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

Month: May 2014 (Page 1 of 3)

A modest proposal

I thought briefly about asking people to “sponsor” me on the walk across Scotland.  But I tend to be put off by shake-downs for charity, so I didn’t.  Nevertheless, I have a worthy (and thematically appropriate) charity I’d like to bring to your attention.

It is run in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) and is called “Debout et Fier”.  This roughly translates to “Stand Proud,” which is its name as a registered charity in the UK (charity No. 1132615) and the United  States (www.StandProud.org).

The organization helps people who are crawling around on the ground because their legs are paralyzed or paretic to get up on their feet, where they can live fairly normal lives.

The organization was created by a classmate of mine at Amherst College (1973) in Amherst, Massachusetts.  His name is Jay Nash.  He was in my freshman dorm.  I didn’t know him terribly well, although one vacation (I recall) he came skiing in Vermont with a bunch of other college friends.  At the time my parents had a vacation house there.  He was a gifted musician and singer; some of his arrangements are still used by the men’s a cappella group four decades later.

Jay is also a linguist (he speaks eight languages) and a  humanitarian (although I’m sure he doesn’t think of himself that way).  He has spent most of his career working in difficult places (Angola, the DRC) for non-governmental organizations (Catholic Charities) and government agencies (the U.S. Agency for International Development).  He’s lived in the DRC since 1998 and is now the senior humanitarian advisor for USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance there.

I saw Jay in June 2012 for the first time in 39 years.  I was working at The Washington Post and he was back in Washington for his annual face-time with the bosses.  I had seen his name a few times over the years while reporting on the Polio Eradication Initiative, which as many of you know is 20 years past its deadline but still working hard.  Some of his cables  were among the WikiLeaks files released by Julian Assange, although there was nothing noteworthy–newswise, that is–in them.

While doing his work in the Congo, Jay was struck by the number of people forced to conduct their lives sitting on the ground because they lacked leg braces, physical therapy, and in some cases surgical release of contractures.

Jay started an NGO to help them.

As of two years ago, the organization had helped 4,000 to 5,000 people, he estimated.  (It’s undoubtedly more now).  Not all of the people are paraplegic from polio.  That disease accounts for about one-third of the cases; meningitis for one-third; and nerve damage from infections (usually abscesses from unsterile injections in the buttocks) for much of the rest.  There are also a fair number of people with club feet, as the DRC has an incidence of that deformity four times higher than in the United States.

The treatment for most of the patients is arduous, and for many it is painful.  In some cases, tendons have contracted so much they have to be surgically released, a procedure that is done by surgeons in Goma.  For most, therapy is casting and recasting of the affected limbs, putting in wedges and then replastering, to change their conformation so a brace can be fit.  Often this takes nine months.

Occasionally (and somewhat inexplicably) the result is a person who can walk with canes, or even unassisted.  The goal, though, is to get someone in braces so they can walk with one or two crutches and face the world at eye level–our level.  And, of course, once they’re there it takes practice.

“For $1000 we can get someone on their feet.  Surprisingly, this even works for people 45 to 50 years old,” Jay said.

The prospects for people crippled by polio in the DRC are limited.  Most don’t finish school and many are beggars.  The most successful work in trades where they can sit all day.

“Tailors and cobblers are what they want to be when they come to us.  When they’re finished with us they want to be doctors.”

This last is not wholly a fantasy, for Jay’s program doesn’t just get children and teenagers on their feet. It also gets them into school.  As soon as they can stand they are enrolled, with the program paying their school fees, and in some cases providing them a place to live.

“It gives them good practice and gets them back to the real world, even mid-year,” he said.  The local culture helps. “In Congo everybody wants to go to school, and all the parents want their kids to be in school.”

Debout et Fier has six centers–one in Kinshasa and five along the eastern border of the country.  (“The distribution is directly a reflection of where I’ve gone in my job handling emergencies.”)  Most of the braces are made in Kinshasa.  The surgery is done in-country.  The 23 employees are locals, many of them “beneficiaries” of the program.

