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

Month: May 2014 (Page 2 of 3)


I walked for a while today with a Scotsman named Bernie Clark, who lives south of Glasgow and is marketer of industrial design software for the aviation industry. This is his fourth Challenge.

Bernie is hefty. He’d spent the night at a tent near mine at Lochcallater Lodge and started out the day with Dave Pickles, a police officer from Devon, in the southwest of England near Cornwall. Bernie had fallen behind Dave and Dave had caught up with me.

Dave and I walked for a while talking about many subjects–policing, the Scottish independence movement, whether World War I was inevitable.  We eventually got onto his family.  His mother had recently died and he’d been going through her stuff.

During World War II, she had been evacuated from London into the countryside, to very near where Dave lives now, in fact. She was about 10. All four children in her family were sent off. She and her sister were sent to the same town but weren’t told and never saw each other.

Dave’s mother and the children with her were housed in the attic of a large house.  They were an embarassment. The girl’s mother–Dave’s grandmother–eventually heard about this and came and got her and brought her back to London.  Love trumped risk.

“No matter their age, the war was the most important event in their lives,” he said of his parents.

Dave, who comes on the Challenge “because it’s a good thing to do in May,” was going on a slightly different route from mine, but toward the same destination, the Shielin of Mark.  I followed his for a way, and bagged my first two Munros, which are hills in Scotland over 3,000 feet.  (Only 280 to go).  It was foggy and cold on top and there was no view.


Dave Pickles on the top of a Munro

Dave Pickles on the top of a Munro


And again

And again

We walked along the upper edge of a dramatic horseshoe-shaped gorge that looked down on Lochnagar, a lake surrounded by gray rock with a tail of three ponds where it flowed out into a burn. A lake of meltwater–there was still snow in the gorge–and a place where I suspect summer is very, very short.



We descended a boulder-strew hill, with a view far off of a patch of woods beyond which was an ascent into the peat hags where the bothy was hidden. It was going to be a long day.

It was eventually clear I was slowing Dave down, so I told him to go ahead and he did. I immediately stopped, took off my boots and soaked my feet in the freezing stream–“icy burn therapy.” I fired up the stove and had a cup of mushroom soup and three cups of cocoa–lunch. I’m getting tired of the oatmeal energy bars, which the pre-packed meal bag features for every lunch.

After a leisurely lie-down, Bernie appeared on the dirt road above me. He took off his pack and got a drink. I packed mine and we walked together for a while.

I asked Bernie why he kept coming back, which is an obvious question in a difficult event in which there are far more repeaters than first-timers.

“It’s my two weeks of exercise a year, so I can justify 50 weeks of laying about,” he said. He added, “I don’t really enjoy backpacking. Although it is nice sometimes.”

What the Challenge provided, he said, was forced removal from technology: the telephone, the Internet, e-mail, Google, television–basically contact with things too far away to touch or talk to unamplified.

“It gets you in touch with basic things like food, shelter, warmth and light,” he said. “It gives you chance to stay with your thoughts. To think about what you’re doing, what you ought to be doing, what you haven’t done.”

I would agree, although I would add that I am tiring of my own companionship. Too many of my thoughts are the same old thoughts, without great progress being made. If I do this again I will bring an iPod to listen to books or music or podcasts–something in the intermissions from rumination. This, of course, may be like hitching a ride, against the rules (or at least against the spirit). But I spend too much time with my own thoughts and I’m sure a break would do me good.

We walked right by a house at the moment a couple and two dogs came out and said goodbye to a guest. They didn’t bat an eye at us. No American boss there, I guess.

Soon after, two roads diverged in a green field and Bernie and I went separate ways.

I walked along the open flat–not quite fields and not quite bog. The sun was out. It was nice. Soon I got to a place called the Spittal of Glenmuick. It had an interesting old building that exemplifies how little stock the architecture of a 150 years ago put on windows. This one had no openings on one of the two long sides and one tiny window on one of the ends. I’m sure there’s a good reason. Shortage of glass, difficulty of construction, heat transfer–something. But it must have been a dark and smoky life indoors.

One window

One window

As I started to head up the stream valley looked to my left where there was, surprisingly, a small nature center for walkers. This was on an “estate”–landholdings that measure in the dozens of square miles–where there’d been a lawsuit almost a century ago that ended in the “right of access” laws opening Scottish private property to transit by walkers. The estate now seems to pride itself in its accommodation of strangers, so maybe that’s why there was a nature center.

