Maol Bhudhie – episode 2

3(If you go two episodes back in the blog you can read the first instalment Judgement Day)

It’s the morning after the walk before and I’m sitting on a large flat stone outside the bothy drinking hot chocolate. I wonder how many other walkers before me have sat on that same stone and watched the early morning light slowly claiming the glen. I’ve already overcome one challenge this morning, I’ve made the transition from horizontal to vertical without too much difficulty. After the long walk in to Maol Bhudhie I thought my legs might be sulking and refuse to move the following day but, to my surprise, they seem to have forgiven me the 14 mile walk in.

The glen is still and silent, not much moves, there are some deer a long way off across the loch, grazing in the early morning sunshine, but apart from them the glen appears empty. There is no bird song, there are no insects buzzing and the treeless landscape remains unmoving despite the breeze. I find myself imagining what this place might be like if the forest ever returned, how different it would appear if there were trees populated by birds and insects and a huge variety plants and other animals. What it would be like if squirrels populated the trees, perhaps a woodpecker drummed against a distant tree. Even, a forlorn hope I know, how would it be if, as I drifted off to sleep in the bothy, a wolf howled across from a far off glen.


It feels like we have created a kind of mono-culture in our remote hills where only deer thrive. This has been a good year for the deer, they are sleek and well fed, the result of a benign winter. This year the lower slopes of the hills have remained mainly free of snow giving the deer access to easy grazing. Low temperatures have been rare so the deer have survived in great numbers. Last year winter was harsh and cold and lingered long in the hills. By the spring the deer that had made it through the cold were emaciated, moth eaten specimens looking a little like the remnants of three months fasting. Not so now, fat healthy deer stroll beside the loch, confident that the season ahead is unlikely to be one of scarcity. I’m not sure if it is true but I always suspect that a mild winter is also good news for the midge population so this year our summer is likely to be blighted by even more of the vindictive little demons. Certainly, after the cold of last year the midges seemed less numerous than usual. I was even able to sit outside a bothy near Loch Arkaig in June and enjoy a brew without even one set of tiny jaws removing a portion of my sadly over abundant flesh. That experience is one I’m unlikely to ever be able to repeat unless global warming manages to plunge us into some kind of nuclear winter. An event I for one would relish. I’d be quite happy to see the whole of Scotland sink beneath the ice if it meant the demise of the midge.


A couple of hours later I headed away from the bothy and up over the gentle climb that leads to the steep descent into Glen Elchaig. The previous night I’d sat beside a roaring coal fire having carried in about 6 KG of the stuff. The walk out was made much easier due to the consumption of my fuel supply and went well until I stopped for lunch beside the Iron Lodge. The day was warm and friendly so I allowed myself the luxury of cooking some soup for my mid-day meal. I’m not sure if it was the soup that did it but when I rose to walk the remaining seven miles or so to the road my legs seemed to be being controlled by an alien force. I stumbled over a small pothole in the track and tried to put my feet out of harm’s way. Oddly they refused to move and I careered about like a toddler experiencing a sugar rush. I stood for a moment bent over my poles puzzling at my feet. Unless I could get some control over my legs I realised that the remaining miles back to the car were likely to be long and painful. I’m not usually the most perceptive in times of adversity but it occurred to me that my sudden onset of exhaustion might be caused by dehydration. Yards away a bright little stream bubbled its way beside the track as if provided for this very moment. The effect of half a pint of water was immediate and electrifying. It was as though I had poured a can of petrol into a stuttering lawn mower engine and turned it into an F1 car. Well perhaps that’s an exaggeration, maybe just a mini, but I wandered back down the glen without pause and undue fatigue and only the occasional cube of chocolate.

A mile or so before I returned to my car I stopped to ponder the map and decide on the easiest way back to the tarmac. A ghillie pulled up in his Land Rover, “Are you lost?” he asked kindly.

“No” I replied, and then thought for a moment, “not yet.”

Folk Lost on the Hill

The large black Labrador shuffled uncomfortably in front of the fire. He was, as is typical of his kind, and expert human watcher and his eyes had strayed little from the angular frame of his owner, who had wedged himself in an armchair, for the last hour or so. Bob, as his owner George, had named him could see that his master, He who wields the tin opener, was unsettled. For one thing the TV programme about baking cakes had just finished and he was still awake, for another, every fifteen minutes he would rise up, peer at the clock and sink back into his armchair scratching at the large bush that grew on his chin. Something Bob decided was amiss and he would not settle until George did.

The TV program about people falling over and being laughed at was halfway through when the phone in the hall rang. She who provides the odd secret biscuit and is allowed to sleep beside George called through from the Palace of Food, “I’ll get that.” George has raised himself half out of the armchair and is listening intently. Bob decided that there was definitely something going on and raised his head from the carpet focusing his ears on the conversation in the hallway. “Yes, yes,” said the woman George called darling, “I see. Oh dear I’ll tell him.”

“What is it,” enquired George casually.

“Two more lost on the mountain,” said his Margaret, wringing her hands in frustration, “I can’t believe it, terrible, terrible.”

George scratched the remains of his old Aran pullover and moaned softly with a kind of painful sadness, “Oh well, I suppose…” his voice trailed off as he rose reluctantly from his armchair. “What can you do?” he muttered heading for the bedroom and his hill gear.

“I’ll make you up some sandwiches, George. I do hope you’re not out all night.” His wife called from the kitchen already pulling loaves and lettuce from the fridge.

