There are a few things you need to know about Scotland:
- If you ever think to yourself: “The midges aren’t as bad as they say”, you just haven’t experienced them yet. They will come and they will annoy the hell out of you.(For those now wondering what midges are: they are basically mosquitos’ tiny evil suicidal cousins that come out to play in the Scottish Highlands).
- When they say it rains all the time in Scotland, what they mean is: it will rain on and off all day every day. But the showers aren’t that bad, unless you’re in that one place on the Isle of Skye where we were and then there’s just no hope of keeping dry.
- The highest mountain in the UK is Ben Nevis, at 1.345m. If you think: “Wait, all mountains in Scotland are lower than 1400 metres? Climbing them is surely not a challenge worthy of Slopers?”, I’d beg you to think again. The climb is still long if you’re always starting near sea level.
- On the topic of mountains: some guy named Munro from a few centuries back made a list of all mountains in Scotland higher than 914.4 m (3000 feet), known as the Munros. The list is some 300 mountains long.
The crew: Monne, Sjoerd Berning, Jorgis, Dion (a friend of Monne) and me
The destination: the land of the Scots
The plan: Edinburgh – Cairngorms National Park (hiking trip of ±5 days) – Inverness / Loch Ness – Isle of Skye (day hikes) – Fort William (climbing Ben Nevis)
(For the ultimate experience while reading this story, might I suggest some music by the Red Hot Chili Pipers? :D)
The prologue – Edinburgh
On a Tuesday morning at 07:15, I found myself blinking against the early morning sun on my way to Station Delft. My backpack was fully loaded with over 20 kg of stuff, and my eyelids felt just as heavy – but that’s what happens when you stay up packing until 01:00. After 12 hours, a few naps and with an increasingly wild landscape moving past the window, we arrived in Edinburgh.
Over the next one and a half day we explored Edinburgh a bit more: we ate haggis (freshly caught!) and did a free walking tour (did you know that in the medieval ages, Edinburgh had wooden buildings of fourteen stories high? And that so many people lay buried in the graveyard that it is “basically a people lasagna”?). We also bought some new gas tanks (turns out you can’t bring those on the Eurostar train) and did a little hiking prologue by climbing Arthur’s Seat.
Tempests and mountain tops – Cairngorms National Park
Into the mountains
On Thursday we caught a train to Kingussie, a small town located on the border of Cairngorms National Park. When alighting the train we could already see the hills in the distance, and by the time the day ended we found ourselves truly at the foot of the big Cairngorm mountains. We set up camp with springy grasses and heath as an extra mattress below our tents. The weather had been changing continuously all day. Dry one moment, pouring rain the next, and before you know it the sun is drying your face again. The swift-moving, dark grey clouds were a joy to photograph.
On the second day of hiking we began in a way that would become a ritual: start the morning with a steep ascent and spend the rest of the day on top of the hills, to descend a little just before dinnertime. We had set our eyes on Meall Dubhag (don’t ask me how to pronounce this), the peak we were camped just before. Based on the map we chose the easiest way to the top, which brought us across fields of heath. The bushes came up to my knees, meaning that hiking across was basically a practice of Silly Walks for me. But towards the top the heath fortunately retreated. Soon we were battling against strong winds that made it hard to walk in a straight line. Raincovers were flapping around everywhere, determined to not stay put, and I got slapped in the face by the straps of my backpack too many times. But I’d take the wind over the heath any day, especially if I can hide behind Monne.
Now there’s a thing you must understand about the mountains in Scotland. The sides are very steep, shaped that way by glaciers, rivers and winds since the last ice age. However, the tops are mostly level and often form an easily walkable plateau. Getting on the mountain is the real challenge, but once you’re there, the hiking should be easy.
Except that on top of Meall Dubhag, we were hiking with our head in the clouds and our feet constantly sinking down into boggy terrain. (Somehow the tops of the mountains can be really wet). Navigation was a challenge in the fog, but with a compass we managed to hike around the ridge of Loch Eanaich and find our way to a relatively sheltered and flat area. We even managed a camping spot that was 1: mostly flat, 2: out of the wind, 3: not a bog.