Jay spends two hours most mornings handling the administration of the program.  Then he goes to work.  His sister, in Ohio, handles other details.  The advisory board of the NGO includes some heavy hitters (Jon Andrus, Ellyn Ogden) with whom I’m acquainted from my reporting on global health.

I just walked 220 miles.  Jay helps people walk shorter distances, for incalculably more important purposes.  Please keep his organization in mind.



Feet in the sea

Within reason, a Challenger can decide where to end his or her hike. There were 42 finish points “nominated” (as they say) this year, 14 of them to be used by a single person. What they have in common is they are all on the North Sea.

The tradition is that one wades into the water with bare feet, a pedal baptism that returns one to ordinary life. These days one often takes a picture, too.

The place where I landed was St. Cyrus.  It is a village about 10 miles north of Montrose, the town where a post-Challenge celebratory dinner takes place at a hotel.  Eighty-six people were scheduled to finish there, nearly three times the number of the next most popular spot.

After I left the Wormald family and continued on my own there seemed to be a kind of time dilation.  The miles got longer, as did the time it took to walk them.  The sky was dramatic, both sunlit and dark.  This gave an intensity to the green of the grass and the yellow of the rapeseed fields, lens-shaped in the distance.


The road dipped and curved to cross a stream shaded by trees and then climbed in the open to a T intersection at a place called Morphie.  One could go straight on the low road past the Mill of Morphie and the Stone of Morphie and then head northeast to St. Cyrus.  Alternatively, one could cut the corner by going over the Hill of Morphie and then walk due east to the village.

I chose the latter.

The road went between a pair of eagle-topped entrance pillars, leading me to conclude that Morphie was now the name of a farm, no longer even a hamlet.  I walked past a house with six cars parked beside it, and numerous sheds and barns.  I saw no one.  Beyond the buildings the road turned 90 degrees and rose straight and steady.  It would be the last climb of the walk.

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It seemed to go on forever.  After a while I decided to do something I hadn’t contemplated for the previous two weeks:  run.  With a stride both lumbering and mincing, and barely faster than walking, I got to the top.  I tell you, I could have used a little Morphie myself about then.

The road leveled off and in the distance, almost indistinguishable from the sky, was a stripe of gray, the North Sea.

As the road headed down the air turned colder.  Or perhaps it was the end of exertion and that it was almost 8 o’clock at night.  Suddenly a tee shirt wasn’t nearly enough.  I put on a hooded fleece, then my rain jacket and finally my mittens.

The road descended further and by dead reckoning I got to what I think was the intended terminus. It was a bluff just beyond a church graveyard that overlooked a beach and a bight with a single fishing vessel off shore.  Near the edge of the bluff was a bench and the start of a path that led down to the beach. It was a goat trail that would have taken, I guessed, at least 15 minutes to go down.

I initially saw no one, but in a few minutes a woman appeared on the grass along the bluff, walking an ancient basset hound.  When she got to me I asked her if she would mind taking a picture.  She readily agreed.  After a little instruction, this is what she took.

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Her name was Sheila Brown.  This what she looked like.

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And her dog.

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I didn’t walk down to the water.  I decided to do that the next day.  I was freezing and I needed to get to the hotel, which was a couple of miles on this side of Montrose.

As I walked passed the graveyard, who should appear but Maggie Wormald, hopskotched again in front of her husband and daughter and walking back to meet them.  They’d decided to go the whole 25 miles that day.

I walked to the main road and found a small hotel with a pub (and kitchen) still open, and a bartender with the bus schedule.  I had just enough time for dinner before the bus to Montrose arrived.

I caught it.  The driver said he couldn’t drop me in the burg of Hillside, where my hotel was, as it was not a stop.  But he offered to call a friend who drove a taxi who could meet me at the Montrose stop and take me back to Hillside.  I accepted.

I got to the hotel, checked in and went to sleep.  The walk was over.  But not officially.

