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Around the Rough Bounds of Ardgour and Moidart

© John Fleetwood

Ultra distance fiend John Fleetwood takes on a monster round through the uncompromising wilds flanking Loch Shiel - a 29-hour epic of 55 miles, with a staggering 20,300 feet of ascent. But if you're not up for doing it non-stop, the route also has the makings of a cracking backpacking journey.

For more of these antics check out John's blog Fleetwood's Long Mountain Challenges, from which this article was re-published.

After lockdown I was under no illusions as to my physical state, but a last-minute booking of a cottage at Morar led to a perusal of the map and the possibility of a very pleasing route around Loch Shiel caught my imagination. I couldn't resist and the idea took hold in my imagination: an attractive line over 10 Corbetts (Scottish hills over 2500 feet with a minimum ascent of 500 feet required on all sides) around a fjord-like loch with few road crossings, no out-and-backs and all in what I consider to be the roughest ground in Britain. This promised to be a true adventure requiring resolve, a certain doggedness and commitment. I was not to be disappointed.

It's a logical route that'd be three hefty days of walking for most mortals  © John Fleetwood
It's a logical route that'd be three hefty days of walking for most mortals

Yet, it hadn't seemed that way. The blue skies of Lockdown had long since been replaced by the more familiar grey of a Scottish summer, and it appeared as if my chance of trying the Round would be thwarted by a succession of Atlantic fronts - that is until the very last day of our week away when a window of opportunity presented itself. Thus I found myself amongst the Harry Potter fans at Glenfinnan on an overcast Friday morning, ready to do battle, not with forces of the dark side, but with the voracious undergrowth that abounds in these parts.

The monument gives the start a certain presence and sense of occasion. The grockles are soon left behind and the first challenge of the day lies ahead. In these hills there is a reversal of the normal order of things whereby the higher one goes, the tougher the terrain. Instead, the heights are a merciful relief from the impenetrable jungle of thigh deep tussocks and head high bracken, often with no semblance of a deer trod, let alone a path. But I am in luck: a rough forestry track leads through the lower slopes until I can cut up to the top of the forest on rough grass. There are no trods here, but the tussocks are of modest proportions. I gain height and soon I'm over the first knoll and onto the summit of the first proper hill - a Marilyn (hill of more than 150m of prominence) and a new one for me. I seem to be moving efficiently and I start to enjoy the sunshine which intermittently breaks through the clouds.

This is new territory for me - a mix of rough grass and equally rough slabs that punctuate the greenery. I take to the slabs at every opportunity, revelling in the friction. At times, the wetness on the North-facing aspects demands care, but nothing that causes undue concern. This is a wild, untamed quarter, far from the sheep-mown grass of the Lakeland fells or the more frequented ridges of the Munros, and for me, that's its appeal - an uncharted land of roughness.

It's rough country on Sgurr Ghiubhsachain  © John Fleetwood
It's rough country on Sgurr Ghiubhsachain
© John Fleetwood

I make good progress to the fourth major summit of the day where the logical ridge line is replaced by a plunging descent to the forest below. Predictably, the ground is composed of ankle-twisting tussocks and in the lower reaches, a blanket of bracken that hides the booby traps. I head down a ride in the trees to reach the river which is mercifully easy to cross. It's now sunny, but the pesky wind is making its presence felt. The slope above looks ominously steep but the ever-present tussocks ease to an attractive line of slabs which lead to the summit of  Carn na Nathrach. My legs are starting to feel the effect of such unforgiving terrain and the steep descent and subsequent ascent reinforces this gradual eroding of will and sinew.

But the next hill is a cracker -  Sgurr Dhomhnuill - a true cone of broken rocks and grass that stands proud above the wilds of Ardgour. For the preceding six days I've not seen a solitary person on the hills so I'm somewhat stunned to come across a couple of walkers at 4:45 pm. They are soon out of sight and I once more have only deer, frogs and birds for company. The bogginess of the land is evidenced by the copious amphibians that seemingly dart out of nowhere, frozen to the spot at my sudden arrival.

Sgurr Dhomhnuill is a highlight of the round  © John Fleetwood
Sgurr Dhomhnuill is a highlight of the round
© John Fleetwood

A long descent ensues to Strontian, but the second half is a delight, passing as it does through the natural woodland of Ariundle and taking the form of a good path - yes a path, a real path, then a road! It's now 6:30pm so I sit outside the cafe and visitor centre at Ariundle which surprisingly seems to be open. Yet I have no money so I just sit on the bench and munch my wraps. An elderly lady comes out to enquire after my health. I must look bad. I inform her of my route and plans for the rest of the evening and she clearly thinks I'm bonkers. She's probably not far wrong. I make my way up the small road toward Polloch and take a short-cut to the path up someone's drive. No-one seems to mind or at least, no rabid dog leaps out at me, so I can enjoy the mellow evening of soft sunlight casting a golden glow over the grassy hills.

The sunlight fades as I reach the moor and by the top of  Beinn Resipol, the mist rolls in and my hoped-for sunset fails to materialise. You can't manufacture magic moments, you can only make them more likely, and on this occasion it's not to be. Still, the evening remains fair and shafts of sun do break through the cloud base to light up the lush vegetation below. I slosh through the bog to my one and only point of support - a small bag of food and drink left by Alison. It is hanging on the door of the art gallery at Resipole. Apparently, the owner was interested to hear of my journey and even asked if anything needed putting in the fridge. Sadly, I didn't prepare anything that interesting and if I had, the midges would have ensured that my stay was brief.