In contrast to his owner Bob, recognising the signs of an impending nocturnal foray into the wilderness, was bouncing around the lounge unable to contain his excitement. His tail clattered ornaments from the shelf above the fire as he went into that, “If we don’t go now I may explode,” mode dogs have.   A few minutes later George appeared transformed from the dozing householder to a man of action, well that might be a slight exaggeration, but he had at least changed his trousers. “Oh and we were just settling down for a quiet night in. I don’t understand it,” Margaret exclaimed emerging from the kitchen with a Tupperware box containing George’s carefully wrapped sandwiches, “How many is it now, losing themselves this year?”

George paused in zipping up his fleece, “Oh I don’t know, certainly the team’s busiest season for years.”

“You’d think with GPS and everything there’d be fewer folk getting lost these days.”

“Ah well,” George mused, shouldering his rucksack, “you know these hills, the weather can change terrible quick, folk just get caught out.”

“Well it makes no sense to me,” exclaimed Margaret proffering the box of sustenance, “I’ve made them from that nice low fat cheese and the cholesterol reducing spread instead of butter. Oh and there’s that reduced fat mayonnaise you like too. Your favourite.” George smiled and, leaning forward to peck Margaret on the cheek, reflected on how middle age had seeped into every corner of his life, now even his sandwiches reeked more of medical advice than taste. The days of bacon sandwiches, and white bread soaked in tomato sauce had long gone along with his flowing hair.

The car park at the foot of the glen was already busy with team members abandoned cars by the time George steered his Volvo to a halt beside the white and red Land Rover that was the team’s only possession. Jumble sales and sponsored walks had raised enough cash to supply the vehicle over a number of years. Each tyre was the product of the sale of threadbare trousers and many miles of soggy walking by willing volunteers. Kenny was lounging from the driver’s window, his woollen hat in danger of losing the fight to contain his mop of curly ginger hair. He waved to George as he stepped from his car. “Well here we are again,” his soft voice almost lost against the burbling of a nearby burn, bubbling and bustling its way down the glen.

“Aye, here we are again,” replied George fastening his boots.

“Search the bothy first I thought?” asked Kenny heaving the long aluminium silhouette of the stretcher from the back of the team vehicle.

“Sounds a good plan to me.”

“Charlie and the rest of the boys have gone ahead.”

“Not all boys,” George laughed, noticing Constable Laura’s patrol car parked a few feet away.

“Ah well no that’s true,” smiled Kenny, “They’ll do well to keep up with her.”

The last of the evening light was slipping quietly from the glen and the November air was already turning chill as the two men (and one dog) headed up into the hills along the path beside the burn. They walked in silence, wheeling the stretcher, with its load of chinking equipment between them. The track climbed steeply at first and the ascent demanded all the breath both men had before it gradually eased a mile or so before the bridge across the gorge. It was here the two men allowed themselves a pause. It was fully dark now and they both stood for a moment, watching their breath mist in the beams from their head torches. George looked up and noticed that the stars were already beginning to show as pinpricks in the night sky. “A frost tonight I think.”

“Aye could be a cold one.”

“I take it we are well equipped for whatever rigours we may face?” said George, with a note of concern.

Kenny was offended, “You don’t think I’d leave us short?”

Time for a little conciliation, “No, not at all, I’ve every faith in you.”

Soon they were teetering across the wire bridge that spanned the gorge and focused on preventing the stretcher from hurtling into the foaming waters 200ft below. A mile after that the bothy came into view a dull glow emanating from the windows. A tall, slim female figure was first to greet them from the door. “What kept you?”

“We’re not all bloody Antelopes,” wheezed a sweating Kenny, “besides we’ve the stretcher to bring.”

George was all business, “Have you located the casualties Laura?”

Laura shot George a look as though he had asked if midges bite, “Of course, here they are.” Inside the bothy candles flickered and a small fire was struggling to keep the night air at bay. A middle aged couple were seated on a rickety bench both nursing cups of steaming tea.

George hurried over to them, “I can’t thank you enough,” he declared.

“Oh you’re very welcome,” the couple replied in unison, “Any time.”

“I don’t think we’d be wise to descend tonight,” Kenny mused calling from the darkness beyond the bothy door. George followed the voice and found Kenny, Laura and half a dozen team members staring into the darkness to the glen below. By now the valley was bathed in moonlight with the folds of the low hills showing black against the starlight back drop. Already tiny ice crystals were sparkling on the heather.

All eyes turned expectantly to George, as leader it would be his call. “Well,” George looked at the sky, smelt the wind, touched the cold night air with his fingers. “You see it’s all right now isn’t it, we could set off now and it could be fine.” There was a murmur of concerned ascent. “But,” George pronounced the words as though he were a judge sentencing a murderer to death, “It could all change in an instant. You can never tell.”

“No, no, in an instant…never tell,” the company echoed George’s words with dire solemnity.

“I think it wise to stay here for the night.”

On mass the team turned and rushed for the bothy door and, after a moment of jostling, all were inside surrounding the stretcher. Kenny began to unwrap the load on the stretcher, “Best unpack the equipment.”

The following emerged from the folds. Two fiddles, one harmonica (bent) four bottles assorted malt whisky, six packs of larger, four of beer, two wine boxes, several packs of sausages, bacon eggs, cheese, one pack of cards, and a large bag of coal and, to the surprise of nearly everyone, a bottle of vodka. “Well not everyone drinks whisky,” Laura exclaimed, no one argued.

