Tag Archives: travel

A long walk in Caledonia, chapter 3

The next leg of our hike was the 18 mile day across lonely Rannoch Moor.  The scenery is hard to describe, but having a little undergraduate geology, it definitely felt like walking across the final haunts of an old but once great ice sheet.  The land looked flat, but really was lumpy, and covered in low heath and moor plants, lots of boggy ground, and peppered with large erratics.  One of the larger is called the Menzies Stone (pronounced ‘Mingus’), and marks the boundary of Perthshire ( I think we saw it, but the boulders all kind of looked the same).  The hike across starts at Rannoch station, which feels like the end of the world in some ways, through a patch of forest, and then out onto the moor.  The only real landmarks we had were the lake on our left and a line of power poles that we followed across the heath. On a foggy day it would be easy to lose oneself out here, and I can’t imagine what it would be like in a winter storm. We did not see the Large and Harmless Man (best monster name ever) that supposedly haunts the moor, but I did have a rare sighting of the Rainbow Sasquatch.

a rare glimpse of the rannoch rainbow sasquatch

a rare glimpse of the rainbow ‘squatch

never fear, rainbow sasquatches are generally quite friendly, especially if you feed them cheddar and oatcakes

never fear, rainbow sasquatches are generally quite friendly, especially if you feed them cheddar and oatcakes

rannoch moor

rannoch moor (and a bothy)-no country for Large and Harmless Men?

So, after our 18 mile day across Rannoch Moor, we hiked down out of the high moor and to the inn at Kingshouse.  This old building has been an Inn since the 1700s, and it has a great vibe.  It sits at the base of two great Munros with unpronounceable Gaelic names that translate I believe to the Great Herdsman and the Little Herdsman.  The Inn sits at the end of Rannoch Moor, at the head of the famous and ill fated Glen Coe, and at the junction of a major road and the West Highland Way, which looks like and is-the most popular hiking trail in Scotland.  Woe to the traveler who did not have a reservation, although everyone was welcome at the bar, even those sleeping in tents.  There was a great mix of hikers, mountain climbers and tourists of all ages.  The bar had a great selection of scotches, and I had haggis for dinner.  I didn’t know enough to ask whether it was highland (venison) haggis or lowland (sheep) haggis, but it was wrapped in pastry and very good.  I had a snoot of a well aged single malt scotch called Scapa that was excellent…..not too hot, not too peaty, just perfect.  The building is low and dark and rambling, and very comfortable, just like you would want an old Scottish Inn to be.  After so many days of hiking alone, it was rather lovely to be in the bustle of this crossroads.  For the last two days there would be lots of people hiking along with us (ok, mostly past us).

a welcome sight, Kingshouse!

a welcome sight, Kingshouse!

The next day started out dry and sunny, and we started our hike past the Great Herdsman (Buchaille Etive Mor), which is a really spectacular and uniquely isolated mountain, and one of the most photographed in Scotland.  Our hike this day took us over the Devils Staircase, our greatest elevation gain on the trip, which topped out with great views to the north and west, including our first glimpse of Ben Nevis and our final destination.  We were now on the West Highland Way, and sharing the trail with lots of hikers.  There were a few characters on the trail, including a fellow we called ‘shinsplints’, who had hiked hard to beat his own personal record and crippled himself.  We met him when we crossed the highway, where he was waiting for the bus.  He named all the prominent landmarks for us, and bubbled over with enthusiasm for “me scottish playground”.  We also heard about and saw, but never met, two french brothers who hiked the entire Way in Scottish kilts and French berets.  The word was a wool kilt was very appropriate wear for hiking the highlands….well ventilated, yet warm and reasonably water proof.  Not to mention extremely stylish and culturally appropriate. 

This is a good example of odd Scottish Highland scale.

This is a good example of the weird scale of the HIghlands.  This is Buchaille Etive Mor, which from this viewpoint looks like a large rock, but is the same mountain you can see on the right behind Kingshouse in the previous photo.  In other places objects that we thought were miles away were hiked to in 20 minutes.

at the top of the Devils Staircase.  Ben Nevis is one of those peaks behind us.

at the top of the Devils Staircase. Ben Nevis is one of those peaks behind us.

