Keith Ruffles, Winner of the Gore Experience Tour trip to Knoydart with Cameron McNeish, reflects on his time in the wilds.
The little boat swayed violently from side to side in the stormy Sound of Sleat. It felt like I had to cling on for dear life as the vessel crawled past the entrance to Loch Nevis – the misleadingly nicknamed ‘Loch of Heaven’ – on its way to the Knoydart Peninsula. “This is nothing”, roared skipper Andy over the crashing of the boiling October surf. “Sometimes it’s so bad that we can’t risk venturing out at all.”
Despite almost instantly regretting the large traditional breakfast I’d had that morning as soon as I’d clambered aboard, I could well believe it. This is real wild country, where some of the most isolated swathes of the Scottish Highlands stutter majestically in a cacophony of rock and gradient before finally sweeping into the sea. The choppy waters surrounding the port of Mallaig – itself the terminus of the fabled ‘Road to the Isles’ – which greeted my arrival the previous night had hinted at the perilous conditions that can disrupt any ocean voyage and which was now doing its best to make ours as uncomfortable as possible.
By the time we reached Doune, an isolated group of houses and chalets hugging Knoydart’s western tip, I had just about found my sea legs. I had also begun to really appreciate the shear remoteness of the place; aside from a single-lane track that links the Peninsula’s scattered settlements the only way in and out is either by boat or by an arduous two-day hike across mountain and glen from the nearest road worthy of the name. The scenery is also stunning; the Isle of Skye bobs tantalisingly close across the water and the mountains of eastern Knoydart loom in the distance. The eight hour drive from Leeds the night before seemed instantly worth it.
I was in Scotland as part of the UK leg of the Gore-Tex Experience Tour, which aims to take ordinary members of the public with an interest in the outdoors and help them to develop a sense of understanding and appreciation of our all-too-few wild places. Leading the way would be renowned hillwalker and author Cameron McNeish, film-maker Richard Else and guide Paul Tattersall – who between them had already made several trips to Knoydart – while James MacKeddie was the other candidate to join us on the expedition.
Back on dry land, Andy and his partner Liz are one of two couples who collectively run a small group of guest-houses in Doune and it’s here that I would spend my first night in Knoydart. With an inviting bed and fresh home-style cooking it’s hard to think of a more welcoming introduction to this sometimes bleak and frequently beautiful wilderness, for tomorrow would be the first of several days camping in the mountainous interior.
The morning came, and with it no change in the weather. Wind and rain combined to potentially postpone the sailing, and it was with some trepidation that we all clambered on board the Gripper II again for the hour-and-a-half sail into Loch Hourn – the ominously titled ‘Loch of Hell’ – which borders Knoydart’s northern fringe. We headed for Barrisdale Bay, a well-known spot replete with campsite and bothy and which would be our ‘base camp’ for our time in Knoydart.
As a setting it’s hard to think of a better location than Barrisdale. Overlooked by two of the area’s three Munros – mountains over 3000 feet – it’s a fantastically remote spot to camp in. It’s a place familiar to hikers and munro-baggers alike, and despite its isolation we were surprised to find it busy with around half-a-dozen hardy souls willing to brave the autumn weather.
That evening I got speaking to Nick and Robin, who were in the area to tick off Knoydart’s highest summits. Both had climbed many of the tallest Scottish mountains but were particularly looking forward to tackling those near Barrisdale. “They’re some of the most beautiful, but also some of the hardest”, Robin tells me. “We want to do them both tomorrow, but with this weather it’s not going to be easy. Not in the slightest”. Nick merely nods in agreement, his hands bearing the scars of frostbite.
Unfortunately the weather Robin was so wary of, was to have an adverse effect on our own plans. Heavy rain quickly turned the smallest of trickles into raging torrents, and our campsite quickly risked being inundated. We had planned to climb Ladhar Bheinn – the highest peak in Knoydart – but after a quick assessment it was decided that this would be too risky. Instead we would take on the unpronounceable Sgurr a’ Choire-bheithe, a looming hulk of rock that at 913m above sea level was a whole metre below the threshold for Munro status. Instead my first ascent of a Scottish mountain would be a Corbett.
And indeed the rest of the week would likewise be dominated by the weather. The plan was for James and I to spend time with Cameron trekking throughout the area and learning about its history whilst Richard and Paul filmed us, but this proved difficult, that said, occasional breaks in the rain meant that we could still explore and discover much of what makes Knoydart so special.
One of these places is the Island of Meeting, or Eilean Choinnich in the language of the long-disappeared Gaelic inhabitants. This little islet is cut off from the mainland at high tide but when the water recedes a small spit of rock connects it to the shores of Loch Hourn. It was here that several graves can be found, a few simple rocks in the ground bearing testament to the thriving communities that once called this now-lonely glen home.
“They would often build their graves on little isles like this”, said Cameron, “to stop wolves from digging up the dead”. And the reason why this is the ‘Isle of Meeting’? “Because this is where those that were left behind would meet their maker”, he said. A large otter swam away at the sight of us, as if emphasising that this place has been thoroughly reclaimed by nature.
Indeed, the history of the Highland Clearances permeates the very atmosphere of Knoydart, with small ruined buildings dotting the coastline and even parts of the interior. It’s hard to imagine that once, not so long ago, relatively large numbers of people eked out a living in this inhospitable part of the world. It was this sense of the past and of connection with the landscape that Cameron was most enthusiastic about and which he was so keen for us to understand and appreciate.
The finale of the expedition would see James and I undertake a solo trek, camping overnight and returning to Barrisdale the next day. Again the weather played its trump card, with near-horizontal rain dictating that our more ambitious route up hill and glen would be shelved for another time. Instead we would walk along the shores of Loch Hourn, recording our thoughts and experiences as we traversed this particularly pretty stretch of coastline.
So it was that I found myself alone with James at Kinloch Hourn, where the ever-narrowing Loch finally surrenders to the surrounding mountains. I’d never camped alone before, and under a sky filled with more stars then I ever thought possible I spent a pitch-black night with only the sounds of stags and birds for company. The two horses which decided to investigate my tent in the small hours, whilst not wild, certainly added to what was a night to remember.
The next day we left Barrisdale, Andy and the boat appearing on the horizon to transport us back to Doune and to civilisation; the thought of a real bed and proper cooking was a very welcoming one after Knoydart had battered us with her infamously fickle weather. And yet, as we left the confines of the Loch of Hell and skirted the edge of the peninsula back round to Doune, we could only reflect on the very special place that we were leaving behind.
Mountains, rain, wind, sea, and beautiful skies; such are the memories of Knoydart that I’ve taken back home with me and will keep for the rest of my life. For an newly-awakened outdoors enthusiast these experiences truly are the stuff of dreams.