A wee walk

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

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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.

Into Bridge of Orchy

The second day in Glen Strae was off dirt roads. They ended and were replaced by single-file paths that were sometimes visible and sometimes only imagined. It’s hard to know whether these were first made by animals or people.

Despite a mini-drought in the Highlands, the ground is soft, mossy, and wet. The break it gives to the feet is compensated for by the effort require to climb in it.

If you’re trying to reduce the amount of unnecessary climbing (as I am), there’s a great temptation to stay high in the glens—either by walking along the tops (which of course require getting up there) or by staying halfway up the slopes, banking into the turns.

When you do the latter, however, your downhill foot is constantly supinating—ankle bending outward—and if the slope is steep, real care must be taken. Trekking poles are essential.

After many days I’ve concluded that it’s better to take neither of the strategies just described. Instead, it’s best to go low and walk on the flat.

At the end of Glen Strae I abandoned my planned route—in red in the map below—to avoid walking up or across a steep hillside. Instead, I followed the stream (Allt Coire Bhiocair) that runs through the forest.

I went down the stream until I hit a small tributary that (I knew from the map) upstream crossed a double-dotted line on the map–an easily walked path. So, I went up that tributary until I hit it.

As I walked down the path, I passed a pile of newly cut logs. The old forests in Scotland are gone, but there are many tree plantations and commercial timber operations.

I arrived at my destination, the Bridge of Orchy, about 7 o’clock. The West Highland Way goes right through the village, which consists of a hotel with a restaurant, a volunteer fire department and a community center (both locked), and a train stop at which the old station house is a hostel.

There isn’t a public bathroom in the village, even though in good weather there’s a steady flow of people off the train or out of cars, heading to the West Highland Way. Thankfully, the hotel lets people use the bathroom for a couple of pounds put into the charity jar at the bar.

As I emerged from the forest path I ran smack into a flat area next to the Way that was the ground for “wild camping,” as they call tent camping here. There weren’t any flat areas, but there was, as always, someplace to put a tent.

I was next to a tent occupied by two Germans, Lutz and Robert, who are engineers at Stryker, the medical device and hospital supply company. They work in a branch in Kiel, near the Danish border. They were taking a break after finishing a difficult project.

I was familiar with Stryker, and associate it with operating room equipment.

“Is Stryker a German company?” I asked them.

“No. It’s headquarters is in Kalamazoo, Michigan. It was started by a man named Stryker, a doctor, after the war,” Lutz said.

“There are something like 35,000 people in the company around the world,” Robert said. “Our marketing people tell us that the operations in Europe pay for themselves with sales in Europe. But the profits come from America.”

Lutz and Robert

This is no surprise. When it comes to medical spending, the United States is where the rubber meets the sky.

Up Glen Strae

A glen is a straight narrow valley with a river, or sometimes a long lake, running through it. One of the appeals of walking in Scotland is that there are so many of these geological features here and so many are nearly empty of human beings.

I just spent two days in one, Glen Strae.

I began in Dalmally with a fancy cup of coffee and as piece of cake served by a man named Paul.

To enter the glen, I had to walk around the western end of one of the two parallel ridges that formed its walls. At the the foot of the glen, in a sheep meadow, was a 40-foot tall stone monument to a man who had once been a leading light in Edinburgh. Perhaps he’s still remembered here. I suspect, however, that this memorial, like so many others like it, is now mostly a tribute to a time of large egos and low wages in rural Scotland.

Duncan McLaren, lord provost of Edinburgh

I’d passed a huge monument on a hill earlier in the day, for a poet, Duncan Ban MacIntyre (1724-1812), which seemed to epitomize this phenomenon. It didn’t contain a verse of his work, and you couldn’t get up into it to take in the view its builders coveted.

A couple of days later I passed a more modern and modest, not to mention informative, monument. It was for Robert Campbell (1808-1894), born near the site (Dalchiorlich). 

A lichen-stained photolithography plaque next to the road said he “earned his place in history by opening the way to the riches of the Klondike” and bringing “Canadian authority to the Yukon” during 40 years with the Hudson’s Bay Company. His monument didn’t have a single notation on it.