In any case, shouldering packs there were three men I first met on the boat from Mallaig the first day. Andrew, Alan and Phil are Englishmen who’ve done the walk many times. They are tireless and witty, very witty. The accents help, of course. But every time I run into them they strike me more and more as a kind Monty Python Goes Hillwalking.

I’ve spent the most time with Andrew, who generally cracks on ahead of his two friends, sometimes sleeping farther down the route than they, to be reunited the next day with  opprobrium and imprecations flying in all directions.








Andrew, who is 60, is a self-employed software writer who lives outside Cambridge, England.  He has sharp features, snaggly teeth and a theatrical manner–Engish all the way.  He did his first crossing in 1995 with the woman who is now his wife.  She was 19 weeks pregnant at the time.  He proposed enroute.

“I was carrying her rucksack over a deer fence.  We were both knackered.  ‘I suppose you won’t marry me after this,’ I said.  She said, ‘I’ll think about it’.”

I guess the answer was yes by the time they got to Braemar, as they bought a wooden cat–“an engagement cat,” Andrew calls it–that still resides in their sitting room.  Their son Ollie, in utero at the time, is about to move to Australia to play professional rugby.

“I think he became addicted to endorphins on that crossing,” Andrew said.

At one point (it was walking up the Caledonian Canal path) we were talking about the complicated hydrology of the Highlands.  How we were constantly going over hills where the watershed changed, with rivers flowing in a new direction.  But it seemed unlikely the east-flowing streams were going to end up in the North Sea, as the Cairngorm Mountains were still ahead of us.  We gave up figuring it out.

“Water goes pretty much where it wants, really.  Mostly into your shoes,” Andrew said.

On the night I stayed at the Dangerous Building (so named by a sign outside) a mile short of my destination White Bridge, he appeared the next morning alone.  Liz Robertson, the Jehovah’s Witness who was also camping there, asked him where Alan and Phil were.

“I killed them,” Andrew said.  “Finally got fed up.  Couldn’t stand it any longer.  Stabbed them to death with the scissors on my knife.  Took friggin’ hours.”

Today, a mile out of Tarfside–a choke-point rendezvous that each year features about 40 tents pitched on the village common land–I stopped at the local museum that also has a tearoom.  Many Challengers stop there for breakfast, and the place was very busy.  One middle aged woman and an older man were waiting on the tables and they were almost breaking into a jog up and down the dining room.

Andrew ordered a cup of tea.  I ordered a glass of orange juice, a bacon biscuit and a cup of coffee.  Were sitting at an incompletely cleared table that had a single piece of cold toast in the toast holder–a device that looks like what one used to keep opened letters in back  when mail was worth keeping.

We waited as the waitress came and went a half-dozen times from the kitchen.  She finally came up to us and said, “I’m sorry, I haven’t put your order in.”

After she left, Andrew looked at me with genuine astonishment.  “That’s brilliant,” he said.  “I don’t think in my whole life I’ve ever had a waitress tell me she hasn’t put the order in.”

When we finally got our order we commented on the workout the two servers were getting.

“I bet they have to go down to the gym and work out before the Challenge.  Run on the treadmill with a tea tray,” Andrew said.

A funny guy, and like I said, the accent helps.

Alan is also funny, but his punch lines are harder to remember.  His story isn’t.

He is on his 19th Challenge.  Officially, that is.  This is actually the 20th, but the event was shortened the year of the hoof-and-mouth disease outbreak in Britain in the 1990s in order to prevent walkers from spreading the disease from farm to farm with their boots.

Allen is doing this one 11 months after a kidney transplant.  He got it last June, just after the walk, which he did with a hematocrit of 25 percent.  Hematocrit is the percentage of the blood volume that is made up of red blood cells.  In men it is normally about 50 percent.

“It was a difficult walk,” he said.  “Very tiring.”

His brother donated the kidney.  The match was good and Alan is on a low-dose of two immunosuppressive drugs.  I asked him if they made him feel lousy.

“Not at all,” he said.  “In fact, it’s amazing how good I feel.  It makes me realize how bad I used to feel.”

Next year will be his 20th Challenge.  You get a whisky drinking cup and accolades for 20.  He is trying to persuade his brother–who doesn’t have good memories of childhood backpacking trips–to come too.

