I was knackered, my legs were aching, my back was aching too from the heavy rucksack. I was so glad to have finally arrived at Barrisdale.
I took my rucksack off outside the Barrisdale bothy and I had that now familiar feeling of “floating” that you get when removing a heavy burden from your back. I so sympathise with donkeys...
It was May 2014 and we had just walked the eight or so miles from Kinlochhourn to Barrisdale. This was my first camping trip for many years and my friend Bob had lent me his tent, backpack and various other essentials. Being the very recent ex-smoking couch potato that I was, the eight miles were not easy. Apart from boat or helicopter, the coastal path we had walked is the only (easy) way to get here from the east and it is a bit of a roller coaster going up and down small hills. The four hours it took were not enjoyed.
The path to Barrisdale
Unpacking the tent that Bob had lent me, I had realised why it was so light. It was like a canvas coffin that needed careful negotiations to enter and exit. Sitting up inside was impossible. We made our evening meal in the bothy and had interesting conversations with the rest of the people who were camping and bothying here. I never said a word, as the interesting tales of various exploits were without comparison with my own experiences. It was great to just sit and listen.
Finally, it was bedtime and I settled into my tiny tent. I am not normally claustrophobic, but for a few seconds, I had that uncomfortable closed-in feeling after zipping up the tent. In my snug accommodation, I was expecting to have sore legs in the morning due to my day's exertions and my lack of fitness.
In the morning I awoke fresh with no aches and pains. I have since learned that you only ache after physical exertion when you afterwards sit in comfortable seats such as a car seat or a couch. Living outside and not being able to slouch prevented me from feeling sore. Maybe a lesson for us all there.
After breakfast, it was time to climb. Bob had already climbed the highest Knoydart mountain Ladhair Bheinn on his own, so he wished to climb Luinne Bheinn and Meall Bhuidhe - I was happy to go anywhere…
We headed off, leaving our tents pitched full of the non-essential items so that our backpacks were less of a drag. It was a long climb up to Mam Barrisdale, the top of the pass to Inverie, we then came off the path and “followed the fence”, a route that Bob had read about that skirts up the west side of Luinne Bheinn. Luinne Bheinn (meaning sea swelling hill) is the Gaelic name of this hill and many people have anglicised it into “Loony bin”- I was going to find out why.
Bob Walking away from the Nam Barrisdale path
On our way we had met a couple who were going to tackle the Luinne Bheinn ridge head on, they told us they had booked their dinner table at the pub in Inverie for 7:30 pm. They had a lot of ground to cover over the two mountains back to their destination and took off at an impressive pace to meet their deadline - I do wonder if they made their booking as I certainly wouldn't have!
Inverie is the only village on Knoydart, it is notable as not being served by any roads, only paths and we were standing on the main one. This village is dependent on boats for their connection to the outside world and standing on Nam Barrisdale is the closest I have come to visit. The hotel there, the Old Forge, lays claim to being Britain's remotest pub and anyone I have spoken to who has visited it, recommends it - the seafood is always mentioned.
Looking West from Luinne BheinnTowards Inverie on the coast. We started the steep climb following remains of an old metal fence, of which mostly the small metal poles remained, most poles were bent or missing, claimed by the passage of time.
It was hard terrain and I marvelled at the people who had taken the time to build this fence, with all the heavy materials required. The fence was old and I wondered how they would have bought them here - I thought again of my trip to Barrisdale and again I felt sorry for the Donkeys.
We stopped during the climb for some breathers and I took the opportunity to take some pictures looking towards Inverie.
Standing stones on a ledgeWe rested on this ledge on the side of Luinne Bheinn before continung onward to the summit. It was a steep climb and it was with some relief that we eventually reached the top of Luinne Bheinn and settled for a spot of lunch. After lunch, we decided to venture to the east of the mountain for some views and I took more pictures from the top.
Back of BeyoindLooking over to Sgurr na Ciche from Luinne Bheinn in Knoydart Barrisdale from the top of Luinne Bheinn Luinne BheinnLuinne Bheinn is a steep sided mountain in Knoydart and is quite hard to get to! A lot of people call it loony bin instead of it proper name! There is a man standing at the RH side, he is just a little speck. The Rough Bounds of Knoydart
Bob took this video, I'm in it at the start...
We had met about six people up to now on this lovely May weekend and among the people we spoke to was a young woman in her twenties who was tackling the Mountains of Knoydart on her own.
After some exploration and speaking to another walker who suddenly “popped up” on the ridge edge that we were standing on, it was time to decide whether to continue to Meall Bhuidhe or to go back. As we discussed this a tiny figure stood on the summit of Meall Bhuidhe - they were very far away and that settled it, we were going back.
For the descent, we were going to follow the ridge as we did not fancy the steep route that we had used to climb up. Looking down the ridge, my face was ashen, the ridge was steep and it went on and on. We started downwards with Bob descending nonchalantly, whilst I jerkily shuffled downwards feeling uncomfortable with the situation in which I found myself. Bob got further and further ahead as I picked my way down, trying to keep three points of contact between my legs and walking sticks with the steep slope.
