Taking it to the limit with us and our shadows

30.03 miles   1000ft
Yet another glorious day! Managed almost 6 hours sleep last night, which is surprising considering it was the lumpiest bed we’ve ever slept in. The owners of the b&b were really nice though and agreed to do breakfast early so we could get off in time to reach the ferry. Porridge (though with salt – ugh) followed by big breakfast which for me included a double yoker from the owners own hens! Chatting to the owners and the other couple who were staying over put us behind slightly but we had a lovely walk, past beautiful beaches, through the interior to cross over to the other side, pausing at Northbay to admire its small lochan and then, because we had a little bit of time, we headed towards the airport beach before going back to the pier to wait for the ferry. The airport beach was every bit as stunning as we remembered, probably even more so. When we eventually boarded the ferry we were almost immediately greeted by the other couple who had been staying at the b&b. They were a very nice couple who obviously love Scotland and they were good to talk to. The only thing was, it meant we didn’t really get to see anything much of the crossing itself. We have vowed to be totally antisocial before we get the ferry crossing over ot Harris so we can take in all the views.

As soon as we disembarked we knew we were in for a sensational walk. The beach next to the pier, where Bonnie Prince Charlie disembarked all those years ago, is one of the most beautiful beaches, white sand, clear blue sea – you could be in the Caribbean – and with the weather as it was even more so. The wind that had been present on Barra was absent on Eriskay and we just strolled along the beach in the warm sunshine marvelling at how clear the sea was and how lucky we were to be here. We continued on past the Eriskay flat we have stayed in on previous occasions and walked on to the beach below it which was just as beautiful as we remembered with a lovely pink hue from all the shells. The Pollachar Inn  could be seen across the sea at the end of the headland on South Uist. 

We passed the Politician pub, named after SS Politician, a cargo ship, laden with whisky, which ran aground in 1942 just off the coast of Eriskay. The locals, enduring those grim year years of shortages and privations, thought all of their Christmases had come early and went about a lengthy salvage operation. This story led to a book, by Compton MacKenzie, called Whisky Galore, a new film of which has just been released, and made our way towards the causeway. Crossing this took a little longer than we expected and by now it wasn’t just warm, it was hot! A stop off at the Pollachar was a must even though at this point it was now 10 past 2 and we still had about 16 miles to do (or so we thought). The nice lad behind the bar put my phone on charge  ( I was a little worried about thebbattery because of all the photos I was taking!) while we sat outside basking in the sunshine and sneaking our dinner. Once again we got chatting to other people and before we knew it we were late setting off again. At this pijnt we were still at the bottim of South Uist and it was now quarter past 3. 

We set off following the newly created Hebridean Way, but this proved to be quite circuitous and often ran behind the dunes without any view of the 20 mile or so stretch of beach, South Uist is renowned for. Maybe this is because, of all the beaches in the Hebrides, the beaches of South Uist are the worst. We had thought this from past experience, and today, whenever we did join the beach on this strecth our opinion remained the same. We spent a lovely week in North Uist some years back and the beaches there are tremendous. South Uist can’t hold a candle to them. 

After pausing for a break at around half 5 we decided to diverge from the Hebridean Way as our progress was too slow so we made our way to the road, not a problem as roads here are relatively quiet, and at least it meant we could make up some time. We were very aware that we were going to struggle to get to Howmore before dark. The last 10 miles were hard work and the last 3 or 4 especially so. It was certainly a case of ‘digging deep’. We had a beautiful sunset to keep our spirits up but feet were very sore and knees and thighs were aching. We eventually reached Howmore at around 9.40, just as it was getting dark, very tired and weary. Only one other couple were stopping at the hostel so at least we had a room to ourselves which always helps get a better nights sleep. So after a brief chat with the other couple, and two cups of tea, we went to bed, absolutely shattered, but still with a sense of contentment at all that we had seen earlier in the day: the islands at their best!

In honour of Ally McCoist, who’s on a bike ride up through the Hebrides, there’ll be some football-related stuff over the course of the next few sentences; so, cliches at the ready. Today, Brian, was definitely a game of two halves. The first half, up to and including our pint and picnic at The Polochar, was like being a Celtic fan, with one triumphant moment after another. The second half, sorry Ally, was like being a Rangers fan with one’s patience and powers of endurance pushed to their limits. Those last few miles to Howmore dragged on like a football season you wanted to finish weeks ago. With about three miles to go we paused to put on an extra layer or two, as the warmth of the sun had all but disappeared. During this interlude I fished out my Roberts portable radio to tune in to the Real Madrid v Athletico Madrid European Cup semi final, thinking it might take my mind off the old aching back, the tight calf muscles, the throbbing right knee etc. Bad decision. Like Rangers losing a cup semi final to Celtic one weekend, then being trounced 5-1 at home the next, my woes were multiplied by this portable radio experience. Christiano (or CR7 as he likes to call himself) Ronaldo scored a hat trick as Real humiliated their cross-city rivals and if that wasn’t bad enough, Phil Neville was co-commentating: talk about twisting the knife.

