the Affric Kintail Way on various blogs there had been a lot of grumbles about the first day and the notorious road section from Shenval to Cannich. A lot of progress has been made in opening up new sections of the walk to divert away from the road but unfortunately due to forest fires the good folk at the Visitor’s Centre told me that these would be closed so it looked like a long stint on the road at the end of the day. Day one took me through Glen Urquhart, through a lot of forestry on broad, rough tracks and then along past Loch Meiklie. It was quiet, I saw barely anyone else walking on the way, so meandered along with my thoughts admiring the wild flowers and thinking how I’d forgotten just how much more work was required when walking with a full pack….I’ve never been one of these “ultralight” nuts who cut the handles of toothbrushes and tear pages out of books as they progress but I definitely found myself musing on how I might be able to cut down the weight on my back! Eventually I did hit the road and in spite of seeing no plumes of smoke or hearing the crackling of raging fires I followed the instructions and trudged my way along the tarmac down to the bridge over the River Enrick at Cannich. I set up there for the night, avoiding a deluge, and then headed into the village for a couple of pints of Glen Affric brewery beer at the slightly eccentric Slaters Arms .
Day two. I was up super early and on my way by 6.30am in an effort to beat the predicted high temperature of 27 degrees. One thing I hadn’t previously considered was that whilst walking the Affric Kintail Way the main weather related problem might be water resupply and heatstroke! The climb out of the village led to yet more forestry tracks before I eventually descended to the bridge crossing just above Dog Falls. Looking at my map I could see that the next few hours would see the path running South of Loch Beinn a’Mheadhoin and then Loch Affric and whilst there would still be plenty of trees it looked as if things would start to open up a bit. The nature of the forest started to change at this point and instead of the densely packed ranks of the commercial plantation I started to see magnificent Scots Pines and a much greater range of native, deciduous species. I started to get mountain views of Am Meallan and Sgurr na Lapiach as I continued on to the tiny hamlet of Athnamulloch which sits at the head of start to Glen Affric proper. What had already been a spectacular day scenery wise just got better and better from this point onwards. My maps had shown plenty of streams and burns running down from the tops but with the weather the way it was many of them were dry so it was a case of filling up at every possible opportunity. I continued on fine tracks between high, beautiful peaks until I saw the red roof of the Glen Affric SYHA building at Alltbeithe, the most remote of Scotland’s Youth Hostels. I had already ascertained it would be closed for staff RNR but it made a fine finish point for the day and I set my tent up next to some ruins above the hostel. The thunder rolled around the valley, lightning fizzed and crackled and the rain came down and, unfortunately, into my tent. It’d had been a couple of years since the old Vango Banshee had been subject to anything like this and it sadly proved a bit inadequate on this occasion. None the less, the rain stopped, and I slept the sleep of the righteous after a good twenty mile day.
Day three. I could see the clouds of midges massed outside the tent. Aside from a fidgety coffee break above Loch Affric they’d not been too much of a problem on this trip so far, but they were ready and waiting, savage little blighters. It was socks tucked in, long sleeves donned and midge net on before a ninja tent take down and away moving again with the faint breeze pushing the vestiges of the horde away down the Glen. It was another spectacular morning, blue, blue skies, majestic peaks and a vast emptiness, the like of which I have rarely found anywhere in the UK. I stopped for breakfast at Camban Bothy, a beautiful spot, once the home of a lonely shepherd and now a well maintained, beautifully situated MTA Bothy. I chatted with a Swedish couple as I made coffee and ate breakfast and we reflected on just how few people seemed to be walking the Affric Kintail Way, it was incredibly quiet, I think I only met three other walkers over the three days I was on it. More beautiful walking, rest stops watching Meadow Pippits, Skylarks and Wheatears all around me and then a long, gradual drop down into Gleann Lichd where I stopped for a refreshing swim in the upper water of River Croe. As I sat drying in the sun a Weasel skipped across the rocks just downriver from me, it’s just that kind of place. The last couple of miles to the campsite at Morvich felt long, the pack was still weighing heavy and the sun was beating down but eventually I made it celebrating with a cold can of Fanta at the campsite before walking the extra mile and a half down to the main road where I had a long wait for the bus that took me back to Drumnadrochit.
The Affric Kintail Way is definitely a walk of two halves and when walked from East to West is a walk that just keeps on getting better. Sections of it feel as remote as anywhere I have been in the UK and Glen Affric itself has to be one of the most spectacular places I have visited in a long while. The walk has wildlife in abundance, stunning wild flowers and majestic Scots Pines (the remnants of the great Caledonian Forest). Camban Bothy and SYHA are reminders that the Glen has a human history too but it is the sheer scale and spectacle of the wild parts of the walk that will live long in my memory and I look forward to returning with Thistle Trekking in August to give it another go!