Crossing Scotland Quietly – Steve Smith’s 2010 TGO Account
The TGO is an annual self supported coast to coast across Scotland walk
My late place, from the standby list, has me ordering freeze dried pouch food and visiting the South Cerney Cotswold Outdoor walker’s sweetie shop. I cast my eye over gear and start with the practicality of a long handled, aircraft aluminium, spoon (those pouches are deep). As spoons go this is likely to be the most expensive I’ve ever purchased but having become a lightweight freak, the new type of food means I don’t need a knife or fork, just a long handled spoon. And, as an added plus, I don’t need any pot washing utensils because the pouches just take boiling water.
After a number of day trials I’ve decided to take the plunge and switch from walking boots to trail shoes. Having strong ankles the lack of support does not worry me (it’s my knees that are my Achilles’ heel). Instead my concerns lay in how my feet will fair getting wetter than usual. I wander to the sock display and select a waterproof pair and hope for the best.
Next lightweight over trousers, a new trekking pole, lightweight fleece, map case and energy bars drop into my basket.
Now for the tricky bit – “Do you have a lightweight trowel?” I ask a carefully selected female assistant. She looks at me at me in a “This isn’t a garden centre, sir” kind of way.
“I mean for camping,” I add in a hopeful manner. She still looks confused. By now I’m feeling a little hot under my collar and wishing this conversation had not begun. I try humour and chip in a “We’re not talking geocaching,” smile and nod hoping that this will get through. No such luck and we part company before she starts to list various ironmongery shops I might care to visit. I escape the shop at a little under £300 spent, return home and book my tickets for the sleeper train to Scotland.
As my new company mobile contains a camera I take this, and its lightweight charger, instead of my usual digital camera.
The final task is to find the smallest tube of toothpaste to see me through two weeks. This proves rather harder than one might imagine. I try the local shop, I try Tesco, I try the Co-op then Waitrose. None has a small tube of toothpaste instead they appear to be targeting the family market or those with a rather excessive number of teeth. In desperation I look to the children’s end of the market. ‘Age 3 to 6’ only has me doubting whether it’d be right for me but then, on a tube that looks the perfect size, I spy ‘For Ages 6+’. Well, correct me if I’m wrong, that does, at the age of 44, include me. Okay the DreamWorks picture of Shrek and his lady friend might not have me falling into the target market but there’s nothing else to indicate it’s not for me.
Friday May 14th and I step out of Glasgow Central Station into the cool air of a grey morning. I am pleased to have had the sleeping cabin to myself, pleased to have managed to get some sleep despite an annoying electrical buzz from the cabin’s electrics. My radio picked up nothing but white noise but this was preferable to the buzz and I dozed off to what, I recently was amazed to learn, is the noise of background radiation from the Big Bang.
I’m grateful not to be married, judging by the niggling of the couple in the cabin next to mine. It started as I boarded with “I don’t want you in here” as the woman evicted the man so she could attend to their child. I heard his protests, from the corridor, about how hard he works and he’d “bloody paid for the tickets.” Later, when presumably he’d been allowed in, I heard him negotiating for leave to go to the buffet car. “It’s only a nightcap,” I heard him repeat and protest. Whether he got leave or not I do not know but the only other noises from that cabin was some serious snoring.
I’ve been savvy to the limited choice of vegetarian breakfast available in Scotland and have brought two boiled eggs and some slices of bread - gone are the days of the sleeper ticket including breakfast. These munched I walk to Queen Street Station with my 10kg pack swaying on my back as I fail to fasten the waist and chest straps.
I watch the people milling around, day trippers, cycle touring parties, pie eyed revellers and the odd hopeful hobo. I’m glad when the train to Mallaig is called, glad when I find my seat, force my pack into the overhead rack and sink into my reserved seat. If nothing else I’ve made it this far and now just have to sit for five hours.
A journey of small station stops, trains dividing, meeting, crews chatting and gazes up the carriage, looking for other TGO people. A journey of bridges, viaducts, curved tracks, snow tunnels and the rhythmic clacking over the old style short rail lengths. Crossing Rannoch Moor with its mountainous views, snapped by those doing the journey for the first time as others gaze out the window onto old friends.
As we approach Mallaig I get chatting with an Australian and an American girl, both touring Scotland. The Australian is on a tight schedule, the ferry leaves Mallaig ten minutes after the train gets in and the ticket advises to be there ten minutes early. Such is British joined up thinking. A man joins our conversation, he’s trying to get the ferry too, a hired sailboat his destination.
“What are you up here for?” His question is directed at me.
“I’m walking across Scotland.” This gets some appreciative comments from all around.
“Have you got your Skin-so-soft?” he asks.
“What for the Midges?” I ask.
“It’s a bit early for them. And as long as I don’t camp in still air near water I should be okay.”
“They never fly across salt water,” he adds.
“Superstitious are they?” I ask and he looks at me as if I’m some form of cretin.
Mallaig brings lunch, the purchase of food for the evening and a quick hunt for the West Highland Hotel.
“I’m on the TGO, do you have the signing out sheets?” I ask at reception.
“You’re the last to sign out,” replies the man. I’m surprised, it’s only 1435.
And so I set off down the road, make good time and take a track east to a small loch and then trail south east and pick up the road and track along the north shore of Loch Morar. I’ve not yet set up my drinking water bag and pipe so fill a small plastic bottle from the frequent streams. A man with a camper van offers me a cup of tea, I decline but we chat. He advises against collecting water and cites the preverbal tale of a dead sheep being just upstream. Actually in my twenty years of walking the highlands I’ve never come across a dead sheep in a stream, yet, according to folklore, there are literally thousands bunging up the water supplies. He does convince me that a camper van is the ideal walking accessory. It’s something I’ve pondered many a time and with that I take the dream along the track. Layouts and body styles pour through my mind along with unrealistic assumptions of cost and whether it would make a practical daily vehicle too. My mind then wanders to natural navigation, how, in reality, so much is done subconsciously. That one would never pass through mass forestation, or ascend a crag where indigenous trees have escaped the mouths of even the most agile deer. That when climbing through mist a rising wind indicates a sudden change of terrain, a running stream or the position of the sun give a rough idea of direction. My mind goes through many.
