Thursday, September 10, 2009

Hiking in the Highlands

Despite my English nurture, deep down in my blood, there is more Scottish than anything else. Both of my grandfathers were from north of the border, one side from the Orkneys, the other the highlands.

Growing up in suburban Surrey, this heritage seemed a long way away and was not encouraged by a wave of Mel Gibson induced "Braveheart" nationalism emanating from the North in my formative years. The Battle of Stirling Bridge surprisingly had a bridge, William Wallace was not a peasant, he did not wear a kilt, or sleep with Queen Isabella – that is unless he fancied 8 year olds. Don't get me started. Sorry.

The point, I wanted to change this departure from my roots and what better way then to go close and personal to the highlands.

Up close and personal

A zippy, yet annoying car, a tank full of gas and good company. Chris and I spent a week touring around this moody, rippled, rain-lashed outpost of North East Europe. We mixed it up between charming, if slightly odd, B&B's and idyllic country houses. Rarely have I so fallen for a region.
For me, the most striking thing about the highlands, is not that there are phenomenally beautiful parts – a look at any post-card will tell you that – but rather that there do not seem to be any non-beautiful parts. We drove literally hundreds of miles and where ever we went we were surrounded by simply stunning countryside. Magnificent emotional vistas hit you with such rapidity that, at least in my case, you feel shell-shocked.
There is therefore far too much to write about. Not knowing where to start, or to end, I have decided to concentrate on a few separate areas which we particularly enjoyed, but by no means does this indicate that the stuff in between is not just as magnificent.

Loch Shiel and Glenfinnan
A quintessential loch. Steep, glacier-moulded, green-clad hills dive sharply into the dark waters of the Loch Shiel. Trees surround the fringe, fish ply the cold channel and, not that we saw them, golden eagles saw above. This is only the foreground. As seems consistent through the highlands, the changeable highly charged weather completes the scene. Bundles of cloud of all varieties burst across the sky. Rain lashes down, clears and sharp streams of light pierce the heavenly cover. These brief breaches of sunshine play with the hillsides, dancing shapes across shear, escarped forms. I can watch for hours.
At the northern end of the loch, a famed statue for those who died in the Jacobite cause and our temporary residence, Glenfinnan House. Complete with stag heads, exquisite local beer and midgies. The only hotel I've come across in the UK where they don't have locks on doors. Quite phenomenal views of the glen as you wander across the lawn to the lochside.

The Cuillin
At the southern tip of the Isle of Skye lies wilderness. A rare thing nowadays, especially on our crowded little island. The rest of the Skye is stunning, but the Cuillan is something else. Sizable Monro's climbing straight out of the sea. Bashed by the ocean beneath and the ever-morphing West coast weather from above, the Black Cuillan are strange, impassioned mountains. It is hard to describe, but the sight of them left me in abject awe. No roads penetrate the heart of these hills. Compasses can not track them, mist rolls in and obscures them. An ambition to cross them. For now, we trekked to the top of the adjacent bay and admired them. Outstanding beauty, leaving the soulless aspects of this modern world behind.

Ben Nevis

For the cynics, yes, this is a proper mountain, Britain does have proper, fully grown mountains and Ben Nevis is the biggest of them. Setting out from the only disappointing place we visited in the highlands – poor Fort William – we set-off through Glen Nevis in pursuit of the summit.
Rationed to the hilt and kitted out with some remotely water-proof equipment, the prospect rather excited us. The path runs back and forth across the face of the lush-green valley, climbing slowly but surely. Every so often the path is broken by a small stream. The moss and soil of the hills act like a giant sponge, over-spilling water down these narrow channels whenever they reach saturation point.

A marked left turn, and the first sight of Nevis proper. Top crested in thick cloud, the high parts are rocky, but slowly give way to sparse greenery and forest as the altitude drops. We make our way round this corner and up onto a plateau edged by a smaller summit with a lake at its feet. Climb a little further and the landscape for miles around is opened up before your eyes, but only for brief moments as the cloud and mist swirl in and out.
Round to the right and a long side to side traverse leaving the valley long behind. Out of nowhere, the weather closes in, and at the height of summer we are lashed by ice cold rain. Soaked through, we trundle on. The cloud is thick all around as the ground turns to small dark grey boulders, we are entering the final stage of the climb. Chris's step is slightly quicker than mine, but I just about keep up.
And there we were, on the summit of the British Isles. A creepy place of the odd memorial to fallen climbers, some snow and the old abandoned observatory all enveloped in a moist wisp. Smiles, hugs and a piccie or two and we head back down.
Perhaps a quarter of the way down, the weather clears-up sharply and we are blessed with a simply startling panoramic of the highlands for miles and miles around.
Before I settle down for what felt like a well earned pint at the bottom, we are reminded of just how remarkable some people are. A blind guy is being led up by his father and a kid with cerebral-palsy has done nearly all of it himself. Lessened as our "achievement" was, I still enjoy the beer.

The Isle of Eigg and back again

From Arisaig we took the little boat out to the only just about inhabited Isle of Eigg (maybe I am being harsh, there are nearly 100 permanent inhabitants). The real reason for the trip quickly comes to fruition. At first barely visiable and doubted, then up close and personal, a colony of common and grey seals basking on the rocks. What a pick me up!
A few hours of spotting black sheep and rambling around the island and we're back on the boat. The distant Cuillan disappear into the weather and the boat splashes all around as the rain pelts. An interestingly rollicking journey is interrupted by a sighting of what I firmly believe to have been a basking shark. A serious bonus. Back via the seals we make it to dry land with just enough time to take a loop past a few white sand beaches that have no right being this close to the Arctic circle.

To return

A brief glimpse of our brief glimpse of the highlands. We merely whetted our appetites for this ever surprising and emotive landscape. And to think I have not even mentioned how friendly and welcoming everyone we met were. Needless to say we must return.
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