I got up the next morning, did some writing and then went down to the hotel bar to see if someone there had a bus schedule.  People were eating lunch.  The bartender said I would have to take a bus south to Montrose and then catch one north to St. Cyrus.  After my foot-dipping ritual, I would then have to catch a bus south to Montrose and sign out at the Park Hotel, marking the official end of the Challenge.

It was going to be a complicated afternoon.  But I’d just walked 240 miles with a pack on my back, so who was I to complain?

I left my pack at the hotel–I was coming back for the night after the celebratory dinner–and went out to walk around Hillside until the bus arrived.  There wasn’t much to see.  As I stood at the hamlet’s main intersection, a car pulled up.  A woman got out and asked if I wanted a ride to St. Cyrus.  She and her male companion had been eating in the hotel bar and heard my inquiries.

I of course accepted.

It was a kind gesture at the right moment from April and Alan (yet another!)  They dropped me off at the unmanned visitor center at the southern end of the St. Cyrus beach, a strand perhaps two miles long under cliffs 200 feet high.

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I walked up the beach.  It was a beautiful sunny day.  A couple of people were running their dogs but it was mostly empty.  Sticking out of the sand were the stubs of poles that once anchored nets that ran perpendicular to the beach into the ocean, driving salmon heading for the River North Esk into traps.

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Every once in a while I came across the end of a rope, secured to its past somewhere under the sand, washing back and forth in the incoming tide.

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The sun was warm and the sand was wide.  I picked a place and took off my shoes and put my feet in the sea.

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Almost the end

The walk from Edzell to St. Cyrus is all on roads, although with both corner-cutting and intentional indirection a person can make at least some of the way through farm roads.

I spent the morning updating this and headed out about 3 p.m. as it was starting to drizzle.  Normally such a late start would fill a person with anxiety, but here in May there’s still nearly a workday’s worth of daylight left in mid-afternoon.

This is a high-latitude place, the equivalent of Sitka, Alaska.  In a month, I’m told, it won’t get fully dark, although the sun will disappear.  My headlamp broke halfway through the walk and I didn’t miss it at all.  Here’s a picture I took at 10.08 p.m. a few days ago.

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I had lunch just before I left Edzell in a tea shop that also sold plants and local crafts, run by the woman whose B&B I spent the night in.  Sitting at a table nearby were an older couple and young woman, all in hiking gear.

I left and headed out of town in what was if not the wrong direction at least not the right one.  I was set right by a couple who gave elaborate directions about how to find a foot bridge over the River North Esk.  I took them and on the far side of the bridge ran into the man and the young woman consulting a map.  As I had surmised, they were Challengers.  I asked them where their other companion was.

“Oh, Maggie’s not walking.  She’s following us in the car with the dogs.”

I walked on, not wanting to disturb their consultation further.  I walked on back roads, on a dirt road that took one right through the middle of a farm’s cluster of modern cattle barns, down a paved road.  Once or twice I looked back and saw the two of them in the distance.

So I was a bit surprised when I came off a farm road and prepared to cross a divided highway–a “dual carriageway”–and saw the two of them standing there waiting to cross too.

“You caught up.  You must have cut a corner I didn’t see,” I said.

They turned out to be Alan Wormald, 63, and his daughter, Lucy Wormald, 22, the youngest woman on the Challenge.  Soon after we crossed the highway and got back on a country road, Lucy got a call on her cell phone and fell back.  Alan and I walked along and talked.

They are from Inverness, several hours north.  Alan and his wife, Maggie, are originally from England but have lived in Scotland for decades.  They are original back-to-the-landers.  They did what I and some of my friends fantasized about in the years immediately after college but none of us did.

They live in a stone crofter’s house that Alan has slowly improved over a quarter century.  It has walls a foot thick and used to be as cold as a refrigerator.  He has sheathed and insulated the inside.  They have two children–Lucy and her brother– and Alan divided one bedroom to give them each their own, although they were barely larger than closets.  He’d recently taken the partition down.  They have a one-acre garden.  The house is up a drive accessible only by Land Rover.