Along Lairig Ghru
The next day I got to navigate. Over breakfast Monne and I picked out a route that would bring take us to a bothy (mountain hut) in the valley of Lairig Ghru by the end of the day. The fog of the previous day was nowhere to be seen, so navigation was a cup of tea. We started by ascending towards the ridge around Lairig Ghru. As soon as we hit the saddle beneath Angel’s Peak, the wind beat us again. Full gale-force winds, which would later turn out to be the tailwinds of hurricane Ernesto. It charged us with a little more adrenaline as we picked our way across boulder fields along the steep ridge of Lairig Ghru. We could only have breaks if we found a large boulder to hide behind.
From Angel’s Peak we hiked south along the ridge, to Stob an t-Soiuajldfnhlij* and the saddle between Stob and the Devil’s Point. From here we could take a path down to the valley floor and the bothy, but we were eager to stand on top of the Devil’s Point first. So we dropped our backpacks to the ground and raced to the top. (Monne won, obviously, with Sjoerd a close second). From the summit, we had a view of large parts of Lairig Ghru, including Ben Macdui (UK’s second highest peak) and quite a few Munros. On the other side, the flowing plain of the River Dee stretched out before us, bordered by layer upon layer of mountains in the distance. Those views easily make up for all the day’s struggles.
Then we picked up our backpacks again and made our way to the Corrour bothy. The hut was simple, with walls lined with wood, a small plateau for extra sleeping spots, a single window with a citronella candle and a fireplace. It was quite a popular place: several people had already set up camp outside and another couple shared the inside of the bothy with us. (We wanted to sleep inside so we’d be able to start climbing Ben Macdui early the next morning). As the evening progressed, the midges started to arrive as well. Deet or even Smidge, the super strong stuff we got at the Scottish Bever, didn’t manage to hold them off for more than half an hour, so the only options left were to cover up or go inside.
Climbing Ben Macdui
The next morning we woke up bright and well-rested – except for Jorgis. His sleeping pad had developed a leak during the night, which needed to be fixed before we could leave. The weather further trampled our plans: the promised morning sun didn’t show. Instead, the entire valley was enveloped in low-hanging clouds, that – in contrast to the day before – wouldn’t budge. Not a sigh of wind. And in Scotland, the absence of wind only means one thing: midges. Around a thousand per cubic metre. (Sjoerd ended up with some extra protein in his breakfast.) Soooo we had breakfast inside the bothy while Jorgis superglued his sleeping pad.
The previous days we’d mostly walked cross-country, avoiding paths and trails whenever we could because that’s just more fun. However, for our ascent of Ben Macdui we’d chosen to follow a path leading out of Lairig Ghru, mainly because the steep valley-side of the mountain looked impossible to scale otherwise. Seems nice and simple – follow path along stream, reach saddle, walk across plateau to summit.
However, my body was extremely slow to start. I was hiking slowly, with the humid clouds pressing down around us and midges flying everywhere. Everyone had different strategies for dealing with them. Sjoerd and Dion just went as fast as they could to outhike them, if just for a little while. Jorgis lathered up in DEET. Monne managed to just accept the midges as they were and be completely zen about it. And I, being too slow to outhike the midges, just slowly went insane – but not without killing as many of the little buggers as I could. Sometimes I didn’t even need to try – around twenty found their end by flying into my eye.
Now, the idea of a path is fun and all, if you are able to follow it. This becomes more difficult with each boulder field that you encounter, as any traces of previous hikers were simply invisible there. At some point, we completely lost the path. The only thing we were sure of was that we needed to go up towards the plateau, so we went straight up from the boulder field. Pretty early on, I slipped between two big rocks and got some nice battle scars. The scrambling didn’t get any easier and with less than 20 metres visibility, we kept getting fooled by false summits. Honestly, it was all kinds of horrible and uncomfortable. I’ve never been happier to finally reach the ridge that would lead us to the plateau that would lead us to Macdui.
From there, once again, it was all easy walking. Pretty soon we were at the Ben Macdui summit marker, with only a few other people around hiding in the emergency shelters. Clouds surrounded us on all sides, obscuring the surrounding mountains. The place was quiet, almost felt cut off from the world. As if to remind us that we were still very much on this planet, two little birds flew around, scavenging on the hardkek crumbs left by hikers.