Sometime later George sat cradling a glass of his favourite and staring into the bothy fire. Bob lay upside down warming his stomach before the flames. “I feel a little hungry,” he remarked, mainly to himself as his words were lost amongst the babble of voices and the whine of the fiddle. He popped open the little plastic box and carefully unwrapped the delicately prepared sandwiches. He took a moment to enjoy the aroma of cheese and mayonnaise, noticing how the lettuce hung forlornly between the layers of gluten free bread. Then, with a deft flick of the wrist he hurled them into the bothy fire where they lay sizzling for a moment before the flames consumed them. “How’s those sausages coming along Kenny?” he called, recalling how grateful he was for folk who got lost on the hill.



Judgement Day


The Iron Lodge is behind me, once a proud place, the lodge now languishes with an aura of genteel decay.  Light fittings dangle from its walls, parts of the ceiling hang in sad suspension, you get the feeling the place once knew better days and those are past, never to return.  I feel some sympathy with place, we are kindred spirits, where once I was lean and swift time, and if I’m honest a fondness for real ale and pies, has thickened my waist and weakened my legs.  The moment has finally arrived, I am about to atone for my sins, this is Judgement Day.

Some places capture the imagination, they call to you, lure from safe suburbia out on to the bleak mountainside.  Dragging you towards them like the Sirens of mythology, they seduce you into foolhardy plans, over ambitious schemes and, for me at least, encourage me to forget that my legs are no longer those of a twenty year old marathon runner. Such a place is Maol-Bhuidhe the Highland bothy that can lay claim to a remoteness beyond all other such mountain shelters. Maol-Bhuidhe, a place shrouded in myth, distant and lonely, known only to the stalwart few brave enough to tackle the endless miles between it and the nearest road.  Maol-Bhuidhe, inducer of epics, blisterer of feet, breaker of hearts, this is the place that has reduced grown men to tears and convinced many a mountain man that finally, at last, their hill days are behind them.

Glen Elchaig

Glen Elchaig

There is a small white church, as you pull off the main highway and turn down the small single track road that leads, in a handful of miles, to the start of the route into Maol-Buidhe.  Gleaming in green and gold there is a warning sign to all those unwary travellers who plan to head hillwards towards the isolated bothy.  “Be sure your sin,” it proclaims from the white washed wall, “will find you out.” I reflect on my sins, many and varied as they are.  I think about all the days I meant to go for a run and didn’t quite manage it.  The days that were too windy, or too cold, or threatened rain.  The days when dozing on the couch was the option chosen over the gym or the bike.  The chocolate cake, the beer, the late night curry, the second helpings, the times I should have eaten salad and chose chips.  These are the sins that will find me out.

Pulling on my boots, at the handful of white painted houses that constitute the “place” called Camas-luinie, I am surprised by the spring like warmth in the air.  It is still early March and my winter walking clothes feel heavy and a little stifling in the warm air.  I glance up and notice, with more than a little apprehension that Glen Elchaig, the valley I’m about to walk through, darts off round a corner and vanishes far into the distance, meandering through the hills for what appears a long, long way.  As I shoulder my pack, which contains my usual diet of too much tinned food, too much whisky and far, far too much coal, a red faced shepherd comes grinning down the track.  We share a few minutes conversation and moan together about how windy it has been over the past few months, both of us agree that, now March is here, the worst of the winter (or the best of it to my mind) is over.  As we talk his sheepdog comes and leans against my leg, insistent on being stroked and spoken to before it will head off on its work.

The Iron Lodge

The Iron Lodge

At least, I reflected as I headed up the track leading into the glen, the residents appear to be friendly.  This impression was soon shattered when  I encountered a fierce, white goat as I was crossing a small stream.  The goat eyed me with deep suspicion and stood his ground as I began to step from stone to stone across the water.  His attitude would have been disconcerting if not for one fact of which he at least was oblivious; he was only eighteen inches high. The most he could deliver would be a sharp head butt to the knee.  Just as I was passing him I stumbled on one of the stones and staggered for a moment, sticks flailing wildly, in an undignified effort to prevent myself falling face first into the stream.  Once I’d got my footing back I tried not to look at the little goat for fear I’d catch him gloating at my misfortune.

After an hour or so walking the glen widens and you begin to appreciate its true scale.  Winter hasn’t quite lost its grip on this place and on the steep, wooded, sides of the glen green abruptly gives way to virgin white as snow still lays deep on the summits of the hills.  The glen is silent and empty as the track heads up towards the Iron lodge with the river Elchaig surging impressively a few hundred feet below.  I meet a herd of Highland cows, “What are you doing?” I ask their leader, an impressive tonne of self-propelled hamburger.

“Munching,” he replies, munching grass from beneath a pair of fearsome horns that look like they could repel a Viking invasion.  Despite their impressive size and terrifying appearance, they look a bit like a hedge with horns, I have always found Highland cows to be the gentlest of beasts.

“Is that all you do, munch grass?”  I ask him.

He thinks for a moment, munching as he ponders, “No, not at all,” he replies cheerfully, “Sometimes we munch hay!”

“You’re a bit soft aren’t you?”

“Oh aye,” he laughs, “But when you look like me you don’t have to be hard.”

