A blog about a hike across Scotland (and possibly other things)

Author: davidbrown (Page 1 of 11)

I am a writer living in Baltimore. I worked as a reporter at The Washington Post from 1991 to 2013, writing mostly about medicine, public health, epidemiology and the life sciences, and occasionally about history and art. I am also a physician, a graduate of Amherst College, and a native of Framingham, Massachusetts.

Off the road

A shorter version of this post appeared on the website of The American Scholar in August, 2021, as “A Tall Order.”

“Do you want to go down there and get a better picture?” I asked from behind the wheel.

“Yes,” said Virginia from the passenger seat.

We turned off Montana Route 228 onto a gravel road and drove a few hundred yards to get a better look at a wooden grain elevator rising flèche-like from a sere plain. Its top was narrower than its body and had a single square window, like a window in a cupola.

Most of the building’s skin was made of narrow horizontally laid boards painted white, with half the paint gone. The bottom fifth, however, was barn red and brought to mind the color discontinuity in the Washington Monument that occurred when construction was stopped and resumed with different-colored stone 23 years later.

As I drove toward the elevator and prepared to park a respectable distance away I saw a man disappear around the corner of the building. Virginia and I got out, took a few iPhone pictures. As I walked toward the building, the man reappeared.

“May we take a few pictures of your wonderful building?” I asked. He said we could. His assent began a two-hour encounter too good not to record.

The day before, Virginia and I had come off a four-night trip through the lower Missouri Breaks. Now, we were heading to the Little Big Horn battlefield, with an overnight first in Billings. We were taking non-interstate roads and stopping at any historical marker, visual attraction, or weirdly named burg that caught our eyes. Later that day, we visited Two Dot, a town so nearly abandoned it should be renamed One Dot, or possibly Dotless.

The wooden grain elevator, near Highwood, Montana, was our first detour.

The man who greeted us is named Michael Benzinger. He’s a 66-year-old, mostly retired house painter who’s restoring the elevator as a home for himself and his wife (who’s younger than he, and still working as a house painter). They hope to make a rentable guest apartment in the elevator too; there’s plenty of room.

Mike bought the grain elevator in 2001 for $1. It came with one acre of ground. It’s part of a settlement of a half-dozen houses that’s now occupied by one other person, an 87-year-old man. The place is called Big Sag, which is a reference to its geological history as a former bottom of the Missouri River.

Mike learned of the grain elevator from someone whose house he was painting in Fort Benton. That person was willing to let it go if Mike was willing to try to save it. “They’re burning roughly one of these a day in the West,” Mike said. He later added that was mostly happening in Canada.

With a beaked nose and a mouth that turns down at the corners, Mike bears a considerable resemblance to George W. Bush. He has a brush cut. He was tanned, but not overly so, and wore a white tee shirt with a logo from the California burger chain In-N-Out. He gave off none of the exhaustion or second thoughts one might expect from a person who’s single-handedly repurposing an 70-foot industrial building that had been abandoned for 30 years when it became his.

He’s not certain when the elevator was built, but guesses it was 1911, the date stamped on the lightning rods on the roof. He’s found grain receipts from 1912, so it was in business at least by then.

Mike and his wife have lived in a building next to the grain elevator for three years. It’s 400 square feet and used to be the power plant of the operation. “It’s one open room–and not a lot of room for two people, two dogs, and two cats,” he said without complaint. I asked if it had a wood stove. “No,” he said. “One spark and the whole thing could burn up.” He nodded next door as we stood on the stone deck around the tiny building. You could tell the grain elevator was already a pillar of sweat and blood, almost a child, he’d protect any way he could. They heat the house with electricity.

He took us into the main room on the ground level, which was the full depth of the building. He’d put in three cathedral windows on the far wall; they looked up the brown grass slope to the road from which we’d seen the building. On the left-hand interior wall was a basketball hoop, on the right shelves with objects he’d found in the elevator or gleaned from trips to the dump.

Notable among the latter was a collection of oil cans, reminiscent of (and larger than) a dozen I bought at an auction in Philadelphia in the 1980s. I find old oil cans mysterious and poignant. They’re often all that remains of machines they once kept running. Many are stamped with the names of companies that themselves no longer exist.

Left over from the elevator’s active days of was a sign proclaiming that it wouldn’t accept “treated grain”–referring to it as “poison”–and a set of New York-made weights for weighing samples. The most beautiful objects were paddles with single oval holes in them. Inserted into chutes, they were used to control the flow of grain.

Mike said the building was in surprisingly good shape despite its long vacancy when he took possession of it. Only the top had let in birds (he mentioned flickers) and needed serious repair. The structure had survived because of skilled construction from massive lumber that arid climate and grain dust had dried into the equivalent of petrified wood.

Inside, it appeared as if the walls had been refinished, but all he’d done was power wash them, rappelling from the top through each bin. The only visible wear to the wood was in a few places where gravity-fed grain had inadvertently come into contact with a wall for years, sculpting patterns of flow the way water does to rock. The interior is Douglas fir, the exterior siding is cedar.

The most interesting thing in the main room was a feature still in use–a “man lift” that allows a person to ascend to the top of the elevator. Mike had replaced the cables and refurbished the brake, but it was otherwise little changed.

It consisted of a small, unenclosed platform with cable that went up the to the top floor of the elevator, through a pulley or shackle of some sort and then back down to a counterweight. Without a passenger the platform is at equilibrium. When a person stands on it and pulls a rope that also goes to the top, the platform rises with little effort. Stop pulling, and it slowly descends. It can be stopped anywhere by holding the rope, and can be locked in place for work with a brake.

Mike demonstrated it and then graciously allowed Virginia and me to take beginner spins, up about 20 feet. Neither of us was seriously tempted to take it to the top. The alternative route is on a vertical ladder built into the corner of the main shaft, which is scarier.

Most of the interior space of the building is divided into bins about 10-feet square. Mike is turning those on the two levels above the ground floor into living space, and invited us upstairs to have a look. As we ascended the railless staircase, the treads squeaked. He told us he’d put the squeaks in intentionally.

“Let’s you know if someone’s coming,” he said with a smile.

He’s removed the walls between some bins to make large rooms, but keeping others intact. He likes the intimacy of the spaces, and the fact they telegraph the building’s original use. He showed us the library, and a meditation room for his wife.

“The biggest part of the job was taking out the floors,” he said. Why take out the floors? we wondered. Because they all sloped–intentionally, to facilitate the flow of grain in and out of them. Some bins had three layers of floor, each on a slant.

Of course, the interior isn’t the only part that needs work. Many boards in the exterior siding need replacing. Mike plans to put a new skin on much of the building–tar paper over the wood, and galvanized tin over the tar paper. It will then look a little more like its modern descendants everywhere on view in Montana’s wheat country. On the east side of the building he’s already finished about 30 feet up.

“I got the metal from a farmer on that first farm up on the bench,” he said, gesturing out a window. “I helped him harvest one season. He said I could have it for free, but I wanted to give him something. Plus, I got to learn how to drive a combine, which is trickier than you’d think.” I commented on the amount of scaffolding he has up, and how much, much more he’ll need.

Even when the carpentry is finished there will be more work to do. Plumbing will be a big job. At the moment, Mike and his wife get water from a spring on a rise in the land behind the settlement. It’s delivered by gravity through a hose, and they carry buckets of it into the house. There’s no running water inside and they use an outhouse next to the elevator. On the deck was a black rubber bathtub full of water, warming in the sun. “That’s where we bathe,” he said. I didn’t ask about winter.

It’s a hard life, and sometimes a dangerous one.