As I entered Glen Strae I saw two all-terrain vehicles climbing a hill track. The drivers were the last people I would see for two days.

There were plenty of animals, of course. This is family season (alas, single-parent) in the hills. 

It was a steady uphill walk; a glen, after all, is what a river flows down. Tributaries to the River Strae flowed from the bare hills, forming pools of icy green water.

It was a sunny day, as all of the days of this crossing have been. It was also long—long in distance, long in daylight, and long in time alone. The last, in my case, leads eventually to rumination, the replaying of mistakes and bad behavior, the self-pity of disappointments and injustices, the tachycardic thrill of unwreaked vengeance. 

There are many therapies for this. Mine is cheap—podcasts.

I had not brought podcasts on previous Challenges. (I’m barely capable of downloading them). But my sister, Ellen, suggested this would be a good opportunity to catch up with the rest of the digital world.  So I took some suggestions from her and my son, Will. 

Soon, I was listening to the Ezra Klein Show. This may not be in the spirit of the Challenge. But you know what?  I have plenty of time with the landscape.

I eventually got to the show in which the host talked with David Brooks, the New York Times columnist and PBS commentator, who has a new book entitled “The Second Mountain.” In it he talks about the four commitments of adulthood that he came to understand after he’d been “broken open” by divorce and a failure of confidence in what he’d thought were worthy goals. (I believe the book’s title obliquely references “The Seven-Storey Mountain” by Thomas Merton, although neither of them said that.)

The episode was called “The Disillusionment of David Brooks,” but should more properly have been called “The Enlightenment of David Brooks.”

It was a revealing interview, in part because Ezra Klein didn’t just ask questions. He talked a fair amount about himself and what was on his mind—and he’s a thoughtful person.  On their minds were:  democracy, meritocracy, community, capitalism, the new “socialism,” friendship, altruism, unselfconscious self-abnegation, work and over-work, the ridiculousness of religion, the appeal of religion, and a lot more.

It went on for one hour, 41 minutes (including advertisements). That was long enough for me to get to a place where I decided to camp. It wasn’t my intended destination, but it was close to it (and I Iearned the next day, better). A single battered tree had survived beside the stream. Next to it was room for a tent.

I listened to the podcast as I put up the tent, took out all the stuff I would need (which is to say, almost everything in the pack), and fired up the stove to boil water. 

Brooks’s and Klein’s message—and they wouldn’t say it was a message, I’m sure—was about modesty, uncertainty, provisionalism, confidence, hopefulness, and honesty. 

I sat in the tent vestibule and looked down the glen I was only half-way up, sipping whisky and waiting for dinner. The sub-arctic sundown—so long that it seems to be one long offer of extra time or a second chance—slowly raised a curtain of shadow on the brown hill to my left.

A feeling of the benign nature of things settled on me. 

Perhaps you had to be there. I’m glad I was.

Into the hills

It’s been a while. It’s amazing how time runs together even when you’re only talking about three days. Part of the reason is that this is what’s been on my mind.

I won’t belabor the point, especially given the subject. But let me just say that pain in the feet when you’re supposed to walk 241 miles with 38 pounds on your back is a concern.

When I left Kilmartin I was on roads for most of the day, the exception being a few stretches of what the UK topographic maps (called Ordnance Survey maps) call an “old military road.” In most cases, they are roads created by the English army when it suppressed the Jacobite Rising for Scottish independence in the mid-18th Century.

(This, by the way, is not just a historical irrelevancy. Scotland has a history of being allied with France ((read: Europe)) against English domination. It helps explain why Scotland opposed Brexit.)

I was in enough pain that I stopped a mile and a half before my intended destination at an ancient boat ramp on a loch that is the site of the first photograph of this post. I looked around, not very hard, for someone to whom I could ask permission. Finding no one, I relied on “The Scottish Right of Public Access,” which allows people to walk across private land, and camp on it too (away from animals, habitations, military reservations, airports, and Queen Elizabeth’s estate Balmoral). It turned out to be far better than where I would have been if I’d gone the distance.

(I should say at this point that, four days in, I have not met a single other walker on The Great Outdoors Challenge. Three miles before the aforementioned stopping point I saw a man setting up a Hilleberg tent—the most popular shelter among Challengers—on a flat piece of ground next to the loch the road was skirting. I don’t know if he was a Challenger, although I suspect he was. I would have liked the company, but it was too early, for me at least, to stop.)