Eventually I find myself at the Iron Lodge, which is actually closer to a small house than a hunting lodge, incongruously perched at the head of the glen where several hill routes converge.  I believe that the place got the name “Iron Lodge” because it one had a corrugated iron roof and not, sadly, because Eddard Stark once stayed there in a chapter of A Game of Thrones.  The hills are cleaved here by three valleys, the first leads to Loch Mullardoch and on down Glen Cannich, the second would take you to the shores of Loch Monar and the third will lead me, if I am spared, over to the small Loch Croushie besides which sits the bothy.

Here the path climbs over a thousand feet and it is here that my sins begin to seek me out.  It is at this point that I remember the coal and the whisky in my pack and begin to meditate upon the weakness of the flesh.  After half an hour of steep climbing my heart is threating to rattle itself off its mountings and my legs are pleading for mercy.   I should be a lean fell runner, I tell myself, after this, I promise, I’ll settle down to a Spartan regime of early morning runs, eat only lean meat and go to bed early every night.  I’ll do all of this and more if only I can get this bloody sack and my decrepit body over into the next glen and down towards the bothy.

Heading North

Heading North

After an hour or so of purgatory I finally stand, dripping sweat and gasping for breath, at the col that leads over to my destination.  Now that I’ve ceased to fight for each and every breath the panorama opens up around me.  To the south, looking towards Glen Shiel the snow covered hills tower, impressive and impenetrable and seemingly endless.  This view, perhaps, is my reward for the hours of footslogging.  Though my heart rises at the vista of remote mountain scenery my legs and stomach are unmoved by such grandeur and demand I head down to the bothy so I can rest the one and stuff the other.

Maol Bhuidhe

Maol Bhuidhe

There is something peculiar about the last few miles to a bothy, for one thing they are always longer than you thought.  The bothy is always, “just round the corner,” and you seem to be, “almost there,” for hours.  I am convinced that bothies have a way of hiding from sight as you never seem to be able to see them until you virtually fall through the door.  I stopped at least twice on my descent just to make absolutely sure that I wasn’t in the wrong glen.  Finally, the little bothy popped up out of the heather and I was soon imaging myself sipping tea inside the little shelter.  Maol-Bhuidhe however, had one more trick up its sleeve, and that is the river that bars its approach.  Beside a bothy fire one night a bearded veteran of the place had leant forward and warned me in a conspiratorial voice, “Aye, that place is guarded by rivers on every side,” he shook his head sadly as though remembering soakings of old, “every side!” I was lucky, the river was low, but even so it took me several minutes of precarious boulder hoping to reach the other side without wet feet.

MB Bothy

That night, as I soothed the ravages of the day with whisky before my roaring fire, only one thought marred my contentment, “I still have to get back,” and the ghosts of a thousand bothy visitors muttered “Aye!”

To be continued.

True North

The view from Kearvaig

The view from Kearvaig

This far North, in January, it never really gets light.  I can see the sun peeping over the tops of the hills that mark the horizon, but it’s so low it could be being wheeled over the hills in a wheelbarrow.  It’s even bright, I have to squint to look into the sun, but even so, at mid-day, the light on the landscape has an evening feel to it as if dusk is only minutes away.  The sun gives no heat only a flat insipid light that tones down the colours of the grass and the outlines of the hills.  I’m on the tarmac road that leads over the hill from the Kyle of Durness to Cape Wrath.  Technically this is a public road but it is cracked and pot holed and single track as it rolls it way across the moor.  I think this little road can justifiably claim to be one of the remotest in Britain.  It doesn’t connect to any other road and only runs from the jetty that connects this place with civilisation, some eleven miles, to the lighthouse at the end of mainland Britain.  Orkney and Shetland are further North and to the East of Scotland the land can boast being a few degrees closer to the pole but this place beats all of those for its remoteness, the grandeur of its scenery and the drama of its position as it head buts its way out into the Atlantic Ocean.  This is the true North.

Low tide in the Kyle of Durness

Low tide in the Kyle of Durness

Ever since I can remember I’ve had a fascination with travelling North.  In my imagination the Northern lands were places of wilderness, wild weather and even wilder men.  I suppose I am not alone in that fascination, perhaps there is something in our racial memory.  The Vikings who terrorised these shores a thousand years ago were known as the Northmen and the fear they provoked musty have conjured up a fearsome image of the lands from which they came.  Even if the Vikings did not totally deserve their bad press Northern landscapes continue to invoke images of savagery and lawlessness.  In my youth our holidays were spent driving North, heading for Scotland, seeking out the snow and ice of real winters as fledgling mountaineers.  Driving up the M6 from my Merseyside home my mind would be filled with dreams of ice covered ridges and rugged snowy peaks.  Well, I reflect, that was thirty years ago and here I am weighed down by coal whisky and food, still doing it still travelling North.


Cape Wrath Over the Rainbow

You can arrange to be ferried across the short stretch of water to the jetty or, you can do as I did, and walk in from a small bridge further down the estuary.  On the map this had appeared a straight forward option and indeed it was for the first few miles.  I found myself walking across the hard sand of the inlet at low tide.  This was an unusual sensation for me, sand rather than snow beneath my boots and the cries of sea birds rather than ravens.  Mountaineers, or even bothy bumblers as, in my later years, I am perhaps now better described, don’t often find themselves on a beach. Progress was quick across the hard sand and I was just contemplating the possibility of walking all the way to on the beach to the jetty where I could pick up the road when I met the small cliffs of the headland and was forced to climb inland.  This was slow and tedious going and I cursed every lump of coal in my sack as I lurched up through lumps of heather and small outcrops and my rate of progress dropped to meters per hour.