A year or so ago, Mike’s wife was bitten by a rattlesnake. She was flown to a hospital in Great Falls. Physicians initially thought the strike had been dry, and hadn’t given her anti-venom. The next day, however, her leg began to swell so much she had to have a fasciotomy to relieve the pressure.

It turns out an underground delivery bin for grain near the elevator’s front door was a cool and damp home for snakes. It took five dumptrucks’ worth of gravel to fill it.

It’s also a lonely life. Mike works alone most of the time, his wife away during the day earning a living. His dogs, a border collie named Smokey Bear and a border collie mix named Arrow, follow him room to room. Two days before we met him, however, he finally got an internet connection. Next task: an e-mail address.

So, he’s happy to have visitors. “I’m kind of proud of it,” he said as we played with the dogs a final time before leaving. “If it inspires someone, I’m happy. It shows what’s possible, even if you’re working by yourself.”

That’s not the only lesson.

Keep the travel plans to a minimum. Turn off the road. When in doubt, stop and look around. There’s always something interesting over the next rise.

At least in Montana.

Remembering a Victory for Human Kindness

WWI’s Puzzling, Poignant Christmas Truce

This is not a travel story, unless perhaps it’s time-travel. I wrote it for The Washington Post on the 90th anniversary of the Christmas Truce on the Western Front in the Great War. My one-sentence interview with Europe’s oldest man, Maurice Floquet, was a memorable moment in my journalistic career! Revisiting this event is never out of season, I think.

By David Brown

Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 25, 2004 

Nobody knows where the Christmas Truce of 1914 began. Nor is it certain, even today, whether the truce began in one spot and spread, or broke out simultaneously in many places, the convergent evolution of numberless human hearts.

What is known is that 90 years ago today — four months into what would eventually be called World War I — thousands of British, French and Belgian soldiers spent a cold, clear, beautiful Christmas mingling with their German enemies along the Western Front.

The mysterious beginnings are fortunate. For want of the name of the first person (probably German) who proposed fraternization, or the place where it occurred (probably somewhere in Flanders), the Christmas Truce has acquired the aura of a miracle. In lacking a hero or sacred site, it has kept a single emotion at its core — the desire for peace of the most literal and personal kind.

It began in most places with nighttime singing from the trenches, was followed by shouted overtures and then forays between the lines by a few brave men. There followed, in daylight, a burying of the dead that had lain for weeks on the denuded ground called no man’s land. After that, large numbers of soldiers poured over the front lip of the trench.

Throughout the day they exchanged food, tobacco and, in a few places, alcohol. Some chatted, usually in English, a language enough German enlistees spoke to make small talk possible. In several places, they kicked around a soccer ball, or a stuffed bag functioning as one, although contrary to legend there appears to have been no official, scored matches.

Mostly, the soldiers survived, which is what they wanted from the day. They did not shoot each other.

Almost everywhere the truce was observed, it actually began on Christmas Eve, the high point of the season for the Germans. In many places, it lasted through Boxing Day, the day after Christmas observed by the English as a holiday. In a few parts of the line, hostilities didn’t recommence until after New Year’s Day, a holiday with special meaning for Scots and, to a lesser extent, the French.

War did resume, though. It was a truce, not a peace. What followed was misery, waste, loss and degradation on a scale that is difficult to imagine.

By the end of World War I in November 1918, the dead numbered: 1 million soldiers from the British Empire, 2 million Germans, 1.7 million French, 1.5 million soldiers of the Hapsburg Empire, 1.7 million Russians, 460,000 Italians, hundreds of thousands of Turks, and 50,000 Americans. The political and territorial consequences were numerous and complicated. The certain one is that the Great War did not end war, but instead laid the foundations for another one a generation later.

Against that background, the Christmas Truce of 1914 stands out with particular poignancy. While there had been truces for religious and secular holidays since classical times, the events that occurred 90 years ago this week were a spontaneous, unled cry for sanity before the advent of industrialized war.

“It is the last expression of that 19th-century world of manners and morals, where the opponent was a gentleman,” says Modris Eksteins, a cultural historian at the University of Toronto, who has written on the truce. “As the war goes on, the enemy becomes increasingly abstract. You don’t exchange courtesies with an abstraction.”

There were a few brief, scattered truces in 1915, and virtually none thereafter. The reason was not simply that commanders were on the lookout. The soldiers themselves had become emotionally hardened by years of fighting.

“The ones who survived, who lived to see other Christmases in the war, themselves expressed amazement that this had occurred,” Eksteins said. “The emotions had changed to such a degree that the sort of humanity seen in Christmas 1914 seemed inconceivable.”

What’s curious, though, is that in some respects the Christmas Truce is now moving toward us, not away.

In both Germany and France, where the truce was largely unknown to two generations, it is being studied and celebrated.

A book published in 2003, “The Small Peace in the Great War,” is the first to fully exploit German source material on the truce, including previously undiscovered diaries and letters. A French production company has made a feature-length film, “Joyeux Noel,” that depicts the events. It will be released next year.

Last Sunday, two soccer teams whose members included people from the nations whose soldiers faced each other 90 years ago met in Neuville-Saint-Vaast, a village 100 miles north of Paris. They played a match that commemorated the soccer-playing in the Christmas Truce.

An all-star team of retired French players, Varietes Club de France, beat the international team, which called itself the Selection of Fraternity, 5-2 before 2,000 spectators. It was a clear day with the temperature hovering at the freezing point, like 90 years ago.

The game was held to raise money for a monument to the Christmas Truce. The village was chosen because it was where French soldier Louis Barthas, who proposed such a monument in a famous postwar memoir, was serving in December 1914.

“I am very touched by this idea,” says Christian Carion, the writer and director of “Joyeux Noel,” who organized the event. “Because on the Earth there is no monument to fraternization. There is always a monument for victory. And where there is a victory there is a defeat. But a monument about fraternization — there is not one anywhere.”

It’s an assertion difficult to prove. But even if there is, somewhere, a monument to making unapproved peace with the enemy, it’s hard to believe the world couldn’t use a second one.

Hold Your Fire 

It appears there are no surviving participants of the Christmas Truce among the roughly 100 living veterans of World War I.

There is at least one man alive who witnessed it from a distance. He heard the silence.

Alfred Anderson was a “territorial” — the British equivalent of a national guardsman — serving in the 5th Battalion of the Scottish Black Watch Regiment in France. On Christmas he was “in reserve,” behind the front lines, part of a complicated rotation that limited soldiers’ time in the front-line trenches to three to seven days.

“It was very cold and very still. He said he could hear these voices shouting, carried over on the night air. What he could hear was total stillness, which he found very eerie,” says Richard van Emden, an English television producer and historian who has interviewed him.

Anderson, who was wounded by an artillery shell in 1916 and discharged, is now 108. He worked as a joiner in a carpentry shop for much of his life. Today he lives by himself in a village near Perth, Scotland. “He is incredibly fit. If you met him you’d think he was about 85,” van Emden says.

Also in uniform in December 1914 was Maurice Floquet, who turns 111 today and is the oldest living French veteran of World War I. He was on the Western Front in Belgium, but his part of the line did not fraternize with the Germans. What he chiefly remembers of Christmas is the menu: bread, soup, a few dates, and a bottle of red wine split among four soldiers. He was wounded twice in 1915 and discharged. He worked for many years as an auto mechanic.

In a brief interview conducted Wednesday via fax machine through a translator, Floquet said he did not learn of the truce until many years after the war.

“Such a thing could not be told to the soldiers, for how would they pursue the war if they knew?” he said from his home in a village near the Cote d’Azur.

Recent research suggests that in 1914 at least 100,000 people participated in the Christmas Truce, directly or indirectly.