One of my favourite things about summits is that you only have to go down afterwards. We could have taken a day-long detour through one of the surrounding valleys before going back to civilisation, but we decided against it. Dion had already run out of his adventure food-equivalent and the rest of us was also pretty content to cut our hiking trip one day short, so we went straight to Glen More. The plateau of the Ben Macdui summit actually stretched a long way northward, allowing us to remain high up on the mountains. Slowly but surely we left the embrace of the clouds. As we reached the northernmost point of the plateau, the valley of Glen More spread out before us. The wide plain was dotted with green production forests, lakes that shone in the afternoon sunlight, and mountains that greeted us from the distance. We took a moment to admire it all over a snack.
The last part of the descent took us to a parking lot near Cairn Gorm’s ski resort (yes, Scotland has ski resorts). We had hoped to take a bus to Glen More there, but we had apparently missed the last one. Some cool fellow hikers allowed us to hitch a ride with them, though, so we soon found ourselves enjoying fish and chips at the Glen More camping. Later that evening we escaped the oncoming swarms of midges by going to the nearby pub (as did the rest of the camping’s population). We enjoyed the live music (“I would walk 500 miles, and I would walk 500 more”), the cider on tap, a rich assortment of whiskey, the absence of midges in the warmth and cosiness, the deep, tipsy conversations and the cute bar girls.
Intermission – Inverness & Loch Ness
The next afternoon we departed Glen More and rode the train to Inverness, where we rested, stretched our legs and filled our bellies with Indian food. Then we decided we’d seen everything we wanted of the city, so we determined that the next morning we’d visit Loch Ness and then move straight on towards the Isle of Skye.
Loch Ness is mainly just “a lot of water” (the water of all of the lakes in Wales and England combined fits into Loch Ness) – but that isn’t to say it isn’t beautiful. Rolling hills surround it on all sides and are, for once, covered in lots of trees. We had a great vantage point from Urquhart Castle, though the castle ruins itself were a bit overrated for the 9-pound entrance fee. And of course, we wrestled with Nessie from the shores of the lake. Then we continued our 3-hour-long bus ride to the Isle of Skye, after staying in the Inverness area for less than 24 hours.
Where land and sea meet sky – Isle of Skye
Around Sligachan and the Cuillin Mountains
We had planned on camping near Broadford on Skye, but it soon turned out that the camping we’d found on Google Maps didn’t have place for us – or for tents at all, really. It had only opened up that year and didn’t have permits to allow tent camping yet. So we considered our options: the hostels near Broadford were full, but we didn’t feel like wildcamping that night. Fortunately, there was another camping one town over, in Sligachan. It took us a while to get there, as the bus was 45 minutes delayed. And then, when we got off near the camping, it started raining proper. Pouring from the sky. But the camping had space for us, so we got our payment sorted and huddled in the bathroom to pre-assemble our tents as much as we could. Then, we bolted out across the wet field to set up our tents as quickly as possible, in an attempt to keep the inner tents dry. This proved to be quite a challenge as the winds had picked up and were blowing other tents on the camping near flat with the ground. Our tents also endured a lot, but fortunately remained standing and soon had most of our stuff nice and dry inside. Once they stood, we found refuge in the pub across the road where we could dry our feet and fill our bellies. It was a good evening.
The next morning, while we were gathering our daypacks and getting ready for a day in the Cuillin mountains, the less fortunate people on the camping tried to blow-dry their sleeping bags in the bathroom. We only dealt with some soaked-through shoes (for which a blow-drier is surprisingly useful as well). Before breakfast, Monne had already gained intel from the camping owner and had determined that we would climb Marsco. It was one of the mountains that we could see from the camping, not quite as impressive as the Black Cuillins (requiring alpinism skills and equipment) but still fairly tall and steep.
Our hike started with an hour-long approach through the valley towards Marsco. Before too long, we left the path behind and trekked across the slopes of the mountain. Tussocks of grass and heath allowed us to pick our way towards the summit while avoiding sinking up to our ankle into the soggy ground underneath. Behind us, clouds were rolling in again and were covering the valley in a fog. Occasionally, we got sprinkled with some rain, but nothing like the evening before.
