Traversing Schiehallion, Scotland’s Magical Mountain

At 1,038 metres (3,547′) Schiehallion isn’t especially close to Ben Nevis in height, but it is certainly one of the most iconic Munros. The distinctive, near-symmetrical profile of the mountain attracts hikers from both home and away looking to experience the great outdoors, and it’s a great choice for first time Munro baggers.

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The view from the western end of Schiehallion, looking along Loch Rannoch to Rannoch Moor and Glencoe. In clear conditions, it’s possible to pick out Ben Nevis.

Schiehallion

In the heart of Highland Perthshire, close to the very centre of Scotland, Schiehallion has the reputation of being both one of the most mysterious of Scotland’s mountains, and the most measured. The name Sidh Chailleann translates from Scots Gaelic as “the fairy hill of the Caledonians”, and it’s not difficult to find traces of folklore and superstition on the slopes of Shiehallion.

Reach the summit on a summer evening, and you’ll be enchanted by views of Loch Tummel and Loch Rannoch stretching out towards the vast blanket of Rannoch Moor in the gloaming. Descending through the dusk you’ll catch mysterious sounds reverberating across the hillside: secret whisperings of the wee folk, or magical drumming snipe and roding woodcock?

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The first glimpse of Schiehallion appearing through the trees on the road from Loch Rannoch.

Planning my route

I was taking part in the 2019 TGO Challenge, a coast-to-coast crossing of Scotland on foot, and wanted to include a few mountains on my route from west to east. As it happened, dropping a few planning pins into my ViewRanger map put one close to the peak. After a few days of low-level walking, I reckoned I’d be limber enough to take on the mountain and make a west-to-east traverse of Schiehallion.

From the east and west the peak looks like a perfect pyramid; from north and south, a long whaleback ridge with a more gentle rise to the top. It stands in isolation, easily picked out on the skyline ahead of me as I left Glencoe and crossed Rannoch Moor.

Schiehallion Traverse

  • Start Point: East Tempar Farm*
  • Finish Point: Braes of Foss
  • Distance: 10km
  • Hiking time: 4 hours
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Map: OS Explorer OL49

*Note: There is nowhere to leave a vehicle at East Tempar. Parking is available at Braes of Foss carpark (approx. 7km on the road) or in Kinloch Rannoch (approx. 3.5km on the road). I walked along the road from Kilvrecht Campsite, approximately 9km.

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Go slow, baby lambs. Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it. Sign on the roadside at East Tempar.

The glorious May weather had stayed another day, so despite not being in any particular rush to get underway, I’d been up since 6am with the sunshine, packed my tent (shaking off drifts of tree pollen that had accumulated through the previous evening), loaded up with drinking water, and hit the road to get to my starting point for 9am. Find a route map on my ViewRanger.

From East Tempar Farm a hill track rises gently through sheep pasture, gaining around 350m in a little over two and a half kilometres, to the base of the towering west flank of the mountain. The track continues on to the tumbledown shielings at the col at the head of Gleann Mor, the dale between Schiehallion and the Can Mairg hills to the south.

Gleann Mor is reputedly just as magical as the mountain that looms above. According to legend, the fairies of Schiehallion make their home in Uamh Tom a’Mhor-fhir, a cave in the upper reaches of the glen, and the doors leading into Elfhame (fairyland) marked by tussocks of white heather.

There might be little real evidence of fairies on Schiehallion, but the region wears its history close to the surface. Old shielings are a reminder of the traditional cattle grazing way of life in highland glens, and traces of hut circles and ancient cup-and-ring marked rocks a connection to a more distant and mysterious past.

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Hillside haggis tracks in the heather.

My route led upwards, over rough ground cut only by deer tracks contouring the slope. I snapped a couple of quick pictures, along with some of some grouse droppings, to perpetuate the haggis myth with which we were teasing my French and Romanian crewmates. Haggis is “…un cochon d’Inde écossais indigène. C’est vrai.” True fact.

There wasn’t a breath of wind when I reached the first boulder field, a patch of fractured quartzite exposed amongst the heather tussocks and spongy lichens. Higher above, the first false summit of my climb marked the point where the vegetation began to yield to the rock, with just sparse turf between the boulders.

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The summit. Or is it?

