Wonderings in Scotland

The West Highland Way and diversions.

When I began thinking about this blog, I realised images would be in short supply, so I turned to my box of treasures for rescue. It turned up a couple of surprises, and lots of memories, which are the real treasures.

Why now? Well, two things: first on iPlayer a BBC Scotland program about the last hermit in Britain (The Hermit of Treig); second a series of You Tube videos about boaters Jo and Lorna doing the West Highland Way. Here are some recollections of my own.

Travels in the West Highlands

From childhood, I had always wanted to visit Scotland, home of the Auld Enemy, not so much the Pretenders or William Wallace as the late, great Denis Law and their hapless goalkeeper Jum Cruickshank, and remember what they did to Wembley Stadium after a famous victory? In those days the epic battles were fought in Glasgow, between the Hoops and the Gers. But my family holidayed with Uncle Walter in Cornwall, which we all enjoyed very much.

About forty years ago I put my bicycle, newly purchased for some forgotten princely sum from Alan Richards in Erdington, on the train, bound for Glasgow Central. I guess that was my first wonder, that high glass and girder roof to the concourse, the whole place was an architectural gem, appealing to a putative town planner.

Without lingering, reasoning that the city would stay put for future exploration, I saddled up and climbed over the Campsie Fells, which range east-west separating the metropolis from the Highlands and opening up a prospect of what was to come, with wondrous views of Loch Lomond, its islands and surrounding hills. I swooped down to the narrow road beside the loch to Rowardennan, where I had booked into the youth hostel. It was here that I met walkers doing the West Highland Way (WHW). Being a youth hostel, most guests were in their twenties, as I was, and it seemed their feet and boots had only recently been acquainted for the blister rate was astonishingly high. The slog up and down Conic Hill, they almost chorused, was the chief culprit. It’s all of 361 metres. I doled out as much moleskin as I thought I could spare and advised them to get more Perhaps at Crianlarich or Tyndrum. During my cycle tour I crossed the WHW a few times, but my main objective was to reconnoitre the western highlands to see if there were places to revisit in more detail; no misgivings there!

Another wonder, that I would revisit more than once was the township of Durness and its attractions on the north coast. After I had passed the last shop before Durness the sky filled in. At about half way two old, but cared-for sit-up-and-beg bicycles rested against a roadside peat mound, but there was not a soul to be seen. Probably obscured by peat hags, gathering winter fuel. As the sky darkened further, and a purplish glint bled into it, I began to wonder in those last sixteen miles whether I would fall off the end of the Earth. Perhaps it was flat after all. It was here that I became aware of the somewhat more challenging Cape Wrath Trail, which, for a few of the fitter and more intrepid had become a wilder extension to the WHW, taking the overall distance a tad beyond 300 miles. Could I do that?

West Highland Way

Once, when boarding the train at Ardlui railway station, a man urged some children to stop holding everyone up and get their bikes on the train quickly. The guard replied: “Och, you’re in the Highlands now, there’s nae hurry”. I took this as a sort of motto, and it served me well. And, from my experience, it would serve some WHW walkers equally well. I never did the whole route in one go, despite setting off to do so. However, having completed two legs to Crianlarich, I met two Glasgow Polis, who were away for a short break Munro-bagging (the practice of climbing all Scottish peaks of 3,000 feet, about 914 metres, or higher), and they invited this soft Sassanach, to join them on Ben More (1174 metres). As I had not yet tried such a thing, I decided to go along with them, and managed both to book a second night at my hotel and postpone at Bridge of Orchy. By the time we returned to their Escort, I was thoroughly exhausted, but what a great day! It also gave me the confidence that I was up to such a challenge. Eventually, I would climb about 60-or-so Munros.

Having reserved rooms at Bridge of Orchy and the King’s House, next day, on legs made rubbery by Ben More and refreshments in the cosy restaurant and lounge by the fire, I set off along what is probably the easiest stretch of the WHW, following Strath Fillan by one of General Wade’s military roads, which until relatively recently had been the road, to Tyndrum, where further refreshment was to be had, and where a gold mine has opened recently. From there I reached Bridge of Orchy late afternoon and a well-earned bath and rest. I see from the www that the hotel has changed, but it became a favourite stepping-off and departure point. The old bridge and views of the river seem unchanged.

