|Stob Gabhar, one of the 44 Munros on the Watershed of Scotland|
Next year I am planning on walking the watershed of Scotland from Peel Fell on the border with England to Duncansby Head in the far North-East. I've been thinking about this walk ever since I read Peter Wright's Ribbon of Wildness a couple of years ago. Back then I wrote a piece for TGO magazine about the book and the watershed. It sums up why I'm doing this walk. Here it is.
RIBBON OF WILDNESS
Inspiration for long distance backpacking can come from many sources – the landscape itself of course, studying a map and seeing a line linking summits or coasts, being intrigued by the name of a trail – the West Highland Way, the Kungsleden, the Continental Divide Trail - and books and articles telling stories of places and adventures. Whilst all of these have played a part in the long distance walks I have done it’s the last that is most significant. John Hillaby’s Journey Through Britain made me want to hike from Land’s End to John O’Groats, Hamish Brown’s Hamish’s Mountain Walk led to my continuous traverse of the Munros and Tops, Colin Fletcher’s The Thousand Mile Summer gave me the desire to hike in the wilderness deserts and mountains of California, resulting in my Pacific Crest Trail hike, and Ben Gadd’s Handbook of the Canadian Rockies suggested my walk the length of that range. Sometimes landscapes and literature combine. The writings of Colin Fletcher and Edward Abbey led me to the Grand Canyon where I stared south to the distant San Francisco Peaks and wondered what it would be like to walk there. Researching this I discovered the Arizona Trail which I followed from Mexico to Utah.
These writings all created a surge of excitement and anticipation, a desire to be out there exploring the wild places they described. Of course these were often areas I’d not visited before (when I first read Hamish’s book I’d only climbed a couple of hills in Scotland). I certainly didn’t expect to have such feelings about a place I thought I knew quite well. Then, browsing in a book shop (a favourite hobby!) last autumn, I came across a new book that looked intriguing, Ribbon of Wildness by Peter Wright, subtitled Discovering the Watershed of Scotland. Now many years ago I’d read and enjoyed Dave Hewitt’s Walking the Watershed, about his walk from the Border to Cape Wrath, but this book hadn’t stirred any interest in the watershed itself or in doing a similar walk, perhaps because it was a personal account rather than about the landscape. Ribbon of Wildness is the opposite. The watershed is at its centre and the aim of the author is to show that it is still wild and mostly untouched, hence the book’s title. I found this idea quite thrilling. A wild line running the length of Scotland? Who would have thought it? I certainly hadn’t. Peter Wright did think it though and makes a strong case for protection for the watershed and for it being better known. As he says, there is hardly a mention of the watershed anywhere. In all the research I did for my recent Scotland book I cannot remember the watershed being mentioned.
Yet a watershed is an obvious line to follow and being on high ground a line that is likely to remain fairly wild. I had followed a watershed once, the Continental Divide of the USA, all the way from Canada to Mexico down the Rocky Mountains. But I had never even thought about the watershed of Scotland until I read Peter Wright’s book. And as I read it back again came those feelings of enthusiasm and exhilaration and a restlessness that made me want to be out walking the watershed immediately. Suddenly there was the possibility of a new long distance walk, a new adventure, right here in Scotland.
The watershed is an obvious candidate for a long distance route, a challenge for experienced backpackers. Not a waymarked footpath linking towns and villages but a route that is often pathless and remote. Peter Wright shows that the watershed is surprisingly wild, even in areas thick with forestry plantations in the Southern Uplands it forms an open strip through the trees, and that in many places it is rarely visited. Hill routes climb from valleys to summits and back or follow ridges of Munros. They rarely follow the watershed for mile after mile. Being high up the land around the watershed is poor for agriculture and far from roads and towns and other developments (Cumbernauld is the only settlement lying on the watershed). Wright says that 75% of the watershed is classified as of low grazing value and 12% of very limited or no agricultural value. None of the watershed comes into the top three classifications for agriculture. For conservation and wild land values it’s a completely different story and much of the watershed is covered by some designation or other with a plethora of initials – SSSI, SPA, SAC, NNR, NSA, Ramsar – that surely needs some coherence and organisation. Behind this mess though is the fact that much of the watershed is important as wild land and is already protected to some degree.
Peter Wright’s careful tracing of the watershed from Peel Fell on the English Border to Duncansby Head in the far North-East (he argues convincingly that this is the termination of the watershed and not Cape Wrath) results in a meandering line 1200 kilometres long. Wright divides the watershed into five marches, the Reiver March in the Borders, the Laich March in the Central Belt, the Heartland March from the Highland Boundary Fault to the Great Glen, the Moine March in the Northern Highlands and the Northland March in the Flow Country. Only the Laich March has much in the way of buildings or roads and even this sounds surprisingly wild. Reading the description of the watershed, which Wright does from south to north, I realised how often I had crossed it and camped on it without even being aware I was doing so. From Loch Skeen and Lochcraighead in the Border hills via Ben Lomond, Ben Lui, the Black Mount, Ben Alder, Sgurr na Ciche, Beinn Fhada, Seana Bhraigh, Conival and Ben Hee to Ben Klibreck and Duncansby Head the watershed runs through familiar places. Forty-four Munros and twenty-four Corbetts lie on the watershed but also many lesser known hills, insignificant subsidiary tops and remote moorland bumps for peak baggers but important points for watershed followers. I am looking forward to exploring the watershed and seeing the Highlands from a different perspective.
The idea of the watershed as a place for recreation and conservation, as an important feature in the landscape, is one that is worth promoting and Peter Wright has done lovers of wild places a great service in providing the first comprehensive description of it. He has also set up a website – www.ribbonofwildness.co.uk – to promote the watershed and to campaign for its protection and intends setting up a charitable trust. This, I think, is another important aspect of long distance routes. A community can be created that sees the need to protect the landscape along the route. The watershed certainly sounds like an opportunity to conserve a huge swath of wild land running the length of Scotland and to have a superb and challenging backpacking route.