The island of Coll is breathtakingly beautiful. The sort of place where you leave a little piece of your heart behind when you finally bring yourself to leave.
The turquoise waters of the Sea of the Hebrides washes up on sweeping silver-white beaches backed by lofty, marram-clad dunes, reaching over 50 metres high behind the strand at Feall. Between the coastal bents and the bogs and bare rock inland, is a rare place; machair, a habitat unique to the Hebrides, the fringes of north western Scotland, and western coast of Ireland.
In her 2018 book Wilding, Isabella Tree reconts a number of alarming statistics about the state of nature across the British and Irish Isles, including the fact that around ninety per cent of wildflower meadows have been lost since the Second World War. This has had a devastating knock-on effect on invertebrate fauna, and the birds which depend on them.
The machair of the Western Isles is a last stronghold, lavish with wildflowers through the spring and summer. Common species like red and white clover, buttercups, daisies, wild thyme, ladies bedstraw, and bird’s foot trefoil carpet the pasture, with a scattering of rarer species like the Hebridean spotted orchid and Heath orchid. The area around Hough Bay is a hotspot for bloody cranesbill.
Sea pinks (thrift) and stonecrop find refuge among the rocks. Ragged robin, meadowsweet, and beds of yellow flag (iris) define wetter areas, and provide the preferred hiding spots for crackling, croaking corncrakes, often heard but rarely seen on their summer sojourn from southern Africa.
The drowsy, blossom-sweet scent of the machair charges the air on a warm day in June, enough that passing ships catch a draught on the breeze, like a half-remembered afternoon from childhood. From the beginning of May to midsummer, the machair belongs to the skylarks, singing more than 18 hours a day, from dawn to dusk, and rare bees, bumbling through the flowers, honey-drunk on nectar.
With a group of fabulous and inspiring women I took on the challenge of hiking up Pen y Fan in period clothing, including wearing a corset.
Inspired by pictures of the pioneering women that founded the Ladies’ Alpine Club in 1907 and Ladies’ Scottish Climbing Club in 1908, the first mountaineering organisations for women, we wondered what it would be like to take to the hills wearing the fashions of the times; heavy tweed long skirts and jackets, buttoned-up blouses, big bloomers and boned corsets.
The founding members of the Ladies’ Scottish Climbing Club. Photo: Wikipedia
Members of the Ladies’ Scottish Climbing Club training on Salisbury Crags, Edinburgh. Photo: Wikipedia
I’d long admired the early outdoors women, who not just tackled some challenging routes in the hills, but were also some of the first to break down barriers for women in other areas of life; in society and politics, education and employment, fashion and convention.
After chatting together on Facebook, we came up with a plan to experience it for ourselves. I really liked the idea of the challenge, but was nervous about the corset. I’d never worn a proper one before (though I had one of those corset-style tops in the 90s when we all wore our underwear as outerwear).
In my day job I wear a lifejacket everyday. There’s such a feeling of relief at the end of the day when you feel the weight of it lifting off your shoulders. But that was nothing compared to wearing a fully-boned corset.
The corset and bloomers at the base of my costume.
Whaaaat? How am I going to climb in this?
Introducing Baroness Helga von Strumpfel. I look very Germanic in my costume.
Meet the team
Getting outdoors on your own is wonderful, and can sometimes be all you need, but it’s true to say that some things are even better with friends. You should know a little bit about me already, but meet the others that were part of the Corset Capers team.
Like a total badass.
Lucy Hawthorne: a baby troubleshooter (think modern-day Mary Poppins) who spends as much of her free time as possible outdoors, wild swimming and paddleboarding with her family.
Wendy Searle: though just a normal mum of four with an office job, she’s heading to Antarctica to take on the challenge of reaching the South Pole, unsupported and unassisted, in record time.
Lauren Owen: a polar explorer-in-training, heading for the Greenland ice cap in 2020, with a background in fashion history and amazing costume construction skills.
Jo Symonowski: combining the unlikely careers of corporate leadership trainer and circus promoter, Jo founded My Great Escape born of her experiences.
With corsets laced tightly and bloomers hidden away under billowing tweed skirts, we took our lead from those pioneering ladies of 1907, and headed for Pen y Fan.
My Great Escape
Although our challenge wasn’t a huge undertaking, and really just a silly way to spend a day, we had a serious side to what we wanted to do.
My Great Escape is a programme to support survivors of domestic abuse in regaining their confidence and self-esteem through outdoor adventure. By providing opportunities for challenges and activities that are a break from daily life, we can help people get the space to overcome their trauma and start to heal.
Leaving an abusive relationship often leaves survivors with little or no support, both emotionally and often financially, and hugely depleted confidence. This all makes getting out and doing new things really difficult. That’s where My Great Escape can help.
All of the money raised goes directly into running confidence-building adventures. Everyone on the team is a volunteer.
By rekindling an early love of adventure and being outside I grew in confidence and self-esteem. I conquered real and personal mountains. I found that through connecting with the great outdoors I was able to heal and then build a wonderful new life.
Why Pen y Fan?
At 886 metres (2,907′) high, Pen y Fan in the Brecon Beacons is the highest peak in the south of the UK. It also has a notorious reputation: the UK’s special forces use the mountain to train, completing a 24km (15 mile) route over the mountain carrying 30kg (50 lbs) of equipment, in a challenge known as the Fan Dance.
Though we contemplated the whole Fan Dance route, from Storey Arms to Torpantau station, the fickle Welsh weather wasn’t on our side. With a big weather system moving in from the Atlantic, heavy rain was forecast from around 11am with strong winds, gusting up to 40 knots (46mph), on the tops. So we settled for just reaching the summit in our skirts.