River Orchy. north toward Am Monadh Dubh or Black Mount.

My next leg was the relatively short traverse of Rannoch Moor, to what would become one of my favourite watering holes, the King’s House. This, to some degree was enforced, because, at such short notice I was unable to find other accommodation before Fort William, and I judged that too far for one leg, especially given the Devil’s Staircase (which is not as fearsome as it sounds) was one of the most strenuous sections. Lucky me!

The next two miles can be done by flat road, which I did once in a downpour, or, the better walk is to follow the old military road over the Mam Carraigh to Inveroran, where there is another inn. The view from the top makes it well worth the few minutes of effort.

From Mam Carraigh. River Orchy flows into Loch Tulla, with Rannoch Moor beyond.

Inveroran Inn

I stopped briefly at the Inveroran Inn, and when I passed the rough campsite beside the Allt Tollaghan I resolved to return. Some years later I did so having hiked one glorious Easter day from the train at Taynuilt by Loch Etive and via Glen Kinglas where I camped on the “wrong side” of the river somewhere near Loch Dochard. This was fortunate! I must have slept very deeply, for at about five a.m. I awoke with a start to find wet grass inside the tent, and it was moving – I was about to be swept down stream!

To digress, in The Great Outdoors magazine one backpacker going coast to coast wrote something like: “In the night the World Raining Championships were held, and as usual, Scotland won by a considerable margin”..That Easter night the trophy was retained with a new all-comers record.

After cramming my soggy belongings into my rucksack, I set off into the deluge, the sort that a group of dissertation students on the Isle of Raasay had labelled “heavy, continuous, no respect for waterproofs”. I headed up hill to Clashgour Farm, from where a track would lead to Victoria Bridge, where the Abhaiin Shira empties into Loch Tulla, and safety. The first obstacle was that the bridge below the farm was damaged and the burn in spate impassable. The bridge was made of what appeared to be upside-down railway, but some sleepers were missing, and the raging water was but six inches below them. I found a spar and used it to push a couple of sleepers along to form stepping stones and hurried across. Indianna Jones, eh?!

It was only about seven kilometres (less than five miles) to Inveroran Inn, but it was open for business when I arrived, thoroughly soaked, but thankful. I found a bit of shelter, put on my emergency dry clothes, leaned my pack against the wall beside the door and entered. And, if at all possible things grew more bizarre. A notice said customers should keep their socks on as soggy sticking plaster was most off-putting (fair enough). On the opposite side of the bar sat a man with a collie. His shirt was two-tone blue; light above nipples and dark below. He explained that he had pitched his tent on the top of a small knoll in Glen Orchy, but woke to find it was an island surrounded by swirling water. He had waded, carrying said collie, to dry land an made his way to the inn. The light blue had remained dry.

Inbhirorain Inn sign (1708, during the reign of Queen Anne), and the hill path over to Bridge of Orchy.

Eventually, it was time for lunch, and as I was mopping up the plate a rather tremulous woman, in dark overcoat and raven hair, apparently a regular, entered and sat in the corner to my left. She ordered something strong and produced from her handbag a pack of tarot cards. She placed various cards on the table and grew more agitated with each turn. After about ten or fifteen minutes, even more agitated than before, she returned the cards to her bag and abruptly strode out. The barman shrugged his shoulders as though to say it was nothing unusual.

The rain held off long enough to walk the two miles to the Bridge of Orchy Hotel. There I met two kayakers, who had decided the water in the glen had become rather too white and offered me a lift to Glasgow in the back of their landrover. They didn’t look like surfer dudes, but played music by Jan & Dean, and (mainly) the Beach Boys, so we sang our way through the stormy gloom of the A82. The back of their “woodie”, as they called it, contained the full range of equipment for outdoor activity: surf boards, a barrel of SCUBA kit, bicycles, climbing ropes, and so on. I remember that Glasgow was completely obscured from the Erskine Bridge over the Clyde. Upon arrival I offered payment and they suggested enough for a Chinese meal, settling for £10. I spent the evening in the Directors’ Bar in Grand Central Station, until it was time for the midnight train homeward bound. Quite an adventure; almost Biblical.

