Monday, July 26, 2010

Walking in the Highlands of Scotland

The year is 1692. The place is Glencoe. It's dark, it's cold, it's misty and fresh snow lies on the ground. The MacDonalds and their guests the Campbells are asleep. Suddenly the night is filled with screams. The Campbells are murdering the MacDonalds. Women and children are not spared in the carnage which follows. Those clansfolk who do escape, freeze to death in the surrounding mountains. The Massacre of Glencoe is history now but it is very easy to picture the scene as you walk through this most haunting of Scottish glens.

Glencoe still retains much of this aura and is one of the most popular destinations in Scotland. Unfortunately most people just glimpse it as they speed through on their luxury coach. They will stop at the visitor centre, buy their postcard and sign the visitor's book before driving to their luxury hotel in Fort William knowing they had at last 'seen' Glencoe. However, to experience the real Glencoe, the weather, the atmosphere, the remoteness, you have to don your boots and backpack and follow the peat coloured burns, through the blooming heather and up into the lonely corries.

The West Highland Way is Scotland's first long distance footpath and passes through Glencoe on its way north to Fort William. The walk starts on the southern shores of Loch Lomond and whether you take the high road or the low road the path contours majestic Ben Lomond through forests of birch and oak and takes you along the 'bonnie bonnie banks' of this immortal loch.

Crianlarich, pronounced exactly as it sounds, lies at the base of Ben More (3825ft), and is a popular stopping point for walkers, as well as motorists and train enthusiasts. Two major roads, the A85 and A82 meet here and there is a train station, Youth Hostel, campground, hotels, and many bed and breakfast establishments. Enjoy good home cooking followed by a beer or a dram in the friendly 'local'.

The path then follows the railway line and the road northwest through the narrow confines of Strath Fillian to Tyndrum. Both road and rail split here. One line follows the A85 west to the seaside port of Oban and the other line follows the A82 north and immediately climbs across open heather moorland toward the desolate Rannoch Moor. However as you contour below Ben Challum (3354ft) you can't help think how fortunate you are out there in the open challenging the elements knowing that most visitors to Scotland never experience this unique outdoor experience.

Despite their comparatively low altitude, the Scottish mountains are potentially hazardous and subject to rapid weather changes. Such changes can make a simple walk up an easy hillside into a serious undertaking requiring a high degree of mountain skill in route finding with both map and compass. The weather of the Scottish mountains should never be underestimated and makes proper clothing and equipment essential.

The countryside becomes bleaker as you continue ascending to the hamlet of Bridge of Orchy below the conical peak of Ben Dorian (3524ft). You are now on the edge of the Rannoch Moor. Further on the route passes the popular Inveroran Hotel which offers food and overnight accommodation. From here to the Kingshouse Hotel you are on your own with only the other walkers for company. You pass Forest Lodge as you contour around lonely Loch Tulla toward the Black Mount. The silence is almost deafening as you take in the beauty and the remoteness which surrounds you. Photographs can't do justice to this timeless landscape.

A strong northerly wind on this section can make it one of the hardest and perhaps most rewarding day on the walk. Scotland has four distinct seasons and it is very possible to experience them all in one day, if not in one hour. Snow can and does fall at any time of the year even though people could be playing on the beach relatively close by. The weather pattern is generally from the west with the Gulf Stream and the mountains creating a very high degree of precipitation. Generally speaking, northerlies bring cold air from the Arctic throughout the year and easterlies can bring cold in the winter and warm in the summer.

It is important that all walkers/climbers are aware of the potential dangers in the Scottish mountains and are properly prepared and equipped to deal with them.

After many hours of walking, you will see the welcome sight of the Kingshouse, probably the loneliest hotel in Scotland and, like a sentinel, guards the entrance to Glencoe. With the thought of steaming hot broth and a glass of whisky you quickly descend to the hotel.

The Kingshouse was built in the 17th Century and is believed to be one of Scotland's oldest licensed inns and is as much part of the landscape as the mountains themselves. It has an atmosphere all of its own and many a tall tale has been told at the bar. If the weather is kind to you, you can sit outside and watch the climbers on the cliffs of Buachaille Etive Mor (3345ft). Whether you spend a night here or just pause for a cleansing ale you will never forget this place for as long as you live.

The actual township of Glencoe is further on down the glen on the shores of Loch Leven. Here you can find a Youth Hostel, several bunkhouses offering accommodation of all kinds, campsites, hotels and of course the ubiquitous Bed and Breakfast. To experience Glencoe and all its moods a few days should be spent here enjoying the scenery, the people, the culture and the history.

The Devil's Staircase will take you over the hills to Kinlochleven which literally translates into 'the town at the head of Loch Leven'. The Mamore Forest Lodge is situated high above the township and offers some superb views down the loch to the impressive peak of Ben a' Bheithir (3361ft). Again it is possible to spend a night here or just break for lunch before the last fourteen miles to Fort William.

The mountain range you cross to reach Glen Nevis is called the Mamore Forest, an unlikely name considering there is hardly a tree in sight. Once in Glen Nevis you can wander down the river of the same name until you reach Fort William. After seven days of walking through some of the wildest country in Europe you can now have a rest before tackling the challenging ascent of Scotland's highest peak, Ben Nevis.

At 4406 feet "The Ben", as it is known amongst the local walking fraternity, requires respect whether walking up the 'tourist' track or climbing on its precipitous north face. The temperature on top can be as much as 20 degrees lower than in Fort William. This is a potentially very dangerous mountain and extreme care and precaution are required at all times. For six days out of seven the summit is shrouded in mist. Of course you can't pick that illusive day but if you do, you will be rewarded with one of the most memorable views in the world. However if you are unfortunate with the view console yourself with the thought you are not alone and that the ascent itself is a rewarding challenge.

Wherever you walk in Scotland, whichever Ben you climb, whatever the weather, you will return home having experienced some of the most rewarding walking in the world.

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