The Schiehallion Experiment

The splendid isolation and arresting symmetry of Schiehallion caught the attention of the Royal Society as a place to observe the “attraction of mountains”. In the summer of 1774, Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskylene and surveyor and mathematician Charles Hutton gathered data on the tiny deflection of a pendulum against the position of the stars, revealing the gravitational pull of the mountain.

Between astronomical observations and a survey of Schiehallion’s shape and composition, the experiment provided evidence of Newton’s theory of gravitation, and of the density and shape of the entire planet. During the development of the experiment, Hutton pioneered the concept of contour lines to show relief in cartography, helping me greatly with my TGO challenge route planning.

The Schiehallion experiment is commemorated by a plaque at Braes of Foss, and the eagle-eyed can spot the footprints of Maskylene’s parallel observatories on the north and south flanks of the mountain.

The Summit

Into the boulder field proper, the true summit rose up behind the last false peak, identifiable this time by the small gathering of people on the rocky outcrop. Tucked into hollows on the northern side of boulders were tiny patches of snow, none larger than my backpack, holding on in the 20°C heat. I scrambled up the last six or seven metres to the top, and turned to take in the view that had been at my back during the climb.

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From the summit, I could see across the Tay Forest and Loch Tummel to the Beinn a’Ghlo in the east, south to Ben Lawers, and north to Ben Alder. But the view to the west was the best. The eye skims along the shining surface of Loch Rannoch into a golden-blue haze over Rannoch Moor. On the edge of visibility, I could just make out the Black Mount and Glencoe, where two days ago I’d caught my first glimpse of this peak.

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I took a long break to rehydrate, and devoured a packet of Tuc sandwich biscuits that were by now mostly cheese-flavoured dust. This won me the friendship of a springer spaniel called Saoirse, waiting with her dog-dad for the rest of the family to join them at the top. I hunted around and found the spiral carving in the rock. More likely a modern addition than ancient art, but still a reminder that for many the mountains are spiritual spaces.

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Descent

The route across the boulder field was indistinct, but the following the ridge easterly with the natural compass of the sun was moving in the right direction. Skipping over the loose rock in the boulder field for a couple of kilometres, trying unsuccessfully to pick my way along Saoirse’s chosen route, I found a worn track and reached the top of the path. The way down was much simpler than the way up, dropping down the flank of the mountain on a well-surfaced route.

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I reached the carpark at Braes of Foss in mid-afternoon, glad to be able to refill my water supply and find a spot of shade for a cuppa and spoonful of peanut butter. It had been another long, draining hike in the sun. I still had another few kilometres to go to reach the end of my planned route for the day, to the access road for Foss mine, where I was to meet my lift.

On the way round the road, I decided that the TGO Challenge could wait for another day, and rescheduled my rest day for the next morning. I’d take the chance to buy some sunblock, and just enjoy the shade for a while. It was a real treat to get into Pitlochry that evening, pick up a takeaway and some cold beers, and sit in the garden of my friend’s house celebrating reaching half-way across Scotland on the top of that magical mountain.

Schiehallion East Path

  • Start / Finish Point: Braes of Foss carpark (£2/full day)
  • Distance: 10km return
  • Hiking time: Usually between 3 and 4 hours (depending on how long you enjoy the view for!)
  • Difficulty: Easy to moderate
  • Map: OS Explorer OL49

Most hikers visiting Schiehallion follow a different route to the one I took, starting and finishing in the carpark at Braes of Foss, and following the East Schiehallion path. In a rare case of mountain rescue, where the mountain itself was the casualty, the path was constructed by the John Muir Trust to manage erosion and protect delicate vegetation on the lower slopes of the mountain. Find a route map on my ViewRanger.

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A plaque commemorating the Schiehallion Experiment by Nevil Maskylene and Charles Hutton at Braes of Foss, with the mountain behind.

The route is clear and obvious, though there is no waymarking, tackling the east ridge of the mountain in zigzags that avoid expanses of bog but still gives hikers glimpses of wildflowers and bog plants. The area is also home to wildlife like red deer, black grouse, and ptarmigan.

After around 3.5km the path reaches the boulder field on the top of the ridge.  Here the route is undefined to the summit, crossing loose rocks and scree, so care and attention to navigation is needed over the final 2km, especially if visibility is reduced.

Incredibly, thanks to an initiative by the FieldFare Trust, the first third of the route has been approved as wheelchair-friendly, with the remainder of the route to the summit deemed accessible at an individual’s discretion, making Schiehallion the first wheelchair-accessible Munro in Scotland.