I would walk 500 miles…

3.6 miles   361ft
Spectacular is the only word to use to describe yesterday and today. I’ve already waxed lyrical about getting to Oban yesterday and the sunset last night was just lovely. This morning as we woke to another beautiful sunny day I just couldn’t stop smiling. Our ferry over to the Isle of Barra, one of the most southerly of the Western Isles wasn’t due to leave until half 1 so we had time to sit and prepare a shopping list for Joy to do our online food shop for Harris (not long now), to visit Lidl for food for tomorrow and I even managed to do a bit of clothes shopping (shorts and strappy top in case the weather is as good as they say it might be, having sent my others back home thinking I wouldnt need them). 

I was feeling quite giddy waiting for the ferry to arrive, knowing it was going to be a good crossing. It was even better than I thought it was going to be. The crossing takes about 4 and a half hours and for just about all of it (apart from when we had to go and get some tea) we sat on the top deck just mesmerised by the tremendous views all around. It’s hard to say which was the greatest highlight: Mull and Ben More and another top we’d never seen before, but which looked very shapely; the views back to Oban; Morvern and the Ardnamuchan peninsula beyond that, when at one point we could see the lighthouse near Sanna where we’d walked last year with Pete and Hel and Pete and Shiv; Eigg, Rum, Muck and Canna, beautifully arranged so that at one point we could see all four of them in a line, the hills on Rum looking quite forbidding even in brilliant sunshine; or Coll, seen from its north coast with the golden sands of its many beaches highlighted by the sun.

At one point, as we were grinning madly at each other, Ian said, ‘Well, all we need now are a few dolphins.’ Cue, about ten minutes later one of our fellow passengers called out to tell us that there were indeed dolphins to be seen, and not just one or two, there were loads of them. I’ve never seen so many. I must have been feeling really content with my lot, because I didn’t even moan about not having my camera. I just enjoyed the show. Then a little later we saw what must have been a whale, much bigger, its long back rising out of the water a couple of times, not wanting to be outdone by those dolphins obviously. Then we were treated to views of the Uists and Eriskay, before finally coming round into Barra itself with Kismuil castle standing proud. As we disembarked a woman, who was waiting to pick up someone from the ferry, and who, like us was grinning from ear to ear because of what a beautiful day it was, said, ‘Welcome to Barra, it’s always like this you know…’ Actually we do know it’s not, having once had to bail out of a holiday in Barra when we were in the campervan with the kids and the weather was so bad for days on end that we just had to give up and go home. And that was in August. 

The walk to our b&b was an absolute pleasure on this warm summer’s evening and it saw us cross the 500 mile mark. Yay! We did wander out again to see the sunset over the nearby beach, but it didn’t really materialise. Last night’s sunset was an unexpected bonus and hoping for another tonight was just being greedy. Tomorrow we have a long day, with around 28 miles to walk. My feet continue to give me some gip and they look a bit like a compeed jigsaw as I try to cushion the various parts that hurt. None of that matters though. If the sun continues to shine and we get to see the islands we love so much, in all their glory, every step will be a joy.

One of the things I used to like about teaching was being able, for the most part, to choose the texts that I’d try to teach in the classroom and one of my favourites was a poem called “Rich Day”, by Norman McCaig. McCaig’s muse was often the landscape and seascape of the North West Highlands and Islands. He holidayed regularly in Achmelvich, a wee place just north of Lochinver in the fabled region of Sutherland, where me, Sharon, Joanne, Hannah, Joy and Jim, sometimes on our own, sometimes with friends and family, have enjoyed some great times. McCaig’s holiday cottage, a spartan residence albeit a few steps up from the squalor of Rowchoish, abutted what we used to call Auld Achy, the Achmelvich 9 hole “golf course” that we used to love hacking around: part links, part crazy golf in which the key water hazard was the sea and the holes a sequence of rings of sand, dotted around the dunes and rocky headlands. If you were unlucky, you’d be accompanied by Jim the sarcastic caddie, whose caustic comments such as “Good one Dad (or Rich or Pete)” as your ball disappeared into the briny, have shattered the confidence of many a man and woman who has tried to tame Auld Achy. After a year or two of coming to Achmelvich we got together in one of the caravans and, nicely lubricated by Quagga red wine, decided it was high time to give proper names to the nine holes, the eighth of which was duly christened McCaig’s Folly, as a good tee shot might well have rattled the corrugated roof of his holiday dwelling. Which brings us back to the man himself. McCaig’s poems were observational and spontaneous reactions to the effect of landscape and natural phenomena upon the human spirit; he once said that a poem should not take longer to write than the time it takes to smoke a cigarette.

