Two (and a bit) Days in Scotland: Another change of Plan

I wake surprised that the night didn't turn into the midgy hell I'd expected. I'd slept in a headnet and it'd been cold enough to keep me burrowed down inside my bag. Midges don't burrow. Now though, there's no sign of wind and I lie watching the shimmering grey cloud circling my breathing hole in anticipation of their morning feast. My anticipation of an easy breakfast is quelled even before I unzip. When I do finally pluck up the courage to get up every movement that has me brushing against the tarp leaves a black patch of dead insects pasted to dew wet nylon. Some small compensation for my second start in a row without breakfast.

A few minutes of frantic activity sees me moving off down the path towards the lodge. We're on the brink of stalking season but if there's anybody home they're not advertising it. Startled by a clatter to my right I see a young game bird frantically flapping wings and legs to put distance between me and it. Right there, almost under my feet, is a feeder. Looking further along the track I see more birds, tens of pheasant, scurrying left and right over the path. I move on, not wanting to disturb them further but a group keep their feet firmly on the ground, and run along just in front of me. A tactic that this far from wise Asian import would be wise to adopt in the coming months. In guess that these woods, they're right to be nervous.

I'm still herding pheasant as I pass the lodge and its collection of lead-torn deer effigies. Although I'm now on a wide vehicle track I'm glad to put that place behind me. Rightly or wrongly it doesn't sit well with me. I don't buy into the monarch of the glen tale. The inherited, heavy burden of responsibility spin. The one that has the good Laird, a custodian, struggling to make ends meet and fighting to maintain landscape, cultural heritage and the way of life of a bunch of rosy cheeked dependants. I can't see past the forced clearances, the subsidies, the privilege, the wealth. Though I've enjoyed the remoteness and solitude of this fine valley, and though I'm sure there are good honest people at work here, I can't help but feel like I've crossed the lines.

I pass Hallater, now half swathed in mist, secretly happy I'm not struggling down it. I know already that much of this mornings work will be for little gain on the ground. I need to cross the river, now, though nice to look at, broad, deep and fast flowing, and to do so will have to walk four or more kilometers down stream only to have to walk half of that distance back up the opposite bank. Still, it's easy walking on a fine morning and, by the time I've reached the footbridge and am standing, alternately swatting midges and spooning muesli, I can legitimately claim to have done five kilometers before breakfast. I also know, with reasonable certainty, that I'll have today's route to myself. A rare pleasure for a resident of the most densely populated corner of Western Europe.

After picking my way back through the mostly sodden ground of the opposite bank I'm faced with a choice. A choice between two paths, both marked on the map but described by Turnbull as “non existent” and “largely fictitious”. I choose to follow the kinglass a little further and to turn up the stream, the Alt Dhoireann, and thus for non existent. The alternative, to break right looks like a, more difficult uphill slog over rough ground.

The going is slow as I find myself picking my way through wet, knee high vegetation and patchy woodland. There's indeed no path on the ground but a hotchpotch of deer trodden tracks occasionally provides something heading my way and a useful respite. The cloud of butterflies flitting up around my feet provide an interesting distraction. It's a lovely little valley. In it's lower reaches carrying a narrow race of white water through a deep gorge decorated with contorted ash. Higher up, opening out and curving, gradually further South, hiking up it's skirts in a slow reveal of the Coire Dhoireann.

It's been dry all morning, but the air is now heavy with intent. As I approach the head of the valley rain starts to fall to the accompaniment of thunder. I work my way through the broken ground of the Coire, suited up against the rain, letting my head steer me further to the right than my gut wants to take me. At about the 500m line I find myself on the faint zigzags of the old stalkers path. So faint as to be practically invisible at distance but every bit as useful as Turnbull had promised. The carry me easily up the last 100m of steep to the pass.

The Lairig Dhoireann is an atmospheric little place. A moonscape of rock and water, on another day, with less wind and clear skies, it would make a good camp. Today, scoured by wind, and charged by cloud, it's less inviting. The rumble of thunder makes it less inviting still. Now comes the last of my choices. From a warm sandy beach the short climb onto Meall Copagach and the long ridge onto Eunaich had looked like a no brainer. Once on Ben Eunaich it would be rude not to carry on all the way to Ben Chochuill. From there I could drop of f to pick up the a service track and enjoy an easy walk out. That warm beach is a long way from here. Now I decide against spending the rest of my day being blindfolded and beaten and instead to drop straight down the other side of the pass. The plan had been to taste two great ridges in two days. Instead I've ended up, for the most part, following watercourses. Today, I get to walk the length of two Alt Dhoirreans in a single day. Today I get to practice the art of letting go once more. Letting go and enjoying what's left over.