Always take the weather with you.
The Great Corset Caper
Setting off from the carpark at Pont ar Daf the route follows the Brecon Way, with a steady rise in the gradient. It took a while to get used to breathing with a corset, especially the first time I needed to take a deep breath using my diaphragm.
The view of the peak was obscured behind the clouds all the way, so the only clue to our whereabouts was the wind funnelling down the gap below Corn Du. Then suddenly we were just below the summit.
Though safe where we were, it was difficult to strike a pose by the famous marker on the summit cairn with our full skirts catching the wind. We quickly unrolled our banner for some pictures, holding tightly to the corners. We’d made great time to the top, and really enjoyed chatting with the others out on the mountain.
With showers growing heavier, we turned around to head back down to Pont ar Daf. Our outfits had been unfamiliar, though not as awkward as you might imagine. The inconvenience of the wind pushing against my skirt, and having to hold it down to cover my long bloomers, the woollen suits were warm and waterproof enough in the drizzle. I’d probably find a good hat pin, or a scarf to tie around my head for the next time the desire to dress up and head for the hills takes me.
The outdoor gear we women wear now has moved on a long way since 1907 (though there’s still room for improvement when it comes to pockets #pocketsfor women), but we’re grateful to those women that came before us. The ones without whom so many of us wouldn’t have the freedom to take on our own adventures, in whatever we want to wear. I feel that we’ve were able to get a better appreciation of their courage to challenge convention.
We’d like to say a big thank you to everyone who we met out on the hill; your support and enthusiasm for what we were doing was infectious, despite the miserable weather! And another round of thanks to everyone that supported us remotely via social media.
Additional thanks to Bristol Costume Services, who kitted us out with appropriate clothing, and didn’t mind things getting damp* in the hills.
I’m incredibly fortunate to have spent almost all of the spring and summer of 2019 working as a deckhand and wildlife guide on board Irene of Bridgewater, a traditional gaff ketch with over a hundred years of history, exploring the stunning coastline and islands around the British and Irish Isles, with occasional trips to the other side of the channel too.
I know I’ve already presented you with a selection of sailing adventures in this Armchair Travel series, but I just can’t stay out of the ocean. So here are some of the books that have excited and inspired me about the sea.
Seven Tenths: the Sea and its Thresholds – James Hamilton Paterson
A series of essays making a luminescent meditation on the meaning of the sea. Stories of swimming, shipwrecks, salvage, memorials, and unsustainable development form the bones for ideas of anthropology, science, history, and philosophy unveiled in beautiful literary prose.
The Whale Rider – Witi Ihimaera
Past and present, myth and reality, wild nature and human lives flow together in this beautiful but challenging retelling of a Maori legend. Two narratives weave together: Kahu, a young girl seeking recognition from her grandfather, an elder of the tribe; and the poetic migration of the whales reliving the legend of Kahutia Te Rangi, the whalerider. Thoughts on race and prejudice, and the balance between preserving tradition and moving with the times in indigenous cultures makes this much more than an average young adult read.
Under the Sea Wind – Rachel Carson
Most of us will know of Rachel Carson from her seminal work Silent Spring, documenting the environmental crisis arising from the indiscriminate use of pesticides. But her first and most enduring passion was marine ecology, brought vividly to life in this work by creating a personal connection to individual creatures inhabiting different niches in the marine and coastal environment. This is a beautiful book to share with young people.
The island lay in shadows only a little deeper than those that were swiftly stealing across the sound from the east. On its western shore the wet sand of the narrow beach caught the same reflection of palely gleaming sky that laid a bright path across the water from island beach to horizon. Both water and sand were the color of steel overlaid with the sheen of silver, so that it was hard to say where water ended and land began.
The Kon Tiki Expedition – Thor Heyerdahl
This is the account of Thor Heyerdahl and his companions sailing a balsa raft more than 4000 miles across the Pacific from Callao in Peru to the remote Tuamoto archipelago. I don’t know if it’s possible to convey just how influential its been in my life. I first read it when I was around 10 years old, and fell in love with the idea of living a life filled with adventures; with learning about sailing and navigation throughout history and human migration and movement; with studying marine ecology and oceanography. I even have a copy in the original Norwegian which has helped me with learning the language.
The Highest Tide – Jim Lynch
A summertime coming-of-age novel where the protagonist, nature obsessed 14 year old Miles O’Malley, discovers a giant squid washed up in Skookumchuk Bay, and accidentally becomes a prophet for a local cult. A beautifully written book that captures both the mystery of the ocean and the uncertainty of adolescence perfectly.
RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR – Philip Hoare
Another swirling and surging work examining how the sea shapes our lives and our sense of otherness. Personal experiences and travels lead to thoughts on swimming, poetry and literature, and philosophy connecting notable characters from Byron to Bowie, Melville to Woolf. I read this while landlocked through the winter, in between signing off from one ship on the Algarve and joining another in Devon, and it kept the salt air in my hair and sand between my toes.
The Silent World – Jacques-Yves Cousteau
A classic book by a pioneer of underwater exploration. This is Cousteau’s autobiographical account of the experiments and trials leading to the development of SCUBA equipment, or aqualung, along with Phillipe Tailliez and Frédéric Dumas, and their transformation into “menfish”. It’s the reason why my internal voice while I’m diving has a French* accent.
*goood moaning. I didn’t say it was a good one.
The Sea Around Us – Rachel Carson
There cannot be too many books by Carson on your TBR list, but I’ll hold myself back by only recommending these two. In this she tells the story of the oceans, from their geological origins and the beginnings of life, through early exploration and discovery, increasing scientific understanding of processes and systems, to the impact human activity is having. The dawning of the Anthropocene. It’s hard to grasp that this book was written in 1951, nearly 70 years ago, given the prescience of the writing, and is just a fresh and relevant today.