These thoughts slow to admiring the light on the distant hills, the cloud, the blue sky, a rainbow. The breeze catches my neck and I tire into the evening and, at 1945, fall short of Tarbet, my planned stop. Instead a small piece of flat ground, just beyond a remote house, tucked out the way with a stream running past has me thankfully putting up the tent. Though erecting and packing away a tent is my least favourite part of wilderness travel. Something bores me, it feels like a chore and I procrastinate over sorting inner from outer, peg from pole and front from back. I realise I’d forgotten to make all the repairs to the tent that I’d promised myself I’d do over the winter. A midge attack speeds me up and I realise I’ve camped in still air near water.
I eat, the pouch food is tasty and filling and I’m so grateful that I’m not re-hydrating this year and bulking out the meals with couscous. In fact I’ve eaten that much on TGOs I don’t think I could ever stomach couscous again. It starts to rain. I hold off a call of nature and slip into sleep only to wake in the early hours with a pressing need. I slip out and add to the sounds of flowing water. Pulling myself back into the sleeping bag I wonder at the time. I grope around for my watch, find it and press the button. It briefly lights the tent and tells me it’s 0245. I shut my eyes and have a strange glowing image of Shrek printed on my retinas. I press the watch light again and see my toothpaste tube.
Saturday May 15th and, having struggled to find the energy to get going, I set off at 0940 and quickly make my way round to Tarbet Bay. I pass through the buildings of a tiny community and, with the sea of Loch Nevis lapping the shore to my left, do not see a soul. A polluting generator rattles from within a building, a hostel, with beds laddering its walls, teases one to believe that others do venture this far. Moored boats bob against gentle waves and I follow the path on, looking for a steep route to take me onto a 15km ridge and the Corbett of Sgurr na h-Aide.
Dropping down to Tarbet Bay
Gaining height and looking back towards Tarbet
As the cliffs steepen to my left, and no path cuts into the hills, I set my compass and head for the ridge. I get into that inefficient stride where my pack weighs heavy on my back and my upper legs ache as I put foot in front of foot. Each step is deliberate and I feel that the mountain wishes to pull me down into the sea each time I lift a leg.
I make a highpoint and rue the lack of close navigation for I have ascended a minor hillock and only a descent will get me onto a course for the main ridge.
I don’t make the ridge before 1300 and I wonder at the lightness of my lunches. I mentally pace my route; at least another 3000ft of ascent is required as many separate mountains have to be gone over. I eat what is prudent and follow the ridge at a painfully slow pace while I jiggle the days ahead against this benchmark of my fitness. It’s a sorry walker that, at 1815 and after many undulations and circumnavigations, pulls himself onto Sgurr na h-Aide and promptly gets swept over by a snowstorm. I settle awhile, send a text or two describing the view, look up to find the view has gone, hidden by mist. I drop quickly, the mist lifts, my aim A Chuil Bothy but it looks, and feels, an unbelievable distance and, as my legs begin to wobble, I quickly look for a pitch. The ground falls away for nearly 3000ft and is a myriad of rock, heather, moss, lochains and forest. A small lochain and a square of flat ground above its northeast bank catch my eye. With each pace towards it my mind reassesses my entire life, wishing to feel safe and secure it jettisons all plans and has me virtually nailed into my home toasting my feet by a log fire.
I rapidly put my tent up, fighting the threatening clouds and my shaking hands with dropping strength. I collect water, dive inside and cook my meal and feel thankful to make my world as small as possible. As my strength starts to come back, as I start to feel warmer my mind expands with lofty plans and ambitions.
Sgurr na h-Aide from its westerly ridge
Before sleep came and as I wake I know my ambitions of the three Corbetts, at the head of Glen Dessarry, would remain unclimbed and the best I could hope for was to get myself back on schedule by making my way directly to Kinbreack Bothy. Even the alternative of the single Carn Mor Corbett feels an impossibility. But first is the little task of getting myself off the mountain I’d camped on; this is not aided by taking two and a half hours to get myself moving. The ridge continues to undulate and does not bode well for an easy start to the day. Instead I peer southeast and carefully, by means of surveying each stretch to avoid becoming cragfast, make my way to the river that gathers the mountain burns into Loch Morar.
It’s a deep slit of a glen that leads to the forest which, if I’d pressed on, I’d have been passing through in fading light of last evening. My pace gathers as I drop to a deer fence that guards it. I curse the thing, climbing high and swaying on its wire, with my right foot slung into one of its squares I swing my left leg over and pray not to rip my jacket or gortex over trousers, donned against the rain. I take a leap of faith and stagger up on the other side. I can’t find the marked path so follow the fence to where a burn passes below it. I find the path, complete with a proper passage for walkers through the fence. It’s hard on my feet, the thinner soles of the trail shoes means the roughness of the track digs into me.
I emerge from the forest and miss the track and feel coaxed to the one above A Chuil Bothy. It’s off my map but I reckon I can navigate it from memory. I ascend awhile, look back and catch sight of the one I missed. I cut across country, bog and peat until I reach it, meet the rare sight of two other walkers, and make the good track that passes the houses of Upper Glendessary and Glendessary. I keep a look out for the northeast track around to Kinbreack Bothy and am pleased to see three ladies heading down it which perfectly shows where it branches from my track. They warn me that the ground floor of Kinbreack is uninhabitable and advise the upper floor.
As I ascend to the 350m bealach between two of my missed Corbetts I look back and spy a party of men trying a number of false paths until they branch onto mine. It looks like I’ll have some company. I expect them to catch me but as I swing into Glen Kingie, and look hopefully for the bothy, they are still a way behind.
There’s a light breeze and the afternoon sun cheers me but it feels slow, I am slow, this distance today should be easy but instead I’m hours over what it should take. I can’t find a pace; body energy is used inefficiently as it feels I’m trying to lift myself out of one rut after another.
It’s 1830, and eight and a half hours of walking, before I approach the bothy on the edge of the wide basin floor of the glen. An identical shaped ruin lies to its left and a tiny ruin lies beside the burn that rolls past it. I think to myself, ‘the ground is likely to be wet and soft as that’s always the case near a bothy’ and the next moment my right foot sinks deeps into the soft wet ground. It makes a satisfying pop as I extract it but I fear losing a shoe in such circumstances and make a mental note to expand my toes and take great care when it happens again.