“Rich Day” recounts a day spent fishing in a high Sutherland lochan and the richness of experience that it bequeathed McCaig and his pals as they sauntered home with newly minted memories “jingling” in their pockets. In the poem he uses the phrase “ragged millionaires”, which has long been a favourite of mine, and today’s been one of those days when, though your shoes are starting to fall apart and the backside of your walking trousers is ever more threadbare, you feel fabulously wealthy and rich beyond the dreams of avarice. All of this and we got to meet Ally McCoist on the ferry!

Easy like Sunday Morning

13.3 miles   1454ft
A fab day! Started when I woke up this morning and looked at my phone and saw it was half 8! I’d woken a couple of times in the night but gone back to sleep pretty quickly, so I’d had about 8 hours sleep. Fantastic. And I felt so much better for it.

So it was quite a late start this morning, quarter to 11, when we set off on our way to Oban. The walk today was absolutely delightful. As we left Taynuilt there was a very strange blue hue to the sky casting a misty ethereal glow to the landscape.  Ben Cruachan’s profile was etched against the sky whilst other tops could only just be made out, like shy maidens trying to blend into the background. We took an unplanned path that led us through some beautiful countryside, with just the odd houses dotted around, each having a quite spectacular view, with Ben Cruachan never far from sight. This path eventually led to a very quiet country lane (I think about a dozen cars passed us in the 4 hours we were walking) which was really lovely to walk along. There was a beautiful stretch of water with highland cattle positioned in the foreground as if waiting for some landscape painter to come along and immortalise the scene. Soon Ben Cruachan was joined by another ridge of high hills, to enhance the Quinag vibe we’d noticed yesterday. The indefatigable yellow gorse helped to complete the scene.

We walked along this lane for about 10 miles, taking us all the way into Oban. We did stop to have a bit of lunch and by now the blue haze was being replaced by sunshine and warm sunshine at that. By the time we dropped down into Oban I was in my t shirt and getting excited about seeing the sea dazzling in the sunlight. Before we set off on this walk I had a dream, that we would arrive at Oban in the sunshine and that we’d feast on a fish and chip supper sat on the front looking out to sea and over to the Isle of Mull. In my heart I didn’t really expect this to be the case. Well, our arrival in Oban certainly lived up to my dream. We dropped our bags at the Backpackers Plus hostel where were staying tonight, had a quick cup of tea and then went back out again to walk up to McCaig’s folly, something we’ve seen so many times before from the ferry but never actually visited. The view across to Mull was superb and the sun was certainly dazzling. We sat on a bench looking out at Lismore and Kerrera as well as Mull of course, every now and then closing our eyes and just basking in that lovley feeling that is the warm sunshine on your face. We had to virtually drag ourselves away to head back down and find our fish and chip supper, which we had sat in the front, just as I’d imagined. Wonderful. 

The forecast for the next few days on the islands seems is just amazing at the moment – I daren’t believe it. Another dream I had before coming away, was arriving on Barra tomorrow evening, walking to the b&b in the evening sunlight, dropping off our bags and then wandering down to the beach to watch a glorious sunset…I wonder?

A day of wonder, during which reality trumped our high expectations, similar to when we left Penicuik to walk to Edinburgh. Another similarity between that happy day and this was the vibrantly yellow gorse; with the pale blue sky above, flecked by white cirrus the day was bedecked in a newly washed Brazil football kit. Tostao, Jarzinho, Rivelino, Pele. Newly washed! Another invigorating feature of our overnighter in Taynuilt was a freshly laundered set of togs and, as we set out on that quiet track into idyllic Glen Lonan, we couldn’t quite tell where the smell of the fabric conditioner ended and the scent of the coconutty gorse began. What a treat for the senses after those clammy, smoke-dried post bothy days! Sorry if this is beginning to sound like a washing detergent advertisement but everything seemed so fresh and so easy as we walked towards Oban, the gentle tracks and single lanes pretty much deserted and the sea just around the corner. Everything felt warm, for the first time since our walk from Horton to Hawes; even the mountains had a warm, benign, blue-and-hazy look about them and I had no choice but to unzip the side vents on my walking trousers. That felt good.
As we neared Oban on this splendidly easy day’s walking I found myself thinking of a story called “The Deadman’s Pedal”, by a Scottish writer called David Warner, which is set in and around Oban. The main character is Simon, a teenage school-leaver, who likes to take his girlfriend, Nikki, for long excursions on the back of his motorbike, exploring the hinterland of Oban, the rolling countryside just beyond the busy port, seeking out places for…privacy. I half expected to see Simon and Nikki tassing around these deserted byways. As the story goes on Simon befriends two toffs named Alex and Varie Bultitude who reside with their eccentric father and servants at Broken Moan, a vast and rambling country estate on the edges of Oban. Then, as we began to make our descent to our destination, I saw it: Broken Moan, in all its gothic,Scots Baronial magnificence. It was actually some place called Glencruitten House but perfectly fitted my picture of Alex and Varie’s ancestral pile. Another case, like the day as a whole, when reality matches imagination.