Since the start of war in August of that year, German troops had advanced west across northern France and Belgium, expecting to be victorious in six weeks. But they failed to reach Paris and by late September had withdrawn from some of the captured territory and began to dig trenches. The trench line of the Western Front, still under construction at the end of the year, eventually snaked 475 miles from the North Sea to the border of Switzerland.

Two months of fighting in Belgium that became known as the First Battle of Ypres ended in late November. Sniping and scattered efforts to capture enemy trenches continued. 

Historians believe that many conditions came together in December to make the truce possible.

Losses since the start of the war were already huge. According to historian John Keegan, the French dead numbered about 306,000 (including 45,000 teenagers). The Germans had lost 241,000, and the Belgians and British each about 30,000.

Except for some Indian troops in the British Expeditionary Force, virtually all combatants came from countries where Christmas was widely celebrated. On the German side, many units were from Saxony and Bavaria, and shared Roman Catholicism with their French and Belgian foes. (German troops from those regions, at least by reputation, were also more open to breaches of military discipline than the soon-to-arrive Prussians.)

Pope Benedict XV, who took office in August, had called for a Christmas truce, which was officially rejected. In France, a prominent bishop called for peace and met with the republic’s president, Raymond Poincare.

“This visit is very unusual,” says Pierre Miquel, a historian of World War I and retired professor at the Sorbonne. “The cardinal immediately had to say that nobody in the clergy can speak for a political purpose.” 

Nevertheless, both peace and Christmas celebration were in the air. The German government had sent thousands of small Christmas trees, and candles for them, to the front. On the British side, military shipments were suspended for 24 hours so that 355,000 brass boxes embossed with the profile of Princess Mary, the king’s daughter, and containing a pipe and tobacco products, or candy, could be delivered.

The greatest incentive, though, was the simple misery of the moment — almost continuous rain, foul and muddy trenches, daily killing, and dead bodies in view.

“You couldn’t bury the dead because if you tried, they’d shoot you,” says Michael Juergs, former editor of Stern magazine and the author of “The Small Peace in the Great War.” “So you always had to look on the no man’s land and you can see your own future, which is to lay dead there.”

Merging the Lines 

The history of the Christmas Truce is essentially a compendium of anecdotes gleaned from letters, diaries, oral memories, and, to a lesser extent, official military records. The most complete accounts in English are “Christmas Truce” (1984), written by British authors Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton, and “Silent Night” (2001) by Stanley Weintraub, an American. Juergs’s book has not been translated from German.

A few generalizations are possible.

Fraternization was much more common in the British sector than in the French or Belgian, although contrary to some early reports, it occurred in the latter two, as well. The initiative appears to have been taken most often by the German side. The closeness of trenches — in some cases only 100 feet — allowed gradual escalation of contact. The fact that most troops knew a repertoire of secular and religious songs — including some in their enemy’s language or in Latin — was very helpful. Cigarettes and cigars were the first items to be exchanged in the initial contacts between enemy troops; it may have been tobacco’s finest hour.

In most places, commissioned officers followed the lead of enlisted men, although there were exceptions where the officers were out front. One was Lt. Kurt Zemisch, a schoolteacher who spoke French and English and was serving in a Saxon regiment. His account is in a multivolume diary found in an attic in the 1990s by his elderly son. The entries were in an archaic form of shorthand that Rudolf Zemisch had to teach himself before he could read what his father had written.

“I have ordered my troops that, if at all avoidable, no shot shall be fired from our side either today on Christmas Eve or on the two pursuant Christmas holidays. . . . We placed even more candles than before on our kilometer-long trench, as well as Christmas trees. It was the purest illumination — the British expressed their joy through whistles and clapping. Like most people, I spent the whole night awake.” 

On Christmas Day near the village of Fromelles, members of the 6th Battalion of the Gordon Highlander Regiment met their German enemies in a 60-yard-wide no man’s land and together buried about 100 bodies. A service of prayers and the 23rd Psalm was arranged.

“They were read first in English by our Padre and then in German by a boy who was studying for the ministry,” a 19-year-old second lieutenant named Arthur Pelham Burn wrote to a friend. “The Germans formed up on one side, the English on the other, the officers standing in front, every head bared. Yes, I think it was a sight one will never see again.”

An English captain, R.J. Armes, wrote: “At times we heard the guns in the distance and an occasional rifle shot. I can hear them now, but about us is absolute quiet. I allowed one or two men to go out and meet a German halfway. They exchanged cigars or smokes, and talked.”

According to various accounts, there was at least one pig-roast, at least one session of hair-cutting (with payment in cigarettes), several kick-abouts with soccer balls, and innumerable exchanges of food and souvenirs such as buttons and hats. At one place on the French line, the Germans carried a drunk French soldier back “as far as the limit of our barbed wire, where we recovered him,” wrote soldier Charles Toussaint.

It didn’t work everywhere. There is evidence that in at least two places, soldiers attempting to fraternize were shot by opposing forces. Sometimes this was followed by apologies.

Eventually, the Christmas Truce ended and its participants went back to war.

The General’s Perspective 

The meaning of the truce has been debated for years. 

Perhaps the most eloquent statement came from a British participant, Murdoch M. Wood, in 1930 in Parliament: “The fact is that we did it, and I then came to the conclusion that I have held very firmly ever since, that if we had been left to ourselves there would never have been another shot fired.”

There’s a much more recent story, though, that shows the truce has not retreated entirely to the realm of idealism and stirring rhetoric. Its subversiveness — which every participant recognized — is still alive. In some quarters, the truce is still a threat.

Christian Carion, the director of “Joyeux Noel,” wanted to make his movie in France. He researched many sites and found an acceptable one on a military reservation. He sought permission to shoot there, but after many months was turned down. According to Carion, a general told him: “We cannot be partner with a movie about rebellion.”

He made his movie in Romania instead.

Staff researchers Gretchen Hoff in Paris and Shannon Smiley in Berlin contributed to this article.

A family at war

I have dug up some information about a distant relative, Sydney Arthur Row, that may be of interest to some of you.

Sydney Row (1897-1970) was my father’s cousin. His father, John Row, was the older brother of my father’s mother—Etheldreda Row Brown. The Rows were English Canadians who emigrated from southern England to Montreal, and later moved to Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

Sydney Row and his brother (also named John, but called Jack) were World War I veterans of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Syd enlisted on October 29, 1914 and was discharged February 18, 1919. His brother, who enlisted two days before him, miraculously also survived the war. 

Syd moved to Framingham after trying farming in Saskatchewan with Jack after the war. He lived with my father’s family on State Street for six years, working as a mechanic at Dennison Manufacturing Co., and later as a salesman for the Simmons Bedding Co. He brought youth and energy to a house full of old people. My father’s father was born in 1863, and his bachelor uncle, who also lived with them, was even older.

I knew that Syd Row—whom I met several times as a child—and his brother had been in World War I. What I learned recently was that a another brother, Frank, and their father, John—a pharmacist assigned to a medical attachment—were also in uniform.

The government of Canada has made most of the military records of its veterans publicly available, and has collected supplementary information from survivors, as well. The latter includes letters from World War I veterans to family members, and to each other. The Row family, with whom I’m not in touch, obviously provided copies of letters to this archive.

Sydney and Jack were both born in Whitewood, Northwest Territories.

Sydney Row, left, and his brother, Jack, who was 14 months older, at the time of their enlistment. Both were teenagers.

This is a photograph of Sydney at age 17 or 18. The photographic paper has sketches of airplanes and boats around the portrait oval, and the printed message “I’m on my way.” This suggests that Forde Photo Studio on Main Street in Winnipeg made lots of pre-deployment pictures like this.

This is Jack Row about the same time.