Sightlines – Kathleen Jamie
A collection of travel and nature essays crafted on journeys around the coast of the British and Irish Isles and Scandinavia, though that word doesn’t quite feel right for describing the pieces of poetic reflection and personal remembrance that shine like wet pebbles picked from the shore. A masterclass in the art of observation.
Keep looking. Keep looking, even when there’s nothing much to see. That way your eye learns what’s common, so when the uncommon appears, your eye will tell you.
The World is Blue: How Our Fate and the Ocean’s are One – Sylvia Earle
A familiar figure to many from her TED talks, National Geographic articles, and Mission Blue movement, Earle has a depth and breadth of knowledge equal to her subject matter. The writing is straightforward and accessible, and her passion shines through in every page as she details all that ails the oceans. But what is most shining about this book is that despite the overwhelming negativity of the content (overfishing; resource extraction; pollution; biodiversity loss and species extinctions; habitat degradation and destruction; plastic contamination; and how the health of the ocean is vital to our own), the message is that there is still time to take action.
Which of these books have you enjoyed? Do you have any Ocean themed recommendations for me?
I’d love to hear from you; let me know what you think in the comments.
This list includes everything I take on my day hikes in the UK (in summer conditions), plus a few extras for when I’m in different situations and have different purposes for my hikes. It’s taken me a while to get my kit together, but it’s been worth getting a few items to ensure I’m safe and warm, and can do everything I want to do.
The biggest element of planning a hike in the UK is our predictably unpredictable weather. Just because a day starts in sunshine, there’s no guarantee that it will end that way, and if you’re hiking hills, mountains, or munros on a drizzly day, there’s every chance you might emerge through the cloud layer into dazzling sun on the tops.
I’ll often go hiking solo, so I’m solely responsible for taking everything I might need. I also lead small groups and hike with friends, but still take the same amount of kit. I want to be responsible for my own welfare, and able to help out anyone else that might be having a issue. I might also bring a few extra items if there’s more than just me, in the hope that others will share their sweets in return.
Which pack to pack?
You’ll need something big enough to hold everything you need, but avoid the temptation to take something overly large. If you’re like me you’ll just keep filling it up things that aren’t really necessary and weighing yourself down. I’d recommend something with a 20 to 25 litres capacity, like my Deuter ACT Trail backpack (24 litres).
It’s worth spending a bit of time and money to find a backpack that fits you well, as a poorly-fitted pack isn’t just uncomfortable, it can strain your back. I like a chest strap to keep the fit close to my back, and make steep ascents and descents more comfortable.
I think small compression drybags in a range of sizes and colours are some of the most useful kit you can have. They’ll keep my things dry, organised, and easy to find. Ziploc bags are really useful too, for keeping phones, cameras and son on protected from the elements, and for a stash of dry toilet paper*
*Never leave used toilet paper out on a trail; it spoils the place for the others that follow. Take an additional sealing bag to put it in until you get to somewhere you can dispose of it properly.
There’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes. So get yourself a sexy raincoat and live a little.
Even on the warmest day, I’ll pack a waterproof jacket. This is a kit list for hiking in the UK, and there’s a reason why regions like Snowdonia, the Lake District, and Lochaber are so green. Plus, with the drop in temperature you can feel higher up, it’s always good to have an additional layer.
If you just can’t walk without the sound of swishing, these will be your jam. And also they’ll keep you dry in the rain, break the wind to keep you warmer, and be an excellent sit mat to keep your bum dry when you stop for sit down to eat your picnic lunch.
The amount of water you should carry depends on the length of your walk, the weather conditions (remember the heatwaves of summer?), and whether you’ll have access to refills on the way. I’d usually take around 2 litres of water for a day out, and think it’s always better to carry more than start to get dehydrated.
In some areas you might be able to refill from streams. I’ve been pretty happy to take untreated water from moving streams in upland areas around my part of the world in northern Scotland** (and in Norway and Iceland). I’d filter, purify or boil water in lowland areas, and in Wales, the Lakes, and so on, as there’s likely to be more livestock in the area.
**After doing the “dead sheep check” of course.
Map and Compass / GPS
Unless I’m following a short trail in an area I’m familiar with, I’ll take navigation stuff with me. Even then, I’ll often use the ViewRanger app on my phone to record the route I’ve followed.
Although I like technology, I am a bigger fan of using a traditional map and compass to navigate. Being able to find your way with a compass is an essential skill for undertaking hikes in more challenging landscapes, and like all skills needs practicing.
I also like taking a map so I can look at a larger area than is displayed on a screen, letting you read the wider landscape, find interesting landmarks and scenic picnic spots, and plan any detours around eroded footpaths, broken bridges, and flooded fields.
Disconnecting from technology on a hike lets you get closer to the wild feelings of physical activity out in a natural setting. But a fully charged mobile phone is a useful bit of kit in case of emergency. The emergency numbers in the UK are 999 and 112; both are equally effective.
More remote parts of the UK may only have weak or intermittent mobile coverage, or none at all, but you can register with emergencySMS, a system developed for the deaf or non-verbal, to send a text message to the police to raise a mountain rescue team.
I’ve got a whistle attached to my bag, for drawing attention to myself if I ever need to be found. It’s a worst case scenario, but it happens in that people get lost in poor visibility, stuck on a hard to follow trail, or become injured and unable to walk.
This isn’t always needed, but in late autumn and winter daylight hours are short, and any delays or detours in a hike could mean returning in the dark. I sometimes like to start hikes early and/or finish late, to watch the sun rise or set from a hill top, and a headtorch helps prevent sprained ankles, or worse.