The next morning, the owner, a man named Richard—he didn’t offer his last name—appeared. I told him who I was and what I was doing and he was non-plussed by my pitching a tent near his derelict boats.

This is the Scottish way.

We chatted about the weather and I asked him about sheep; his is a working farm. He mentioned that the reason one sees so much wool on the ground this time of year—frankly, it reminds me of cotton on the road during harvest time in the Mississippi Delta—is that wool grows year-round, but when spring comes, with high-protein new grass for feed, the fibers become thicker and the fragile winter growth drops off. This is why you find random gouts of wool out in the hills.

I thanked him and headed down the road. The macadam—and, by the way, “macadam” is named after the Scottish inventor of road asphalt—was hard on the feet.

This was a one-lane road with frequent “passing place” pullouts. It was Sunday. Not many cars passed me. I heard a quiet one behind me and figured it was a Prius. It turned out to be four bicyclists. By the third mini-peloton that came by I had my phone out.

I trudged on. I forget the details.

My right foot is turned outward slightly and I have blood under four nails. An attentive fourth-year medical student would detect “antalgic gait.” But like I said, I won’t belabor things.

I was scheduled to stay in a B&B that night, and I did, finally reach it. It is in the village of Cladich, which has nothing other than two B&Bs. “Cladich” means beach in Gaelic, and refers to a sandy strand on the loch above the village that has been extirpated by a hydroelectric scheme (as they call them here).

The proprietress, Sarah, kindly washed my clothes.

I was glad to be there.

Day One

So I got off a little before 11 o’clock in the morning, the last of five people to sign out from this particular starting point of The Great Outdoors Challenge.

Here I am. I promise there won’t be many of these.

As you can see, it was a beautiful day. There’s supposed to be more of them ahead.

I got up onto the towpath of the Crinan Canal as soon as I could. It gave a great view of low tide in Loch Fyne.

There were a few walkers, but I was pretty much to myself. It wasn’t a bad way to start, although I do hope I run into some other Challengers. But I may not. I’m near the border of the event territory and the distribution of walkers pretty much follows a bell curve, with the majority in the middle of the territory, north of where I am.

The Crinan Canal opened in 1801, a time of great canal building in Britain. It’s only nine miles long but it served a useful purpose. It allowed vessels to avoid going around the Mull of Kintyre, which is the southwestern tip of the Kintyre Peninsula, which hangs down like a flaccid penis over Northern Ireland. Something to avoid! (And the seas can be rough there, too).

Steam-powered vessels—“puffers”—carried coal and other goods inland along it for a long time. Now, its water is navigated by pleasure craft. I watched several sailboats go through the openings of swinging bridges, and into locks, which are still opened by human muscle power.

There are 15 locks and seven bridges. It seemed that all the lock-keepers houses were still standing. In places the canal widened into large ponds the color of over-steeped tea. It was an area somewhat out of time.

Old and older

I talked with a canal worker named Russell Livingston, and threw a well-chewed chunk of wood into the canal for a retriever named Rufus.

The antique feel of things was aided by some of the berthed boats I passed, which could have been left over from “The African Queen.”

There was someone stirring below decks on this one

My original route did not have me going to Crinan, the terminus of the canal. But Mr. Livingston convinced me it was worth it, and the detour was only three miles round trip. Plus, I was getting hungry and he said there was a coffee shop there.

I hid my pack in what appeared to be a closed car-repair business—lots of cars, no people—and walked up to Crinan. I encountered Rufus and his master again (they’d driven there) and one of the sailboats I’d watched go through a lock earlier in the day. I had lunch and two cups of coffee—good, put perhaps not worth three miles.

Finally I headed away from the canal, crossing a large marsh on a straight, hard road. I passed a tree plantation where a clawed crane was loading logs on a truck. I walked down a farm road and passed the first sheep and lambs of this crossing. I eventually saw the ruins of a manor house, and closer to the dirt road I was on, a church with a sign that said “Dangerous Building.”

The ruined estate house is barely visible in the distance on the left.

