Very pleasant journey back up to the head of Loch Shin with Sarah and Peter. More excellent food on their Bar B Q – midges gathering for an onslaught. Major assualt next morning, so breakfast eaten on the hoof. Up to head of Loch Merkland on the road that goes to Laxford Bridge, and wonder of wonders, a wee breeze, and a midge free zone! Farewells as they headed further west to celebrate the submission of the dissertations for their Masters degrees. I headed north, up the side of a young plantation to Carn Dearg and Carn an Tionail; the most north westerly point on the watershed. Visabiltiy not so good, with cloud down to about 500m.
This was a turning point, as the long trek north came to an end, round the head of a small oval shaped lochan with a boulder strewn, steep sided shore, then south for a few killometers. Mist cleared briefly, and some great views opened up in this remote quarter – a real sense of wild country, with rock, mountain, water and sky. Found a good spot to camp before Ben Hee, with just enough breeze to keep the midges away. Ben Hee – not quite a munro, the last major hill before Duncansby Head, and the end of the trek. But lots of moor and bog still to go. It was a delight though, with firm rock, boulder, short grass, and the last few remaining wild flowers of the season. I embraced the cairn on the summitt, as I had done the previous day. It was an emotional moment; I`d walked northwards, or mostly so, for some 55 days, since that last turning way back near the Devils Beef Tub. And this top left hand corner of the epic is what would make my journey a first - as far as I`m aware. It was mighty strange to be heading south after such a long push north.
I paused for wee while to reflect on Dave Hewitt`s journey of some 15 years ago. He had headed north west to a finish at Cape Wrath. And whilst I had concluded, thanks to a discussion with my friend Walter Stephen, that the end of the watershed is eastwards from here at Duncansby Head, I took my hat off in admiration for Dave`s effort. He had done the walk as a continuous journey, with only the odd day factored in for rest – a monumnetal achievement, and a true inspiration.
A few metres off the summit, and my cairn kissing, the weather cleared to give fantastic views towards Ben Hope and Ben Loyal. The Kyle of Tongue should have been somewhere between them, but that delight was just out of sight. It would have/should have been my first vista of the Atlantic off the north coast of Scotland. But it was not to be, not for a few days more at least. Ahead of me lay Loch Fiag and the river of the same name which feeds into Loch Shin. A few rounded hills to the north and a vast expanse of bog and peat hag presented the next wee challenge.
I had feared that the moors of Sutherland and Caithness would be a bit tedious, but that was quite wrong. They offered a new experience of vivid colour, wide skys and tantalising views. True, the boggy bits needed care, but they represent that distictive featrure of this area – the Flow Country, with its rich and varied birdlife, and further on at least, one of the biggest RSPB reseves in the country. A fenceline on the last few kilometres before Crask Inn gave some notion of firmer ground. An enormous man made channel with solid track running alongside, at rightangles to the watershed, puzzled me. But I subsequently found out that its part of the Shin hydroelectric scheme, and in this case channeling water that would have flowed north into the Naver, was captured to run south into the Shin. The last place on this big divide, in which water is being hi-jacked.
The names of the Straths in this part of Scotland are nearly all evocative of that sad period in our history and culture – the Clearances. Much has been written and analysed, about the factors that led to this forced migration away from here, to cities further south, and to destinations far across the oceans. The deeds of some of the landowners are forever condemned. Passing through this landscape had a poingnancy that was deeply felt.
Crask Inn, and a warm enthusiastic welcome from Mike and Kia. Stayed in their bunkhouse, enjoyed a shower, good food and company, and a grand nights sleep. Next day, got a lift to Lairg and then train up to Forsinard (I had covered the stretch from Crask Inn to Forsinard a few weeks earlier). A quick brew up and lunch in the waiting room on Forsinard station, with a lively group of children buzzing around the RSPB visitor centre on the other side of the line.
A trek up through the forest (don't like forests!) onto Knockfin Heights, and the weather was deteriorating rapidly, with high wind and blustery rain. I had intended to camp wild, but 5 kilometers of unreleting bog disabused me of that. It would be unfair though to dismiss this stretch of squelch alltogether, as the rich colours of the mosses, grasses and late heather, were remarkable. Not much in the way of views, but the Strath of Kildonan must have been somewhere to my right, and the lonely Altnabreac station on the moorland stretch of the railway on my left. With worsening weather, I decided to head for the nearest habitation to seek a bit of shelter, Freddie at The Glutt was welcoming and ushered me to an emnormous dry and wind free shed where I duly erected my tent.
Round the head of the River Thurso I picked up a few tracks – Freddie had advised me on where there was likely to be stalking with bullets flying about, so a minor deviation was taken – didn`t fancy getting shot, or abused by a stalker who had paid much for his days stalking. This took me into more familliar territory alongside the A895 Thurso road. Past a Caithness flagstone quarry, where I chatted with some rather bemused workers, and onto Georgemass Junction. The landsacpe was getting a lot gentler, with fields (and deadly fences with a double row of barbed wire on top, and in some cases, an electric fence tagged on the side, for good measure). Cattle lay snoozing in the sun on fields that looked so green after my days on the moor, and the drone of farm tractors going about their business, added to the mellow rural scene.
Generous hospitality at Bowermadden provided shelter from some heavy rain, copious cups of coffee with real milk, and some insight to life in that neghbourhood. With wide, wide moors and occasional areas of dense woodland (to be skirted), I had this feeling that I was getting closer to the sea; to the end of the epic. Plenty of time in this terrain then to reflect on the past thousand or so killometres, plenty of time to bask in a huge feeling of elation; it had been no small achievement.
