The Big Routes: Knoydart's Rough Bounds

© Dan Bailey

If you thrive on challenge, the traverse of the great ridge from Gairich to Sgurr na Ciche must be one of the best wild walks in the Highlands, says Dan Bailey. No half measures here...

You'll have heard Knoydart referred to as Scotland's last wilderness. It's not of course. Remoter and quieter places than this can easily be found, and most of them - as I'm forever fond of saying - don't have a pub. But the romantic misnomer does at least reflect the area's famous awkwardness, as the mainland peninsula that can only be reached overland by leg power. The gnarled mountains en route feel wilder and even less accommodating than the rugged haven they guard. All ice-scoured rock and tussocky bog, this is the true heartland of the Rough Bounds, and the last word in West Highland impenetrability.

Sgurr na Ciche from Sgurr Mor  © Dan Bailey
Sgurr na Ciche from Sgurr Mor
© Dan Bailey

Since journeys here tend to be arduous whatever you do, I aimed to play to the strength of the area with a long multi-peak traverse. One in particular I'd been saving for a stonking weather window. It's worth a wait.

Fans of uncompromising ground are in for a treat. The clue is in the name: You don't come to the Rough Bounds for an easy ride

Between lonely Glen Kingie and the rather forbidding expanse of Loch Cuaich (formerly Quoich) a single great ridge runs east-to-west, linking the outlying dome of Gairich with Sgurr na Ciche, the spectacular craggy cone at the fulcrum of the Rough Bounds, via a few too many knobbled summits and tauntingly-low cols along the way. You can tell it's a classic just from the map, but thanks perhaps to fiddly access, and the inevitability of a fight, it's not liable to be mobbed. Contrast that with the nearby Munro-fest of the South Cluanie Ridge, a walk in the sights of every aspiring big-router, but not one to pick for solitude. Considerably harder than this, the Round Bounds Ridge - if it needs a name - would be tough in a single day.

It's probably not always this easy to cross the River Kingie  © Dan Bailey
It's probably not always this easy to cross the River Kingie
© Dan Bailey

To make the best of near-endless June light I opted instead for a two dayer with a mid-way summit bivvy. Inevitably that meant a heavier pack, something that was soon making itself felt on the late morning uphill plod out of Glen Dessarry. Up on the wide bealach between Fraoch Bheinn and Sgurr Mhurlagain track gave way to bog, crunchy underfoot after several dry weeks. Heat was shimmering in the wide emptiness of Glen Kingie, and the haze on Gairich, my first summit goal, made it look deceptively distant. After a quick stop to check out the brilliant Kinbreack bothy, I waded the river, sluggish in its sun-warmed bed.

On Sgurr an Fhuaran, high above Glen Kingie  © Dan Bailey
On Sgurr an Fhuaran, high above Glen Kingie
© Dan Bailey

Already salt-crusted and a bit frazzled, I climbed to the low col that emphatically separates Gairich from the rest. It's not exactly low-hanging fruit. But, spurred by an urge for completeness, I stashed the overnight pack at a burn and went looking for the ascent trail promised by my map. This proved to be one of those miraculous old stalker's paths still found in out-of-the-way corners of the West Highlands. Hand built in days before diggers, when paying clients weren't afraid of exercise, its grassy zigzags made light(ish) work of a slope that would otherwise be a total grind. They do not make them like they used to.

Though less than a couple of hours, my round trip seemed to have drained the enthusiasm tank, and the long sweltering plod onto the start of the ridge proper at Sgurr an Fhuarain took some character. A pleasant grassy crest curved on down to a col, where a father and son were setting up camp, having kayaked in across Loch Cuaich. In weather like this the amphibious approach has a lot going for it, an option these hills do particularly lend themselves to.

Gairich and the Loch Cuaich hills from Sgurr an Fhuarain  © Dan Bailey -
Gairich and the Loch Cuaich hills from Sgurr an Fhuarain
© Dan Bailey -

Water is often an issue on a high traverse, but from Sgurr Mor onwards this route has the occasional sludgy pool to save dropping into a corrie in search of a drink. The map marks one such on the ascent of the big peak, from which my filter managed to suck something more or less potable out of a soup of peat and tadpoles; by day two its pores would be clogged.

If Carlsberg made bivvy sites...  © Dan Bailey
If Carlsberg made bivvy sites...
© Dan Bailey

Up on the airy top of Sgurr Mor, a steady midge-beating breeze and long shadows suggested I'd found my spot to bivvy. This is a grand viewpoint, with a mountain-crowded horizon in every direction, and the sawtoothed skyline yet to traverse leading out west to the emphatic end point of Sgurr na Ciche. There's really no time and place to beat a northern peak on a June evening.