As a child and teenager, I would casually climb cliffs and heights did not bother me. I even climbed Maiden’s Rock in St Andrews as a 13-year-old, I was on my own then and just decided to have a go. I remember there being a tricky bit going up, so I tried hard to remember the moves required so I could reverse them going back down. I succeeded, luckily.
Now as a man in his 40s, whose main experience since his youth was sitting at a desk, my head for heights had long-deserted me so I was now going through a crisis. We finally reached some flat ground which was a huge relief for my knees and my newly realised fear of heights. As I looked ahead, Bob was reversing into place to clamber down something, he said something to me then disappeared from sight. As I reached this new obstacle, I looked down and (as Bob told me later) I turned milky white. My head for heights had a new challenge, this was a simple scramble, it was an earthen cliff with rocks sticking out, a simple case of clambering down a few easy footholds and handholds and then step off to my right to terra firma, no problem. There was a problem though for my Acrophobia, the problem was that the earthen cliff was above a much bigger drop, maybe 20, maybe 100 metres, it did not matter, all I knew was that it was a long way. I had found the loony bit of loony bin.
Bob was standing below looking up at me, he was maybe only 5 metres away. He repeated what he said to me earlier, to “not go down holding my walking sticks”. I obliged by throwing them to him; I didn't want to go down at all! I stood for a moment trying to think of an alternative, like a magic helicopter to appear and rescue me. I realised that there was no alternative, I took a deep breath and backed towards the drop so I could hang my feet over and start the scramble. It was no problem, I told myself, easy footholds, easy handholds, just lower myself down a couple of footholds, keep three points of contact and then step off...
Being a photographer I always insist on carrying my heavy tripod everywhere, even though I seldom use it. Bob had tried to discourage me from taking it on this expedition and he had even offered me a lend of his nifty lightweight and pocketable tripod. I stuck to my guns though, that tripod seemed too light, so if I wanted to bracket shots, it might move and the photo would be more difficult to process. So I strapped the tripod to the side of my backpack and I carried it with me, refusing to acknowledge the extra weight as being a contribution to my pain.
So there I was, clinging to footholds above a big drop and about to turn and step to safety. As I turned, my tripod, strapped to my pack, caught on the cliff and prevented me from turning. Bob looked all of sudden very concerned and stepped forward, but unable to help. By this time luckily, my fear had passed and I was 13 again. I simply clung on with only the one arm and managed to use the freed-up arm to move the tripod around the snag and then step on to safe ground. “I did warn you about that tripod”, Bob said. I agreed by nodding my head vigorously and I took one last look back at the big drop before we continued on our way. After my close encounter, the remaining steep descent was no longer of concern to me.
Around this time the young walker we’d met earlier caught up with us and overtook us, we finished the descent to the top of Nam Barrisdale only to find her there retrieving her backpack which she had hidden to ease the weight on the climb up Luinne Bheinn. We started to talk to her and she explained that she had spent the night in a tent on Ladhair Bheinn. She also explained that she had dropped her rucksack down a very steep slope of Ladhair Bheinn when she had taken it off to retrieve her map to navigate. In this remote country losing a rucksack with all the essentials in it is pretty serious, luckily she had managed to negotiate the steep slope to retrieve her rucksack, but her stove and some other items had come out of the rucksack and had continued their fall into an irretrievable place.
This walker (I never got her name) accompanied us back to Barrisdale where she too was going to camp and we offered her our stoves to allow her to cook her food. This confident young woman impressed me with the gumption and self-assurance she had to make this trip on her own. I was twenty years older than her and I was scared to come here on my own... Seeing the enjoyment she was having in roaming free in the hills, I was kicking myself for wasting 20 years of my life and not doing this, what I loved, earlier. This was the moment when I decided that I would go walking more regularly and I would stop being scared of being out alone.
We reached the campsite and bothy at Barrisdale and it was pretty busy, being the bank holiday weekend. As we sat in the bothy making our lunch many other walkers joined us. After dinner, we once more crowded in the bothy and listened to more tales of their exploits in many places like the Skye Ridge and other long distance walks. I was again impressed by the richness of the stories and the good humour and camaraderie of these people, who love the outdoors. Eventually, however, it was time to sleep.
In the morning we started to pack up after breakfast. Our temporary companion was first to pack up and say her goodbyes, I watched her leave Barrisdale with admiration for her and a bit of sadness for myself, having wasted my fittest years, my 20's and 30's, sitting on a couch with a fag in my mouth. We eventually started the long walk back to Kinlochhourn and as we left it started to rain. The rain got heavier and it hammered it down for the entire walk back. We reached the car soaking, but elated, the walk back had been much easier for me physically than the walk there and I’ve since found that after 3 days walking, it starts to get easier.
This was the first time I had been on a multi-day trip since my early twenties. I was in my mid-forties now and had suddenly remembered what I’d been missing. I’ve not looked back since and as I age, I hope that there are a few years of fitness left for me to enjoy more of these adventures. Knoydart was the kick-start that I had needed.