Over a rise, and there spread out before me was the Pentland Firth, the Island of Stroma, and warm pink in the afternoon sun, the great cliffs of Hoy. My heart soared at this sight, as I knew that success was heading my way. The cliffs of Hoy; I had walked along them from south to north a couple of years ago, and counted over a hundred different wild flowers. I had camped at Rackwick; and had a feel for the place; an intmacy. And there it was just beyond that strip of blue water, with white horses dancing, as if to mirror my joyous mood.
On the last night, I treated myself to the comfort and hospitality of John O`Groats Youth Hostel, and then had a late start to cover the 10km to Duncansby Head. The day was a bit sleekit though. It started well enough, even though Hoy and Stroma had dissapeared, but gradually the wind got up, and ocaasional showers blew in from the south east. By the time I was heading along near the clifftops on the east side, I was getting battered this way and that. Past the Stacks of Duncasby, which stand just off the shore, deffiant against the elements, and there waiting for me were Kenneth and Elaine. We walked tiumphantly toward the lighthouse at Duncansby Head, and found the rest of the family there to greet me. The Champagne cork popped and the wind tried to whip the contents of our glasses and steal it to oblivion. A toast from Kenneth, and glasses were raised to celebrate the end of the watershed - well almost. But meantime we all felt a good sense of achievement, and I felt quite pleased with myself.
And so we headed for home, with an overnight at that extraordinary establishment – Carbisdale Castle Youth Hostel, complete with its sculpture gallery and ghost.
I said almost, because the job was not quite finished. Earlier in the year I had skirted a number of tops in the Tyndrum and Blackmount areas. The weather and visability had been attrocious, so I had walked round rather than over, with the intention of tidying up later on. Unfinished business.
This circumstance worked out well though, as I needed a last day a bit nearer to home, so that a number of well wishers could join in.
But before that I spent a rewarding two days on Bens Dubhcraig, Oss and Lui, with Kyle Strachan – Expeditions Officer with the Duke of Edinburgh`s Award Unit that I manage. Excellent company, good craik, and dodgy weather. But views down the length of Loch Lomond, and the hills around Bens Vorlich and Ime were great reward. A tangle of tops westwards in the direction of Loch Awe was matched by a simillar array of peaks on the other side over towards Breadalbane.
And so to the last day. A group of us spent the night in the bothy/hostel at Forest Lodge near the west end of Loch Tulla. Set off before first light on the 1st of October, and headed up the West Highland Way for a few kilometers to pick up the watershed at Black Mount. It felt strange to be back here again, having left it in foul weather some months back. It was really good though to have company on this fairly demanding day, which is often referred to in the mountain guides as a classic day. With me were my son Kenneth, whose passion for the mountains is only exceeded by his love of rock climbing. And Peter, who along with my niece Sarah had fed me so regally on two different occasions earlier in the epic. A further half dozen members of our EAGLE Club, including Jim Shedden who had accomanied me above Loch Arkaig and almost into the Rough Bounds, made up the entourage which headed west onto Stob Ghabhar. Forecast had been doubtful and had threatened the day, but for once it was wrong – in our favour.
By the time we got to the tops round Meal a Bhuird, all had cleared, the wind had dropped, and the odd bit of sunshine lit up the autumn landsape. We were joined by a few more folk who had walked up from White corries, including Charles whose company on Ben Achaladair I had enjoyed way back in May of the year. Magnificent views, one or two steep bits, plenty of rock, not much bog, and once again, I was on top of the world. More folk joined us before Meal a Bhuird. Photo's recorded the moment. Congratulations were expressed. Peter and Kenneth went ahead to alert the other folk who were there to greet me further down. And so I made the last descent to the West Highland Way on its highest point between the Rivers Ba and the Etive.
A trully brilliant welcome awaited me, with some 25 family and friends, they made a ceremonial arch of crossed walking poles. And so we all walked in procession down the last few kilometres to the waiting cars and mini bus. A ceillidh at the Forest Lodge bothy followed, with music courtesy of Bob with his accordian. A fitting way to celebrate with friends and family, this epic journey.
Well probably not. I've so enjoyed the main watershed of Scotland, that I now fancy taking the theme a bit further. There are many lesser watersheds which will be equally rewarding and challenging. The watershed betwixt the Tweed Valley and the Forth Valley, between the Forth and the Tay, or the Spey and the Ness. Then there's the divide between the Solway and the Clyde, or perhaps the longest of all, between the Clyde and the Orchy/Etive, which includes the entire Mull of Kintyre. So that lot, plus all the rest should keep me going for a long time, if not forever.
And I'm not entirely done with the main watershed, because I've been encouraged to .. . yes, you guessed, write a book about it. So publishers, please get in touch.
Over the winter months I also plan to reflect on the epic, and attempt to explore further the watershed as a wild land experience with refernce to the John Muir Award. Next year is the 10th anniversary of this programme; I played a small part in its creation and development. So one thing, leads to another.
Then finally, there's the sponsorship side of this great venture. I've walked almost 1,100km and climbed at least 4.5 time the height of Everest. This modest effort merits a lot more income for a cause I'm seeking to support. I've done the walking/climbing/squelching/sweating, and the occasional basking in sunshine – now its time for those who haven't dug deep to do so. Details of how to do so are on another page of the site. A wee reminder here. The cause is:
- Inspire – eanbling young people with mental health problems to take part in the Duke of Edinburgh`s Award programme in Edinburgh.
So this is not the end at all – please visit again. In the meantime though, I will look at the map of Scotland with a feeling of familliarity; intimacy even , and rellish the superb experiences I have had, wild places visited, people I`ve met along the way, and all the sights, sounds and smells that have made the watershed of Scotland so special.