Well, like most of us, the answer for this season is nowhere much.
I returned to the UK from Antarctica in mid-March, via Ushuaia and Buenos Aires, before spending a week in Cambridge to wrap up the season for the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust. We reached the UK just as international travel restrictions came into place, and followed the difficulties that our friends on ships faced from afar.
It was a challenging couple of weeks as we reconnected to the rest of the world and remembered how to do all the little everyday things that had been absent from our lives over those 110 days. On top of that was the added strangeness of adjusting to our new normal in the time of corona, and it now feels like it was just a lucid dream.
I headed up north to my parent’s place in Aberdeenshire, where I could live in the caravan at the end of the garden and be useful while they shielded my elderly granny in the house. Reuniting with family wasn’t the hugs and long conversations I’d imagined, but waving through the window as I stood outside in the garden, and chatted through WhatsApp.
The COVID-19 lockdown in the UK was put in place the day I arrived home, and I’ve been here ever since.
What I’ve done
Over the Easter weekend, I took to the garden for a few nights of camping out. As well as being up to watch the sunrise and listen to the dawn chorus, it also prompted me to finally get round to fixing the slow puncture in my air mat.
I’ve been really fortunate in that I live in a rural area, and have plenty of opportunities to get outdoors for exercise and to explore the nature on my doorstep. I’ve got a blog post in the works about that, which should go live at the end of June to include notes about #30DaysWild.
I used my time to volunteer for the Slow Ways project, an initiative to create a network of walking routes connecting settlements. Walking has immense benefits for health and wellbeing, for individuals and for communities, and integrating it into everyday life is a positive solution towards tackling the climate and ecological emergencies. I mapped around 50 routes in northern and northeast Scotland to contribute towards a total greater than 100,000km.
In mid-May, I should have been taking part in the 41st TGO Challenge, to cross Scotland from west to east. I’d decided on a more challenging route than last year, starting in Morar and taking in more hills on the way to Montrose. Instead, I joined with other would-be challengers in the first-ever #virtualTGOC, sharing stories and pictures from the last 40 years of the event and gathering inspiration for future years in the hills.
I was rather late to the sourdough party, but I was given a starter at the end of May and started to experiment. My first loaf could have done with a hatchet to break through the crust, but my cinnamon buns (Norsk kanelboller) were pretty good, and my rosemary and garlic focaccia was next level.
The rising dough, ready for shaping.
Garlic and rosemary focaccia, with rosemary from the garden.
Fresh Norwegian cinammon buns and coffee for breakfast.
Sourdough plait filled with garlic and homemade pesto.
The pesto filling was made with rocket and nettles from the garden.
Around the same time, I was able to find work locally, starting as a fruit picker on a nearby farm. It’s not what I would choose to do, but at the moment it’s something, and will help to tide me over until my next opportunity for working or travelling is realised.
My Spring love list
Book: With the extra time available, I’ve finally read several of the books that were lingering in my “to be read” pile for some time, including most of these. My favourite read so far this year has been Horizon by Barry Lopez.
Magazines: I’ve recently discovered Sidetracked magazine, which combines incredible adventure and outdoor photography with inspired long-form storytelling. Dipping in for a read is pure escapism.
Film: Like everyone else, I’ve watched quite a few films during the lockdown. The one I’d most like to recommend was the incredible Climbing Blind, a documentary about Jesse Dufton as he aims to be the first blind person to lead a climb of the Old Man of Hoy, a sea-stack in Orkney. If you’re in the UK, you may still be able to catch it in the iPlayer.
Clothing: I really haven’t been wearing a great variety of things over the last couple of months. I’ve mainly been alternating between my fancy Seasalt pyjamas and Port Lockroy hoodie, and my running gear. It’s pretty strange wearing proper clothes again. And shoes, woah!
Equipment: Spending so much time on my own has been strange, after sharing the close living conditions of Port Lockroy and the even closer conditions on Irene of Bridgwater. I think its the quietness I find the hardest, so I love having the radio on in the background. I treated myself to a Roberts Play DAB digital radio, to make sure I can get BBC6Music as I read or write.
