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.
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.
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 Salcome 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.
I’d prepared a route to cross Scotland from Oban to my parent’s house on the east coast, planning to walk around 270km (170 miles) in 10 days, before I had to return to the ship at the end of my leave. The first six days were hot and dry, entirely not what I’d expected for a trekking and camping trip in the highlands. In fact, I had so much trouble with being out in the direct sunlight for so many hours a day that I switched around my rest days in Pitlochry to buy factor Scots sunblock and a pair of shorts.
The second week was much more as I’d expected, with cooler temperatures and drizzle that actually felt refreshing rather than miserable. I added another rest day to my schedule, as I’d extended my leave for an extra week, so was able to take my time and fit my walking around the weather conditions. It also meant I was able to catch up with a number of other Challengers in Tarfside on the Tuesday night, which has the reputation of being a fun night, and definitely lived up to it. You can read more about my TGO challenge adventure here.
Following the TGO Challenge, at the end of May, I had a few days in Northamptonshire taking part in the selection process for what could be some very exciting work in the winter. As a job interview, it was one of the best and most inspiring I’d ever been to, and the highlight was meeting a group of awesome people that were also on the shortlist. I’ll keep my fingers crossed, but competition will be stiff.
My spring love list:
Books: I’ve found it hard finding the time to pick up a book in the last couple of months, usually just managing a few pages in bed at the end of a long day. But I did finish a couple of books: Tristimania by Jay Griffiths, about her experiences with bipolar disorder, and Tracks by Robyn Davidson, the account of an awesome expedition across the Australian desert by camel in the late 1970s.
Podcast: I’ve just discovered the wonderful Ologies podcast by Alie Ward, and never before have I known so much about squid. And I thought I knew a fair bit about squid. I’ve even been to visit Te Papa in Wellington SPECIFICALLY to see the colossal squid.
Clothing: I was desperately in need of a good pair of hiking pants for the TGO Challenge, and took a punt on the Alpkit Chilkoot softshell pants. My only criticism on them was that they were TOO WARM for the ridiculously hot weather over the first week of the TGO, and I hadn’t bought any shorts with me.
Equipment: I’m still not completely enamoured of my Wild Country Zephyros 1 tent; I think I’m just not getting something right with tensioning the flysheet. I didn’t encounter high winds during the TGO fortunately, so I’ve got to keep trying to figure it out.
However, I absolutely love my Leki Makalu hiking poles. They proved themselves to be essential during the TGO, especially for hauling myself out of various bogs, over peat hags, and supporting my knees on steep descents. Do you hike with poles? This post has a few reasons why you should give it a go.
Treats: Not so much of a treat as a staple part of my TGO challenge diet: crunchy peanut butter, eaten straight out of the jar with my spork.
With the TGO Challenge done and dusted, it’s back to work on Irene. We’ll be based out of Oban, sailing around the islands of the Inner Hebrides and taking our guests kayaking and walking. I hope it will also mean we’ll get plenty of fresh seafood on our menu too. I’ll also have a bit of time in my next leave to explore the islands on my own, and can’t wait to get to know this area much better.
Then we’ll relocate south to be based out of Newlyn, with sailing voyages planned to Brittany and the Scilly Isles. I’m really excited about the Scillies, somewhere I’ve never been to before but heard lots of good things about. And I should have the opportunity to spend a bit of time in Cornwall walking the coastal path and swimming in the sea.
Thanks for following along with These Vagabond Shoes.
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I’d love to hear about what you’ve been up to in spring, or any plans you have for the summer.