Second Crossing of Scotland – Steve Smith’s 2005 TGO Account

(This first appeared in The Over The Hill Club Magazine)


The TGO is an annual self supported coast to coast across Scotland walk


I descend the steps of the Airbus at Inverness airport and exclaim 'Bloody Scotland!’ Other passengers look at me, bemused as they too are blasted by the wind and rain. I sense they know I have a greater tale to tale. The hood of my jacket is in my pack, in the hold. I did not want to risk it becoming un-popped and lost as businessmen fight past me.


So far my trip has consisted of train, bus, plane. There is another bus to come, a train ride followed by a taxi ride to my hotel. A taxi sounds decadent for a walking trip but there’s something psychological about walking coast to coast, the walk is so important that no risks should be taken with additional footsteps.


I meet David Lee, an American, at the airport bus stop. His first visit to Scotland and he’s planning to get the bus down to Cannich and walk towards Glen Affric Youth Hostel. I tell him some things he may encounter. He’s interesting, interested and asks many questions. He’s nice and polite – a good American. There are many but in the shadow of Bush it’s easy to imagine a different country. We say our goodbyes as we reach Inverness and joke that we may see each other on the ‘trail’ (I’m using his language, welcoming him) as he’ll be heading West on bits that I’ll be heading East on. I think we like that connection.


I’ve a number of hours to kill in Inverness. First things first, I buy gas. Not allowed on the plane. This will be additional weight to a 28lbs already weighed in. There will be water to carry too. I then post some stuff back, my passport and the handy plastic wrapper British Midland protected my pack with. Passport? After 911 we all need photo id to fly. The passport is the best yet not to be carried across Scotland. I buy a copy of Orwell’s Animal Farm (lightweight and easy reading) sit in a café and start to read it. I take a walk, a drunken woman approaches me and asks “How are the love bites on your bum?” Here we go, I think. More strange people. Perhaps it was gaelic and I miss heard? No, I’d heard all right. You’d never get that in Great Bedwyn. I laugh, kill more time, feast and walk to the station.


There’s a group with backpacks. They look like TGO. I catch their eye, they catch mine and I’m welcomed across. I’ve made the mistake of thinking that I’ll be alone on the train. Far from it. We pack it out and tell tales of the previous TGO. We travel through fantastic scenery, a prequel of our two weeks to come. We see snow on the high ground, or is it Orwell’s sheep huddled together to fool us? I feel inspired by the company, the light shines between the hills forming search lights on the ground below. Rick Smith, partnered by Sue Graeme, mentions Alan Sloman’s pictures in the TGO magazine. How they were credited to some other fellow. I admit that I was this ‘other fellow’ and am determined to track Alan down on this walk and explain that the mistake was not mine.


I phone the Lochcarron hotel, asking for a lift from Strathcarron Station they mentioned. They give me the number of a taxi firm and I arrange the ride. We get in on time, I see Dennis Pidgeon in the next carriage and I shake hands with him. The taxi is waiting but nobody at the hotel. Eventually I’m led to a room in poor repair, I sleep off and on with the election night news on the TV. I wake to my own labours, breakfast and the taxi back to Strathcarron, I sign one of the twelve registers, dotted along the west coast, and set off.


Day 1


Initially along the road, then diving off to walk along the beach, wetting my boots in the sea water of the loch - a TGO tradition and gathering a pebble to deposit on the east coast. A washed up football, amongst the rocks, catches my attention and I kick it along for a few hundred yards. I contemplate being the first man to kick a football across Scotland. Soon bored I give it one last kick into the distance.


Lochcarron, on the opposite shore, is lit by the sunlight, a morning glow picking out the white buildings of a village sprawling the coast of the sea loch.


At Craigton I take a path across the hills. Battling with heather and my pack I make steady progress, using map and compass when amongst hills with no clear view. At one point I slip, steadying myself I take an immediate sip from my hydration tube. Something primeval, perhaps? When I disturb a lamb it will run to it's mother and suckle. I get a deep sense of self exploration, slightly closer to my primeval brain. Closer than our ‘perfected’ world would normally allow? Perhaps the TGO gives two weeks a year to satisfy a deep sense of what our society has lost yet not enough to turn our backs on everything that it gives us? I ponder some more, as I’m prone to do amongst the Scottish mountains. It’s not just about the beauty of the outward view of my eyes, something clicks, those eyes turn inwards for resolution and understanding.