Descend by retracing your steps to the boulder field to the path, and return to the carpark.

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Starting to feel the power of the sun. Walking in the mountains needs preparation for all weather conditions.

What to wear for hiking in Scotland

Though the warm, windless conditions on the day of my hike suited shorts and a t-shirt, that’s not what I would usually recommend for a day in the Scottish mountains. The best clothes for hiking are thin, quick-drying layers, and well-fitting, supportive boots.

The temperature can be quite different once you reach the summit, and a good rule of thumb for planning is that for every 300 metres (1,000′) it will be around 2°C colder. On a windy day, this will feel even more.

Walking trousers are robust but breathable, and usually have good pockets for gadgets and snacks. Shorts will normally be ok in fine weather, but if you’re going to venture off the beaten path and bash through the heather it can be uncomfortable. Gaiters will help protect your trousers and keep them dry and clean. They also double up as a dry mat for sitting on the ground when you stop for breaks.

A waterproof jacket and pair of trousers are always a good idea in Scotland. Even if there’s no rain in the forecast, conditions can be unpredictable, and a waterproof layer can break the chill of the wind.

A fleece or light sweater will keep your core temperature toasty when you reach the top. A warm hat, buff and pair of gloves will be useful in most conditions, but don’t underestimate the sun. There’s no opportunity to escape into the shade on most Scottish mountains. A broad-brimmed hat and something covering your shoulders could be important in summer to prevent heat exhaustion.

What other equipment will you need?

  • A backpack to carry your gear (with a waterproof cover)
  • A map and compass (and GPS)
  • Walking poles – optional
  • A good supply of water and snacks.

Tips for solo hiking

  • Be prepared for the hike with the right clothing and equipment.
  • Plan your hike in advance, and work out the time you will need, factoring in breaks on the way.
  • Always take a map and compass, and know how to use them. Even if you use a GPS.
  • Tell someone where you are hiking, and remember to let them know once you’re back safe.
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What I loved this season: Spring 2019

Where I’ve been and what I’ve done:

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.

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The famous Seven Sisters view from just above the Coastguard Cottages on Seaford Head.

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.

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Leading the way out of Weymouth harbour in the fog in the tender, with Irene following close behind.

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.

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A glorious day to go for a walk.  Starting the TGO Challenge in Oban on the 11th of May.

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.

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The view from the western shoulder of Schiehallion, looking back along Loch Rannoch to Rannoch Moor and the Black Corries.

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 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.

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In the col between Dreish and Mayar in poor visibility, about to descend into Glen Doll after an extremely long and tiring day.

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.
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Tracks is one of the best books I’ve read, and I thoroughly recommend you pick up a copy.
  • 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.
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After ending up thigh-deep in a bog, again, the Alpkit Chilkoot dried quickly and didn’t have their stretchiness compromised by the crispiness of embedded dried peat.
  • 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. 
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We joined the crew of Provident for the day to help move their ship from Dartmouth back to their base in Brixham.
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Traditional Brixham Trawlers like Provident often had red sails, coated in ochre to protect them from the sun and salt.

What’s next:

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.

You can keep up to date with my travel and adventures on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.  Here’s to fair seas and following winds.

Read about what I got up to through the winter here.
I’d love to hear about what you’ve been up to in spring, or any plans you have for the summer. 
Let me know in the comments below.

 

This post contains affiliate links.  If you purchase through my link, I will make a small commission* at no additional cost to you.  These help me to continue to run this site, providing tips and advice, and sharing stories from my adventures.  Thank you for supporting me.

*Maybe enough for a coffee.  Not enough for a yacht.

TGO Challenge Journal #2

Monday 13/5

  • TGO Day 3: Dalness, Glen Etive, to Rannoch Moor
  • Distance: 21km

The first part of my route for the day had been visible for most of yesterday afternoon’s walk; Laraig Gortain, between Buchaille Etive Mór and Buchaille Etive Beag, leading to the well-trodden ground of Glen Coe and the West Highland Way. It’s the first real ascent of my route, though the biggest is still a few days away when I reach Schiehallion.

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I stopped at the top of the pass for a cuppa and a long last look at Loch Etive, still technically the sea on the west coast.