From here we hiked down to the town of Kinlochleven, a town built by an aluminum company at the head of Loch Leven.  Loch Leven communicates with the sea, and is salt.  We had crossed the Highlands!  Our last day of hiking took us over a final pass and into Fort William, the biggest town we had seen since Glasgow.  We took a brief side trail to another ancient stone age site, this one was some kind of fort or defense, that had a stunning view of Ben Nevis.

Ben Nevis

Ben Nevis

We spent the night in Fort William, where I had another fairly memorable meal of wild boar burger and ‘neeps and tatties’, washed down with a good local ale.  Our next adventure:  renting a car and driving to the Isle of Skye for two days.  The car of course was a stick shift, and everything was on the wrong side, which took some getting used to.  Happily there is not a lot of traffic in N. Scotland!

On the way we toured the castle of Eileen Donan (if you have ever seen the movie Highlander, you have seen the exterior at least of this castle).

This castle sits at the point where three sea lochs meet.

This castle sits at the point where three sea lochs meet.  Very touristy, but worth the visit.

Skye was beautiful.  The night we arrived we hiked out to Neist Point, which has a beautiful lighthouse that was engineered by Robert Louis Stevenson’s father.  At one point it was a holiday rental…what an amazing place to stay!

The next day we took a hike a little ways up the coast from Neist Point, round a headland called The Hoe.  This was one of the best hikes of the trip for me…ruined crofts and sheep featured prominently, along with stunning views of the North Sea and outer Hebrides.

Excellent advice, especially where my sister is concerned.

Excellent advice, especially where my sister is concerned.

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Next we visited Dunvegan Castle, ancestral home of Clan McLeod (not Eileen Donan, as portrayed in the movie Highlander).  Dunvegan has a ‘fairy flag’ that supposedly when unfurled means the McLeods will defeat their enemies.  According to the tale, it could only be used so three times, and has one good victory left in it.  This castle also had beautiful gardens.

Dunvegan Castle

Dunvegan Castle

Food on Skye was excellent.  We had lunch at a place that specialized in local food that was spectacular, called the Red Roof Cafe.  Our vegetarian B&B served amazing breakfasts, and there was another cafe near where we stayed that made wonderful sandwiches.  Other highlights of this leg of our trip were a stop at the Crofter’s museum, a walk round the Fairy Glen, and the hike up to the Old Man of Storr.

The energy hotspot in the fairy glen.  Walk the spiral, make a wish, and don't forget to leave a gift for the fairies...

The energy hotspot in the fairy glen. Walk the spiral, make a wish, and don’t forget to leave a gift for the fairies…

Och aye, it was a lovely trip.  I’d love to go back and explore the outer Hebrides sometime, and do some sea kayaking around the islands and the sea lochs.

one last shot of beautiful Skye....cheers!

one last shot of beautiful Skye….cheers!

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A long walk in Caledonia

scottish spokesmodel

scottish spokesmodel

My sister Kate and I had a lovely long walk across the Scottish Highlands in June.  The landscape is a little hard to describe…imagine if you will the Appalachian Mountains sculpted by major glaciation:  3000 foot mountains  or so divided by great broad U shaped valleys, which on the East side are quite fertile and rich looking lands, on the west more stony and boggy.  Above the treeline is the moor and heath country, which has a funny offscale feel to it, and must be quite fearsome to be out in in bad winter weather.  The whole country almost has been deforested and populated primarily with hardy breeds of sheep, mostly blackface types.  And the weather….the weather is Portland winter all summer long, from what the locals told us.  It was actually fairly dry when we were there, and we even had some sunny days, but we almost never went about in our shirtsleeves, and always had our raingear handy.  I think I applied sunscreen once.  The people we met were lovely…we stayed mostly in BandB’s (of which there are hundreds in Scotland) and the food was excellent.  I won’t bore you with too many details but try to just show you some of the highlights….  We hiked from the small town of Aberfeldy across the mountains to the West side, and picked up the West Highland Way on the last two days of our hike.  Mostly we saw hardly anyone on the trail (which we enjoyed), but had a great mix of archeology, geology, history, scenery and exercise.  I think it was one of the most relaxing vacations I have ever had.