Passing through Killilan I post the hotel room key back, I'd wondered the identity of the object in my pocket. I’m now on a good track, a sheep follows me, bleating - I wonder if it is saying “Four legs good, two legs bad.” I drop my trekking poles to the ground, I'm sure that sheep bleats that trekking poles do not count.


I intend to stop at Faddoch but decide to keep on the track and camp by the bridge that would start me off for Saturday. I miss the bridge, imagining guiding a companion I apologise profusely and find the next bridge along. By now the rain is heavy (I could do with that room key right now) and I erect the tent as quickly as I can. This is no fun, I sit inside and slowly dry under my own heat. I have a disturbed night, lashings of rain wake me then later the cold. I shine my head torch on the label of my new sleeping bag, it says good down to three degrees (I was more of a Blondie fan myself). I rue this, the catalogue had advertised it to zero degrees. I invent the argument in my head with the shop. ‘When Will I See You Again’ and ‘Woman In Love’ echo around my head. A call of nature beckons, I take my socks off and stand on a plastic bag just outside the tent. 0200, stars light the heavens, one just poised above a mountain top. I get back into my sleeping back and then into my plastic bivi. I wake with the sleeping bag drenched in condensation. I hope for a break in the weather to be able to get going.


Day 2


I eventually brave it and get the tent down, packing it away in the wet. I view the scene, snow on the hills, fallen in the night. Other hills scooped out like ice cream. Things could be worse, things could be better. Things could be dryer, not wetter!


Braving the steep path it takes me a few hours to reach the Falls Of Glomach. Once they come into view I settle on a rock, wishing to take in the view. Savouring it and remembering it for days in the office. Still 1KM away they’re amazing. A torrent of water with mist lifting from the spray. A buttress of rock, never to give in to erosion, protects a flank.


I make the tiresome walk along the streams and lochs, boggy in places. I come across a tent and call to anybody inside. Out, asleep or abandoned I’m unsure. I continue on and see distant figures walking up Gleann Gniomhaidh. I join the path but alone, sometimes the way I prefer it. I’m heading for Alltbeithe (Glen Affric Youth Hostel), and I’m approaching it after seven hours walking. I’m wet, muddy and have had to rest often amongst peat hags and rough tracks. I stop to relieve a call of nature, ducked out of the hostels sight yet still on the path.  I’ve never had a tick bite before. I’ve read about them, how they can cause serious illness as these little biters anaesthetise the area then sink their teeth in and suck your blood. I look in horror as I see one burrowing into the end of Mr Naughty. I finish the call of nature then spend some fifteen minutes with my manhood laid on my left hand whilst I try and extract this beast, both with our teeth firmly fixed. I ignore the fact I’m on a path and only after a few minutes realise what a sight I must be. Hunched over, “examining myself”. One could imagine Mothers hurrying their children past. I get a grip on it (the tick that is) and remember the advice of turning them anticlockwise. But I’m sure this bastard is reverse threaded, it won’t give. I break half of it off, but its front end is still buried. I resolve to think of nothing other than mathematical puzzles, I don’t wish to feed this thing.


I get to the hostel. I love this place. No roads, a wind generator and a bed spare! I am pleased. The warden tells how she went to some meeting of hostel wardens in Inverness. She turned up, covered in mud announcing she is from Alltbeithe. “We’d gathered that,” was the response. The remoteness appeals. I ask around about ticks, not advertising where I’d been bitten though. I get some advice. "They breathe through their arses."

"They breathe through their arses," I repeat whilst pondering the full ramifications of this. “Well I’ve broken the back end of it off,” I add.

“You’ve killed it then.” I was pleased to hear this. Just the little devil to get out then. I have an attempt in the shower. Still no joy.

The evening whiles away, talking to other challengers, guests and the warden, Ellen. John Hall and Richard Smith are good to chat to. The last arrival is at 2130, dark and pouring rain. He took the last bed and looked mightily relieved. A small gathering remained in the lounge until late. Ellen tells of how she is escaping to be warden of this place and we get round to talking about our home areas. One chap is from Huntingdon. “I once had a curry there,” says Ellen. “So did John Major,” I reply. I end up having to explain the joke.


Day 3


I wake early and sort my kit out in the lounge. Wet yet good to get it sorted. I slowly get ready and ask around for a loan of a pair of tweezers. The guy that turned up last has a pair. I borrow them, it works and I sterilize them and fail to mention what I used them for. I feel guilty yet needs must. I hand them back and realise this guy has very poor eyesight. I’ve no idea how he made it to the hostel in the dim wet light.