Finally, gasping and sweating, I land on the road and begin to find my way, at first parallel to the beach, where seals are basking, and then inland heading towards the lighthouse.  Away from the sea the landscape feels empty and there is an unusual stillness here.  I notice there are no sheep and even deer are noticeable by their absence.  It should be noted that I am now crossing a firing range a place where it is not always advisable to wander.


I wonder what this sign means

I’m not a lover of signs, being particularly irked by those that state the bleeding obvious, especially those that the Scottish Rights of Way Society delight in littering the countryside with.  These signs are placed in some of our most mountainous places and say things like, “DANGER OF GRAZZED KNEES AHEAD,” or “YOU MIGHT HAVE TO WALK FROM HERE,” or “SEE THAT WATER, I WOULDN’T JUMP IN IT IF I WERE YOU, YOU MIGHT GET WET.”  I’m going to make an exception for these M.O.D.  signs, these are great.  “Don’t touch our bombs, you idiot, or you’ll get blown to bits,” now that’s a sign.  Brief and to the point, it gets the message across and you know where you stand.  I think the illustration could be a bit more graphic, perhaps a figure being blown skyward would be even more convincing.  The only other way they could get the message across with more clarity would be if they littered the landscape with fake body parts and put up signs that said, “Go on, touch our bombs, why don’t you.”

Kearvaig Bothy

Kearvaig Bothy

After a while the moon appears over my shoulder and I have to concede it has actually gone dark and what little sun there was is now tucked up in bed.  So here I am in the middle of nowhere in the pitch dark.  I can’t deny that this is becoming a familiar feeling, anyone who has read my blog before will know that I am the master of nocturnal bothy journey’s, well finding a bothy in the daylight is just too easy really isn’t it.  Where’s the fun in that.  Despite the darkness I arrive at what I think must be the point where the path departs from the little narrow road and descends to the beach where the bothy lives.  I spend a few minutes with my head torch focused on the map and decide that there really can be no other place I could be, past errors having made me cautious.  In a short while my head torch picks out the white walls of the bothy and soon my stove is purring and soup is on its way.

Rain Clouds over the Atlantic

Rain Clouds over the Atlantic

Now, theirs is really no getting around it, I am an antisocial individual, enjoying the solitude of  bothies as much as the occasional social contact I find in them.  If it’s solitude you are after then at Kearvaig in the winter months you’ll be quids in.  There’s shed loads of it there.  The first thing I do on arrival is to have a quick dram, just to test the whisky you understand.  The effect on my tired and cold physique is rapturous, as the brown liquid warms places I’d forgotten I had.  You have never really drunk whisky until you have tramped mile after mile through wind rain and bog and found yourself lifting a small sensation of the nectar to your lips in a Highland bothy.  You can’t drink whisky in a house, it’s not designed for that.  Whisky is designed to fortify a hairy rural peasant, and imbue within him enough get up and go to scare every insurance agent for miles.  The first dram worked so well I decided to have another just to check the first one wasn’t a fluke.

Looking Across the Kyle to Durness.  This was in January, honest.

Looking Across the Kyle to Durness. This was in January, honest.

The next challenge is to light the fire.  Fire lighting in bothies is always a dark art.  Everyone has different techniques and you can never be sure just what kind of response to the naked flame you are going to get. This time the coal puts up a fight.  It smoulders, gutters, flames for a while and then decides to die.  I, however, have other ideas, after all I just carried a bag full of that black stone for hours across hills and over rivers and now it’s going to keep me warm whether it likes it or not.  I have one advantage, I was brought up so long ago that our family relied on a coal fire.  As a child I watched my mother make little sticks out of intricately folded newspaper, saw her feed it with lard and, health and safety experts switch off now, spread a newspaper across the hearth to create extra suction and more airflow.  Now and again the paper would burst into flame and my mum would casually hurl it up the chimney, I wouldn’t even bother taking my eyes off the Flinstones on our 15 inch black and white telly.  So, I know a trick or two,  I feed it with kindling, blow on it, hurl the ends of candles on it and, eventually it bursts into life and keeps my toes warm all night.

Yep, there's a lot of it.

Yep, there’s a lot of it.

In the morning I am greeted by beautiful weather, sunshine and an off shore breeze but, more important than that, I’m met with my first sight of where the bothy is situated.  Of all the bothies I’ve ever visited Kearvaig has surely the most spectacular, it is set in a wonderful small bay with the breakers of the Atlantic crashing on to a sandy beach only yards away.  Across the bay are the rugged cliffs that lead on round to Cape Wrath itself and beyond them the eye is led out to sea and on into the vastness of the ocean.  The bothy is gem and a credit to the Mountain Bothies Association without whom these mountain shelters would fall into wrack and ruin.  It’s a long walk and, for most of us, an even longer drive but an experience of the true north is a trip to savour and one I know I’ll be repeating over and over again unless, of course, I accidentally put a bomb on the fire.

Call this number to find out if the RAF are going to bomb you on the way in (handy to know).  RAF Tain 01862 892185 Very helpful folk.

The MBA, god bless her and all who sail in her.  Lot’s of info on bothies.