Feeling courageous and sore of foot, I took the road into the church. A red car was parked in front of it. In the churchyard was a woman named Christine Young, who was tidying up the plantings in front of the gravestone of her husband, who died four years ago.

She told me the church, St. Columba’s, was Episcopal and the home church of the Malcolm family, which had been lairds of the Poltalloch Estate for fourteen generations. The estate house hadn’t been occupied since 1954–the family couldn’t afford the roof tax—but the church still had a service one Sunday a month.

Christine, who was about my age, lived in an estate cottage near the church. She’d moved up from southern Scotland in her thirties to do her internship for nursing school, which she’d gone to after an earlier marriage had ended. Her late husband was a psychiatric nurse. She’s a general medical nurse at a hospital about 10 miles away, a year and a half from retirement.

She let me into the church, which she said is always open. It was dusty and suspended in time.

St. Columba’s Church

On the back wall were two framed “rolls of honor,” one from each world war. They listed members of the Malcolm family and workers on the estate that had served overseas or in the home services. I didn’t count, but there were probably a hundred from World War I, and half that many from World War II.

In the sacristy was a framed broadside under broken glass thanking the king, workers in munitions factories, and “the heroism of our civilian population under the bombs of the enemy.” It was obviously from World War II.

After a while I headed up the dirt road toward Kilmartin, my destination for the day. It has a museum devoted to Neolithic, Bronze Age, and medieval Scotland, and a hotel where one can buy dinner, and a sports field where walkers are allowed to camp.

Along the way I passsed a stone circle, of which there are many in Scotland. Their function isn’t fully understood, but appears to involve astronomical or seasonal observations.

Stone circle, about 5,000 years old

And several cairn-covered graves, called “cists.”

Stone cists

At last I got to Kilmartin. I set up the tent and went inside the hotel for dinner, and to write this.

The Kilmartin green and sports field

I’d walked 14.1 miles, according to the walking app on my phone. My feet are not quite up to this yet. Tomorrow I’m heading into the hills—it’ll be a while before the next post—and the distance will be greater.


This is where I’m starting—a depopulated village on Loch Fyne, which is one of the west coast’s many “sea lochs,” long arms of the Atlantic Ocean that invade the mainland like fjords. It took a little over three hours to get here from Glasgow by bus.

As with all places of habitation in Scotland no matter the size, Ardrishaig is rich in history, and especially the history of the country’s diaspora. Which we’ll get into, of course.

But first, here are a few statistics about this year’s Great Outdoors Challenge, thoughtfully compiled by Sue Oxley and Ali Ogden, the event’s indefatigable coordinators.

There are 379 walkers from 16 countries. The vast majority are from the United Kingdom, but there are also 29 from the United States, 21 from the Netherlands, seven from Denmark, six from Canada, five from Germany, and one each from Austria, Barbados, Belgium, Finland, France, Ireland, Poland, Sweden, Uganda—and the first person ever from Japan.

The youngest walker is an 18-year-old man from Oregon. The oldest are a couple, the Borwits of Laurel, Maryland, whose combined age is 176. The median age looks to be about 60.

One person is making his 29th crossing, and another his 28th. (This is the 40th year of the event). 103 people are doing it for the first time. 77 people are leaving from the most popular starting point, a place called Shiel Bridge. Only five are leaving from Ardrishaig.

Which gets us back to the subject at hand.

Looking south on Loch Fyne

The village is a couple of streets clinging longitudinally to the western shore of Loch Fyne. It has two hotels (only one of which—mine, luckily—serves dinner), two convenience stores, a “hair-and-health” salon, a bar that appears to be closed, a flower shop, a second-hand store, a Jehovah’s Witnesses Kingdom Hall, and lots of places for rent or sale.

Directly across from the hotel, next to the loch, is a small memorial to James Chalmers, a missionary and son of Ardrishaig who was killed by natives in New Guinea in 1901–a member of the diaspora who didn’t fare well.

Farther down the road is a cenotaph to the dead of the Great War, which every Scottish village has because none was untouched by that conflagration. Forty names are listed, the officers named first—a protocol abandoned in late-constructed monuments because of complaints from veterans.