Getting late in the day on the way to Strontian  © John Fleetwood
Getting late in the day on the way to Strontian
© John Fleetwood

Driven off by the wee beasties, I settled into a slow trudge along the road. This is a round where 10 miles of road is sandwiched between the rough bounds of Ardgour and Moidart. Like most hillrunners, I don't like road running and wondered whether it would spoil the round, but I have to say that in this instance it didn't. It's a Northwest Highland A road - i.e. single track - that winds around the coast and after 10:30pm only the bats and birds disturb the night air. I don't need a torch as there is light high in the sky and I can mosey along, lost in my thoughts and the rhythm of the miles. I settle into a slow pace but the hours don't drag as I've stablished a natural rhythm that fits the serenity of the night.

Nevertheless, I choose to cut the corner to save a further two miles of road and don my torch to cross the moorland to a path on the far side. An obstacle looms out of the darkness: a fence that looks ominously electric. I test it - no it doesn't seem to be switched on - and then OUCH! I examine the fence and the grass tufts sink under my weight. The top wire is sufficiently high that I could have a nasty end to my excursion, frying my vitals. I place my rucksack on the wire and lever myself carefully over the fence. 500m of bog leads to another fence where I take the same precautions, and a further 500m takes me to the final crossing. What are they keeping in here to justify such fortifications? I fail to discover anything worthy of the deterrents and pick up the path to the Moidart Estate Lodge. A sign indicates that the path goes to the right, but my map tells me that I need to cross the river on the obvious road past the lodge and I am in no mood to be faffing about in the pitch black trying to find a way across the river. Just five days previously I had wallowed in the bog trying to cross this same river without swimming and I was not got going to repeat the experience. Given that it's the wee small hours, I have no qualms about ignoring the private signs and crossing the bridge. No trolls emerge, nor does a hound of the Baskervilles leap out at me as I pass the lodge.

Parting mists on Beinn Odhar Mhor  © John Fleetwood
Parting mists on Beinn Odhar Mhor
© John Fleetwood

All is quiet in the glen, although the tussocks have re-emerged and the squelching has resumed. A faint sickness reminds me that it is unnatural to be slogging up a hill in the early hours, instead of being nicely tucked up in bed. It is here that I really start to labour, reliant on poles to prop me up and keep me moving forwards. On the way up  Rois-Bheinn mist starts to envelop the summits, the pesky wind resumes its play and the unmistakable pitter-patter of rain falls from a leaden sky.

Some mornings are glorious times to be alive. This one is not: the wind knocks me around a bit, it starts to rain in earnest and the dark of day replaces the dark of night. I am glad of my last-minute decision to pack my full waterproofs and gloves. These hills are more familiar, but today they are bare - stripped of colour and warmth - and the day enters a mechanical phase of plodding onwards in the hope that things will improve. Eventually, of course, they always do, and patience is rewarded with a break in the rain and the mist. This is clearly going to be a day of showers and bright intervals, which largely reflects my mood. A bright interval takes me over the narrow crest of  Druim Fiaclach which today is slippy and time consuming. If this ridge were in more accessible parts and 50m higher (Munro height) it would feature in many a guidebook, but here it is largely devoid of tracks, requiring the following of your nose around the little pinnacles and over linking necks. I take an age blundering down the awkward terrain to the col, conscious of the need to avoid a twisted ankle on the tussocks and slimy rocks.

Feeling a bit strung out on my final summit  © John Fleetwood
Feeling a bit strung out on my final summit
© John Fleetwood

If there's one thing these outings have taught me, it is patience and humility, virtues that don't come readily to me. These qualities are sorely needed, as the flow of the early stages of the round has been replaced by step-at-a-time plodding up and down mist-enshrouded expanses of steep hillside, punctuated by bands of rock breaking the monotony of the tussocks. An occasional stag leaps away, leaving me in awe of its agility and power, when all I can do is plod away. Still, the day has improved to sharp showers and sunny intervals, and the end is nearing. The route reaches a fitting climax on the rugged flanks of  Beinn Odhar Bheag and Mhor, where mist rolls up from Loch Shiel to dramatic effect. I celebrate with a last piece of flapjack in the rain (really living the high life), before contemplating the exceptionally rough descent to the loch.

Loch Shiel from Glenfinnan - note the midge blurs!  © John Fleetwood
Loch Shiel from Glenfinnan - note the midge blurs!
© John Fleetwood

I am grateful to have recced this section just two days earlier as it prepares me mentally for what is an exceptionally demanding, but engrossing, bit of the Highlands. It begins with a wild expanse of slabs, crags and the ever-present tussocks leading to a chain of enchanting lochans. More enticing slabs take one down to the Highland jungle. At first a way can be found beside a watercourse, but all too soon, there is no option but to cut through the head-high bracken and the thigh deep grass that hides inumerable holes and rocks. Despite the growing heat I keep my waterproof trousers on as a guard against the ticks and humbly stagger toward the lochside where temporary sanctuary can be found. I say temporary, because the shoreline cannot be followed in its entirety and a more direct line has to be taken through more bracken and deep grass to arrive somewhat dazed at the end of the track leading back to Glenfinnan.

At 2:20pm, Alison calls to me from the overflowing car park where I slump into a chair and attempt to effect a recovery for the long drive home.

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