New Year Blues

Sometimes the weather creeps up on you.  You read the forecast and decide there’s nothing doing on the hills for a while and so turn your attention to other things.  Or at least that’s what I did this New Year.  I was sitting at my computer in my home in Inverness working on a little video promo for Alex Roddie’s new book when I looked up and notice the sun was shining in.  Then I look out of my window, I live three floors up, and noticed the Ben Wyvis is almost cloud free.

Grim-Ben Wyvvis

Grim-Ben Wyvvis

I then followed my usual weather checking routine.  I check the MWIS forecast which mentioned a very short lived lull in the up land gales that seem to have cursed us for the last six weeks or so.  Then I use the most reliable forecasting method there is for the day ahead, I look out of the window.   The tops of the trees, which are level with my window sill, are still.   On then to my final check, I look up the river Ness towards the castle, a red sandstone, Victorian monstrosity, that glares down belligerently  at the town of Inverness as  though it is about to sweep it into the sea.  The building, imposing as it is, is used as a court office and when the more unruly of the Highland population are a receiving their sentences a cheery little flag flies from the upmost tower.  This emblem of power I have found to be an extremely reliable guide over the years for giving both wind direction and force.  If the flag is fully extended I know, without doubt, that the tops of the hills will be swept with gale force winds and so return to my settee safe in the knowledge that I’m missing nothing.  The flag is absent today as the Highland sheriffs, having seen in 2014, are no doubt snoozing, feet up, slippers on, in their legislative arm chairs.

I’ve seen enough though, it’s ten minutes to ten and if I’m quick I can save the day.  I throw my kit into a bag, squeeze into my hill gear and leap into the car, heading off to that beacon of wildness that is Ben Wyvis.   I’m just about to cross the Kessock Bridge,  that hefts the A9 northwards across the Moray Firth, when a policeman waves me down and bids me pull over into a layby.   “Just a winter safety check,” he assures me, casting a cursory glance at my two year old Skoda.  “Did you have anything to drink last night sir?”  he asks casually, as though my answer is of no real importance and he is merely saying something to pass the time.  I instantly panic, it’s new year’s day, surely I was up late last night imbibing whisky and growing tearful at the thought of lost acquaintances.  What will I say?  Then suddenly I remember, last night I went to bed early at half past ten, and achievement in itself but then I recall something even more amazing, I went to bed sober.  Worn out by Christmas jollification I had decided to have an early night.  I’m in the clear!

At this point a little mischievous monkey climbs on to my shoulder and whisper’s into my ear,  “Your safe, you could pretend to be drunk,”  It occurs to me I could suddenly stagger sideways and fall into the ditch, I could burst into to song or invite the officer dance with me about the lay by.  I could do all of these things in sure and certain knowledge that there is not a drop of alcohol in me, not even enough to flavour the tiniest portion of trifle.  I’ve done quite a few stupid things in my life but even I am not that reckless, after all there is probably some obscure Highland offence like, “Being found sober at Hogmanay ,” or “Confusing an officer by pretending to be intoxicated on the Queens Highway,”  or “Pirouetting in a public place without the excuse of inebriation.”  So I just say, “No nothing at all.”  A mixed expression crosses the officer’s face he is obviously pleased I’m not committing an offence but, at the same time, I can see him thinking what a sad life I must lead to have been sober at new year’s eve.

Ben Wyvis is, well I have to say, a bit of a disappointment.  Much of the snow has gone and what is left is frozen and rock hard.  I ascend the tourist path as part of a grim procession, of joggers, dog walkers and other mountain folk, there must be at least fifty of them.  The path from the car park is a dull slog through the forestry.  It’s a very good path and one that is well maintained and well surfaced but, having been installed in relatively recent years as a quick way through the forest, it is not a natural line and  heads up, gunshot straight, from the car park.  It’s a route that has obviously been planned and drawn by a committee on a map rather than one followed by ancient use over hundreds of years that is in sympathy with the landscape.  A few hundred feet from the summit I’m overtaken by a fit of the “can’t be bothereds.”  I am an antisocial walker and prefer to wander the hills in solitude on paths less travelled.  There is something of a tradition of folk climbing Ben Wyvis on New Year’s day, which accounts for its relatively crowded state.

By three thirty I’m back in my flat in Inverness, drinking tea and eating my solitary remaining mince pie, as the cloud billows over the now distant Ben Wyvis.  I’ll go back another day, I decide, and do it by some surreptitious route perhaps under darkness, wearing some sort of disguise so some cheery gaudily clad jogger can’t wish me a happy New Year.  Then I’ll be free to climb the hill alone in my own dark cloud of dismal grumpiness, then I can really enjoy it.


Good Reads for Bad Days

I’m writing this in the little blip that exists in all our lives between Christmas and new Year.  It’s like a temporary truce in festivities.  The party poppers remain silent, crackers have been pulled, and those noisy, blowy, paper things that pop out when you blow them (as far as I know the English language has no word for them) are unblowed.  The turkey is now long dead, what remains of it is sitting in my fridge in the form of soup.  I never waste food. In my experience there is nothing in the world that you can’t either turn into soup or put in a curry, custard, perhaps being the exception.

This is also a time of year when the weather misbehaves, it’s like it thinks no one will be looking and goes off and plays.  The North Atlantic simply refuses to play ball.  Since the end of November, here in the North of Scotland, we’ve had succession of fronts come winging in from the west in bringing gales, torrential rain and the odd blizzard.  Winter, much promised and heralded has refused to arrive.  I sit, like a little boy, nose pressed against the window, waiting for the rain to stop so I can go out and play on the bike I got for Christmas.

