MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the category “Scotland”

Fife Coastal Path

For 117 miles (188km), the Fife Coastal Path leads the way round the coastal edge of the Kingdom of Fife, from the Firth of Tay to the Firth of Forth. Despite being officially opened some time ago, I hadn’t really heard much about it, but when my brother suggested we do a section of it on my most recent trip back to Scotland in September last year, I was happy to take the suggestion. With both brothers living in the southern suburbs of Glasgow, we set off early, leaving the dark clouds of the west coast behind for the not quite 2hr drive across to the east coast. We planned on sticking to the Forth estuary side, walking west from Crail to Elie, and with a bus to catch, we were eager to get the distance behind us. We made it to Elie and found a park with a brief bit of time ahead of the bus that took us through the various villages before we got off at Crail.

 

A long time ago, in what feels like another lifetime, I used to date a guy who had a pilot’s licence and his own plane. I remember flying over the patchwork of inland Fife and the coastal villages and it was a perspective of the coastline that most people won’t see with their own eyes. I was excited to see the coast from ground level and it had been so long since I’d explored Fife at all. Crail’s main street was compact with narrow side streets and the buildings had the village vibe going on with their brick look. Passing the distinctive Golf Hotel, we cut down Kirkwynd to find the coast and the starting point for our walk. The tide was out, displaying the sloping slabs and boulders of the coastline.

 

Just before the harbour, we cut up to the elevated path under the wall of the Watch House and this gave a great view onto Crail’s harbour, which would have looked prettier had the tide been in. As we entered the harbour proper, I was amused by a sign stating not to feed the gulls that had a big splat of bird poo on it, as if the gulls had taken vengeance. Cutting up to the road to skirt the back of the small beach, I spotted the Isle of May off the coast, an island which I’d visited many moons ago with my dad, and which is great for lovers of sea birds. The views over Crail were also spectacular as we cut round the corner and left the streets behind to rejoin the path.

 

The path remained low and gently undulating as we made progress along this long uninterrupted section. About halfway to the next village we found ourselves at Caiplie Caves, a tall red sandstone structure that had been shaped by the pounding waves after the retreat of the glaciers. More a series of inter-linking arches than true caves, they were fun to weave through and the colour of the red sandstone was divine. We’d pretty much been under a blue sky and warm sun up to now but as we continued west, the sky grew more hazy: the leading edge of the weather system that we’d left behind on the west coast that morning. Flat agricultural fields spread out to our right, and the gently lapping waves accompanied us to our left.

 

After this long rural section, we reached the relative sprawl of Cellardyke. After leaving the caravan park behind, the path became the road that lead down to the harbour and then through a maze of narrow streets lined by tightly knit brick buildings. At one point, in a gap between the buildings we spied a puffin sculpture that had been carved out of a tree stump. It’s not overly clear where Cellardyke ends and Anstruther begins, as the two appear to merge seamlessly into one another, but Anstruther is the hub of this coastline with the largest harbour of all that we would visit that day, and a tourist draw, making it a pretty busy place to be. After our solitude for the past few hours, it was a bit of a shock to be amongst the relative hustle and bustle of this harbour town.

 

Anstruther is famous for its fish and chips, being made with fresh catch of the day, and with the crowd, all of the eateries at the waterfront were busy. We were pretty hungry by this stage, but eventually settled for a sandwich out of a tiny little cafe at the far end of the harbour front. We ate them on the pier, staring out at the boats moored up and making the most of the warm day. On the opposite side of the pier was the view of the route ahead: the little beach framed by a small church and more quaint little buildings. I was enjoying walking through the village streets as much as I was the coastal views because the narrow streets felt historic and there were so many pretty and cute little cottages and inns, such as the Dreel Tavern on the way out of Anstruther.

 

We finally found ourselves back at another beach where the path resumed, taking us next to the local golf course. There were plenty of people on this part of the path as well as plenty of people out on the golf course next to us and I secretly wondered if anyone had ever been hit by a stray golf ball. At the far end of the golf course was the next fishing village, Pittenweem where we popped into a local shop for some local ice cream to fuel ourselves for the final few hours of the walk. The tide had remained quite a way out for our walk so far, which had made some sections look a little less picturesque, but past the main harbour, the lower water level had allowed for some pretty cool reflections of the nearby cottages in the water. The final section of Pittenweem took us past a row of pretty cottages which faced out to the sea, several of them with benches outside to enjoy the view from.

 

It was another long uninterrupted section that eventually brought us to a busier part of the walk by the St Monans windmill and salt works. Being a short distance from St Monans, there were a lot of locals out for a stroll here. We managed to get the windmill to ourselves for a bit before some of the other walkers arrived, but by this stage my eldest brother was getting a little antsy to be finished. The clouds had thickened up and the hours had ticked by and so we pushed on. Past yet another fishing harbour, and through more village streets we came face to face with the pretty and dominating Auld Kirk of St Monans. The first church on this spot dates from the 13th century and it commands the coastline with its little cemetery around it. Here there is a brief diversion with a high tide route and a low tide route, but we were able to stick to the lower route, skirting below the church and continuing onwards to a slightly more dramatic stretch of coastline.

 

With a few small cliffs along this next section, it was much more undulating, and a few historic ruins dotted the way. A round structure sits at a bend in the path and beyond here, the ruins of Newark Castle stand resolutely above a small cliff. Past the other side, the track cut down to sea level again meaning the ruins seemed to dominate the now grey skyline. Further along, the path cut through the middle of another ruin, this time the 15th century Ardross Castle, and past here we could finally see the structure that marked the end of our walk, Lady Janet Anstruther’s tower on a headland at the end of a long stretch of beach.

 

When we finally reached the end of the beach, the coastal path curved inland a little, and whilst I would have liked to have gone down to the tower, my brother was keen to get home and so I looked at it from afar before we cut across to Ruby Bay and then the large expanse of Elie harbour. It was the last chance to see the sea before the road cut up into the streets of the village and we found ourselves back at the church where we’d caught the bus, and back to our waiting car and the long drive home. Although the clouds had gradually moved in, the weather had remained overall pleasant and it had been a great chance to catch up with my brothers properly as well as a great introduction to this beautiful coastline. Goodness knows if I’ll ever get round to doing the other sections, but I’m sure they’ll be just as stunning.

Reunions

In 2011 I made the decision to move to the opposite side of the World. Although my official plan was to go for a year, deep down I knew this was likely to be much more long term than that, and so after selling as much of my belongings as I could, and boxing up the rest, I left my friends and family behind in December of that year for an unwritten future. I spent a month volunteering in the South Pacific before arriving in New Zealand and within the first couple of weeks of reaching Aotearoa, the Land of the Long White Cloud, I knew this country was to be my new home. As I had a return ticket, I used the flight home to spend Christmas with my family in 2012, and then I didn’t see them again until 2016. The long gap in between had become increasingly difficult, and I vowed to do my best to get back every couple of years if I could. With a nephew to meet and friends continuing to move forward with their lives, I had returned to Scotland in September last year with 2 weeks and no plans, so that I could dedicate my time to reunions and family time.

After a last minute change of plans in Amsterdam meant I arrived in Glasgow a day earlier than expected, it was finally time to meet my nephew. He had been in NICU during my visit in 2016 and so this was our first official meeting at the age of 2. I’d travelled for days to get there and I was met with a look of uncertainty followed by a prolonged cautious stare before eventually he decided that I was acceptable to interact with. That was the first time that my entire family were all together with my nephew, and whilst it couldn’t be further from my normal style of holiday, this epitomised exactly what this trip was all about: family.

The next day, after having some culinary reunions with some of the foods I miss from home, several of us went with my nephew to the Sea Life Centre at Loch Lomond Shores. Having moved away from Glasgow in 2006 to seek work, this was a place I had never been to, so wasn’t sure what to expect. It was a bit of a drizzly day so we headed straight into the centre out of the rain. I’m not a massive fan of zoos and aquariums, preferring to see wildlife in the wild, but for my nephew he was fascinated, and there was certainly enough things to keep him interested. He watched the otters swimming around and we hung around for their feeding talk. I love otters, and was lucky enough to have an encounter with one on a beach in the Outer Hebrides in 2010, but as they are usually wary of humans in the wild, it is not easy to see them in their natural habitat.

Passing through a short tunnel with fish swimming past us, there were some smaller exhibits before we reached the ray pool. There were some swiftly swimming rays and a couple of giant eels in there too. Nearby were some clown fish which are always a popular find. After my nephew had had his fill and the grown-ups had gotten an appetite, we headed back outside where it was now dry but still overcast. Although tucked away towards the end of Loch Lomond, there was still a hint of the surrounding mountains and forests and the paddle steamer Maid of the Loch was moored up nearby. Even with the threat of more rain, it was a pretty prospect. We headed into a cafe nestled amongst the row of shops before heading home for some haggis, neeps and tatties.