Alan has had many jobs.  He’s a tree surgeon, a woodcutter, a teacher of outdoor skills.  About 15 years ago he spent half a year building hiking trails for the government.  This required splitting large rocks with a sledge hammer (“like the ones they have prisoners use,” he said) and muscling the shaped pieces into dikes and steps on the path.  The crews worked every day and he got in the best shape of his life, even though he was no longer young.

“I went to the sports day at my son’s school,” he said.  “Even the teachers run races.  I wanted to show them what I could do.  I ran in long trousers and wore a hat.  I beat them all.  And the hat didn’t even fall off.”

He was also quite a gear-head, extolling the statistics of his tiny MSR stove (“It’s an American company, you know”) and offering thoughts on the profusion of new tent designs. Also on the over-promise of wind power and the virtues of cider vinegar for longevity.

Lucy was just about to finish college in Edinburgh, where she is a music major.  She is also the president of the hillwalking club.  At least part of the phone conversation involved plans to go north for four days of Munro and Corbett climbing with the club in the days immediately following the Challenge.

Alan and Lucy had started at Tarfside that morning–the place I’d come from the day before.  They were also headed to St. Cyrus.  If they made it (and they did) it would be 39 kilometers–24 miles–in one day.  Surprisingly, this is the first Challenge for both of them.

At some point (I forget exactly where) Maggie appeared.  She had driven ahead, parked the car with their two dogs in it, and walked back to meet them.  She is clearly an outdoorswoman herself.  She asked about the crossing and I mentioned, among other things, that I had met Jim Taylor, the 91-year-old man who was doing it for the 20th time.

“I had a great time talking to him about his life, working on farms before the war,” I said.

“Did he tell you the story about having to go to the doctor to get a new shirt when he was in the forces?” Alan asked.

Indeed he did.

That’s the best story on the 24-minute video I made of Jim Taylor.  I’d repeated it to many people along the way.  Someone had told Alan about it the day before; he wasn’t sure who.  I’m curious to know whether this was a retelling of the version I’d heard, or whether Jim had told the story to many people over the years and it’s simply part of the lore about him.

By late afternoon they all wanted a break, including the dogs, so they went into a village called Marykirk to get something to eat.  They hadn’t completely decided whether to finish that day or knock off the last five miles in the morning.

We parted ways.  I wasn’t going to stop that close.

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It’s a beautiful day

There are many jokes about Scottish weather but they all involve one of two conceits:  it’s going to change, and it’s likely to get worse.

So it was a bit surprising how wonderful the walk was from Tarfside to Edzell.  The weather was perfect and stood still, and time seemed to also.

This is typically viewed as one of the less appealing days of the crossing.  Less appealing because the sense of timelessness that sets in about Day Three has an end you can feel–and almost see–just ahead.  And also because the walk is now in the east, where Scotland is a modern country.  Behind you is the empty and harsher west, where the ghosts of the dead, not the work of the living, animate the landscape.

It’s possible to walk to Edzell, the town one-day’s distance from the east coast, on paved road.  But with a little effort one can cross to the south bank of the River North Esk, and go on dirt roads and farm tracks, some no more than two stripes of flattened but undamaged grass across a field.

That’s the way I went.

It required a walk down the paved road a few miles before one got to the first bridge across the river.  The bridge, in turn, was down a gravel road that required a near-hairpin turn to get onto.  Just after the turn there was a sign naming a bridge that was out and could no longer be crossed.

Not knowing the names of the bridges across River North Esk, I was worried the sign was saying that the bridge ahead was washed away. In which case I would have to turn around and head down more asphalt road to the next bridge, which was a private one we’d been told not to use.

Luckily, a little red Royal Mail car turned down the lane shortly after I did.  I flagged it down.  The driver–they’re in the right front of the car over here–got out.  We had a brief chat and he told me that the bridge named on the sign was the one farther up the river near Tarfside, where I’d come from.

“That’s the one that’s gone.” he said.

Useful information, I thought.  I concluded the sign was there more to confirm the good judgment of drivers heading toward the open bridge than to provide actionable information for people who wanted to know whether the bridge ahead of them was open.