Knife or Multitool
I take my multitool on all my hiking trips. It’s a Leatherman Wave and it’s so useful.
I always take a length of string with me (perhaps as 15 metres of green paracord was drummed into me as a kit list essential from my time in the TA). It can replace a broken shoelace and make ] a temporary repair for all kinds of gear. On longer hikes, it’s even a useful drying line for airing out clothes.
Depending on the length of your hike, think about whether you need just a few snacks or a packed lunch. I’d usually take sandwiches or a sausage roll, some fruit, a couple of chocolate bars, and maybe a piece of cake*. I’ll aim to take things with minimal packaging, and make sure that I take everything back home with me**.
Even on shorter hikes, I’ll stick a couple of snacks in my bag. A pack of trail mix, maybe some chocolate, and a piece of fruit. And haribo, always haribo.
*almost always Soreen malt loaf. British hiking staple.
** I mean everything. I can’t stand that people think its ok to throw fruit peel, bread crusts and so on because “its biodegradable”. Banana skins have no place in the mountains; please take them home and dispose of them properly in a bin or the compost.
Flask with hot drink
A friend and I always say that we’re packing a flask of weak lemon drink to go hiking. I now have no idea where the reference comes from, but it’s stuck indelibly in our outdoor routine. A hot drink on a long day, especially when you’ve been out in the wind and cold, feels marvellous. My Kleen Kanteen insulated bottle can keep drinks hot for up to 20 hours, but it’s either blueberry juice or black coffee inside.
Extra warm, dry clothes
The British weather is notoriously fickle, and it’s not unheard of to experience all four seasons in one day. On top of that, the temperature drops between 1°C and 3°C for every 300 metres (1000′) of height gained, so the top of Ben Nevis can be around 10°C colder than Fort William. I’ll pack a warm hat, gloves, and a fleece or insulated jacket in a dry bag inside my daysack, and usually at least one spare pair of socks (which can double up as emergency gloves if needed). I also add a few extra things to my kit list in autumn and winter.
Sunblock and sunglasses
The sun does shine, even in Scotland, y’ know. Clouds aren’t as effective at blocking the sun as they might appear, and in the hills there’s often little shelter to get out of the sun.
First aid kit
My first aid kit is a work in progress, as I continually find new things that work for me. I pack plasters and small dressings, compression bandages and a triangular bandage, ibuprofen and paracetamol; things to treat cuts and grazes, sprains and strains, and other minor injuries. My most valuable recent addition is a special tool for removing ticks safely, something that’s been essential this summer.
I have had the worst blisters ever; taking part in an endurance hike a few years ago, both my heels, little toes, and the pads of my feet melted and tried to escape from my shoes. So if I’m anticipating hard going or start to feel a hotspot, I’ll use moleskin or smooth zinc oxide tape to protect my feet. I also take small scissors, alcohol wipes, and padded dressings.
Some hikes may need a few extra items, such as:
Bothy bag or bivvy bag
If I’m heading out into a more remote area, then I’ll probably pack my Alpkit Hunka bivvy bag as an emergency shelter to get out of the wind and rain for a short while. If I’m taking others with me, then the Rab bothy bag I have is big enough for five of us (more if we get super cosy) to squeeze into for respite from the rain.
I have a perfectly bum-sized foam mat that came included with my super cute Fjällräven Kånken backpack. Ideal for a nice cup of tea and a sit down.
I love tea, but flask tea never tastes quite right*. So I’m a huge fan of taking the time to make a fresh brew, especially if you’ve got a lovely view to enjoy it with (an a sit mat to keep your bum dry). I love my Jetboil.
*Possibly because of the weak lemon drink** previously in the flask?
**Was it Dwayne Dibley that had it?
Hikers are often split about whether or not to use poles, but I have a shady knee from an old injury and find that they’re quite useful for descents, reducing the impact on my knee and giving me some additional stability. (I’ll also use them as Nordic poles for long-distance running and trekking).
Camera and tripod
Photos, or it didn’t happen.
Do you hike regularly in the UK? Is there anything you think I’ve missed?
Let me know what you can’t hike without in the comments below.
Few countries can match Scotland for a landscape so wildly beautiful and dramatic; sweeping glens, rugged peaks, historic castles, and ancient forests make it an irresistible draw for hikers. And even the notoriously fickle Scottish weather can’t detract from the hauntingly bleak splendour of the landscape.
The most mountainous terrain in the British and Irish Isles, Scotland has 282 munros, mountains over the magic 914 metres (3000′), named for Sir Hugh Munro, compiler of the first list, inspiring many hikers to “bag” the full set. The best rank among some of the best mountains in the world. The highest is Ben Nevis at 1345 metres (4412′).
But it isn’t essential to claim the highest summit to reap the rewards of hiking in Scotland. With thousands of kilometres of coastline, hundreds of islands, lochs, and hills only lesser in height, not character or challenge. Whichever routes you chose, you’ll be treated to fresh air life, spectacular views, and that feeling of freedom that comes with hiking in wild places.
And the best part is that this is so very accessible here in Scotland, and less than a couple of hours from the biggest cities and towns, it’s possible to feel a sense of remote wilderness. So get your boots ready for these eight great day hikes, for whichever part of the country you’re visiting. Or include them in your plans for a Scottish road trip.
Route length: 5 km (3 miles)
Approximate hiking time: 2 hours
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Right in the heart of Edinburgh, this hike rewards you with awesome panoramic views across Scotland’s capital city and beyond. Overlooking Edinburgh Castle, the contrasting Old and New Towns, the Scottish Parliament, and down towards the port of Leith, this hike gives a snapshot of Scottish history, and fits easily into a short break to Edinburgh.