Today is pleasant and it takes me two hours to reach the end of Loch Affric from the hostel, on good track. The dusting of snow held the contour on each mountain - natures spirit level. From here I ascend the muddy path and head east along to the forest around Cougie. Passing a loch that appears tiny on the map I’m pleased to bump into Richard and John again to confirm that we all felt that the map was wrong. I had planned to skirt up the edge of the Cougie forest, indeed I did not have the map to get me to Cougie. The intended path looks barren, wet and boggy – I’m deterred. I keep the company and arrive in Cougie, planning to trace their map for my different route out. Craig, a nineteen year old abandoning with a groin injury, has a copy of the very map I need. He donates it, kind and a relief for me. He also donates a gortex patch for a tear in my jacket and keeps his fellow cabin mates, myself, Richard and John entertained with his tales.


I go up to the house and accept the tea and scone on offer. I chat for hours with Val (the owner) and Craig. David Lee appears, we did bump into each other. I ask Val of old names of people that live in the vicinity. Did the Lawetz still have the cottages up Mullardoch? What became of the Birmingham couple that took the Loch Affric hotel? She was able to fill me in. Val has lived here for 40 years, still married after 53 years as a 17 year old bride. Seven children arrived in the first eight years. I guess she eventually realised what was causing it! She’s entertaining and later tales how she incubated a ducks egg in her bra and its untimely hatching during a friends of the earth meeting.


David, trekking the opposite route (or rowt as he says), asks about paths and tracks. Craig mentions about tick bites, David takes an interest. Wishing to avoid them.

"I guess you call them check bites in the States." I suggest.

"Check bites?" he asks.

"Don't you call ticks checks in the US?" I’m beginning to rue this joke, the moment you have to start to explain...

"Oh you are thinking of when you get your work checked."

"Yes," and I gave up there.


Day 4


I wake very cold, the sleeping bag is poor for warmth. Looking out the cabin I see snow falling, it takes me awhile to get up. The route from Cougie goes well to start with. I make good use of Craig’s map. I’m grateful to him for it. Richard and John wished to stay to tracks, I decide to do one side of the triangle, they’re doing two. It takes me three hours to hit the track that they are later destined for. Initially following a stream through woods on the way up then an open hill climb and a marshy descent to Glen Moriston. I miss a possible ‘Graham’ on route, instead electing to keep a pace. Dropping down into the glen I take a last look back at the snow-covered mountains I‘m leaving. Passing a number of ancient abandoned cars (anybody wanting bits for an ancient Vauxhall Wyvern could contact me for a grid reference) I cross the river at Torgyle Bridge and start the tortuous ascent via the pylons. It takes hours, soft ground and up hill. I reach the top (glancing Richard and John on the track across the glen) and I pick up pace and navigate wooded tracks to reach Fort Augustus. Warmth and the smell of the trees welcome me to near sea level.


I walk through Fort Augustus, feeling exhausted after an eight hour walk but glad of only the odd shower. The fatal combination of a vacancies sign and a credit card tempt me. The hotel owner looks at me, unshaven, tanned and very sticky. I can see the look of a pattern formulating in her brain. "Are you on this TGO thing?" she asks while possibly weighing up the price of carpet shampoo in comparison with the £40 for a nights stay.


I'm pleased to have the room, it's a nice one. Nice to have my own space to dry sort my things, wash some clothes. I contemplate whether the shower rail will take the weight of my tent.


I pop out to the village shop. It’s easy to have ones view of Highland communities tainted. I could imagine gossip in the shop between the assistant and well known customers. “Did you hear about Mrs MacPherson? Well would you know she unpicked her husbands best jumper to make herself a hat.” Or “Hello Mrs Macleod, I hear you won first prize in the church raffle.” No, I’m queuing to pay and am confronted with the conversation between two women, another shopper explaining to the assistant, “e took er up the bee-hind and he didnae use a condom.”