The A road to the islands

14.5 miles   1419ft
Well, we’re nearly at Oban now and those islands are calling. We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at the b&b at Dalmally. Unbelievably I hadn’t had a good nights sleep, despite having a really comfy four poster bed to sleep in! We’re certainly putting our heads down in some different places. 

The owners of this particular b&b (Scott and Tina) had only taken it over 4 weeks ago, having decided to leave London and try their hand at something new. On their way up they stopped over with some friends in Yorkshire and whilst going for a walk Scott slipped on some moss on the path and broke his shin in two places. Air ambulance was called, along with mountain rescue, as it was on a high path leading down from a well known waterfall (not well known to me and unfortunately I can’t remember what it was called). This had rather put the cat among the pigeons in terms of getting ready for b&b guests (Scott having had to go to hospital and now being on crutches) and Tina had found herself with rather a lot in her plate. Friends from down South quickly dispatched themselves up north to help them decorate and prepare for their first guests. This certainly gave us food for thought as we contemplated the perils of walking and how lucky we had been to have no such misfortune whilst feeling further validated in having picked Air Ambulance as one of our chosen charities.

We set out walking today quite late, around 10 to 10. The first section alongside the A85 again was rather tedious, but the grass verge was again wider than when we had pavement and we were sustained with ever clearer views of Ben Cruachan as it drew near. Loch Awe appeared to our left and we tried to locate the castle Scott had told us about but it eluded us. Then we found a minor road leading off the main road that appeared to offer some respite whilst still going in the direction we wanted. We took this and were pleased to see that it gained some height and as a consequence some great views of the length of Loch Awe, dotted with its many little islands and surrounded by hills all around. The road, which was obviously a works road of some description, with high fencing to the side where the ground dropped away, continued to gain height. I started to wonder for how long. Every time we rounded a corner this road continued to go up. On looking at the map we had seen that the road ran beneath a hydro electric dam (on the flanks of Ben Cruachan) before coming to a stop, from where a path then took you down by the side of a waterfall. I have to say I was getting a little tetchy now. The last 3 days had been very tiring and today was supposed to be an easier day. I didn’t want to have climbed nearly 900ft and I didn’t want to be scrambling down the side of a waterfall. There wasn’t much chatter as we contemplated how high we were and how we were going to get down, and, as we left the reservoir road, we weren’t entirely sure we were going the right way. It was rather boggy to start with and then Ian slipped on one of the boggier sections and fell on his backside, causing an oath or two to be heard. Fortunately, unlike b&b Scott, he wasn’t hurt and soon after the path did materialise and get easier the further down we got. Not, however, before we had to negotiate the worst stile we’d yet to come across. It was ridiculously high with very narrow steps and the whole thing was balanced precariously at an angle so that on taking then top step you really felt as if you were about to take a leap off the hillside. Ian slipped again on the bottom rung, with the weight of his rucksack adding an extra dimension to the balancing feat needed to get over and down safely. Thankfully again he wasn’t hurt and he then took my rucksack from me before I went over. 

Despite the height gain added through taking the works road and the subsequent difficulty in coming down from it, this diversion provided the most interest of the day. It not only gave great views of Loch Awe as we’ve never seen it before, but it also gave a super view of the Pass of Brander which we’ve driven along many a time, but never appreciated as a whole. It was a bit like Wastwater with Whin Rigg and Ill Bell rising straight up from the depths. The trudge beside the main road for the rest of the days walking was dull and uninteresting

We’ve spent all day in the formidable company of Ben Cruachan, which is a mountain range in its own right and one that dominates mile after mile of the A85, in the same way that Quinag lords it over the A837 in Sutherland between Ardvreck Castle and Assynt Lodge. As we wound our way up towards the hydro electric dam and a closer than we had anticipated view of Ben Cruachan’s mighty contours we also gained, looking west through the Pass of Brander, a perspective of distant Mull and its hills, caught in the interplay of light and shade. 