On May 9, 1918, Jack Row wrote a letter to his mother in which he handicapped each family member’s chance of surviving. It’s an extraordinary exercise in fatalism masquerading as reassurance.

At the time, Jack was 22 and recovering from a wound in England. He noted that “my left arm is not as strong as my right and a little awkward but I can handle a machine gun as good as ever.” Syd, 20, was also recovering from a wound. Their younger brother Frank, recently mobilized, was 19. Their father was about to turn 52. The other two people mentioned in the letter are younger children—Bessie, 16, and Philip, 13.

(“Blighty” refers to a wound and a place where one recuperates from a wound.)

There are four of us in the army, three of us front line men. We have never hunted for soft jobs and have been in as hot corner as any men in France yet we pulled through, two of us with honours . . .

If I go up the line I have a ten to one chance of getting a nice Blighty like I got last time . . .

Syd was marked D(1) when I left Blighty, which means six weeks gymnastics or “jerks” as it’s called . . . . Dad is under shell fire but never goes into the line except at night or any emergency as he is in charge of a water squad of twelve men to test the water which is supplied to the front line and reserves. If anything comes off he becomes a member of the Field Ambulance for duty.

Frank is a brigade runner so he is not likely to be any less than a mile from the front line, so he has twice as good a chance as last summer when they were in and over the top most of the time. I stand a better chance than him with the machine gun. We dig in and don’t move or fire till Fritz is actually coming over. Frank as a company runner had to go through all the shelling, often over the open ground, dodging here and there and Syd was the same but still they came through.

So dear you are bound to have some of us come through all right and believe me this war has made us all more united and after this if one Row is in it the rest are with him.

Bessie seems to have grown into a fine girl and Phil will never be old enough to join so cheer up and never mind. 

Love to all, Jack

One of the “honours” Jack Row mentions in the letter is a decoration that Syd had won.

My father knew that Syd had been a trench runner and had seen a medal in his room in Framingham, but knew nothing about how he’d won it. He didn’t ask. Years later, he wrote: “Sydney rarely mentioned the war. I was warned by my parents to not press him about this phase of his life unless he brought up the subject.”

A number of years ago I got a copy of Syd’s military records. The records noted the award, but provided no details, and I didn’t pursue the matter. Recently—inspired, in part by Peter Jackson’s documentary “They Shall Not Grow Old”—I got out the records again and decided to dig deeper.

It turns out the name of the decoration was the Military Medal, which I’d assumed was a generic description. He’d been awarded it on February 14, 1918. The Military Medal was a decoration given to men in Britain and Commonwealth nations below commissioned rank. Approximately 424,000 Canadians served overseas in the Canadian Expeditionary Force in World War 1, and 12,345 got the decoration.

With help from people at the Canadian Expeditionary Force Study Group–an online list-serve and chatroom about Canada’s role in the Great War–I found the citation for Syd’s Military Medal. It read:

For conspicuous courage and devotion to duty on the 21st August, 1917, this runner at great risk made numerous runs to the most exposed positions. In spite of most dangerous sniping, he kept in close touch with the most forward points. Throughout the operation he never failed to deliver his messages. He brought out important information, and by his fearlessness and consistent work greatly aided communications. 

The citation for Sydney’s Military Medal, awarded for “conspicuous courage” as a message runner in fighting in Lens, France, in August 1917.

Syd was 5-feet, 7-inches, and 125 pounds when he joined up, so he had the body type for the job. Interestingly, on his discharge physicals he was listed as 5’9″ and 5’10” and 155 pounds. Both weight-gain and height-growth were common after enlistment, according “They Shall Not Grow Old.” 

The battle was not Vimy Ridge, as my father had thought, but Hill 70. (There’s a long article about it in Wikipedia:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Hill 70.) On August 21, the day Syd earned the medal, Canadian troops were taking the town of Lens in urban combat, which was rare in World War 1.

I suspect Sydney Row won the award not for running between trenches or in trenches, but for running through streets and plazas to buildings where soldiers were holed up. That would explain the reference to sniper fire in the citation. On that day, the Canadians lost 1,154 soldiers.

Syd was proud of the decoration. People awarded the Military Medal are permitted to use the “post-nominal” MM after their names. On his discharge papers, Sydney Row signed “SA Row MM.” Whether he used it after that I don’t know. 

Both Syd and Jack stopped in Framingham and visited their aunt—my grandmother—on their way back to Canada. I can’t find a picture of Syd on this visit, but here is one of Jack. He is holding the hand of my father, who’s 2 1/2. Jack has the haggard look of a veteran in his fifties, but is not yet 30.

Jack Row, returned from World War I, with Bruce Row Brown, probably 1919

In his retirement, my father wrote several pamphlets of personal memories. One of them was about the Rows, and especially Sydney.

He wrote: “I can remember having early morning wrestling matches with him after awakening him in his bedroom. He played baseball with us. He taught me how to throw a curve ball. He joined us in our hockey games at a local pond during the winter months.  He was understandably very handy around horses.”

My father, an only child, viewed Syd as an older brother. My grandmother, his aunt, viewed him as an older son. They both missed him terribly when he got married and moved out of the house. My father was 13.

Syd had two children and lived what was considered, in our family at least, an unhappy life. He got divorced from his wife, Caroline, drank heavily, and lost many jobs.

He occasionally visited my parents in Framingham when I was small. He always slept late the first morning. I have fond, if sketchy, memories of him.

My father wrote in his memoir pamphlet:  “He always came with a gift. Once he brought a cribbage board and took great delight in teaching the game to our children. On his last visit he presented our two boys with a .22 caliber rifle with shells. He explained they were old enough to be responsible with a gun if they were properly taught. He then took them down into our woods where it was perfectly safe to shoot a rifle at a target. It was a big day in their lives.”

When I eventually learned about the psychological damage of war I concluded that  “Uncle Syd” (as we called him) was probably one of its sufferers.

He got a shrapnel wound in his right armpit in August 1916, and suffered several skin infections, including one in his hand from a barbed-wire cut. He had tonsillitis in October 1917. On November 20, 1917–three months minus a day from when he’d won his medal–he was admitted to the hospital for “debility.” He stayed 86 days. Could that have been “battle fatigue,” “shell shock,” or some other mental wound of war?

Who knows what ghosts haunted Sydney Row from three years on the Western Front, or one summer day in the streets of Lens, France?

The Great War

The 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I is six months passed. The centennial observations are over and the museum shows and dramatic performances marking the end are in their last days.

The Great War is receding into deep history, soon to be beyond the recollection of a single person on earth. Already the millions of dead are names and stories only, no longer brothers, fathers, husbands, or sisters.

The acknowledgment of this catastrophe, however, will continue for a very, very long time, as it should.

Every city, town, and village in Scotland (and in France and lots of other places, I assume) has a memorial to the dead.

I’ve seen them on each of my crossings in The Great Outdoors Challenge and find them moving, although it’s hard to say why. The one reason I can articulate is that they represent the enormous number of people willing to give their lives for a public purpose with little debate or hesitation—something that doesn’t exist in the Western world any more.

For which I think we can say: Thank God.

Of course, there were reasons other than patriotism and altruism for which people went to war in what became known as the Great War. An escape from cruelty and deprivation was the most obvious alternative one.

Readers of the first chapter of “Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village,” (1969), an oral history of a village in Suffolk, England, by Ronald Blythe, will learn that serfdom existed in Britain until well into the 20th Century. The Great War gave young men an opportunity to escape it (at a risk they didn’t comprehend, of course). It gave them enough to eat until they were killed.

I’m in Dundee as I write this, and just learned at a museum at a restored jute mill (Verdant Works) that this city supplied an unusually large number of volunteers at the start of the war. The reason was that so many men were unemployed. They were unemployed not because of economic downturn, but because of rationalized exclusion from the labor force.