“We’d like to get the kidneys back together,” Andrew said.  “So they can both say they’ve made the crossing.”




Catching up

There’s a lot of catching up to do. So I’ll try to make it quick. But given the source, you might want to make yourself a spot of tea.

So today, Thursday, Day 7 (hard to believe) here’s what happened.

I spent last night in Newtonmore, or a couple of miles outside it, at an exceptional B&B called Crubenbeg House, run by a couple, Irene and John. Exceptional because it was perfectly clean and well appointed, with wonderful food and continuously running stand-up comedy act of John, who has a particular soft spot for Kim Jong-un.

I staggered into Newtonmore from Garva Bridge, a fine spot on the River Spey (along which “Speyside whisky” is made, although I did not pass a distillery). It had been a flat 16 or so miles, past fields full of ewes and their lambs, curious, cute but shy. I have many pictures of the hind ends of mother and child. Most of the ewes have one lamb, a few have twins. However I passed one field in which nearly every offspring were twins, and there were even triplets.

On the way I passed Cluny Castle, which is important in a complicated way to the Clan Macpherson, which has a museum in Newtonmore . (Alas, I was only able to visit for half an hour before it closed). All I know is that there are Macphersons all over the world, and that some important ones lived in Cluny Castle.

To satisfy a request, here is a picture of me taking a snack break at the entrance to the castle, whose gates have the locks on the inside (the side of the occupants) not the outside (the side of the public).

And what I was looking at when I was a bit more attentive.


The hostel in Newtonmore was serving tea and cakes to Challengers. I stopped, of course. As I have lost my list of B&Bs I’ve booked with, I asked a woman named Allie who was serving the names of some local establishments. He mentioned Crubenbeg House; I remembered this was the one that was a couple of miles out of town. She kindly called there and John came out and picked me up.

As it turned out, a Challenger named Pete Little, who had come over to my tent the night before–I was the last one in–to greet me was staying at the B&B with his parents. They are from Cumbria, in England, and are meeting him a couple of places along the way. They hiked up to a part of his route and hid behind a rock to greet him that day, an experience that he found surreal. Pete manages a coffee shop in England and is training to be an outdoor guide. He’s an extremely nice fellow.

I was hoping to write and upload, but when I turned on the iPad it said it was disabled. What happened is mysterious, but I clearly put it away still on, by mistake, and that enroute it got the idea I was trying to unlock it, so many times it shut down permanently. No amount of hitting buttons in different order, or turning on iTunes on the phone did anything. Another guest kindly lent me his laptop and I went on the Apple Support forum. It was clear I needed to connect the iPad to a computer to set things right.

Pete’s father, Phil, drove Pete and me to Newtonmore in the morning. We were both heading to Kingussie (silent “g”), the village to the east. I said goodbye to Pete as he headed on his route and I farther into town to the computer store. It turned out to be closed for two weeks, proprietor’s father ill. The next nearest shop was in Aviemore, 10 miles at least down the road.

That was in the right direction–east–and I considered rerouting myself for the next three days. But after consultation with maps in the bookstore I decided to just take the bus to Aviemore. A worker in the store, Aiden, gave computer advice and kindly called the computer shop to confirm it could do the work.

I boarded the bus, dropped the iPad mini off, had lunch, looked around, had coffee, and two hours and 50 pounds later the thing was fixed, although scrubbed of the unposted posts, which I am reconstructing,

I got back to Kingussie and began my day’s walk at 3.40 p.m.

No time to stop at Ruthven Barracks, an 18th century installation, to look around,


I caught up with Tony and Jackie, people roughly my age, who went on their honeymoon last year on the Challenge. Jackie’s parents, whose combined age is 167 years, were attempting their final crossing but had recently “retired.” It was a bridge and a bog too far.

I eventually caught up to a woman named Liz Robertson, who had been walking with a friend who had also retired, because of sore feet. Badly sore; they have to be to quit in this crowd. Liz had done the last two days a couple of years ago with a torn tendon in her foot.

We walked along and talked. She told me about her family, her parents (both conscripted in World War II, her father into the Army Signal Corps, her mother to work in a munitions factory), and here life as a Jehovah’s Witness. For the next three hours I learned almost all I know about the beliefs and history of the Jehovah’s Witness movement.

