In early June, I was part of a team from the Cairngorms Connect project partners that carried 3,000 tiny trees up onto the Cairngorm plateau, to their new home in the Loch Avon basin. The downy willow (Salix lapponum) saplings are rare trees, which can survive in the low temperatures and high winds, and an important species in the montane scrub habitat of the upper slopes of the mountains.
Grazing pressure from deer and other animals mean only a few scattered plants remain, often in the most inaccessible locations, and too isolated from each other to guarantee successful reproduction. The idea behind planting the new saplings is to give the species a fighting chance, and attempt to safeguard the future of the montane scrub zone as part of a larger-scale habitat regeneration project. Read more about our day here.
Freelance work kept me busy through March, but I was able to spend a week away in the South Downs National Park leading a walking holiday. Wild, windy weather made some of the routes quite challenging, but I was excited to explore a new area. My favourite walks were on the downs around Arundel, and along the Cuckmere valley to the famous Seven Sisters viewpoint.
At the beginning of April, I moved south to Devon, to start work as part of the crew of the traditional sailing ketch Irene of Bridgwater. We spent the first part of the season based out of Dartmouth, visiting the nearby ports of Brixham and Salcombe regularly, with a one-off trip to Weymouth, where we disappeared into the fog. Taking the lookout on the bow with only around 20 metres visibility, in a 38 metre (124′) ship, is one of the most nerve-wracking things I’ve done.
If you ever plan to visit Dartmouth, be aware that it’s much easier to reach with a boat than on public transport or even by car. As soon as my leave began in May, it was a rush to head north. I had to pick up my backpacking kit and make my way to Oban, the starting point I’d chosen for the TGO Challenge.
After the previous day’s attempt to make any kind of distance was a failure, I mentally reset myself ready for the last few days walking with a night at home; hot shower, real food, and good night’s sleep in a real bed. In the morning I returned to Clova feeling much more sparky than I had the previous day.
It turned out to be a good thing; putting myself a day behind my planned schedule for the Challenge meant I actually met up with more challengers than I would’ve otherwise. I met a few on the track from Clova up to Loch Brandy, then picked up a walking buddy having navigation difficulties to cross the hills down to Inchgrundle and the end of Loch Lee.
The well-trodden route from Clova to Tarfside is always busiest on the second Tuesday of the TGO, along with the other routes that converge into Glen Esk. It was also walking familiar very ground for me, bringing back memories of Duke of Edinburgh expeditions, walks on school trips, and camps with the Guides.
After walking much of my route on my own, meeting up with friends at various points along the route, it was a little bit of a shock to the system to be amongst so many people in Tarfside. But it also showed me that one of the real highlights of the event is the other challengers that you meet on the way as you become part of the extended TGO Challenge family.
TGO Day 10: Tarfside to Garvock viewpoint
After an excellent night in Tarfside in the company of other challengers, I was back walking on my own again for most of the day. Everyone else seemed to be heading in the direction of Edzell and Northwaterbridge, but to reach my finish point at home at the Haughs of Benholm, I had to find a more northerly route and struck out over the hills to Fettercairn.
I quickly discovered why few others took this route, after running out of hill tracks on Craigangowan and wandering into a huge bog cut with peat hags, and crossed by a deer fence. I waded, crawled, fell, and slithered for what was possibly only just a couple of kilometres, but it took me well over an hour (definitely due to walking conditions, not the hangover) to rejoin the hill tracks around Sturdy Hill.
Once back on the road, after a coffee break in Fettercairn, I pushed on as far as I could keep going for, with less than 45 km to end up at home, knowing I’d be able to take the following day to recover. But as the day wore on I got slower and slower, plodding on up the hill before grinding to a halt and stopping for the night at the Garvock viewpoint. Completely tired out, but really pleased with the effort for the day. A distance of 33km covered, and just over 10km left to go to the end of the TGO Challenge.