 

My parent’s back garden is very wildlife friendly which meant breakfast was often accompanied by some visitors outside to watch. Later on that next day, we took a family trip to Calderglen Country Park in East Kilbride. The weather really wasn’t that great so we weren’t able to make use of the park itself or go for any walks. Instead we headed to the glasshouse which had some meerkats and small monkeys amidst the plants and fish tanks. The meerkats were very active, digging and foraging whilst one stood on guard and their constant activity kept my nephew engaged. There was an ant colony nearby that had a rope system rigged up for them above our heads so you could watch the ants walk above you as they performed their daily chores of bringing back vegetation to the colony. When finally there was a break in the rain, we headed outside to the aviaries where we were all caught off guard by an African Grey parrot demanding some chips in a Glaswegian accent. It fascinates me how well these parrots can perform mimicry, and hearing one talk with a Glaswegian accent was just hysterical.

 

After ending the day with a friend from school and her partner, the following day was a sibling day where my two brothers and I headed to the east coast for a day of walking. We had done a similar thing in 2016 when they had joined me for day two of the West Highland Way. It is a rare occurrence for the three of us to be in each other’s company for more than a few hours since I moved out of home. We’ve spent longer time together in two’s but it was great to have a catch up as the three of us. Walking a section of the Fife Coastal Path took a large chunk of the day and aside from never having walked it before, I hadn’t been to this part of Scotland for a long time which was an added bonus.

 

I headed back into Glasgow city centre the next day to catch up with a couple of friends. I lived and worked in Aberdeen for 5.5 years before emigrating to New Zealand, and two of the friends I made there were able to meet up in Glasgow. I was amused by a comical busker on Buchanan Street as I headed to Queen Street Station to meet my friend coming down from the Granite City. As she wasn’t familiar with Glasgow, I took her to the Duke of Wellington statue and up to the observation deck at the Lighthouse so she could get a bit of a skyline view. When our other friend arrived from down south we headed to Princes Square for lunch. Full of designer shops and posh eateries, this was never a place I frequented when I lived in Glasgow during my student days. It felt like a total novelty playing ‘ladies who lunch’. Glasgow is a city full of familiarity but yet it still feels foreign to me. After eventually seeing my friends off on their respective transports, I took the familiar route to Central Station to catch a train to the south side. There was a new statue outside and a few new shops inside since last time I’d been past, but otherwise it was the same station I remembered from my nights of socialising in the city.

 

The weather the next day really wasn’t great so I hung out with my nephew indoors at his house. That evening, my friend from uni picked me up and we headed for dinner in Blantyre. The gastropub that we went to is famous for its desserts and has a large cabinet full of giant cakes. After a delicious meal, it was rude not to get a cake, but after ordering a chocolate eclair, I was presented with a foot long eclair loaded with cream. As divine as it was, there was no way I was finishing it, so the remains came home with me for my family to help me finish.

One of the tourist things I hadn’t gotten round to doing on my trip in 2016 was visiting Glasgow’s Transport Museum. It is one of the vague memories I still retain from my childhood, and the museum was moved and revamped some years ago, now a distinctive building on the bank of the River Clyde known as the Riverside Museum. Although autumn, we were still in the season for the boat that crosses from Govan on the south shore, so whilst my brother, sister-in-law and nephew drove straight to the museum for parking, my parents, other brother and myself drove to Govan and caught the little ferry over. I recognised many of the exhibits on display from the original museum, and whilst a little jumbled and cramped together in places, it was interesting enough to keep the various generations engaged. My parents could reminisce about the Glasgow of their childhood, and my nephew was enthralled with the trains and trams.

Moored up immediately outside is the Tall Ship Glenlee, which can be boarded and explored. We’d got there later than planned so unfortunately didn’t have time to get on her before it closed, but the promenade outside meant I could get a view of the river and Glasgow skyline that I hadn’t seen for so long. Some much needed investment in the city ahead of the 2014 Commonwealth Games has really revitalised the river bank which I always remember as being such a dump when I used to live there. The distinctive outline of the SECC on the north shore, and the science centre with its infamous tower on the south shore framed the river Clyde. Eventually, as the museum was reaching closing time, we caught the ferry back across to Govan to head home. My brother and I later went out to see Scottish cyclist Mark Beaumont talking about his cycling adventures around the World.

 

After a day spent hanging out with my school friend and her kids, my nephew was in hospital for a routine visit the next morning, so I wasn’t going to be able to see him till later on. I decided to go for a walk round the suburbs I grew up in, and knowing that my high school had been bulldozed and replaced, I walked first to there to see how it had changed and beyond there I couldn’t believe how much housing and development had occurred. When I was young, my parent’s house was about a 10-15 min walk to the edge of the city and after that was miles of countryside. Fast forward a few decades and it is now a 30min walk to reach the countryside, and the paddock with the horses is gone, and the farm where I used to milk the cows is now a housing estate. The southern suburbs of Glasgow have exploded so much that for the people who live there, there is really no reason to go into the city at all with entertainment and shopping complexes all within easy reach.

 

I found myself eventually at Rouken Glen Park, location of various school events. I found wood carvings, maintained gardens and round the edge, a wilderness area through a woodland. Hidden here was waterfalls and old stone structures, and despite being a weekday, there were many people making use of the trails that cut through. Towards the southern end, I found myself at one of the park’s more well known features: a multi-tiered waterfall that flows under a stone arched bridge. I was amused to discover that the railing on the bridge had become the local ‘love-locket’ site. Copying the more famous locations in Europe where loved ones are immortalised on an engraved lock that gets attached to a bridge, there were plenty of them here too, and I read some of the engravings with feigned interest before walking round the nearby pond and then heading home.

 

After an afternoon playing with my nephew, my mum and I caught up with my aunt and cousin for dinner at Intu Braehead. I hadn’t been here before so my cousin gave me a tour to show me the indoor ski slopes and ice climbing centre that she takes her kids to. Next to the climbing centre near the entrance, I’d been eyeing up the giant helter skelter whilst my mum and I had waited for them to arrive, so I didn’t need much encouragement to have a go on it, and my cousin joined me for a slide down before we went for dinner. I hadn’t seen my cousin since her wedding in 2010 so it was great to have a chinwag after all these years.

But all good things must come to an end unfortunately and all too soon it was the last day and we spent it as a family together. Every time I go home, I insist on a group photo and this was the first time to include my nephew. I had an early morning flight back to Amsterdam the next day, so as always it was a sad farewell, this time before even going to bed as it was too early for my parents to get up the next morning. My brother kindly offered to get up and drive me to the airport at stupid o’clock in the morning, and before I knew it I was leaving Scottish soil behind once more.

Return to Glasgow

With my last minute plans to leave Amsterdam a day early, I threw my family for a bit of a loop, but thankfully they were still able to pick me up from the airport when I flew into Glasgow in the late afternoon. It had been over 2 years since I’d last seen them, but it took no time at all to slip back into the usual family dynamics as my dad drove us home through the rush hour traffic. My visit home last September was over 12 years after I’d moved away from the city and although I will always think of Glasgow as my home town, it is almost as foreign to me now as any other city I visit. The Glasgow that I remember from my student days has continued to morph and grow in my absence, and as such I love to play tourist every time I return.

On my previous visit in 2016, I spent 6 weeks gallivanting around Scotland and Iceland and although I had a fantastic time, by the end of it I felt that I hadn’t spent enough time with my family. So this time round, with just 2 weeks in the country, I went with no plans at all in order to have quality time with them, and especially to get to know my nephew who had spent the entirety of my last visit in NICU, completely oblivious to my presence. Emigrating to the other side of the World has meant sacrificing being present in my family’s lives and I have often felt jealous hearing about their time spent together and especially missing out on my nephew growing up. But meeting my nephew properly for the first time would have to wait as my unexpected early arrival meant he had plans the day after I arrived.

In 2016, I had a cracking day in Glasgow walking the Mural Trail, and there had been some new additions to the route since then, so I headed into the city on my first full day at home to take a wander around. I wasn’t so lucky with the weather this time unfortunately, but it could have been worse, so I spent the day making use of my legs and walking everywhere. I headed first to George Square which is surrounded by some iconic buildings, and was busy with people taking breaks from their work day. The distinctive pink banners stating ‘People Make Glasgow’ adorned the many lampposts surrounding the square and nearby the entire facade of a building had been turned pink with the same statement emblazoned on it. East of here was the beautiful mural painted by artist Smug of St Mungo as a baby. It ties in with Smug’s other portrait of St Mungo which I’d seen on my last visit to the city.