Easter Munros

This time I would complete the WHW, but not immediately. I don’t recall how many years had elapsed, but I wanted to travel light, so no tent for the last leg, which meant somewhere to leave my camping equipment, and the King’s House would be ideal. A heavy workload had left little time and energy for planning, so, as another Easter approached I took my gear to the office and left at four o’clock, per the flexi-time rules. As I entered the concourse at Walsall rail station I heard one employee call to another: “Points failure at Bescot!”, so it was about turn to the bus stop for the number 51 to Birmingham. That could have meant a big delay and loss of sociable and sleep-inducing drinking time.

I took the train as far as Crianlarich, mainly to relax in the splendid tea room on the island platform. I see on the www the tea room is still going, and not much changed, though I imagine the couple that ran it back then will have retired by now. From there I took the train to Rannoch so that I could camp at the head of Loch Laidon, where a shingle beach offers a comfy berth and shallow bathing.

It is also close to the Moor of Rannoch Hotel, which I visited that evening after my evening meal. Being Easter the smallish public bar was filling up. There were some locals that I recognised from previous visits, and various weekenders, mainly from Glasgow, who were renting anything available, including some old railway carriages. Booze flowed. Singing ensued. There were three sets of bagpipes. The cacophony was both deafening and hysteria inducing. After a while, the landlord decided we were making too much noise for guests and neighbours alike, and turfed us outside where various seating and tables were pressed in to action. The happy, raucous racket continued al fresco with the landlord scurrying in and out with trays of beer and whisky, until he realised that all of his guests and the neighbours were in the throng. Inside we trooped, but, by then, steam was running out and people drifted away to their beds. Truly a night to remember!

As you can imagine, my state next morning was, to say the least, groggy. The cool waters of Loch Laidon came to the rescue, and after strong coffee, I made it to the morning train to go one leg to Corrour. This was the Sleeper, which included a few conventional carriages with seats. I perceived some mystified looks as though to say: “Who gets off the train here?”.

After about a mile I reached Loch Ossian, the sun rising over the far end and bringing some welcome warmth. I found some rocks to perch on, pulled out my Trangia cook set, and prepared a full English breakfast. This was the kind of freedom rough camping could bring. After another coffee, during which cloud arrived, I packed up, and set off along the south shore.

Loch Ossian, south shore, looking back toward Corrour.

After a short climb I reached Peter’s Rock, a useful landmark, and continued along a path that contours below Carn Dearg, among my objectives for tomorrow, to Old Corrour Lodge, where I found an excellent camp in the long grass, from where I could look back across Rannoch Moor and the Blackwater Reservoir, built to supply the aluminium works at Kinlochleven. The rest of the day I lazed about, wandering here and there, planning tomorrow’s much more strenuous course.

Another hearty breakfast, including a goodly helping of porridge, and packing a flask of hot soup and some walnut layer cake – you really need the calories – and I was on my way in high overcast, zig-zagging up the side of the ridge to reach the first of three Munros, the 941 metre (3,087 foot) Carn Dearg, meaning red cairn. After a short rest I pressed on across the Mam Ban col to the steeper, conical, Sgor Ghaibre (jagged peak of the goat) (955 metres), with panoramic views in all directions. It was quite windy across the col and on the tops, so I wanted to keep moving, and headed the short distance north to Sgor Choinnich (jagged peak of the moss) (929 metres). I had explored other routes back to base camp, but the main obstacle was the strong-running Allt Eagheach, and I was loth to risk a long detour. I found a sheltered spot for cake and much-needed hot soup, before retracing my steps. I estimate an aggregate climb of 1190 metres (3,907 feet); just about the equivalent of one Munro from sea level, but I could not have done it without a base camp.

Back at base there was more shelter and I was able to rest and reflect on the break so far as the sun came out. But would the good weather hold?.

Yours truly, and my trusty Saunders Spacepacker tent, with the ruined Old Corrour Lodge behind.