TGO Day 11: Garvock viewpoint to Haughs of Benholm
The final day! Just a short distance to finish my TGO Challenge, after the huge effort I put in the day before. It’s only around 10km from Garvock hill to my home at the Haughs of Benholm, and after starting fairly late, I was all done and dusted by 10am. It wasn’t the best route choice, as to avoid lots of road walking I decided to cross a few fields
My Mam put out a finishing line on the drive, and after dropping my backpack I left an order for a bacon butty and cup of tea, and went to dip my toes in the North Sea to make an official finish. Unfortunately, my arrival had coincided with the low tide, so rather than scramble over the shingle and seaweed covered rocks to reach the water’s edge, I settled for a paddle in a rock pool, and decided the sea could wait until I’d had breakfast.
Crossing the finish line at the end of the Challenge
On the way to the sea, before decinding theat the sea could come to me.
Dipping my toes in a convenient rockpool.
My 2019 TGO Challenge Stats
Total distance walked: 269km (167 miles)
Total distance walked in flipflops: 12km (7.5 miles)
Total distance crawled: 2km (1.25 miles)
Times that I cried: 3
The highest point of my route: Schiehallion summit, 1,083m (3,553′)
The highlight of my route: Finding a beautiful pool for a swim in the sunshine in a small burn on the side of Loch Etive.
Would I do this again? Absolutely!
Read the previous instalment of my 2019 TGO journal here, and find out more about the Challenge in this post.
After one too many days of fine weather and lots of walking with limited access to drinking water, little shade, and no sunblock, I was done. I’d scheduled a rest day with friends once I reached Pitlochry, so I switched it around to have a day out of the sun to recover and called for a lift.
The original inspiration for the TGO Challenge; Scotland Coast to Coast by Hamish Brown
Not a lightweight backpacker.
The Maskylene plaque at Braes of Foss commemorating the Schiehallion Experiment
A shower! Clean laundry! Ice cream! No heatstroke! It was wonderful. I treated myself to a pair of shorts and the factor 50 sunblock my pale Celtic skin needed to continue walking in the sunshine the next day, as despite not being the most lightweight of backpacker I hadn’t packed either of those things. I also found a brilliant secondhand bookshop which had something I thought might be useful for the rest of my trek. What would Hamish Brown do?
TGO Day 6: Braes of Foss to Pitlochry
The weather had continued to be absolutely glorious, dry, warm, and sunny while I took a rest day, and I looked forward to getting back out into the hills to continue my trek. Feeling fit and refreshed I was dropped off at the point I left a couple of days ago, at the end of the access road to the bayrite mine at Foss. This time laden with abundant supplies of factor 50 sunblock.
From Foss I headed up the track past the mine works to the tops of the Corbetts of Meall Tairneachan and Farragon Hill, bashing through the heather when the track ran out. The descent towards Strathtay was a little challenging, not least when I received a marketing call from my mobile phone provider on a steep section. I thanked them for their network coverage but suggested it wasn’t the best time to talk to them.
After reaching the hill track, I went around the shoulder of Beinn Eagagach, then followed the ridge of hills between Strathtummel and Strathtay. Just a little bit of bog scrambling, a lot of heather bashing, and being stalked by some deer as I went. From Clunie Woods, glad to get a bit of shade, I descended to meet the end of the Rob Roy Trail, crossed the A9 and reached Pitlochry.
TGO Day 7: Pitlochry to the Lunch Hut (Cateran Trail)
Well, it would have been unrealistic to expect the fine weather to last for the full fortnight of the challenge. Shortly after reaching my accommodation in Pitlochry, the sky turned the colour of a bruise, and the rain thundered down through the night. So I was particularly glad I was indoors overnight and didn’t have to pack up a soaking tent before I started walking in the morning.
Swirling pollen in the puddles.
The first rain for a week washing away pine pollen.