 

From George Street onto Duke Street I found myself at the Tennent’s Brewery. I’m not really a lager fan, and was just here for some more mural spotting, but on a whim (partly because some rain was threatening) I decided to sign into a brewery tour. A small group of us got shown round the various parts of the site before being taken back to a bar for a tasting session. My pint of Tennent’s lager was presented with a much more acceptable head than the Heineken I’d received in Amsterdam a few days prior, and we also got to taste some specialty brews including some much stronger ales. Suffice to say I was a little tipsy by the time I headed back out on the streets, cutting down the east-end streets of Glasgow to reach Glasgow Green, a place I hadn’t been to for an incredibly long time.

 

I found myself at the large Doulton fountain which was framed by the People’s Palace, one of the city’s museums. The sun was trying desperately to break through the clouds again, and after circling round the fountain to look at the ornate depictions on its circumference, I headed into the People’s Palace to look around. I’m a bit of a museum snob: I’m easily disappointed by them, with only a handful rating highly in my mind, so I wasn’t really fussed spending much time looking at the displays. I circled through only glancing at them, heading to the conservatory to wander around the plants before stopping for a late lunch in the cafe. I was excited to find they served coronation chicken sandwiches, one of those things that despite loving, had forgotten even existed. I’ve never seen it anywhere other than Scotland, so was quick to order and shovel one down when it came.

 

I had meant to wander through Glasgow Green to see the monument that had been erected for the 2014 Commonwealth Games but forgot about it, so instead of cutting through the Green, I headed back up to the main road to head west back into the city. On route, I found a couple more murals that I hadn’t seen including 1 of 3 that depicts Billy Connolly, or the Big Yin, one of Scotland’s most famous comedians and personalities. This first one I didn’t actually like, and the paint that had been used was too reflective so it was actually difficult to photograph. The rain had arrived by now, so I didn’t linger long, continuing on to the Merchant City.

 

Whilst Edinburgh is often lauded over by many foreign visitors, Glasgow has so many beautiful buildings and is brimming with statues and monuments. At the start of the Merchant City is the turreted clock tower which is faced by a mix of old and new style buildings. Whilst the Trongate at eye level looks like a collection of pubs and shops, a simple raising of the eye to the top half of the buildings reveals some stunning architecture. Heading along the Trongate towards Argyle Street brought back many memories of shopping trips with my mum when I was a kid, as I used to get brought to this part of the city to get clothes for the new school year.

 

Nearby was another Billy Connolly mural, my favourite of the three, and past here I headed into the St Enoch Centre shopping mall which had been revamped since I’d last been there, which was when I used to still live in Glasgow. Out the other side was the final Billy Connolly mural, overlooking the beer garden of a nearby pub. Unfortunately the rain returned with a vengeance, and after taking some photographs, it was time to make a hasty retreat so I headed into some shops to wait out the rain. Eventually though, the sun returned and I found the last of the murals I’d wanted to see, down an alleyway of Argyle Street, before heading up Buchanan Street, one of the city’s main shopping thoroughfares, and another street with some beautiful buildings if you look up.

 

When I’d played tourist back in 2016, I had gone to the Lighthouse and headed up to an indoor observation room. I’d discovered later that I had completely missed a higher outdoor observation deck, so this time I headed back to the museum again to suss it out. Unlike the indoor viewing area which can be reached via elevator, the outdoor area involves climbing a spiral staircase and the outer area is quite cramped. But boy is it worth it for the view overlooking the rooftops of the city. Again, I’m totally biased when it comes to my love for Glasgow architecture, and although there are some modern buildings juxtaposed against the old, there is so much history evident looking across the older buildings that disappear into the distance, with domes and turrets poking up at regular intervals. From this vantage point, the bright pink facade of the ‘People Make Glasgow’ building could be seen once more behind Strathclyde University.

 

Finally, back in the rain, I headed to my favourite statue in the city, the Duke of Wellington, which stands proudly outside the Gallery of Modern Art on Queen Street. Famous for its permanent attire of a traffic cone, this statue sums up Glaswegians for me as well as showing that people really do make Glasgow. Edinburgh is a great city, but I will always love Glasgow more and I always wander it struggling to hide the grin that the sound of a Glaswegian accent puts on my face. Sometimes I can feel quite sad about the fact I don’t have a Glaswegian accent. It’s gone in my favour whilst abroad as people can usually understand me very well, but when I hear the Weegie patter spilling out Weegie banter, my little heart swells with pride like it does to the sound of bagpipes, and secretly I wish I sounded like I belong there.

Na h-Eileanan Siar – Part Two

It is a strange concept to be amongst fellow countrymen and yet not to understand their language, such is the decline of the Scottish Gaelic. Once a common and widely spoken language (particularly in the north and west), it was bred and beaten out of some speakers as well as replaced for purposes of trade and commerce, first by Scots, and then by English. It hangs on for dear life in places, but aside from a few key words, place names, and the bilingual signage in the north-west of the country, most of the Scottish populace do not speak it, and so generation by generation, it seems almost doomed. As it was, I was in the heart of the Gaelic community, out in the Outer Hebrides (Na h-Eileanan Siar). I’d spent the previous few nights based in South Uist, and now it was time to head further north to a new base.

As a lover of the outdoors, there was simply too much to explore in this bilingual frontier on the Atlantic coast off Scotland’s mainland. Although the main trunk road, the A865 carves a direct line north, there were so many side roads leading to beaches and bays and rocky coastline that I was constantly weaving my way west then east in a zig-zagging fashion as I explored these hidden pockets. I was initially greeted by a rainbow through the dark clouds, but eventually the clouds broke apart to reveal some sunshine. South Uist is linked to the island of Berneray by one of a series of causeways that link the island chain. The eastern half is pockmarked with waterways, a cluster of freshwater and seawater. Between the different islands, some of my memories are a little blurred, and I cannot remember which bay or beach was where, but one of the walks I did on Berneray was up Rueval (Ruabhal in Gaelic), the highest point of the island at a mere 124m (407ft). It was hardly taxing but the view at the top over the island and beyond was beautiful. I could still see the storm clouds to the south that I had left behind and the sun glistened on the waterways beneath me.

 

I took a side road to the island of Flodda, a small island with just a handful of buildings and the odd ruin. Back on the main road, more causeways took me to the neighbouring island of Grimsay and then onto North Uist. Dotted between the sporadic houses and farms there was the occasional ruin here and there. Some of them were old cottages or farms, others were of more significance such as the Trinity Temple. Near here was the exposed and wild expanse of Baleshare’s beach, another island reached by a causeway. On a sunny summer’s day, many of Scotland’s western beaches would rival any of those paradise-inducing photographs of worldwide beaches: pristine sand and unspoilt. But for the frigid sea temperature and biting wind that often accompanies these beaches, they are still worth the visit, and often because they will be empty apart from the local wildlife. Under the dulling sky, these places can feel wild and battered, but in fact that is exactly what I love about this part of my homeland.

 

The eastern half of North Uist is again pockmarked with waterways. Taking the A867 towards Lochmaddy, I continued past the harbour settlement to continue on the A865 that circles past these lakes and inlets. At the turn-off onto the B893, I passed houses here and there, nestled near some beautiful beaches, before reaching yet another causeway to take me to Berneray, the most northern of the linked islands. Beyond here is Lewis and Harris, linked by a ferry run by Caledonian MacBrayne. The Lobster Pot Tearoom which was closed whilst I was visiting, has a sign outside which has become quite famous and is a good indicator of the local humour when it comes to the region’s notorious weather extremes. Past Blackhill, I took the road to its end and then it was time to get out on my feet and explore.

 

Cutting first across beach and then through farmland, I ascended the hill of Beinn Shleibhe which although not particularly high gave a viewpoint across to the nearby islands of Boreray, Pabay, Harris, Ensay and Killegray. I saw one other hiker far ahead of me, but otherwise I had the whole place to myself. Cutting down the other side of the hill, I stumbled onto another of the island chain’s beautiful beaches. After following it for a while, there was a natural curve creating a corner, which as I came around it, I was stopped abruptly in my tracks by the sight of an otter running out of the sea and rolling around in the sand. This is the only wild otter I have ever seen, and I was so transfixed and in the moment that I dared not move to take any photographs. To this day, the memory is still a very clear image in my head, and I stood for some time watching it roll in the sand to remove the salt from its fur, and then it duly skipped off up the nearby sand dune. Eventually, I cut up a gap through the sand dunes myself and followed a vague track back to the road where I could reach my car from.

 

Having had a fantastic start to my last day in the Outer Hebrides, I felt rushed in the afternoon to explore the rest of North Uist. Back on the A865, I passed more beautiful sand right by the road where it was clear people took their cars onto the beach. It was tempting but I didn’t want to risk getting stuck. Further on, towards the west, I reached the turnoff to Solas beach. Out on a peninsula, this whole area was beautiful even as the rain threatened to encroach. With sandy beach on both sides, there was plenty of reason to get out of the car and go for a walk. With the hours creeping on and the weather deteriorating, I found beach after beach after beach as I continued on my way, and I wished I had had more time to spend here. Eventually it was time to leave the western coast behind, and after stopping in at the St Kilda viewing platform where I couldn’t actually see St Kilda because of the advancing rain, I returned to the guesthouse I was staying in and had a wander around the farmland and beach nearby as the sun lowered.