Closer towards the top of the mountain, hiking changed into scrambling as we found our way across increasingly steeper and rockier slopes. The climb had looked quite intimidating and difficult at first but ended up being pretty doable. We soon got to the first, false summit. Because Marsco is a stand-alone mountain, it provided a far-reaching view of the surrounding valleys that stretched out towards the sea in three directions. In the distance, the waves and sky were lit up by soft sunlight shining through the fog. Right across from us were the dramatic cliffs and peaks of the Black Cuillins that constantly got lost in puffs of cloud. You can see where the Isle of Skye might have gotten its name.
Then we hiked down again (this time over some trails on the other side of the mountain) and had a nice cuppa tea at the pub.
From Talisker to Fiskavaig
On day 2 in Sligachan, we split up. Dion and Jorgis hiked to the fairy pools, a collection of waterfalls flowing into little ponds with crystal clear, blue water. I have it on good authority that the water was extremely cold and that the hike was longer than expected 😛
Monne, Sjoerd and I had our own mission: get a taste of the Talisker whiskey. To this end, we took the earliest bus possible from Sligachan to Carbost (it runs only three times a day). We consequently found ourselves in the Talisker distillery parking lot by 07.30, around two hours before it would open. Now I wasn’t too crazy about that, being a decidedly not-morning-person, but this time I could condone it simply because the lighting that morning was magical. There was a very soft sun peeking out between the clouds. It lit the sky in pastel colours and reflected on the waters of Loch Harport, across from which we could just make out the Cuillin mountains in the distance. Dramatic clouds loomed overhead. We passed the time until 09.30 by appreciating the view and having a big British breakfast at the local inn.
Then it was finally time for our tour of the whiskey distillery. Talisker is one of my favourite brand of whiskey, so it was cool to get an idea of the production process. Especially striking was the info that these people have no idea what flavours they’re making as they’re making it – there’s just a master blender who tastes the different batches afterwards and determines if it is Talisker Skye, Talisker Storm or one of the other many types.
With a lot less money in our pockets we left the Talisker distillery. There was more than half a day left before we’d meet up with Jorgis and Dion in Portree, so we decided we’d ride out the bus to the end of the line in Fiskavaig. It was a bit of a gamble, as it fell off of the maps that we had, but we had an idea that the coast near there could be pretty awesome. So when the little bus finally showed up we were in for an adventure!
In contrast with the other buses we’d been in on the Isle of Skye so far, this one had only 18 seats and no possibility to pay by card. Having just spent all our cash on whiskeys, we didn’t have anything to pay the fare of around 1,50 pounds with. But the bus driver, after discussing with the other passengers on the bus, agreed to let us on for free. And with that, we brought our big backpacks on board the tiny bus. Before we got on, the average age of the occupants was probably around 70. It was apparent that they knew each other well, chatting amongst each other and saying a “See you next week!” as they got off the bus. It was a true regional bus, stopping wherever a passenger wanted to get off – often right outside their home. At a cute little house with white walls and low roofs, the bus driver helped an old lady carry her groceries inside. At another house, he simply threw a little package through the open door of the shed. And after the next turn, he got off the bus himself. Another driver who had already been sitting on the bus took over.
Nearing the end of the line, he asked us: “Where in Fiskavaig do you want to go?”.
We just shrugged, saying: “To the end of the line”.
So he dropped us off at an arbitrary intersection in roads, in the middle of Fiskavaig, a collection of houses that was graced with a name.
With hope against hope I asked: “Where is the nearest ATM?”
The driver replied, grinning: “In Portree.”
We made the deal that he’d pick us up on the last round of the bus at that same intersection and that we’d pay him once we got to Portree. After inquiring where we should go around Fiskavaig to get a nice view of the coast, the bus driver gave us some directions:
“This is what I always do when I have an hour to spend here. Just cross this field, hop over the fence, keep on walking straight-on, and then you’ll see it. You’ll get there.”
As easy as that. Within ten minutes of walking between tall grasses and pink heather, we crested the hill up ahead. As we did, blue splotches of water started to appear before us, before the view opened up and allowed us to take it all in. A big sea inlet stretched out before and below us. In the middle of the bay lay several small islands, and across from them on the other side we could see rolling hills with high, steep cliffs dropping down to sea level.