The steep slopes of Arthur’s Seat, rising to 255 metres (824′), are the rugged remains of an ancient volcano; the same one that gave rise to the imposing rock on which the Castle sits and dominates the city centre. Even though you’re never far from an urban street on this hike, don’t underestimate the terrain and be sure to wear suitable footwear.
This hike is also an excuse to take in the Sheep Heid Inn by Duddingston Loch, reputedly the oldest hostelry in Scotland, and where Mary, Queen of Scots used to enjoy the odd game of skittles.
Base: Glasgow or Stirling
Route length: 4 km (2.5 miles)
Approximate hiking time: 2 hours
Difficulty: easy to moderate
This small but steep little summit is a perfect introduction to Scottish hillwalking. Rising just 350 metres (1150′) above Balmaha, in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, the hike is just enough of an adventure for beginners, without being an exhausting expedition. (Muddy puddles and trickling streams to explore, and a play area and public toilets in Balmaha also help to tempt families to try the route, and the Oak Tree Inn offers a rewarding brew afterwards.)
The ridgeline of Conic Hill follows the line of the Highland Boundary Fault, which also shows as the string of islands in the loch below. As you ascend, the effort is rewarded with spectacular views across Loch Lomond and some of the grander mountains nearby,; such as Ben Lomond, the Cobbler (Ben Arthur), and the Arrochar Alps.
Conic Hill lies alongside the route of the West Highland Way long distance trail between Milngavie and Fort William, so watching hikers striding up under big packs makes your daypack seem like nothing, and the challenge very achievable.
Loch an Eilein, Rothiemurchus Forest
Route length: 7 km (4.5 miles)
Approximate hiking time: 2 hours
In the heart of Rothiemurchus Forest, in the Cairngorms National Park, the circular low-level hike around Loch an Eilein is stunningly beautiful, and a superb route for walking (or toddling) with the family. Gnarled granny pines, dark mountains, and a ruined 13th century castle are reflected in the waters of the loch that was once the secret hideaway of rogues and cattle rustlers.
The pinewoods are home to native wildlife such as red squirrels, crested tits, endemic Scottish crossbills, and the comical capercaillie, and when the sun goes down, pine martens and elusive Scottish wildcats stalk the woods. The walk can be extended to take in Loch Gamhna, a quieter but muddier trail, or a short ascent to Ord Ban to drink in the spectacular views of the tundra-clad Cairn Gorm plateau, Caledonian pinewoods, and sparkling jewel-like lochs.
This might be one of the easier hikes on the list, but it will fulfil all your romantic dreams of Scotland, whether you’re Princess Merida saving the day or wishing for an encounter with a dashing highland warrior after falling through a hole in space-time. And it gives you plenty of time to go for an ice cream in Miele’s Gelateria back in Aviemore at the end of the day.
Old Man of Hoy and Rackwick Glen
Base: Stromness, Orkney
Route length: 16.5 km (10.25 miles), or 9.25 km (5.75 miles) short option
Approximate hiking time: 5 hours
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Hoy is the “high island” of Orkney, taking its name from Old Norse, and reflecting the wild, steep sided hills and sheer sea cliffs, some of the most impressive in the British and Irish Isles. In particular, the iconic sea stack known as the Old Man of Hoy; its 137 metre (449′) walls were scaled live on the BBC back in the 1960’s, and it continues to attract climbers today.
From the passenger ferry at Moaness, take the island minibus to the crofting township of Rackwick. A well defined path leads along the cliff tops, where you’ll catch sight of the stack rising out of the Pentland Firth, and, in the right season, the abundance of seabirds whirling around it; fulmars, kittiwakes, puffins, black guillemots, razorbills, and formidable bonxies (great skuas). Look out for hunting peregrine falcons too.
On return to Rackwick, follow the road from the hostel to find the trail through Rackwick Glen. Look out for Arctic skuas and Arctic terns, which may come closer than you’d like, and listen for the mournful calls of red-throated divers on Sandy Loch. As well as birdlife, you can also expect to see a wealth of colourful wild flowers and the northernmost native woodland in the UK. And if you time it well, you’ll catch the café for a cuppa and fancy piece in Moaness while you wait on your return ferry.
This hike has an option for a shorter walk, out and back to the Old Man from Rackwick only, taking the Hoy minibus to and from the ferry at Moaness. Book your return with the driver, especially outside of the summer season.
Stac Pollaidh (Stack Polly)
Route length: 4.5 km (2.75 miles)
Approximate hiking time: 4 hours **
Difficulty: moderate to hard
Stac Pollaidh is only small in mountain terms, but it soars 612 metres (2008′) in splendid isolation over the flat lands of Assynt, the suddenness of its eruption from the emptiness creating an otherworldly feel in the landscape. Its glacially smoothed flanks are topped with a distinctive rocky crest, carved into a series of pinnacles and steep gullies.
This is only a short hike, but the steep and winding trail is challenging, and the true summit at the western end of the ridge needs scrambling skills to reach. But the effort is more than worth it, as the panoramic views from the ridge are spectacular. To the south and west, you’ll see the rugged coastline around Achiltibuie and the Summer Isles, and to the north, across the wild watery wilderness of Inverpolly Nature Reserve, lie the unmistakable mountains of Suliven and Cùl Mòr.
Its easy roadside location has led to an erosion problem on the lower parts of the hill, so please stick to the surfaced trail to reach the higher ground. The remote location means there’s no local pub or café to repair to at the end of the hike, so you could try Am Fuaran in Altandhu or the Ferry Boat Inn in Ullapool.