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After two days on my own, just crossing paths with the group of Danish challengers a couple of times and occasional day hikers in Glen Etive, the WHW was almost shockingly busy with walkers. Heading the “wrong” way, it feels like pushing my way down the local high street on a busy shopping weekend.  I took advantage of local facilities with a long lunch* in the sun at the revamped Kingshouse hotel to recover.  It’s all very fancy, but then that’s the kind of girl I am.

*haggis nachos and a pint of coast to coast, 5/5 would recommend

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Leaving again was tough, with my pace slowing through the long hot day as I trudged across Rannoch Moor.  The Danes caught up and passed me by just before I reached Black Corries Lodge, planning to head up into the hills.  I kept on plodding on the track until 6pm and I’d used my last ounce of willpower and my motivational soundtrack to keep moving my feet.

I find a decent looking spot to camp close to a stream, but I’m still around 6km short of my intended endpoint.  It’s going to make the next day really tough, but I’m completely drained.  After pitching my tent I have a little swim and attempt to wash the peat from yesterday’s bog out of my trousers, before lying in the sun and reading my book.  Have I hit the wall on just day three?

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Tuesday 14/5

  • TGO Day 4: Rannoch Moor to Dall
  • Distance: 31km

The sun is shining again as I emerge from my tent, and I feel so much brighter than I did yesterday evening. A good night’s sleep, though instead of being woken early by cuckoos, I heard the sound of deer snuffling around and a grouse croak just after daybreak.  It’s the fourth day of my challenge, and I’m starting to think of my daily routine.  Wake up, eat, walk, rest, eat, walk, find somewhere to sleep, eat, rest.

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Walking is my life now.  I don’t have to worry about the usual issues of daily life, or working with the rest of the ship’s crew, and can be totally selfish.  My only task is to get from A to B, to keep moving forward.

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And today I do, finishing the distance I should have done yesterday, following the electric lines across the moor, then pushing on along the road from Rannoch Station (powered by a couple of coffees and a huge wedge of cake from the Station tearoom) and down the south side of Loch Rannoch to get to a good point for the following morning.  It was a long slog on the road, especially in the sun, and it was a relief to find a shady spot to pitch my tent by the end of the day.

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Wednesday 15/5

  • TGO Day 5: Dall to Braes of Foss
  • Distance: 24km
  • Ascent: 1065m, Schiehallion

I’d been a bit concerned about adding many Munros into my TGO route, especially at the beginning.  Just a month ago, felt like I was getting out of breath on the short, steep hills of the Devon coast.  But it felt like a bit of a cop-out to come north and not climb at least one proper mountain.  After looking at maps to plan my route, I settled on crossing Schiehallion, almost right in the centre of Scotland.

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It’s one that I hadn’t walked up before, and has a fascinating story, whether you’re a fan of the wee folk or a bit of a geography geek.  I think I’d put myself into the latter category.

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Not many people walk up from the west. A farm track leads up to the base of the ridge, with that famous pyramid view rising above you, then it’s a steep ascent through the heather to the start of the boulder field. Not a breeze to stir the warm air. One false summit, then the top comes into view. Almost there. And suddenly so many people.

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The view from the top is outstanding and fills up my heart. I can pick out my route all the way back to Glencoe. I walked all that way. I did that.

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And now I’m here on a mountain top. Exactly where I should be.

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Read the next instalment of my Challenge journal here, or catch-up with the previous one here.

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TGO Challenge Journal #1

Friday 10/5

  • TGO Eve – Oban

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I arrived in Oban late on Friday afternoon, having shared the drive up from Dartmouth, via Leighton Buzzard and Biddulph, with John.  While I was preparing to cross Scotland on foot, carrying everything I needed on my back, he’d decided to take the opportunity to plan a Highland road trip, crossing my route several times.  I took advantage of his plans, so rather than post resupply packages to hostels and B&Bs on my route, I packed them into the car, and we’d meet up along the way. 

Knowing I’d be seeing a friendly face now and again was reassuring, but my sense of apprehension was huge.  I picked up a few last snacks and rearranged things in my pack, again, and mulled over what was to come.  Will I be cold?  What if I get lost? Have I brought enough?  Have I brought too much?  Can I actually do this?

