28 August 2013


Few people mean as much to me as my sister, but put us together for more than three days and we are at each other’s throat. She had been wondering for quite a time whether we could go hiking together one day, and circumstances made that extra topical this year. So then when I heard of group hikes along the so-called Stevenson Way I thought we might be onto a winner. The Stevenson Way, by the way, is a route that is based on the book “Kidnapped” by Robert Louis Stevenson, which is in turn based on historical events in mid-18th Century Scotland. I hadn’t read the book, but the route looked nice. We would do the part called the Rannoch Moor walk. I was busy moving house to York, so I decided to let my sister sort things out and go with the flow. So we registered!

About a week before we would leave I received the travel details from the organiser, Ian. I was slightly concerned to see this group we had so actively sought to dilute each other’s company consisted of only three people. Oh dear! But now we just had to make the most of it. There was some confusion on what to expect and what to bring (this trip was new, and it showed), and there was some hurry because of my sudden trip to Belfast, but then on a Friday evening I was at the station to welcome Marieke. She was a bit agitated; just at the wrong time, and old foot/knee/ankle injury had flared up, and she wasn’t sure if she could do the trip. I decided to turn my “normal” backpack upside down, empty it and chuck it into the corner, and put all my stuff in the big winter pack. I figured we had best be self-reliant; if we had to pull out at least the rest of the group, which then would have been one lonely German chap and the mountain guide, could go on. I made sure I had a stove, lots of fuel, pots and pans, and coffee; we had all we needed. And the next day we were back at the station. And in Glasgow we met Susan, our guide, and Ian, the organiser, who would join us for the first day. 

Ian drove us to Glencoe, where we met the entire rest of the group, in the form of Olaf the German, and after an intermediate booze-buying stop (I had forgotten to bring any – must have been very distracted) and a final stop in Kinlochleven, where we divided the food and ate fish & chips so as to be nourished for the trek to the first bothy (the Scottish version of a mountain hut) we’d sleep in, we were off.

Kinlochleven, where we started

It was a wet day, but the terrain was beautiful, and our fellow travellers turned out to be very nice people. So far so good! But rather soon we met walkers coming the other way, mentioning that one of the bridges we were heading for had been swept away. They had had to wade! And we hoped to be able to avoid that: it tends to lead to very wet feet. But we got to the river, and had to admit there was no avoiding of wading. Through we went! Ian showed his chivalry by walking everybody’s bags through, and guiding us through one by one. You don’t want your customers to be swept away by a swollen river…

We would see much of this: Marieke getting excited about mushrooms, and educating us about them.  Susan in the background.

Lots of water on the hills! 

Ian guides Marieke through the stream

Later we would realise we would have to wade several time that day. It didn’t speed us up; by the time we reached the reservoir light was fading. The bothy was still many kilometres away! But in a bothy you can make a fire, and dry your stuff, so we pushed on anyway. It did come at a price; Olaf needed a patch of compeed before we reached the reservoir. We would get used to that: next year he might want to consider wearing compeed socks! By 10PM we switched on our head torches. And around that time, we reached a river we couldn’t wade through, and had to go around. And the path vanished. So by the time we finally saw a structure looming in the dark it was past midnight. Time for a quick fire, and then bed! 

 Ian and Olaf before it got too dark to take pictures

Well-deserved sleep in the bothy

The next day the easier bit of the trip. Ian left us, and in nice weather with showers we walked along a beautiful valley to Loch Treig. There we found a gravel road rather than a winding, boggy path (which was what we had had so far), so it was little effort to walk to a nearby youth hostel. And on this first full day already a pattern emerged: Susan and me up front, bantering away, and Olaf and Marieke some distance behind, probably also bantering. And with regular compeed stops.
The initial plan had been to camp, but with our boots still soggy we changed plan. So we checked into the hostel, doodled away some time, and went to the nearby Corrour station, which seems to be the highest and remotest railway station in the UK, and which has been made famous by Trainspotting. It’s not only a small station in the middle of a lot of nothing, but it’s also a restaurant. And we would enjoy that! 

