This is Part-2 of a trip report from my very first TGO Challenge, a walk across the Scottish Highlands. If you missed the first part, you can find it here:
Planning for the TGO
Part-1: Torridon to Orrin River
Day 3 – The Weather Turns
Orrin River to Kiltarlity
07:15-19:15 (12 hours), 33 km
The first two days of my walk across Scotland were sunny, warm, calm, and really just perfect. It was hard to believe I was actually walking in a place renowned for its heavy rains and violent winds. When I woke up on the third morning of my journey, Scotland decided to give me a taste of the weather it’s famous for.
Rain, mist, wind, more rain. This change in the weather coincided with my first true track-less walking of the trip. As I followed the Orrin River downstream to the Orrin Reservoir, I enjoyed taking out the map and practising my navigation skills. The Scottish Highlands are a great place to sharpen your navigation capabilities. Features such as hills are often rounded without distinct points, making them difficult to distinguish from one another. Often, the best way to navigate is to follow waterways (burns, creeks, rivers, etc.) up over the hills then connect with a new waterway to find your way down the other side.
Fog, mist, and low-hanging cloud also add to the challenge. As I trudged through boggy peat and dense tufts of grass toward Orrin Reservoir, the fog lifted just briefly. The sight was almost frightening – huge wind turbines, still partially obscured in the distance. They almost looked like giants. In these conditions it felt very eerie and unnatural.
At least that sign of civilization told me I was on the right track. Through the rain and fog I managed to find a path ascending up and away from the reservoir. Soon I found myself on an old service road for a crumbling concrete pipeline. The wind picked up and turned into my face, pelting me with rain. Almost out of nowhere I spotted a bothy tucked away at the side of the road. Nothing special, but it’s hard to turn down a break from the weather.
After such stunning scenery on my first two days, following this long flat jeep track through fog and rain felt rather like work. But soon I could see down into the glen where I would find Kiltarlity, a village where I’d spend the night. And it looked brighter down there.
On my way down and out of the hills I met a local out walking his dogs. We got to talking and it turned out he was in Nepal at the same time as me, also trekking in the Himalaya. He had made it up to Everest Base Camp and returned to Kathmandu to catch his flight — just hours before the earthquake! It’s such a small world.
I’d underestimated how much road walking I’d end up doing in getting to Kiltarlity. I rarely get blisters but soaked shoes plus hard pavement was rough on my feet. As I arrived in the village the rain really picked up, pouring down hard. Fortunately, the only hotel in town had room. I took the opportunity to dry everything off, eat a great meal, and get a good rest.
Day 4 – Searching for the Loch Ness Monster
Kiltarlity to Ault-na-Goire
09:15-19:45 (10 hours), 23 km
I awoke to clear blue skies and bright sunshine! What a nice change. I’m learning that you never know what to expect of the weather in Scotland. When you spot a beautiful view, the lighting will probably change completely by the time you get your camera out and ready to take a photo. But if you wait a few minutes that shot might just come back.
High on my list of things to see while in Scotland was Loch Ness. But getting there from Kiltarlity without lots of walking on paved roads is tricky. I chose to wander along quieter, more picturesque farm roads until I reached the Great Glen Way, a pathway that follows the entire length of Loch Ness and well beyond.
By the time I’d reached the Great Glen Way, I’d been through hard soaking rain, bright beautiful sun, more rain, more sun… you get the picture. The GGW traverses high above Loch Ness, giving fantastic views. At one of the many striking viewpoints I took advantage of the intense sun and dried everything off. Unlike some places I’ve backpacked, like Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula, or Vancouver Island’s West Coast Trail, the air in Scotland is surprisingly dry. You’ll get wet but you can dry off quickly.
I really wanted to visit Urquhart Castle, a ruin of a fortress proudly sitting atop a rocky point jutting out into and presiding over Loch Ness. Recent excavations have dated early fort structures to the 5th century! Over the years one powerful faction attacked another and control of the castle changed hands many times. Urquhart is right at the core of Scotland’s often bloody history. In a tragic grand finale a garrison under William of Orange blew up the castle to prevent Jacobite forces from using it should they once again take control, bringing to an end its 1000+ years as one of Scotland’s most important castles.
Urquhart Castle is actually quite a distance from the town of Drumnadrochit but I had the opportunity to visit the day before the Challenge started. Seeing it again from Loch Ness gave me another chance to enjoy being amidst such history. Each year throughout the Challenge, Gordon Menzies offers a boat ride across the loch specifically for participants in the Challenge. This was my first opportunity to meet lots of other Challengers. My route up to this point had been quite remote. Now, I would start to share the experience with many other walkers.
When Gordon Menzies’ boat drops you on the eastern shores of Loch Ness and you once again don your rucksack and begin walking, you pass by the little village of Ault na Goire. Some twenty years ago Janet and Alec Sutherland started encountering Challengers passing by their farm in search of somewhere to camp. There really isn’t anywhere good to camp in the area. It’s very rocky and heavily forested. So, Janet and Alec began letting walkers set up tents at the farm. By now, Ault na Goire has become something of a Challenge tradition. The Sutherlands cook up a huge delicious meal and invite everyone in. I joined a dozen other Challengers for one of the best meals I had in all of my time in Scotland – fish pie, lots of veggies, berry crumble, and a full Scottish breakfast the following morning. Now, that’s hospitality for you.
Up next in Part-3, I visit the Monadhliath, a disorienting high elevation moor now threatened by rapidly expanding wind turbine developments, and I run head-first into a windstorm!