Shlurp! Shlurp! Bling! Bling!

Having just stumbled upon the site Nature walk and Bogshoeing I think I’ve found a brilliant opportunity to make my first million – the importation of bogshoes into Scotland. If you don’t know what bogshoes are, they’re like snow-shoes but for walking on bogs rather than snow. Popular in Estonia, apparently.

Just think about it:

Bogshoeing in Estonia

Bogshoeing in Estonia

  • climate change is causing Scotland’s climate to become wetter (I’m surprised it could get any wetter, but there you go);
  • the wetter it gets, the boggier our mountains will become;
  • the boggier it gets, the more all those budding outdoors types will need bogshoes!

It’s a no-brainer. Want to join me in this most enterprising of enterprises? Get in touch! (If it doesn’t work out but the rain gets worse, we can always move into the flippers importation business instead.)

By this time next year, we’ll be millionaires…

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Fisherfield Journey: Sweet Birds and Dedicated Pyschopaths

Six years ago Jacqueline and I undertook a four day walk through Wester Ross, from Dundonell on the shores of Little Loch Broom to Kinlochewe at the head of Loch Maree. This vast tract of land is known as Fisherfield Forest, not a forest of trees but a ‘deer forest’, an area of land reserved to manage a population of red deer. This is, for Scotland at least, a wild and remote place, and for us it had a feeling of wildness and remoteness, of being on our own, of relying on ourselves and of exploring an area which relatively few people visit, and no-one inhabits.

Loch Maree and Lochan Fada from Slioch

Loch Maree and Lochan Fada from Slioch

It was a time when we were getting to know one another and getting to know our own country too. Neither of us had ever undertaken such a long hike through and over the mountains, and we were excited about it. This was a new place for us and we were enthused about exploring this part of the country and spending time together.

We planned our trip to coincide with the John Muir Trust‘s ‘Journey for the Wild’, a 2500 mile journey throughout the UK, sections of which were undertaken by thousands of people  to celebrate and promote the value of wild places. Our wild place was  Fisherfield, and during our planning we decided to record the wildlife we saw along the way. It was our intention to write about the  journey immediately when we returned home, but day-to-day life quickly took  over and time disappeared; the moment quickly passed. All our great intentions evaporated and we never did write about it. Now, looking back at the photographs of that journey vividly brings back the joy we had. I can see it in our faces. So, six years down the line, I think it’s about time I put my thoughts about the trip down on paper.

An Teallach from Gleann Chaorachain

An Teallach from Gleann Chaorachain

We set out in the heat, first along the road from Dundonnell to Corrie Hallie and then following the track through Gleann Chaorachainn, with views of An Teallach as we come out of the woods. From a hillock close to Loch na Bràthan, we stop for a rest. The landscape unfolds; to the east, clouds skim over the Fannaichs, to the south, the hills beyond the Abhainn Strath na Sealga open out, the long ridge that starts with Beinn na Chlaidheimh and which is the way we will be going. Descending towards the river, the Shenevall bothy pokes into view. Tired after a hot day, we find a spot to camp at the foot of Beinn na Chlaidheimh, near the Abhainn Loch an Nid, the river fed from Loch an Nid that nestles beneath the steep crags of Craig Rainich. It’s boggy by the river. We look and find many bog-loving plants; the yellow-spiked bog asphodel, fragrant bog myrtle, the white fluffy heads of cotton grass, and the insectivorous common butterwort (see picture).

Bog-loving plants

Bog-loving plants

The next morning we wake, refreshed (well, as refreshed as it’s possible to get when sleeping in a tent). We gain height quickly, climbing the rocky slopes of Beinn na Chlaidheimh. We hardly feel the rucksacks on our backs, but when we reach the bealach just south of the summit, decide to leave them anyway and walk the last five hundred metres to our first summit of the trip, our backs and shoulders feeling light and floaty.

meadow pipit

Jacqueline and the meadow pipit

As we head south along the broad ridge a little meadow pipit flits around us, occasionally stopping on a rock in front and seeming to watch us. We walk on and he follows us. Jacqueline turns quietly and tries to coax him to come over, which to our surprise, he does.  Despite the weight of our rucksacks, the experience lifts us and the next few hours seem easy. We bounce along with a spring in our steps. How can so something so simple lift your heart?

