CCCP 2019: Loch Eil

This year, the Crow Craigies Climbing Party stationed itself on the north shore of Loch Eil, a little west of Fort William. Poor weather was dominating England, dumping weeks worth of rain in a single day, and occluded fronts were pivoting continuously across central Scotland. But although our weather certainly wasn’t great in comparison to many previous years, we managed to fit in a fair bit of walking, as the chart below shows. Mainly, we were pushed westwards to stay below the cloud and out of the worst of the rain, and from our chosen hilltops we could often make out a wall of dark cloud sitting just east of Ben Nevis.

Fassfern routes overview
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Gulvain (NN 002875, 987m)

23.4 kilometres
1300m of ascent

Gulvain route
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Path data © OpenStreetMap contributors under the Open Database Licence

Gulvain is usually climbed via Gleann Fionnlighe, from which a steep path strikes straight up the south end of the hill to the south top. From there, it’s a ridge walk out to the summit, with the return route enforcing a reascent of the top to get back into the glen.

But we had our eye on a route that allowed us to walk straight to the hill from the front door of our house. We knew there was a track up Gleann Suileag which curved across the col between Meall Onfhaidh and Meall a’ Phubuill, and then let down into the boggy upper end of Glen Fionnlighe, directly below Gulvain’s summit. The reascent in the glen was roughly equivalent to that on the ridge walk of the conventional route, and it looked like it might be an interesting approach. So off we went.

An t-Suilaig in spate at Fassfern
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The river at Fassfern was in roaring spate from overnight rain, and our first view of Gulvain found it swathed in cloud. But we pressed on into Coire a’ Chaorainn, picking our way up towards the right to avoid the wet slabs at the upper rim, and then eventually teetered over a boulder field high on the shoulder of the hill to arrive at the summit cairn just as the cloud lifted. Result.

For our route down, we went a short distance northeast on the shoulder of the hill before choosing a descent line that avoided the worst of the boulders. Then we followed steep grass down the broad rim of the corrie and crossed a hundred metres of bog to get back to our outward track.

Gulvain and Coire a' Chaorainn seen across Gleann Fionnlighe
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Gulvain and Coire a’ Chaorainn seen across Gleann Fionnlighe
Clearing cloud on Gulvain summit
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Clearing cloud on Gulvain summit
Descending Coire a' Chaorainn, looking towards south top of Gulvain
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Descending Coire a’ Chaorainn, looking towards south top of Gulvain

Sgurr a’ Choire Riabhaich (NM 907871, 852m)
Sgurr nan Choireachan (NM 902880, 956m)
Meall an Tarmachain (NM 911882, 826m)
Beinn Gharbh (NM 922881, 825m)
Sgurr Thuilm (NM 939879, 963m)

23.9 kilometres
1500m of ascent

Coireachan-Thuilm route
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Path data © OpenStreetMap contributors under the Open Database Licence

This one’s a classic circuit  around the head of Glen Finnan, with good stalkers’ paths for the ascent and descent (signposted stalkers’ paths, for a wonder), and a long undulating ridge walk between the two highest points.

On the way up the steep, zig-zagging path on to Sgurr a’ Choire Riabhaich, we met a descending group of young German men who had traversed the ridge from east to west the previous evening, and then camped very high on the shoulder overnight. As it turned out, they’d camped well above a source of running water, which speaks of a certain desperation, but they were cheerful and immaculately dressed in fresh autumnal tones, for all that. The ridge, they assured us, was “do-able in a day”, provided we “kept moving”. At which point they eyed our well-worn clothes and countenances in a way that suggested they doubted our ability to keep moving. Resisting the urge to slap our well-meaning foreign guests, we carried on up the hill, eventually getting to the summit of Sgurr nan Coireachan after a little very gentle scrambling. At which point we wilfully and defiantly stopped moving, and spent a while admiring the views westward to the Small Isles and eastward along the winding ridge to Sgurr Thuilm.

The traverse to Thuilm was a delight. The contorted Moinian geology hereabouts produces an endless succession of striated lumps and bumps and summit pools. Then, finally, a turn uphill to reach the summit of Thuilm, another pause to take in the views east down Loch Arkaig, and then a long and muddy descent down the Druim Coire a’ Bheithe to rejoin our outward route.

It was, as it turned out, our biggest day in terms of distance and ascent, so the walk back to our starting point just beyond the Glenfinnan viaduct (famed in Harry Potter films, I’m told) seemed to take a surprisingly long time.