Before leaving for Antarctica I ordered a new case for my laptop but didn’t factor enough time for delivery. So on my return, I had a fabulous parcel waiting from Makers Unite, an inspiring Dutch social enterprise working with people from refugee backgrounds, teaching skills in product design and manufacture. My laptop case is made from recycled lifevests that were used in migrant travel.
Treats: It’s been hard avoiding the temptation of endless snacking during lockdown, so I’ve been making a conscious effort to be aware of the cookies, cakes, and chocolate I’ve been consuming. I’ve been setting a target of no sweet snacks until mid-afternoon, then stopping whatever I’m doing to make a pot of my favourite Russian Caravan tea to go with the treat.
What have you been up to over the last season? How has being in lockdown affected you?
I’m always here if you want to chat or leave a message in the comments below;
I’d love to hear from you.
This post contains some affiliate links. If you purchase through my link, I’ll make a small commission* on the sale at no additional cost to you. These help me continue to run the 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.
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.
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?
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.
Start Point: East Tempar Farm*
Finish Point: Braes of Foss
Hiking time: 4 hours
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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-dryinglayers, 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)
After the previous day’s attempt to make any kind of distance was a failure, I mentally reset myself ready for the last few days walking with a night at home; hot shower, real food, and good night’s sleep in a real bed. In the morning I returned to Clova feeling much more sparky than I had the previous day.
It turned out to be a good thing; putting myself a day behind my planned schedule for the Challenge meant I actually met up with more challengers than I would’ve otherwise. I met a few on the track from Clova up to Loch Brandy, then picked up a walking buddy having navigation difficulties to cross the hills down to Inchgrundle and the end of Loch Lee.
The well-trodden route from Clova to Tarfside is always busiest on the second Tuesday of the TGO, along with the other routes that converge into Glen Esk. It was also walking familiar very ground for me, bringing back memories of Duke of Edinburgh expeditions, walks on school trips, and camps with the Guides.
After walking much of my route on my own, meeting up with friends at various points along the route, it was a little bit of a shock to the system to be amongst so many people in Tarfside. But it also showed me that one of the real highlights of the event is the other challengers that you meet on the way as you become part of the extended TGO Challenge family.
TGO Day 10: Tarfside to Garvock viewpoint
After an excellent night in Tarfside in the company of other challengers, I was back walking on my own again for most of the day. Everyone else seemed to be heading in the direction of Edzell and Northwaterbridge, but to reach my finish point at home at the Haughs of Benholm, I had to find a more northerly route and struck out over the hills to Fettercairn.
I quickly discovered why few others took this route, after running out of hill tracks on Craigangowan and wandering into a huge bog cut with peat hags, and crossed by a deer fence. I waded, crawled, fell, and slithered for what was possibly only just a couple of kilometres, but it took me well over an hour (definitely due to walking conditions, not the hangover) to rejoin the hill tracks around Sturdy Hill.
Once back on the road, after a coffee break in Fettercairn, I pushed on as far as I could keep going for, with less than 45 km to end up at home, knowing I’d be able to take the following day to recover. But as the day wore on I got slower and slower, plodding on up the hill before grinding to a halt and stopping for the night at the Garvock viewpoint. Completely tired out, but really pleased with the effort for the day. A distance of 33km covered, and just over 10km left to go to the end of the TGO Challenge.
TGO Day 11: Garvock viewpoint to Haughs of Benholm
The final day! Just a short distance to finish my TGO Challenge, after the huge effort I put in the day before. It’s only around 10km from Garvock hill to my home at the Haughs of Benholm, and after starting fairly late, I was all done and dusted by 10am. It wasn’t the best route choice, as to avoid lots of road walking I decided to cross a few fields
My Mam put out a finishing line on the drive, and after dropping my backpack I left an order for a bacon butty and cup of tea, and went to dip my toes in the North Sea to make an official finish. Unfortunately, my arrival had coincided with the low tide, so rather than scramble over the shingle and seaweed covered rocks to reach the water’s edge, I settled for a paddle in a rock pool, and decided the sea could wait until I’d had breakfast.