The Cobbler (Ben Arthur)
Base: Glasgow or Stirling
Route length: 11km (7 miles)
Approximate hiking time: 5 hours **
Difficulty: moderate to hard
Heading northwards, Loch Lomond crosses the Highland Boundary Fault and is squeezed between increasingly imposing mountains. The Arrochar Alps on the western side are a group of very steep and rocky mountains with real character. The Cobbler, also known as Ben Arthur, is the most distinctive.
At 884 metres (2900′), it falls short of Munro status, but isn’t a small hill, and its otherworldly outline of rocky buttresses and rugged peak draws attention from its taller neighbours. Dominating the skyline over Arrochar, the rocky summit is said to resemble a cobbler at work on his bench, giving the hill its popular nickname.
The true summit of the Cobbler is a rocky pinnacle, reached by squeezing through a triangular hole in the base on to a narrow, nerve-wracking ledge, in a move that’s known as threading the needle. After traversing the ledge, there’s a short scramble to the top. This isn’t for the faint-of-heart, and great care should be taken in wet conditions.
However, on a clear day the views are just as impressive from the base of the pinnacle, looking out along Loch Long across the Arrochar Alps. Be sure to glance back at the dramatic profile of the Cobbler on your descent, and end the day in Ben Arthur’s Bothy, soaking in the lochside views with your pint.
Route length: 19 km (12 miles)
Approximate hiking time: 7 hours **
Immortalised in verse by Lord Byron as Dark Lochnagar, it is often considered to be one of the most beautiful of all Scottish mountains, although Queen Victoria had a different impression of the summit; “it was cold, wet and cheerless, and the wind was blowing a hurricane“; no doubt, she was not amused.
Lying entirely within the Royal Balmoral Estate, Lochnagar is best reached by hiking from Spital of Glenmuick, through ancient Caledonian pine forest and by hunting lodges favoured by royalty. On the ascent to the plateau, it’s worth pausing at the bealach (narrow pass) before the boulder field known as the Ladder, to take in views of the northern corrie, an imposing rocky wall cradling a lochan in its curve.
The rocky outcrop of Cac Carn Beag, the true summit of Lochnagar, has spectacular panoramic views across Royal Deeside, the Cairngorms, and the Mounth. A steep descent past Glas Allt falls leads to the Royal Lodge at Glas-allt-Shiel and the shore of Loch Muick.
The summit plateau has few distinctive features, and a steep northern edge, so excellent mountain navigation skills are needed in poor visibility conditions. An alternative hike would be to follow the low level circular trail around Loch Muick beloved of Queen Vic, in the shadow of the towering mountain cliffs, followed by a tour of Royal Lochnagar Distillery and a wee dram in the tasting rooms.
Ring of Steall, Mamores
Base: Fort William
Route length: 16km (10 miles)
Approximate hiking time: 12 hours **
Difficulty: very hard
Many visitors to Fort William will head straight for Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest peak at 1345 metres (4412′). With over 125,000 hikers a year, mainly in the summer months, it can be incredibly busy on the trails.
Experienced mountain hikers might prefer the challenge of the Ring of Steall instead. A classic mountain route, taking in four Munros; An Gearanach, Stob Choire a Chairn, Am Bodach and Sgurr a’Mhaim, with fantastic ridge walking between peaks.
The hike begins in Glen Nevis, following the trail through the woodland to the narrow Nevis Gorge and impressive Steall Falls. Your first challenge is tackling the wire bridge spanning the river, before starting the ascent of An Gearanach. All in all the hike has almost 1700 metres (5580′) of ascent, including some scrambling along narrow, rocky arêtes, and makes for a long, tiring day out.
The ridge is exposed, but has spectacular panoramic views of some of the best known Scottish mountains, such as Aonach Mor, Aonach Eagach, Stob Ban, the Grey Corries, and of course, Ben Nevis. Put your feet up and recharge at the end of the hike at the Ben Nevis Inn and Bunkhouse.
Those that can’t spare a whole day in the mountains will enjoy the short hike to the wire bridge and Steall Falls, which were seen in some film about a wizard. Please note, the edges of the falls can be dangerous and warning signs should not be ignored.
My tips for day hikes in Scotland
Whether you choose to take on one of these day hikes, or one of the many others that Scotland has to offer, there’s a few things that you should bear in mind.
Plan your route ahead of the walk. Not every route is waymarked, so you need to form an idea of what to expect. ViewRanger with Ordnance Survey Maps is invaluable for reading the terrain, and the Walk Highlands website has excellent route descriptions and photos.
Wear the right clothing, as in Scotland it’s entirely possible to experience all four seasons in one day. Layering your clothes is important, and packing a waterproof jacket and trousers is always a good idea.
Pack plenty of water. It’s important to stay hydrated during physical activity, and you may be out for longer than expected (or just want to make a nice cup of tea with a view while you’re out).
Take a map and compass when you head out; not all trails are clearly defined, and you may need to rely on navigation skills in poor visibility. And GPS is not infallible.
If you’re hiking on your own, be sure to let someone know where you’re going, when you plan to return, and when you’re back safely.
Winter hiking in Scotland is a serious business. Although the hills aren’t that high, conditions can be gnarly and there’s a number of additional hazards you might encounter. It’s important to be properly prepared, and that can mean taking an ice-axe and crampons, and having the skills and experience to use them.
It also means spending additional time assessing information about your chosen route; mountain weather, reduced daylight hours, the terrain and underfoot conditions, and avalanche forecasts. And remembering that sometimes the best decision you make is the one to turn back.