We were both aiming for the same destination, but at 7.30 (“half seven”) Liz said she was stopping, a few kilometers short. It was all I needed to hear. We crossed the River Feshie at Stronetoper Bridge.

Who came out to greet us but Pete Little. He seemed happy to see us. He’d been there for many hours, driven to whittling a stick to pass the time.


Proper knackered

Invergarry Hotel was only halfway to that’s day destination–Fort Augustus and a bed.  The whole day was close to 20 miles, a lot of it on road, which I am beginning to realize is much less pleasant than walking on almost anything else.  On the feet, that is.

I got to the Bridge of Oich, which has an unusual suspension design that allows it to remain standing even if some of the cables break.  It was designed by a brewer turned engineer in the mid-19th Century.


On the river there was a fisherman.


Here, the route turned northeast along the Caledonian Canal that goes up to Loch Ness at Fort Augustus.  It was raining lightly and I was very tired when I arrived in the village.  I remembered that the B&B where I was booked was a half mile out of town.  The phone was busy for about a half hour so I walked.

Reladen with a food package delivered to the B&B, I headed off as heavy as ever the next morning.  The route when a short distance on the paved road, then onto a dirt road along fields and farms before coming out onto another paved road.  There are beautiful stone walls here, architected with round and flat rocks in courses, not just piled like the ones in New England.


I took a turn at a path in a break in the wall that turned out to be a few hundred yards short of the one I should have taken.  It led through the woods onto a dirt road that eventually opened into a clearing with a new house, a statue of a buck and some farm machinery.  A road went up under an old stone bridge to the right; the map suggested I could regain the route there.

As I was approaching the bridge a pickup truck drove up and the man asked if he could help me.  I told him I was on the TGO Challenge, just passing through.  He told me I was on private property and shouldn’t be there.  I told him I was under the impression that one could walk across private property in Scotland.  He said that was wrong.  You can walk on private land in the hills but not near houses.  He said his boss was an American, and that as an American I should know not to be trespassing.

I apologized, he directed me to the road I wanted and I headed on.  Very soon after, the route I’d charted had me opening a gate and going within view of an even bigger house, a pink castle surrounded by scaffolding.


I decided against doing that and continued up the gravel road I was on.  It climbed up some bare hills, then across the tops.  I took a path down to a stream and scrambled up a muddy cow path on a very steep slope to what I was trying to reach, something called on the map “General Wade’s Military Road.”  It was built in response to the Jacobite Rising in the early 1700s.  I know nothing more about it than that.  And I hope personally not to see it again anytime soon.

The views were beautiful and after four days in a timeless landscape, strangely modern.  A power line went over the hills the whole route, and a second one was being built.  Work crews were using heavy machinery building the pads for the towers.  The construction sounds carried a long distance.

The road was rocky.  There was the occasional stone bridge and ruin.  The road climbed relentlessly.  Every corner where I thought it would finally level out revealed another climb.  I obviously hadn’t spent much time looking at the contour lines on the map.  It turns out I was going over something called Corrieyairack Pass.


I finally got to the top and headed down, which was less tiring but no less painful on the feet.  When the crews knocked off at 5 they came down the road in two green ATVs.  The second one stopped and offered me a ride.  I was tempted, thanked them, but told them I couldn’t.  Not allowed in the Challenge.

The shadows were very long, it was getting cool and it was after 8 when I arrived at Garva Bridge  for the night.  It was about 18 miles.  I was completely exhausted, or as they say over here, “proper knackered.”



Death and remembrance never take a break, even in the middle of nowhere.


Be warned, people and dogs.



Avoiding the rare trout-fishing fatality.


The Scrabble set in Scotland is different.


Would we expect anything less?


Seems more like Spey Fish Hell.


Future foretold.



It was sunny when we left Kinbreack bothy.  Jim Taylor left before us; the tents outside were long gone.

We climbed a while, then descended on the north side of the River Kingie. We entered the woods and it started to rain lightly.  The trees are all planted and so close together it would be impossible to get through them without a path. We were on dirt road–two ruts and a grassy hump in the middle.  We passed Jim Taylor in the woods.

We continued on many miles to Hotel Tomdoun, a hostelry whose closure several years ago is much regretted by many Challengers. It is on a hillside with a great open view of the river and the glen. There was still some furniture inside. An official notice on the door said that people with property inside should collect it by a date in January of this year.