I thanked him and he drove off.  Ten minutes later, just as I finished crossing the bridge, he passed me, heading back to the main road.  We waved.

The next few hours passed in a benign haze.  Or maybe it’s what’s called “being in the moment.”  It’s hard to know what happened.  There was a lot of green.  A lot of grass.  Many sheep.  Many lambs.  A few gates.  Lots of sun.  And no people.  Although there were many ahead of me–I’d lingered two hours at the Glenesk Folk Museum–I saw not a soul.

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I have to say, the mix of sociability and isolation that characterizes the Challenge is one of its chief appeals.  There’s a subtle but universally understood protocol (informed, I speculate, by British reserve and self-distancing) that keeps people apart as the default condition and together by choice.  It’s an interesting state for an American.

In a telling moment a week earlier, I had been walking with two other people (one of whom was doing the Challenge with two people whom he wasn’t with much of the time).  They were faster than me and slowly pulled away.

We came to a wooden corduroy bridge over a small creek.  The end of my trekking pole went between two boards and left behind the rubber tip, wedged between them.  I didn’t notice this until on the other side each pole-plant made a metallic report instead of a dull rubbery one.

I stopped and walked back to the bridge.  Luckily, the rubber tip was still there; it hadn’t fallen through.  I retrieved it, put it back where it belonged and proceeded on my way.

When I looked up, the two people ahead of me were looking back.  They were aware enough of my presence to sense I’d stopped, and had turned around.  They’d observed my chore and one of them gave me a thumbs-up sign.  But they didn’t wait for me to catch up.

That’s the Challenge in a nutshell.

Anyway, it was a beautiful day, even for a brooder like me.

There was an exceptional number of birds on the wing.  I was walking into a the wind, and black and white birds with beautiful crests evident only when they landed seemed to be following me.  They were lapwings, also known as pewits.

For a while I thought I might be disturbing their nests and they were scaring me off (or at least showing me to the door).  But there were so many, and they kept bucking the wind and then turning to fly with that I concluded they were just having fun.

There was also the occasional curlew, a brown curve-billed pigeon-sized bird whose American cousin is extinct.  Lots of songbirds I didn’t recognize.  And oystercatchers.

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I don’t know much about birds, but I do recognize oystercatchers.  They’re hard to miss, black, white, with orange bills and a distinctive call.  But what were oystercatchers doing in a place with no oysters?  No salt water even.  I can’t answer except to say:  we weren’t actually that far from salt water.  The North Sea was just a day’s walk away.

I’d forgotten that.

Eventually–and eventually comes fairly quickly–my feet were hurting enough to take my afternoon break.  I’d say it was the “usual afternoon break” except I’d only done it  three or four times.  But I was beginning to think of it as the thing to do.

I stopped next to the river and made my way down to the shallows. I took off my boots and put my feet in the water.  It was too warm to do much work, so I didn’t get out the stove and make soup and tea.  I filled the Nalgene with water from the river, drank and ate my British oat cereal bar.  This is what I saw.

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I lay down on a large rock that, by chance, was sculpted close enough to the contour of my body that I almost fell asleep.

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It’s a good thing I didn’t.  I still had miles to go to get to Edzell.  But I hardly remember the rest.

Scenes of country life

Here are some pictures of things I’ve seen along the way.

There are many ruins, all of them mysterious and evocative.

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A 200-year-old bridge along the military road.

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Farm buildings.

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Vegetable-of-the-day for the next eight months:  turnips.



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Mother and child.


A bell curve of wool scrapings.



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A field of flowering rapeseed oil plants.

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All that remains of a settlement.

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A letterbox that will be hard to decommission.

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A tiny shepherd’s hut, like something out of a fairy tale.


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Castle keep, last occupied  in 1790.

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Two monuments

Just to the west of Tarfside, before you get to the village, is the Hill of Rowan. It is bare of trees and has on its top a conical stone monument that can be seen from far off.  Several people on the walk commented they always mean to go up and look at it.  But the lures of Tarfside–pub, hostel, socializing, the removal of boots–conspire to put a visit off until next year.

