Scotland has a well-documented series of core paths that are designed to give the public reasonable access to the ‘area’ 1. These are maintained – sometimes in the very loosest possible sense of the word – and are the responsibility of the local councils.
Many of these core paths have a long history of usage; as drove roads for cattle herders taking their animals to market, or as coffin roads (or corpse roads) which connected remote rural areas to cemeteries that had burial rights.
Fife is particularly well served with core paths, and I can walk for miles on reasonably well signposted tracks and bridleways. In contrast, Highland regional council has far fewer considering its area, and many of these are concentrated along the Great Glen, around Fort WIlliam and Inverness.
Only seven of the Highland core paths are in Ardnamurchan 2. Of these, only two are longer than 3 km. But these are conveniently contiguous and stretch ~15 km from Ockle to Arivegaig to Acharacle along the north coast of the peninsula.
This is a fine walk or a largely off-road segment of an excellent mountain bike circuit of the peninsula.
The remote north coast
The north coast of Ardnamurchan has a number of small communities, often overlooking white sandy beaches separated by low rocky headlands. Sanna has world-famous beaches, Fascadale has stunning views to Eigg, Rum and Skye, Kilmory has a lovely remote little beach and Ockle has a population (according to Wikipedia) of 1.
Actually, although I singled out the views from Fascadale, they’ve all got great views to the islands.
With the exception of the road from Kilmory to Ockle there is no road along the north coast. Each settlement is served by a spur running approximately north-south from the B8007.
This remoteness makes a walk along the north coast all the better.
This is a linear walk. You need transport to the start and at the end.
Unsurprisingly, with a population of 1, Ockle does not have a regular bus service.
In fact, it has no bus service at all … and, I suspect, may also not have a population of 1.
Rather than start at Ockle I chose to start at Kilmory (#1 on the map). There is limited parking available and a lovely circular walled cemetery overlooking the sea, with views to the islands of Muck, Eigg and Rum and all points North.
If you’re going to be laid to rest for eternity it’s a nice spot. Looking at the headstones it’s clear that there are some long-lived families in the Kilmory area.
The beach at Kilmory is also worth a visit. It lacks the bleached white sand of Sanna, but is much less busy and (at the right time of the year) the profusion of orchids on the enclosing headlands more than compensates.
Look out for merlin as well as they visit there in the colder months of the year. By the time the diminutive raptor has flashed across your retina and you’ve had time to think Was that a merlin? … they’ve gone.
Leave Kilmory by the only road leading to the east.
It’s about two miles from Kilmory to Ockle. The road winds along the coast, alternately giving views out to sea or across the patchwork of fields and grazing land managed by the local farms.
You pass a number of holiday rental cottages dotted here and there, Swordle Farm and the track to Port an Droighoinn before reaching Ockle, population 1.
Ockle (#2 on the map) is little more than a cluster of farm buildings, some of which are now holiday rental properties. A decade ago there was only one permanent resident, but it looked busier than that when I visited in mid-August.
Whatever the population, there has clearly been a relatively recent local conflagration as there were two halves of a torched boat on the banks of the Allt Ockle. This stream is so narrow you could use the boat as a bridge or simply jump across it.
The metalled road ends at Ockle. Follow the road round the end of the farm buildings and head up the slope. After about 100 m take the estate track that bears off in an easterly direction, past a pool on the hill above the settlement.
This track seems relatively new, or has received little use. Years ago I did the same route by mountain bike and don’t remember the track surface being crushed rock … and since it’s a rather unpleasant surface to ride on I think I would have remembered.
In places there are signs of the old track, like the corroded metal bars crossing one of the many burns dropping seawards. I don’t remember crossing that either, so perhaps my memory is going.
A sign on the dotted line
After about a mile and half the crushed rock track turns north to a very remote property (labeled Eilagadale on the 1:50,000 OS map, but unlabelled on the 1:25,000 sheet) on the coast, but the route to Gortenfern, Arivegaig and Acharacle continues south-east.
Considering how remote this spot is (#3 on the map) there’s no chance of being in any doubt as to which way the route lies.
The track at this point changes dramatically, from one suitable for a Landrover to something little wider than a mountain bike tyre. The path contours round to a ford across Allt Eilagadale, wiggles a little bit to gain height, and then bears south-east through a shallow cleft between the the flanking hillsides.
The going is generally good underfoot and there are no route finding problems.
In places the combination of a steep hillside and well over a metre of rain a year, means bits of the narrow path have been washed away.
In some of these places they’ve been washed quite a long way away, leaving a rather steep drop. Nothing to be concerned about on foot, but an interesting section of technical singletrack for mountain bikers.
