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Posts tagged ‘hills’

Insect Endurance on the Sutherland Trail

We pitched our tents in the lonely Pass of the Thieves, the Bealach nam Meirleach.

It’s a bit off piste of the “official” trail because erudite Donald-who-drives-the-Durness-minibus told us when we jumped aboard it was the better route in to Gobernuisgach, the remote shooting lodge we were headed for, five miles away in the hills. And the old lady sitting beside him in the front nodded knowledgeably in agreement as the bus sped up the single track road. We took their advice and somewhere in the wilderness of Sutherland’s lochs and hills he pulled up in a layby, unloaded our packs and pointed out the track through the heather.

“Good luck with the clegs,” were his last words as he revved the engine and quickly rolled up his window.

The first of the legions of insects had silently settled on my forearm even before his van had turned the bend, but I didn’t notice until I felt the needle prick my skin. It was a foretaste of the carnage that was to follow.

I’d forgotten about clegs (or horse flies). I certainly didn’t know they’d be able to penetrate my thin clothing, or that they’d be impervious to the thick later of insecticide I’d plastered over every exposed inch of skin. They’re lazy, sneaky insects with a heavy-duty impact – as my red and swelling wrist was demonstrating.

P1040220We ducked, swatted and swiped our way along the old drove route that had been used by generations of farmers to walk their cattle to market hundreds of miles away in the south. Their long journey to Falkirk or Perth from Sutherland took weeks, and on one occasion when the men returned with their annual earnings, they were ambushed and robbed in this isolated place. The gaelic name, Bealach nam Meirleach guarantees the crime will never be forgotten.

The walking was flat, easy and (once the clegs retreated) lazily slow in the burning sunshine. We dawdled, stopped to rest, fill bottles and drink from sparkling waterfalls then by early evening, when the lochs spread out along the strath before us, we set up camp, ate and settled down in our sleeping bags.

A stiff breeze flapped my tent and I lay gazing out at faraway Ben Loyal, listening to the persistent gurgle of water through the rocks below. There were no ruins here, no signs of previous habitation, no stone walls or broken down fences.

As my eyes closed I relished the thought that I was likely to be the first person ever to lay my head down and sleep on this few square feet of remote earth.

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Getting back on the trail (Sutherland cont.)

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Sutherland, the far empty corner of the northwest, is Scotland at it’s most remote.

It’s wild, bare and beautiful but in mid summer it can also be catastrophically itchy because it’s home to the meanest, most prolific midges on the planet. And for the next few days we’re going to run the gauntlet.

It’s been 15 months since we had to pull out of the long-distance Sutherland Trail just half way through when the weather closed in with rain, snow and sleet – and the prospect of another three or four days in the hills with no shelter was just too grim.

We’ll be taking the train tomorrow from Inverness back to Lairg then transferring to a minibus to the tiny village of Achfary to pick up where we left off,  wild camping on the isolated tracks through glens and hillsides that should be starting to turn purple with heather in full bloom. The only niggling worry is that it’s peak season for the notorious midges so, unless there’s a wind to keep them at bay, we’ll be in trouble.

This adventure has been a long time in the planning but my rucksack is packed (and ominously heavy) for four days of walking, my new boots are about to face their first serious test and the weather is looking good.

All we need now is a strong Sutherland breeze to keep the beasties at bay.

Naked hills and empty glens

 

The remoteness was exhilarating, but last week’s hills were lonely and lifeless. I walked away from the wilderness more anxious than ever about the desolation and destruction we’ve imposed on these fragile places.

The brutal beauty of the rocky mountain tops remains stark and true. Up there, beyond 3000ft, where the ice and weather have gnawed and eroded,  it’s harsh and dangerous and there’s a grandeur to the bare crags and peaks. They evoke awe and respect; they’re tougher than us.

It’s the empty, treeless expanse  below the tops that worries me. On the green slopes, in the soft, broad glens,  beside gentle lochs and Highland rivers there should be more than the tattered remnants of ancient Caledonian pines, more than an empty greenness where only deer roam. There should be  animals and  birds. And trees.

Much of the land that stretches across wild Scotland  hosts little wildlife and no natural woodland. It’s often assumed  trees simply won’t grow on the poor soils, but in the bogs you see the roots and remnants of strong trunks and branches preserved in peat. And in steep river ravines or on inaccessible islands – places that the sheep and deer haven’t been able to graze – the birches, rowans, pine and other native species take root and flourish. The photographs of the tiny lush islands against the degraded land that surrounds them tell the story.

These places have been slowly dying from overgrazing for 200 years but we’ve become inured to the desecration. We walk to the echo of boots on paths and the occasional ricochet of a rifle. It’s what we expect to see and hear, along with the burnt strips and squares of heather on grouse moors; the preserve of the game birds, wealthy landowners and their foreign clients.

Scotland has the most concentrated pattern of private land ownership in the developed world. Just 432 families account for half of all non-public land and a handful  – “absentees” who don’t even live there – own hundreds of thousands of acres. Since Victorian times they’ve “managed” this land for their fun; the occasional forays north for “sport” – deer stalking and grouse shooting. All that matters to them are plentiful herds of deer and coveys of grouse. Everything else can wither and die.