I make my way up to the bothy loft. My pack catches against the hatch and I lean in and negotiate to the floor. Two sleeping mats are laid out. I grab a pitch and sort my kit as the chaps behind me arrive. Nobody else is on the TGO; I’m twenty fours hours in and feel twenty four hours behind.
They are kindly, retired men. I’m surprised when I get speaking to Joe to find he’s seventy one. He knows a town near me, Devizes (where many of my ancestors came from) having done his national service there. He could pass for fifty.
I make my meal; these pouches are great, everything you need already mixed in. And, of course, there’s no couscous.
Monday 17th, no more than an hour into my day and moving well, I rest on a high vehicular track looking east along the wide Glen Kingie. Through the night I’d managed to pick up Radio 4, then the World Service, which drowned out the inevitable snoring, and slept fitfully. As I finally woke I switched my radio off and came round to a dawn chorus of farting and decided that the ear is the best behaved orifice.
High cloud, not threatening, casts its shadow over the glen. The river meanders towards a forest drawing the track I’m on with it. My plans have changed, the Tomdoun Hotel, just east of my planned camping spot, has proved too much a temptation. My struggles with fitness, my tiredness and achy feet of the last few days deserve a hotel.
The wide basin of Glen Kingie
I press on, wishing to make the most of the good weather, and trust the track through the forest as it bends and dips and climbs around the forested slopes. I tick off the odd bridge, the odd junction against the map and am pleased to emerge on the minor road just over a mile short of Tomdoun. A walker passes me at speed; he looks like he’s on the TGO. I find him in the hotel bar, pausing for three pints of Guinness on route to Invergarry.
“Do you have a room for tonight?” I ask.
“Don’t know mate, I’m not in charge,” replies the Australian bartender.
“Who can I ask?” I ask.
“The fellow who does the bookings is out.”
“When will he be back?”
“Within the hour I guess. But it’s a bit pricey, might not be right for you.”
I privately think that it’d have to be quite pricey to see me walking on and I order sandwiches and soft drinks.
“What’s your name?” I ask the fellow challenger, the first I’ve met.
“Anthony Driscoll. And you?”
He pauses, looks at me and asks, “Do you write a blog?”
“I’ve read it. It’s good.”
“Thanks, I enjoy doing it,” I reply and I’m pleased and feel famous in my own lunchtime.
In the event the owner is back within fifteen minutes and the room is £40. I take it, room three, and he points me up the stairs. A few seconds later he’s sprinting after me. “It’s that way,” he says. I’d turned the wrong way, west in fact, at the top of the stairs.
“East, the Challenge is east. I must remember to always turn east,” I reply.
I spread myself out in the room, wash out my clothes then notice two toenails have turned black and my heels and big toes have an irritating sore itch about them. I make use of the bath, sinking an aching, sighing body below a warm water line.
I wander to the bar to eat. The menu is not vegetarian friendly, in fact there’s not one option I can have. “Can you do me something vegetarian?” I ask the owner (now smartly dressed in chef’s attire).
“I’ll just go and check.” I wait expectantly; I’d even take the Scottish standard response to vegetarianism of macaroni cheese and chips.
He returns, “I can do a lovely range of lightly roasted vegetables on couscous base,” he says. I don’t know if my face quivered with the disappointment
Back on the landing, just before I turn east, I try and work a piece of couscous from between my teeth as I survey the bookcase for reading material. The complete works of HG Wells (never knew he was so prolific), some Penguin classics, two copies of a Leeds & Bradford street map and the Brownie Annual, 1939 get flicked through. That’s the thing with pub and hotel bookcases, they’re never put together by the same collector. I choose a Sherlock Holmes and read two short stories.
Tuesday 18th dawns another bright day, the breakfast is welcome (vegetarians well catered for) and I set off at 0940 on the road walk, destination Invergarry, destination hotel. I keep my pace slow, it’s just a twelve mile walk, and am caught up by Nicky Crawford, a sprightly 69 year old who, as it turns out, lives not far from me.
We walk until the road meets Loch Garry and turn off south to Greenfield where I bid my fellow challenger, only the second I’ve met so far, adieu and promptly sit down for a jolly good rest. The jolly good rest is only tempered by a desperate need for water so I set off and follow the wide forest tracks, and its logging lorries shuttling back and forth, until I find a good stream where I can gulp back the water.
I press on with Pete and Dud sketches spinning about my mind. It’s only when I reach Mandally that I realise why (I’d been on the road to it and I’d subconsciously picked this up from the map). Another mile takes me to the hotel and I’m sat on another barstool in just over four and half hours from the Tomdoun.
I say I’m booked, am directed to reception, handed my re-supply package and shown to my top floor room, finding negotiating the two flights of narrow stairs with the pack the hardest part of my day. I quickly shower, change, wash out my clothes and return to the bar, order lunch and a drink. I sup outside, watch the world go by, chat to two guys cycling from Lands End to John O’Groats and gaze across to the impressive road bridge and its deep river washing through it.
I inspect the bookcase, less thought out as all the books are long novels. You’d have to be staying awhile. I spy a Conan Doyle, but it’s not a Sherlock Holmes. But it does make me think that Scottish hotel bookcases are rather littered with the works of Conan Doyle. Southern hotels tend to have a proliferation of Dick Francis books. Realising these thoughts are the indicators of the onset of boredom I walk to the local garage and buy a paper.
I read in the garden, read in the lounge. Some food safety test is going on where the examiner appears to be telling the delegate the answers which he dutifully is writing down. I go for a wander, pass an alcove where a large table is surrounded by suits on some management meeting. “I see this as a learning centre conduit,” says one as I make a hasty retreat.
Finally 1930 comes and it’s time for dinner. I have the choice of a single table by the bar or by the kitchen door. I elect for the latter and get an insight into how a hotel kitchen is run. “Fucking hell don’t tell me we are out of cod,” yells the duty manageress. She emerges, crosses the bar to the offending table and says, ever so sweetly, “I’m really sorry I’m out of cod would you care to order something else?”
As I get through my soup, which I dare not complain is a bit cold, the kitchen door swings violently amongst the crashing and gasps of exasperation. My main course arrives, piping hot vegetarian lasagne. “Can I get you anything else?” asks the young waiter.