I’d already had to change my plans, switching my start from Lochailort to Oban, and extending a couple of days distance to make sure I could fit the Challenge into my leave from a new job.  My fitness levels also played heavily on my mind.  For the past six weeks, I’d been living onboard Irene, a traditional sailing ship, and unable to walk any farther than the length of the deck.  I’d had one afternoon off to walk from Brixham to Dartmouth on the south-west coast path; was that enough to prepare?  (No) Am I good enough? (Well, we’ll see)

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Now all I had to do was walk the 270km to reach the east coast.  Easy, huh?

Saturday 11/5

  • TGO Day 1: Oban to Loch Etive (Inverawe Country Park)
  • Distance: 25km

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After a bit of last-minute reorganisation (read: faffing about ) I finally signed the register at the youth hostel around 10am; one of the last names on the list left unchecked.  Most of the Oban departures had left the previous day, so I’d be following their tracks out of town.  If I could find my way out of town, as that depended on picking up a footpath somewhere behind a house near the top of the hill.

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I crossed the road to make my official start from the beach, with my toes dipping in the water.  Yesterday’s glorious sunset was a sign of things to come, warm sun and clear blue skies remained as I climbed the hill to McCaig’s tower, picked up the footpath and headed for the golf course.  My nerves from earlier in the morning soon dissipated, and I was feeling confident as I headed away from the coast.

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The hardest part of the day’s navigation was following the right road in town to make sure I found the footpath over the hill.  For the rest of the day, I followed the minor road through Glen Lonan to Taynuilt, headed through the village, then crossed over a suspension bridge to Inverawe Country Park.  From here I picked up the track alongside Loch Etive and found a suitable spot to pitch my tent and listen to the birds.  I watch the sun go down, thankful for the absence of midges.

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It felt like a great first day.  No problems with my feet, through my hips and shoulders were not yet used to the weight of my pack, and I could feel the start of a bruise on my left hip.

Sunday 12/5

  • TGO Day 2: Loch Etive, near Glennoe, to Glen Etive, near Dalness
  • Distance: 25km (distance walked in flip flops: 7km)

I woke in the early dawn to the sound of a cuckoo calling in the tree above my tent, and found a skin of frost around the vent by my head.  Time check, almost 5am.  I pulled a pair of gloves on, pulled my hat down over my eyes, and tried for another couple of hours sleep.  The little bit of smugness at the lack of midges disappears quickly when I discover several ticks in my tent.  I shook everything out and hung my tent over the tree vacated by the cuckoo while I checked my body.

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After breakfast and a coffee, the sun was high enough to melt the frost on the tent, and I packed quickly to get on the way.  The first couple of hours were easy-going, following the track along the east side of the loch until it disappeared somewhere between a beach and a bog.  I crossed paths with a group of Danish challengers, though they forked off into Glen Kinglass not long afterwards.  The day got hotter as I slogged on through the tussock alongside Loch Etive, so when I found a river with a deep pool I stopped for a lunchtime swim.  It’s such a beautiful spot, I find it hard to leave.

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A long trudge to the head of the loch faded out into a slog through the bog around Kinlochetive, at times falling thigh-deep in the wet earth, sapping all my physical and mental energy.  I try to skirt around the edge of the bog, thinking that it would be drier underfoot the higher up the slope I went.  That’s physics, right? So wrong.

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By the time that I reached the road in Glen Etive I was pretty much done, and felt close to crying, but still had five and a half kilometres to go before my planned overnight campsite.  The Laraig Gartain, the pass between Buchaille Etive Mor and Buchaille Etive Beag, had been taunting me from the moment I hauled myself out of the bog.  It just hadn’t been getting any closer however far I’d walked towards it.  It loomed over the whole afternoon.

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A coffee break and a chat with day hikers in the carpark at the head of the loch perked me up, and I kicked off my wet boots to finish the day walking along the road to Dalness my flipflops.  I pitched my tent with a Skyfall view and treated myself to the fanciest of the meal pouches I’d packed for this stage of the Challenge, before retreating to my sleeping bag for the night.

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Read the next instalment of my Challenge journal here.

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Taking on the TGO Challenge

In May each year, like a flock of migrating birds, three hundred or so backpackers take part in an adventurous coast-to-coast trek across Scotland. The TGO Challenge invites participants from across the globe to explore some of the wildest and most beautiful landscapes in Europe.

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Looking down into the Great Glen from the Monadhliath.

What is the TGO Challenge?