Day 5


I’m eating the hotel breakfast at 0830, the earliest possible and walking at 0915. The first bit is along a road then a long pull up General Wade’s Military Road (built in 1731 as a pass through the mountains for troop movements). I stop for lunch at Blackburn Bothy – a lovely place, recently re-roofed. Stuart and Catherine Brown and their friend, James Spittal share soup and their company with me. I then continue up the Corrieyairack Pass - a popular TGO funnel and I see and chat to many. It’s a long, long slog. Passing over ancient bridges and setting foot where many a person had before. Looking to the right I can see Ben Nevis and then the final pull over the summit and a last look back at the snow caped peaks of the mountains I’d spent the previous days coming through. I pick out most of the previous days route, progress is slow yet it all conspires to make up the challenge. I enthuse to Stuart, Catherine and James how much I love Scotland, how beautiful a place it is. Being Scots I can sense their pride.


I plod on and pause, in the late afternoon, at Melgarve Bothy. I think about sleeping here but sense I have another hour in me. I have hot spots on my feet and, fearing blisters, plaster up. I do another hour, my body packs up at 1820 and I camp in glorious sun on a small island near the edge of the River Spey. I’ve paddled out to the island. The late sun is just above the trees. The trees on the edge of the forest have their bark stripped, probably deer. I saw many today, high up on a mountain breaking the skyline. The heather, peat and shadows adorn the hills. Streams flowed into rivers. The river is gently gurgling past now.


I eat noodles. Tasty outside though the couscous I’ve mixed in is hard going. I also eat lots of peanuts, my body reminding me of protein. I've brought vitamin c tablets this year; I suffered from lack of that last year.


Day 6


It’s a cold night. This darned sleeping bag is going to be the centre of discussion with the shop that sold it. I put on two tops, two trousers, gloves and socks and still feel cold. I struggle out about 0600, eat a cold breakfast, collapse the ice covered tent, storing it wet.


I’m walking at 0700, though very wrapped up I’m sensing a glorious day. I pass Garva Bridge in about thirty minutes. Many tents are around, a few folk emerging from the ice including a downcast looking Richard and John. I say “hi” and plod on. As the sun gets higher I shed garments, down to my shirt. And even that has to have its sleeves rolled up. I made good progress on the track. Crossing a mix of old and new bridges. Some the originals from 1731, one now in the middle of a field as the track had been diverted.


I pass a lodge house, the elderly lady resident outside. I stop for a chat. Her Dad had taken the place, as an estate tenant worker in 1948. She's been able to stay on. She tells me much history. How a barn, now fallen in, was disused in the 1940s when the dam came. How the road had been diverted. We speak for ages. How the estate won't repair her beautiful house. It is decaying.


The mountains have been cast by snow, shadow and sun. There is barely a cloud in the sky. I get to Laggan and get a phone signal. I call in to Challenge Control, reporting my progress. I check my emails, with palmtop computer, and find my dear friend Mary’s father has died. I’m sad. I send my condolences and don’t feel like the hill walk. Instead I walk up the road to Newtonmore. It’s very hot. I’ve no water and I start to dehydrate. I see a fallen tree its trunk snapped at the base yet enough still connected for shoots to ascend upwards like the teeth of a comb. Its fight for life reminded me of the descriptions of how Mary’s father had been the last months. I see a new born lamb, umbilical cord still dangling and mother licking its coat. It’s wobbly on its legs, taking in its first view of the world, eating some grass. I pass a duck with its chicks following on behind. So wee and tiny. Renewal.


I bundle into the first hotel and am offered a room with ensuite. They advise me of a forty minute wait. I can not so take the room without ensuite. My head is hurting. I need water. The lady of the hotel asks me to fill in the form, then looks at me. “No, you get yourself sorted then come and register.” I’m grateful, kind of her to realise my plight. I drink lots of water, the headache becomes distant. I go for a walk and bump into the lady from the lodge I’d spoken to during the day. A small world.


Richard and John arrive, I sit with them in the bar. I also chat to Bryan who I discover was walking with Craig and his father, Peter. Peter is now dropped out and Bryan, at the age of 66, is the last remaining member of their team. Bryan makes us laugh. Peter had been passing blood in his urine and had been evacuated from Melgarve the night before. Bryan apparently comforted him with “I expect that’s your aorta leaking.”


Later Cameron McNeish is in the bar and a former Doctor Who, Tom Baker (‘The Docktor’), stands at the actual bar opposite. Sat in the middle I sense an anti-vortex of anonymity. At one stage I think I catch Tom Baker looking at the time – “you’re the time lord,” I think!


Day 7


I wake early and go for a walk, buying a few supplies. I don’t remember the Police Box having been there the night before.