“No,” and I flick my eyes to the kitchen door, “I wouldn’t put you through it.”
“Yes!” he says, “Result!” and salutes the air.
Given I missed the three Corbetts on Sunday today, May 19th, is to be my biggest day so far. From Invergarry I try and spot the tracks through the forest but end up on the A82 for well over an hour. I walk in the right hand verge and wave to the car drivers who indicate and move out to give me room, to those that just move slightly I raise the fingers of my left hand from its trekking pole. To the bastard that crossed onto my side of the road, while overtaking a car approaching from behind, and misses me by no more than an inch I give an angry V sign. I’d have made it two handed if I didn’t have to hold my trekking poles.
I reach Aberchalder and enjoy the sight of the swing bridge being opened, to make way for boats to pass into Loch Oich. I then tentatively make my way through a farm looking for the track up onto the hills. By a process of elimination, and sniffing out the general direction, I climb steeply on a track before cutting into forest which leads to Glenbuck bothy. I rest awhile, enjoying its comfy chairs and plan how I might come back and spend more time here. I eat lunch then press on to the 815m summit of Carn Dearg.
The warm wind wisps about my face as I stand in the bealach before Carn Dearg. High cloud is scattered across a blue canvas. A stag stands in the coire, staring down at me. He bounds off, stops, turns and looks at me some more. At last he bounds off again and the last I see of him is high on the skyline, silhouetted by the sun, his short antlers bold above his head.
I take in the Corbett of Carn Dearg[*] and make a slow progress towards Luib-chonnal bothy. I arrive at 1730 to the shadows of the evening light, deer grazing and watering on the flat grounds and the loneliness of a bothy book entry describing how Alan Sloman, Phil Lambert and Alistair Pooler had spent a good evening the night before. All to keep me company was a copy of Zoo magazine. Not my choice of reading material and something that always winds me up in WH Smiths as such magazines are listed under “Men’s Lifestyle.” I always think “Not my bloody lifestyle.” Anyhow, with nobody around I feel it’s safe to take a flick through, indeed it would feel rude not to. It’s all headlines with little substance, somewhere between the Daily Sport and Daily Star. Anyhow the centre spread is a young lady by the name of Alice. She reveals, shall we say, her upper half with an invitation to text a code to a particular number (where one is presumably charged a sum similar to the length of the code) with the promise to be sent (presumably to ones mobile) pictures of various other parts of her anatomy. It actually does not say which parts but I’m rather guessing it’d not be her left knee and ankle.
I sleep fitfully; thankfully it’s a warm night as a bothy is always colder than a tent. I make an early start on the route through Melgarve, Garva Bridge to the Laggan Gaskmore Hotel where hopefully a re-supply package awaits me. It’s to be my longest day, by distance, so far but the ascent is minor, the tracks are good and I’m confident of making the hotel in good time to clean up and relax.
To the calls of the cuckoo, the diving of the oyster catchers I make my way along the River Spey. I’m fooled by Shesgnan, from a distance it looks like Melgarve Bothy, the approaches similar. When I reach it, and see it’s boarded up I realise my mistake and follow the forest edge and wing round to Melgarve and Wade’s road. From here the walk is boring, not only is it a repeat of ground travelled before but the ground is straight, monotonous and distant landmarks take their time to be passed. In the backdrop are glimpses of the Cairngorm Mountains, their tops encrusted by snow. It reminds me of the road between Linn of Dee to Braemar, a pitiful route of tar sealed road and distant landmarks that refuse to become part of the foreground.
I reach Laggan around 1500, ready to make use of the excellent public loo (I’m sure many a challenger has fond memories of its spacious confines) and stores. I buy what I need for lunches and see one pastry shaped item in the “hot counter.”
“What’s in that thing?” I ask. Somehow, perhaps because I’ve not spoken to anybody for fort eight hours, my words sounded scornful for the assistant falls about laughing.
“That thing, as you put,” she says, “is a vegetable pasty.”
“Okay, I’ll take it then,” I reply.
I sit on the bench outside, chewing my way through the thing (which judging by its brown outer, dryness and high temperature has been being heated all day) and hear the two assistants having a chuckle at the way I said it. One comes out and is surprised to see me there, “Oh, you’re still here,” she says and I smile back.
I walk the mile to the hotel, it looks a little run down and I have to circle the building to find a door that is not surrounded by weeds.
“I’ve a booking, Stephen Smith,” I say.
“Ah yes, and a package.” This is good I think.
“What time is breakfast?” I ask.
“It’s between eight and eight forty five. But tomorrow it’s at seven.”
My room is on the ground floor, functional and designed for coach parties. I make use of the bath, wash out my clothes and end up watching “Deal or no Deal” on the TV. I’m always amazed how people think that which box they chose is significant, it’s merely a game of chance and the skill is knowing when to quit and not play it to the last box. I recall a conversation with a fellow challenger, the late and dear Bob Lees. He’d recently bought a lottery ticket and chosen the numbers one to six. A friend of his had said “I thought Bob was brighter than that. Does he not know he’d have more chance if he spread them out?” We had an in depth conversation about maths and how frustrating it is to hear non mathematical people (friends, colleagues, media and politicians) making sweeping statements when the maths does not back them up. I sometimes find myself shouting at the radio in despair, “no, no, no do the maths.” I wind myself up by recalling the fallacy in Gordon Brown scraping the 10% tax band and how the lower paid would now be paying more. It took me about a second to spot the flaw then having to endure the frustration of it not being challenged until the lower paid started getting their reduced pay packets, and the media patronisingly explaining it to us all, was too much to bear.
I made my way to the conservatory and found the preverbal Sherlock Holmes anthology and started to read “The Sign of Four.” I shouldn’t have switched the TV on, it always annoys me, the reading calms me down.
The coach party arrives, a large group of older Australians making jokes about Haggis Farms and recounting endless visits to the distilleries. Evening arrives and I order a meal and am told I can eat it in the conservatory, away from the coach party. A piper appears and pipes in the meal for the Australians. I’m near the bar, the bar tender a friendly stoutly built Scot, chats to the piper as he returns, covered in sweat, and gasping for a drink.