There was no direct route to the WHW at King’s House, and, anyway, a rest was due. I needed supplies, too. Next day an early start saw me back at Rannoch Station waiting for the train to Tyndrum Upper. Lunch at the Tyndrum Hotel, supplies purchased, I then took the bus to King’s House, where I expected to camp out the back. Ever the optimist, I asked on spec at reception if they had a room for two nights. “We do sir! But there is only one available for both nights. I’m afraid it’s above the Climbers Bar and could be a bit noisy.” I said ‘not to worry’ as I would probably be contributing my own rauocus voice to the din! As it turned out most of the Easter revellers had gone and it was fairly quiet.

King’s House and the film crew

King’s House on the eastern approach from Rannoch Moor.

As you see the weather next morning was glorious. Ospreys were feeding young atop the stand of pines furthest left. The hill out the back, Beinn a Chrulaiste, rises to the modest height of 857 metres, but is beautifully placed to give views across Rannoch Moor and beyond, and down Glen Coe and Glen Etive. This truly is one of the wonders of the WHW.

Some other campers behind King’s House see the light.

So, the WHW beckoned. I took a full Scottish in the hotel, left all the heavy stuff in my room and set off westward. For a while the trail follows the old military road beside the A82, but the scenery on the other side is dramatic.

Sron na Creise, the western extremity of the Meall a Bhuiridh massif (pronounced Mellavoory, meaning hill of the bellowing).

There follows a glimpse of Glen Etive, then, just at the point of leaving the A82 at Altnafeadh, is Lairig Gartain, a narrow pass carved by the River Coupall through to Loch Etive.

River Coupall and Buachaille Etive Mor (the big shepherd of Etive)

The weather was closing in a bit so I pressed on to the Devil’s Staircase, taking it steadily, down into the valley, and up and down to the long descent into Kinlochleven. It’s not my favourite town, so waited until the open hill to take sustenance before the rain could dampen my enthusiasm, then pressed on along the old military road, which was quite easygoing underfoot. Then came the pinewoods, and the rain, and a great expanse of pines; among my pet hates is midge-ridden, humid, pine forest. So, best foot forward all the way to the road at Achintee (the road down Glen Nevis is much more pleasant). This was one example of arrival taking primacy over the journey, and I was glad to reach the flesh pots of Fort William! I had time to kill before the evening bus, so mooched about the now gloomy town.

Fort William, at the end of the West Highland Way. The picture was taken at another rime, but represents the conditions that day.

At that time there was a tree that came alive at dusk (maybe the one at centre?). It was a bat roost, and some folk would be spooked by a sudden cloud of the winged beasties taking to a night’s hunting.

I returned to King’s House too late for the restaurant, but Jessie, the manageress, had promised to put aside a sandwich for me behind the residents’ bar. You just have to ask nicely. It was there that I realised why only one room was available. The place was rammed! The sandwich turned out to be a large platter covered in foil, with a variety of fillings, with some sliced vegetables and a cheese dip in the middle. This was a passport to a seat among the garrulous throng, with whom I shared my bounty.

It turned out they were a film crew engaged on a commercial for some energy drink. Concern was growing that “the runner” had not yet arrived. One female had driven, yes driven, all the way from Cornwall that very day.

Next morning was wet and windy. When I reached the restaurant for breakfast, they had all checked out, and so had the chef, thinking breakfast was done and dusted. Still, a nice breakfast was served in the lounge in good time for the bus back to Glasgow Buchanan Street. Luckily, I sat on the right hand side, for, as we rounded the bend before Loch Ba, was a bedraggled gathering of about forty fairground-coloured, billowing cagoules. In their midst was a man in running gear taking instruction. I never did see the commercial or find out its subject, but it was another memorable glimpse.

In Glasgow I did a bit of shopping and retired to the Directors’ Bar for a meal and sleep inducements. No need. The midnight (actually 0002) train had a carriage with some old-fashioned, oh so comfy compartments with a “settee” either side, one of which I shared with a young woman from Northern Ireland. She let down the folding table and placed upon it the detritus from various snacks including an empty cider can and some orange peel. She stretched out and urged me to do the same. A few folk peered in, then moved on. When the train was moving, the rubbish was put away and she explained it was her way of getting a compartment to herself. She was bound for London and we talked all the way to my stop at Birmingham International. Get this, and ain’t it a wonder?: she was going to be the RSPB warden on Fair Isle.

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