We ascend Sgùrr Bàn, all sharp white rock, and Mullach Choire Mhic Fhearchair, scree and powdery white dust that slides away under your feet. Once we’re at the top, we feel we’re into our stride now, feeling good. We spot some wild mountain goats, completely disinterested in our presence. They look up for a few seconds and then go back to grazing – what meagre eating there must be here on these rocky slopes. In the bealach between Mullach Choire Mhic Fhearchair and Meall Garbh we find a spot that we think will make a grand camp. We’re at 800 metres now and don’t want to drop lower as it’ll only mean a further climb the next morning. I go off in search of water while Jacqueline sets up the camp. I come back to find the tent up and gear organised; Jacqueline’s picked what I think is a great wee spot with wonderful open views and a bit of shelter beside a little rocky outcrop.

We have a torrid time that night. Shortly before bed-time, the wind gets up and we realise, too late, that we’re sitting in a wind tunnel. The tent starts to flap and I start to wonder whether Jacqueline (being fairly new to putting up tents) has done it properly. I start to wonder what will happen if the tents blows away (either with us inside it, or with us left behind sitting on the ground). To top it off, the rain starts. We tell each other we need to get to sleep; tomorrow’s going to be the longest day of the expedition so far. Unsurprisingly, despite being tired, we sleep fitfully after lying in the dark for what seems like forever. I wake up at one point feeling as though I’m at sea and realise to my horror that water is gushing under the groundsheet of the tent; it feels like I’m floating on a water-bed. Grabbing a torch, I search for leaks. No leaks, but I can clearly see a river rippling and oozing beneath us. I try to get back to sleep, not even slightly hopeful that we’re going to wake up dry.

A good place to camp?A good place to camp?

A good place to camp?

Later, Jacqueline wakes me with a start. Someone’s trying to get in to the tent, she says. I’m tired. I think she’s telling me what she’s being dreaming, but no, she’s actually whispering to me that there’s someone outside the tent who wants to get inside the tent.  She could hear them speaking, she says. They tried to kick her head she says. I listen, intently. I can’t hear anyone. I listen some more. Still nothing, apart from the wind and the rain and the tent billowing around us. It’s then that I remember that we’re 800 metres up a mountain, that we’re at least fifteen miles from the nearest road and that it’s blowing an absolute hoolie out there. Not even the most dedicated pyschopath would travel out here on a night like this to murder us. I gently try to convince Jacqueline that no-one is there, but the darkness, tiredness and the strange sounds made when wind and rain whoosh through a wind tunnel have conspired to persuade her that we’re not going to make it through the night. It takes some time for my reassurances to take any effect.

We wake in the morning, exhausted. It’s day three. I crawl out of my sleeping bag, go outside and stretch. Thankfully, the rain has gone and the sun has reappeared. I look at our little tent and smile, impressed that it’s stayed up during the night and has remained water-tight. I’m impressed that Jacqueline has pitched it so well, too. How could I have doubted her?!

Palmate newt and toadPalmate newt and toad

Palmate newt and toad

After breakfast, we have an easy walk over to Beinn Tarsuinn, our fourth munro of the trip.  We continue looking for new and interesting plants and creatures and find some tiny toads, hiding in long grass, and down by a burn a palmate newt.

These few days will stay with me. I loved them, and loved spending this time with Jacqueline. It’s remarkable how well you get to know someone when you spend twenty fours a day with them and there’s no-one else around and no other distractions.

To find out what happened on day four, read Midges, Sweat and Tears on Slioch.

5 Comments

Filed under Mountains

The Pleasure of Walking, Part 5 | Solitude

As you may also do, I love walking in the hills on my own.  It’s not that I’m unsociable or misanthropic (well, not most of the time at least); it’s just absolutely necessary that I have time away from others, and what better place to have it that in that high open ground that seems to float above the world, rooted to it, but not part of it.