“Do you want a Sheepshaggers?” asks the barman. I assume he means the beer and not one of the Australians.
Friday May 21st comes and with it 0700 with no sign of breakfast being ready. Come 0730 the Aussies are fed up and break their way into the breakfast room. I follow, food is almost ready and I select a feast to help me through the day. Classic mellow music of the sixties plays; somehow it leaves me feeling sad. As if somehow it emphasises that for many this coach trip is a swansong.
Next follows the tricky bit of trying to pay. I wait at the reception desk, there’s no sign of anybody. I notice a buzzer, press it and Glenn Miller plays in the distant bar. At first I think it’s coincidence (the breakfast music continuing), I wait and press it again and find the buzzer does fire Glenn Miller into life.
A member of staff passes; I grab him and force him to take my money.
I have to head the mile back into Laggan before taking the road east towards the A9. Passing another hotel I realise that better planning would have saved me this backtrack.
The road is hard on my feet, the thinner soles of the trekking shoes offer less support than a boot and I wriggle my feet to free the pain. It takes me around three hours to hit the A9, fortunately road works, and associated traffic lights, make my crossing easy to the wide east verge. I walk north, looking for the track up to Phones, a hunting lodge. I peer amongst the trees to my right, hoping to see a shortcut up but the track comes before I feel brave enough to take a chance through the trees. I negotiate my way through workmen and heavy machinery and set off on the switchback track. It’s a good one and has me elevating the contours. Phones is a clutter of buildings freshly painted in cream which ties the 19th century and 1930s architecture together. I think perhaps the odd building might stem from the war.
I rest by the stream that runs past it, eat my lunch, rationing myself a packet of peanuts for later, slug back water, swing my pack onto my back, fasten the waist strap, tuck the map into it then secure the chest strap. With trekking poles working their march I set off up the incline into open moor land.
With so many mountain tops to choose from my mind plays a game as to the route over to the Corbett of Meallach Mhor. Minor adjustments in compass bearings have me pointing at wildly different hills. I take a GPS co-ordinate, set my compass and take off over the moor hoping that covering some ground will narrow the options and show me what I’m aiming for. The ground rises gently and I negotiate around bog and peat hags. I begin to notice squares of cut peat, stacked as little turrets on the tops of rises in the ground. On each are scattered grey pellets. I wonder what they are for and am alarmed to think they might be the estate attempting to poison birds of prey. I check my phone for a signal, it’s strong and I phone into Challenge Control and speak to Alvar Thorn. He speaks to Ann and they reckon it’s to feed the grouse. I feel they are right as the sheer number of them would leave the estate vulnerable to being caught out.
Feeling better I press on and drop down to Bhran Cottage, cross the bridge onto the tar sealed road. It feels an extraordinarily remote spot for such a fine road, a car passes me and it looks as if children have just been collected from school. The time is drifting and I review the map. My aim of Meallach Mhor and Carn Deag Mor now look ambitious and I temper my plans to just the first Corbett. The bargain gives me new zest and I initially manage the tiring slopes of Meallach Mhor at a quicker pace until I slow to having to take a pace or two and then rest. I reach the summit at 1745, around nine and a half hours from the hotel.
On Meallach Mhor – if only I’d looked behind me!
View from the summit from whence I came
I can see across to the distant Laggan and plot my route. I eat the peanuts and watch distant rain greying out distant glens. I spend so much time looking at it that I do not think to look behind me. Suddenly I’m pelted by rain at a forty-five degree angle. It’s not just heavy, it’s a jet wash. There’s no chance to get my over trousers on, fortunately I’d put my gortex jacket on to keep warm so I’m able to zip it up and then press on. The rain pings musically off my trekking poles as my legs get soaked and my trousers cling to my skin. It takes over twenty minutes to pass; my plans to camp are put on hold as I walk until I’m dry.
Before the slopes of Carn Dearg Mor my watch clicks over to 1900 and I find a small water source and force myself to find the energy to put the tent up. I place it just off a track, always fearful of late night poachers quad bikes, and just manage to bundle myself in before the next shower hits. So ferocious is the storm I’m able to use the tents skin to channel enough rain water into my cooking pot to boil for my meal.
I wake on the 22nd and force myself to get a move on. To get myself back on target I need to bag the missed Corbett of yesterday, Carn Dearg Mor, and also complete the two Corbetts already planned for today.
I struggle to pull on my soggy knee supports, I’d not appreciated how wet they’d got below my trousers. I plaster my knees with Deep Heat in the hope that this will keep the joints warm while the supports dry under my own body heat.
I’m off at 0800, drop down to the good track that heads north east to below the bealach that approaches Carn Dearg Mor. From here I head north over sharp, steep ground until I hit the gentle pull to the summit. As I do the beautiful clear sunny weather slips into minor puffs of cloud. I admire the views from the top and feel pleased with myself for having managed to get myself back on target for one and a half hours effort.
View from Carn Dearg Mor
I gaze across to the route ahead. On the horizon, and on the track to be followed, is the Corbett summit of Leathad an Taobhain; just shy of 3000ft. It looks a distant dream yet it’s only a small part of the day.
I drop back to the track and start following its passage east. I peer down the long glen into Glen Feshie and consider cutting down to Ruigh-aiteachain bothy and follow the route around to Linn of Dee and Inverey. It’d be an easy option but the road walk into Braemar is pitifully long, boring and far worse for tedium than the one from Melgarve to Laggan. And I recall putting on my route sheet, as reason not to give a foul weather alternative, “If I make it this far wild horses will not make me walk that bloody road from Inverey to Braemar.”
I press on, rest and stagger often in the heat while trying to plan water stops so as not to be overburdened by weight. At the final bealach, before the pull to the summit of Leathad an Taobhain I rest by the remains of a shelter. I’m struggling for energy; my light lunches are not proving enough. Having the unscheduled night at the Tomdoun Hotel I have an evening meal spare. I set up my stove, boil enough water to hydrate the meal and make a cup of tea. It’s enough to replenish me and I follow the track that dwindles out at the summit and arrive before 1400. I drop down and follow a high level plain across to the foot of Beinn Bhreac. I feel lonely, it is and feels remote. For once the lack of companions haunts me and I rely on my GPS for reassurance. Somehow it feels that each step is taking me further from safety, like a conversation you wished you’d never started (such as buying a trowel from the South Cerney Cotswold Outdoor shop).