Looking back on the bothy

Towards Loch Treig

I was there too

If you look closely enough you see Corrour Station and a train 

 Loch Ossian; between the trees is the youth hostel

Inside Corrour Station restaurant

The next day we would yet again walk to a bothy; the one near Ben Alder. The route first followed the same gravel road, which turned into a path, which turned into bushwhacking. Along the way I had a small episode of parting with my stomach content (oh dear!); sometimes one’s stomach is a bit more obstinate than normal during a hike. But my fellow walkers took some of my luggage and soon I felt fine again. 

Breakfast: scrambled egg (from egg powder) with salami!

A hike classic: group picture in sun glasses

When we had crossed the water divide the sun came out, and we walked to the hut through a postcard. By now Marieke’s injuries had caught up with her, and she was walking with difficulty when we reached the hut. Good we had a day of rest planned!

 Sister portrait

 Towards Loch Eiricht, where the Benalder cottage is

It was very crowded in the bothy, so Susan decided to sleep outside. I decided to have a wash; the loch was cold, and I had to go to a far bank in order to not upset a group of camping teenagers, but I felt great after it! I even dared a small swim. And we went to bed early.

I had to go out for a leak during the night - and of course brought my camera

The next day everybody else left. We had the place for ourselves! We decided to climb nearby Ben Alder, except Marieke, who was in need of some recovery. So we packed some warm clothes and some chocolate- and cereal bars into small bags and headed uphill. We walked straight into the fog, and had little hope of seeing anything at the top, but that turned out to be undeserved; just before we reached the top the clouds parted, and we had amazing views from underneath our hats and gloves. It might have been August, but it was cold up there! 

Breakfast outside, as it was crowded inside. But outside it was crowded with different organisms...

Me under the Ben Alder top

We came back into the sunshine. Time for another bath in the loch before it would start to rain again. And then a lazy evening with a fire, a game of Tantrix, a bit of whisky and some banter. We now had gotten to know each other rather well; the pint-sized and tough-as-nails guide, who spoke French and Russian and had many a story from her long history as mountain guide and person who does all kinds of activities with kids of all kinds of disadvantages, who didn’t drink coffee, tea or alcohol but liked cooking and pixar-like movies. And Olaf the freelance illustrator, who spoke really good Dutch and felt a bit short-changed that he had travelled so far to go on holiday with some Dutch women, while he lived only some 60 km from the Dutch border. He was the man with the cool tools and the suffering feet, who was a veritable human lyre bird in that he could imitate all the sounds around. And he gave rise to a new verb; because of me carrying all Marieke's and my shared stuff I had a heavy backpack, and on day one he saw me laboriously lift it onto my back, and said "you don't have to do that' we'll help you!" And he did. And I'm not one for rejecting kindness, so I got into the habit of asking for an "Olaf" when we moved on after a break. And even though it was more often Susan who answered, it's still known as Olaffing.

Trying to dry stuff on and near the stove

The lazy evening didn’t stay lazy; Susan decided to go and get some firewood, and I went along. I soon found out that was not without disadvantages: my boots got wet(ter) again, I was attacked by midges (forgotten the repellent – d’oh!), and to make things worse I found an irresistible but damn heavy log. My whole bath was undone by new-made sweat while I lugged that to the bridge. When I handed it to Susan a bit chunk broke off and fell into the river –nooo! Carried that for nothing. I grumpily lugged the rest to the hut and was very glad to get there. We didn’t even burn it, but someone else will one day have fun with it I trust.

 The bothy seen from a distance

That night we used two rooms! Luxury! And the next day we packed up and left. We walked past the loch, through utter swamp, until we reached another gravel road. We stayed on it until we reached an actual tarmac road. That was on purpose; Susan’s husband would restock us. This spared us carrying food for the whole week! And that very evening we would even have fresh fruit and veg! And the time we spent waiting wasn’t lost; Susan was worried about the rest of the trip. From here on it would get die-hard again, with lots of up and down and no paths. And no way out. She wondered if Marieke and her knees were up for that. No fun walking through the mountains if you’re in agony! But there might be another way; a signpost had alerted her to the probable existence of a path she wasn’t previously aware of. It would take us to the end point via easy terrain. And that would not be as beautiful, but it was feasible. We decided to go for it…

Good roads and phone signal

 Advice from a friendly local

When Susan’s husband arrived we were very glad to see him. Not only because he brought apples, oranges, carrots, grapes and more dry food, but also because Susan had told us about him and he sounded like a spiffing chap. And he came across and exactly that spiffing!