I’ve loved these sudden sightings as we’ve travelled northwards: the view of Win Hill and Stanage Edge as we approached the Dark Peak on day 3, the Forth road and rail bridges from the Pentlands and The Cobbler’s profile, each one indicating a new and exciting phase to our walk. And here was our first glimpse of the Hebrides, that group of islands we love so much. This was a good moment. Simultaneously, though, the view to Mull also drew our attention to the less welcome sight of the Pass of Brander, or as Sharon kept calling it, the Pass of Brandreth. While the latter suggests something that might occur, post broadcast, in the green room of “Countdown”, after a particularly precocious contestant has caught the eye of Giles, the former was the reality we had to face: a narrow, three mile stretch of A road, a section of the route that was unavoidable and, early on a Saturday afternoon, full of roaring bikers and impatient motorists, itching to get to the ferry port of Oban, just like we’ve been on so many occasions. It wasn’t a great hour or so, but we’re in Taynuilt now and, our hostess, the lovely Louise, before she left for a night out in Glasgow, uttered those four magical words that best sum up the legend that is Scottish hospitality; “Help yourself tae whisky”. 

Treading the tarmac – again!

19.4 miles   1585ft
Well, today’s been a bit rubbish. 19.4 miles and only a 10 minute break. Add to that the fact that 11 miles of that was done alongside the A85 and I think you get the picture. I’m thinking of getting in touch with Cameron McNeish or Monty Hall, both of whom have pioneered walking routes, to see if something can be done about a trail from Tyndrum to Oban. I’m sure it would be used, especially with Oban being the gateway to the islands and the Hebridean Way being opened to walkers this year. It’s just ludicrous that the only way to walk the 38 miles between Tyndrum and Oban is on the road. 

The route we took today did follow the WHW as far as Tyndrum, which was fine. Bit more up and downing and a bit circuitous but it kept us off the road. It was at Tyndrum (where we met Pete and Hel and Katie and Rosie a few years back,  on a beautiful summers day in April, when we were on our way up to Harris, while they were on their way back home) that we had our 10 minute break during which we wolfed a hard boiled egg and ate a sandwich. The planned route did then include some diversions along a couple of “military roads”, constructed, we think, in the mid-eighteenth century by General Wade, who was probably a big pal of the Duke of Cumberland, as a means of suppressing any further rebellions by those excitable Highlanders. However,  when we came to try these, they were more like a boggy, swampy version of the WHW and not really useable – which left the A85 as the only option. Fortunately there was a wide grass verge just about all the way and the cars seemed to come in spates, probably coinciding with the ferries. So, it could have been worse. It did seem to go on for ever though. Ben Cruachan was the highlight of the day. It looks like a real beast, with a super looking ridge – one to come back to maybe?

When we finally arrived at our b&b at around half 4, having left Crianlarich hostel at 8.50, we were pretty tired and just a little fed up. I also need to get in touch with the Scottish highways department because when we left Tyndrum a roadsign told us that Oban was 38 miles away while Dalmally was 11. How could we then see another sign which told us that Oban was now 27 miles away but there were still 2 miles to go to Dalmally?!? How does that work? Unless it’s my tired and addled brain getting confused with the maths? Maybe this is why Jon took over as Maths Co-ordinator…

Crikey, that night in the bothy has left its mark. The living area in front of the open fire was a mixture of soil, ash and general rubble; there was a brush in a grimy, cobwebbed corner but a garden rake would have been a handier implement. I woke up feeling like a navvy in one of General Wade’s road building gangs. Perhaps the unreliability of memory will cast Rowchoish in a more nostalgic light as time goes by. Also, in terms of taking the rough with the smooth, the Kirkby Malham parish hall with the Coltersceuch b&b, our trial by bothy is, I suppose, part and parcel of the overall experience of the past few weeks. That said, another night at Colterscleuch, with some of Debbie’s aromatic Thai curry after a nice, long soak in that lovely, deep bath, scrubbing one’s bothy-soiled feet clean with posh sea kelp Hebridean fancy soap, would have been the perfect antidote to the previous night’s travails. Instead, however, we lugged our foul-smelling carcasses towards Crianlarich Youth Hostel where we’d be sleeping in separate dorms.

