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.


  1. You can learn anything - we set our minds to it. Beautiful Walk through.

  2. Hi Chris
    Excellent write up, so proud to have done a section with you. A nice easy section it sounds like! Especially regarding the weather. I'm so glad you managed to finish safely.

  3. Well done, Chris. But you already know that. Tell you what, I had no idea how arduous a journey you undertook! Sounds like some the walk would've really put my patience to the test for sure.