After dinner we walked on a bit, to get away from the road, and found a hilltop where there was the biggest chance of a midge-deterring breeze. Unfortunately, that breeze didn’t come. How happy we were with the midge nets!
Detailed signage 

Me in one of my favourite situations: just having had a bath! And on the river the midges didn't find me.

The next day we would largely walk through a forest, and then either camp in or near it, or push through to yet another bothy. And with fresh memories of the midges we hoped for the latter! And we made good progress. Soon we reached the end of the forest. Where everything suddenly became less straightforward; the path vanished and a swamp appeared. We tried to cross, but that involved lots of realising you couldn’t go on and having to turn back, talking increasing detours, sinking down to your thighs in the gunk, and getting stuck. Bad idea! We decided to follow the railway embankment instead. Not entirely the purpose of the embankment, but better that getting stuck for real.
The woods

 The railway, which floats on top of the swamp

After the embankment came the hummocky grass terrain. I don’t like that stuff! It’s very uneven, and you can’t see where you put your feet. Now it was Marieke and me in the back. I was glad to see the bothy! By the time we got there my feet hurt properly, and I decided on sitting on my arse for a bit, and drinking whisky (“so no change then” Susan remarked), until the pain subsided. Luckily it did. Time for another wash in the river! And that’s the advantage of travelling with continentals – then you can do that with several people at the same time! No British fear of the body. And it refreshed me no end, but that night I struggled to stay awake during a game of Tantrix…

Hiker (tired) and guide (chirpy) in bothy

The river looking pretty

The next day would be the last full walking day. All day on flat gravel roads. When I figured I was probably in more pain than Marieke I asked her to carry the tent, which she of course then did. We found a spot next to a river again. It was a nice spot, but it had many midges and ticks. We had had a few already, but here they were wandering around everywhere. But we had an escape – there was a pub at walking distance! That I couldn’t resist. So after my bath (I had forgotten we were in civilisation now – I was happily standing stark naked in the river when a dog walker came past. Oh dear! But she didn’t seem to mind, and even indicated that a bit upstream I could swim) we headed up there. I enjoyed the beer, and Olaf enjoyed the opportunity to get out his sketchbook and draw some of the other guests. And when we heard the place served food we decided to stay. Another pint! And even time for an exquisite whisky!

When we were about to leave we found Ian again, who would spend the night with us. And then drive us back to a convenient railway station the next day. We could report all had gone well! Yes, there had been injuries, tricky swamps, lost equipment (my spork and Olaf’s mug) and nasty beasties, but that was all within reason. We were getting a bit sentimental; tomorrow it would be over! It had been good. And Scotland said goodbye with a beautiful sunset. And with some gillie who tried to chase us off the land. Unfortunately for him, Susan knows the law of the land, and wasn’t having any of it!

 Our modest camp

 Goodbye from Scotland...

The next day we had breakfast (large amounts of porridge – Ian had brought more, as we had run out!) and packed up. Ian’s car was only a mile away. We said goodbye to Olaf who decided to walk to Bridge of Orchy where he would spend another night. And after admiring Rob Roy’s grave, and a coffee stop where we also shopped for tat we drove to Stirling, where Susan lived, and we caught the train to Edinburgh. It was over! And we had had excellent company in a beautiful part of the country. It had been a good decision! Anyone who fancies a good Scottish hike but doesn’t have the time, or can’t be asked, to organise it themselves, or who needs extra company: do as we did! It’s splendid!

And goodbye from us. Group picture: me, Susan (the guide), Olaf, and my sister. And a mushroom.

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