Crossing the finish line at the end of the Challenge
On the way to the sea, before decinding theat the sea could come to me.
Dipping my toes in a convenient rockpool.
My 2019 TGO Challenge Stats
Total distance walked: 269km (167 miles)
Total distance walked in flipflops: 12km (7.5 miles)
Total distance crawled: 2km (1.25 miles)
Times that I cried: 3
The highest point of my route: Schiehallion summit, 1,083m (3,553′)
The highlight of my route: Finding a beautiful pool for a swim in the sunshine in a small burn on the side of Loch Etive.
Would I do this again? Absolutely!
Read the previous instalment of my 2019 TGO journal here, and find out more about the Challenge in this post.
After one too many days of fine weather and lots of walking with limited access to drinking water, little shade, and no sunblock, I was done. I’d scheduled a rest day with friends once I reached Pitlochry, so I switched it around to have a day out of the sun to recover and called for a lift.
The original inspiration for the TGO Challenge; Scotland Coast to Coast by Hamish Brown
Not a lightweight backpacker.
The Maskylene plaque at Braes of Foss commemorating the Schiehallion Experiment
A shower! Clean laundry! Ice cream! No heatstroke! It was wonderful. I treated myself to a pair of shorts and the factor 50 sunblock my pale Celtic skin needed to continue walking in the sunshine the next day, as despite not being the most lightweight of backpacker I hadn’t packed either of those things. I also found a brilliant secondhand bookshop which had something I thought might be useful for the rest of my trek. What would Hamish Brown do?
TGO Day 6: Braes of Foss to Pitlochry
The weather had continued to be absolutely glorious, dry, warm, and sunny while I took a rest day, and I looked forward to getting back out into the hills to continue my trek. Feeling fit and refreshed I was dropped off at the point I left a couple of days ago, at the end of the access road to the bayrite mine at Foss. This time laden with abundant supplies of factor 50 sunblock.
From Foss I headed up the track past the mine works to the tops of the Corbetts of Meall Tairneachan and Farragon Hill, bashing through the heather when the track ran out. The descent towards Strathtay was a little challenging, not least when I received a marketing call from my mobile phone provider on a steep section. I thanked them for their network coverage but suggested it wasn’t the best time to talk to them.
After reaching the hill track, I went around the shoulder of Beinn Eagagach, then followed the ridge of hills between Strathtummel and Strathtay. Just a little bit of bog scrambling, a lot of heather bashing, and being stalked by some deer as I went. From Clunie Woods, glad to get a bit of shade, I descended to meet the end of the Rob Roy Trail, crossed the A9 and reached Pitlochry.
TGO Day 7: Pitlochry to the Lunch Hut (Cateran Trail)
Well, it would have been unrealistic to expect the fine weather to last for the full fortnight of the challenge. Shortly after reaching my accommodation in Pitlochry, the sky turned the colour of a bruise, and the rain thundered down through the night. So I was particularly glad I was indoors overnight and didn’t have to pack up a soaking tent before I started walking in the morning.
Swirling pollen in the puddles.
The first rain for a week washing away pine pollen.
The forestry road through Pitcastle Woods
I made my way through town to the Black Spout waterfall, through the woods to Edradour Distillery. At this point my route became a little bit freestyle, crossing grazing land on the side of Tom Beithe until I entered the forest and could pick up forestry tracks. then through the forestry land to Enochdhu, climbing a few deer fences on the way. Picked up the Cateran Trail to head to the Lunch Hut bothy, where I met the first other challengers I’d seen since I’d seen the Danes taking a coffee break at Rannoch Station.