 

That night I treated myself to an expensive dinner at a fancy restaurant near Lochmaddy. Driving home in the dark can be dangerous around these parts and I could see why when a female red deer jumped onto the road in front of me out of nowhere and proceeded to prance down the verge ahead of me for some distance before eventually disappearing into the darkness. The next morning I had a ferry to catch and a long drive to the east to reach my home at the time in Aberdeen. I always spend ferry crossings out on deck to watch the world go by and was rewarded by some porpoises riding our wake. Returning to Uig on the Isle of Skye, it was grey and overcast. I spent a large chunk of the day taking detours and side roads round Skye, visiting Waternish, Durnish and then taking the long detour to Elgol across the water from the Cuillin Range. Amidst a break in the grey clouds, the sun shone here and I stopped often to take in the changing view as I retraced my steps back to the main road. Despite Skye not being one of my favourite islands, I could see the appeal.

 

I took yet another detour down the long road towards Armadale. Although a ferry to the mainland leaves from here, I wasn’t catching it, but instead wanted to visit a part of the island that I didn’t think I’d been to before. The area around Isleornsay was especially pretty, but eventually I had to push on. Crossing over the Skye bridge back to the mainland, I reached Eilean Donan Castle, probably the country’s most famous and most photographed castle aside from Edinburgh Castle. That evening, the water of Loch Duich was calm providing a reflection of the castle that sat regally under the grey sky. I stayed at a b&b in the middle of nowhere to break up the journey, and the following day I negotiated the competitors that were cycling around Loch Lomond in the rain. By the time I reached Carr Bridge for a late lunch, the river Carr was in good flow from all the rain that had fallen of late. Beyond here, there was just the familiar drive through the mountains to return home to Aberdeen.

 

Na h-Eileanan Siar

With around 14,000 years of known human habitation, Scotland has an extensive history. With so many events to choose from, it’s understandable that the school curriculum falls short at teaching an adequate amount of it. When I was at school, most of our history teachings were focused around the first and second world wars, and whilst I’ve extensively travelled my homeland and visited historical sites of interest, I’ve felt that my knowledge of the Scotland of the past has been very fragmented and jumbled. Even last year when I was playing tourist in my country of birth I was made quite aware of my lack of awareness of how the various historical events related to each other. In a book shop in Ullapool, I found Neil Oliver’s book, A History of Scotland, and over a year later I am finally ploughing through it. Whilst the age-old habit of naming children the same as their relatives has made it hard to follow who did what at times, overall it’s left me with a much better understanding of why Scotland is the way it is today. It is incredible to think the differences that could have been if just one or two battles had swung a different way or if one or two key people hadn’t been such a pushover or in contrast so defiant. The fate of the Gaelic  (pronounced Gah-lick) language is one sad example, a fading remnant of a once stubborn independent sector of a once ununited nation.

Reading this, I was reminded of a holiday I took back in 2010 to the Outer Hebrides (Na h-Eileanan Siar), a wild and rugged stretch of islands off the country’s west coast where the Gaelic language is holding on for dear life. Living at the time in Aberdeen, I had to drive the whole width of the country just to get to the Isle of Skye, my stepping off point for the Uists. Ask many a tourist (and Scot for that matter) and Skye is often lauded as their favourite of the islands. But not me. I think perhaps because every visit I’ve ever made there has involved torrential rain, or maybe it’s simply that it can’t compete with the experiences and memories I’ve gained on several of the other islands. Whatever the reason, it will never be my favourite Scottish isle, not even close.

 

I ate dinner at Portree in the setting sun and pulled up to my hostel on the hill overlooking Uig in the descending darkness. I’ve stayed in so many hostels over the years that only a handful of special ones stick in my mind, and this is one that has faded into nothingness. I remember nothing of the inside but the next morning under a cloudless blue sky, I definitely remember the view from outside overlooking the harbour below. I had some time to kill before the ferry departed so I took a drive east to Quirrang, a distinctive rocky landscape that featured in the movie Stardust. Despite the sunshine at Uig, this side of the island was cloaked in patches of cloud, lending a dramatic sky to the dramatic landscape. I continued round to the Old Man of Storr, another of Skye’s famous geological features, where I took the path up to its base. Soon though, it was time to return to Uig, board the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry and set sail to Lochmaddy on North Uist.

 

My plan on arrival was to drive the chain of linked islands as far south as I could get and gradually work my way north to get the ferry back nearly a week later. And so I found myself checking into a former old folk’s home that was now masquerading as a hostel, just outside of Lochboisdale on South Uist. It had been raining the whole way down and still it rained some more. I had arrived on a Sunday, a traditionally holy day of rest here in the religious west. Until relatively recently, and against a lot of local backlash even flights to the island chain on Sundays were prohibited and at the time of my visit, businesses closed their doors (a practice long since abandoned in the cities and towns of the mainland) and the place felt deserted. With the wind and rain howling outside I felt like I was in a frontier land, wild and abandoned as it was. Eventually though, I could remain holed up no longer, and geared up with waterproofs and an Ordinance Survey map, I found a local walk to kill some time. I got utterly drenched and met just one other person but as somebody who often craves solitude away from the noise of my daily life, this was perfect. Not put off by the bad weather, I headed up another walking track behind Lochboisdale where the mist and rain swirled around me obscuring my view.

 

The following day gave promise of better weather. I headed south across the causeway to Eriskay, the most southern of the linked islands and parked up in the queue for the ferry. There’s something so endearing about this old fashioned jetty style where it’s first come, first served. I’d made sure I was there early to guarantee a spot on the ferry, and with my car holding my place, I climbed the nearby hill to take in my surroundings and watch the ferry come in. The sun was out for the crossing to Barra and it remained dry the whole day I was over there.

 

Barra is a rather small island but big enough that I was glad to have my own wheels to explore it. I went for a beach walk and passed the beach runway of the local airport, the only airport in the world that has scheduled flights land on a beach, and up to the peninsula beyond where I took another walk. The rugged beaches of the wild west coast seemed positively bustling compared to the quietness I’d experienced so far. There were so many places to stop and stretch my legs. The sky was turning grey as I continued south, taking the turning down a rural road to reach the causeway for Vatersay, yet another island in the expansive chain. The beach here was beautiful and almost empty but the wind was bitterly cold, and with lots to see, I couldn’t stay as long as I would like.

 

Castlebay is the main settlement on Barra and it was so busy I struggled to find a place to park. It was a strange contrast to the rest of the Outer Hebrides, especially as there were even coach parties of tourists here. I didn’t have time to visit the castle on its rock promontory out on the bay (hence the name), and in the end I didn’t stay here long due to the parking problems. I wound my way north up the east coast, stopping often to soak up the view, before taking the ferry back to sunny Eriskay, where I made use of the evening light to explore the coastline around the causeway and the south of South Uist.

 

There was more sunshine the next morning, and I made the most of the morning light to explore Lochboisdale’s shoreline. From there I headed to the beautiful and extensive sandy beach that spans almost the entire west coast of South Uist. It was windy but gorgeous and there was barely a soul to be seen for miles. Exposed as these islands are, the vegetation is low to the ground, exposing everything to the full brunt of the Atlantic weather. With only a handful of hills in the lower half of the island chain, they are a generally low-lying landscape, and with both salt water and fresh water in great abundance, these islands are a bird-watcher’s paradise. There’s also plenty of farmland here, as harsh as the growing would be, and I spotted the distinguishable Highland Cow which is a very hardy species of cattle, as well as the equally hardy Clydesdale horse.

 

Loch Druidibeag contains an RSPB reserve where it is possible to see a lot of waterbirds, and beyond here there was plenty of opportunities to get out and stretch my legs. The apparent desolation belies its beauty and my trip so far had firmly planted this part of the country as one of my favourite parts of Scotland. On a stormy day, I’m sure this place can seem harsh and intolerable, but on a dry autumn day, it beguiled me. It was a struggle to make it far along any road here without finding yet another spot to stop for photographs. There was so much ground to cover. I ventured east to the coastline and further north to the statue of Our Lady of the Isles, a large granite depiction of the Virgin Mary, before returning to Lochboisdale for my final night here. The rest of my trip was to be spent to the north, as equally enchanting and as beautiful as I’d become accustomed to in the last few days.

Wildlife of Scotland

It is said that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. After spending over 28 years of my life living in Scotland, it took moving to the other side of the world to really appreciate some of my homeland’s special qualities. As brimming as it is with beautiful scenery, it is also full of wildlife, both urban and rural. Over the last few years I have become a bit of a bird enthusiast, and I’ve found myself paying more attention to the feathered creatures that flit about around me. Whenever I go abroad, I’m very conscious of the wildlife that lives in that foreign land, and now when I go back to Scotland, I see the wealth of wildlife with fresh eyes. From cities to lochs, and mountains to the coast, there is something to spot everywhere. Special mention goes to the otter, red fox, red squirrel, hedgehog, minke whale, harbour porpoise, bottlenose dolphin, basking shark, white-tailed sea eagle, buzzard, kestrel and osprey which I have had the joy of seeing but haven’t been able to photograph.