The forestry road through Pitcastle Woods
I made my way through town to the Black Spout waterfall, through the woods to Edradour Distillery. At this point my route became a little bit freestyle, crossing grazing land on the side of Tom Beithe until I entered the forest and could pick up forestry tracks. then through the forestry land to Enochdhu, climbing a few deer fences on the way. Picked up the Cateran Trail to head to the Lunch Hut bothy, where I met the first other challengers I’d seen since I’d seen the Danes taking a coffee break at Rannoch Station.
TGO Day 8: The Lunch Hut (Cateran Trail) to Glen Doll
Two things contributed to my early wake-up, the slow deflation of my air mat through the night finally reaching the point where my hip touched the tabletop I was lying on, and a sheep bleating incredibly loud and close to the bothy. I gave it a hard Paddington stare through the broken window, then had the thought this is how a horror film would start. I whispered an apology to the sheep, so as not to wake my two bothy mates.
Overnight the fog had come in thick, obscuring everything further than 50 metres from the bothy. This wasn’t good, as I’d planned to head up high from Glen Shee, following hill tracks to start with, then bashing through the heather to Mayar, before descending into Glen Doll. As I headed over An Lairig, towards Spital of Glenshee, with Emma and Simon, I started to revise my route with their suggestions.
I decided on a longer route, staying at a lower level to make solo navigation easier for much of the day. We walked together on the Cateran Trail until Runvey, then Simon and I left Emma to continue on to Kirkton of Glenisla, while we headed for Loch Beanie. There, we parted ways and I continued to ascend to the shoulder of Monamenach and down into Glen Isla.
I quickly ascended out of the glen to Mid Hill and Tarmach Cairn on hill tracks, following them in an arc to Broom Hill, before leaving them behind to descend into Glen Prosen by the Glack of Balquhader. I’d been keeping a weather eye during the trek, and it hadn’t cleared on the high ground, where the last stage of the route was going to take me.
The footpath between Glen Prosen and Glendoll known as the Kilbo Path crosses the col between the Munros of Driesh and Mayar, and was the highest point of my revised route. The mist was moving in and out while I stopped for a meal, but from my memory and according to the map, the track looked distinct, so I felt confident enough to get across into Glendoll before the light faded.
At the top of the path, the visibility closed in to be just a few metres in the cloud, but enough that I could pick out the deer fence along the back of Corrie Shalloch to handrail to the top of the descent on the Shank of Drumfollow, and make my way down into the valley. The path through the logged forestry was rough, but it meant I was counting down the last couple of kilometres to my camp. Finally, after 31km with over 1700m of ascent, getting on for 9pm, I was at the place I wanted to be.
TGO Day 9: Glen Doll to the Clova Hotel
Distance: 5.5 km
I rolled reluctantly out of bed and started packing the tent away slowly. My intended route for the day was another high one, climbing up from Glen Doll to White Bents and Boustie Ley, then picking up the track above Loch Brandy to head over to Tarfside. But no amount of coffee was giving me the motivation to attempt it, especially as the glowering low cloud was still obscuring the tops.
Finally ready to go, after chatting to a conservation team preparing pack horses for heading up to work on Davy’s Bourach, I set off along the road towards the Clova Hotel. I’ve walked this road a few times, and head down, powering along is the only way. I was reliving memories of my Silver Duke of Edinburgh expedition, and the oppressive clouds started to lift. It might be ok after all.
It wasn’t. About 200 metres shy of the Clova Hotel, the clouds burst and I was nearly soaked through before I could get my waterproofs on. I stepped up my pace, and through the mirk, saw a wonderful sight. John was standing in the road with a golf umbrella, having reached the end of his road trip, decided to come and check up on how I was doing.
Whisked off for a huge pancake breakfast and more coffee at Peggy Scott’s in Finavon, I checked the weather forecast. While the coast was going to be dry and sunny, the heavy rain was slowly creeping across the glens for the rest of the day, a big blue dot sitting directly over the Mounth. As I still had a day in hand to finish the challenge, I called it and decided to bail out the rest of the day and continue the following morning.
Read the next instalment of my TGO journal here, and catch up on the previous entry here.