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Not knowing whether there is going to be a next year, I decided to go up it.  I was with two other soloists, Andy and Lindy.   We walked along the north shoulder of the hill until a trampled path appeared going up through the heather.  They weren’t tempted to go.  The path was steep, it was hard to judge the distance to the monument, and it was after 6 p.m.

“I may regret this,” I said as I dumped my pack on the ground and the other two went on.

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It wasn’t as far as it looked and the view, unobstructed except for the monument, was spectacular.  The  monument is the usual brown and gray stone, with a plug-like cap in white stone, probably quartz.

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It is built for the ages.  A narrow iron gate opened into a chamber where there were some soggy furniture cushions but nothing more.  The chamber is about 12 feet high and the monument 50, so it seems to be mostly solid rock. There was no plaque anywhere.  On the grass outside were stones arranged in strange, runic designs.

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I was back at my pack 38 minutes after I left.  It was definitely worth the detour.

In the tent city on the green a couple of people asked me what the monument commemorated when I told them I’d gone up to see it.  I told them I didn’t know; there was nothing explaining its purpose.  The bar tender at the pub offered one, which I confirmed the next day at the museum down the road.

The monument is known as Maule Cairn, built in 1866 by Fox Maule, the 2nd Baron Panmure and the 11th Earl of Dalhousie.  He and his wife had no children.  His brother, who would have inherited the title, died of cholera in the Crimean War in 1854.  The earldom was “moving sideways” to a nephew.  The monument was to Maule’s soon-to-be-extinct line of the family.

The bar tender had added that there use to be a plaque on the monument.  But when the crofters had been forced off the estate to make way for sport hunting some of them had gone up and smashed it.

I couldn’t confirm the latter in a brief web search.  But from what I’ve learned of Scottish history in the last two weeks, it sounds credible.  In any case, it seemed like an Ozymandian memorial.

The next day, walking out of Tarfside, I passed another monument.   From it you can see the Maule Cairn in the distance.  This one, however, was in memory of the local parish’s soldiers who died in World War I.  They were listed by rank, one sergeant of the Gordon Highlanders and 6 privates of the Black Watch, two of whom had the same last name.

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At the bottom it says:  “They did their duty and their bit”

“Their bit.”  They and 8 .5 million other men.  The modesty could break your heart.

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Lost and found

I haven’t lost anything yet on this trip (I suspect not even weight, given the 2,800-calorie per day meal packs I ordered).  But it hasn’t been for lack of trying.

In  Braemar, I spent the afternoon in the great room of the Fife Arms Hotel reading and writing.  When I got halfway out the door I realized I didn’t have my hat, so I went back and got it from under the chair.

I got partway back to the B&B and remembered I’d left the phone and iPad charging cable and plug adapter plugged into the wall behind the chair–a potentially disastrous loss.  So I went back and got them, too.

The next morning when I left the B&B I did some rearranging of the small compartment in the top of the pack where I keep high-accessibility items.  That required spreading things out on an outdoor chair outside.  I finished, hefted the pack and got halfway down the driveway when I remembered I didn’t have my trekking pole.  I went back and got it from the front hall.  As I walked past the chair, I saw my wallet sitting on it.

For a while I did think I’d lost something–a green and yellow camp towel with my son Will’s name tag ironed on to it.  He took it to camp one year.  It’s quite handy, given that none of the microfiber garments I’m carrying and wearing actually absorb water.

The towel was in the load of laundry the people at the B&B in Newtonmore kindly did for me.  Or at least I thought it was.  I didn’t have it the next time I looked.  I thought it might have been mistakenly returned to Pete Little, the coffee-shop manager and fellow Challenger who’d spent the night there too.  But when I saw him a day later he didn’t have it.

I have found some things, however.  Or people, I should say.

My route took me through Tarfside, a village in Glenesk that allows hikers to camp on the commons.  It has a hostel in a church, a few houses and rental cottages, but no store.  The  Masonic Lodge has permission to function as a pub for a couple of nights during the Challenge.

