A movable feast while walking through wet and wild Scotland.
I went for some hill walking in the highlands of Scotland. What I got was so much more than that.
Scotland, home of kilts, bagpipes, haggis and single malt whiskey is also home to a vast wilderness of extraordinary mountains and lochs. The Highlands are sparsely populated and mostly barren save for scattered villages and farms. There are many more sheep than people. Narrow roads wind through the countryside like trails. Solitude is all but guaranteed.
Scotland is a place rife with history. Part of my reason for going to Scotland was the significant amount of climbing history that took place in the Highlands. Equipment and technique development, modern mountain rescue and more was all happening in Scotland in the 1960’s and ‘70’s. In addition to the skills and gear being developed, a culture of characters was forged, and those characters were at the forefront of climbing for decades. This era was documented by numerous authors and as a boy I poured over their stories and books, hanging on every word. Having read, and re-read, about these places for decades I wanted to see them in person and see if what I imagined was anything like reality. I was not disappointed.
I arrived a day early to spend a bit of time wandering around Edinburgh by myself. Using my time-honored technique of walking until I was completely lost I went into small shops and cafes and stopped random people on the street to ask directions. This always seems to get me better acquainted with a place than just looking at a map or guidebook. Plus, I learn what the locals find interesting!
Traveling to new places makes me pay attention to details that normally I might ignore. Local history, food, architecture, weather patterns, street names, buskers on the corners, all seem somehow more interesting and charming.
Every nook and cranny in Edinburgh seems to have significance, whether it’s a medieval castle or the café where the first Harry Potter book was written. Arched doorways lead to winding staircases, alleys and courtyards. Cobblestone streets lined by gothic buildings with towers and turrets evoke images of ancient Scottish intrigue and feuds as well as the Renaissance era. Statues of famous dead people (some are my ancestors) are everywhere. Standing over the city is a rather large castle, which makes it easy to get one’s bearings when lost. Despite its cultural heritage Edinburgh is a modern and busy city. Trams and busses make it easy to traverse the city but really Edinburgh is the perfect walking town. Lots of hills and stairs but most things seem to be in walking distance.
Next morning, we jumped on a train for Fort William. The train winds through valleys and along lochs as it passes out of the lowlands and enters the highlands, a mountainous region with numerous peaks jutting up from remote and barren valleys. Small villages with whitewashed houses and narrow lanes are situated at the foot of the valleys or along the lochs.
Arriving at Fort William we were met by our local guide. Lunch was a short drive to the historic Ben Nevis Inn. Situated at the trailhead to Ben Nevis, highest peak in the UK, the Inn is ground zero for a ton of climbing history. After lunch we took a hike to shake off the travel cobwebs then drove to our hotel for the next few nights, The Clachaig Inn. A charming place with about 25 rooms it sports 2 restaurants and 3 bars! One of the bars has won awards as Best Pub in Scotland and Best Pub in UK. Their dedication to food and drink was a proper introduction to Highland hospitality. The whole place is a virtual museum of Scottish climbing with pictures of climbs and climbers as well as old climbing gear liberally scattered about. Immediately it felt like home. The Clachaig Inn is in Glencoe. In 1692 38 members of Clan MacDonald were massacred by troops loyal to England and led by Robert Campbell. Even today the Campbells are not welcome at the Clachaig Inn as exhibited by a sign at the registration desk. The Scots have long memories… Glencoe is also the location of several movie locations, including Harry Potter, Braveheart and James Bond — Skyfall.
The traditional Scottish delicacy of haggis
A big storm (Ali) was predicted to make the next few days wet and windy. It did not disappoint. It also did not keep us from hiking up a storm. Literally and figuratively.
Over the next days we hiked Bidean nam Bian (The Three Sisters), Ben Nevis (highest peak in UK), and the Devils Staircase. To do these hikes in what the Scots call “full conditions” gave them an air of authenticity, also of seriousness. Near the summit of Ben Nevis our group found a woman curled into a fetal position and virtually unresponsive. Her husband was trying to help her, to no avail. Our group shielded her from the 60 — mph wind and rain, and after it was determined that she was suffering from an undetermined and significant condition, our local guide called for a rescue helicopter. Somehow the copter was able to hover in the wind, lower a medic, and winch the woman to the copter before flying off.
View from the summit of Ben Nevis, with a rescue helicopter flying in
It became apparent that wild weather was a big part of outdoor recreation in Scotland. In the worse weather people were in the hills having fun. The hotels all had drying rooms for your gear and a stop at the nearest pub, some right at the trailheads, to dry out and rehydrate, was the norm. The epic weather caused us to modify some plans, but it did not keep us from hitting the trail. We now feel as though we are proper Scottish outdoors people!
Our very own Mountain Madness adventurer — Nicki!
Following 3 nights in Glencoe we went to Fort William for one night. Next morning, we toured a whisky distillery then headed north for lunch on the Isle of Skye. This schedule was an alternate since the storm was at its peak this day with winds forecast to be 90 mph. Even the Scottish hikers were staying inside today!
After a windswept lunch (the gusts were shaking the café!) on Skye we continued to the mountainous region of Torridon. This part of Scotland is remote, barren and incredibly beautiful. We stayed a couple nights at the Tigh An Eilean Inn located in the small village of Sheidaig. Our rooms looked out at the salt water loch just in front of the inn and were comfortable and quaint and decorated in an eclectic fashion. As might be expected in a remote and tiny Scottish village, the pub next door was the gathering spot for local characters. With the jokes being told and the yarns being spun it felt like a scene from the BBC or a movie.
Eilean Donan Castle
Village of Sheidaig
Lodge on 60,000 acre private estate!
After 2 days of hiking nearby we headed for Inverness and the train back to Edinburgh. We were closing the circle on a grand circuit around the Highlands. We hit the town for our final group dinner and enjoyed yet another evening telling our own jokes and spinning yarns about our adventure. In the morning everyone was headed in different directions and back to the reality of “real” life.
Despite being very different from what I am used to, what with castles and such, Scotland left me with an air of the familiar. The history I had read played out in real time. We walked in the footsteps of the famous and infamous, climbed mountains in “full- Scottish” conditions, soaked in the atmosphere of small village life, ate great meals, tasted really old single-malt whisky, enjoyed the hospitality of every Scot we met, all while traveling with an amazing group of people. I can’t wait to return…
- Steve Guthrie