Sun sets behind Sgritheall  © Dan Bailey -
Sun sets behind Sgritheall
© Dan Bailey -

My high altitude sunset stretched on and on into the night, and just when it seemed there might be something approaching a gloaming, the moon rose bright enough to cast shadows. Darkness didn't happen. When I peered out of my cocoon some time around 3am the eastern sky was already gaining its morning flush.

There's nothing like a long and arduous walk in expansive surroundings to rinse your mind clean 

An inversion had set in, and while I sipped coffee in early sunlight the world to the south was drowned beneath thick white fog. The Rough Bounds Ridge formed a shoal against the cloud-sea, which broke on the summits, sending little waves and tendrils north towards Loch Cuaich. Already warm by seven, it would have been a great morning for lazing about. But routes like this don't walk themselves, so I packed, slowly, before descending into the murk.

Early morning on Sgurr Mor  © Dan Bailey -
Early morning on Sgurr Mor
© Dan Bailey -

The first minor top stayed cool below cloud level, but the sea was ebbing as the sun rose, and as the distant view came into focus the day steadily built into another dazzler. On the ascent to Sgurr nan Coireachan, big schisty slabs offered some optional hands-on fun to take my mind off yet another sweaty climb. If you like elevation this is a route that keeps on giving, and fans of uncompromising ground are in for a treat too. Westwards from here the rock quotient just seems to increase all the way. I met my first human of the day on Sgurr nan Coireachan, and though these are Munros, a category enjoying something of a post-Covid boom, it says something for the inaccessibility of the Rough Bounds that there would only be a handful more.

Heading for Garbh Chioch Mhor  © Dan Bailey
Heading for Garbh Chioch Mhor
© Dan Bailey

Yet another deep col is followed by a lengthy trudge onto the airy Garbh Chioch ridge, where an old drystone wall weaves an improbable course over the outcrops, and bouldery bits provide some easy scrambling. I'd started at a car park that seems close to the edge of the modern world, and was still heading away from it. There's no denying that this western extremity of the range feels isolated, and would be a serious place in wild weather.

All good things come to an end, and dumping the pack with relief I made my final climb through crags and scree onto Sgurr na Ciche. High point of the range, the climax that my route had been building towards all the way, this sharp rocky peak may also be the best viewpoint of the lot, a vertical kilometre above the fjord of Loch Nevis, with Eigg and Rum floating offshore.

Sgurr na Ciche from Garbh Choich Mhor - no easy routes here  © Dan Bailey -
Sgurr na Ciche from Garbh Choich Mhor - no easy routes here
© Dan Bailey -

I could have sat there thinking very little all afternoon. There's nothing like a long and fairly arduous walk in expansive surroundings to rinse your mind clean of quotidian concerns; in fact I know no more effective way to rise above the humdrum. But at the back of my brain a vague memory bubbled. Something about Dad's taxi service and an evening pickup. Was that today? What day even was it? A few hard hours left on foot, an hour's drive along the Loch Arkaig singletrack rollercoaster, then a couple more on real roads home. I could make it if I applied myself. Between summit and car: a spectacular boulder-choked gully descent; a bog-bash into the wild pass of the Mam Cloich Airde; a winding footpath down Glen Dessarry; and a final march along gravel tracks in the oven of the afternoon. Twelve or 13 kilometres all told, with a pocket of peanuts and a squashed cereal bar to get me there, and a can of Irn Bru no doubt as scalding as tea waiting in the glove box by way of carrot. The clue is in the name: You don't come to the Rough Bounds for an easy ride.

Sgurr na Ciche from Sgurr Mor  © Dan Bailey -
Sgurr na Ciche from Sgurr Mor
© Dan Bailey -

The route

Distance 42.20 km 

Total ascent 3,399m

Time 14 – 16 hours

Start/finish Car park at the west end of the single track Loch Arkaig road. Allow 1 hour for the 20 mile-or-so drive from Spean Bridge.

Maps OS Landranger (1:50,000) 33; Harvey Mountian Map (1:40,000) Knoydart, Kintail & Glen Affric

Terrain A mix of estate tracks, hill paths and some pathless sections. Rough going underfoot, with boggy glens and steep, rocky ground on the hills. Some occasional easy scrambling. One notable river crossing in Glen Kingie, which may be thought- provoking in wet weather.

Seasonal variations A major winter expedition likely to take at least two days, and which would have a serious and remote feel.

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