Dundee’s dozens of jute mills preferentially employed women and children in their factory force because they could be paid less. When boys reached adult age, they were terminated. Even in intact families, often it was the women who earned the paychecks and the men who tended the babies.

This is what the men of Dundee got for work once the war started–slaughter at Neuve Chappelle. That battle, in March 1915, was full of Dundonians, in the 2nd, 4th, and 5th battalions of the Royal Highlanders.

“After Neuve Chappelle” by Joseph Gray, at the McManus Museum, Dundee

At the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow, before the Challenge, I saw a show of prints that Frank Brangwyn (1867-1956) made in 1915 to raise money for St. Dunstan’s Hostel for Blind Soldiers and Sailors.

“The Shell”
Blind basket-weavers

The monument in Glasgow gave the numbers: 200,000 people from the city serving in the Great War, a number that’s hard to comprehend.

Here are a few of the monuments I passed on my crossing of Scotland.


I saw only one monument that was damaged and not well kept, in the hamlet of Kinnell, next to a church that was going to ruin too. But even it had a few artificial poppies left at its base.


We do not know these people, and many of us—certainly including me—don’t believe they died for a good cause. But we should never forget them.

My last post will be about how the Great War touched my family.

Last days, part 2

The next day was more of the same, so I’ll try not to repeat myself or show too many more pictures of trails in the heather.

The last night of the Challenge I camped on the grounds of Gardyne Castle.

Castles and other ancient structures are labeled in Gothic script on the Ordnance Survey map. Sometimes they’re denoted “ruin,” but sometimes not even when they are. So it’s difficult to tell whether a castle is an occupied house until you get up close.

Gardyne Castle is occupied, although nobody was around when I got there.

Gardyne Castle, built in 1568

I looked through a wrought-iron gate and saw an formal garden. Somebody is definitely putting money into this place.

There was lawn nearby, but I didn’t want to pitch my tent there and find the lord and lady arriving for a long weekend at 10 o’clock at night. So I followed a recently mowed swath through an orchard and field, looking for a wide spot where I could put the tent and not be in the way in case the hired man decided to cut the path again very early in the morning.

I didn’t find a “turning place,” but I did eventually get to a large mowed circle with a flagless golf pin surrounded by three well-buried arrows. The site of a pan-athletic pagan ritual? Possibly. It seemed strange, but beggers (and squatters) can’t be choosers.

In truth, it was a beautiful spot, next to a stand of oaks and within view of a newly planted field. Here it is at 4 a.m., as it was starting to get light.

In the morning, a tractor with spray booms crossed the field, but I don’t think the driver saw me.

It was hot in the tent by the time I took it down, and it was going to be a sunny day. So I unwisely zipped off the lower legs of my trousers. Poor situational awareness that, as I then walked an hour through high vegetation that had lots of some sort of thistly plant with invisible spines. My legs itched and burned for the rest of the day.

Beware the new growth of thistles

At one point, in a patch of woods, I came across this. You don’t see a lot of standing stones with Christian iconography on them on walks in the United States.

As I passed through the village of Friockheim I saw a lot of people walking from a parking lot to an elementary school carrying camp chairs in bags. I stopped and asked one couple what was going on. They were Hazel and Andy Brown, on their way to watch their seven-year-old grandson, Owen, compete in the school’s spring day of games.

“He’s a wee boy, not so fleet,” Hazel admitted, preparing herself.

The couple has been married for 42 years. They live in the house that Andy grew up in and that has been in his family for 136 years. In previous generations, the family farmed 33 acres. Andy, however, is a car mechanic, not a farmer, still working at 68. The couple has two children, a boy who is also a mechanic, and a girl who’s an administrator at the Glasgow School of Art.

We talked for a while, and the subject of America inevitably came up. I asked if they’d ever been there. They hadn’t. In fact, Hazel has never been in an airplane. Andy has once, in a plane whose engine he worked on.

Hazel and Andy Brown

I trudged on and came to Braikie Castle. This was more like it—a ruin, with birds flying in and out of high open windows. It was built in 1581 and had a roof into the 1950s.

Braikie Castle, built in 1581

I looked around for an easy way to get over the fences around it. I sorely wanted to go up the tower and look out; it would have been like stepping into a Thomas Cole painting. But that would have taken time and effort, and there was a good chance all the doors would be barred. So I left it for another day. Or life.

As I walked away down a farm road I stepped aside to make way for a front-end loader heading in the opposite direction.

The machine stopped. Its driver was Stewart Nicol, the 55-year-old foreman of the farm. He’d grown up in the hills above Glamis, but had been here for 29 years. The farm grows barley, wheat, oilseed rape (“you call it canola”), and potatoes.

He’d been in Braikie Castle years ago, and up in the tower, too, which even then was missing some landings in the spiral staircase. “Quite dangerous, although of course you don’t think of that as a young man,” he said.

Three huge estates—Panmure, South Esk, and Usan—each running more than 10 miles in different directions, came together very close to the castle. The other two had their own castles, but they’ve collapsed. Not this one. He said: “Those walls are as straight as when it was built.” I asked him to write down the names of the estates, and he did.

Stewart Nicol

I walked on. It was sunny and beautiful, but it was road walking, which is hard on the feet.

Early in the afternoon I stepped off the road onto a dirt track to urinate. I looked up and saw in the distance a hazy, three-shade horizon, not unlike distant views I’d had over the preceding two weeks. This one, however, was flat, and I realized it was the North Sea.

I descended on small roads, following signs for Lunan Bay, which is possibly Scotland’s most beautiful beach. It’s miles long, with cliffs at one end, and the ruins of the Red Castle.

Just beyond a small parking lot was a snack shop with a verandah, and picnic tables in a gravel yard in front. I heaved off my pack at a picnic table. On the verandah were a half-dozen people.

“You on the Challenge?” one of them asked.

“Yes,” I said.

They were the first Challengers I’d seen since leaving Ardrishaig 14 days earlier.

There were three of them, with friends and husband, in one case. The man who’d spoken to me—alas, I forget his name—had started in Mallaig, far north of where I’d started, and walked a 274-mile diagonal to this spot. (That’s more than 30 miles longer than I walked, which was a longer-than-average route). Why? To maximize time in the empty Highlands, he said.

I wasn’t looking forward to trudging back up the hill to the bus stop, and so was grateful when one couple, Barbara and Peter, invited me to ride to Montrose with them in their van. Peter has stopped doing the Challenge; Barbara, about my age, had just finished her 16th.

“Go dip your feet,” one of them said.

So I did.

Lunan Bay beach

So that was the end, at least unofficially.

I still had to go to Montrose, sign in, collect my bling, and have dinner with the Friday-finishing Challengers. They’re a smaller—and more select in their own way—group than the Thursday-finishing crowd, which was already on its way home.

I signed in at Challenge Control, the room at the Park Hotel where people have been quietly worrying about 379 walkers for two weeks. (For the record, 38 of them chose to “retire”—the gentle term for quit—this year).

Challenge Control

The two people I wanted to see at the dinner both finished on Thursday and had left. I didn’t know anyone, so I sat at a table with strangers.

On one side of me was Graham, a civil engineer who helped create the stage setting for Pink Floyd’s famous concert in Berlin, at the site of the Berlin Wall. Construction uncovered a tunnel for the Nazi leadership that still had food and wine in it, he told me. The Berlin police immediately filled it with concrete so it wouldn’t become a destination for neo-Nazis.


On the other side was Michan, a Dutch journalist and Challenge first-timer. He’d been an exchange student in Green River, Wyoming, for two years in high school. He’d picked the place because of snowboarding.