As a mountain goer I’ve been frustrated by this time of year for as long as I can remember and it’s only now that I have realised how to cope with it.  If you can’t go to the mountains the best thing to do is read about them.  Stay in, open a book, or these days turn on your Kindle, and read about the hills.

Here are two books by friends of mine I have particularly enjoyed recently.

The Atholl Expedition 240x360

This is written by Alex Roddie, a young writer of whom I am sure we will hear much more of in the future.  Alex has a fascination for the Golden age of mountaineering and for Victorian mountaineers especially.  His research into this period is thorough and faultless and his writing contains some beautiful descriptions of the landscape of the Cairngorms which reveal his own love of the mountains.

This novel written in the style of the period and will transport you to the mountains and glens of the Highlands where a dramatic chase takes place with unexpected consequences.  A great little read.

Here is a link to a review

Here’s a taster of the action


© Catherine Speakman

August 1847

The Cairngorms


The favourable weather lasted no longer than half a day.

Duncan sweated at the rear of the hunting party as they struggled up the southern flank of yet another mountain. He had no clear idea where they were. For a few hours after dawn the sun had blazed down on them as it climbed into the heavens, and Duncan had tramped upwards, tormented by the heat, swatting midges out of his eyes and following the pony as she picked the most efficient path through the rocks. They had not lingered at the waterlogged bealach between the two mountains, for such places were blighted by a miasma of bad air that was known to cause disease.

The wind began to pick up after an hour, and by noon a veil of high cloud had completely obscured the sun. The humidity of their ascent soon turned to a dangerous chill. Every man in the party wore clothing dampened by the sweat of his exertion, and now the north wind stole body heat from them with every step.

Prince Albert plodded grimly at his side. He hadn’t spoken for an hour or more. Duncan wondered what thoughts might be passing through the mind of the Prince in this wild and remote place. Did he miss his wife and family? Was he bent purely on his single-minded pursuit of the prize, or did his thoughts return to weighty matters of politics and state?

Suddenly they emerged at the most savage and breath taking location Duncan had ever seen in these mountains.

They had been following a burn uphill for a while now. The waters were often hidden beneath masses of old snow as they flowed down a furrow in the mountain. The hunters trod cautiously over this sugary carapace, and Duncan followed his father’s footsteps, wary of concealed voids. Sometimes he could hear the water gurgling and foaming below his feet. The surface was so dirty and blown-over with grass and dust that it hardly looked like snow at all, but resembled the rocks to each side: a desolate expanse of grey, pock-marked and rippled like sand on a beach.

McAdie led their party to the source of this burn: a bealach between two mountain peaks. The wind blasted shreds of freezing mist through the notch, and in the gale Duncan could smell an imminent blizzard. An ache of foreboding settled in his bones as he approached that fearful place.

A boiling confusion of cloud hid the landscape here and there, first obscuring it completely then revealing it for a dazzling moment before covering it up once again. Duncan had never climbed this high before. To his mind this notch in the mountains was the very gateway into the hell belonging to the Bodach: a world forbidden to men, a kingdom of monsters and savage forces, of avalanches and death.

He raised a hand before his eyes to shield them from the terrible wind. Ahead, he could see no distinction between the snow on which he stood and the churning white of the sky. The ground trembled and groaned beneath his shoes. He raised his eyes to the mountain peak on the right: a vertical cliff, monstrous to his eyes, fringed by dripping icicles that reached down like claws into the abyss beneath.

His father stood on a rock, leaning over the edge, trying to penetrate the veil of cloud which filled the amphitheatre below. Duncan flailed through the snow in his direction.

‘Where are we?’

‘Stay back!’ McAdie warned. ‘There’s a barraman here. I cannae see the edge.’

The wilderness of the Cairngorms is trodden by legendary stags, demons of local folklore, and a few brave souls all seeking very different things from the wild. This is a tale of life in the Scottish mountains before mountaineering began.

Get the book here:

Peter Biggar’s The Pike Fishers and Other Tales is a great little collection of short stories.  Peter has vast experience of climbing and walking in the Scottish Highlands as is a writer who has honed his art over many years.  Although these stories are not exclusively mountain tales Peter writes with a great sensitivity. I especially enjoyed his story about pike fishing and the tale took me back to winters hunting these fresh water sharks with my father on cold dark days in Merseyside.  Peter gives a great insight into the world from the point of view of the fish itself in a  story reminiscent of Hemmingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.  A great book to take into a bothy and read while the rain beats on the roof above your head.

I hope you enjoy both of these unique books whether in a bothy or in your bed.

Tear the compass from my cold dead hand.

I’m in the forest, it’s dark, I’m on a path that didn’t exist when they made the map I’m using.  I can see lights on the other side of the glen in places my map says aren’t there.  I look East and there’s trees, West and there’s trees, North and South, yeah there they are once more those tall green suckers.  It’s happened again, I can’t find the bothy.

Compass. Hill walking

From my cold dead hand.

The path I’m on is beginning to descend through the forest and that just doesn’t feel right.  I stand looking at the map again and it occurs to me that I’ve passed the bothy, I begin to back track, as I do I find paths weaving in and out of the woodland, none of which appear on my map.  After about an hour I turn round and head out of the forest back to my car three miles away.  Out of the trees there’s enough moon light for me to walk without my head torch.  I’m more than a little frustrated by my failure to find the bothy but I walk back to the car something strange happens, I realise I’m enjoying myself.