Ascent to Sgurr a' Choire Riabhaich
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Ascent to Sgurr a’ Choire Riabhaich
Stratified rock on Sgurr a' Choire Riabhaich
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Stratified rock on Sgurr a’ Choire Riabhaich
Loch Arkaig and the ridge to Sgurr Thuilm
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Loch Arkaig and the ridge to Sgurr Thuilm
Rum from Sgurr nan Coireachan
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Rum from Sgurr nan Coireachan
Glenfinnan viaduct from the north
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Glenfinnan viaduct from the north

Sgurr a’ Bhuic (NN 203701, 963m)
Stob Choire Bhealach (NN 201709, 1101m)
Aonach Beag (NN 197794, 1234m)

15.6 kilometres
1440m of ascent

Aonach Beag route
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Path data © OpenStreetMap contributors under the Open Database Licence

The bad weather had pulled back a little to the east, which gave us a chance to pay a welcome visit to Glen Nevis—possibly one of the finest camping spots in the world.

Steall waterfall, Glen Nevis
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After a diversion to visit the famous wire bridge (one cable to walk on, two as handrails) we walked up to the ruins at Steall.

Wire bridge, Glen Nevis
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Steall ruins, Glen Nevis
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Steall ruins

The abandonment of this picturesque spot is often attributed to the Highland Clearances (Scots tend automatically to lay the blame for any abandoned building in the Highlands on the machinations of evil eighteenth-century landowners), but the site’s occupation and abandonment post-date the Clearances. According to a report (340 KB pdf) from the John Muir Trust, which owns the area:

Steall (ruin) was a large house with mortared stones and a conjoined enclosure, presumably sheep handling pens with a small area of rig and furrow which was occupied by 1870 and still in use just before World War II.

Indeed, Steall was marked as a functioning building by the Ordnance Survey all the way through to its Sixth Series of maps (late 1940s), and isn’t marked as a ruin until the advent of the Seventh Series during the 1950s.

From Steall, we set off along a path that ascends the east side of the Allt Coire nan Laogh. Then, at NN 189693, we made a mistake. The path into Coire nan Laogh takes a dive into a little gully, crosses the burn, and continues inconspicuously uphill. A much more noticeable path climbs away to the right at this point, and we followed it for quite a while before realizing that it wasn’t taking us anywhere we particularly wanted to be. So we struck directly uphill, climbing 250 very steep metres through crags and heather to reach the shoulder of Sgurr a’ Bhuic. It wasn’t nice at all.

Sgurr a’ Bhuic itself is a lovely little pointed promontory towering over Glen Nevis below. From there, we descended a rocky path to the col, and then picked our way up on to Stob Coire Bhealaich in deteriorating visibility and a smirr of rain. There’s a contouring path here, and we got a little carried away following it across the grassy slopes of Aonach Beag, managing to miss our second diverging path of the day, although this time the poor visibility contributed. So we took a long return diagonal up the slope and arrived at the summit cairn just as the cloud cleared. Another weather window successfully seized! (Yes, luck was involved, too.)

So our descent was enlivened by all the great views for which Aonach Beag is famous—the Grey Corries to the east, the Mamores to the south, and a glimpse of Ben Nevis to the west. We dropped straight off the col below Sgurr a’ Bhuic into Coire nan Laogh, and trotted easily down to its outlet, where we picked up a path that descends beside the waterfalls of the Allt Coire nan Laogh to reach the spot where we’d gone astray on the way up. At which point we stood and gazed around and said, “Oooooh, I see what happened.” (Which is, of course, the next best thing to just doing it right in the first place.)

Sgurr a' Bhuic from Stob Coire Bhealaich
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Sgurr a’ Bhuic from Stob Coire Bhealaich
Snow cornice in the mist, Aonach Beag
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Snow cornice in the mist, Aonach Beag
Descending Aonach Beag, Mamores beyond
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Descending Aonach Beag, Mamores beyond
Grey Corries from Aonach Beag
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Grey Corries from Aonach Beag

Aodann Cleireig (NM 994825, 663m)
Meall Onfhaidh (NN 010840, 681m)

19.1 kilometres
1070m of ascent

Chleireig-Onfhaidh route
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Path data © OpenStreetMap contributors under the Open Database Licence

A terrible weather forecast—cloud down to 2000 feet, and northerly winds gusting to sixty miles per hour on the summits. So it was a day for one or two small hills, at most. We walked up a forest track that started almost next to our house, and followed it into Coire Chur, enclosed by the horseshoe ridge of Aodann Chleireig. (The hill’s name means “Cleric’s Face” in Gaelic—I’d love to know the story behind that.) The track ended fifty metres from the forestry fence, but we pushed easily through the trees to discover (mirabile dictu) a stile crossing the deer fence and giving access to the open hillside. A couple of hundred metres of ascent over steep tussocky grass, and we were on Aodann Chleireig’s windswept ridge-line, with thick black cloud streaming overhead. It was windy—occasionally we’d just stop and laugh with the ferocity of it. But we pushed on, leaning sideways against the buffets, to reach Chleireig’s small cairn (there’s a larger one, on a better viewpoint, a little to the south).