In the distance deer graze, they clock me, stand and stare before lolloping off. A single one, an outsider (perhaps a young male being cast from the herd) stands in my path until he decides it’s his turn to move off. A walker is passing far to my left across the high flat ground. I steer towards him, crossing bog, hags and scuffing quartz grit, desperate for company. As I approach he waves but his pace is too good and he gains on me until I give up the chase.
I keep north of Beinn Bhreac before tackling its north easterly flank. I wobble and pant my way to the top, in all three hours to regain the identical height of Leathad an Taobhain. The bothy is five miles away, I’m keen for it but bargain with myself that if I don’t reach it in three hours, twelve hours since the start of my day, I’ll camp.
With this deal in mind I drop to the head waters of the Tarf Water. It’s easy to cross here and I follow the southerly bank through broad flood pains and narrow paths on steep banks where I cling onto heather to avoid a slip. The water flows east, meaning I’m following a welcome downhill route. I cut corners where I can and am always pleased to return to its safe confines. It’s wide, rocks peak through the flowing water and the evening sun glints from the surface like a million dazzling diamonds.
I make the bothy, five minutes within my self imposed twelve hour day. From a distance it looks a large structure, its two chimneys giving a sense of proportion. Two people sit outside, a man and a woman. They’re not on the TGO. I sift through its rooms and plump on an uninhabited, concrete floored room with its own entrance. Even with the company of people I shy to the privacy of my own area.
The Tarf Hotel (bothy) with the amateur photographer’s gaff in the foreground
I make my dinner and sit outside and chat.
“Where are you from?” asks the woman.
“Marlborough, Wiltshire. And you?” I reply.
“We’ve lived in Aberdeen for the past twenty years but I went to school in Chippenham.”
“So did I. Which school?” I ask.
This was getting spooky. “Me too, which year?” It turns out she was two years behind me and we discuss the teachers we shared, for good or for bad.
The three of us talk until the sun disappears and the long evening light turns into a cool chill. I make my way into the bothy, close the door and check my route for tomorrow. “What the hell was I thinking of!” I exclaim. I’d worked out an eighteen mile route with 1123m of ascent. Experience rapidly tells me that this is impossible and all to claim one more Corbett on the way into Braemar. Yet my lofty ambitions mean I’ve planned no alternative and I only have the maps for this mad route. On the bothy wall is pinned an OS Sheet, the very one I’d need to make my way to Braemar by the Linn of Dee. I eat my route sheet words “If I make it this far wild horses will not make me walk that bloody road from Inverey to Braemar.” For this now is my only alternative. I have the subversive thought of stealing the map but, captain conscience getting the better of me, instead sketch out the missing section to White Bridge, from where I know that I can get myself to Braemar from memory.
I wake on the 23rd at 0400. The other bothy inhabitant, a middle aged man, had wandered over in the evening casting doom on my choice of room. “The sun will rise through the window and you’ll be awake by four”, he had said. I’m glad for the early start (even if it took me two hours to get myself going); one man’s meat is another man’s poison as the saying goes. Well actually I am a vegetarian so I set off thinking that one through.
My aim is Mar Lodge, on the road into Braemar. I’ve heard they offer accommodation and a warm welcome to those on the TGO. I follow the Tarf Water on its south bank, east towards the Falls of Tarf. I need to cross and keep an eye out for suitable places. One is not forthcoming and I have a number of abortive attempts seeing me perched on rocks, midway across, before backtracking. Finally I accept that it’s not going to be possible to cross and keep my feet dry. I find a wide patch, change into my canoe shoes and step out as far as I can on the rocks. I then wade the rest, using my trekking poles to keep balance in the flow yet moving rapidly to not allow my nerves to fall victim to the current.
Back into my trekking shoes I reach the Falls of Tarf in thick cloud, a beautiful area where four deep gorges meet. I take the northerly route along a narrow path. It’s a wild deep place, the mountains tower opposite and four decomposing deer are testimony to this not being a place to be trapped when the snows come.
From the ruin of Bynack Lodge the going becomes frustrated by a multitude of shallow rivers and waters and I find myself making endless crossings until I pick up the track to White Bridge. I manage my final crossing, by the decaying parapets of an old bridge, without changing into my canoe shoes. On the other side I lean against a concrete stump, which once formed part of the bridge, and eat my lunch. As I’m set to leave I’m attracted by the moss which by chance appears to be spelling words. I look closely and see that the moss has formed in sunken lettering; I just manage to make out that the bridge was built in 1966.
I pass a few folk walking into the mountains, we bid our hellos and I reach the Linn of Dee eight hours into my day. A forty five minute road walk takes me to Mar Lodge, from memory the road feels further than on previous years. I tentatively follow the helpful TGO signs and arrive at reception.
“Do you have room? I’m on the TGO,” I say as if mentioning the fact that I’m a smelly damp walker will help my cause.
“As long as you don’t mind sharing,” says Jane the helpful manageress. I’m shown the kitchen, and am told I can pretty much help myself to whatever food I want for an additional £5. I can’t pay the total of £20 quickly enough, nor can I get into the bath at the same speedy pace.
The lodge has been rebuilt after a fire though the room is furnished with old beds, wardrobe and chest of drawers. It feels like staying with an aged relative.
I make my way
to the high vaulted kitchen, make a cup of tea and sit at the long table.
Another challenger arrives, sixty nine year old Alan Kay sporting a pack twice
the weight of mine. Jane introduces us as roommates and Alan’s first words to me
are, “You don’t snore do you.”
”No, do you?” I reply.
“That’s good,” I reply, “we’ll get along well.”
Another challenger arrives (making him the fourth I’ve seen since the start) and the evening drifts into eating and chatting. They are good guys to talk with. Both are carrying huge packs and we compare notes and weights.
I take a wander around the ground floor of the lodge. The corridors are a mix of straights and bends with the heads of deer, mostly shot in the 19th century, peering down from the high hooped ceilings.
Alan asks Jane to show me the ballroom. Over one hundred years old it sits in a separate building. I sense from the mood that I’m about to be shown something quite spectacular. We walk across the neatly mown lawn and Jane unlocks the door. If I’d only looked down I’d have not seen this as anything more than a large village hall with furnishings to match. But I don’t, I look up. In fact one could not fail to look up.