The names include three John McGregors, and two Grahams (Hugh and Colin), who served in the New Zealand forces. Perhaps they were brothers who’d emigrated together.

The monument gazes at the loch, as the men it memorializes did.

There was still a little activity to be viewed, even after 5 o’clock. I wandered down to the shore and found a 47-year-old fisherman named David Russell (camera-shy), who was power-washing his langoustine traps.

Langoustine traps

The langoustines are off shedding and hiding for a month, so this is the time to pull the traps, scrape off the barnacles and slime, and make them look good (which they do).

This is a year-round fishery. Russell runs about 1,000 traps, which seemed like a lot to me, although he said some operations have more than 4,000. They’re fished once every three days. The bait is hard-salted herring. Rotten or soft bait isn’t used because the crabs take it all. Ten in a trap is a very good haul. The average size of his keepers is 100 grams (although frankly that didn’t give me much of an idea of size).

The shellfish are sold live, exclusively to Spain, he said. You mean I can’t buy a dinner of langoustines here? I asked.

“Not here you can’t,” he said. “But when people from Scotland go to Spain, it’s the first thing they order.”

David Russell is Ardishraig’s only fisherman. He said there used to be a big herring fleet here, but that fishery collapsed a half-century or more ago.

“In the harbor you could walk on boats all the way to the lighthouse,” he said, pointing to a sea wall behind him. When I walked over and looked, there was one forlorn motorboat and five unused mooring balls.

The harbor in Ardrishaig

A canal enters Loch Fyne in Ardrishaig. It looks to be still operating, although too small for modern shipping. I’m walking up it for part of today, so I may soon know more.

The Crinan Canal

Several sailboats were berthed in a basin near the first lock. Some were a few weekends short of presentable, but one was a showpiece. I admired it with an okay sign, and the owner, Jackie Kay, stepped out of the cabin to greet me.

Jackie Kay on Juliet Kilo

We talked for a bit and then, as it was cold, he invited me inside.

“I keep on top of everything. That way it’s easy.”

Mr. Kay is 80, a widower. He runs a small boatyard in town that specializes in refurbishing “classic boats”—wooden vessels from yesteryear. Among his accomplishments are two 26-foot steam launches, now plying the River Thames in private hands. He also builds small wooden boats, mostly dinghies.

He built his boat himself. It took seven years. He’s lived on it since his wife died, although he lived ashore in his house last winter and had the boat under cover, so he could get all the varnishing done at once. I told him I’m always amazed when I see a wooden boat with spotless bright work.

“I keep on top of everything. That way it’s easy,” he said, although I was not entirely convinced.

The boat’s name, Juliet Kilo, is the letter-naming protocol for “J” and “K,” his initials. In the summer he takes it out for a sail “about once a fortnight,” he said. He has three children, two of whom like to sail. I told him he was kind to interrupt his reading to invite a stranger aboard.

“Well, it’s always nice to hear a compliment on the boat,” he said.

He’s still working, and I told him I might stop by his boatyard tomorrow to see it. He said that’d be fine. But it won’t happen, I’m afraid.

It’s time to walk.

Juliet Kilo

Glasgow’s Notre Dame

Before each of my treks in The Great Outdoors Challenge I’ve stayed in a hotel one block west of the Glasgow School of Art. My first year, 2014, I also stayed there for a night after the walk. When I arrived back, the streets around the school where cordoned off and crowded with fire trucks and cranes.

Glasgow’s most famous building had burned while I was away.

The Glasgow School of Art Building, finished in 1909, is the masterpiece of Charles Rennie Mackintosh who, with a few others (including his wife, Margaret), invented the “Glasgow Style” just before and after the turn of the 20th Century. It epitomized the city’s ascendancy as a center of design and craftsmanship in the era of Art Nouveau along with its older identity as a builder of ships, bridges, and heavy machinery. (And to drive home that analogy, consider that Glasgow launched more new-vessel tonnage in 1913 than either Germany or the United States.)

Now known as the Mackintosh Building, it housed classrooms, studios, and work rooms. The east end had an oversize door through which circus animals were led into a studio where students could draw them. In the cavernous library of dark wood, every appointment–chairs, tables, shelves, desks–had been designed by Mackintosh.

