On to Cape Wrath (2)

One Trail, No Trail, Many Trails

“The Cape Wrath Trail is not an officially recognised UK National Trail. In fact, it is not really a trail at all, more a jigsaw of routes between Fort William and the most northwesterly point of mainland Britain, to be assembled according to your preferences.”

So tells us Iain Harper’s guidebook. On day 10 our pathless descent from Bealach Ban has been exhausting, the strong wind and boggy terrain granting us not a moment rest. The view towards Glen Torridon however is splendid, with menacing clouds compensating in picturesque grimness what the panorama lacks in clarity.

View towards Glen Torridon with Lochan Neimhe © Lodewijk Muns 2016
View towards Glen Torridon with Lochan Neimhe

If you don’t like the weather, wait for fifteen minutes, is the saying in these parts. But the rainstorm which starts the moment we have pitched our tent goes on for ten hours uninterruptedly, pushing the roof into our faces and pressing the water through the cloth. After a sleepless night and with soaking gear the widely detouring and notedly difficult main route ahead has too little temptation. We choose the easiest escape over the asphalt. Unpleasant to the feet and ungratifying to our our hikers’ pride — but we need half a day to rest and dry our gear.

“Sounds like a good idea”, our B&B hostess says when we confess to our shortcut. We have chosen the first B&B on the road, and it is a happy choice. Charming folks, hot tea and cake, a blazing fire, and what makes me feel particularly comfortable, books all over the place.

And strong opinions about the trail. When our host knocks on our door to recommend the local restaurant, it is really to talk about the trail. “Craziness!” is his view of the route we’ve luckily avoided, “it’s insane to lead people around Beinn Eighe!” As a retired mountain rescuer, he seems to know what he’s talking about. And when he goes on about the “original trail”, a network of cattle driving routes from the North to central Scotland, it becomes clear that his idea of the trail is not quite that of our guidebook.

At least our shortcut is excused.

More interestingly, the advice of our host and that of our guidebook complement each other in what sounds like a resonance of debate.

“Some understandably feel that the main route should not pass this way because of the difficult country. I make no apologies however, as the views […] are some of the finest in the Highlands. But make no mistake, the going is very rough […].”

Says the guidebook about the route we have avoided. And when I find a personal reference to our host (who may not like to be identified here) as the man who “has probably done more than any single individual to promote the Cape Wrath Trail […]”, the previous remark acquires special significance.

Curious that of all the B&Bs along the road we have blindly chosen the one with maybe the strongest relation to the trail. Again I have the feeling that parts of this adventure belong to a coherent, well-told story.

There is the guidebook trail, which is largely identical to the trail of the Harvey map. There is the historical trail. There is the challenging trail, the easier trail and the trail you choose. But with growing numbers of hikers that will change, I’m afraid. Someone will connect the paths, put up signposts, and the mysterious plurality of trails will shrivel to just another well-trodden path.

More photos on Flickr.