Wednesday 31 July 2013

Bogs, Trees & Mist: Navigating the Scottish Watershed

Heading for the Light: A Forest in the Central Lowlands

Following the highest land, as it must up, the Watershed of Scotland is bound to be a strenuous walk in terms of ascent and descent. That I expected. However what makes it really tough is the terrain rather than the hills. Indeed, the easiest walking is on the heights, above 600 metres, where the ground is generally drier, smoother (few if any tussocks) and the vegetation short. And the best walking of all is on the highest summits, the Munros, as there are paths, rare elsewhere on the Watershed.

The Watershed stretches out through Southern Upland Forests

Much of the Watershed, especially in the Southern Uplands, the Central Lowlands and the Flow Country, is pathless and boggy, a giant sponge of tussocks and moss. Water may run off either side of the Watershed. It also sits on top of it. On many days I was almost permanently in ankle deep bogs, with the occasional variation of a knee-deep plunge. The tussocks make walking awkward too, a stumbling lurch from side to side rather than a purposeful stride. Finding a rhythm was impossible. Distance was hard to estimate too. On the map I averaged just 2 kilometres an hour sloshing through the bogs. I reckon I actually walked twice that distance as I weaved around trying to find the easiest route.

A Decorative Tree Tangle

Forests – or rather plantations – add to the difficulties. The Wateshed often follows an open area between two forests - the result of being the border between estates - but even so in many places linking forest rides and tracks to find a way through the densely packed trees while staying close to the Watershed wasn’t easy. Sometimes when rides faded away I had to crawl through the trees. And when there were rides they were often just as boggy and tussocky as the moors outside the trees. Navigation was often hard in the forest too. Tracks and rides twisted and turned or simply stopped, requiring frequent compass bearings and location checks with the GPS. Then there were the fallen trees, sometimes so tangled I couldn't force a way through and had to follow the edge of them until an opening appeared.

Fallen Tree Wall

High in the hills, whilst the terrain underfoot was easier, the usual mountain weather factors affected both navigation and physical progress. Thick mist, heavy rain and high winds were common in the Highlands, especially between the Great Glen and Strath Carron. Not wanting to spend too long practising compass navigation in the clouds whilst trying not to be blown over (I’ve done it so many times in the past it’s now a chore rather than a challenge) I took lower routes paralleling the Watershed in places. Sometimes though the storms came in whilst I was already high in the hills or else I couldn’t see an alternative that stayed fairly close to the Watershed. And sometimes the storms were so severe that I was battered by them on the lower routes.

A Good Path! On Ben Lomond

Though there were paths between many hills the Watershed often leaves these for steeper, rougher terrain that is rarely walked. I had very difficult and hazardous descents down the steep craggy north sides of several hills, slipping and sliding along ledges and down gullies in the wind, rain and mist as I tried to find safe ways down. Ben Lui, Beinn Dronaig and Ben Hee stand out as hills with such terrain on the Watershed. Lower down the extremely steep and long descent into the Great Glen involved head high bracken, tangled ancient birch woods and dense conifers all on loose wet ground littered with boulders and fallen branches.
Thick Mist on Ben Hee

This combination of bogs and forests and mist and wind made the Watershed one of the toughest long distance walks I’ve done. The only places with so much rough boggy ground I’ve walked were the muskeg swamps of the northern Yukon Territory, while the only time I’ve had to deal with such stormy weather on exposed hills was, unsurprisingly, in the Highlands on my summer-long round of the Munros and Tops. Overall I think the Watershed is a harder walk than the Munros, although half the length, because of the terrain.

Was it worth the struggle? Of course. The rugged nature of the Watershed is because it’s mostly wild and remote, which is one of the big attractions. A week after finishing I’m already feeling restless and wishing I was back out there, walking every day, camping at night, living in nature.

