Category Archives: walking

Walk : Acharacle to Laga

In 2005 the Land Reform (Scotland) Act came into force. This wonderful piece of legislation gives everyone rights of access over land and inland water throughout Scotland.

These rights are sometimes referred to as ‘freedom to roam’ or ‘right to roam’.

There are specific exclusions e.g. fields with growing crops, gardens (!), and there is a requirement to behave responsibly. All very reasonable.

Without this legislation, walking would often be restricted to rights of way such as footpaths and bridlepaths, often long-established.

And Ardnamurchan has relatively few of these.

Coast to coast

The settlements on Ardnamurchan are situated on the periphery of the peninsula. The sheltered moorings at Salen, Glenborrodale bay with its castle and Kilchoan on the southern shoreline. Sanna, the hamlets of Kilmory and Ockle on the north coast, and Acharacle at the mouth of Loch Shiel.

Ardnamurchan peninsula

These places are still linked by tracks across the relatively barren hinterland. On the north shore of Loch Sunart the winding B8007 presumably follows a historic cart track and, before then, a route used by farmers going to and from Ardgour.

However, along the north coast and linking the north and south coasts, a number of tracks remain. These provide relatively unchallenging walking over some beautiful empty hills and moors, often offering stunning views across the peninsula.

One of my favourites is the track from Acharacle to Glenborrodale.

Kentra Moss

Recent forestry activity at the Glenborrodale end of the track has made access more difficult (more on this later) and left an ugly scar on the landscape.

I therefore recommend walking north to south (starting from Acharacle) and deviating from the Glenborrodale track to instead finish at Laga.

Acharacle and Kentra Moss

The easiest point to start from is Acharacle Primary School (NM 67448 68069). This is a short walk north along the A861 from the bustling metropolis of Acharacle.

Don’t let the the ‘A’ prefix on the road number mislead you. Parts of it are single track.

Acharacle, Arivegaig and Kentra Moss

There’s a small parking area just west of the school, with a gate leading to the track to Arevigaig that winds through the Bealach Clach an Aighe 1.

Kentra Moss

You emerge from the scrubby mixed birch woodland onto the south eastern edge of Kentra Moss. This, together with Claish Moss on the southern shore of Loch Shiel, is one of the rare ‘eccentric’ mires in the UK. This habitat is characterised by oceanic blanket bog, rich in mosses, sphagnum, cross-leaved heath and bogbean.

Stick to the track. This amount of sphagnum doesn’t flourish without very large amounts of water. The raised bog isn’t safe to walk on, and would be damaged if you did.

Kentra Moss … very wet everywhere

Kentra Moss is a great place for dragonflies and insectivorous plants, neither of which I’m much good at identifying. During the summer months the bird life is good, with a number of different breeding waders.

A couple of hundred metres after the track bears west you come to a junction with a concrete bridge over one of the many burns that drains the bog. Turn left here (bearing south) on a recently upgraded track leading up away from Kentra Moss into the low hills.

Kentra Moss – track junction looking north

To see more of Kentra Moss there’s also a circular walk that follows the track on to Arivegaig.

Waterworks

There is a new water purification plant up the hill above Kentra Moss. The track goes past a large agricultural-looking building and a water tank with a fabulous view across Kentra Bay to Eigg and Rum before abruptly petering out at a gate held closed with a rusty chain.

View across Kentra Bay to Eigg and Rum.

The track changes from reasonably well-graded crushed rock to a more typical gnarly mountain track, largely suitable for a good 4WD vehicle, an Argo ATV, a mountain bike (and fit rider) or Vibram-soled boots.

Here, and increasingly on the route south, the track offers the ‘path of least’ resistance to water, so it’s not unusual to be walking up a shallow stream.

There’s plenty of evidence of the previous glaciation of the region, with rocks bearing characteristic linear scarring where glaciers have advanced or retreated.

Glacier was ‘ere

The track climbs gently before cresting the ridge and dropping to a sturdy wooden bridge over the Allt Beithe (Birch stream).

Bridge over Allt Beithe

After crossing the stream the track gets smaller and wetter, climbing across the hill in a south-easterly direction towards Beinn Laga.