The walk down, like the walk up had been, is more or less pathless. It feels longer in the legs than it looks on the map but other than that, glowered down upon by Coire na Garbhlaich to my right and with Beinn Lurachan angling downwards on my left, it's navigationally simple; as long as I'm going downhill I'm going in the right direction. I descend slowly but surely. At first head on into a driving rain. Later, as the rain abates, more comfortably and with better views of Glen Strae as it slowly opens up in front of me. As conditions improve my focus moves from outwards to inwards and with that comes a growing awareness that I'm running on empty. Standing with my back to the wind, looking back up at the pass, I fuel up on smoked sausage, rye bread and cool highland water. Small and welcome pleasures.

I enjoy the last leg, walking dry and carefree, no plans, no pressure. A few minutes of confusion, trying to find a way through the rearranged fences and tumbledown styles of the old right of way, has me unholstering my map one more time but it's short lived and I'm soon, too soon, pounding the track that takes me to the road that takes me to a hot shower, hot food and a bed. As I approach Loch Awe I glance at my watch. It's forty six hours since I stepped, swearing, from the bus. Forty Six hours, 50km and 1500m of up. Time and distance,  it's all the same.


Two (and a bit) Days in Scotland: A change of Plan

Glen Shira

As the bus accelerates past my stop the first drops of rain strike the widow. Staggering forward along the aisle, monkey baring between the seats I swear under my breath. Driver and weather are both on the receiving end of my silent tirade. I'm still swearing as I pull on waterproofs and rearrange my pack at the head of the ski centre road. Glencoe! Thirteen kilometres past bridge of Orchy! THIRTEEN!

 West Highland Way

I vent my frustration on an unintended section of the West Highland Way. Walking fast, stomping hard, pummelling the ground with my feet and the air with my hands. That'll teach em! It takes a few, minutes or kilometres, it's all the same, to cool my head. A head, as ever, too full of plans and preconceptions of where I ought to be. Immersion is gradual but inevitable. The rain stops and the last few kilometres are a pleasure. Warm evening sun. Rannoch glistening over my left shoulder. Stands of postcard pine cutting poses to please the tourists. Easy path down a gentle incline all the way to Victoria bridge. Both behind and before me a life of privilege. Problems that aren't problems. Thirteen extra kilometres but bonus kilometres every one.


With promise of better still to come I turn West following the sun along the Abhainn Shira . It's a gentle evening. Warm sunshine paints l long views of green grass, silvery stream and blue grey mountain, with a soft light. I walk, in just a shirt, accepting that I won't quite get there but sensing that where I do get to will be just as fine.

 Clashgour Hut

A stream to soon, at the Green tin hut, an echo of community long past, I turn right again. Uphill now. First along the burn, then across it over the shoulder and along the spur. Every step upwards. Tired legs carry me until they won't carry me further. Legs , lungs and available daylight decide where I'll camp. I pitch my tarp at the 600m line and, with a view across to where I should have been, I fill my stomach with hot food and crawl, fully clothed, into my bag.

Bivvy Stob Ghabhar

I wake in the early hours and, poking my face out into the wet hell barrelling through my tarp, realise I'd pitched too hurriedly. I promise myself, that the next time I pitch in the highlands I'll point the big end to the East, then zip up my bivvy and lie back down. I sleep warm and dry and then lie around, still warm and dry, waiting for a fairer wind. It doesn't come. The MWIS had been right. They'd said my weather window was a week earlier when I'd been lying on sand watching the kids play with buckets and spades. With reluctance, I peel off my bag, pack and continue uphill. Breakfast will have to wait.

Old Boundary Markers Stob Ghabhar

Plodding uphill, squinting into swirling grey, looking for my handrail, I wonder what the day will bring. One top for certain. Stob Ghabar is in easy reach and once I find the line of the old fence unmissable. The rest of the traverse, West over the Scotsman and on to Tri Tighearnan, doesn't come with guarantees. The up and down will be a challenge for my desk bound legs and whilst, for the most part, navigable in mist, there's that bit between Meall Odhar and Nan Eun. The bit that sits, unhappily incomplete at the top corners of my double sided OS sheet. The bit I want to take a good look at before stepping off. First the one I'm on and then we'll see.

Leaning into the slope and into a wind that forces cold unpleasantness into every crack in my clothing I approach, and pass without stopping my first Munro of the summer. Following the line of rusty fence posts I drop off, just North of West, along the narrow grassy ridge to Sron a' Ghearrain where I swing a little to the North and, reluctantly, let go of the fence line. Walking into the white, trying to gauge distance overground and feel the slope under my feet I, guess it's time and swing due West once more to find the little saddle and make a call. I'm not happy. Just a couple of kilometres more of this, doable but relatively devoid of fun, will put me on the edge of the Ordanance surveys black hole. I briefly consider setting up my shelter, lighting my stove and waiting it out but, I need to get much further West today if I'm going to catch my train the day after tomorrow. To my left is the first of my easy bailouts. Easy in descent but a difficult decision. Linschooten says the art of this business lies in letting go. With her words resonating in my head I start down to see if I'm up to that task.