I’ve used trekking poles for long hikes for years, and will wax lyrical about them whenever I’m asked. And often even if I’m not. During training walks for a Three Peaks challenge back in 2007 I found that going downhill was aggravating an old knee injury. After asking around for advice and reading a few articles, I borrowed a set of poles to try them out on steep descents and found they helped my knee, and helped to keep off fatigue. So I bought myself a pair with some birthday money.
And then I started using them for trail running, especially for ultra distances, and for multi-day backpacking trips, to help with balance under a heavy pack* and take some of the strain off my back. I’ve even been considering using them to pitch a tarp for an overnight bivvy.
*Lightweight backpacking? Hahaha. Not me. With half a kilo of peanut butter, a pair of binoculars and an actual HARDBACK book about birds, and my collection of shiny pebbles gathered on the way, I’m a lost cause to the lightweight movement.
The benefits of walking with poles
Reduced strain on joints: Trekking poles introduce other muscles to your movement by sharing the load more evenly across the whole body, reducing stress on ankles, knees and legs, particularly on descents. This is especially true with a heavy pack on your back. This is an important benefit, not just for people with existing issues, but also as a preventative measure for other hikers.
Improved endurance: Trekking poles can help on both descents and ascents, but also help you to push on for longer without fatigue. They emphasise the natural marching rhythm of your walk, and help to push you forwards with a spring in your step, even on flat, easy-going terrain.
Help on ascents and uneven ground: On uphill stretches, poles help to spread the load to all your limbs to propel you upwards. They also help make sure you stay upright when the going gets muddy or slippery underfoot, and aid balance on uneven trails, especially at the end of the day when you’re more likely to make a misstep.
Reduced swelling in extremities: Do you get sausage fingers when you’re hiking? I do, especially when it’s warm out. Keeping my hands raised by holding my backpack straps helps a little, but it’s not a natural movement. Trekking poles engage the arms, and keep blood pumping, to prevent the worst swelling.
Improved posture: Using trekking poles helps to keep you upright as you walk or run, especially on ascents, keeping your back straight and preventing slouching. This has the benefit of helping you breathe all the way from your diaphragm, and staving off fatigue that little bit longer.
Are there any disadvantages?
Well, yes. Walking with poles isn’t ideal for everyone, and there’s a few things to consider before you make the decision.
Greater energy expenditure: Using trekking poles burns more calories by working your upper body in addition to the workout your legs get from your hike. Research suggests its as much as 20% over your hiking baseline level. More calories burnt means that more will inevitably need to be consumed (unless you’re working out to lose weight). On longer hikes, especially multi-day trips, that means having to carry more food with you to compensate.
Whole body workout: As trekking poles work more than just your lower body, you might find that you have unexpected aches and niggles in your arms, shoulders and back, until you become used to the technique involved.
Risk of injuries: Injuries are likely to be the result of improper fit or technique, so it is important to ensure that you adjust your poles correctly for your height and activity. If the trail requires any scrambling, it is usually better to pack away poles to leave your hands free when you need them.
Trail damage: All walking causes wear and erosion to trails, plus with the scratches on the rock and small holes in the mud from trekking poles, the cumulative impact of all visitors over the years can result in significant degradation to the route. Be sure to stick to the trail in sensitive areas, and be considerate about where to place your poles to minimise damage.
Other uses for your trekking poles
A useful extra pole for a tent or a tarp shelter (or a substitute if one breaks).
A mono-pod for photography (like a tripod, it helps provide stability for your camera).
Testing the depth of snow, or water, or bogs. For crossing streams, trekking poles help you keep your balance, probe depths, and test the stability of stones.
An emergency splint in a worst case scenario.
Pointing at distant wildlife or birds as you try to convince people there really is something there (my favourite use!).
How to set up your trekking poles correctly
Most manufacturers of trekking poles will give guidelines as to the right length for your height. As a general rule, they should be set at a length which allows your hand to lightly grip the handle while your elbow is bent at a right angle and your forearm parallel to the ground. Roughly, this corresponds with the height of the hip belt on your backpack.
Some people find that the poles should be adjusted for the terrain, reduced for ascending and lengthened for a downhill walk. However, you may find that your hands will move up and down as you need, so look for poles with long handle grips, and play around with what feels good for you as you go.
The wrist straps let you to walk with a more relaxed style. The key is to not take a tight grip on the handle, but to let your wrist rest on the strap as you push down to propel yourself forward. As you stride, the poles become an extension to the movement of your wrist, transferring the momentum from your arms and the rest of your body.
Always remember that your legs are stronger than your arms Don’t put too much of your weight onto the poles, as you might be risking injury.
What to look for when buying poles
Trekking poles are available across a wide range of budgets, from as little as £10 to as much as £200. I found buying the best I could afford, and not skimping on the budget, meant I had a really great bit of kit that has lasted and lasted.
The most important factors to consider when choosing what’s right for you, and within your budget, are durability and comfort (especially the handles). The more lightweight the poles, the more expensive they will be, due to the materials used in their construction, such as carbon fibre or titanium, or cork handles.
Some poles fold into three parts, others have a telescopic system for packing away, and some are a fixed length. If you’re going to be packing the poles into your bag, consider the length that they fold down. Telescoping poles are adjustable, through not as lightweight as collapsible poles.
Some poles have a built-in shock absorber system, designed to give additional protection to your joints. It will add weight to the poles, and add to the cost, and may not have that much of an impact on performance.
Travelling with trekking poles
If you’re planning on using public transport to get around between hikes, or to travel overseas with them, be sure to look for poles that can be folded or shortened. If you can pack them into a travelling bag or on the outside of a rucksack, they are much easier to travel with.
When it comes to flying, it’s unlikely trekking poles will be permitted luggage in the cabin. It’s worth making sure the poles fit inside your bags, and also checking with individual airlines for their policy.
