The 20th of July found us in the wee hours of the morning tearing up the tarmac between Rotterdam and Dunkerque. We had overslept. Despite meticulous preparations and planning, I still managed to set the alarm on my not-so-smartphone for a Saturday instead of a Wednesday. Luckily, all we had to do was throw on some clothes and get the heck out of Dodge.
We made it onto the boat with mere minutes to spare, and that concluded the most stressful part of our trip over.
I love travelling by ferry. There is something exquisitely satisfying about standing on the aft deck and watching the continent disappear slowly behind you. The weather was fair and calm and in no time at all we were watching the white cliffs grow ever larger. Once ashore, we pointed the nose of our trusty Seat north and reached the first destination of our grand Scottish tour by supper time.
The idea for this holiday was born out of a mutual love for camping and walking long distances. Unfortunately, it is not possible to camp out in the wild in many parts of Europe, but in Scotland, one can roam the wilderness freely and, in most cases, set up a tent for the night wherever necessary, as long as you don’t disturb the sheep and cows and don’t mind digging holes for certain ablutions.
We were also very keen to find out what it was like to sleep in a bothy. So, armed to the teeth with all the camping equipment we deemed essential, we had laid out a tentative plan of exploring four areas of Scotland. Starting in the Galloway Forest Park, we would spend a few nights there and then move up north to the isle of Skye. From Skye we planned to go all the way up to Durness, then make our way south to the Cairngorms. As a treat we also added on a couple of days in Edinburgh in a B&B to wash off the trail dust and remind ourselves of what real bathrooms look like.
Galloway Forest Park, our first stop, is a lovely area and proved quite a surprise. Most of the land there is owned by the Forestry Commission and is blanketed in coniferous forest. However, they are also trying to encourage walkers of all levels and ages to visit and discover their neck of the woods, so to speak.
While the marked trails are not quite as adventurous as some might like, it is possible to go off the beaten track with the help of an Ordinance Survey map. However, make sure you find out ahead of time what the terrain is like. We learned an awful lot about grass on our first hike, and most of it left us cursing the ground we couldn’t quite walk on. That said, the landscape is gorgeous and as we set up our tent next to a small loch, we had to admit that the slog had been worth every bruised shin and stubbed toe.
Our first wild campsite
After spending a few days in Galloway, we packed up the car and headed up to Skye. I realise I still have much to explore with regards to Scotland’s islands, but Skye really is my favourite place on Earth. The Cuillin mountains, the people, the sheep, even the tiny narrow roads. Everything about this island feels like home to me. We spent a good week and a half on Skye clambering around the mountain ranges and exploring the coastline. The Cuillins are an exceptional bunch of mountains and an absolute must for anyone who likes a bit of adventure in their hiking. We had a few hair-raising moments out there, but the absolute best was climbing up to the top of one of the lower ridges above Harta Corrie and literally standing in the embrace of those rocky old giants.
Our little cairn above Harta Corrie
It was with a heavy heart that I left my favourite isle, but we still had two other regions to explore before Edinburgh, so after a quick stop at the Talisker distillery, we headed back over the Skye Bridge and once again headed north. This time our destination was Durness. Interestingly, the further north you travel in Scotland, the bigger everything gets. Perspective skews somewhat and you lose a sense of just how close or far away the mountains are. Also, there really are not many people up that way. But, it is stunning. The surprise came when we reached Durness to find the landscape less mountainous and more like a tropical coastline, only a good deal nippier. The beaches up there are ridiculously beautiful… and there is no one on them.
Beach at Kearvaig
Our final stop on the hiking tour was the Cairngorms. In retrospect, we probably should have stayed up north and avoided this bit, but as we had gone off on this tour wanting to know as little as possible so we wouldn’t have expectations, we decided to go ahead even after rather negative reports from other hikers. Cairngorms is a bit like the Disneyland of hiking. The walks are not too difficult and very well marked (well, mostly) and so there are hundreds of other people all doing the same trails. After walking up north and rarely seeing another human being all day, this was a bit of an unwelcome surprise (yes, our misanthropic tendencies thrived up north). But, we were not to be deterred and had mapped out a route that would take us slightly off the more popular path. Intially, we thought we’d do it in three days, but the second part of the route was done so quickly, we decided we’d just carry on. Boy, was that a mistake. About an hour after lunch and well past the bothy we should have stopped at, it started to rain. Not hard, but constant. Also, there was no wind. Anyone who knows Scotland in the summer also know that no wind equals midges. So, we couldn’t really stop for long without being swarmed. Then to add insult to injury, just as we were coming to the end of the trail, I took us down a wrong turn that brought us out 7 miles west of where we were supposed to be. Long story short, we walked a marathon in a day. Happily, we did manage to laugh about it after a pint and large plate of fish and chips, so no real harm was done
Heather in bloom in the Cairngorms
And on that sore footed note, our hiking tour was done. We spent the next couple of days in the madness that is the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and then headed down to England to catch up with family for a few days. So all in all a month of adventure, tents and bothies, midges and their nemesis Smidge, sunshine, mist and occasional downpours, crazy theatre types and familial warmth. The perfect holiday!