I need solitude in my life. After being without it for a while, I begin to crave it. To be alone on a mountain, in the not-quite silence, is a  great joy. And while, at times, going walking in the hills on my own seems to be ‘getting away from it all’, often I feel it’s more like getting closer to it. It makes me prick up my ears and pay attention. It fires my senses. It soothes. It exhilarates. The steady rhythm of boots touching earth grounds me into the here and now. As I climb higher, the land opens out. The higher I climb, the more I see, and the more I see the clearer  it becomes that I am a little nothing and that all the cares and worries I’ve carried up this hill with me are little nothings too. When I descend at the end of the day, they’ll have shriveled or blown away and my load will have been lightened.

Loch Etive

The mountain doesn’t care that I am there. It is impassive to the comings and goings of the creatures that stomp, scarper and scuttle across it. It is impervious to the elements, the day to day; its life is the big life, the long life, the impossible-to-fathom stretching out of geological time from the pre-human past to the post-human future. My long day spent on it is a nothing, an inconsequential fleck of time.

Walking on my own calms me; the incessant monologue of my chattering brain can’t be silenced, but can sometimes be stilled. I focus on my breathing. It is laboured and thick. I feel it in my skull, syncopating with the heart-beat rising up through my body and now drumming in my temples.

Switching my focus from the internal noises of my body, I turn my ear outwards, and my concentration to the sounds in the world around me. Its easier to hear and see the creatures on the mountain-side when you are alone. As well as being  physically quieter as I walk I am also less distracted. I stop and stare for as long as I wish; there is no-one else’s needs to take into account.  A second, a minute, an hour. It’s all one. From behind a long dyke I crouch and watch the hinds. When they pass, I’m aware that I can’t wait to tell Jacqueline about what I’ve seen once I’m back home. I look down at the ground around my feet, spend a while following a frog, study a hairy caterpillar, pick a stem of bog myrtle and rub the leaves between my fingers to release the distinctive scent. I gaze up at the clouded sky as a meadow pipit weaves and dips into a patch of long grass, its song falling with it. There’s no rush. No agenda. Nowhere to go.

I feel at at ease in the mountains with the knowledge that I can look after myself; able to navigate, properly equipped, aware of my limits, ready to bare the brunt of the elements. Maybe this sounds like hubris. It’s not. I’m respectful of the mountains and don’t take unnecessary risks – as I move through them, miles from anyone who could provide help should I need it, I feel relaxed. I can cope. There’s no one else here who can help, but I will look after myself.

Often whilst out walking I think about how society’s view of mountain landscapes has changed over time. What once was seen as a terrible, desolate and frightening landscape is now widely regarded as ‘majestic’, ‘grand’ and ‘beautiful’. I can’t comprehend how it could have been anything but. I look up at the peaks and am inspired. I admire their crags, their grassy slopes, the scree, the rock, the mossy walls, the changing of the banded rock from yellowed grey to pinkish red. These little mountains in this tiny country are mere bumps on the surface of the earth, barely poking above the level of the sea, but boy, what glorious bumps!

Last year I spent a glorious summer’s evening on the  Cairngorms plateau by myself. Having driven through Glenmore in my camper-van shortly before six in the evening, to find  (to my surprise) crowds assembled by the road, I headed up to the Coire Cas car park. The car park was nearly empty and the cars there were left within minutes of my arrival. (I discovered the next day that the road between Glenmore and the car park had been closed shortly after I had driven through to allow a carting race to take place). I had the place to myself.

After a quick one-pot dinner I headed up the Fiacall Ridge to the plateau. The day was still warm and the breeze slight. I followed the rim of the Northern Corries, occasionally stopping to look down the gullies. Ravens  circled at the foot of them, in Coire an Lochan below. Further on I caught a glimpse of a small herd of reindeer before they rounded the southern slopes of Cairngorm. Further still, descending the broad ridge of Fiacall a’ Choire Chais, as the sun started to drop and the only sound was my boots on the loose rock of the path, I spotted a feeding ptarmigan not so far away. I stopped. Finding a boulder, I watched. From the speckled rocks by the path a small rock sprang to life, now one then another. Ptarmigan chicks!  Before my eyes more appeared, only visible to me when they moved, their little bodies so perfectly matching their surroundings.  Closer and closer they came until they were only a few metres away. I couldn’t take my eyes off them.