MAMMALS

Reindeer

There’s only 1 herd of reindeer in the whole of the UK and they roam the mountain tops near Cairngorm, many of them coming down daily to hand-feed from visitors.

Adult Reindeer

 

Red Deer

The ‘Monarch of the Glen’, the male deer in full antlers and rutting mode is a sight (and sound) to behold. Spotted in the mountains and moors.

 

Roe Deer

The shy and solitary member of the deer family. Much harder to spot than the other deer species. This one was spotted in Caithness.

 

Grey Squirrel

An introduced species that has played a major part in the decline of the native red squirrel, these guys are a common sighting in parks and gardens, and are easy to spot without even leaving the city.

 

Rabbit

Seen as a pest by some, rabbits are often easy to spot in farmland and open fields.

 

Common Seal

From a distance, the common and grey seal can look very similar. Usually spotted hauled out onto rocks up the west coast or on the islands.

 

Grey Seal

Newburgh beach north of Aberdeen offers near guaranteed sightings of these seals. They usually haul out on the protected north side of the Ythan river there, and can also be seen swimming in the river itself watching the beach goers and dogs go by.

Grey seal in the Ythan river

Seals hauled up on the beach at Newburgh

 

Humpback Whale

A seasonal visitor to Scottish waters, they can be spotted for a very short time in the waters around the islands of the west coast.

Humpback whale off the west coast of Scotland

Humpback whale fin slapping

 

White-beaked Dolphins

Feeding pods can be spotted around the islands off the west coast if you are lucky.

White-beaked dolphin leaping

 

Common Dolphins

These deep sea feeders are my favourite species of dolphin. They can be spotted off the west coast if you are lucky.

Common dolphin

 

BIRDS

Pied Wagtail

These are commonly spotted garden and pasture birds and are widely spread across the country.

Pied wagtail

 

Chaffinch

The colourful male is easy to spot in gardens and green spaces. The female blends in more and is less distinctive, but the species is well spread across the country.

Chaffinch (male)

Chaffinch (female)

 

Blackbird

Another common visitor to gardens and green spaces. This juvenile was trying to grab the attention of its parents.

Blackbird (juvenile)

 

Wood Pigeon

This is the porky version of the common run-of-the-mill street pigeon that plagues city centres. Although they will occasionally be seen amongst their scrawny city-dwelling cousins, they are more usually seen in the suburbs or near woods.

 

European Robin

The recognisable robin redbreast that adorns many a Christmas card is best spotted in gardens.

 

Starling

A common and easily spotted bird in both urban and rural areas. These birds often flock together in mesmerising murmurations in the evening as they prepare to roost in large groups.

Bedraggled starling parent

 

House Sparrow

Another common and easily spotted garden bird.

House Sparrow

 

Song Thrush

These are the birds that I fondly remember from my childhood, singing away in the trees behind my parent’s house. They have a beautiful song, and are best spotted in areas with trees, but this includes many public green spaces and gardens.

Song Thrush

 

Carrion Crow

One of the county’s most diversely spread birds, they don’t seem fussy with their habitat and can be spotted in both urban and rural areas either singly or in groups. They are adaptable and have a varied diet, and are also known to be intelligent.

Carrion Crow

 

Swallow

Less spotted than the more common and similar-looking swift, these birds love to fly over high-insect zones such as farmland and waterways. They are exceedingly agile on the wing and are amazing to watch in action. It is also rare to see them on the ground and uncommon to see them perching as most of their life is spent on the wing.

Swallow

 

Common Linnet

This is a bird I never knew existed until I was going through my photos after my most recent trip home and wondered what it was. I’m certainly not aware that I have ever seen one before. This colourful male was spotted near the coast on Papa Westray in the Orkney Islands.

Common Linnet (male)

 

Mallard Duck

Anyone who has ever fed bread to a duck in a city park in Europe and North America has likely been feeding these guys. They are everywhere, and have been introduced to many other countries outwith their original range.

Mallard Ducks

 

Mute Swan

Another common occupant of urban waterways as well as coastal estuaries. I grew up knowing nothing but white swans, and remember a news story from my childhood about a black swan that appeared in the river in the town of Ayr south of where I lived. There is something very majestic about these creatures, although they can be very vicious if you get too close, especially when they have youngsters.

Mute swans on the farmland

 

Common Redshank

A lover of dampness, these birds are best spotted around marshes, meadows and lakes. Despite its name, its not as common as it used to be.

Common Redshank

 

Northern Lapwing

It is usually their cry that draws your attention to these birds. Although they are wading birds, they are best spotted on farmland and cultivated pastures. Unfortunately, population numbers are showing a decline and they are classified as a threatened species.

Northern Lapwing

 

Great Grey Shrike

I photographed this bird but didn’t know what it was at the time. Their preferred habitat is grassland with shrubbery, and it is uncommon to spot them. This particular bird was spotted near the coast next to some open farmland in summer time which is unseasonal as they usually migrate to breed elsewhere.

Great Grey Shrike

 

Pheasant

Native to Asia, the pheasant was introduced historically as a game bird. Many a painting adorning Scottish castles and mansions will depict dead pheasants hanging in a kitchen or off the arm of a shooter. Even today, these birds are still popular to shoot during the right season. To shoot them with a camera, they tend to be found in the countryside where they like to dash out in front of cars on rural back roads, and are occasionally spotted when out hiking in the glens.

Pheasant (male)

Pheasant (female)

 

Red Grouse

Another bird that is still shot in Scotland during the beating season. They are very difficult to spot, hiding in amongst the heather of the open moorland in the highlands and some of the islands. It is easier to spot them on a bottle of whisky where their image has had a worldwide audience thanks to the Famous Grouse brand. I came very close to standing on this little grouse chick that was easy to overlook and refused to move when I got close. I’ve never seen an adult in the wild.

Red Grouse (chick)

 

Eurasian Oyster Catcher

With their distinctive call, they can be the rowdy accompaniment to any beach walk and are one of many bird species that wander around the tidal zone looking for a meal.

Eurasian Oyster Catcher

 

Ringed Plover

These pretty little birds are another common sighting at the beach, feeding in the tidal zone, and often seen in small groups.

Ringed plover

 

Common Sandpiper

These migratory birds are only seen in the summer months but are beach goers that forage in the tidal zone, and are more solitary in their habits than the ringed plover who they share a habitat with.

Common sandpiper

 

Curlew

The largest wading bird in Europe, the curlew is sadly a threatened species. Usually seen on their own, they can be spotted either on the shoreline or inland.

Curlew

 

Temmincks Stint

One of many similar looking shore birds seen around the tidal zone.

Temmincks Stint

 

Common Eider

These large ducks are sea-dwellers, living along coastlines of Europe and North America. They are an easy spot in Scotland due to the distinctive colouration of the male and their size.

Eider (male)

Eider duck (female)

 

Red-breasted Merganser

This migratory diving duck breeds in Scotland, and this particular female was spotted in Loch Lomond cruising near the shore.

Red-breasted Merganser

 

Black-Headed Gull

A commonly spotted gull near the coastline.

Black-headed gull

 

Common Gull

As the name suggests, these are a common sighting, mainly on the coastline but can be spotted in cities and farmland. They are bigger than the black-headed gull but smaller than the black-backed gull.

Common gull

 

Black-backed Gull

The big bully of the gull world, there is no shortage of these gulls around Scotland and they will happily scavenge in urban zones as much as the coastline.

Black-Backed Gull (juvenile)

 

Fulmar

These birds are wanderers of the sea, only coming to shore for the sake of breeding. They are a loud and common sighting along many coastlines in the summer months.

 

Great Skua

Also known as Bonxie, these large birds are the robbers of the bird world. Why obtain your own fish when you can steal from another? They can be spotted at rest on land or more commonly seen swooping and mobbing at other sea birds in the air or on cliffs.

Great skua

 

European Shag

Shags and cormorants are terms used differently for different birds within the cormorant family. They are best spotted on rocks where they like to spread their wings wide to dry. This nest with juveniles was on Papa Westray in the Orkney Islands, but they are widespread along the Scottish coastline.

Shag parent with chicks

 

Gannet

This is one of my favourite sea birds and are most impressive when seen diving at great speeds from the air to catch fish. A flock of diving gannets can be a good way to find feeding whales and dolphins as they will often track feeding pods where the fish are pushed nearer the surface.