The Great Outdoors Challenge is an annual hiking event crossing the Highlands of Scotland, from the west coast to the east. The essence of the challenge is to experience the remote parts of the country, including many areas which can only be accessed on foot. Wild camping is a big part of that experience, and requires participants to be self-sufficient. Nothing beats unzipping your tent door to a brand-new wild view each morning.

Created by mountaineer and writer Hamish Brown, the first event was held in 1980, and it has grown to become one of the best-known backpacking events in the world, drawing participants from across the UK and Ireland, and as far afield (and as foreign to the Scottish Highlands) as Nigeria, Oman, and Barbados. The challengers that have taken part range in age from 18 (the lower age limit for participants) to an incredible 91 years old.

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Where the idea began; a little bit of inspiration I picked up in a second-hand bookshop on the way.

Unlike other multi-day hiking events, the TGO doesn’t define a route for participants to follow.  Rather, route planning is part of the challenge, giving hikers unique flexibility to cover the geographical area and set various objectives for themselves.  A maximum of fifteen days is permitted to cover the full distance, which usually averages around 290km (180 miles).

Challengers sign out from one of around a dozen settlements on the west coast, between Torridon in the north and Portavadie in the south, and end their trek on the eastern seaboard anywhere between Fraserburgh and Arbroath (though a cairn and plaque at Scurdie Ness lighthouse near Montrose claims to mark the “official” endpoint).  Routes can be low-level, follow defined trails and paths, take in several summits, avoid the road network as much as possible, be completely cross-country, or any combination of the above, and experienced vetters are on hand to provide advice during the planning stage and guidance while underway.

The Challenge is non-competitive, and the camaraderie and friendships of the event have become legendary. Great friendships have been made and cemented, with the current co-ordinators meeting while taking part, and even a couple of marriages happening during the challenge!

In addition to the skills needed in planning a route, participants must be competent in navigation, including map and compass work, on rugged terrain without trails in poor visibility. They must be self-reliant in remote and upland areas, follow the “leave no trace” principles of wild camping, and able to handle the famously unpredictable Scottish weather.

TGO Challenge Facts and Figures

In the 40 years of the TGO Challenge from 1980 to 2019:

  • 3534 people have participated in the Challenge.
  • 10013 crossings have been started on the west coast.
  • 8851 have been completed by reaching the east coast.
  • 251 people have completed 10 crossings.
  • 24 have completed 20 crossings.
  • And so far, one person has completed 30 crossings!

Challenge control claims taking part in the TGO Challenge is addictive. Of the total 3534 people to have participated, 3178 people have completed at least one crossing. Allowing for those participating in recent years and yet may choose to return, only around half decide that once is enough!

However, after taking part in a second Challenge there is a 65% of coming back at some point for a third, and 75% of them doing the fourth crossing. By the time a person has taken part in nine challenges, there is a 96% chance they will come back for the tenth.

My TGO Route

Since receiving confirmation of my place in the Challenge in November, I’ve been poring over maps and guidebooks to work out the route I want to take.  My intention is to start from Lochailort, a small village on the Road to the Isles between Fort William and Mallaig, and make my way to the fishing village of Gourdon, on the south Aberdeenshire coast.

Joining the dots between the two coasts will be around 290km (180 miles).  There will be a few ups and downs on the way too.  It will be a test of my stamina and endurance, not to mention my ability to pack light and the qualities of “suck it up” and “get on with it”.

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My planned finish point on the east coast of Scotland.

I have, I think*, an advantage over most challengers, in that I’ll be able to finish the event by dipping my toes in the sea on the east coast at the end of my parent’s front garden.  All within reach of a hot bath, comfortable bed, plenty of cups of tea, and a washing machine; exactly what I’ll need after two weeks trekking across Scotland. (If I’m really lucky, someone might also do my laundry, but I’d better not push it at this stage of the plan).

*I’m also pretty certain that my dad will send me up into the loft to sort out all the boxes that have been there since I went to university the moment that I arrive.

Planning and preparation

The potential for “four-seasons-in-one-day” weather means that my equipment and clothing has to be able to cope with the full range of conditions from horizontal sleet to (just whisper so you don’t jinx it) warm sunshine.

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Route planning on ViewRanger.

I don’t imagine that in any way I’ll be a lightweight backpacker, not with my fondness for junk food (Haribo; I’ll mainly be surviving on Haribo, and possibly peanut butter) and collecting shiny rocks, seashells, and antlers that I find.  However, I need to get my kit together and work out how I’m going to manage to walk with it all.  This is an experience I want to be able to enjoy, not one to be endured.