Crianlarich was our first experience of a Scottish Youth Hostel and there’s quite a difference between it and its English counterparts, such as Hawes or Malham. When we checked in at Thursday teatime we immediately noticed a different, more urgent mood. The punters seem to move much more quickly and decisively as if to say, “There’s no time to waste; I must bag at least three more munros tomorrow” which is more than likely as Crianlarich is surrounded by these 3000 feet plus behemoths, whereas Hawes has got lots of pubs. This unnerving sense of movement reaches its peak in the kitchen area when you’re trying to cook yourself a hot meal after a night on cold rations at Rowchoish. The hot water dispenser, for tea, coffee, cuppasoups etc, is in the corner, very close to the left of the hob, where I was stirring a pan of chile con carne and trying to mind my own business, while, immediately to the right of the hob, is the fridge. In the ten minutes or so that it took to heat up the pan of chile, I lost count of the times I said “Sorry” to several bearded and Rab-clad blurs who were filling up their flasks or emptying the fridge of Kendal mint cake energy shakes. After several pirouettes and body swerves we managed to exit the kitchen of fraughtness into the dining area of earnestness and enjoy our tea.

My billet for the night was room 11, a six bunk about sixteen foot by twelve, which I shared with four other chaps: a bloke called Les from Kingussie, a couple of lads from north Derbyshire and a morose specimen who didn’t say a word, so I couldn’t tell you where he’s from. We talked of the Cairngorms, the Western Isles and canoeing in Highland lochs and it was all quite jolly. Les is a canny soul and insisted that the windows be left open before lights out. The next morning the Derbyshire lads were up at 6.30 as they had a pressing engagement with the Cuillin Ridge while Les and morose specimen weren’t that far behind. By the time me and Shaz had had porridge and I had returned to number 11 to pack my rucksack the room was empty, save for an unholy fug that had been a brewing over the past several hours, despite those opened windows. How much of that miasma was down to me I pondered.

Anyway, we knew we’d have some grim times on our walk, it’s all part of the adventure – we really can’t grumble about anything – we’ve been so lucky with the weather,  we’ve met so many lovely people and we’ve walked through such tremendous and varied landscapes – so to have a bit if a duffer today really doesn’t matter…

In a Big Country

17.7 miles   3046ft
Absolutely knackered! I think today might well have been the hardest day yet. Carrying on from yesterday, which was tough, having still so much up and down again, but also following on from no sleep in that horrible bothy…just so tired!

We left the bothy at about 6.50, not before taking a selfie of the two of us looking bleary eyed and smiling manically with relief at the idea that we were actually leaving the place! We thought that leaving so early would probably mean that at least we’d arrive at Crianlarich early, maybe half 2/3ish, and we’d be able to have a proper rest up before Friday’s walk. How wrong we were – we just underestimated how much the WHW slows you down.

The weather was bright and the hills all clear, when we were able to focus on them instead of our feet. Yesterday Ben Lomond and the Cobbler had stolen the show and today in these early stages Ben Vorlich and Ben Vane were vying for domination. I’m sure I’ve read about Ben Vorlich before and what tremendous views are to be had from the top of it, and you could see why. After about 6 1/2 miles, which had taken us 3 hours, we sat down by the loch and had some breakfast. We were both feeling pretty tired and a little dispirited because of how slow going it still was. Then a mile further on we came upon Doune bothy. This was a bit of a sickener.  If only we’d been able to carry on to here last night. It was super, in a great setting with the loch and mountains as its backdrop, just as I’d imagined, and it was a proper cottage with windows and even two gnomes outside the front door! Inside there was a bench table again, but there were sleeping platforms either side of the fire and it was just such a lovely bright room – and best of all – it was clean! What a totally different experience it would have been staying here. Still, at least that’s my faith in bothies restored.

The path after this actually became much easier. There were still quite a few up and downs but the path itself was much more straightforward and easy to walk on, and the views really opened out, rather than being glimpsed through the trees. As we left the loch and the traffic which had been a distant hum in the background as all those cars drove along the A82 hugging the edge of the loch with little idea that people were actually walking along the tree lined slopes of the other side (that used to be us – we’ll certainly have another perspective the next time we drive that road) we entered a much more wild and remote mountainous landscape, which was a little reminiscent of the Grassguards walk in the Duddon valley. We felt like as if we had really reached the Highlands.

When we finally reached a road intersection, about 3 or 4 miles from Crianlarich we were now ready to just get there and contemplated just walking this last stretch along the road, but it was just too busy. Cue another climb then! Once the highest point was reached though we walked along a super high path with great views of just so many hills. The sun was out and I was walking in my t.shirt, and if we hadn’t been so tired it would have been a great path on which to take our time. A pint at the pub was calling though and more importantly we just needed to take our rucksacks off and give our feet a rest. 