Gannets

 

Puffin

One of Scotland’s most special birds. Unfortunately their numbers are in decline as they are selective feeders. I remember seeing great flocks of these when I was younger, and now they are in small clusters. Despite their petite size, they spend most of the year at sea, returning to land only to breed where they nest in burrows. The cliffs on the west coast of Mainland Orkney, Faraid Head in Sutherland, and the Isle of Staffa are recommended places to spot them in the summer months.

 

Guillemot

A similar size to the puffin, though much more populous, and often seen hanging around in the same places.

Guillemot

 

Razorbill

Another cliff-loving sea bird, they are often seen milling around near guillemots.

Razorbills

 

OTHER – THE OFTEN OVERLOOKED INSECTS, AMPHIBIANS AND FISH

Six-Spot Burnet

This pretty moth was spotted amongst the dunes on the Aberdeenshire coast.

 

Hairy caterpillar

One of many reasons to watch where you tread. This guy was crossing the hiking path on the West Highland Way.

Caterpillar

 

Blue Damselfly

A pretty little dragonfly, their colour is mesmerising. Spotted near a loch in Sutherland.

Blue damselfly

 

Golden-Ringed Dragonfly

A beautiful and large dragonfly, I spotted this one whilst out hiking in Cairngorm National Park, although they are more widespread in western Scotland.

 

Snails

Slugs and snails are a gardener’s pest but I like snails, and think the ground-dwelling creatures of the world are under-appreciated. This group of snails were hanging out on a post in Barra, in the Outer Hebrides.

 

Black Slug

The ugly slug of the slug world.

Black Slug

 

Brown Slug

The not-so-ugly slug of the slug world.

 

Frog

The famously wet climate means amphibians can find plenty of habitat to choose from in Scotland. Unfortunately several species are on the decline due to predation, disease and habitat destruction. This frog came into a mountain bothy I was staying in whilst out hiking in the Cairngorm National Park.

frog

 

Blue Crab

One of many crabs that can be spotted on Scottish beaches. This one was at Faraid Head in Sutherland.

Blue crab

 

Sunfish

Also known as the mola, this is the heaviest boned fish in the world. It is really rare to spot these in Scottish waters, but they occasionally pop up due to the ocean currents. I was exceedingly lucky to spot this impressive fish off the coast near Tobermory on the Isle of Mull, many years ago.

Sunfish

 

Moon Jellyfish

One of the more common jellyfish in Scottish waters.

Moon jellyfish

 

Jellyfish

Another jellyfish in Scottish waters. To some people, jellyfish are horrible creatures, something to fear. Whilst I don’t want to swim amongst them, I certainly like looking at them move around the water.

Jellyfish

West Highland Way: Kinlochleven to Fort William

It was a joy to wake up to sunshine on day 6 of the West Highland Way (WHW), but having seen the forecast the night before I knew it was to be short-lived. I’d hiked mainly under a grey sky the whole walk so far so I was determined to get up and get going before the predicted rain moved in. Unlike the previous 5 days, there would be no civilisation between Kinlochleven and the end of the WHW 16 miles (25.5km) onwards, so with a grocery store in town, I made sure I had enough supplies to keep me happy for the day. I clearly wasn’t the only WHW hiker with the same idea, as there were several others setting off as I left my little cabin behind.

Kinlochleven

 

Although the sky was blue above, there was some low cloud over the mountain tops as I passed through the main street of Kinlochleven. Just as the buildings are coming close to ending at the head of the loch, the path heads into the trees near the school, and a short distance later begins to zig-zag up the hillside. The attained height is similar to the Devil’s Staircase on day 5, but yet strangely isn’t talked about by hikers in quite the same way. The view as it picked its way up the hillside was stunning, as Loch Leven came more into sight, and the buildings of Kinlochleven grew smaller and smaller. I regularly caught up with and overtook the same hikers time and time again on this section as we all stopped regularly to admire the view.

Clouds behind Kinlochleven

Statue in Kinlochleven

Heading out of Kinlochleven

The Lairig

Green hillside as Loch Leven creeps into view

Loch Leven panorama

Kinlochleven

Stunning view over Loch Leven

 

This route is known as the Lairig, and once the upper reach is attained, the view west showed the distinctive Pap of Glencoe as well as a sky full of clouds that were an omen for the coming change in weather. As the gradient flattened out, the other hikers and myself started to spread out across the landscape, and I ended up leaving them all behind. I knew the rain was coming, and wanted as much of the hike out the way as I could before the inevitable drenching. It was a beautiful section to hike, surrounded by green mountains and the loch sparkling below. As the loch disappears out of view, the track continued into a broad valley, and so it continued for a few miles. It was far from monotonous though on such a sunny day, and there were a couple of old ruined farming cottages to spike some interest. The first was relatively intact minus its roof, and there were the rusty remains of farming equipment scattered around in the nearby field. The second was rather worse for wear, with the walls crumbled into stony heaps. A little stream bubbled past nearby, and another walking route headed off up the nearby mountains.

Rain clouds to the west

Looking west to the Pap of Glencoe

Hiking below the green slopes

Panorama across the Loch Leven valley

Tigh-na-sleubhaich farmhouse

Tigh-na-sleubhaich farmhouse

Lairigmor farmhouse

 

After crossing a few streams, it became clear that the valley took a sharp turn and it was a near 90 degree shift in direction from heading west to heading north. The blue sky was behind me now, and I was back to the familiar grey skies that had been my company for the previous 5 days. At least it was still dry, but there was still a lot of ground to cover. The stubby remains of woods were visible and beyond that a sign denoted where the victorious MacDonalds chased the defeated Campbells of Argyll following the battle of Inverlochy. A stone cairn lay next to the sign, and the instructions were to either add a stone or to remove one depending on your allegiance. Through my mother’s side of the family, I am of the clan Campbell of Argyll so I dutifully removed a stone and tossed it away.

Ford in the WHW

Changing view as the valley curves

The pursuit of the Campbells

 

From this point onwards, the theme of the day was woodlands, whether felled or still standing. But the path by now was broad, and there was not another person in sight. After a while though, the track came to a junction where the broad track dipped down to become an actual road leading to Lochan Lunn Da-Bhra to the west and Glen Nevis to the north. The lochan is visible from here as the WHW turns off the broad track and starts to climb once more. There were a lot of bees here and despite seeing the looming clouds getting nearer and nearer, the view was still very open, and before I knew it Ben Nevis, Scotland’s (and the UK’s) highest mountain came into view. It had been a few weeks since I had summited the munro in the cloud, and I could see a little more of the mountain on this day than I had on the day that I hiked it. Still though, the summit was shrouded again.

Track through a woodland

Lochan Lunn Da-Bhra

Looking back at the road already travelled

Ben Nevis finally comes into view

 

As I approached the main section of woodland, I was overtaken by a runner, and once in the woods, I crossed a large stream, and then was surrounded by tall conifers. This would be my last chance to spot red squirrels and I looked upwards ever hopeful only to be disappointed. The track was rough and undulating under foot, and I could feel the temperature dropping. In a brief gap in the trees I saw that Ben Nevis was disappearing under a veil of clouds, and as I continued to march through the woodland, the rain started to fall and as it grew heavier, I was forced to kit up in my waterproofs. I was glad that there was plenty of trees to offer some light coverage, as the morning’s section of the hike had been so exposed. I was overtaken by another hiker in the middle of the woods, and as the path took a bend I was struck by an immense feeling of deja vu. I discovered later that I’d never been there before so I don’t know where the feeling came from but a small section of walk that dipped and curved round a hillock had felt so strongly familiar as to be almost unsettling.

Waterfall in the woods

Ben Nevis visible in a clearing

Walking through the forest

 

A fence denoted the boundary of the Nevis forest which covers the hillside of Glen Nevis. Here a track lead up a hill to an old iron age fort. Dated between 500 BC and 100 AD, I had argued in my head whether I wanted to make the detour or not. By now my legs were getting very sick of walking, and the thought of going uphill again was really putting me off, but in the end it was the ongoing rainfall that sealed the decision for me. A group of cyclists had come up the hill from Glen Nevis to visit the fort and I left them to it, deciding to skip it on this occasion. I eagerly stuck to the WHW which finally began the long and slow descent into Fort William. In the rain, I hated this section. Whilst I love forest walking in New Zealand, I’ve always hated forest walking in Scotland, where the diversity is much more limited and the fauna less apparent also. It felt like this track would never end, and my legs were working on auto-pilot as I dreamed about the hot coffee that would greet me in Fort William.

I knew that there would be a path to the Glen Nevis youth hostel before I would cut down to the road, and even this felt like it would never appear. When it did, I did a silent cry of jubilation and got a second wind to speed up a little. Finally the WHW cut off the forest track and picked its way down to the road that leads from Glen Nevis to Fort William. For 2 miles (3km) the WHW becomes the pavement next to the road and the rain continued to fall as I trudged alongside passing traffic, counting down until finally the first houses appeared. At the Nevis Bridge roundabout, a large thistle sign denotes that this was the original end of the WHW. The nearby Ben Nevis Woollen Mill (effectively a tourist shop) provides free certificates to hikers so I popped inside for a respite out the rain to collect mine.