You can read my journals from the 2019 Challenge starting here.

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What I loved this season: Winter 2018-19

Where I’ve been

Unlike the last couple of seasons, I’ve not travelled particularly far and wide in the last few months.  Since returning from the Algarve at the beginning of November, I’ve been based in the UK, and making the most of the opportunity to get out and about while I look for work.

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Christmas brought clear crisp weather to the Aberdeenshire coast; ideal for long walks and star-filled nights.

Over Christmas and New Year I headed north to Aberdeenshire to spend time with my family.  The crisp, and clear weather was perfect for long walks along the coast, with the odd dip in the icy North Sea, and into the hills of the Angus glens.  And short winter days quickly gave out to long dark nights, filled with stars and the arc of the Milky Way (although unfortunately no glimpse of an aurora), and a driftwood bonfire on the beach.

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Lazy winter days spent beachcombing, reading good books, and spending time with family.
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Love my favourite beach at St Cyrus National Nature Reserve.
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Celebrating Hogmanay on the beach with a midnight bonfire.

There was also enough time for a visit to Dundee to explore the new V&A museum, as well as some of my old favourite destinations in the city, like McManus Gallery, Clarke’s bakery and RRS Discovery.

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RSS Discovery alongside her new neighbour on the Dundee riverside, the V&A

Back in Bedfordshire, I got out and about in the Chilterns often, especially around Dunstable Downs and Ashridge Estate, for long walks, trail runs, and the pleasure of just spending time in the woods, watching the turn of the seasons.

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The occasional sunrise run was brilliant for starting my day the best way.

What I’ve done

I set myself a challenge to start the year; undertaking to make time every day to get outside and do some kind of physical activity for Red January, and at the same time to fundraise for Mind, the mental health charity.  I live with depression, and through the winter often find there can be more bad days than good, so try to take steps to manage my condition.  I’m extremely pleased to say I met both of those goals, and discovered a real love for my weekly Parkrun at Rushmere Country Park at the same time.

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RED laces help you run better: FACT!

In mid-January, I headed to Wiltshire, to the Team Rubicon UK HQ, on the edge of Salisbury Plain, on what was possibly the coldest night of the year to pitch a tent.  Team Rubicon is a disaster response organisation, working around the world in communities devastated by natural disasters to aid in the immediate aftermath, and to help build resilience against future events.  In an intense few days, I completed my basic induction to TRUK and the Domestic Operations training course.  I’ve got a blog post coming soon about the experience, and what it might lead to next.

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After an awesomeinduction and domestic ops. training course, I’m now a qualified TRUK Greyshirt.

Unseasonably warm weather in late February (as much as 18C, just a week or so after the snow) made it easier to continue getting outside for runs and walks almost every day, and to try my hand at a new pastime; forest bathing, spending time immersing myself in the sights, sounds and smells of the woodland.  It was the perfect way to remedy to a stressful couple of weeks while I moved into a new flat.

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Watching the change of the seasons in the woodland.

The first brimstone butterflies, nuthatches tapping on tree trunks, jays, hazel catkins bursting open, showers of hawthorn blossom, and the very first leaves.  On warmer, damp evenings frogs and toads are on the move to the nearby pond, and I’ve been out with the local Toad Patrol group, rescuing amorous amphibians attempting to cross the road.  Spring is well and truly on the way.

 

My winter love list

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Getting stuck into a good book is one of the great pleasures of a Christmas holiday.  Along with a good slug of amaretto in your coffee.
  • Film: The Little Prince, an excellent animation based on the classic children’s book (and standard text for studying French) by Antione de Saint-Exupéry, that explores the idea of wonder, exploration and excitement and how it changes as we grow older. 
  • Clothing: I’m still rocking those toasty warm White Stuff flannel pyjamas at every opportunity, usually teamed with the biggest, softest blanket scarf that my sister got me for Christmas.  It’s a combo that’s been especially welcome after REDJanuary runs in the rain and sleet.
  • Equipment: I picked up a new tent in preparation for the TGO Challenge in May.  After researching various possibilities and budgets, I decided on the one-person Robens Starlight 1, which seemed ideal.  Unfortunately, there was a manufacturing flaw in the tent delivered to me, so after a bit of faffing around trying to get a replacement, I’ve actually ended up with a Wild Country Zephyros 1.  I’m hoping to get out soon to put it through its paces.
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The Robens Starlight 1 one person tent.
  • Health: I’ve started taking vitamin D supplements, which have been suggested to help lift a low mood at this time of year.  We naturally get it from exposing our skin to sunlight, something that can be hard to come by in higher latitudes in winter.
  • Treats: My winter treat has been finding a cosy spot to curl up and read, along with a cheeky glass of amaretto and ice.  I’ve also found a shot in a flask of coffee is lovely on a cold winter day on the coast (a tip from Ebby the kayaker on the Isle of Wight).