The glen is wild and empty.  Great clouds sweep across the sky their huge shapes picked out by the glow of the moon. The low hills, in this broad glen, are brushed with the early winter snow and seem friendly rather than remote.  The wind picks up in the open glen and catches me in brief flurries of spindrift, I revel in being alone in this place far away from technology and the clamour of and chatter of the 21st century.

As I drive back through Aviemore and on up the tarmac snake of the A9 to my home in Inverness I consider again my stubborn refusal to use a GPS device relying on the more primitive technology of map and compass.  If I’d given in to the temptation to purchase one of these digital miracles I would be sitting in the bothy just now, instead of driving back home reflecting on my own incompetence. Perhaps it’s time to give in and link myself to the guidance of celestial beings that can ease my passage through any maze of pine and fir.  Then I come to decision, I’d rather die than use GPS…here’s why.

In a handful of years it will be possible to get a phone signal anywhere in the UK, that’s everywhere from Corrour bothy in the heart of the Cairngorms to Cape Wrath in the far north to Snowdonia and cliffs of Great Gable.  It will never be possible to be alone again and something will have changed forever.  Wherever you are the great seething mass of cyber linked chattering irrelevance will be able to seek you out.  Turning off your phone or even, perish the thought, leaving it at home, will not be an option, mountain goers who do so will be branded reckless and fool hardy.  Should you do so the Daily Mail will tip that great cauldron of scorn, they keep hot for such an occasion, down upon you with a righteous indignation they normally reserve for the tightness of Russell Brand’s trousers.

Insurance companies will refuse to pay out on the demise of none phone users. They have every right so to do, after all rescue, and divine guidance, is readily available with a twitch of the thumb, to ignore such life-saving assistance it is close to suicidal.  Charles from the office will give you a quick call as you step into Tower Gap, one icy February day, to remind you that the sales figures for last month are due in tomorrow. Everyone will be expected to be available all the time everywhere.  In this risk averse society, those shrugging off the digital duvet will quickly become outcasts and lepers.

That, of course, is only the beginning, here’s the future… As Andy steps on to the Cairngorm plateau the microchip in is in his helmet fires into life.  “Warning, snow storm approaching, arrival 23 minutes,” says the female voice of his communication centre in gentle, reassuring, tones as if she were announcing the delivery of hot buttered toast.  A graphic images flashes up on his visor displaying an animated weather map where a swirling cloud of snow advances toward him in little bytes of time.  “Hazard approaching.  Risk of fatal gravitational incident.”  Another map appears on the visor, this time the ice coated cliffs of the corrie are highlighted red.  Despite these adverse conditions Andy is one the more adventurous of his generation, having once ridden a cycle off road,  and decides to carry on, pausing only to turn up the temperature control on his heated jacket.  Approaching the summit Andy’s visor flashes up reminders for insurance companies, a young lady explains to him how his clothes could come cleaner in the wash and a take away company promises to deliver pizzas of unimaginable deliciousness to his home in moments. Andy decides he’ll pay the extra subscription next time and get the advert free version of the guidance device.  From the summit the plateau stretches away white as icing sugar and twice as inviting and, despite the flashing arrow guiding him home, Andy decides to press on.  “Deviation alert,” intones the young woman, “You have departed from your authorised route.”  Andy strides on, enjoying the freedom and looking in awe at the snow covered peaks of the Cairngorms. The young woman whispering in his ear grows ever insistent that he must return to his agreed route pointing out that Andy lacks the experience credits necessary to continue.  At last, in a reckless fury, Andy rips the visor from his face and stands on alone on the snow as the sky darkens and a myriad of ice crystals drift down from the snow filled heavens to melt on his exposed skin.  As he does so one last phrase is still audible from the dangling headset.  “RESCUE DRONES DISPACHED. DO NOT LEAVE YOUR CURRENT POSITION.  PURSUIT AUTHORISED.”

Is such an Orwellian nightmare so far away?  In the last fifty years or so technology has advanced further than we could have imagined and it has radically changed our relationship with each other and with the earth on which we live.  In another fifty or perhaps even another twenty years will these relationships even be recognisable?  Were I to follow an arrow on a screen would I pause to notice how a mountain ridge sweeps down to the glen and rises slightly before I must turn north and head home?  Will I scour the glen for a U shaped bend in the river that shows me where the bothy lies?  Will I even notice the rise and fall of a ridge until it deposits me at the summit?  I doubt if any of these things will register as follow the little glowing arrow on the screen.

Were I to worship at the foot of god of GPS I think I would miss these things , a little of the poetry would have gone and the lure of the place would be less.  Instead I think I’ll rely on my own frail judgement, I’ll make my mistakes and pay for them too.  At home I looked at an up to date map of Glen Feshie and realised I turned back only minutes from the bothy.   The map I was using, I discovered to my alarm, was last revised in 1984.  In that time the Berlin wall has fallen, the Soviet Union dissolved and as I learnt to my cost, whole forests have grown from saplings to mature trees.

One day a rescue team may find my frozen body spread eagled in the snow having become hopelessly lost in some cataclysmic blizzard.  They may shake their heads and my recklessness at having gone out in such conditions without electronic aid, they may regard me as a foolish old man clinging to the technology of a bygone age, but I know this for sure, they will have to tear my compass from my cold dead hand.