Mam Nan Sac

First though I have to get down. Aiming just left of straight downhill I walk blind, hoping to pick up the zig zags of the stalkers path, hoping I was indeed at the saddle, hoping I'm not too far left and too close to the boulders and crags already. I'm almost back at the 600m line before the lights come back on an Meall an Araich jumps out to surprise me. The day ahead suddenly looks very different. No more of that glorious run of high ridge but instead a valley walk. Further along the Abhainn Shira and over the head into Kinglass. Not my staple, I wonder how it will sit on my stomach. I pocket my compass.

I follow the path along the Allt Ghabhar and pause for breakfast. I'm just a kilometre and half across from where I slept and that has me worrying about schedules. Plans for a decent break and hot food are broken, first by midges, then by rain. After a quick drink and muesli bar I'm moving again and am soon stepping out along the well trodden track that'll carry me, I anticipate quickly, as far West as I care to go.

Glen Kinglass Scottish

Bar the river crossings, the rest of the day becomes an easy stroll. I'm dealt a little rain and a little wind but to balance it out I get a bit of bone-warming sunshine. It's a varied walk sometimes next to river, past the occasional ruins of long cleared communities and skirting a scattering of lochs and lochans, every one a gem.

 Loch Dochard

Loch Dochard is a highlight, fixing my gaze, touching my soul, and forcing a break. I'm momentarily tempted to overnight here but it's too early and, come evening, likely midge infested. Instead, I keep on, passed the mouth of Coire na Caime and into Glen Kinglass proper. All the time, on my right hand, runs the string of high tops, where I should be, the days guilty conscience. Occasional pangs of disappointment are beaten back by the slippery grey caps  sitting atop the hills and their tell tail streamers of scudding cloud. I remind myself it's about letting go and focus on the fact that I have this whole valley to myself.

 Bivvy Glen Kinglass

Another six or so kilometres and a last river crossing finds me within view of Kinglass lodge. Beyond the lodge and its cluster of four wheel drives, testament to a different kind of outdoor fun entirely, I can see the stands of trees at the mouth of Coire Hallater. If all had gone to plan tonights bivvy would’ve been at the top of it. I've come far enough to make my train catchable. I'm hungry and in need of a break. I find a space away from the track, a spot in the wind that's now blowing up from Etive and midge free, put my feet up and cook a hot meal and a brew. My intention is to eat, rest, move on past the lodge and turn South to camp on higher ground somewhere on Meall Copagach but instead, it being a day for changing plans, I eat, rest, pitch my tarp and go to sleep right here.

 Bivvy Glen Kinglass


Jamtland Days 3 and 4: A tale of two huts


Waking up had been easy. Something to do with sleeping so deeply? Perhaps more to do with the days promise? As huts go this one surely has to be amongst the best. If location, location and location are the three most important things about real estate then this hut ticks all the boxes. Apart from the incident with the bunk ladder it's dealt us a more than comfortable night. I'd felt the suck of air as the ladder, compadre still attached, plummeted past my foot to land with a thud. I consider myself lucky to still have a toe.  Nevertheless, for all its charm, and that includes the smiling  girl behind the desk, I'm glad to turn my back to it and slide off back towards Gamla Sylan; the last two kilometres of the night before become the first two of the day after.


Jamtland Day 2: A Little Further West


Yesterday we'd loosened our limbs over just 8km of gentle undulation. Today we'll head further West. Across the river and then up, up, up. All the way to Sylan. If the fancy takes us and the conditions permit we'll camp. If it doesn't and they don't we'll have  huts, spartan and luxury, to choose from.

It'd been a cold night, perhaps deeper than  fifteen below, but I'd stayed warm and, thankfully, dry. No frozen foot end and no collapsing down. It seems synthetic over down is the way to go. Jorgen said it was. Breakfast in bed is also the way to go. Willem-Maarten sets up the stove and we make a hot porridge with the last of last nights melt. I relish mine. Hot, fruity, creamy richness  to stoke the fire and get the blood running. The down side: what goes in must come out. Shoes must go on and early morning constitutionals must be taken. As these things go this one was comfortable. Thims construction will be remembered for a long time.


Jamtland Day 1: Warming up

Winter Camp

The drive would've been over in half the time where it not for having to do it nearly twice. Fortunately the rucksack, filled with essentials, was still where we'd abandoned it in the airport car park.  It was long gone 1AM when we'd woken the warden at Storlien. We'd got the better end of the deal. She was definitely nicer to look at than us and seemed to take it really well. A long since accepted occupational hazard no doubt.


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