My original plan was to camp on the hotel lawn (or “garden” as they say here), but I was worried about the 18-20 mile day coming up so decided to go a mile or so farther.  Alan said there was a flat spot near a bridge ahead where he’d seen people camping. They were going on about five miles to keep on plan, although Colin did not seem wild about the idea.

I did find an acceptable spot in the floodplain at the foot of the bridge near a pile of brush and a fire ring.  I felt a little sorry to see them go on.  But the Challenge is for solitude and chance encounters, so I didn’t want to attach myself to any group too much.

This turned out to be a good choice, as the next morning–a clear one, although I believe it had rained a little overnight–I looked up and saw Jim standing on the road above, about to cross the bridge.

I asked him if he wanted some tea, and to my surprise he accepted. I had just filled my thermos (a hopeless indulgence in the eyes of many fellow walkers) so I came right up.

He sat down on his pack and I reintroduced myself. He seemed in a far more talkative mood than the night I had met him. He’d spent the night on the hotel grounds. He mentioned stopping at a farm at some point to talk to people there; he said he had a kinship with farmers.  And that got us started.

I had the presence of mind to pull out my phone and start videotaping.  I wasn’t sure the sound would be audible, but it was fine. You can even hear the ducks and seagulls flying overhead. I interviewed him for 24 minutes.  But unfortunately I can’t find a way to put any of the video on this site.  The previous post is the highlights of it.

He moved on and I had breakfast and broke camp.

The walk was bucolic and agricultural.  I passed lots of fields with ewes and lambs, houses and farm buildings but, surprisingly, no farmers and residents. I did, however, meet Alistair (or perhaps its Alisdair), an Englishman who was walking alone. After a while we overtook Jim Taylor. He was taking a break. I took one too and Alistair moved on.

We were entering a forestry preserve where long-haired, long-horned Caledonian cattle roamed freely, part of a plan to restore the land, at least somewhat, to its primordial state where large herbivores browsed the undergrowth and kept everything in balance. I took off alone and soon encountered a herd of them, about half standing or lying on the road.  They looked like what I imagined aurochs looked like.


It was hard to guess how aggressive they might be.  But they didn’t move as I approached, so ceded them the road, getting one foot wet jumping over a little stream onto a boggy bank.  Going up the hill I looked back and saw Jim walking right by them.


I was actually off course, having crossed the foot of Loch Garry onto the south shore instead of proceeding on the north. What I took was the way the traffic was going (namely Jim and the person who passed us) and was, in any case, less of a thoroughfare than the north shore.

I trudged on down a hard unpaved road, flat, not very interesting but painful on the feet. Much of it was through eighth-growth woods. I finally got to a place where I thought I was going to have to go onto the paved road. But then I noticed a path parallel to both the road and a stream.

I took it and it was delightful, reminiscent of the lower-elevation parts of the Long Trail in Vermont, lots of moss-covered hardwoods and a few flowering plants along the path. There were many trees with big burls.




I passed two women and a dog and eventually came to a section where one could look up and see back yards. I climbed up to the road very close to where I had hoped–Invergarry Hotel. I cooked up (after a fashion) my lunch of pasta carbonara and had a pint from the bar, both earned, I thought.


Jim Taylor’s story

What follows is partly from the conversation in the bothy but mostly from a more extended conversation two days later.  The exact circumstances you’ll hear in another post.  But in the interest of continuity with the last one, I am recounting Jim’s story here.


Jim Taylor, who will be 92 in September and is walking across Scotland as I write, left school at age 13 1/2. This required an exemption. Why he wanted it–and why his parents allowed it–I don’t know, but hope to find out. In any case, he was in the top group of students.

He went to work at a farm in Aberdeenshire. He remembered all the farms where he worked by name. He was an agricultural horseman until he joined the Royal Air Force in December, 1940.

This first farm was a small one called Pleidy, with one pair of horses.  Jim was an apprentice, in charge of one horse. He was paid eight pounds for a six-month term, the contract sealed with a shilling payment to the laborer from the farmer. This was in 1935.

After six months, he went to another farm that also  had only one pair of horses. After that to another, Cairn Andrew, whose farmer was a Mr. Robb, where he was a second horseman, in charge of a team.   One of the bigger places where he worked was called Strocherie. There were three teams of horses, each with a horseman. There was a also handyman, a beef cattleman, a dairy cattleman, two parttime gardeners, a greve (the overseer) and two women in the house. Strocherie also had a tractor, the only one in the district. The farmer was a Captain Barclay, a retired Army officer, a bachelor.