After dinner, I went up there and had a couple of pints.  I brought along the office–a small dry bag with the iPad mini, keyboard, cables and papers in it.  I thought there might be a corner where I could catch up on some writing.  But it was standing room only, so I put the bag on the floor next to the bar and proceeded to socialize.

After a while I left and went up to the hostel where Marion Mitchell had been serving dinner to hikers earlier in the evening.   As readers of previous posts might recall, she is the wife of Alan Mitchell, the father of the father-and-son team I’d hiked with for two days early in the walk.  Marion, his second wife, is reputedly descended from John Brown, the martyred Covenanter from whom I’m descended through my mother’s mother.  There’s a monument to John Brown, shot in cold blood by an officer of the English army, in a moor south of Glasgow.  Marion and Alan had visited it, as had my parents years ago.

At the hostel I was directed to the kitchen, where five women were washing large pots.  I asked for Marion and introduced myself.  She had heard of me from her husband.  (Alas, he and his son, Colin, had “retired” from the walk several days earlier because of a flare-up of an Achilles tendon injury of Colin’s).

As I was standing next to the sink going over geneology, I leaned on the counter with my right hand.  There next to the dish drainer was Will’s camp towel.

“A young man brought it by in case you stopped,” Marion said.

That was Pete Little.  His parents, who are hopscotching in front of him in a car, found it at the B&B and handed it off.

Marion said she is descended from a woman named Christian Brown, one of John Brown’s children, she thinks by his first wife.  The geneology book I’d consulted mentioned that Brown’s first wife had died.  I’ll have to reconsult it when I get home to see if Christian is mentioned.

As we were talking, I mentioned that my maternal grandmother’s maiden name was McCormick, so I probably had Scots ancestors other than John Brown.

“I’m a McCormick,” said one of the other women.

So I’d found two (possible) distant cousins.

iPhone pictures Nov 2014 439

Marion has done 10 Challenges, the first one in 1986, the last one five years ago with three other women.  She doubts she’ll do another one.  I asked her why she did so many.

“It’s in the blood.  I suspect that may be why you are here,” she said.

When the clean-up crew was finished they had a wee dram and invited me to join them.  I talked with a man named John Donohoe, a Scotsman of Irish ancestry (as he says many Scots are, although they don’t like to admit it).  He told me about cutting and drying peat, the universal fuel in the west of Scotland, which has few trees.

As a consequence, the ridgepole of a house, made from driftwood or the rare felled tree,  was a precious possession.  When people moved, they sometimes took it with them.  And when the laird wanted to move the tenants off, he only had to burn the roofs of their cottages.

I finally bid them good night and staggered off to bed in the one-night tent city on the green.

The next day when I packed up, my pack seemed less full that usual.  I looked around and wondered what I could be missing.  Then I remembered:  the office bag.  Basically all the electronics.

I walked up to the Masonic hall, which was locked tight.  Hanging on the door handle was the bag.  With everything in it, of course.

iPhone pictures Nov 2014 445

Braemar and beyond

Braemar, the terminus of Day 9 was the site of my “rest day”–actually a half-day off, the next day.

I spent the night at a B&B that used to be the priest’s residence for St. Andrews Roman Catholic Church.  But there hasn’t been a priest in residence for at least 25 years, said Carole, the woman who lived there and had recently opened it as a B&B. I was the only guest.

After dumping my things I went up to the Fife Arms Hotel in ther village, which I was told was a Challenge gathering spot.   It was true; the bar was full of hikers.  There was a  championship soccer match on television and much merriment.

I went into the great room off the lobby, a big place with prints of Scottish folklife on the walls and a fireplace burning wood and coal at one end.  I set up shop and spent a couple of hours eating lunch, writing and reading e-mail. The room eventually filled up–every table taken–with gray-haired men and women. They went into the dining room in shifts and  came back later to talk, sip wine and play cards.