A little crag gave us a sheltered lee for a bite to eat, and then we headed a short distance to the west to pick up a broad grassy rake that descends below Chleireig’s northern crags towards the col with Meall Onfhaidh. Onfhaidh offered us another lee as we ascended the south side of its western shoulder, and then we were staggering around in the wind again, trying to find the highest point amid a multiplicity of little crags on the rounded summit. (Hint—it’s not the one with the largest cairn.)

Off and down, then, seeking the lee of Meall a’ Phubuill and then making a diversion to the lovely little Glensulaig bothy. (Well it’s a typically grubby bothy in a lovely place, to be honest.) We sat inside with our ears ringing, just enjoying the sensation of being surrounded by stationary air.

I find I have no hill photographs worth showing you from that day—a combination of battery problems, poor light and a distinct disinclination to stand around on the hillside. So here’s my only photographic offering—an albino Coke can removed from the burn on the northern slopes of Onfhaidh, and taken home for recycling.

Bleached Coke can removed from the hill
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I mean, really. What kind of arse can carry a full can up a hill, but not an empty one down?


Fraoch-bheinn (NM 894837, 790m)
Sgurr an Utha (NM 885839, 796m)

11.3 kilometres
780m of ascent

Utha route
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Path data © OpenStreetMap contributors under the Open Database Licence

The cloud lifted a little the next day, and the wind abated, but we were still trapped in the western fringes by the weather fronts farther inland.

We parked in a rough gravel layby just west of the Allt an Utha bridge, and walked back across the bridge to reach the start of a track that serves a little dam farther up the glen. Before we started up the hill, we paused to investigate an object the 1:50000 map marks as a “cairn”, and the 1:25000 as a “cross”. It proved to be a low cairn with a cement cross on the top, but with no hints as to its significance.

Cairn and cross beside Drochaid Allt an Utha
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Shortly before the dam, a vehicle track branches off right into the Coire an Utha, providing steep but well-graded access to the broad (and very lumpy) Druim na Brein-choille. From the end of the track, we picked our way along the ridge to the little top of Fraoch-bheinn, before crossing a 65m dip to reach Sgurr an Utha. Even by the standards of contorted Moinian landscapes, Utha deserves some sort of prize, so full of crags and pools and erratic boulders that the contour map looks like a child’s scribble in places.

Our descent westwards into the Feith a’ Chatha required care, since there are crags below Sithean Mor on the direct line of descent. A group of little lochans and then a southward deflection in the line of fence posts provided useful landmarks—we made a northward turn and dropped into the headwaters of the Allt Glac a’ Bhodaich, following it downhill along an easy grassy descent that circumvented the crags.

Sgurr Thuilm from Fraoch-bheinn
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Sgurr Thuilm from Fraoch-bheinn
Erratic block, Sgurr an Utha and Eigg beyond
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Erratic block, Sgurr an Utha and Eigg beyond
Approaching Sgurr an Utha from Fraoch-bheinn
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Approaching Sgurr an Utha from Fraoch-bheinn
Summit pool on Sgurr an Utha
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Summit pool on Sgurr an Utha
Loch Beoraid from Sgurr an Utha
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Loch Beoraid from Sgurr an Utha

Peanmeanach abandoned village (NM 712804, 10m)

11.5 kilometres
460m of ascent

Peanmeanach route
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Path data © OpenStreetMap contributors under the Open Database Licence

On our final day the forecast was still poor, and we’d developed a certain weariness of dodging wind and rain and poor visibility. So we took a half-day stroll across the Ardnish peninsula to visit the abandoned village of Peanmeanach on its beautiful little bay. The path descends from a roadside parking area, crosses a railway bridge, and then weaves across the landscape with beautiful views of Loch Beag to the north, the Small Isles to the west, and the spiky summits of Rois-Bheinn to the east. It rained all the way out, and the sun shone all the way back.

Railway bridge on route to Peanmeanach
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The Railway bridge on the way to Peanmeanach (the villagers used to drive a tractor across it, in better days)

Peanmeanach itself is a slightly melancholy spot—the overgrown ruins of a row of black houses, with one neatly roofed bothy in the middle. The bothy was the last building to be abandoned, as recently as 1942—in earlier days it had been the home of the schoolteacher for Ardnish’s thinly scattered population. Today, it sports an array of whale vertebrae above the fireplace.

Whale bones in Peanmeanach bothy
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Again, you won’t need to look far on-line to find the Highland Clearances being blamed for the abandonment of Peanmeanach, but the reasons were more complex and more recent than that—potato blight, changes in the economics of farming, and the arrival of the railway (reducing the movement of goods by small coastal vessels) all had a part to play. Take a look at Peter Stewart-Sandeman’s excellent Potted History of Ardinish (2.6 MB pdf) for much more information about the history of this area.