He eventually became a first horseman. Everything was done by horse—plowing, carting turnips, hauling muck.  His top wage was 40 pounds a term.

The horsemen got up at 5.30 in the morning, fed and watered the horses (which were Clydesdales), ate breakfast and were in the fields by 6.30.

The crop rotation was a “seven shift system,” he said. There were three years of grass, with  cattle grazing on it. Then a crop of oats, a second crop of oats, then a crop of turnips, then grass with a crop of hay cut. Then back to grass for three years. The turnips were winter feed for the animals.

The food for the workers was hardly more variable.

For breakfast they had rolled oats with boiling water poured on it and mixed, and salt, pepper and milk added. There was never meat at breakfast. Dinner was at noon, sometimes mincepot, sometimes just potatoes and turnips mashed together. Supper was oatcakes, stale bread soaked in milk, or more porridge. There were never fresh vegetables, he said, and only fruit if you went into the village and bought it with your own money.

When war broke out, Jim tried to join the Army. But farm work was a “reserved occupation” and farm laborers were not allowed to enlist because food production was so important. He was turned down.

“‘Oh, no, we can’t take you’, the Army recruiter said. ” ‘We get into trouble if we take people off the land’.”

So he went next door to the Navy, thinking things might be different. But they weren’t.

“‘No, we can’t take people off the land. We’re having to send them back again’.”

A week later the recruiter for the Royal Air Force came to the labor exchange.  Jim went to see him.

“He asked me, ‘What do you do?’ and I told him, ‘I’m unemployed’.”

He said that he’d been working on a rural electrification crew, but it had moved on and he’d stayed near home.  This, of course, was a lie.  The recruiter gave him some easy arithmetic to do; Jim thinks it was adding fractions.  He passed.  The recruiter told him he’d let him know the decision.

As Jim was walking to the door, the recruiter looked at him and asked: “Now wait a minute. Are you sure you never worked on a farm?’

”He must have seen my gait, the plowman’s gait,” Jim said, remembering the moment.  To the recruiter he said:  “Oh, no no no.”

“Right-o. You’ll hear from us in a couple of weeks.”

Two weeks later he was in.

It was the easy life compared to what he’d seen.  Soon he’d put on weight and could no longer fasten the top button of the two dress shirts he’d been issued.  He went to the supply clerk to get replacements.  He was told he couldn’t get any.

“Those are perfectly good shirts,” the man said.

“But I can’t button the collar,” Jim said.

“Well, you’ll have to go to the doctor and get a chit for a new shirt.”

Everyone who went to sick call had to be prepared to be admitted to the hospital, so Jim packed a kit with his razor, toothbrush and other toiletries.  People on sick call also had to be examined by the medical officer in the nude.  But Jim left his shirt on because he wanted to show how tight the collar was.

“No, no.  Strip off,” the sergeant said.

“But I’m going to get a new shirt,” Jim said.

“You can’t go in like that.  Take it off,” the sergeant said.

The doctor came into the examination room and said:  “What can I do for you, young man?”

“I’m here to get a chit for a new shirt,” Jim said.

Whaaaat?” the doctor said.  “I’m a bloody doctor, not a draper!”  He turned to the orderly and mumbled, “Okay give him a chit.”

Jim pointed out that his other shirt was returning from the laundry the next week and he would need a chit to replace that one, too.

“Well, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” the doctor said.

“So the next week,” Jim recalled, “I went through the whole procedure all over again.”

After basic training he became an airframe mechanic, responsible for the pneumatics, hydraulics, tires, controls—everything but the engine—on airplanes. He worked at a base on the northeast coast of Scotland, from which American crews left to bomb German installations in Scandinavia.

He was eventually sent to Nova Scotia, where British airmen trained. He worked on the Mosquito, the famed wooden fighter-bomber. For a time, the plans and specs for it were classified, but the head of maintenance broke the rules and let the airframe crew look at them.

He was in 5 1/2 years. When the war was over, he did not go back to farming.

“I became a welder.”

He had many jobs. When he was required to retire at age 65, he got a job helping make barrels with a cooper who had a contract with a distillery. He retired for good just before he turned 75.