The fire, which destroyed the library and about 30 percent of the building, shocked Britain’s architectural community, and especially the graduates of the School of Art.

One of them, Clare Wright, wrote of the building: “For many, especially those of us who experienced our adolescent creative coming-of-age there, it is like a parent . . . It validated our creativity and moulded our architectural outlook irrevocably. It was the powerful presence we could kick against and throw paint at, climb over and revel in, which it seemed could not easily be damaged, even by 100 years of teenagers’ artistic mess. It had places we could go to be calmed and soothed.”

There was little debate about whether to rebuild it, although everyone agreed the work would take years. Money was being raised within days of the fire, which investigators determined started when flammable gases from an aerosol can were ignited by the hot bulb of a projector.

Here is a model of the building, with the real thing through the window across the street.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s famous building, through the window, with the model in foreground.

Here are two pictures I took in 2014, a few days after the fire.

The western end of the building after the fire in 2014.
And by day.

When I returned in 2015, barriers were still up the and rehabilitation was underway.

A year later, the work goes on–here at the east end.

Then on June 15, 2018 the unimaginable happened. The building burned again. This time it was much, much worse.

Early press reports were that 80-90 percent of the building was destroyed. The roof collapsed. The building is on a hill and the downslope facade was rendered unstable and eventually had to be taken down. Both the east and west facades were also damaged, but not irreparably.

The Glasgow School of Art had allocated £49 million for reconstruction after the first fire. The second one destroyed £24 million in restoration work.

A fire suppression system had arrived at the site a few days before the fire but wouldn’t have been up and running for months. The one fortunate thing was that architectural features and furniture salvaged after the first fire were in storage and safe.

The school and the lovers of the building vowed it would rebuilt. Repair was no longer the right word.

“Beyond that it is too early to say much,” the School of Art press person, Lesley Booth, told me in an e-mail. “You will appreciate there is a complex mass of permissions that will be required before we can actually begin the process of the rebuild.

“In terms of cost, about which there is much speculation, again it is too early to assess what this is likely to be, but we were insured and it is our aim not to take any public money for this project.”

This is what the west end looks like now.

The west end in May 2019

And the east end.

The east end

More than 450 tons of “retention scaffolding” has been erected to stabilize the walls. In places it’s turned the Mackintosh Building into a piece of environmental art–Christo goes tubular.

The east end, head-on

Glasgow, in fact, appears to be in a frenzy of rehabilitation. Walking one evening I passed another building, itself a piece of art.

The cause of the second blaze is uncertain, although it too has been declared an accident. Miraculously, nobody was injured in either fire.

Needless to say, with or without his building, Charles Rennie Mackintosh lives on.

This is the reconstructed Willow Tea Rooms where I had a 1,000-calorie snack a few days ago. Mackintosh designed four tea rooms in Glasgow, down to the dishes.

One floor above is his Chinese Tea Room, a fusion of east and west.

The Chinese Tea Room

Time will tell whether the Mackintosh Building’s library will be reconstructed. Detailed drawings and laser-based measurements exist, so it’s possible.

The library in Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh Building, lost to fire

There are several Mackintosh buildings in and around Glasgow, and an extensive collection of architectural sections, furniture, and art at the Kelvingrove Museum and the University of Glasgow.

One can’t do justice to Mackintosh’s indiscriminate genius, so I won’t try. Here are a few of his pieces of furniture, at the Kelvingrove.

One of many pieces
A dinner table and setting

And here, a decorative architectural panel, done in collaboration with his wife, Margaret:

Also at the Kelvingrove

Mackintosh spent the last decade of his life in Southern France, mostly painting.

Mackintosh’s output was prodigious and first-rate across many disciplines–Leonardoesque to a degree. Nevertheless, he died in 1928 at age 60 relatively unknown and not wealthy (and also childless).

A poster of one of Mackintosh’s paintings

In biographical materials much is made of the fact that Mackintosh had a serious drinking problem much of his life. Although not to embrace that, it does bring to mind Abraham Lincoln’s supposed comment about General Grant’s drinking: “Find out what brand of whisky he drinks so I can send a case to my other generals.”

Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928)

Residents of Baltimore and its environs may be happy to learn that the Walters Art Museum will be one of three American museums to host “Charles Rennie Mackintosh: Making the Glasgow Style,” a show with more than 250 objects now touring the world.

It will be in Baltimore October 6, 2019 to January 26, 2020.

No. 4

I’m back to do The Great Outdoors Challenge a fourth time.

As some of you may know, this is a two-week backpacking hike across Scotland. About 300 people leave from various places on the West Coast on the same day—Friday, May 10 this year—and finish 13 or 14 days later at various places on the East Coast. Traditionally, they take by off their boots and wade into the North Sea.

There is no set or required route for this crossing. Each route is “bespoke” (as the organizers like to say), crafted from the skein of hiking paths, farm roads, ATV tracks, drover’s trails laid down in medieval times, modern paved thoroughfares, and in some places trackless land. Devising a route, describing it to the organizers and their committee of vetters, and getting it approved (often with revisions) takes almost as much time as the walk.

It’s what Challengers (as we’re called) do in February.

Here is a map of most of Scotland, with the territory in which the Challenge occurs denoted in green. It’s a lot of territory.

One of the many appeals of the Challenge is the opportunity to explore some of the Highlands, the sparsely populated, largely treeless, unquestionably legendary region that comprises the northwestern part of Scotland. However, there’s no avoiding the less hilly and more thickly settled eastern half of the country (which is beautiful in its own right).

The territory of The Great Outdoors Challenge

This year I’m starting from Ardrishaig, Number 13, in the lower left corner of the map.

In my first crossing I started from Maillaig, Number 7, which is midway up the West Coast. The second time I left from Strathcarron, Number 2, the second-most northerly departure spot. The the third time, in 2016, it was from Torridon, Number 1, the most northerly.

Here is a detailed view of the route, in pink. The blue sections are “foul-weather alternatives” that you have to file (and use) in case weather doesn’t permit following the trackless or high-altitude intended route.

The route of the 2019 walk: 241 miles

Montrose, on the east coast, is where we all gather for a post-walk banquet. You don’t have to get there by foot. Most people put their feet in the sea somewhere else, and get to Montrose by bus or car.

This crossing will be less wild than the previous ones. I am staying in B&Bs or guest houses five nights—which is either a concession to age or an adjustment to a civilized route, take your pick. Many Challengers would call me soft.

The route borrows heavily from one taken in 2011 by Jean Macrae Turner, a wonderful Scotswoman whom I met on my first or second Challenge. She’s a surgeon, now retired, who’s done the Challenge with her husband, Allan (also a surgeon), and one of her sons, but in recent years has been doing it alone, as she is again this year. Her 2011 route had a historical theme, passing Neolithic and Bronze Age sites and ruined castles, which appealed to me. I’m thankful for her advice.

While I’m at it, let me once again thank Roger Hoyle, a
retired lawyer and Englishman whom I met by chance in Moscow in 2013, for telling me about the Challenge and advising me on routes, gear, and people in each of my crossings. I couldn’t have done this without him.

As I write this I’m in Glasgow, by now one of my favorite places.

It’s the Baltimore of Scotland—once a great builder of ships, the medical capital of the country, home to unwell-known art museums, post-industrial, full of row houses and heroin deaths.

I’m staying at the same low-rent hotel—the Victorian House—that I’ve visited in the past. It’s one block from the Glasgow School of Art and the beleaguered Mackintosh Building, of which you’ll learn more if you stay tuned.

I’m trying to make this crossing lighter. I’ve spent hundreds of dollars to buy dozens of ounces in weight-reduction. I have a new backpack—my 20-year-old one developed a tear from overeating—as well as new “waterproofs” (as they call rain gear over here), a new stove, and a few other items.

I’ve just mailed four envelopes overstuffed with freeze-dried food and topo maps to places I’m stopping at along the way. I’m carrying two—two—canisters of propane fuel for the stove because the camping store man convinced me that where I was going they wouldn’t have any. (Macbeth, take note.) And of course the five pounds of electronics, which is my concession to me (and you, if you’re still listening).

That said, my backpack is lighter this time (even without all the food I’ll be carrying) than it was in the past.

33 pounds

Whether it’s light enough: we’ll see.

In the meantime, there are things to see and do in Glasgow.

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