Sue Oxley and Ali Ogden, the patient and indefatigable coordinators of the event, were there, of course.

Sue Oxley, left, and Ali Ogden

So that was it—almost.

I spent the next day and night in Montrose, although to quote Bob, “Anyone with any sense had already left town.”

As I walked down the high street I passed a Salvation Army thrift store. I stepped in and asked the man at the counter whether it accepted footwear. He said yes, but the store was closing in half an hour and wouldn’t reopen for two days.

I hustled back to the hotel and got my hiking boots. They were old friends. I loved them. But we’d grown apart.

“They’ll have to be cleaned up a bit, but they’re still in pretty good shape,” I told the man, showing him the soles. “Do you think you can sell these?”

“Oh, we can sell those for sure. Brilliant!” he said.

It made me happy to think they might one day see the hills again. As for me, it’s an open question.

So that is it for my report on The Great Outdoors Challenge of 2019.

I’ll be putting up two more posts in the next few days. They’re about World War I, peripherally related to the walk. You might be interested.

In the meantime, thanks for reading this. It means a lot.

Last days, part 1

Madeleine Braithwaite-Exley wanted to take a picture of me after I took a picture of her before I set off. Here it is.

I didn’t want to head back to the road to get on my route, both because it would add distance and because road-walking is harder on the feet (and often distracting and annoying). So I headed cross country from the dead-end of the farm track that had led to her house.

This is the way it’s been on a lot of this crossing—walking on ground that has no trails according to the Ordnance Survey map. In truth, there is a whole system of capillary paths—not the veins and arteries on the map—one can find and follow to stay off the roads.

What you have to be willing to do is open and close gates, climb over fences, and cross streams of unpredictable depth. Sometimes the paths are animal trails of barely perceptible contour; sometimes they are trodden into a strip of bare dirt capable of holding their identity even in the lushness of spring.

It’s fun to try to find these, or intuit where they might be. But you have to be prepared for an end of the road and an invitation to bushwhacking.

I went through a patch of woods behind the B&B on an old ATV track.

Here are a few other paths from the day. The third shows a farm track with some boot prints. I suspect they might be from a Challenger. I’ve still not seen one.

I passed something called the Lundie Craigs. They’re unlike anything I’ve seen over here. Most cliffs are part of the hill or mountain; this was like a mesa.

I crossed a pasture full of cattle—cows not bulls, I surmised—staying high on the slope and away from them. I went through a gate into a sheep pasture. I found a spot free of sheep droppings next to Long Loch. I’d passed a house, but saw no one.

When I arrived I seemed to disturb the order of things on the water. A swan chased a pair of geese mercilessly for about 15 minutes. I set up the tent just before it started to rain. The rain didn’t last long. You can hear it in this quick video tour of the accommodations.

Tour of the tent

After dinner, things had calmed down and the geese were nowhere to be seen.

The next morning I walked to the end of the loch and confronted the Challenger’s nemesis—an electric fence. I considered doing a scissor-kick high jump (which I was once good at in summer camp), but decided against it. The last thing I needed was a twisted ankle or knee. So I put on my mittens and quickly climbed the wire next to a wooden post, where I could put a hand. I got over without a shock.

Just to give you a sense of the mix of walking, here is my tracklog, in yellow, for the first few hours of this day.

The lower left corner, near the water, is where I went over the electric fence. I then cut across open ground, encountered several other fences that took some effort to get over (but weren’t electrified) before getting out onto boggy, hummocky ground on one side of Newtyle Hill.

I followed what looked like a trail but, as you can see from the buttonhook detour in the middle of the image, turned out to be a dead end. This is what looked like looked a trail through the gorse.

You can’t bushwhack through gorse. It’s like cactus, only more luxuriant. It’ll ruin raingear in about 10 seconds and then start tearing flesh.


So I tried going in another direction, not the heading I wanted, and found the dotted-line trail on the map. This is looking back to the gate I just came through off aforementioned Newtyle Hill.

This is just to make the point that there’s lots of trial error in this enterprise. Unsuccessful choices add time and effort.

Then there was quite a bit of road-walking.

You pass steadings like this often. Isolated and neighborless, low, solid, heat-retaining, they represent to me the historically hard life of rural Scotland. And of course, they’re palatial compared to what people lived in 200 years ago.

Everywhere are stone walls built to a stereotyped design: two courses of stacked flat stones with rubble in between, and a rounded cap along the top. The cap is first to go; nevertheless, in many places the walls are intact.

The difference between these walls and the ones I grew up with in New England is the difference between a system of feudalism and crofting and a system of fee-simple ownership and yeoman farming. In other words: if you own, you don’t have to be so compulsive.

The wind sent the oats—higher than the other crops—undulating. You can see it in the middle distance if you enlarge the picture.

I was supposed to spend the night at a B&B in the village of Letham. I was hours behind schedule and called the woman who runs it. I told her I might not make her place until 9 p.m. She suggested I stop short and try to find a place in Glamis, a village I was only a mile from.

In a few minutes she called me back and reported that Glamis (pronounced Glalms) had a hotel, and advised I go there.

There’s nothing like a foster mother when you need one.

I spent the night here.

Prisoner of war

I arrived at the Park House B&B in the light rain after 17.7 miles of walking, my longest day. It was supposed to be a 12.1 mile day, based on the GPS route I’d booked months ago. But I tried to be smarter than my winter plans.

I attempted to take an abandoned railroad bridge over a river, which would have cut miles from my route. The bridge was blocked and the gate was topped with spikes. I’d gotten there by slogging through fields and around bits of narrow road. I could have gotten around the barricade, I decided, but then there would be another one at the far end. If I couldn’t get over that I’d have to retraced my steps, get over the first barricade, and return to the original route.

I decided on discretion. I slogged back through the fields and farm tracks and went up the paved road—as originally planned—and crossed the river at the bridge that cars and everyone else takes.

The Park House B&B was poorly marked. I stopped and asked a man named Allan for directions. His dog was yapping in the car. Allan consulted his phone; mine was out of power.

The B&B was up a dirt road. I was glad to get there.

The proprietress is Madeleine Braithwaite-Exley. She and her husband have three boys, all grown and out of the house. Her husband, Marcus, is a retired infantry officer who served in Northern Ireland, the Falklands, Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He was away, tending to an ill relative.

Madeleine Braithwaite-Exley
Major Marcus Braithwaite-Exley

Madeleine comes from a family with deep military roots. Her father was in Normandy on D-day+3. Her maternal grandfather served in both World War I and World War II. The next morning she told me about him.

His name was Maurice Wilson. He was born in 1899. His brother was killed in the Battle of La Bassee, in October 1914, one of the first engagements of the Great War. Maurice’s mother was determined Maurice not fight, but as soon as he was old enough he volunteered, catching the end of that catastrophe.

Madeleine didn’t know much about his service in that war. But she did about his time in World War II. She got out a scrapbook.

He was a career soldier, in middle age, when the war began. He was a member of the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, part of the 51st Highland Division. Here he is before the war, second from the right.

Maurice Wilson, second from right

The 51st Highland Division was part of the British Expeditionary Force sent to France to help defend it against German invasion. The division was fighting the German army and retreating toward Le Havre when 338,000 other members of the BEF were evacuated from Dunkirk.

The 51st Highland Division’s ironically named commander, Major General Victor Fortune, requested evacuation too. Winston Churchill refused, believing that some British soldiers should remain and show solidarity with French forces. Within days, however, France fell. The division surrendered at Saint-Valery-en-Caux in June 1940, and 10,000 Scottish soldiers were taken prisoner.

Major Wilson was initially reported as killed–a fact that, astonishingly, was reported in a dependent clause in the lede of the newspaper story. Soon, that report was changed and he was said to be missing, not dead.