Thursday 25 July 2013

To Duncansby Head: Scottish Watershed

Stacks of Duncansby & Duncansby Head

A final day's walk across the last bog cotton and heather of the Flow Country - all dry and crunchy underfoot - led to the east coast a few kilometres south of Duncansby Head where the North Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean in the Pentland Firth. That last walk along the cliffs made for a superb finale with splendid scenery and a mass of whirling sea birds. Peter Wright, author of Ribbon of Wildness, the book that inspired my walk, was there to meet me on Duncansby Head. Suddenly the walk was over. After two months I would no longer pack up in the morning and walk on, following the twists and turns of the Watershed. There had been storms and sunshine, wildlife and wild land, and a new way of looking at the Scottish landscape. I'll always be aware of the Watershed from now on and always aware of how unspoiled and remote most of it is - and should remain. My thoughts and feelings will, I know, change in the weeks ahead as the effects of the walk sink in and different experiences and impressions surface. I'll be writing more here and in The Great Outdoors magazine and, hopefully, eventually there will be a book. Thanks to everyone who followed my progress and read my reports here and on Facebook and Twitter.

Duncansby Head

Sunday 21 July 2013

The End Approaches and The Sun Finally Shines: Scottish Watershed

Ten days out from Ullapool and I've arrived in the village of Watten, just 20 miles from Duncansby Head and the end of the Watershed. And for the last three days the sun has shone as I've crossed the vast open spaces of the Flow Country (the photo shows one of my camps in this area). Indeed the sun appeared as soon as I was east of the mountains, straight after a horrendous struggle over Ben Hee in a big storm. There were touches if sunshine on earlier days, including, fortuitously, on Beinn Leoid, where I met David Edgar who is hiking the watershed all the way to Dover. I'll follow his progress with interest.
Ironically the notoriously boggy Flow Country has turned out to be the driest section of the walk as there has been no rain for many weeks. I crossed Knockfinn Heights, normally a quaking mass of mites, peat hags and pools, in sandals and my feet stayed dry.
Now I am near the coast the weather has turned misty with the haar coming in off the North Sea. That should make my last day cooler.

Friday 12 July 2013

Sun & Cloud in the Fannichs: Scottish Watershed

After a week of storms and cloud-shrouded, wind-battered mountains it was a relief to see sunshine and summits. From Strath Carron the Scottish Watershed takes its usual meandering course, making a big loop west over little hills then east to the isolated Munro, Fionn Bheinn, a great viewpoint for the Fannichs range, then back west again round the headwaters of the burns that feed Loch Fannich before following the crest of the Fannichs eastwards.
Two days of hot sunshine filtered through high thin clouds led to Fionn Bheinn, then a camp below the little known hill called Groban. From here I crossed the high tops of the Fannichs, first in sunshine, then in cloud and drizzle. Hoping for a clearance I camped high, just below Beinn Liath Mhor Fannaich. The next morning I was rewarded for camping in a wet cloud with a wonderful cloud inversion. Only a few metres below me all was thick mist. Above Sgurr Mor, the highest of the Fannichs, rose into a blue sky. It was the finest morning of the walk.

Saturday 6 July 2013

A Wet And Windy Week: Scottish Watershed

A week ago I left the Great Glen in rain and strong winds. Yesterday I arrived in Glen Carron in rain and strong winds. Inbetween, as I cut through the edge of Knoydart and then the hills of Glen Shiel, West Affric, Mullardoch and Monar, the rain fell and the wind blew. The clouds stayed low on the slopes and I only had brief glimpses of the magnificent mountains I knew were there, somewhere. Camps were blustery and rain rattled and, the only bonus, midge free. At one, above Loch a'Bealaich (pictured), the wind tore at the tent and the rain sounded as though it would drill holes in the fabric. Given that the wind was gusting 30-40mph in the glens and passes I reckoned fighting it on the summits was unwise so I took a mostly lower level route, which was wild and challenging enough. Below the mist I could at least see something and there have been rewards in the wildlife, including many deer and.once, gloriously, a golden eagle. I did venture up one hill, 797 metre Beinn Dronaig, and was nearly blown back down, confirming my decision to stay off the tops. The descent down the craggy north slopes was difficult and treacherous with many dead-end ledges and gullies. Finally though the forecast is for improving weather. Maybe the mountains will be feasible.