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.

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