We took a moment to catch our breath at this sight and drop off our backpacks, after which we climbed down to a beach to our left – and up to the hill on the other side of the beach, as that had obscured our view of the open sea before. We scrambled around, through high ferns and across slick rocks, and we were rewarded with another amazing view. Directly to our right were steep cliffs, with a stream plummeting over the edge straight into the sea. Grey waves were rolling on as far as we could see. With the Outer Hebrides invisible in the distance, it felt like we were truly standing on the edge of the ocean and that there was nothing between us and North America.
We spent a leisurely two hours walking around the hills near Fiskavaig, exploring, scrambling and snacking, after which we met up with the bus driver again. His chat with Monne got so deep that he lost track of time and we departed five minutes late. After an hour or so of driving we arrived in Portree, the main town on the island.
Near the Old Man of Storr
We had had uncannily good weather that day. Bright blue skies with the sun beaming down, and the only rain falling while we were on the bus. So we were feeling optimistic and decided to skip overnighting in Portree altogether. Instead, we went straight on to the Old Man of Storr (“Really it’s just a big pointy rock”), where we wanted to do some hiking the next day. However, as soon as we got off the bus at the Old Man of Storr carpark, the rain started to come down. It was tough finding a flat spot to camp and everything seemed to be boggy, so at one point Monne sunk into the water up to his thigh. In other places, too, our feet kept sinking into the water. In the end, we camped on a hill where the ground was a fraction drier – as dry as it would get without being exposed to the winds sweeping in from the sea. As we pitched the tents, the rain started coming down in sheets. We got soaked through and suddenly acquired all-natural waterbeds. And though the inner tents stayed relatively dry, it kept on raining hard for the rest of the night, so nothing got the chance to dry either. Legit, the ground was so wet that we could do the dishes by pressing our plate down into the grass and washing it with the water that came up.
It was an early night because there’s really nothing you can do in the continuous rain. The next morning, we got up at 06:00 for a sunrise hike to the Old Man of Storr (for which I had had the bright idea. I don’t know what came into me). It soon became apparent that we wouldn’t see any sunrise, as there was a cover of clouds that soon brought more rain. While the hike up to the “big pointy rock” was easy and fun, getting soaked all over again was a little less so. So when the question came what we would do for the remainder of the day, decisions were quickly made: bail out of this place and move on. We decided to skip the Outer Hebrides altogether (we couldn’t find if there were any campings and if they were accessible with public transport) and instead hauled ass out of there all the way back to Portree. Back to the bus station where we’d stood 24 hours and a bunch of downpours before.
Not really knowing what else to do on the Isle of Skye, we hopped on the last bus to Armadale. We alighted with only a few minutes to spare before the ferry from Armadale to Mallaig left, and from there, we got on the last train from Mallaig to Fort William. That train ride was beautiful, taking us from the coast into the Scottish highlands. High peaks rose out of the water all around, with colours being set by a perfectly timed golden hour. During this ride, we crossed the Glenfinnan viaduct, which Harry Potter fans will know from the movie of The Chamber of Secrets (Harry and Ron fly in that car to Hogwarts). All of us were greatly enjoying the view, except for Monne, who was on the toilet when we crossed the bridge.
Climbing / chilling – Fort William
Around Fort William
After riding buses and trains for close to six hours, we finally got to Fort William, but without any clue where we would spend the night. All the googling we’d done hadn’t revealed any hostels with free beds, and we kind of wanted a hostel, with all our stuff still damp after the last day and half of pouring rain. But we got incredibly lucky: the first hostel we tried still had some spots left for that night. Actually, also for the next four nights, so we just booked all of them and were happy with the outlook of comfort for the next few days.
Our first day in Fort William was an easy Saturday. Jorgis, Dion and I used it to sleep in, rest, look around in Fort William and generally have a pretty leisurely day. Somehow, Sjoerd and Monne still had loads of energy in them, so they left early that morning on a hike across the peaks around Glen Nevis.
At the end of the afternoon, I left on a little hike myself to this hill along Glen Nevis where a fort used to be. I took it easy, taking plenty of pictures along the way, so after an hour and a half, I finally made it to the fort… Only to have another person arriving there from the opposite directions, just five seconds later.
It was Monne, with Sjoerd in tow. The timing was crazily perfect – I hadn’t seen them all day, and somehow the three of us showed up on this hill at the exact same time.
From the top of the hill, we had a clear view of Ben Nevis before us and were able to scout out the route for when we would hike it on Monday. Then we returned to the hostel and had pancakes for dinner. Yum!