Or an opportunity to dismount and push … 😉
The top of pass is wide and wet. 2020 has had a dry spring and summer and it was still wide and wet. In a wet year, with a bike, it’s hard work crossing over to the track leading down to Gortenfern.
You are crossing remote moorland, so what you see depends very much upon the time of year and how observant you are. I last did the walk in mid-August and was constantly accompanied by meadow pipits, but saw almost no other birdlife.
There were hundreds of day-flying magpie moths in the heather …
… and a range of dragonflies, particularly as the track broadened and approached Gortenfern, including this lovely female black darter …
Before reaching Gortenfern the path joins a grassy Landrover track passing down one side of a narrow, shallow, flat-bottomed U shaped valley, and then drops into coniferous woodland.
A track to the left, marked variously with a faded ‘Beach’ sign hanging in a tree, and a much more artisticly painted stone, indicates a worthwhile diversion to the Singing Sands, Camas an Lighe.
Camas an Lighe actually translates as something like Bay of the Flood I think, nothing to do with sand or song. The ‘singing sands’ refers to the noise the dry sand makes when it moves, either blown by the wind or when you walk, or better still, shuffle across it.
To me it sounds more like a squeak, but I guess the ‘Squeaking Sands’ simply doesn’t have the same appeal.
It’s worth noting that the more you shuffle across the sand, the more likely you are to find some of the ‘unexploded munitions’ left there by commandos training during the Second World War.
In addition to the
singing squeaking and the bombs, the beach is lovely white sand and very scenic. It’s a great spot for a picnic, but can get busy in high season.
Ever eastwards …
If you’ve walked to Camas an Lighe from the west you’ve approached it from the best direction. The vast majority that visit will have walked in from the east, after parking at Arivegaig.
That’s the direction the path takes, through dense conifer plantation for the first mile and three quarters before emerging at Gortenfern (#5 on the map). The conifers are a bit unrelentingly dull, cutting out so much light that there’s little understorey, flowers or birdlife.
Nevertheless, in the damp, gloomy clearings, mosses flourish and cover everything with their soft, verdant pillows of greenness.
From Gortenfern to Arivegaig you take the track around the southerly shore of Kentra Bay. This is lovely year round, with good views across to Ardtoe and lots of aquatic birds and waders. There is parking for about a dozen cars at Arivegaig adjacent to where the Allt Beithe 3 spills into Kentra Bay.
At Arivegaig you join the metalled road and, immediately after crossing the tiny burn called Dìg Bhàn (possible White ditch; #6 on the map) you turn right and follow the unmetalled track to Acharacle, emerging at the School.
The Dìg Bhàn is small enough to step across, but has its own bridge. For some time there’s been a rather nice rustic bench at the junction here with the track to Acharacle 4.
Once you reach the School at Arivegaig continue to the main road and turn right to reach the bustling town centre.
Take care on the main road (the A861) … not only will it have the only traffic you’ll have seen since Kilmory but there may also be red deer walking down the road in the middle of the day.
Mountain bike circumnavigation
The route from Kilmory to Acharacle makes up a little more than one third of a 32 mile circuit of eastern Ardnamurchan.
It makes sense to start and finish the circuit in Acharacle. There’s ample parking, Cafe Tioram, toilets and a village store. Good coffee and cakes are also available from Paul and Anita at Salen Jetty Shop if you’d prefer to start from Salen 5.
The route is entirely obvious … from Acharacle south to Salen, west through Laga and Glenborrodale to the junction with the Kilmory/Fascadale road near Ben Hiant. There you turn north to Kilmory where you join the route described above.
About 10 miles of the circuit is not on a metalled road. Relatively little of it is truly unrideable if you have a good level of fitness, go after a prolonged dry spell, have reasonable singletrack skills and don’t mind the odd tumble.
However, if there’s been a lot of rain the singletrack east of the Eilagadale junction can get washed away and simply walking over the pass might require waders.
The 32 miles includes 3500 feet of climbing. It’s largely small undulations as the entire route goes from sea level to no higher than 700 feet. Over 90% of the metalled road in the circuit is single lane with passing places and fabulous views. It’s very easy cycling.
A superhuman or crazed masochist could instead start and finish a circuit at either Glenmore Natural History Centre (more coffee and cakes available 🙂 ) or the Glenborrodale RSPB reserve and cycle from Glenborrodale to Acharacle over ‘the top’. I’ve described this route (in the reverse direction) as an extension of the walk from Acharacle to Laga. From Acharacle you then stay off-road to Kilmory before taking the road back to Glenborrodale. This variant replaces the 11 mile road section from Acharacle to Glenborrodale with about 7 miles of off-road fun.
I’ve not done this last version of the circuit and doubt I ever could 🙁