ACTIVE OUTDOORS: On the high road above Glen Shiel
The South Glen Shiel Ridge is a rare treat for Munro baggers – seven of the 3000ft-plus mountains on one long ridge that can be walked in the space of a long day.
During the shorter daylight hours – and particularly now the hills have a coating of snow – it’s a different beast, though.
Years ago, during a particularly long cold spell of winter, I spent a long weekend in Kintail and failed to even get onto the ridge, never mind along it, as the snow was that unstable.
Since then, I’d been saving the full ridge walk for a beautiful summer’s day, but it never seemed to tie in with the rare free date in my diary, so I decided to just tackle half of it for now. I still plan to return in the summer and do the whole thing – and hopefully get a view at some point that time!
Even splitting the route, logistics necessitate either two cars, a bike ride back up the glen or timing your walk with the buses from Skye. Ewan and I opted for the former and met at the end of the track just east of the Cluanie Inn – there’s space for a few cars here near the start of the track that is signed on faded rights of way markers to Tomdoun and Loch Quoich (Cuaich).
Conditions were pretty grim, drizzle and cloud clinging to the mountains right down to the base of their lowest slopes. This was going to be a damp day…
We organised our gear and headed down the glen to where we had decided to start the walk, at the layby opposite the beginning of a path up to Maol Chinn-dearg (NH 044114). Full waterproofs were donned before we set off along the route.
It wasn’t long before we came across our first challenge – crossing the in-spate Allt Coire a’ Chuil Droma Bhig, the burn that runs down from the coire below what would be our first Munro of four on this outing.
After walking upstream a short way, a couple of leaps were required to get across, then we cut up a steep slope to regain the stalkers’ path that zigzags to climb the ridge easily. It was something of a long slog up Druim Eirecheanach in the dreich conditions, with little to see beyond the way ahead.
The ridge levels then steepens a couple of times before reaching the grassy summit of Maol Chinn-dearg (981m) which translates as the bald red head. With no view from the top and the breeze now picking up, this was no time to be hanging about, so we just kept walking past the cairn, heading south-east along the ridge now.
After an initial descent, the ridge rises over a top before a steeper, rocky drop to the bealach, from where there is a path that leads south into Easter Glen Quoich. Today it looked like a route down into more cloud.
The climb to the next Munro, Aonach air Chrith (1021m), is probably the most interesting stretch on this half of the ridge. It follows a path through rocks, with some very easy scrambling called for as you pass by the edge of the cliffs that plunge down to the coire below.
The nature of the walk soon changes, however, as the ridge turns right from the summit cairn of this highest Munro of the whole ridge. A path eases its way down to the bealach then meanders gently along the edge of Coire an t-Slugain to the north.
It’s easy to see here why in summer the ridge is also popular with hill runners, who pick off the summits with relative ease having gained the initial height at one end or the other.
We eased our way to Druim Shionnach (987m) – the ridge of the foxes – and there was some hint of brightness above the cloud. As we continued eastward towards our final summit, we finally got some brief views down into Glen Quoich and to the lochan nestled in the bowl of Coire nan Leac.
But it wasn’t until after Creag a’ Mhaim (947m) that we could see any real distance. Making our way down the tight zigzags of the stalkers’ path, the old road to Tomdoun snaked away towards the now flooded Loch Loyne.
This old route, part of the road to the isles, has long fascinated me. Until the loch was flooded for the hydro scheme in 1957, the Thomas Telford-designed road followed the route of an ancient drove road, crossing the Loyne by a stone bridge.
Replacing the bridge with a viaduct was apparently considered, but the road was also frequently impassable in winter, which was maybe taken into account when the alternative route (now the A87) was created. These days, when the water level is low, it is still possible to see the remains of the old stone bridge and complete the route to Tomdoun on foot, though it is a long trek with some logistics required at either end.
When our path down off the ridge finally met the old road – now part of the Cluanie Estate – Ewan and I took out our flasks for a rest and some refreshment by the wayside, something many a drover must have done back in their day. The nearby Cluanie Inn started life as a staging post on this drove road before being developed into a kingshouse when the king’s highway was later built through Glen Shiel.
Our route turned left now to follow the long and winding road back to Cluanie. It’s a good six-plus kilometres – a bit of a slog in winter walking boots – along the road, crossing the Allt Giubhais by a lovely stone bridge then passing the turn off to Cluanie Lodge.
It was something of a relief to finally get back to the car and change into dry socks and shoes after a march over these magnificent Munros. Hopefully next time there will be more to see.
South Glen Shiel Ridge – eastern end
Distance 12 miles / 20km
Terrain Mountain and ridge paths, estate road; navigation skills required
Start/finish Layby 3km east of Cluanie Inn/finish at track close to the inn
Map OS Landranger 33; OS Explorer 414; Harvey Superwalker, Kintail
A dreich day on the South Glen Shiel Ridge