 

What’s next:

I’ve got a few things already planned for the spring, starting with my first experience of leading walking tours.  I’ll be exploring trails in the South Downs National Park and surrounding areas, and sharing the experience with a group on a walking holiday.

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Planning and researching a route for the TGO Challenge has been an enjoyable diversion over the winter months.

Then the TGO Challenge is quickly approaching, with just over two months to train for a self-supported crossing of Scotland from the west coast to the east.  I’m planning on a few nights of camping, testing out different food for the trek, packing and re-packing my backpack, plus plenty of walking days in preparation.

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Cheers to the New Year and the new advdentures it will bring!

Thanks for following along with These Vagabond Shoes.

You can keep up to date with my travel and adventures on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.  Here’s to fair seas and following winds in spring.

I’d love to hear about what you’ve been up to this season, or any plans you have for the season ahead. 
Let me know in the comments below.

 

This post contains affiliate links.  If you purchase through my link, I will make a small commission* at no additional cost to you.  These help me to continue to run this site, providing tips and advice, and sharing stories from my adventures.  Thank you for supporting me.

*Maybe enough for a coffee.  Not enough for a yacht.

My Goals for 2019

Though I’m not a fan of making New Year’s resolutions, especially not of the New Year New You variety*, or keeping a bucket list of travels, adventures and destinations, I do find it useful to make a short list of things I hope to do over the next year.  It’s a simple exercise, and I scribble down notes in my journal to look back at through the year and help me focus on what’s important.

*breaking them is usually much more enjoyable, and far more achievable.

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My goals for 2019

Live more sustainably.  And travel sustainably as possible too.  Without getting overly morose, the clock is ticking and time to act is short.  A report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) last autumn warned that we have only twelve years to ensure global warming is kept to a maximum of 1.5C, beyond which even a further half a degree will significantly affect the impacts of drought, extreme heat, flooding, and storms, on people and our planet.

Habitats and ecosystems are diminishing, oceans are overwhelmed with plastics, and species are disappearing.  And the vast gulf of inequality that exists between the poor and the wealthy means many millions of people on this planet will suffer terribly before I am more than inconvenienced.

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.

Dr. Seuss, The Lorax

Do a long-distance hike.  I think you learn so much more when you travel through a landscape at walking pace.  I’m going to be taking part in the TGO Challenge in May, a backpacking challenge to cross Scotland on foot from the west coast to the east coast, wild camping as I go.  I’m planning on taking 12 days to complete the hike, so I’ll be looking to build up to that with shorter hikes over the next few months.

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Above Aberchalder and Loch Oich. Photo courtesy of John Creasey.

Watch the stars.  It means spending more time outdoors, away from the distraction of TV and the internet, and venturing out into wilder, more remote areas, where views of the night skies are unbroken by light pollution.

Dive.  I’m a qualified scuba diver, actually a BSAC Dive Leader (roughly equivalent of a PADI Dive Master), with over a hundred logged dives.  But it’s been years since I’ve been in the water, after suffering a dental barotrauma** on a training dive in Stoney Cove.  I’m well out of practice and all my kit is out of test, but I love being underwater and want to get back to it so much.

**Pressure changes and a badly-done filling by my dentist resulted in a cracked tooth.  Which then led to root canal treatment, almost eighteen months of faffing about, and a huge amount of anxiety about being in the water.  Then I split up with my main dive buddy, and everything was shelved for another few years.

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On the stern of the wreck of the Hispania in the Sound of Mull. 

Do something new every month.  Taking pressure off the beginning of the year, this will give me the chance to focus on something different every month; a brand new experience or challenge, learning new skills, or putting things I already know to the test.

 

So here’s to the New Year, full of things that have never been, and all the things that are yet to come.

What plans do you have for 2019?  Do you make a list for reference too?