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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TGO Challenge Journal #3

Thursday 16/5

  • Rest Day!

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.

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?

Friday 17/5

  • TGO Day 6: Braes of Foss to Pitlochry
  • Distance: 21km
  • Ascent: 990m

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.

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The road leading to the mine.
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The bayrite mine at Foss.
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Schiehallion viewed from the top of Farragon Hill.

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.

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The way down the eastern side of Farragon Hill.
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Old hill tracks on the side of Beinn Eagagach.
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Lochans and bogs, oh my!

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.

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The deer fence between Creag a’ Coire and Clunie Wood
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Crossing the A9 with the end in sight
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The suspension bridge over the River Tummel.

Saturday 18/5

  • TGO Day 7: Pitlochry to the Lunch Hut (Cateran Trail)
  • Distance: 22km
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At the Black Spout, after the first rain in a week.
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Edradour distillery
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A last glimpse of Pitlochry.

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.

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.

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The forestry road through Kindrogan Woods
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Crossing the bridge in Enochdhu
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Treating myself to a fancy dinner to make up for the damp weather.
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The Lunch Hut bothy, home for the night.

Sunday 19/5

  • TGO Day 8: The Lunch Hut (Cateran Trail) to Glen Doll
  • Distance: 31km
  • Ascent: 1734m

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.

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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.

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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.

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Rowing boat on Loch Beanie.
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Looking towards the head of 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.

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Crossing between Glen Isla and Glen Prosen.
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When you’re down here and need to be up there.

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.

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At the top of the Kilbo Path between Glen Prosen and Glendoll.
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The cloud clearing to reveal the back wall of Corrie Sharroch. Glad of the deer fence.
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Descending the Shank of Drumfollow.
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First glimpses of the Glendoll visitor centre, and the end of the day’s walking.

Monday 20/5

  • 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.

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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.

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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.

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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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