The first houses of Fort William

The original end of the WHW

 

Now, the WHW ends in the main street of Fort William, another mile away. It is still signposted, although they appear more subtle amongst the road signs and buildings, but the way continues along Belford Road before cutting across the green space of the Parade and heading down Fort William’s semi-pedestrianised main street. I’ve visited Fort William many times before, and it felt so familiar to be here with the same old shops lining the high street. There was barely a soul outside when I reached Gordon Square with the statue and sign marking the end of my 96 mile (154.5km) hike, and after sitting in the rain briefly to acknowledge my achievement, I had to dawdle for a while to grab a passing stranger to take my photo. It seemed fitting to end it geared up in waterproofs, just as I had started it in Milngavie, but once the photos were taken, I was quick to head to the nearby Costa Coffee for a well deserved and much needed hot drink.

No explanation needed...

Posing with the statue at the end of the WHW

 

I had a few hours to kill before my train back to Glasgow, and I took my time perusing my favourite local stores, and doing a bit of shopping. The rain never let up for the rest of the day, and eventually it was time to make my way to the train station. The train was packed and I felt sorry for the two girls who had to sit opposite me, as I was pretty confident that I had acquired a delightful post-hiking aroma. I was initially confused when the train headed north but as it turned out it took a sweeping arc north then east before curling south, and this in fact took in some of the most stunning portion of the Rannoch Moor. I had been a little disappointed with my passage through the moor on day 5, having felt that the moor from the roadside was more stunning. Now though, the moor took on a wilder and more expansive sweep as the train hurtled through, and having seen none on the hike, we passed multiple red deer. The low cloud and mist added to the romance of the place and I fell in love with Rannoch Moor once more.

Eventually though, around 9.30pm, the train crawled into Glasgow’s Queen Street station and my adventure was over. My partner had arrived from New Zealand and he met me in the city ahead of the last few days of much needed family time before my long transit back home to Christchurch in New Zealand’s South Island. I was ecstatic to have completed the hike, having desired to do it for many years. Although I am a seasoned hiker, the WHW is perfectly achievable for people of average fitness, but due to the locality to many settlements, it can easily be divided up and walked in isolated sections. With the exception of the section within Loch Lomond’s boundaries, camping is allowed anywhere along the route, meaning those who want to sleep under the stars have the luxury of walking the route in as little or as long as they like. Otherwise, there is plenty of accommodation to choose from along the route, and in the summer months, you can pay for luggage to be transported between your night’s accommodations. In other words, the WHW is truly a walk for everyone.

West Highland Way: Inveroran to Kinlochleven

The wild expanse of Rannoch Moor spans 50 square miles (130 square kilometres) in the Highlands of Scotland, and accounting for the most exposed section of the West Highland Way (WHW), I had been fervently monitoring the weather forecast and keeping my fingers crossed. This was not a day for rain. I’d studied the map of my route, and looked at mile after mile of totally exposed moorland.

I awoke on day 5, and looked out my window at the Inveroran hotel to see that not only was it dry, but there were vague patches of blue sky. I struggled to eat my breakfast, by now sick of the amount of food I’d been trying to consume over the past few days, and pulled on my hiking boots along with all the other guests of the hotel, and set off on what turned out to be the most stunning section of the whole hike. Curling round the river at the head of Loch Tulla, a sign at a forest lodge, denoted the history of the old military road that ran through the area, and then through a little gate, and past some trees, I found myself at the start of the moor.

Inveroran Hotel

Looking back towards Loch Tulla

Information board by the old military road

 

The clouds were not far away and I silently hoped they stayed where they were. It was an easy and well trodden route to follow, and there were plenty of other hikers both ahead and behind me. With hills in every direction, and the flowers and birds of the peat-filled bogs beside me, there was plenty to keep my attention. I watched a little chaffinch for a while near a small plantation whilst sitting on an old arched bridge. A collection of lochans reflected the clouds above on their surface, and they grew dark as the surrounding skies grew dark.

Chaffinch on the WHW

Rannoch moor

Lochans on Rannoch Moor

Hikers walking the WHW

Lochan near the WHW

Another lochan in Rannoch moor

Boggy Rannoch Moor

Peat bog in Rannoch Moor

 

I found myself at Ba Bridge rather quickly, and passed the groups of people that had stopped there for a rest. One of the larger rivers of the moor ran through here, but beyond it, the marshland, streams and mini-waterfalls next to the path were calling me, as was the solitude that I craved away from this busiest of sections of the WHW. The route of the day’s hike really skirts the edge of the moor, with the bulk of it spreading off to the east, intersected by the A82 road, and the West Highland railway line to the far east. On paper, this section of the route looked immense, and I found it to be staggeringly beautiful in its wildness. However, I had been looking forward to traversing this section due to what I’d seen of Rannoch Moor from the drive south from Fort William, and I was disappointed to discover that I wasn’t getting to see the vast lochs and heather-clad peat bogs that I’d spied from there. This truly was the edge of the moor, and in no time at all, I reached a small peak, and rounded a corner to find myself in sight of the Glencoe ski-field and the Kingshouse hotel, a 10 mile (16km) walk from the Inveroran hotel that I’d left that morning. As beautiful as it had been, the road gives a better view of this stunning moor, and as I later discovered, the train ride gives the best opportunity to admire it in all its glory.

River running across Rannoch moor

waterfall next to the WHW

Rugged beauty of Rannoch moor

Rannoch Moor rolls east into the distance

 

Now, I was looking up Glencoe, and the clouds ahead looked foreboding. Sneaking into view was the distinctive peak of Buachaille Etive Mor, one of Scotland’s most famous and photographed peaks. I picked my way down the hillside, and left the WHW briefly to head up the track to the Glencoe Mountain resort where the cafe at the base of the ski lifts served me a gigantic mug of hot chocolate piled high with marshmallows. It was just what I needed. There was a surprising amount of people at the ski resort considering both the time of year and the weather. As I crossed the large car park to head down the track to rejoin the WHW, a kindly soul stopped to offer me a lift. But there would be no cheating on this hike, and I thanked her then declined.

Rannoch Moor meets Glencoe

Buachaille Etive Mor comes into view

Buachaille Etive Mor

 

To my left, Buachaille Etive Mor dominated the skyline, looking dramatic as ever with the looming dark clouds that hovered over head. Crossing a river, the track greets the A82 by a large sign and a trio of flags that billowed crazily in the wind. This is the busiest road crossing of the whole hike, this section of open road having a speed limit of 60 miles per hour. This is not a crossing to do whilst distracted. Once on the far side, it was an easy walk to the Kingshouse hotel. This historic hotel is a popular stopping point both for drivers on the road and hikers in Glencoe. The WHW skirts round the side of it, and over a bridge before turning left onto yet another old military road.

Buachaille Etive Mor at the head of Glencoe

Mountains flanking Glencoe

River running through Glencoe

Glencoe Resort

Scottish flags framing Buachaille Etive Mor

Crossing the A82

Glencoe

Buachaille Etive Mor near Kingshouse

Kingshouse Hotel

Information board at Kingshouse

Buachaille Etive More behind the Kingshouse hotel

 

From here onwards, Buachaille Etive Mor shows its famous pyramidal outline, and ignoring the traffic that thunders past its base, it is a beautiful accompaniment to the hike. I’d spent the whole day on the look out for red deer, thinking this was my best chance of spotting them, but now so close to the A82, it seemed that my chances were waning. Passing more lochans and peat bogs, the path climbed a little, withdrawing itself from the busy road below, before sadly descending back to its side, where the WHW hugs the road side for a while. There were plenty of cars parked near a copse where the A82 curves up another valley. By now Buachaille Etive Mor looks very different, and a walking track up the munro leaves from here. There was a flurry of activity here as tourists paused for photos, and I was keen to get back to the wilderness and solitude again.

Glencoe past Kingshouse hotel

The pyramid of Buachaille Etive Mor

The changing face of Buachaille Etive Mor

The WHW through Glencoe

Buachaille Etive Mor from the roadside

The A82 snaking from one glen to the other

 

The WHW leaves Glencoe behind by traversing the hillside and winding its way up an altitude gain of 259 metres, on a section known as the Devil’s Staircase. Depending on who you speak to, or where you read, this has a reputation as being one of the most gruelling sections of the WHW. As a regular mountain hiker in New Zealand, I really didn’t think this section was as bad as it had been made out. Certainly after a long day of hiking, I could see it could be tiring. My brother walked all 96 miles of the WHW for charity in just 48 hours, and I could see how this would have been a gruelling climb for him and his friends at this stage of the walk. As it was, it zig-zagged up the hillside, the biggest annoyance being the mountain bikers who were attempting to negotiate the rocky path at the same time.