Finally, in August, his wife got a telegram saying that he was alive in a German prisoner-of-war camp, Oflag 7.

The first contact was a postcard that provided a menu of statements. If they weren’t true they had to be crossed out. Of the three that remained on Maurice Wilson’s, one was: “I have received no letter from you for a long time.” Madeleine’s voice caught as she read that.

Eventually, letters were sent and received. As an officer, Major Wilson had a responsibility to keep up the morale of his fellow prisoners as much as he could. He recited poetry, organized dances and musical events, and chess tournaments.

In the meantime, his wife had invited several war widows and other wives of prisoners to move to her estate, Ashmore, with their children, away from cities that were bombing targets. They lived on what the farm grew and war-time rations, and also ran a small school. Although the family was wealthy, life was hard and self-reliance was the order of the day, Madeleine said.

“What was stress? Nobody knew what stress was. Stress was something you put on a rope.”

Major Wilson asked his wife to have the children in the school write to the prisoners and tell them what was happening on the farm so that they would have a sense of the world outside prison wire.

“My grandfather used to say: ‘I have 40 years of good memories, and of a wife and four children. But I am in command of young men who were captured at 18 and 19, and they have no such memories to sustain them’.”

Major Wilson was a prisoner for five years.

His daughter, Madeleine’s mother, spent the end of the war, when she was 17 or 18, in the Women’s Royal Naval Service (the “Wrens”) in the Orkney Islands, doing clerical work at a huge naval base in the Scapa Flow. When her father returned on a POW ship in 1945, she went in uniform to Portsmouth to meet him. They didn’t recognize each other.

The children on the farm wrote a note from the animals, welcoming him home.

Maurice Wilson stayed in the Army until 1955. Here he is with Madeleine’s mother next to him.

Maurice Wilson, with his daughter and Madeleine’s mother, on his left

He died when Madeleine was about 14. I asked her if he seemed damaged by the war in any obvious way.

“He lived very happily. He wasn’t so traumatized that he couldn’t come and be a dad again.” She paused and thought, and then added, “He would cry at anything. He was very emotional. He cried at good news.”

Sights, sounds, and scenes

The places where peat has been eroded or undercut by water are called “peat hags.” This is the only one I’ve ever seen that is free-standing—a giant mushroom peat hag.

People are alarmed by how low the lochs and rivers are in the Highlands this spring. This is the west end of Loch Lyon, showing mudflats.

Loch Lyon

The other end has a dam generating hydroelectric power. Whether the low water has diminished output I don’t know.

On a single-track dirt road in the woods along the south side of River Lyon a man named Rod (appropriately enough) stopped to chat. He lives near Oxford and comes up once a year with 10 friends to fish for a week. They rent a house on an estate that gives them access to six miles of riverbank. They fly-fish for brown trout and salmon. Salmon is catch-and-release; you can keep some trout.

The fishing has been poor this year—the river is low and there’s been too much sun, he said. He didn’t look unhappy, however.

His salmon rod is so long that he had a rack for carrying it on the outside of the car.

Low water or not, what’s surprising to me is how there is water running off the hills incessantly. These are hills from which the snowpack is long gone (although in the highest ones there are still a few patches of white). You don’t have to carry water here; you’re rarely more than a couple of hundred yards from a watercourse of some kind. Where it all comes from is a mystery.

In some places in the hills you can feel and hear flowing water that’s invisible except for sinkholes in the sphagnum and grass you can scoop a drink from.

One of the B&Bs I stayed in was in Milton Eonan, outside of Bridge of Balgie. It used to be a hamlet centered around a grist mill, with the miller’s house on the high ground and about five cottages lower down, closer to the stream. Now, it is occupied by Jason and Melanie, who live in the miller’s house with their two teenage children, and Melanie’s mother, who occupies half of the only surviving lower house (the other half let out to guests).

Melanie is a reporter at the Perthshire Advertiser, and Jason is in the final stages of training to become a clinical psychologist. Melanie summered here as a child, and the couple moved up from England to live year-round about 20 years ago. Their property is inside a 35,000-acre estate, “like Lesotho in South Africa,” Jason said.

Although they are very isolated, they are happy they moved here. With the ruins of the old houses and the tiny arched bridge over the stream, Jason said he often feels “an undertone of absence, something missing, people living together in a difficult way.”

The miller’s house and bridge

In the hills, the exposed tops of the abandoned sheep folds and old buildings are colonized by grass, moss, and hardy saplings, making them miniature versions of the hills themselves.

A mycologist could say why this corner is so favorable for white lichen.

In the 1670s, Robert Campbell, the laird of Meggernie Estate, logged the property to pay debts. Occasionally the roots of ancient trees erode into view.

There are still a few old trees around. Moss grows on the west side, not the north side, of them here.

I almost expected this one to turn and talk to me.

This is a custom I’d never seen—coins hammered into the butt of a log. Perhaps they record wishes.

Ancient trees can get the best of ancient walls.

This is in Birnam Wood. I was planning to visit Dunsinane Hill and deposit a branch (as John McPhee does in his piece “From Birnam Wood to Dunsinane,” in the book “Pieces of the Frame”). But I shortened my route and cut Macbeth a break. A lot of good it’ll do him now.

To get close-ups of sheep and lambs, you have to sneak up on them.

Unlike pigs and cows, which love to check out passers-by.

There’s a lot of abandoned stonework in Scotland. Some could be out of fairytales.

The ruins of Carnbane Castle, near Inverar

In more transitory matters, running a propane camping stove gives a nice lesson in thermodynamics. While the water in the pot is preparing to boil, visible and palpable frost is forming on the gas canister as the pressure inside it falls rapidly.

Don’t quite know what this is about, but I imagine he’s a Brexiteer.

Electric fences are a real inconvenience, as this rabbit learned the hard way.

The beautiful wages of rain.

It’s spring over here. The rapeseed is in full flower.

The bluebells are out.

And the apple trees.

Even the water stains on the road are happy to be in Scotland.


Sunny days in Scotland are always living on borrowed time. The sun shone the first week of The Great Outdoors Challenge with such intensity that to some people it seemed like an unnatural event.

Whenever I’m in a situation in which every minute of good fortune is a further defiance of the odds I think of the last scene in “Moby-Dick.” The worst has happened, the voyage has ended in catastrophe, and everyone except Ishmael is dead. He’s saved by Tashtego’s coffin, which he uses as a life raft, waiting for rescue. Around him, Melville writes, “the unharming sharks, they glided by as if with padlocks on their mouths; the savage sea-hawks sailed with sheathed beaks.”

The locks and sheaths eventually come off. And so it was here the last couple of days.

I left the village of Fortingall in what, in my experience, is a typical Scottish rainstorm—light, not wind-driven, long lasting. I was unfortunately on a stretch of the route that required road walking, which isn’t that much fun in the rain. Nevertheless, there are always things to see, such as these two horses, who ran around the field as if yoked side-by-side.

I passed gallery run by a man who used to be a carpenter (“a joiner”) building houses, but who now made welded sculpture from found objects. Here’s some of the stuff waiting to become art.

I walked along a river and came to a house that was open and appeared to be owned by a fishing club (which it was). Nobody was around to ask whether I could use it for a lunchtime shelter, which I did. A club member eventually showed up and said it was okay.

I got off the fields and away from the stream valley and headed upward into a pine forest. There are small areas of natural woods in the Highlands, but most of the trees in this part of Scotland are planted monoculture. The pine pollen was rafted up in puddles on the ATV track I was following.

The road led to a high, clear-cut area where wind turbine blades turned slowly with barely audible groans.