There are some enlightened places where natural regeneration is now taking place, and beavers, sea eagles and red kites have been reintroduced to wails of protest. But the efforts of the green owners, which are often conservation groups, are a drop in the ocean and opposed at every turn.

At long last however there’s a glimmer of hope that our Government might be taking the situation in hand. Land reform is on the cards in Scotland and landowners are slowly wakening up to a new world where they no longer hold all the power and the mismanagement of our most precious resource won’t be tolerated.

My new boots won’t last long enough to walk through a more natural order but I’m confident that the monoculture, and the influence of the landed minority that enjoy it, will eventually wither as surely as the Caley Pines and wildlife they condemned to near extinction. Our landscape deserves it.

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Boots that were made for walking

 

They’re irreplaceable old friends that  have accompanied me for a thousand miles or more. Every step of the way.

I never imagined, when I bought them five years ago, that the distances they’d travel would be so vast or that they’d transport me on adventures that are still reshaping my life. I thought they’d be just occasional acquaintances, brought out to play on odd weekends.

But gradually the high heels and cowboy boots were discarded, the sandals and wellingtons laid aside and for the last two years they’ve been my default footwear, whether it’s climbing hills or boarding the steps of aircraft. Bare feet are the only better option.

They walked the Camino: 500 miles across Spain, climbing high over the Pyrenees and skimming the dust of the Meseta, kicking over woodland tracks and along the sides of hot motorways. They pounded the industrial suburbs of major cities and trod gently on the smoothed stone of ancient cathedrals. They carried me all the way to Santiago.

They walked more warily on the exposed ridges of  New Zealand’s Kepler Track, strapped on snowshoes in the wilds of Ontario and slipped into the stirrups of Ginger to explore the wilderness at the far end of Lake Wakitipu.

But (like their owner, I fear) they’re showing some signs of wear and tear. The once deep, rutted tread is worn smooth and unsafe. Holes have cracked open along the seams and they’re no longer watertight. I worry that their long adventurous days of crossing moors, hill paths, heather and rock are numbered but admire how they have matured and now tell a story of the bumps and scrapes experienced along the way; not least the mushy mess that replaced my little toe for a week in Spain.

But how do you say goodbye to such trusted friends?

Almost guiltily I’ve started to research brands and prices. After five years of skipping the footwear section of outdoor stores, I’m being drawn to pick up and assess the alternatives. I haven’t tried any on but one of these days I’ll have to invest and break in replacements though I’ll never dispose of them, and on dry days and gentle slopes they’ll be taken out of retirement.

Many years ago I tidied the attic and found the tattered trainers and broken skateboards my son had been hoarding. Callously, I  consigned them to the bin. He threatened to leave home unless they were retrieved so I complied, of course, but didn’t understand.

I’m sorry Ali; I get it now.

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The summit of Ben Lomond

Immersed in the West

It’s misty and moody and I just can’t stay away.

Scotland’s west coast has been calling me this summer and I’m no sooner away than I’m back. I’ve walked through showers and downpours then wakened in the tent to pools of water in the “porch” and a wee cowerin’ beastie (not a rat or mouse or vole – so what was it?) nestling under my rucksack. That was a surprise; for both of us.

I follow hill tracks and paths with a head full of Bonny Prince Charlie, clan battles and  Highlanders, between mountains and alongside rivers in spate; near Glencoe,  Black Mount and onwards to Kingshouse below the Buachaille Etive Mor.

And I’m going back again today. Stob Binnean and Ben More are the big hills that beckon my old walking pal and I. There’s rain forecast, of course, but we’re undaunted.

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Walk the WHW (if you dare)

The West Highland Way is Scotland’s best known long distance path, but nobody seems to have informed the cattle that it’s a right-of-way. Or maybe they were just a bit weary of the endless hikers on a May holiday weekend and decided to stage a protest.

I’m not frightened of cattle  (although these girls had a definite glint in their eyes) but I spotted a few folk who preferred to take a huge detour rather than run the gauntlet. Pamplona’s Bull Run would be the Camino’s equivalent, I suppose  – although I don’t remember any pilgrims signing up for that either!

 

 

On the edge of the Atlantic

 

Hill lochans, peat bogs and wild flower machair stretch out behind me; I’m on the white shell sand at the edge of the Atlantic, gazing out at hazy St Kilda, forty miles away. Beyond that it’s Canada.

I’m just the latest to stare out from the western shore of North Uist across thousands of miles of sea to wonder about friends or family on the “other side”. Hundreds left from here in the early 1800s, bound in the main for Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Desperation drove them on perilous one way journeys because they couldn’t afford to pay high rents on their small crofts and there was no mercy from the landowners who effectively “cleared” them from their land.

Maybe that’s why this feels such a fragile, poignant place; it’s haunted by the memories and the longing of families who’ve gazed for two centuries from either side of the ocean. You hear ancient whispers in the western wind and sense a long sorrow for the loss of homeland.

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