We'd had a notion to find a route into Knoydart, that remote peninsula on Scotland's west coast, for a good number of years. There are no roads into it, though there is a small, but thriving, community at Inverie which can be reached by boat from Mallaig. That is the easy option, of course, but we don't do that...
...instead, we find ourselves one morning at the head of Loch Hourn - Kinloch Hourn - after a fairly lengthy drive from Invergarry in the Great Glen. The road ends here. There's a farm and the owner has clearly spotted the potential to create a small parking area and charge a modest sum to leave your car there. It was a sunny day and there were a couple of other cars but no sign of their owners.
The plan, then, is to head half way along the southern shore of Loch Hourn to Barrisdale and then take the track over the hill to drop down towards Inverie. We were going to be away for three or four days and Iain and Keith had opted for rucksacks. I usually go for panniers but for a trip like this I thought that they would be too much of an encumbrance. On balance I reckon that, unless you're camping, a rucksack is the better choice.
In any event, the track along the side of Loch Hourn is nothing if not narrow. It's also overgrown in places and there are steep ascents and descents as you force your way along it for the nine or ten unrelenting kilometres until you reach Barrisdale. This is hard work and you will need a strong sense of humour, so be warned! So little of it is rideable that your best plan is to take the pedals off before they batter your shins black and blue. And, yes, it is that bad...;-(
So there's some relief as you reach the jeep track at Barrisdale. Pause to admire the situation because this visually stunning area is becoming about as remote as it gets on the UK mainland. The way onward is upward as you head south to the col at Mam Barrisdale. To the west are soaring ridges leading towards Ladhaar Bheinn, a Munro and the highest point in Knoydart.
There are still 10 or 12 km to go to Inverie but now at least you're heading generally downhill and the track improves as you go. Unless you're camping, you really need to have booked your accommodation in advance as it can be quite scarce at busier times of the year. We were staying in a hostel just a short walk from the centre of the village.
Although the boat arrives every day from Mallaig, you can't help feeling the remoteness of the place. There is, however a pub and restaurant so meals are available here if required.
At this point we pause and, for the benefit of the unwary, feel obliged to issue the customary Midge Alert. You really do not want to come to Knoydart without suitable protection and in case anyone is tempted to ignore that advice, I simply point out that Knoydart is well known as the official training ground for the fearsome 'Skye midge' - it's where they come for their away-days and this fact should not be lightly dismissed. Bring a midge hood at the very least and keep it handy as you may need it at short notice!
Inverie is on the north shore of Loch Nevis and you can get the boat directly across to Mallaig but on a couple of days or so each week, the boat takes an extended route via Tarbet and other remote settlements further up the loch.
At Tarbet there is a short crossing over a small col which brings you out on the north shore of Loch Morar, the deepest loch in the UK. We took this option and having sailed up Loch Nevis from Inverie, we found ourselves scrambling down from the boat into a small dory to get us to the shore at Tarbet. The bikes were lowered down to us, and also with us in the dory was a sprightly elderly woman who, it turns out, is the housekeeper with the weekly supplies for a man in his eighties who lives alone in this remotest of places.
We get ourselves plus bikes and bags onto the small slipway and wave goodbye to the boat. The elderly housekeeper makes her way along the shore to the cottage and we are alone. Is this route along Loch Morar navigable? We have no idea, but the boat has gone and we have no choice but to suck it and see.
Over the col, then, and the brooding Loch Morar soon comes into view. We reckon it's 9 or 10 km before we'll reach a jeep track and then the surfaced road at Bracorina. As it turns out, the track along the loch has some surprisingly good sections and while it's not rideable all the way, it is full of character and a superb place to be. The track improves all the time and we eventually hit the road from where it's not too far to Mallaig where we'd booked a B&B.
Mallaig is a busy working fishing port and has all the facilities you would expect. The Fishermen's Mission has a good reputation for inexpensive meals and there's no shortage of alternatives. It's linked by an incredibly scenic rail route to Fort William and that could form part of your travel plans if necessary. We are aiming to do a loop through Skye, back across to the mainland and then return to the car at Kinloch Hourn.
The next day sees us on the ferry to Armadale, on Skye, from where we have a leisurely jaunt along the road towards Broadford before taking the less-than-leisurely road up to the col at the head of Glen Arroch. We catch our breath before relishing the roll down to Kylerhea from where a small ferry carries you over the narrows to Glenelg. The ferry is unusual in that the handful of cars that it can carry drive onto it and then the whole deck is rotated so that they can drive off at the other side without needing to turn round or reverse. The future of this ferry, however, has been in doubt but as at 2007 it is still running.
Glenelg is a small village with a shop and hotel/pub. It's fairly inaccessible being reached only by road over the appallingly steep Mam Ratagan pass from Glen Shiel. If the ferry closes down, Glenelg will be even further isolated.
We stay overnight in a B&B and next morning we follow the tarred road south and round the coast to its end at Corran on the north shore of Loch Hourn. And it's at Corran, just past Arnisdale, that we come across the delights of Sheena's Tea Hut; not the kind of tea room you might imagine, and you really shouldn't expect the delicate aroma of Lapsang Souchong served in porcelain china. Sheena's is a much more down to earth place - more in the nature of a garden shed, in fact - but none the worse for that.
Suitably fortified, we take the track leading up Glen Arnisdale. The going is easy for a while but there's a real brute of a push up the loose and steep track before you reach easier ground towards Dubh Lochain. It's singletrack from here but mostly rideable as, once again, you can't fail but to be impressed at the isolation and grandeur of your surroundings.
Our track merges with another one from Glen More to the west and it now threads its way eastwards following a line of pylons for the most part. Loch Hourn comes into view again far below and you'll need to look out as the track soon drops down to Kinloch Hourn at an alarmingly steep rate in places.
A superb trip but much less feasible if the Glenelg/Kylerhea ferry is not operating - the detour via Kyle of Lochalsh and Glen Shiel would be a lengthy one, but I dare say it's not out of the question if you're really determined...
john b, galashiels