It takes just over an hour to walk from Newonmore to Kingussie, I see Bryan behind me, the last of Craig's party. I purchase a few more provisions and a brief sit in the park follows before setting off. Passing the old barracks I take the tracks to the forest and head for the bridge on breaking tree cover. Here I sit in the glorious sun. I’m joined by Doug Cockburn, Tom Letswaart and Nik Lawcock. Their company is great and aids the trip down to Ruighaiteachain bothy. I’m glad we stick together.


Bryan has already arrived, getting ahead of me at Kingussie. We pitch our five tents, a couple of teachers (leading a Duke of Edinburgh award party) use the bothy. Bryan has us in stitches with tales of his own disasters, jokes and manner. He lights a fire and a number of us pile in. Bryan mentions how lucky in love he is despite his first wife leaving him and his second dying. It was also a delight to meet Heike Lies and her walking partner, Karl. Bernie Marshall, on his nineteenth crossing, joined us around the fire.


Some noisy people arrive at 0100. I’m awake now and can hear the F and C words being used as punctuation. It sounds aggressive. I listen intently for any hassle, worry about the two female teachers in the bothy, Nik alone in her tent but I do not hear the door open or any disturbance. I fear getting up would inflame them. I get back to sleep and then awake and wait for the sun to dry my tent.


Day 8


The day is a late start. The revellers that arrived look rough. Now sober they talk but I feel nervous about them. Nik said she was nervous so I hung on for her to be ready. I did not wish them to observe a lone female setting off down the glen. It’s 1000 and we are off. Nik and I soon talk deeply about life. I’m grateful for her company. I feel sad over Mary’s Dad – a man that I knew and liked and know that Mary will be feeling it. As we pass the glen which I entered Glen Feshie from last year I remark to Nik how I kept John company last year, in the pouring rain, with the most awful puns and jokes.


We catch Bryan and Bernie, with wife Pauline, up. They say they are pleased to see us, having been worried about the guys. I expect the guys were okay but with alcohol it sounded very, very different. Then, seemingly out of nowhere John appears. I explain to Nik this is the John I was mentioning earlier. John is saying “no jokes, Steve. No jokes.” Nik gives an odd look of “what jokes?” The three of us set off and I’m pleased that Nik is getting along with John okay. With the drunken guys I suddenly feel responsible for her – something male clicking in. John and I descend into silly jokes and Nik mentions how what she considered to be a deep thinker is suddenly revealing a very different side. I blame John. A man has as many personalities as his friends.


We set off, enjoying passing the obvious watershed coming off the hills, leaving another walker preparing to take an early night under nothing other than a tarpaulin. The glorious day continues and we walk the 9.5 hours to White Bridge, finishing a little tired at 1930, and camp. One usually looks forward to snuggling into a sleeping bag. Not this one. I sit outside and watch the sun going down dreading another freezing night.


Day 9


I wake in the night to find my drinks bottle, housed between the tent inner and outer, frozen. I get up to relieve myself and laugh as I ping John’s socks, set to dry on trekking poles, and now frozen solid.


The three of us walk towards Braemar, via the Linn of Dee. Mum and Dad are waiting where it joins the public road – up for the week on holiday. It’s nice to see them and I introduce them to my friends. We walk on, Nik’s feet are playing her up and she does not have a room booked. Mum and Dad go down to Braemar and book her in and return. Nik is very pleased. John aiming for Lochallater Lodge, goes ahead and Nik and I walk on to Braemar. A challenger stops to talk with us, a second or so passes before I exclaim, “Bernie!” Bernie Roberts is on his twelfth crossing – solo crossing this time as his wife, Penny, is taking a break this year. They are the couple that announced a “gas problem” in Braemar last year. Nik and I sit on a seat and watch an entire herd of deer paddle in the River Dee.


In Braemar I eat with Mum and Dad. I feel very tired. It has been a long hot walk in from White Bridge. I apologise profusely for my tiredness, they understand. Back in my hotel room I’m looking at a rather bearded figure in the dressing mirror.


I pop to the local outdoor shop and buy a sleeping bag liner. I rue the £40. It is also bulky and heavy but the thought of another freezing night is not appealing.


The evening was a combination of eating and chatting to other challengers. I briefly spoke with MA Harper. I catch up with Alan Sloman and explain the crediting of his photographs to me was not of my doing.