He has been a hillwalker all his life.

His wife died 14 years ago this month. He cancelled his plans to go in the Challenge that year because she was ill. She died during the event.  After the funeral, there were a few days of the Challenge left.  So he drove up and walked the end.


Here is video of Jim telling his shirt story.


Day 2, part 2

I don’t know any geology, but I intuit that the Highlands’ glens and lochs were made by either violent seaward migration of glaciers or violent melting of them.  In any case, something carved linear vees into the land.  The lochs are more like fjords than North American lakes.  And in the rivers and burns–the name here for streams–the water runs ceaselessly.


For this day and all the first four it was impossible to put a foot down on a surface that was not just wet but saturated.  Super-saturated–the water pooling–in most cases.

We went up a ridge over Finiskaig River, where for a way there was a vertical drop to the right, one slip and it would have been over.  And it was already over for some of the previous travelers.


The trail leveled out as we entered Glen Dessarry, and the sun came out briefly too.  We were on a trail, which helped.  Then it was up over a pass and another watershed, the river on the other side flowing in the opposite direction from the one we’d been walking beside.

The ground was sphagnum moss on top of peat. which is sphagnum moss from eons past.  It was  boggy, lacking only the eye and underwater pond of a true bog.  It seemed impossible there could be such a thing on a 10-percent grade.  In places, the water appeared stopped, a gelid mass flowing but not moving.


When we got to the top of the pass it started to rain again.  There was still a fair way to go to Kinbreack Bothy, which is the building with the red roof in the distance.  It was a slog, everything getting heavier and the ground squelchier, as they say over here.


When we got to the bothy, Alan went inside and found to his surprise there was no one there.  Two tents were pitched about a hundred yards down the burn, undoubtedly when the sun was still out.  The burn itself was a  bit sketchy to cross.  I stumbled stepping from rock to rock; didn’t fall, but the tip of my trekking pole caught under a rock and cracked.

The bothy had been rehabilitated but still emanated the mysterious presence of previous inhabitants.  The downstairs was floored with rough cobbles from the stream, the place for the animals, with a room next to make use of the warmth from them (and provide some besides).  Up a new staircase was a single room with fireplace at one end.  There was a little wood, a long bench on each side for sitting and sleeping, and some emergency cans of beans on the mantel piece.


We settled in, Alan lit a fire, we hung up our socks in a vain attempt to dry them, and ate.  It finally got dark.  It was raining hard and we were very happy to be there and nowhere else. And then to our surprised we heard someone clumping up the stairs in the gloom at the other end of the room.

A man appeared and put down a pack.  He started taking off his drenched clothes and Alan exchanged a few sentences with him that I couldn’t understand.  But it became clear soon that the man had fallen into a burn–a stream–and rolled over, getting everything wet.  Whether it was the stream right outside the house wasn’t clear, although I suspect it was because the last one we’d had to ford was quite a way back.

The man spoke in a very low voice, moved slowly and was obviously not young.  He was, in fact, unsteady as the took things out of his pack and hung them up.  he then went over to a detached bench of take off his clothes.  Alan commented that he seemed a bit hypothermic.

I went over and asked him if he wanted a cup of tea.  Both Colin and I had our stoves out and running.

“No, thank you, I’ll just drink water.”

His accent was very thick.  Thinking perhaps he forswore stimulating beverages, I asked him if he wanted a hot meal.

“No.  I haven’t carried a stove for three or for years.  I eat only cold food.”

“Well maybe when you fall in the burn it’s the night to make an exception,” I suggested.

“I’ve fallen in a burn before.”


After a while he walked over.  He had changed into drier clothes and a pair of new blue tennis sneakers.   Alan got up and invited him down next to the fire.  The man pulled out a bun filled with cheese encased in plastic wrap.  It was the only thing he ate.


Conversation began and someone asked him how many times he’d done the Challenge.  He said this would be his 20th.  Alan asked him is name.

“Jim Taylor,” he said.

“Jim Taylor.  We’ve met before.  A couple of years ago at Tarfside.”

Jim Taylor was a 91-year-old man, mentioned in the event newsletter, who was not only this year’s oldest walker but would set the record for the oldest crossing if he finished.

Earlier in the day, Alan had told the story of meeting him at Tarfside several years ago.  Tarfside is a choke-point on the hike a couple of days walk from the east coast where there are sometimes a hundred or more Challengers.