Leaving Glencoe behind

Mountain biker sharing the path

Nearing the top of the Devil's Staircase

 

On reaching the summit, I paused to take in the view and have a bite to eat, but just as I turned to bid Glencoe goodbye, the heavens finally opened and I was forced to kit up in my waterproofs for the long descent into Kinlochleven. Supposedly from this summit, Ben Nevis should be visible, but between the low clouds and the falling rain, I had no idea where it was supposed to be. Like Rannoch Moor, this section was fully exposed to the elements with not a whiff of shelter in sight. I had been lucky to avoid the rain as long as I had, and thankful that whilst the shower was heavy enough to be a nuisance, it was relatively short-lived, wearing itself out after just 15 minutes. A light drizzle remained for a little longer, but the clouds on the mountains across this new valley looked dramatic as they hugged the summits.

Final view of Glencoe

Final view of Buachaille Etive Mor

The long descent ahead

Wispy rain clouds

 

Picking its way down the hillside, a pretty little footbridge across a river is reached, and then the track curves round the contour of a hillside. It felt like Kinlochleven was within reach, but still it remained deceptively out of sight. The odd building here and there could be spotted, and some pipelines scarred the landscape below. There was the sense that civilisation was about to be reached, but growing tired towards the end of a 19 mile (30.5 km) hiking day, this final section felt like it would never end. Passing a dam, it then curled in a large arc within a woodland, and through the trees, there were glimpses of green in every direction. Occasionally I could spot signs of quarrying and digging on the nearby hillside. Finally though, the path joined the route of the large pipes of what used to be an aluminium smeltering plant, and headed directly towards the buildings of Kinlochleven.

Footbridge in the moor

River under the footbridge

Mountains on route to Kinlochleven

The long road to Kinlochleven

Dam outside Kinlochleven

Green as far as the eye can see

Reaching Kinlochleven

 

Ignoring the turn-off to my accommodation, I opted to stick with the WHW until reaching the village itself. The track crossed the river Leven and quickly I found myself walking along a residential street past people’s houses. It then cut through a little woodland nestled on the river bank, and in a matter of minutes I found myself at the bridge in the middle of the village. Whilst the WHW turned right, I crossed back across the river to the left, and snaked round the road past the Ice Climbing centre to the Blackwater Hostel, my stay for the night. I’d booked the cutest little pod for the night which consisted of a mattress, a microwave, a fridge and tv, all packed tightly into a cosy wooden log-shaped cabin. It was compact but it was all that I needed, although I had to hire a sleeping bag as I’d not carried any bedding with me.

River Leven

Kinlochleven

Industrial remnants in Kinlochleven

Blackwater pod

Inside the pod

Putting my feet up

 

I had a brief wander around the village, stocking up on breakfast supplies at the nearest grocery store, and then joyously found a local takeaway serving delicious pizza that I took back to my cabin. Finally resting my feet, I snuggled up in my pod with the tv for company, and felt at ease, if not a little saddened that I had just one day of adventure left. There was just the last night of sleep between me and my final destination.

West Highland Way: Crianlarich to Inveroran

It was a rude awakening as the hordes of schoolkids rose from their rooms and started thundering down the hallway. I lay in bed for as long as I could before finally getting up myself for a shower. I’d booked breakfast with my room, and had to queue for the buffet with all the hungry teenage boys that had stayed there that night. I often use hiking as a good excuse to eat lots of food, and now on day 4 of the West Highland Way (WHW), my stomach was starting to protest a little. I forced the cooked breakfast down, but slightly regretted it, opting to hang around the hostel till checkout time, feeling a little nauseous. With all the school kids off an a local hike, it was eerily quiet with everyone gone. Whilst day 3 had been the longest day of the whole hike, I still had a solid 16 miles (25.5km) to hike that day, so eventually I had to kick myself into gear and get going.

Rather than retrace my steps back to where I’d left the WHW, I opted to use the other part of the Drovers Loop from Crianlarich which meant following the A85 under the railway line and out of the village slightly onto the A82 before entering the same woodland I’d passed through the evening before. This route turned out to be quite muddy and not as distinct a path. It was also steeper, but before long I found myself at the marker back at the WHW junction. Turning right, I was destined for Tyndrum where I planned on having lunch. A large sign indicated that the path was entering Forestry Commission land and immediately the rocky path began to climb. It was another overcast day but despite this, the visibility was still very good with the cloud level high, so on reaching a slight lookout, it was still possible to see the hills rolling away for quite some distance.

Drover's Loop into Crianlarich

Walker's crossroads at Crianlarich

Ewich forest

Stirlingshire countryside

On route to Tyndrum

 

Somewhere within this undulating forested section was the halfway point of the hike. With no marker, there was no way of knowing it at the time, and apart from pausing wherever there was a break in the trees to admire the view, I kept up a reasonable pace. There were a scattering of other walkers who I passed as I went, and eventually, after what felt like quite a protracted amount of time, the path turned to head down the side of a burn and pass under the arch of the Caledonian Railway line. Sandwiched between the railway line and the A82, it isn’t far before the route actually crosses this main trunk road, and soon after this a bridge spans the expansive River Fillan. Now I was back in farming country, with sheep filling the paddocks by the path.

Railway arch

Caledonian Railway line to Oban

Road crossing ahead

River Fillan

River Fillan

Pasture land by Kirkton farm

Lambs at Kirkton farm

 

Next door to Kirkton farm was the remains of St Fillan’s church and cemetery. There is little left of the church itself, with the crumbling wall shaded in green, but the cemetery still carries many tombstones as well as some uniquely marked stones. There were a few walkers milling about here, some of which I’d see repeatedly across the morning, catching up with them or being caught up by them, depending on where we chose to take a break. Moving on from here the farm track led through a series of gates and fields till it came out at Auchertyre farm where there was a toilet block, shop and wigwam-style accommodation. The farm track led onto an access road where a steady stream of traffic regularly pushed me into the vegetation, before I found myself back at the A82, crossing it once more.

Information board at St Fillans

The remains of St Fillan's church

St Fillan's cemetery

Special gravestone at St Fillan's cemetery

 

Following the river again, the vegetation was quite open, and I found myself at a sign denoting a battle site from the 14th century. The Battle of Dalrigh involved Robert the Bruce and his men who suffered a heavy defeat, sending the man himself into hiding. A little further down the track, a lochan is reached which is purported to hide Robert the Bruce’s sword, having been thrown in here following the battle. The water was still, reflecting the trees that swarmed the far bank, and giving away no hint of what treasure might lie below.

Battle of Dalrigh information board

Lochan of the lost sword information board

Lifesize depiction of the lost sword

Reflective waters of the lochan

Lochan

 

It was an easy meander through the young trees until it was time to hit the forest again just south of Tyndrum. Historically, this area was mined for lead, and I remember visiting here on a school excursion when I was in high school, but nothing within the trees looked familiar. Passing through the gate in the deer fence, it was then a well graded path again, following the river once more passing the local caravan park, then skirting round the back of Tyndrum, passing the train station for the Caledonian line, and curling behind some houses before crossing the stream bed and up past a row of cottages. Once more back at the A82, the WHW crosses this heading north, but I, like several other of the hikers, walked into Tyndrum.

South of Tyndrum

Lead Mining Information board

Caravan park at Tyndrum

 

This is a popular service village to stop at on the road from either Oban or Fort William, with a handful of eateries, tourist shops, accommodation and a petrol station. It is popular with truck drivers as well as bikers, and I remember many a childhood holiday stopping here to stretch the legs. The Green Welly Stop is particularly well known here. I’d driven through here on my way back from Ben Nevis a few weeks prior and had noticed a new and intriguing cafe of the edge of town. I’d decided then and there that that would be my lunch stop for this day of the WHW, but I was immensely disappointed to find that not only was it crammed, but when I actually was able to see a menu, it was simply glorified fast food. So I back tracked to the cafe next to the petrol station and sat outside eating lunch at a picnic table surrounded by bikers. By now into the school summer holidays, as well as being the height of the tourist season, it was a busy little place to be.

Leaving Tyndrum behind, the WHW entered a very long exposed section for mile after mile. I was grateful that the rain had kept away as from now onwards, there was going to be little in the way of shelter. Passing some wood carvings on the edge of the village, civilisation was left behind once more, although the A82 was never far away. As the main trunk road to Fort William from Glasgow, there was always traffic in sight. Despite this, it felt wild and barren. Following an old military road, it was a reasonable quality track to hike, nestled within a valley, and before long a light drizzle had started. Initially between the West Highland railway line and the A82, the WHW crosses under the railway line after a while to keep them both to the left. Thankfully the drizzle was short-lived, and passing under the shadow of a cloud-draped Beinn Odhar, I caught up with a mother and daughter hiking the WHW at a waterfall gushing down the mountainside.

Squirrel tree carving