I didn’t see another soul for the rest of that day. What a privilege it was to be there at that time, in that vast and beautiful place, in the peace and quiet of a perfect summer’s evening. And to experience it on my own without the presence of another living soul? I don’t have any words for that.

 

4 Comments

Filed under The Pleasure of Walking

Small is Beautiful

Last weekend we spent at Glen Affric, at the Alltbeithe Youth Hostel, the remotest hostel in Great Britain. Having walked in the ‘path’ from the Cluanie Inn to the south (little more than a bog for most of its length) on the Thursday evening, upon contouring around the last hill, it was a relief to see the little red-roofed hostel sitting there, slap bang in the middle of that big, empty glen.

The hostel is simple. There is a separate building housing two basic dormitories (the hostel sleeps only twenty people), a single shower, a kitchen and lounge, both with wood-burning stoves. When the hot water runs out, there’s no more for many hours (as happened when a lunchtime visitor left the hot tap in the sink running when she popped to the loo). There is no mobile phone reception.

The warden, Colin, is from just outside Birmingham, but has been coming to this area since he was a child. He just the sort of person you want in a hostel warden; welcoming, friendly, hospitable and determined to make your stay a pleasant one.

Coming back to the hostel after a day’s walking, soaked to the skin, it was so good to arrive to a pot of tea sitting invitingly in the middle of the kitchen table, a hot shower, and the knowledge that the rest of the day and evening would be spent in the company of friendly strangers and good friends, clothes drying around the stove and a whisky in hand.


Two years ago, I spent a birthday in Loch Ossian youth hostel, a short walk from Corrour train station on the West Highland line (of ‘Trainspotting’ fame), situated on the edge of the loch, near the foot of Beinn na Lap, in the shade of some trees. Like Alltbeithe, this is a small, simple hostel. It is only accessible by train or by foot. There is a kitchen and two dorms. A sign in the kitchen reads , ‘The microwave is next to the television in the lounge’, none of which exist at Loch Ossian hostel. The toilets are outdoors; composting toilets which thankfully (unlike the ones I remember from my Canadian apple-picking days) don’t require the wearing of a gas mask. There are no showers, but the bathrooms are big enough to have a decent wash by the sink, and for the bravest souls, there’s always the loch itself.


My favourite small hostel so far though has to be Black Sail in Ennerdale in the Lake District. I’ve been a couple of times now. The first time, Jacqueline and I walked in from Borrowdale, talking in a few hills on the way. To save a bit of money, we had decided to go self-catering and carried food in, the usual dehydrated camping fayre, rather than have the meals made in the hostel. However, upon opening the door of the hostel after a long and tiring day, we were met by the lovely smells of a home-made meal and the sight of all the other hostellers tucking in to their dinners. Our hearts sank when we thought of the rice and smoked sausage we had to look forward to. Thankfully, the warden came to welcome us and on seeing the obvious glumness on our faces, was good enough to offer to make us something. It was delicious.

Like Alltbeithe and Loch Ossian, Black Sail is a small, traditional hostel. It sleeps sixteen. There is one shower, around the back of the building,  and to get to it you have to go outside. The shower has a stable-door and, whilst showering, you can look over the top and out onto the hill sides. Magic.


All these hostels have a special quality, a combination of their remoteness, their situation, their traditional character, and the hospitability of those wardens who run them. They have warmth; big tables to sit around, drink tea and play cards; friendly wardens who understand what hill-walkers need; friends, established or newly-made; quiet.

They are special places and I hope they do not change too much. I don’t want them to be modernised or improved. They are fine the way they are. I cherish the time I have spent in them and look forward to the next time I visit them.

3 Comments

Filed under Reflections

No Messing | ‘Wild’ Camping on the Islands of Loch Lomond

I received a complementary copy of the Friends of Loch Lomond & The Trossachs‘ magazine The Voice through the letter-box this morning, as thanks for volunteering at the recent Caledonian Challenge (ooh, the power of being a parking attendant in  a day-glow jacket).