Day 10


After breakfast I talk with MA and Mike Akin-Smith. A lovely pair to talk with, kind and give you their time. At 1100 I set off and Mum and Dad meet me at Auchallater and we set off to Lochallater Lodge. I feel the role of a tourist guide and, after about two hours, am delighted with their reaction to the lodge. Bill and Stan welcome them in and I can see their enthusiasm for this remote escape. Bill and Stan maintain the place for the right to use it. Gas lights and a roaring fire are its modern conveniences. A gentle calm place to spend time which I extend to after Mum and Dad leave.

Inside the lodge. Bill and me. (P.G. Smith)


Lochallater Lodge. Myself in the foreground with cap, Stan looking out. (MA Harper)


As I erect my tent I take in the views. Mountains surround it, and a loch lays before it. To the left is a bothy. The lodge is L shaped with green windows and a slate roof. It's been a gentle afternoon with many challengers congregating for a chat. Basking in the sun. It's been good.


In the evening is one of Bill and Stan’s legendary parties. Not one for drinking and singing I find myself as an observer. At one level entertained yet at another finding one particular drinkers desire to get me to accompany him with “My Old Man’s A Dustman” a little challenging. On announcing his desire I’d shown my specialist knowledge by enquiring, “is that the Lonnie Donegan version?” I think my greater knowledge of the words began to irritate him.


Imagine this – your name is Sheila Matheson and you live in a remote spot on the West coast. You plan a high level crossing and you’ve been out for over five days without passing through any town or village. You’ve heard of Lochallater Lodge but are unsure what it’s about. Very late in the evening, you stumble upon this wild and remote place without a neighbour for many miles. You make your entrance to a wild whisky fuelled party taking place. Singing, some dancing and very crowded. Your eyes shoot around, bemused and unsure. She was quite a picture but soon became part of the atmosphere. I get to my tent at 2330.


Lochcallater (P.G. Smith)


Day 11


During the night it got very windy and when I stick my head out I can see it has snowed, indeed it still is. I take the tent down between showers and have a quick breakfast in the lodge, discovering other revellers managed to keep going until 0300. At 0850 I set off and find it very hard. I had the impression that Jock’s Road might just be that – a road. In places it is nothing, not even a path. A remote rights of way sign stands at the head of the glen. Oddly pronouncing a route that would require many other such signs if it were to be of any guide. I can only assume that it serves some legal requirement to keep the access open. This is a hauntingly lonely place. Just before the TGO I flew to Switzerland, to see a friend, and we bagged Chli Aubrig as a warm up for my TGO. Higher than any Scottish mountain it was easy in comparison, no wind and even the knee deep snow was easily manageable. Scotland’s mountains are not high but they are steep, rugged and harbour atrocious weather. I struggle with the final ascent at the head of Glen Callater, I see a walker ahead of me and two in red behind me. I get myself onto the high ground, tired, demoralised and lonely. I think of changing my route and heading for the Shielin of Mark bothy. I see the two red jackets and head towards them. It’s MA and Mike and I’m delighted for their company – it lifts me and I walk with them a few miles.


On Jock’s Road on Crow Craigies (myself the higher figure). (MA Harper)


We come across Alan Keegan, making very slow progress. At 77 the oldest challenger. I’d seen him walking into Braemar and was quite concerned – he looked very tired. We walk on together but I soon realise I’m on my own. MA and Mike kindly stayed back with Alan and I descended towards Clova stopping only to investigate a mountain shelter. An iron door opens into a flat tin roofed low shelter – damp and uninviting to all but those in need of refuge.


The Clova Hotel Bunkhouse was a welcome sight after seven hours of walking. I'm given a room in a dorm of ten. I hope for not too much snoring.


Day 12


I start at 0610, hoping to get over to the hostel at Tarfside whilst beds remain. I start with a long pull up Green Hill (870m) then making my way to my first ever Corbett (peak between 2500 and 3000 ft), Ben Tirran at 0914. I smile at the significance of this time as the Munros start from 914m. I can see the sea! Yipee! I check my phone, I have a signal and text Gisella saying I’m atop my first Corbett, she replies “What’s a corbet? A sexy woman called Elizabeth!” I also pick up a text from my Dad “Have seen Nik’s kit in foyer she is in bar knocking it back with a girl missed as a newt!” I’ll have to have a chat with Dad about predictive texting.


