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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.