Warning for all Anglophiles, and all those still begrudging the Six Nations result: I’m about to give Scotland rave reviews.
Now Spring has arrived *jumps for joy*, I’ve been putting my head down to packing in even more Quality Mountain Days before heading out to Spain at the end of May. One of the requirements to fulfil before heading to assessment is to walk in three different mountain regions in the UK. With the Lakes conveniently on my doorstep, most of my walking, thus far, has been roaming around the mountains of Cumbria. For those of you who like statistics, on our online log books where we document all our outdoor adventuring from walking to climbing to kayaking, there’s a heat map which pinpoints where most of your activities have taken place. On mine, over Cumbria and Austria, there was a big red heat-blob. Elsewhere, pale green to nothing. Not just because I wanted to spread my blobs farther and wider, but also because I’ve been dying to get up to Scotland since returning from Austria in September (only to have been impeded by snow/funds/life), I blocked out a week up in Argyll bunking up in our friends house, for which I am endlessly thankful.
I set out on the gloriously sunny weekend we had at the beginning of May, probably subconsciously trying to escape the May Bank Holiday mayhem. Packing up Morticia the Mini to the brim (who, believe it or not, is still going), I began an unbeatable week in the West Highlands. I have to say, the overall journey was much slowed by my travelling at an average of 65 mph, which added on a good hour, in a vague attempt to preserve both petrol and the lifespan of the car: which seems to be working. Although I must confess that I am studiously ignoring a mysterious beep and an erroneous flashing light. In many ways, much reminiscent of my Australia days. It appears “naivety is the best policy” is the real life lesson that stuck with me most from that year. Oh, and “every calorie counts”. I still eat an entire apple: core, pips and all, a habit picked up from being so skint we (myself and fellow backpackers) would demolish everything, and by everything, I mean everything. I once saw a guy eating those little jam packets we would get given free for breakfast from the hostel, because he couldn’t afford anything else.
Anyway, moving on from that small trip down memory lane and bringing my attention back to my mini-break, I mean… ‘Mountain Leadership training week’. Walking in Scotland is like nothing I’d ever done before. For one thing, it’s predominantly pathless: giving real meaning to the words “read the mountain” that we were instructed to do in training. It was liberating to approach a steep and rocky mountain face and be able to pick your own way up, with no right or wrong answer. Well, it would clearly be wrong to try to climb directly up the cliff face rope-less, but common sense would hopefully prevail to the majority… It’s amazing what lines you find weaving up a mountain which from far away looks impossibly steep, but once you’re standing at the base, the route presents itself almost as naturally as putting one foot in-front of the other.
Then there’s the landscape. It’s like the Lake District but BIGGER. The summits are higher, and the Highlands stretch much, much further. Contributed to by the fact that there are next to no people on the hill with you, and I realise that this is an overused cliché and my vocabulary really can’t do it justice, but you feel overwhelmingly small and in awe of what nature created. For six days I was walking around with a smile on my face and would repeatedly catch myself saying out loud (to the air and once to total strangers) “I’m so happy”.
Not to mention the ‘Scottish weather’. On my final day I pottered up Beinn Sgulaird, which to date is my favourite walk of all time, no question: it was truly epic from start to finish. The epic-ness was contributed heavily to by the extremity in conditions which, within a span of 6 hours, varied from: hail, to clear, to foggy, to a snow storm, to sunny again, to gale force winds combined with a snow storm, to thick cloud, to clear blue skies. I’d like to reiterate that it is mid-May and that snow typically ought to stay pre-April. Even so, it was fantastic and I was glowing: from pure exhilaration and happiness, and a toss-up between wind and/or sun burn.
Yet what truly separates Scotland from the Lakes, is the language. I’m not talking thick Scottish accents here or odd slang words: a friend from Glasgow recently enlightened me to their meaning of ‘ghosty’ which I won’t write-up here, but if you’re not the delicate type feel free to look it up. I’m talking Gaelic. Having studied Spanish and Italian, and vaguely tried to learn other languages, I’m used to picking up a dictionary. I was not prepared however, to find myself reading the map and then googling translations from ‘Scottish’ to ‘English’. It’s mightily useful when out in the mountains to know what you’re about to walk up. For example, when faced with walking up ‘Death Valley’ you know it isn’t going to exactly be a walk in the park. Equally, ‘Flower Gorge’ implies a lovely stroll amongst some flora – and if not, you’ve been grievously misled. Thankfully, it turned out the first Munro of my walking bonanza, ‘Creach Bheinn’, didn’t translate to some sort of Indiana Jones-esque location, but rather ‘Hill of spoil’ (I believe… please correct me if I’m wrong, my Gaelic leaves a lot to be desired).
It’s all very well being able to just about read these distinctly foreign-feeling names, but when asked by some friendly locals what I was going to climb up that day, I could only embarrassingly stumble and stutter my way through ‘Beinn Fhionnlaidh’. I think I came out with something resembling ‘Ben-Fee-on-ley-ed-huh’, but I can’t be sure, I think my memory has erased that bit due to overall embarrassment at having betrayed myself as an ignorant foreigner… Nevertheless, they laughed and kindly gave me the right pronunciation (three times), which I quickly forgot (three times), and jokingly commented that I needed to brush up on my Gaelic. They’re right, I’m intrigued. Never mind German and French, I want to learn Gaelic, if not just to avoid unintentionally ending up scaling the face of ‘Hells Pass’ (‘a ‘dol seachad’…?) like a real tourist.
So, as Tigger would say: TTFN Scotland, you blew my English mind, and I only covered a teeny tiny percentage of what you have to offer.