As the track approaches Loch Laga the land levels out and it gets very wet underfoot. The water just stands around waiting to overtop your boots, rather than conveniently running away downhill.

But the view opens out to the south and east, particularly if you climb a little way above the track (but don’t leave a cairn to spoil the landscape for others). It feels remote but isn’t really.

The Sunart hills

On a poor day, with heavy cloud and squally showers, the views are less good, or potentially non-existent. However, don’t forget to scan the surrounding ridges for eagles – I’ve often seen them here, particularly when the weather is less than favourable.

Loch Laga

Loch Laga lies in the boggy ground between Meall nan Each and Ben Laga, east of the Fiddler’s Slab (Leac an Fhidhleir). There’s a small corrugated fishing hut at Loch Laga and I assume the fishing is controlled by the Ardnamurchan Estate, though I’ve not been able to confirm this.

Approaching Loch Laga.

It’s an exposed spot and it’s not unusual for the loch to be covered in short, white-capped waves. This is a good place to see both red and black throated divers. I wouldn’t be surprised if at least one of them bred on the small rocky island in the Loch.

Loch Laga

As the track skirts the west shore of the loch it is indistinct in places and heavily eroded in others, with the latter likely due to over-enthusiastic (or ambitious) access with an Argo on the peaty soil.

The track rises gently, curving in a more westerly direction. About half a mile after the fishing hut there’s a small cairn in the heather on the left side of the track (NM636632).

This marks the junction with a smaller track leading to Laga.

Cairn do

From the Acharacle to Glenborrodale track, this spur off to Laga is almost invisible. Perhaps this is one of the few times when a cairn is useful. Approaching from the west there’s a tendency to turn south too soon and the ground is very rough and boggy. Not recommended.

After a hundred metres or so the track rises on a rocky spur leading south. Underfoot the going is good except for a few extensively boggy areas. None of these offer too much of a problem if you’re willing to skirt around them and take a ‘leap of faith’ (from one semi-dry tussock to another) a few times.

Track to Laga

The track descends very gently towards Laga. With every step the views across Morvern, the Isle of Carna and Loch Sunart increase and improve.

Keep an eye on the rocky ridge of Ben Laga to your east. This is a good place to see eagles, though the prevailing wind tends to need to be south-westerly or westerly.

From outside in – Laga Farm native woodland

The descent steepens and a deer fence appears to the west. This marks the boundary of the Laga Farm native woodland development.

The end is nigh

In a fold in the hillside a heavy angled gate appears in the deer fence which enables you to cross into the land enclosed by the Laga Farm fencing.

From inside out – open moorland to the east of the Laga Farm native woodland enclosed area

Within metres the difference is striking.

Inside the protective deer fence there are trees growing all over the place. Inevitably some of these will have been planted, but many of the birches, rowan etc will be self-seeded.

In contrast, outside the fence, the moorland is barren with barely a tree in sight. The only exceptions are those growing in inaccessible clefts on the steepest slopes, or in the ravines through which the streams tumble.

This is compelling evidence that there are too many deer.

Laga Farm native woodland, looking south across Loch Sunart to Morvern

The next kilometre or so are increasingly steep and increasingly wooded. It’s lovely now and it’s getting better year after year as the trees mature.

The gravelly and rocky path still offers the ‘path of least resistance’ to water which, in turn, provides miniature pools for dragonflies to lay eggs, like this golden-ringed dragonfly.

Finally the track levels out and you reach a gate through the deer fencing which brings you out onto the B8007.

Turn left for the fleshpots of Salen and all points east, turn right for civilisation, Glenborrodale and Kilchoan.

Loch Sunart, near Laga

It’s worth noting that parking at Laga is very restricted. The road is single track and the passing places are heavily used for, er, passing. Don’t park in them! Laga Bay is also the base for Mowi in this part of the loch and some gateways are used for lorries turning. Finally, Laga is the base for Ardnamurchan Charters (ferry to Mull, Carna and wildlife trips) and their parking area should not be used.