“This place is macabre,” I exclaim as Jane and Alan smile at my reaction. For the walls and ceilings are lines with no less than 2435 deer heads.
The 2435 deer heads in the Mar Lodge Ball Room
The evening continues with food and chatting before we retire to bed whereupon Alan starts a chorus of snoring. I reach for my radio, plug in the earphones and tune into the only available radio station. I stir through the night and finally come to with Neil Diamond’s “Beautiful Noise” playing into my ears with the backing track of Alan’s snoring.
Over breakfast Alan asks how I slept.
“Well you snore,” I say.
“I was going to say you snored,” he replies and it appears we had had a shift system going of keeping one another awake.
We share the concerns of the package waiting for Mark Storey. He’s two days late and no sign of him. Challenge Control had phoned the night before trying to locate him. I reach Braemar, along the boring wet road, and call in. He’s still not been located and they are now out looking for him.
Braemar is cleared out of food. Challengers have been through the stores like a plague of locusts. I feel constrained by narrow shop doorways and people milling around. I manage to pick together a few things, go to the outdoor shop and buy additional breakfasts and evening meals, lunch in a café then flee for Gedler Shiel bothy, road walking south, taking the tracks past the Lion’s Face, enjoying the viewpoints, road walking to Invercauld Bridge then the lovely open tracks, where I feel very achy, that curve their way to the bothy.
In all it takes me five hours and I’m surprised, yet pleased, to find TGO company in the form of Paul Farrar. He’s a police inspector and, having previously had a career in Police IT myself, we find lots to talk about. He’s practical and down to earth in his views of policing which is always refreshing to hear.
Tuesday the 25th dawns cool with high cloud. I make it a lazy start, chatting to Paul and aiming for just the eight miles to Shielin of Mark, via the Corbett of Conachcraig. Paul’s aiming for Lochnagar but it’s likely we’ll meet at the bothy later.
Conachcraig proudly fills a bend in the track and, its three summits form a shallow coire. I start my climb towards the middle summit, taking it slowly through the cold air and gentle wisps of wind. I fool myself that I have a full head of hair as I keep catching sight of a fringe. I sink into disappointment as I realise it’s no more than my eyebrows growing bushy with age.
I reach the middle summit in over two hours then bend south east to the true 865m top. From here a good path leads west, though the wrong direction it meets the track in the glen below which I follow around to the Spittal of Glenmuick. I recall my last visit here, in pouring rain, taking shelter and making good use of the hot soup from the dispensing machine. This time I’m able to sit outside and enjoy the weather and sip my soup.
I press on up the steep gorge and take Ian Shiel’s recommended route around to the bothy. It avoids the bog hop of previous years, following a stream upwards until it dwindles to sump holes and underground gurgling of water.
I drop down the burn, easily crossable and not the raging torrent of last year, and approach the simple structure of the bothy. A man approaches, older, late sixties, wild in features with a full head of grey wiry hair. He wears tweed trousers down to the shin, below are wrapped home made cloth gaiters, tied with string, sitting above stout boots. His jacket is white, cloth and multi pocketed. In his hand is a substantial pair of garden secateurs.
“What are you looking for?” I ask.
“Heather for me bed.”
He follows me into the bothy, his manner kind, his voice a thick Scottish brogue. I look around, his kit is substantial and old. It could have been the 1940s, he’s spread tins and things tied up in string over the bench. It took both my grandfather’s a lifetime to litter a bench with so many eclectic items, it appears he’s done it from the contents of his pack in one afternoon. The five bottles of whisky make me cautious and I plan to camp.
Bernhard Koeglmeier arrives, a challenger from Germany, having just walked in from Braemar. We exchange glances as the man lights his ancient stoves. He chats away, saying he’s two bottles one of petrol, one of paraffin. The flames shoot high, three to four feet and he does a dance as he puts the fire out that spreads to the floor. “Don’t ya worry, it’ll ney explode,” he says.
He heats his food then transfers it to a smaller stove to simmer (such is his method of controlling flame). Paul arrives and sits with us; our eyes can’t avoid the eccentric activities of the man. There’s just one bed space spare, “Bernhard and I are camping, as you’ve only a tarp you can have the bothy,” I say.
Paul nods gently, “that’s very kind.” I felt a little stuck. I’d not really been honest. I didn’t really fancy the bothy. I felt cautious about all the whisky.
I put my tent up, come into eat and the man says he’ll get a fire going. He does, a roaring success and we toast ourselves as he stirs the fire with his bare hands. There is wood to be chopped up, this is when I notice the axe and the bow saw (tied up with string). “Did you bring those?” I ask.
“How heavy is your pack?”
“About seventy pounds there.” And I struggle with mine at 22 pounds.
He puts on large spectacles, lights his pipe, I wonder if he is a lover of combustion as I find a pipe smoker spends more time reigniting the thing than ever drawing his breath through it. I pick a piece of wood to cut. “You’ll be better with this,” he says and from his pocket draws a hand saw.
“Will you take a dram?” he asks Paul and me. I decline, am pleased he does not push it. His manner is so gentle and kind. He pours a generous measure for himself and Paul. As I start to nod with sleep I make my way to my tent and sleep fitfully.
Wednesday and I enter the bothy to make my breakfast. The fire is still going and the man offers me the nearest seat. I make my food and notice that two and a half of the whisky bottles are empty. I wonder if Paul has further imbibed but he looks fit and ready to go and assures me he has slept well. We bid farewells to the man, cross the burn and head for the summit of Muckle Cairn to pick up the track to Loch Lee.
“That wasn’t exactly true about me having a good nights sleep,” says Paul. I’m not altogether surprised to hear this buy ask why. “I think I had the measure of the man but he sat up most the night drinking, when he laid down he snored, was restless, talked and muttered endlessly in his sleep and would continually sit up and yell, ‘For Jesus Christ’s sake’ in a Father Jack kind of fashion”.
“Whilst admiring his axe?” I ask.
“I didn’t look,” said Paul.
We peep into a bothy at the head of Glen Lee. It’s strewn with straw, a large open fire, with spit hook for meat, is the centre piece of the gable wall.