Climbing Ben Nevis
On Sunday it rained all day. We spent the afternoon bouldering in the tiny local bouldering gym/church (they had some fun routes!) and otherwise reading and playing games at the hostel. Taking it easy in preparation for Monday, when it was time for Monne, Sjoerd, Dion and me to ascend to the highest point of the UK (Jorgis wasn’t joining because his ankle had been playing up the last few days).
Now, Ben Nevis is actually easy to climb. Supposedly, it takes four hours to get to the summit and three hours to come down. The path was made in a way that is accessible to ponies (the European ones. Kyrgyz horses would have fallen asleep on this easy track) and is also condescendingly called ‘the Tourist track’, though all information plaques warned us not to underestimate the route and the dangers of getting caught on the mountain in bad weather.
However, we didn’t encounter any problems. We got to the starting point of the trail early and didn’t run into too many tourists for most of the climb. On the lower slopes of the mountain, we frequently hiked with the sun beaming down on us. At first, we were surrounded by the forest reaching up from Glen Nevis, but after a while it turned into the grasslands that we’d come to know so well. The trail itself was made out of big flagstones, looking like a staircase for the most part. That was until we got to the rocky section, where the trail was camouflaged by the loose rocks. Once we got to the summit plateau, clouds started surrounding us. Looking back the way we came, we could just see over the tops of the clouds that were drifting over Glen Nevis and Fort William, and when the winds were right we could see the blue lochs in the distance shining in the sun. Moving towards the summit, it became easy to see how climbing this mountain becomes dangerous in bad weather. Hikers in the distance appeared as ghostly figures moving in between the cairns, which were made with the specific purpose of guiding you home from the summit of Ben Nevis in bad visibility without falling off any of the cliffs near the plateau. However, we still had ample visibility and hiking remained easy for all of us. We reached the summit of Ben Nevis within 3.5 hours with ample breaks in between.
As Ben Nevis is Scotland’s most famous mountain, the summit was pretty crowded. We snapped a few pictures (without Slopend flag, because Monne had forgotten it), snacked for a bit and descended again. I ran most of the way down because that is the one hiking thing I am relatively good at 🙂
On our final day in the Fort William area we decided to go to Glen Coe – a place well-known for its amazing views and also for some brutal Scottish clan history. We had hoped to mountain bike around the valley, but in the small town of Glencoe there was only one bike rental place. It was a one-man business, and the owner was sick that day, so we couldn’t rent bikes. (That’s just how things are in Scotland, I guess). The alternative was another day of hiking, which Jorgis, Dion and I didn’t feel too thrilled about. We just took a leisurely stroll around a little pond and went to a café to chill out afterwards. Monne and Sjoerd once again could not rest and took on the bigger peaks, climbing all the way to the Pap of Coe with my camera. It resulted in fun selfies like this:
Epilogue – Glasgow & London
That concluded our time in the Highlands. On Wednesday we took the train to Glasgow, where I mostly hung out with Monne and Sjoerd. We strolled through the city, visiting some museums and a tea shop, enjoying the music of the street artists and ending the afternoon with some darn good ice cream. We met up with Dion and Jorgis for dinner, after which we had drinks at The Wee Pub. It’s probably one of the smallest pubs in Glasgow, but it had a grand selection of whiskey. Over some local beers, ciders and whiskeys, the philosophical discussions of the previous nights were picked up again (“Should we even strive for empathy, or rather for rational compassion?”). In general, it made for a pretty great last evening of the trip.
Late that evening we boarded the Caledonian Sleeper from Glasgow to London. Beds on that train run at hundreds of dollars per night, but with our Interrail passes the sitting compartment was free. The relatively broad and plush chairs, and the complimentary sleep mask and ear plugs, meant we had a good night’s sleep. Just before 7:00 we arrived in London and despite the good night most of us felt pretty spent from our two and a half weeks in Scotland. So we went to Hyde Park, where we had breakfast, napped, climbed some trees, laid around reading, and brainstormed about the Lustrum theme. Around 3 o’clock we took the Eurostar train back to the mainland, and another six hours later we were finally back in Delft after a great trip to the wee land of the Scots.
*Yes, I just randomly smashed my keyboard here. The peak’s real name is Stob Coire an t-Saighdeir.