Alternative ending

Rather than turn south at the cairned turn (NM636632) shortly after Loch Laga you can keep on the main track to Glenborrodale. The route turns more westerly and eventually turns south into Glen Borrodale. The going underfoot is much like the first half of the route, with some spectacularly wet and soggy bits.

The route crosses a couple of good-sized burns and bridges ensure your already soaked footwear doesn’t get any wetter 😉

Bridge over the Allt something or other

As the route bears south into Glen Borrodale there are a number of deer fences to negotiate. This area has recently been clear-felled and it is a rather barren and unattractive landscape. The track improves and so do the height of the deer fences.

If you are lucky the gates will be unlocked. If you’re unlucky you will have to scale the 8 foot fences. In several visits over the last couple of years I’ve been lucky about 50% of the time.

Trees were here … but won’t be again for a long time

So much for the ‘right to roam’.

This is a well-established route between Glenborrodale and Acharacle and is in many of the guidebooks to the area.

The deer fences 2 are to protect the thousands of young (native thankfully) trees planted in the felled and adjacent areas of moorland. At my last visit these were only 30 – 60 cm tall, so there’s some way to go before the forestry-induced scarring is hidden again.

The track finally descends through the Glenborrodale woodchip plant and emerges on the B8007.

There are more places to park near Glenborrodale but the deforested landscape, locked gates and less impressive views make the Laga end to the walk preferable in my opinion.

Loch Laga

The Acharacle – Laga walk is about 6 miles. The alternative ending in Glenborrodale is probably a mile or so longer.

The route and going underfoot is easy to moderate but remember to wear appropriate footwear and take waterproofs. This near to the Atlantic the weather can change – and often does – in minutes.


 

Environmental vandalism

Ardnamurchan, Morvern, Sunart and the Rough Bounds are some of the most remote and least populated parts of this country.

The hills of Sunart and Ardgour

A combination of distance, limited access and the absence of Munro’s or well-known hills keeps many visitors away. Nevertheless, the area has a lot to offer and – at least during the summer – is busy with tourists sharing the environment with locals.

What the hills lack in stature they more than make up for in wildlife and wonderful views.

Parts of this land were shaped by fire and ice, volcanoes and glaciers. If you look carefully you can still see the telltale signs in the shapes of the hills, the striations in the rock, the erratics and the protruding rocky dykes.

There is something vaguely reassuring that, despite the rush and bustle of the modern world, these panoramas have remained largely unchanged for thousands of years 1.

Loch Sheil, Beinn Resipol and a pile of rocks

So why do some people feel the need to build small piles of rocks everywhere?

Cairns

A cairn is a man-made pile of rocks or stones. The word is derived from the Scottish Gaelic càrn.

Historically – even prehistorically – cairns were used for a variety of purposes; to mark burial sites, for ceremonial purposes or to indicate caches of food or objects..

In addition, and most obviously 2, cairns have been used to indicate a route, particularly across featureless terrain.

I’ve done a lot of walking on the high rocky mountains in Mallorca. This is a barren featureless area where, if the cloud descends, route finding is tricky. A subtle cairn indicating the correct gully to descend to the coast – and a welcome beer or ice cream – can be a real help.

Under these circumstances a cairn can, literally, be a life-saver.

Cairns are also regularly used to mark significant summits or headlands. I doubt there’s a hill or mountain in the UK which doesn’t have a cairn at the highest point.

Norman’s Law, North Fife Hills

And many also have a trig point 3 so they already have obvious signs of human presence.

High points

But compare the summit of a hill with the first picture in this post.

That picture was taken in the relatively remote hinterland between Acharacle and Laga on Ardnamurchan. There’s an old hill track joining these two places, used by stalkers going up on the hill, by fishermen visiting Loch Laga and by walkers enjoying the largely unspoilt views.

There are no pylons marching across the hill, no mobile phone masts on the summits, no wind turbines decorating the ridges.

But wait. What’s that?

Half a mile or more from the track … surely that pile of rocks doesn’t mark a significant peak? It’s on the skyline and very prominent, but the curve of the hill behind it – and a quick look at the map confirms this – suggests there are higher points nearby.