It’s now a long route over with changing weather – all sorts blow through. Approaching Burnt Hill I glance to the glen below where a snow storm is blotting my view like an air brush in Paint Shop Pro. It soon nabs me. I drop down to the road and along to Tarfside. I missed the beds even though I arrive at 1310 with my body in fine form. I have cheese on toast at Tarfside, made by the ladies that staff it for the TGO. I put the tent up in pouring snow, shame about the bed. Again I’m warm with the sleeping bag liner. I observe one other walker sleeping below a raised sheet – rather him than me.


Day 13


I walk by river and road to Edzell, taking five hours in all. It’s the same route I took last year and I’m amazed by how well I remember it. I can see blood on my nose, no idea how I did it. I keep wiping it away and it keeps seeping back. I bump into MA and Mike and we have lunch together, lingering for ages in the Tuck Inn café. I scratch my calf and am alarmed at its size.


After some hour and a half I start to walk on to North Water Bridge. Just beyond Edzell I notice the same bull that was there last year. It has unfeasibly large testicles and Alison Ashton and I had thought of having a photo taken with the caption “A couple of nuts on the TGO.” MA and Mike catch me up as I’m sending a text to Alison. One might imagine I was sending a message enthusing over the scenery but instead I’m merely saying that the bull with the unfeasibly large testicles is still here. (Funny, haven’t heard back from Alison).


MA, Mike and I walk on and pick up Russ Manion. The night before I’d got talking to Boyd Potts. What great names some people have – I’m left with a pure simple “Steve Smith”. Russ, early sixties, has long white hair which a wide brimmed hat sits on. We make our way through the farm tracks, avoiding the road and get to the campsite at North Water Bridge.


It’s sunny all day but starts to rain as I erect my tent and this cocoons me for the evening. Having mentioned my tasteless couscous to MA and Mike I’m delighted when MA’s hand passes me a couple of sauce mix packets below the outer of my tent. Later in the evening I take my newspaper to them, passing it through a small gap I’m immediately returned with Strawberries and Cream. A true delight.


I’m lifted by the day.


Day 14


I wake at 0430, sensing something not quite right. I’m soaked from the waist down. I’ve rolled onto my drinks bottle, now in the tent to prevent freezing. The contents are discharged into the tent. I’m very wet. I get up and shower and use the hair dryer in the gents to dry my wallet out. I set off in the pouring rain and reach St Cyrus a little before 1100. Mum and Dad are waiting for me and accompany me down to a rain soaked beach. I paddle my feet and throw my pebble into the North Sea. That’s it. The TGO complete.


Me on St Cyrus (P.G. Smith)


Me and Dad on St Cyrus (P.G. Smith)


Back at Mum’s car room is made to give me a lift to the hotel. I can see Mum eye my sodden gear up and down. “I’ll walk Mum, honest it’s okay.” Her car is her pride and joy. The hotel room does not have ensuite – after two weeks of roughing it I feel stupidly disappointed. Mum and Dad stayed the previous night and had got talking to challengers in the bar, as they did on their extended stay around Braemar. I almost began to think they’d talked to more challengers than I had as they relayed tales, names and faces.


The evening of celebration goes well. I catch up with Di Gerrard and hear how a torn calf muscle had her crawling to Barrisdale and subsequently evacuated by boat. I hear more of Dennis Pidgeon’s trekking pole collapsing on the first day and relegating him to retirement. I’m lucky with my table, sharing it with MA, Mike, Richard and John. I catch up with Nik and exchange tales of our final days.  Later catching up with John Jordan and Bernie and Pauline Marshall. Seeking out Roger Smith, thanking him for organising the event.


I also catch up with John Dodd. A man who has every piece of equipment clipped about his person. He amusingly shows off the items, many I’ve never heard of. I assume when he visits a shop the assistants clip items onto him and debit his credit card on the way out.


The TGO has gathered a life of its own. An eclectic mix of people, ages and professions. Could the originators have perceived how the human spirit would drive it to what it now is? Any competition has gone out of it; it’s all about the wonderful people you meet and helping one another across Scotland. Nobody can invent a legend or a tradition. They just happen, guided by the human spirit. A few years ago somebody invented ‘The Metros’ – a list of peaks above 1000m. It’s never caught on – formulated at a desk humans have rejected it. There has to be a special something that people find.


The term ‘challenge’ is a catch all for the multitude of challenges that go to make up one persons challenge. Whether that be an injury, a missing piece of equipment, being downcast, exhausted, lost or just soaked through. The Great Outdoors Challenge is just a title that encompasses so much.


© Steve Smith
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