Loch Lomond

There’s an interesting (if disgusting) article in written by John Urquhart, who amongst other things serves on the Park’s Local Access Forum, about a clean-up operation he was involved in last September on the islands of Loch Lomond.

In it, he discusses the difficulties the police and park rangers have in controlling anti-social behaviour on the shores of the loch (as I’ve previously written about in The Ban on the Bonny Banks…) and wonders how feasible it would be to do so around Loch Lomond’s many islands. Almost impossible, I’d say.

Most importantly, he calls for a change to Scotland’s access legislation. He correctly identifies that those ‘wild camping’ sites that are being degraded by irresponsible individuals causing vandalism and leaving huge amounts of litter about, have a common factor – motorised transport. The mess that has been left on the islands has not been left by canoeists or kayakers; it has been left by people who arrive in boats, unload their gear, leave a shameful mess, and leave by boat. Likewise, I believe that most of the mess left on the shores will be from those who arrive by car.

John Urquhart’s article finishes by saying:

Those accessing land to camp wild should not be using motorised transport and it is time the law was changed to bring this about.

Having given this some thought, and despite my gut instinct to resist imposing restrictions, I wholeheartedly concur with this appeal.

5 Comments

Filed under Rivers, lochs and seas

Knotted Worm

Whilst digging in the garden yesterday I unearthed a worm which had a knot in its middle,  a simple overhand knot. A rewoven figure-of-eight, fishermans or alpine butterfly would have been even more impressive, but an overhand knot was pretty good going nonetheless. I wonder how he managed it.

Leave a comment

Filed under Near to home

Midges, Sweat and Tears on Slioch

It was our last day crossing Letterewe forest, from Dundonald to Kinlochewe; day three and we had hardly seen a soul. Letterewe, the largest area of uninhabited land in Britain, is a place you could lose yourself, literally and metaphorically. Far from the road, mountainous, wild and rough, it is a land of grand scale where human beings look ridiculously small and out of place.

The night before we had chosen to camp high in a bealach close to A’ Mhaghdain. It had seemed like a good idea at the time in that being high would hopefully keep us free from the dreaded midge, but we hadn’t counted on the stormy weather that night or that the col in which our tent was pitch made an ideal funnel for the wind. Jacqueline in particular, slept badly, with recurring nightmares of people invading our tent and attacking us.

That night we decided to camp somewhere more sheltered. By the time we reached the foot of Slioch we we tired and ready to stop. We spotted a nice sheltered hollow, which, in our tiredness, seemed like a good spot. With 20-20 hindsight, it wasn’t.

We woke on the morning of the third day, sweating, the sun beating down on the tent. The heat inside rose, quickly becoming unbearable. There was not a breath of wind and the air sat fatly on us, squashing our motivation flat. Outside, a swarm of midges drummed impatiently on the skin of the tent. The horror…the horror…

We decided to make a run for it.

Striking camp and running up a mountain with a full rucksack is not easy. Our red and profusely sweating faces, bursting lungs and gasping were testament to that. I raced ahead, hoping Jacqueline would keep up, kept going; whenever I stopped my ‘little friends’ would catch up to say hello. I rushed on. Up on the spur of the hill, I was greeted by a breeze, enough to keep them away. I waited for Jacqueline. I wasn’t expecting what I was about to see.

Up and over she came, and when I saw her face I froze; her whole face was covered in a mass of midgie bites, a big, red, swollen and bumpy face. I decided not to say anything, thinking that it wasn’t going to help the situation. Relieved at being away from the midgies, we kept climbing, now at a slower pace and at an opportune spot high on the mountain decided to stop for a rest and a brew. It was as I was rummaging through my rucksack trying to find the stove that I heard a squeal from behind and turned round to find Jacqueline staring with disbelief into a compact mirror. “You probably didn’t want to do that,” I said.

By the time we were seated on a bench on the forecourt of the petrol station in Kinlochewe, enjoying a can of Tennants lager each, the midgie bites had died down a little, and we were returned to our pre-midgie state of being smelly, tired and very, very happy.

6 Comments

Filed under Mountains