It’s off the track across tussocky bog and cotton grass. Other than sheep and deer tracks there are no routes that way.

I make my way up across the moor, skirting the boggiest bits.

Not only are there higher points within a few hundred metres of the cairn, there is also higher land within 20 metres. From these the Acharacle to Laga track is invisible due to a lessening of the slope.

I was here …

The photo was taken from one of these nearby higher points looking slightly down on the cairn.

From that angle the only thing that distinguished the rock on which the cairn was built was the cairn.

A sort of self-referential “look at me”.

Take nothing but pictures …

The motto of the Baltimore Grotto chapter of the National Speleological Society, founded in 1952 4, is …

Take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints. Kill nothing but time.

… which is both succinct and good advice for anyone visiting the countryside (or disappearing down a cave). There’s evidence that some or all of the motto originated much earlier (though ‘pictures’ perhaps started as ‘memories’) and there are similar sentiments identifiable in our Countryside Code.

You’ll note that the Baltimore Grotto didn’t choose a motto which included the words …

Leave nothing but footprints and ugly piles of rocks in otherwise unspoilt places.

I wonder why not?

Vandalism

A pile of rocks that does nothing but draw attention to itself isn’t a cairn, it’s an eyesore.

There has been an increase in this sort of desecration of the countryside over the last couple of decades.

These rock piles don’t indicate a significant summit or viewpoint.

They don’t mark a route across barren terrain 5.

In fact, they do nothing except leave an obvious sign that someone who doesn’t really care for the wild and remote places once built a pile of rocks there.

If it was a pile of beer cans, or if the underlying boulder had been painted fluorescent yellow, there might be some sort of outcry.

But rocks and stones are ‘natural’, so it’s OK.

Right?

Wrong.

A rocky Kilroy was here

The geology of Ardnamurchan is rightly famous. There are signs of geological and glacial activity all around. The igneous rocks at the end of the peninsula are ~60 million years old and result from about 2 million years of volcanic activity.

Periodically a glacier will visit and grind them down. In between the glaciers the wind and the rain very slowly contribute to the weathering and erosion.

However, there are lot of both wind and rain and the rocks are still here.

And that little pile of rocks and stones on an unassuming and insignificant exposed outcrop provides indelible evidence that someone else has been there and enjoyed the view.

And then spoiled it.

Perhaps I’m wrong to assume they enjoyed the view in the first place?

It is environmental graffiti.

I was here!

A sort of geological version of tagging trains.

Indelible evidence

However, it turns out these little piles of rocks aren’t really indelible evidence that others have visited the spot before 6.

Now you see it …

With a little bit of effort it is possible to remove the evidence and scatter it around in the tussocky bog where it will rapidly disappear from sight.

Now you don’t …

Leaving the hillside just as nature intended 7.

The Lochaber hills from somewhere I’ll struggle to find again.

I think the sun disappearing at the same time the pile of rocks did is entirely coincidental …

Coastal vandalism

I went to Fascadale at the weekend. A cluster of three or four houses on the North coast of Ardnamurchan. A bustling metropolis in comparison to the nearby hamlet of Ockle which Heritage Ardnamurchan reports has a population of 1.

Fascadale has a small beach with a stream running across it making fantastic abstract patterns in the sand.

Above the beach, on a low promontory, is the inevitable cairn jumbled pile of rocks.

Fascadale … with a (spoiled) view of Muck, Rhum and Eigg, and Skye in the far distance.

Unlike some of the ‘natural’ stone arrangements by Andy Goldsworthy these haphazard piles of rocks have no artistic merit. They are man-made but detract from the scene rather than adding to it.

This is compounded by their permanence.

If you’re going to build stone sculptures or cairns on the coast do so below the high water mark.

Stone cairn, Rubha Cadail, Rhue near Ullapool, September 2017 (but gone now)

You’ll have several hours to construct and appreciate them … and then the tide will wash them away so that the spot can be appreciated by others the following day.

Or used to build another one.

You can put as much effort into your cairn as you want but don’t be upset it’s so ephemeral.

And remember … I don’t cair(n) 😉