I didn’t meet Carole until the next morning. She is a wonderful woman of indeterminate age–sixties to seventies.  A devout Catholic, she looks after the church next door in addition to running a sweets shop with her partner, David, who apparently lives elsewhere. She is a longtime widow with four children. She has lived in Braemar for about 15 years; why she came I don’t know.

Her house is filled with Catholic iconography–crucifixes, paintings of Jesus, photographs of popes, religious ephemera tacked to the walls. Braemar used to be a town of two faiths, the Catholics on one side of the river and Protestants on the other. Now there is a bridge, but almost no people.

Fifty years ago the church was full for Mass; 250 people or more. Now a priest rides circuit. He was there Saturday night to say Mass.  Sixteen people attended “and a couple of them were visitors,” Carole said.


St. Andrew's Roman Catholic Church, with one-time priest's residence to the right

St. Andrew’s Roman Catholic Church, with one-time priest’s residence to the right

After breakfast (which included my first taste of “black pudding,” which is blood sausage) I settled into her sitting room next to a coal and wood fire and wrote and uploaded until 5 p.m. I had only a little more than 8 kilometers to go to my next spot, Lochcallater Lodge, a hunting lodge on the Invercauld Estate.

I had dinner in town and set off at 6.45 p.m., needless to say the latest start so far.  It was a nice evening, cool and starting to drizzle when I arrived at the lodge about 8.30 p.m.  I was the last person in.

Lochcallater Lodge, with tents

Lochcallater Lodge, with tents

One of the reasons to put this place on your route is that volunteers make chili and rice for Challengers.  It’s also known for heavy drinking and carousing, relatively speaking, of course.

I got last of the chili (the rice was gone), set up my tent in the rain, and then went back into the lodge for a while.

Unelectrified, built of stone (of course) with small rooms, it once housed a family working on the estate.  Now, it is a day lodge for deer hunters. With four-wheel drive vehicles. there’s no reason for even them to spend the night.

In one room, labeled “men’s bar”–it seemed redundant, as I saw only one woman in the house the whole evening–a person was playing traditional music on a guitar.  There was singing and occasional recitation of ribald verse.

After a while, the chief guitarist. a man from the south of England named Mick, moved into the kitchen. He sat next to the fire and played mostly American rock and roll–several Buddy Holly numbers, “Big Yellow Taxi” by Joni Mitchell, some Crosby, Stills and Nash. It was an interesting selection from a grizzled Briton in his sixties.

I didn’t stay up too late. Or at least not as late as most of the revelers. It was time to sleep by 10.30. And that was a late night.

The next morning

The next morning


Looking up Loch Callater

Looking up Loch Callater



Glen Feshie

This is out of order, but unless you study the map closely you won’t know.  I seem to have hit Publish rather than Save Draft for the post I just finished, “Characters.”

In any case, Glen Feshie is better seen than described.  It’s one of Scotland’s most beautiful glens, according to just about everyone–a long unspoiled river valley, the hills on either side with few trees, and lots of heather, and streams–“burns”–tumbling down their slopes.  Along the bottom is an intermittently grassy plain with groves of hardwoods.

The estate that encompasses it–many, many square miles–is owned by a Danish man who, I was told, is Scotland’s second-largest landowner.  You could look it up.  But I haven’t.

Here’s what it looked like a couple of days ago.

A handsome couple out for a walk on the way to Edinburgh.




Looking up the glen.




Gorse, a needle-defended plant that smells like coconut.




Find the frog.




Lindsay Bryce, Scotsman, former Alaska North Slope oil worker, and unofficial keeper of the bothy in the glen through four estate owners, serving coffee, tea, bread, cheese and apple pie to grateful Challengers.








Liz Robertson fording the river.





The River Feshie, looking down the glen.





Soaking the feet in an icy burn.








Spume rising off the Falls of Eidart.




A “stalker’s”–hunting guide’s–path, which turns out to be a not-insignificant source of routes across the Highlands.




A late afternoon rest on a hill coming out of the glen, not a person in sight, the only sound the wind and the birds.





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