“Is this the bothy that chap said he’d be moving onto I wonder.”
“I think so,” replies Paul.
“I don’t like the look of that hook in the fire. It looks just right for roasting a challengers head,” I reply.
“With an apple in its mouth,” adds Paul.
From here our conversation continues until we have convicted the poor fellow of a multitude of crimes. Some of which are quite heinous indeed. We chat some more and discover we both know Gary Smith, a mountain guide from North Wells. Like the lady at the Tarf Hotel bothy it feels a small world at times.
The conversation then extends to the mating habits of deer and how the male rolls itself in his own urine to make himself attractive to the female.
“Not something that’d work for us humans,” says Paul.
“He could say ‘sorry love I’ve been out on the piss, it was a stag night you know’,” I add.
“Very good. Did you just make that up?” he asks.
“I have to confess, no,” I reply, “although it’s my own joke I made it up years ago and have been just waiting for the opportunity to use it. Today was the day.”
I recall last year’s route march of soggy walkers heading for Tarfside. Being a day late there’s only the two of us until we break onto the track to Westbank, where we are caught up by Roger Wiltshire who I can’t help but notice is wearing odd boots. His two companions, having dropped out at Braemar, mean that some of his essential kit is in the wrong rucksack. Most importantly this appears to include his cigarettes and the money with which to purchase them. Paul lets him have one and Roger draws on it with relief.
We walk into Tarfside, we are the first to arrive, just missing the rain, and lap up the kindness of Ann, Janet and Marion. There are rooms galore and we each have one to ourselves. The evening passes with the meal, endless pieces of cake, conversation and tea.
I take my time getting going in the morning. It’s a long walk to North Water Bridge but being split by a welcome rest in Edzell, it does not feel so far. I set off and amble down the road in the wake of Roger and Paul. I look for the bridge to cross the River North Esk to the good path of its south bank and like last year, miss it. I pick up one later which I only find by ploughing through marshy ground, in a ferocious hail storm, then following tracks back to the bridge.
On the far side I find a new pace and make good progress via Dalbog then the footpath that cuts the corner off the road into Edzell. As I pass the corner of a wood I jump out of my skin at a large explosion. It’s right by my left ear and as my heart rate rescinds I see that it’s a gas powered crow scarer located perfectly by a public footpath. This is my second experience of these for many years ago, while walking, I settled down for lunch without knowing one was right next to me. Like this time when it went off my whole world stood still for a moment.
The Crow Scarer, strategically positioned to scare walkers
The pine trees of the wood sway and bow in the breeze and the wind rushes through the tops like the sea running up a sandy shore. To my right the short wheat shimmers in the wind, and gleams in the sun, as it rushes up the hillside. So perfect and green that if two Telletubies came bounding over the horizon I’d not have been surprised.
I rest and eat in Edzell and visit the Mace Shop. It’s closed, early closing Thursday. I go to the Post Office for cash, this is closed too. Thankfully they were both shut; if only the shop had been open I’d then not have had the money to camp.
I take the familiar route across the River North Esk, pass the bull with the unfeasibly large testicles (he’s a landmark and a legend in my book) and make my way through the farm roads to Chapelton before breaking off towards the public road that leads to the camp site.
The bull with the unfeasibly large testicles in a shy pose
This involves crossing one more field and, with my mind away with my thoughts, I suddenly become aware of a herd of young bulls prancing towards me. In a group of males there always has to be a cocky one and this is no exception as one stands forth, leaps and bounds and kicks its back legs like an Irish Setter. It takes me a second to realise it’s my red jacket.
“Oh bullocks,” I exclaim as the bastards move in. I’m walking next to a fence so I press my left hand down on the top wire and go to vault it. The next moment I’m yelling, “For Jesus Christ’s sake,” for the fence is electrified and my hand has just been flung off and is stinging like crazy. I now know what the man in the bothy was dreaming of, a thousand bullocks chasing him towards an electric fence.
In the excitement one of the bullocks tries to hump another, his prey is not having any of it and sharply moves forward which sets the others prancing closer to me. I suddenly discover why farming communities so often have deep West Country sounding voices. For, instinctively, I raise my trekking poles and yell, “Goo onnn, get out of ‘ere”. Surprisingly this works and they back off, though I do have to practise my new found skill twice more before I make the gate. On the roadside they gang up against the fence and stare at me. It takes awhile to switch on my mobile to take the picture, below, so I taunt them with my red jacket to keep their minds focused on the impending photo opportunity.
At the campsite I spend my last £7.31 on the camp fee, an ice cream and a bar of chocolate.
Roger Wiltshire is already there and watches intently as I make a mess of putting up my tent. A bearded, long haired chap arrives. I ask his name, it’s Mark Storey. I asked of his adventures, how come he was missing for two days. It appears he’d changed his route and his message did not reach Challenge Control. We are joined by a couple from Surrey and Sheila Farley from Cousldon. Just five tents and the night before there’d have likely been seventy or eighty.
When I wake I breakfast then peer out. Roger has made one of his early starts and left me an egg by my tent flap (he’d offered eggs the night before). I’m bemused as to know what to do with it. Thoughts of having a baseball bat and getting it bowled to me merge with placing it on the road and watching a car crush it to throwing it as hard as I can against a wall. But my best plan feels to be to pop it into the toilet bowl and wonder at what the cleaner will think. Fortunately Mark stirs and claims it for his breakfast.
I change my destination to Montrose Bay, the plan of St Cyrus has been shelved because of the lack of bus fare to then get me to Montrose.
I pass more bullocks that, safely behind a fence, skip and charge. As I rise over a hill I get the first view of the sea. A welcome sight on what’s been my quietest crossing. It’s the first where I’ve not planned to meet anybody else and I wonder at myself for working alone, living alone and holidaying alone.
First view of the sea
I pass through the sand dunes, paddle in the sea and throw the small pebble I’ve carried from Mallaig. As I walk along the beach towards Montrose the sea runs up the sandy shore like the breeze rushing through the tops of the pine trees.
[*] This is the 815m summit at 349967. I can’t exactly remember my route beyond this point so have to accept, due to bad planning, I probably did not cross its namesake Corbett at 357948.
© Steve Smith
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