Looking after your trekking poles
Like with the rest of your kit, its important to ensure your trekking poles are clean and dry before packing them away after use. Telescopic poles are best stored unlocked.
Do you walk with trekking poles? What tips can you share with me?
This edition of Armchair Travel is staying in the mountains, but we’re going to the movies with a selection of my favourite mountain films.
Many of these films are documentaries or based on true events. Brace yourself for exhilarating thrills, edge-of-your-seat drama, and some of the most stunning landscapes you’ve ever seen, all from the comfort of your own sofa.
A dramatisation of the infamous 1996 expedition season on Everest, which culminated in a disasterous storm as teams made their attempts on the summit, trapping several climbers in the so-called death zone. It focuses on the friendly rivalry between mountain guides Rob Hall (played by Jason Clarke) and Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhall), competing to take their clients to the summit, and draws from several sources to try to give as truthful an account as possible, including books by Jon Krakauer and Beck Weathers, and the IMAX film taken at the time by Ed Viesturs and David Breashears. The heart-wrenching final call made by Hall seems straight out of Hollywood, but is devastatingly true to life.
The Conquest of Everest (1953)
A historical documentary film detailing the various expeditions to gain the summit of Everest, culminating in the successful attempt by Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary. It covers details of the expedition often absent from later accounts, the 282km (175 mile) trek from Kathmandu to base camp (now often completed in helicopters) by around 400 individuals, including 362 porters laden with equipment, blazing a trail through the Khumbu icefall and setting crevasse ladders, and establishing advance camps on the Lhotse Face and South Col. All filmed on a bulky film camera by Tom Stobart, which pushed the boundaries of expedition film-making. It can be found free online.
In my student life, my housemate and a few friends were aspiring mountaineers, and this was one of our regular late-night movie choices. Two climbers (Michael Biehn and Matt Craven) blag their way into an expedition team headed to the Karakoram to summit K2, the second highest and reputedly most difficult peak in the world. The majority of the film focuses on the challenging climb and even more difficult descent, and feels an authentic representation of the mountaineering adventure, with a little human drama thrown in to drive the plot. Mount Waddington in British Columbia stands in for the savage peak of K2, though establishing sequences were filmed in Pakistan.
The Summit (2012)
A documentary film piecing together the events of the 2008 K2 disaster, where 11 climbers on were killed, and a further three seriously injured. A serac (ice block) collapsed into the notorious couloir known as the Bottleneck, stripping fixed lines and sweeping away Rolf Bae of the Norwegian team, as his wife Cecile Skog looked on. Climbers faced the decision to bivouac above for the night, or attempt to “free solo” down in the encroaching night. Two or three further serac falls the following day devastated the attempts at descent and rescue by other climbers. Footage from survivors, support teams, and re-enactments filmed on the Eiger’s mordwand (North Face) tell the shattering story.
Touching the Void (2003)
A documentary re-enactment of the expedition to Siula Grande in the Peruvian Huayhuash mountains by British climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates. Believing Simpson dead after a huge fall in a storm on their descent, Yates makes the gut-wrenching decision to cut the rope tethering them together, and continue to base camp alone. It’s no understatement to say that miraculously, broken, exhausted, and delirious, Simpson crawled off the mountain into camp, just as a devastated Yates was preparing to leave. Both Simpson and Yates provide narration for the film, and returned to the mountain to film the climbing sequences.
An excellent documentary film following a group of six blind Tibetan teenagers who set out to climb Lhakpa Ri, a 7,045m (23,244′) peak in the shadow of Everest. Rejected by the community, and disabled by fear and ignorance of their condition and the challenging environment of their home, they find hope and support in the school established by Sabriye Tenberken, founder of Braille Without Borders. Under the inspirational leadership of Erik Weihnmayer, the first blind person to summit Everest, the group achieve far more than they ever could have imagined.
Not a film about the heart-stopping thrill of high altitude mountaineering, rather a rainy Sunday afternoon with a cuppa and cake-type film. Cantankerous, fiercely independent, eighty-something Edie (Sheila Hancock) dreams of climbing Suliven in northwest Scotland. The plot re-treads used tropes, an oldie on a last life-affirming adventure, intergenerational odd-couple friendships, small town life in Scotland blighted by boredom, but the scenes filmed on the mountain and surrounding Glencanisp Estate show off the stunning landscape of Assynt at their very best.
Free Solo (2018)
An outstanding, Oscar-winning, documentary following rock climber Alex Honnold’s jaw-dropping free solo (without ropes) ascent of El Capitan, the first of the 900m (3000′) near sheer granite edifice that dominates Yosemite Valley. Although Honnold’s astonishing achievement is the backbone of the film, it also records the thoughts of the film crew, roped climbers and drone pilots, that followed the climb; what would happen if…, how would they film…, what would happen with the footage of…?
The Dark Glow of the Mountains (1985)
Documentary auteur Werner Herzog follows legendary climbers Reinhold Messner and Hans Kammerlander in the Karakorams as they attempt to scale Gasherbrum I and II, each over 8,000m, on a single expedition. The film doesn’t linger much on the technicalities of the climb, but as with much of Herzog’s work, it focuses on the personal motivations and obsessions of the subjects, and pries into the mindset and driving forces that make people do exceptional things.
Ok, this is not really one of the greatest mountain movies ever made, but it’s firmly in the category of “so bad it’s good”. Minus the mountain backdrop (with stunning Cortina d’Ampezzo standing in for the Rockies), it’s an absolute howler of a 90’s action film filled with guns, explosions, awesome stunts, and improbable kung-fu skills, but it’s just so much fun. Exactly as you would expect from Stallone.
Which of these have you watched? What did you think?