Our first day we hiked along the Moness Burn…made famous in Robert Burns’ song The Birks of Aberfeldy.  Birks are birches, although the large trees we admired most were the beeches.  Half expected a Hobbit to pop out from behind one, but we had been up for 24 hours by then, and were slightly delirious.

Lassie, will ya go?

Lassie, will ya go?

Our second day we met some friends of my sister’s, who took us up Glen Lyon, the longest Glen in Scotland (a glen is one of those U shaped valleys mentioned earlier).  We got caught up on a lot of gossip about people I didn’t know, and also a bit about the history of Glen Lyon, and Chesthill House, where our friends used to work as the Gilly and Housekeeper (a Gilly as I understand it is a sort of gamekeeper/hunting and fishing guide…only in Scotland hunting is called ‘stalking’).  Bert and Margaret were lovely people, and very generous to give us their day to show us around.  I got to show Bert some pics of the Chinook Salmon we have caught over the years, and they showed us pictures of their lives and children (all grown now). Bert loves fishing, stalking, and scotch whiskey, he and my bourbon loving fishing and hunting husband would get along famously.

Chesthill House

Chesthill House

Chesthill house was the house of the infamous Robert Campbell, who led the massacre of the Macdonald Clan in Glen Coe.  It is currently privately owned and is a vacation rental and hunting lodge.
Across the road is a perfectly functional and intact Roman Bridge.  In a sheep field.  In Scotland, nearly all the most amazing things we saw were in sheep fields.

Day one was a hike of about 14 miles, we went a bit farther as we missed a turn and took side trips to see the Crannog and the Druid stone circle, as well as Taymouth Castle.

a blue eyed Kentucky belle among the bluebells of Scotland

a blue eyed Kentucky belle among the bluebells of Scotland

The woodland wildflowers were in bloom, including the bluebells.  This flower is kind of an annoying invasive in my home garden, but lovely in the woods of Scotland.

Kate in the stone circle

Kate in the stone circle

This stone circle is thousands of years old.  It predates even the Roman bridge we saw the day before.  It is in the side pasture of a farm in the Tay valley (note farmhouse in rear)….sheep take naps in it.  Anyone can walk up to it.  No one has vandalized it.   Coming from American culture I find all of this amazing.  Druid stones often have mysterious indentations in them, my sister was sure used in some kind of blood sacrifice.  The circle was surrounded by lovely old oak trees, possibly the descendents of the original Druid grove.

Taymouth Castle

Taymouth Castle

Next stop was Taymouth Castle, where Queen Victoria spent her honeymoon.  It was not open, but the grounds were open to anyone who wanted to enjoy them.  The locals use it as a sort of park.  Again, no fences, little signage, no graffiti or tagging, no broken windows, just a magnificent castle slowly mouldering on the banks of the Tay.

only in Europe

only in Europe

Not far past the castle the river ends in Loch Tay, where we took a small side jaunt to see the Crannog.  A crannog is a stone age dwelling built over the Loch.  They are not sure why, whether for defense or possibly trade, but there are hundreds of crannog sites in Scotland, Ireland and Wales, and none in England.  Every small island in the Lochs of Scotland is a crannog site, and one has been extensively excavated in the last couple of decades.  Artifacts have been well preserved in the cold Loch waters, and archeologists have recreated one of the structures.  People, animals, and foodstuffs all were kept inside, and it was a rather lovely building.

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From the crannog we hiked around the moutain behind it and up another valley to the wee town of Fortingall.  Here we stayed at my favorite accommodation, the Fortingall Hotel.  Beautifully appointed rooms, and each guest is greeted with a wee dram of The Famous Grouse (known locally just as ‘The Grouse’). We had a fantastic dinner here as well, even though we gimped into the dining room like a couple of old ladies.  Very, very civilized.  Next to the hotel is an old kirk, which has a 2 to 5,000 year old yew tree in the churchyard.  Yews have been worshipped in Europe for centuries because they live for hundreds (to thousands) of years, so this kirk sits on a very old holy place, and the valley is full of ancient burial mounds and other sites. The tree is not much to look at, as pilgrims took pieces of it away for souvenirs until there was very little left.  The roots however, are truly ancient.  Time seems less linear when you are looking at a live thing that is that old.

So, up to day three of our trip, and day one of our hike.  More to come…..cheers!