TGO Day 8: The Lunch Hut (Cateran Trail) to Glen Doll
Two things contributed to my early wake-up, the slow deflation of my air mat through the night finally reaching the point where my hip touched the tabletop I was lying on, and a sheep bleating incredibly loud and close to the bothy. I gave it a hard Paddington stare through the broken window, then had the thought this is how a horror film would start. I whispered an apology to the sheep, so as not to wake my two bothy mates.
Overnight the fog had come in thick, obscuring everything further than 50 metres from the bothy. This wasn’t good, as I’d planned to head up high from Glen Shee, following hill tracks to start with, then bashing through the heather to Mayar, before descending into Glen Doll. As I headed over An Lairig, towards Spital of Glenshee, with Emma and Simon, I started to revise my route with their suggestions.
I decided on a longer route, staying at a lower level to make solo navigation easier for much of the day. We walked together on the Cateran Trail until Runvey, then Simon and I left Emma to continue on to Kirkton of Glenisla, while we headed for Loch Beanie. There, we parted ways and I continued to ascend to the shoulder of Monamenach and down into Glen Isla.
I quickly ascended out of the glen to Mid Hill and Tarmach Cairn on hill tracks, following them in an arc to Broom Hill, before leaving them behind to descend into Glen Prosen by the Glack of Balquhader. I’d been keeping a weather eye during the trek, and it hadn’t cleared on the high ground, where the last stage of the route was going to take me.
The footpath between Glen Prosen and Glendoll known as the Kilbo Path crosses the col between the Munros of Driesh and Mayar, and was the highest point of my revised route. The mist was moving in and out while I stopped for a meal, but from my memory and according to the map, the track looked distinct, so I felt confident enough to get across into Glendoll before the light faded.
At the top of the path, the visibility closed in to be just a few metres in the cloud, but enough that I could pick out the deer fence along the back of Corrie Shalloch to handrail to the top of the descent on the Shank of Drumfollow, and make my way down into the valley. The path through the logged forestry was rough, but it meant I was counting down the last couple of kilometres to my camp. Finally, after 31km with over 1700m of ascent, getting on for 9pm, I was at the place I wanted to be.
TGO Day 9: Glen Doll to the Clova Hotel
Distance: 5.5 km
I rolled reluctantly out of bed and started packing the tent away slowly. My intended route for the day was another high one, climbing up from Glen Doll to White Bents and Boustie Ley, then picking up the track above Loch Brandy to head over to Tarfside. But no amount of coffee was giving me the motivation to attempt it, especially as the glowering low cloud was still obscuring the tops.
Finally ready to go, after chatting to a conservation team preparing pack horses for heading up to work on Davy’s Bourach, I set off along the road towards the Clova Hotel. I’ve walked this road a few times, and head down, powering along is the only way. I was reliving memories of my Silver Duke of Edinburgh expedition, and the oppressive clouds started to lift. It might be ok after all.
It wasn’t. About 200 metres shy of the Clova Hotel, the clouds burst and I was nearly soaked through before I could get my waterproofs on. I stepped up my pace, and through the mirk, saw a wonderful sight. John was standing in the road with a golf umbrella, having reached the end of his road trip, decided to come and check up on how I was doing.
Whisked off for a huge pancake breakfast and more coffee at Peggy Scott’s in Finavon, I checked the weather forecast. While the coast was going to be dry and sunny, the heavy rain was slowly creeping across the glens for the rest of the day, a big blue dot sitting directly over the Mounth. As I still had a day in hand to finish the challenge, I called it and decided to bail out the rest of the day and continue the following morning.
Read the next instalment of my TGO journal here, and catch up on the previous entry here.
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.
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.
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
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?
TGO Day 4: Rannoch Moor to Dall
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.
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.
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.
TGO Day 5: Dall to Braes of Foss
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.
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.
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.
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.
And now I’m here on a mountain top. Exactly where I should be.
Read the next instalment of my Challenge journal here, or catch-up with the previous one here.
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)
Now all I had to do was walk the 270km to reach the east coast. Easy, huh?
TGO Day 1: Oban to Loch Etive (Inverawe Country Park)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Read the next instalment of my Challenge journal here.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.