The walk down into Crianlarich was done on very tired legs and, although walking downhill and to our destination, it was slightly marred by knowing that we were going to have to climb back up here tomorrow. We hardly spoke whilst sitting drinking our pint, before making our way to first the shop for provisions and then on to the hostel for tea and  hopefully some sleep. Separate dorms tonight as that’s all the hostel had, which feels a bit weird, but I don’t think either of us really care. It might only be half 9 but I’m in my dorm wondering who I am sharing with. There are two other rucksacks in the room. My alarm is set for 7.15 as tomorrow is another toughie we think, longer than today, but hopefully after the initial climb, not as taxing. We shall see…

One of the pleasures of walking rather than driving is having the time to notice things, rather than see them whizz by. Since we crossed over into the Highlands a couple of days ago we’ve really noticed, and this is going to sound daft, the number of hills. For the first three or four weeks of our walk to Harris we haven’t seen that many. Our first top, back in the Derbyshire leg of our tour, was Kinder Scout, but it was in one of those sombre moods when it is more of a meteorological, rather than a geographical, phenomenon.  We’ve seen it in sunshine and heather, with the skylarks doing their melodious stuff, so we couldn’t grumble. Further north, along the Pennine trail, our attention kept being drawn to the western horizon and the plateau of Pendle Hill, which seemed to keep us under its beady watch for days on end.

Next, on the West Yorkshire moors, the day after Todmorden, we spotted a very elegantly shaped hill on the northern horizon, with its curves in all the right places. Over the next couple of days Ingleborough, for it was she, would hold centre stage, her allure living up to her lovely name. When, however, we came within a couple of miles of Ingleborough we saw her southern flanks hideously scarred by two immense quarries. It was like coming face to face with a gorgeous woman, only for her to smile and reveal a set of rotten and blackened dentures.

The pride of Yorkshire hill country was restored a couple of days later as we journeyed to Hawes and then Kirkby Stephen. From Lady Anne’s road we saw some tremendous tops, such as Wild Boar Fell which performed a great double act with Mallerstang Edge: ardour most definitely restored. As we followed the course of the Eden north westwards we moved into the orbit of Cross Fell which weighs in at close on 3000 feet. As its name suggests, there’s no mucking about with this top. We saw it from several different angles over the course of two or three days and never saw it with a smile on its face. By this time on our walk we were excited to look westward to the Lake District and spot those hills we’ve got to know so well down the years, which is probably why Cross Fell is always so cross, what with all those beauties a few miles away. Star of the Lake District fells, from our perspective was Blencathra, its switchback ridge a thrilling sight, even when we started to catch sight of the Galloway hills.

Into the Scottish borders we quickly came across some super hill country, especially on the road between Langholm and Teviothead, our way flanked by a sequence of little known but wonderfully named tops such as Lightning Hill and Wisp Fell. From Selkirk to Peebles we walked over some great upland scenery and atop Brown Knowe, about 1700 feet, we had our best picnic of the tour so far, enjoying 360 degrees of hilly loveliness. 

Further north, into the central belt, we liked the Kilsyth and Campsie Fells, but they were always going to be a bit of a sideshow, ahead of the main event. Our first glimpse of a munro came a few days ago, as we walked from Strathblane to Carbeth and glimpsed Ben Lomond through a bunch of Scots pines. Beyond Conich Hill, at the southern edge of Loch Lomond, is the Highlands and it’s great to be amongst hills such as Ben Lomond and Ptarmigan, its satellite top. While Ingleborough might have failed its screen test these Scottish hills look all the more ravishing the closer you get to them. Top top so far? Sorry Ben Lomond, it’s got to go to The Cobbler, whose silhouetted ridge, viewed from the east shore of Loch Lomond, looks like a group of hooded monks plotting something very unpleasant. 

If you go down to the woods today…

16.7 miles   1931ft
Today our route took us along the West Highland Way, culminating in our stop-over at the Rowchoish bothy, somewhere along the shore of Loch Lomond. I hadn’t been looking forward to this stretch. I wasn’t really keen on stopping in the bothy, after I’d seen it in YouTube and I knew that much of today and tomorrow’s walking is along what is commonly regarded as the toughest section of the entire West Highland Way. There was certainly a difference in the early stages of the walk today, which was easy-going on steady stony paths or quiet country lanes, with Loch Lomond on one side and Ben Lomond looming over the other, compared with the latter stages of the walk, which was on much more difficult ground and which required you keeping your eyes on your feet rather than anything around you. 

Early on we took a short climb to a super viewpoint where all the hills on the other side of the Loch were as clear as a bell, and although it wasn’t particularly sunny on our side of the loch, the sun was shining over these hills, giving them an even grander aspect. We passed a few other people, all of whom were doing the West Highland Way, most on their way to Rowardenan, some on to Inversaid, none on to Rowchoish! At one point as we were walking we looked at the loch and realised it was raining – not on us. Sheltered by trees we couldn’t feel a thing and by the time we were clear of the trees the rain had passed over. We seem, as we’ve said more than once, to be leading a charmed life at the moment with regards to the weather. On one ocassion when the WHW took us in a country lane, we were waved at by the driver of a campervan which overtook us (it was a new one, not one like ours) and we realised it was the Ian Rankin lookalike we had met walking with his wife yesterday. He was clearly on his way to Rowardenan with the van, ready to meet his wife as she completed her next leg of the WHW. He had already done the whole walk himself twice and so was in support role this time, which he seemed to be enjoying. We imagined him waiting at the Rowardenan hotel, passing the time with a pint and the paper.