In one place the towers were hard-by the remains of a small settlement, a study in technological achievement centuries apart.

Walking along the track I passed two puddles that appeared to be stained with blood. In one, the pollen had made a chalk-like outline around it, suggesting a crime scene. I wondered what had happened.

A few steps later I came across more evidence, but no answer. It looked like the opening scene of a police procedural on British television about a murder in an unexpected place.

A planting of non-conifers ran through one clear cut, each sapling protected by a cage.

The pine forests are completely unnavigable, except on hands and knees. They are also a lot darker than this picture suggests.

I finally stopped, again slightly short of where I’d planned to. I was tired, wet, and it was after 7. The purple circle marks the spot—the middle of nowhere.

The bits of cleared ground off the road were boggy and bumpy. The best campsites were in sections of wide shoulder—“verge” over here—next to the road. I picked one that had a tree sticking into the roadway, from which I hung the pack cover to warn of my presence. It seemed unlikely, however, there’d be any lumber trucks coming through over night.

Camping in the rain is an art. You need to get the tent up quickly and everything under cover, while not simply chucking everything into the sleeping area and getting it wet too. At the same time, you need to bring some things in there to help them dry out overnight. A few honored guests, such as wet socks and wet boot insoles, are eventually invited into the sleeping bag for the night.

I had one full water bottle. I used two-thirds for dinner and saved enough for coffee in the morning. It was an odd situation—to be wet, in the rain, and having to ration water because there was no stream or loch right out the door.

I went to bed before it was dark and listened to the calling of cuckoos and other animal through the night. Dangerous animals—bears, wolves—have been gone from Scotland for centuries. Nevertheless, it’s always a little disconcerting to be alone on a road all night long.

So it was with surprise that I heard the rhythmic sound of footfalls the next morning as I finally summoned the willpower to pull myself up to start the day.

I looked out the open tent flap and saw a woman running down the foggy road with a black lab on a leash. The dog was about as heeled over as he could be trying to get a good look at and smell of me as she ran by.

“Unbelievable,” I said out loud.

“Have a great day,” she said.

Getting things done inside a tent—putting on pants and socks, for example—requires a crude form of yoga that can be uncomfortable for a sore body that hasn’t gotten a good night’s sleep. This is especially true when don’t want to go outside or disturb the tent and send a rivulet of rainwater onto semi-dry objects. Have you ever tried making breakfast in pigeon? It’s not easy.

I packed up everything and got outside to strike the tent, the last thing to do before moving on. I was out of water, of course. But I found the pack cover-hazard sign had accumulated a small pool over night, just enough for brushing my teeth.

I instantly felt better. I put on my mittens and hat—it was cold as well as wet—and headed down the road.

Pleasure or penance? Hard to tell.

Tigh nam Bodach

As I walked from the camping area at the Bridge of Orchy to the hotel for breakfast (but mostly to charge my phone during breakfast), I passed a stream of people with day packs just off the train, heading for the West Highland Way.

I envied them. For me, this was going to be another day on single-file paths or no paths at all, climbing 2,222 feet, according to the route estimate.

I crossed the railroad tracks and headed in a direction none of the West Highlanders were going—up through a slot in the hills called Coire an Dothaidh.

This is looking up to it.

Heading up

Nearly at the top, I looked back. The few white buildings next to the road is where I started. It takes balls to leave Bridge of Orchy by this route.

Looking back

I was willing to do so for one reason. I wanted to see Tigh nam Bodach. It is reputed to be the only surviving shrine to Cailliche (alternatively Cailleach), one of the creation deities of Celtic folklore, in Britain. It is also said to be the site of the oldest uninterrupted pagan ritual in the United Kingdom.

I’d heard about it from Jean Macrae Turner after one of my previous crossings. She’s gone past it on two of her many Challenges, and my route this year is based on one of those previous routes.

But first I had to get there.

It was another sunny day. The landforms in this part of Scotland are simple, the palette limited, the effect beautiful.

When I went through the aforementioned col, or coire in Gaelic, I could see the next couple of hours of work ahead of me. My route was to the bottom of the glen, and then to turn left and go up Gleann Cailliche, which is now commonly translated from Gaelic as the Glen of the Old Woman.

It’s believed that 200 to 300 people used to live at least part of the year in this glen. They were both pastoralists and farmers. Many would leave their winter lodgings in the village at the bottom of the glen and spend the summer in “shielings”—primitive stone summer houses—up the glen.

They took their animals with them—cattle, not sheep. (The latter were brought in to replace the people in the Highland Clearances of the 18th and early 19th centuries.) The cattle would get the benefit of lush grasses in the high meadows, and the oat and barley fields down the glen would be freed of bovine depredation.

You can see the remains of some of this activity in the glens. I walked by this structure, which was probably a sheepfold, not a cattle corral, from a later era.

Shielings are now little more than piles of stones slowly being buried by grass and moss. They will eventually be covered by peat, the great eraser and preserver of Scottish material history.

I walked a long time.

After getting to the bottom of the valley and turning to the left, I stopped for my mid-afternoon appointment of podiatric hydrotherapy in Allt Cailliche, the stream of the Old Woman.

I got to Tigh nam Bodach in late afternoon, which was plenty early in a place that doesn’t get dark, a month before the summer solstice, until after 9 o’clock.

The shrine is a miniature shieling. It originally had a thatched roof; now it has a turfed one. Outside it are seven water-sculpted stones with humanoid, Henry Moore-like forms. A larger, and no doubt more recently added, family of stones is on either side of the structure.

Tigh nam Bodach

There is a variety of stories about the creation of this structure. One is that the goddess Cailliche came to the glen when she was pregnant. She sought shelter, and was given it by people in the glen. She blessed them and they built a shrine to her. In one telling, she gives birth to another child every hundred years, which would explain the proliferation of stones.

Whatever the origin, for centuries local people have tended to the shrine and the Old Woman’s needs.

In the days of seasonal occupation of the high glen, an early party each year would re-thatch the shrine’s roof around the first of May, a holiday known as Beltane. They’d also move the family of stones out of the miniature shieling where they’d spent the winter. This was done before people repaired their own shielings from the winter’s wear.

At the end of October, at the holiday of Samhain just before the pastoralists returned to the foot of the glen, they would move the family inside, seal up the front, and chink every crack with moss against the winter weather.

Some version of this is still done now. Who exactly does it isn’t widely known. It’s a bit like the bottle of brandy that appears at Edgar Allan Poe’s grave in Baltimore on his birthday each year. It just happens.

This is the stone that is believed to represent the Old Woman, the goddess Cailliche.

The Cailliche, Celtic Goddess or Old Woman

Within the last decade, the shieling part of the shrine was rebuilt. This appears to have been a guerilla operation. I suspect with enough time and effort the self-appointed rehab architect could be found. But I have walking to do.

Here is a picture of Tigh nam Bodach in the mid-1960s, from the book “Highland Perthshire” (1969) by Duncan Fraser.

The shrine in the 1960s

Fraser wrote: “There is no doubt that the Cailliche has been there a long time—so long that even four centuries ago, when first we hear of this glen, it already bore her name. And probably it goes back to pre-Christian times, to the days of the circular forts or even further to the Bronze Age people.”

I stayed a while at the shrine. Before I left, I looked at the hill to the north and saw some sheep walking along a terrace in the steep slope. They were the only visible movement anywhere in sight.

Tigh nam Bodach, and the goddess’s glen

I walked two more miles, stopping a mile before my intended destination when I found a camping spot by the stream that was too good to pass up. Plus, I wanted to spend a night in the Old Woman’s glen, although at a respectful distance.

I pitched the tent and watched the sun fall, bruising the sky.

There wasn’t a human being within sight or hearing.

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