The UK’s Last Remaining Wilderness

A hike and SUP adventure to discover Knoydart, a wild peninsula in the Scottish Highlands

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Feature type Story

Read time 8 mins

Published Nov 16, 2022

Author Aaron Rolph

Photographer Aaron Rolph

Aaron Rolph Chamonix-based mountain athlete and photographer, Aaron’s on a mission to showcase the best of homegrown adventures through the British Adventure Collective. Aaron spends his winters skiing big mountains in the Alps and summers mountain biking, running or paddling. He dreams big with regular endurance challenges and his camera usually comes along for the ride.

Considering the industrial, agricultural advances of recent centuries, alongside sharp population growth, it’s hardly surprising that barely a corner of our densely populated islands remain untouched. Is there even any real wilderness left in the United Kingdom? To find out, Aaron Rolph headed to the Knoydart Peninsula in Scottish Highlands to an area known as the Rough Bounds.

Originating from the Gaelic words for heaven and hell respectively, the poetically named Loch Hourn and Loch Nevis, sandwich the Knoydart peninsula – an area considered by many to be the UK’s last remaining wilderness. Notorious for its remote, harsh terrain, the interior of the peninsula’s is rugged and largely pathless, boasting several notable mountains including no less than four Munros and six Corbetts. Ed Ghilks and I set aside a long weekend to see what this forgotten land had to offer.

Opting for a human-powered adventure, this was the perfect opportunity to put new lightweight touring paddleboards from Indiana to the test. It seemed to me that to really understand Knoydart’s remoteness and unique character, we’d need to navigate the dramatic sea lochs and brave big hikes deep into the hills. The paddleboards would mean we could travel by land, sea and loch not tying us exclusively to either.

The wind and rain is pelting us in the face while we battle against a never-ending treadmill of moving water

After a solid six-hour drive north of the Scottish border, we arrive late at the boundary of the charity-owned estate, snatching just a few hours sleep in the van before paddling out at first light.

Now well into September, our high hopes of missing midge season were soon dashed, however the lack of wind also brings with it wonderful paddling conditions on flat water. The peaks tower above us on all sides as we navigate down the meandering Loch Hourn. Predictably, the serene paddling doesn’t last long and a headwind soon picks up just as the tide turns against us. We’re paying the price for our slow start this morning.

The paddleboards are proving an excellent tool for navigating these remote waters, but make no mistake, wind and tides require careful planning and can soon make things very difficult.

Before long, wind and rain is pelting us in the face while we battle against a never-ending treadmill of moving water. We turn a corner though, and in classic Scottish fashion, the clouds part, the sun comes out and we enjoy a lunch on what feels like a totally different day. 

Packing our boards and paddling kit onto our backs, we set out hiking into the hills. The weight of all of our gear certainly doesn’t feel insignificant but in time we get used to the loads and reach our camp spot on the high pass.

We’re not quite satisfied though and head out to bag the highest Munro in Knoydart, Ladhar Bheinn (1020m), which fortunately is nearby to our camp.

The approach is a predictably rugged, pathless bog and with night fast approaching it’s taking longer than we expected and it’s clear we’re not going to manage to scramble to the top of this technical summit and back all before dark. Having hit some bad luck in the hills lately, I was dead set on climbing this thing. It’s quite possible of course that I may never find myself back here again.

The evening light is totally mesmerising. The golden sun gleams through the dappled cloud cover, vibrantly illuminating the mountains that soar right out of the sea itself. Pushing hard, I reach the summit and make it down as the last of the daylight dwindles – an evening never to be forgotten.

The next morning, we get an early start descending down the valley to Inverie, the only settlement in Knoydart: a boat ride or a 26km hike away from the nearest road out. The small outpost, with little more than a row of housing sitting on the sea edge, is as charming as it is remote. It also boasts mainland Britain’s most remote pub, which we soon found. As much as we’d have liked to stick around for a third beer, instead we prepare for the next phase of our multidiscipline adventure, which if our estimations of the wind prove correct, should see us pushed down Loch Nevis with not much effort at all. 

The blustery tailwind and favourable tides allow us to pop the small sails we’d brought with us on to our paddleboards. We sit back and enjoying the ride as nature does the work. The tide race sees us hurtling through narrow channels, soon spotting Sourlies bothy, our destination for the evening. As we approach, we spot a few visitors who have already checked into the basic shelter, a bit of a surprise given our remote location.

It certainly feels like the weather is changing and we’re pleased to get out of the elements for the evening. Getting the fire on we call it an early night. 

When we wake, the air is thick and the rain persists. The hills are shrouded with heavy fog and at high tide our coastal path is mostly underwater meaning we’re in and out of the sea as we circumnavigate the rocky coastline.

We were expecting a tough hike today and Knoydart delivers on its savage reputation. The hiking is tough, steep and boggy – going all the way up to our thighs at times. After a mentally taxing and physically grueling six hours of hiking, we’re very relieved to get the weight off our backs and paddling on our boards to finish this wild loop. By now the conditions have deteriorated into a full-blown storm and it’s one of those days where the only sensible place to be would be inside with a cup of tea in front of the fire. But we were a long way from that dream, battling the elements in heavy wind and rain.

Thankfully, the gales on Loch Quoich are due east so the colossal waves it brings with it are at least pushing us in the right direction, albeit making for some very technically-demanding paddling. 

It’s one of those days where the only sensible place to be would be inside with a cup of tea in front of the fire. But we were a long way from that dream

Finally pulling up in a muddy inlet which will in turn take us back to our starting point, it feels like we’ve been into battlehese past few days, but in the best of ways. To feel small under the powerful hand of nature is to feel alive. We truly got to experience how inhospitable Knoydart can be at times.

This trip was designed to see how wild the UK can get, and to test SUP touring in the most extreme of environments. After three days, we hiked and paddleboarded a total of 80km, paddled three lochs and even climbed Knoydart’s highest Munro. It’s amazing to see what you can do with a lightweight SUP and a load of gritty determination. It proved to be the perfect way to explore this remote part of Scotland, which in my eyes, can undoubtedly be considered true wilderness. 

You can find Aaron and Ed’s full route via FATMAP here.

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