This is Part-4 of a trip report from my very first TGO Challenge, a walk across the Scottish Highlands. If you missed the first parts, you can find them here:
Planning for the TGO
Part-1: Torridon to Orrin River
Part-2: Orrin River to Loch Ness
Part-3: Loch Ness to Braemar
Day 10 – A Challenge Party
Braemar to Lochcallater Lodge
12:30-14:30 (2 hours), 9 km
I left Braemar after enjoying a tasty breakfast at Gordon’s Tearoom. Nothing like bacon and black pudding to fuel a day’s walk. Two hours later I arrived at Lochcallater Lodge. A few other Challengers had already set up tents just outside and more were inside enjoying hot tea. I was really excited to be at Lochcallater, perhaps one of the most prominent landmarks in TGO Challenge history. Every year Challengers gather here to celebrate, sing songs, and eat and drink late into the night.
The atmosphere was wonderful. Seeing so many friends re-unite after a year apart was touching. And how can you not be in a good mood when you’re in a warm cozy room full of like-minded walkers as cold rain falls outside?
Day 11 – Snowstorm
Lochcallater Lodge to Shielin of Mark Bothy
08:30-16:30 (8 hours), 22 km
After enjoying a bacon butty (I’m not losing any weight on this walk), I said my goodbyes and set off for my second munro of the trip, Lochnagar. This time the weather wouldn’t be so cooperative. A light rain started then quickly turned to sleet, then big wet snow flakes.
At first the snow melted on contact with the ground (and me), then it started to stick. As I reached the top of the munro, the snow was settling 3-5 inches deep in spots and beginning to obscure the trail.
A thick cloud sat over the summit, also obscuring any views that I might have otherwise enjoyed.
But as I dropped down from the summit, the clouds seemed to lift a bit and rewarded me with fantastic views down to Loch Nagar (the lake, rather than the mountain, in this case). Steep snow chutes plummeted straight down the cliffs just feet in front of me. It looked like winter.
The descent down from Lochnagar was long but uneventful. I was surprised how many people were walking up for a day trip, being a Monday. Plenty of tourists but lots of locals as well. Once I reached Glen Muick and started climbing again, all of those people had disappeared. I was once again venturing into boggy moors where you’re certain to get soaking wet feet and, if you’re not careful, quite lost.
My intended destination for the night was Shielin of Mark which Roger Smith, my vetter, described as “a small bothy well hidden among peat banks and requires careful navigation to find”. So, I took my time, despite a rain that started in earnest and never let up. I checked my map and compass frequently, making sure what I saw in the real world made sense. I do think Scotland is a great place to sharpen one’s navigation skills. As luck would have it, just as I popped up over the edge of a bank, the bothy appeared only meters away. I was pretty happy to find it. To my surprise there was only one other person there (I’ve forgotten his name, unfortunately). Even more surprising, he was doing the crossing with only a bivy bag, not even a tarp. That’s pretty brave given how much it rains.
Arriving at the bothy and finding space available to sleep inside was excellent. One of the experiences I wanted to have in walking across Scotland was spending a night in a bothy. I’d passed by others, preferring to camp, and this was likely my last opportunity. Being able to do it on such a rainy day, made it all the more rewarding.
When I woke up the next morning I found a hard frost on the ground and the grass crunched loudly under my feet as I walked. Very glad I spent the night inside.
Day 12 – Another Great Meal
Shielin of Mark to Tarfside
09:00-15:30 (6.5 hours), 18 km
As you walk over the trail-less hills around Shielin of Mark, heading east and meeting up with a wide jeep track, you feel a little like you’re emerging from the wilds back into civilization. Now each step takes you a touch closer to villages and towns and cities.
And yet, there’s still so much beauty and history.
Whenever I happen upon an old graveyard or church while on a walk like this, I make a point of stopping. Sure, I like to do big days, but I’m not here just to make miles. I like to find the oldest gravestone in the cemetery, read about the minister who established the church in 1803 and faithfully served until his death. Sometimes the most inconspicuous places hold the most splendour.
I’ve felt so fortunate to experience the social side of the TGO Challenge so far and I’m really looking forward to a highlight of the event’s gatherings. Each year St Drostan’s Episcopal Church turns into a hostel for Challengers. When I arrived at St Drostan’s backpacks were already piled at the entrance and the unmistakable aroma of hot tea, bacon butties, and freshly baked biscuits drifted out and enticed me in. I’d actually planned on camping in the nearby sports field but the atmosphere of the hostel and the exceptionally friendly staff made me want to stay the night. I shared a room with Barry who inspired me with stories of previous crossings. There’s something infectious about the Challenge. Yes, walking across Scotland from coast to coast is a memorable life experience but sharing that experience with so many other great people is what makes you want to come back and do it again.
Day 13 – Out of the Hills
Tarfside to North Water Bridge
08:30-16:30 (8 hours), 29 km
The walk from Tarfside along the River North Esk is quite a nice one. It’s peaceful and green, full of flowers and surrounded by verdant pastures. Cows and sheep lazily watch as you walk by.
As I arrived in Edzell and saw significant road traffic for the first time since Aviemore, I knew I was entering a very different landscape. Behind me rose the wild and rugged hills I’d just left and ahead lay farmland and people. Looking around for other Challengers I met Graham, doing his 24th crossing! We sat down at a café for lunch and Graham told me stories of past Challenges. He’s done his most difficult since turning 60. That’s inspiring!
Graham showed me an inconspicuous walkway beside the petrol station that leads to a nice path along the river. I’d never have known about if it weren’t for him showing me. For anyone considering doing the Challenge for the first time, I’d suggest doing lots of research on the final few days of walking and probably put it all into a GPS. It’s one thing to use a map and compass in the wild but quite another knowing where to find hidden little paths through villages. Or, better yet, walk with some experienced Challengers. You’re back in civilization at this point, so why not share the experience?
Day 14 – Finished!
North Water Bridge to St Cyrus
08:30-13:00 (4.5 hours), 17 km
I actually chose to stop just short of the caravan campground at North Water Bridge, preferring a peaceful spot I’d found while walking through a forested area. The motorway was far enough that I couldn’t hear it and camping under the trees was quite nice. The next morning, as I passed the caravan campground, Graham was just leaving. We walked together for some distance and his knowledge of this walk to the sea proved invaluable. I’d have been checking my map at every turn, no doubt.
Eventually, Graham’s pace was too much for me and I settled in with some slower walkers. I enjoyed meeting many more people on this final walk, including Bob from The Outdoors Station. Chatting with Bob was quite interesting after having listened to many of his podcasts. Sharing the walk made being on a paved road not so bad after all.
Soon we were at the end of the crossing – the sea cliffs of St Cyrus. I waited for Sil who took the bus from Dundee to walk down to the beach with me. Touching the North Sea for the first time gave me a feeling of accomplishment and completion. You can finish the Challenge most anywhere along the east coast but I was very glad I’d chosen somewhere so picturesque as St Cyrus.
We caught the bus to Montrose and joined the celebration dinner. The atmosphere was very festive and even here many old friends were running into each other for the first time during the crossing. It’s touching seeing so many smiles and hugs. I really enjoyed how the organizers went out of their way to recognize everyone involved, from all the volunteers and contributors to each Challenger. It certainly made me feel special. Perhaps most inspiring was seeing those completing their 10th or 20th crossing receive awards. That’s inspiring! Perhaps I’ll have to return…
And a few bonus photos…
Sil and I visited Stonehaven, Aberdeen, and Edinburgh in the few extra days we had in Scotland after I finished the TGO Challenge. It was great to see some of the more classic tourist attractions that the country has to offer.