Peanmeanach ruins
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Ruined cottage, Peanmeanach
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Woodland above Peanmeanach
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Woodland above Peanmeanach
Loch Beag from Peanmeanach track
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Loch Beag from Peanmeanach track

And that was that. Unsatisfactory weather, but more satisfactory than almost any place else in the country at the time, and we still managed to get in a hundred kilometres of walking and a view from every summit, which can’t be bad.

Boots drying at Fassfern
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7 thoughts on “CCCP 2019: Loch Eil”

  1. Your stamina, and obviously good knees, are admirable. Some great photos as usual. My favourite is that of “Loch Arkaig and the ridge to Sgurr Thuilm”. I love the way the blue sky reflected in the water contrasts with the surrounding vegetation and forces your eye to be only slow drawn to the far vista – well that is what it felt like to me. But there are lots of other great shots – and I enjoyed your commentary as well.

    I was intrigued by that lonely cross and did find this https://www.flickr.com/photos/doffcocker/25624308327/ – for what it is worth. (My grandmother and her 5 year old daughter are buried in a small abandoned Goldfields cemetery in the Australian outback, a 100 kms gravel road trip from the nearest small town. So these sort of things take my fancy)

  2. Glad you enjoyed the post and photos. All keen hillwalkers of a certain age will touch wood when knees are mentioned–so far, so good.
    Our choice of a steep ascent and more gentle descent on the Coireachan/Thuilm day was actually made with knees in mind. We kept meeting people making the circuit in the opposite direction, because “that’s what it says in the guidebook”, but a steep descent at the end of the day is always a bit of a challenge for the knees, as well as increasing the risk of a nasty fall for anyone who is tired and running late.

    When I was searching around for an explanation of the little concrete cross, I didn’t really know what to make of the Flickr post you also found–there’s a lot of sensible research at the start, shedding no light, and then a bold but completely unreferenced statement at the end. Odd.

  3. My knees are starting to bother me – overweight and 65 who would think that my knees would complain? I must admit that there have been a few steep staircases in churches and castles that I have avoided on our last couple of trips. In a months time we will be in Norway which may cause some angst as flat land is at a premium there. No long hikes will be contemplated but even getting to some of the lookouts will be fun.

    Your approach of the step ascent at the start of the walk seems very sensible. However if I tried one of your walks I am afraid that I would end up like Capt. Oates – upset about holding the group up and stepping away never to return.

    Yes, I noticed the lack of any reason for the claim about the cross.

  4. Here’s me chiming in after Neil, though I’ve no idea how you and he are acquainted . Hint…tell me ! What a week you had. Too bad about the Scottish weather., which I always assume is inevitable and dry, sunny days are the wonderful exception..
    I was quite taken with the wire bridge. Is it used with regularity and if so by whom ? I crossed some iffy bridges on our 2 Himalayan treks in the last century. always with my head turned to the sky to avoid looking at the rushing rivers 200 ft. below (obviously I don’t do heights too well )
    Despite the weather, you got some nice photos in the ? brief
    clearances. . I’m intrigued by funny signs and the one telling folk that a route was not good for vehicular traffic is surely one of those.
    Just got round to reading your post today, Busy week with summer finally here and temps in the mid 30s C

  5. The wire bridge gets a fair bit of use–it’s the only access to the south side of the river for a fair distance in either direction. It gives access to the Mamores range on the south side of Glen Nevis, to the Steall waterfall (which appears in my photo of the tents in Glen Nevis), and to the Steall Hut, a climbers’ bunkhouse.
    There’s a classic walking circuit of the hills above the Steall waterfall, called “the Ring of Steall”, featuring some lovely ridge-walking, and people ice-climb the waterfall itself in winter.

    Neil arrived here, I think, by following a link from an astronomy forum to which we both belong.

  6. Yes, I had been enjoying Grants’ comments & our occasional interactions on that other site and one day followed the blog link in his posts to this site. . All the great photos of his walks meant that I have stayed – plus of course all the other topics he covers. (Once I found that he had been a published contributor to “Punch” I was hooked 🙂

    With regard to the wire bridge, I doubt that I could have even crossed the one in this post. That you could have crossed those ones on your Himalayan trek really impresses – my pretty strong acrophobia would have left me gibbering on the approach path.

  7. One particular rope bridge in the Khumbu looked so awful with a 20ft, at least , drop to a raging rocky river below, that I would not have attempted if there was any other way to get back to Canada. I held the trekking group up for 15 mins as I steeled myself for the cross. ( Even writing now , years later , I feel the start of tachycardia !

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