Once past Ptarmigan Lodge the path began to change and we found ourselves having to take a lot more care of where we were putting our feet. It became much more up and down (it’s described as undulating but I think this suggests a much more gentle rising and falling than was actually the case) and the stony path became much narrower in places and rocky, with tree roots to negotiate and some pretty steep sections. It was full of interest, but it was also really tiring, particularly carrying our rucksacks, and it was slow-going. There were some really lovely sections though, with moments of stillness when the hills opposite were reflected in the loch, and bluebells and primroses vied for attention amidst the moss and fern strewn banks. Beautiful little inlets would suddenly appear, with pebble and sometimes sandy beaches, dotted with trees which had the weirdest root formations. Their roots seemed to erupt from the ground, with the trunks if the trees themselves starting about 2 feet off the ground. They made us think of the living furniture we’d seen back in the early stages of our walk when we were heading down into Wirksworth. With patches of yellow gorse thrown in, they made some very pretty scenes. 

As time went on we began to look out for the bothy. I had started to think that maybe I was wrong and that maybe this might prove to be the highlight in terms of picturesque accommodation on our walk. My phone, which has had no signal in towns and so many other places where you would think it would, today came up trumps and directed us off the beaten track and straight to the bothy. I wish it hadn’t! All my original foreboding came back when I saw that the bothy was not romantically situated beside one of the many beautiful little inlets with the hills as a backdrop across the calm waters of the loch, but rather that it was in a small clearing, but basically surrounded by those dark gloomy tall pine trees that I loathe. On entering the bothy my feelings of foreboding just increased. I think we’ve probably picked one of the worst bothies to stay in and I refuse to give up on the idea of using them again as I think the principle is a good one, but I never want to stay in this one again. It’s really basic, dirty, dusty and dark, with no windows. What light there is inside comes from see through corrugated sheeting in the roof. There is a bench table and an open fire, saws and an axe for wood cutting, a couple of candles and a miscellaneous collections of old pots and pans and dirty mugs. Ugh! As I write, I am sat in front of the fire, just starting to get warm. 

Ian spent the first half an hour chopping wood, and then once he’d got the fire going he found his way down to the shore to fill a pan with water to boil and sterilise the least dirty of the mugs so we can have a cup of tea. I tried to come up with a satisfactory sleeping arrangement (let’s face it, we’re not going to get any sleep) and set the table for our tea. When it gets dark, outside as well as in, we have a bar of fruit and nut to eat whilst listening to the Archers (I downloaded about 20 episodes which might see us throught the night or might be one way of getting us to fall to sleep). Apparently pine martens come visiting in the night – sniffing around for food. Yay! And we’ve already had Mr Tumnus, one of the feral goats, furtling around outside. So, I’m looking forward to absolutely no sleep whatsoever – and I’m bound to have to get up to go for a wee in the night too! Hey ho! It’s all part of the adventure… we expect to be on our way again tomorrow as soon as it’s light!

Yesterday afternoon in Drymen, at Silke’s home for distressed cats and dogs, I took a call from a Radio Derby producer who wondered if we’d be willing to say a few words on the teatime show at about 5.40. Our press officer, who is still working tirelessly to raise our media profile, whether we like it or not, had arranged this slot. Sharon didn’t like the sound of the word “we” in the “wondered if we’d be willing…” and, when the teatime call came through, suddenly remembered her new interest in rescue cats and dogs to seek out Silke for an earnest chat. So, for a couple of minutes I answered a few questions from the Radio Derby drive time jock, which were similar to the ones posed three weeks or so when we were staying in the Todmorden treehouse. These tended to focus on our fund raising efforts for Tom and Mia’s Legacy and how well we know Mia’s mum, Rosie, which, of course is perfectly understandable. However, I was never asked about how much money we’ve raised so far, how Radio Derby listeners could contribute to the Justgiving page we’d set up or the other two charities for which we’re trying to raise some cash. When I realised that I’d answered the last question and that the latest travel update for Derbyshire and East Staffordshire was just around then corner, I quickly said,  “Oh, one last thing. Could I mention the Justgiving page?…..” but by then I’d been cast out into the broadcasting ether, leaving me with the idea that the last two or three minutes had been pretty futile.