Jim Taylor was famous for fast crossings and that year had finished two days early.  Someone had driven him back to Tarfside to socialize.  At some point he met Alan, who mentioned in conversation that in 1999 he’d walked partway with Jack Griffiths, who held the record as the oldest crosser.

Jim Taylor, who was 89 at the time, was under the impression Griffiths had been 93 at the time, and commented that he thought he’d never catch him.  But Alan assured him that Griffiths was only 90 at that crossing, his last.

“You could see the expression on his face change as soon as I said that,” Alan had recalled.

It turns out everyone on this year’s walk has heard of Jim Taylor, admires him from a distance, and hopes to meet him.  And here he was in a bothy with us.

He did finally accept a “wee dram” of whisky from Alan’s stash and began to talk a bit about his life.  You’ll hear more about that later.

The rain continued.  At some point Alan went out to get water from the stream.  He took my bottle and  Colin’s too.  When he returned he said the water had risen dramatically.

“I don’t believe we could cross that burn now,” he said.


Predictably . . .

I’ve had a major computer disaster.  IPad mini is disabled for unknown reasons , possibly because it was left on in the pack and jostling a simulated password attempts. Many posts waiting to be written or uploaded at wifi equipped towns. Possible disaster.  Please stand by.

Alan and Colin

Colin, who is 44, doesn’t want me to go into what he does or where he works because of sensitivities of his employer. But it’s perfectly honorable work.

Alan, who is 70, is willing to let me tell a bit of his story. I queried him about his family history, Scottish history, Knoydart demography, the Clearances, all sorts of things. He was a hillwalker par excellence. He has finished “the Munros,” which is the name for all the hills in Scotland over 3,000 feet. There are 282 of them, catalogued by and named after a man named Hugh Munro. He is almost finished with “the Corbetts,” which are hills between 2500 and 3,000 feet.  He’s gone trekking at 18,000 feet in Nepal, and in Moab, Utah, and many places in between.

We talked about how people survived out here 200, 300 years ago. He told me about crofters, the tenant farmers,  and lairds, the owners of the land.

Crofters grew vegetables, oats and barley on ground in which the soil, full of rocks, had been piled up in elevated furrows–the original raised-bed gardening. Cattle was a cash crop, and there were cattle drives out of the Highlands south to market. Rob Roy, an outlaw hero villain, ran a protection racket in which people paid to not have their cattle rustled on the way, according to Alan. You know the Chisolm Trail from Texas to Kansas? The father of Jesse Chisolm, for whom it was named, was a drover in the Scottish Highlands, Alan said.

Alan came from MacDonalds on both sides of his family.  They lived in a place called Glen Moidart before the Clearances, and then were forced to a place on the coast called Smirisary, a settlement of 15 to 20 buildings that still exists without a paved road.  One of his great grandmothers on his mother’s father’s side came down to Glasgow.  She never learned English, although her son had forgotten Gaelic by the time Alan knew him.

Alan used to go back to the Highlands for summer vacation, put on a train in Glasgow with his name and destination pinned to his jumper when he was as young as six.  From the train terminus he had to walk a mile to a ferry.  Somebody always looked after him, he said, and he doesn’t remember being afraid.

At one point I apologized, as a formality, for asking so many questions.

“I’m a journalist, so I made my living asking questions.”

“Well that’s good,” Colin said, “because he was a tour guide.”

Before that he’d been a sales representative for a tobacco company and an executive of the Youth Hostel Association.  For about five years before retiring he had a business in which he took clients on five-day car trips around Scotland,  narrating as he went.

I asked him if he’d been to Priesthill.   I said I had an ancestor who’d been martyred there, killed by a man named John Graham of Claverhouse.

“Oh, Claverhouse.  The story in my wife’s family is she is descended from a man killed by him, John Brown.  Shot him in front of his family.”

This, of course, was the John Brown who is one of my mother’s ancestors.

I asked him if he’d been out to the monument at Brown’s grave.  He said he had; his wife had wanted to see it.

“It’s way out on a moor.  If you go, bring a brush, as it’s mossy and hard to read.”

I turned to Colin and said,  “Well, I guess that makes us kin.”

“No, I’m afraid not,” he said.  “It’s his second wife.”


Alan Mitchell

Alan Mitchell

Colin Mitchell

Colin Mitchell


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