Scotland Farce: Camping and Hiking in the Scottish Summer (Part I)
A trip to Scotland at the height of summer—to rolling hills, rocky crags, and the charming lilt of the Scottish brogue—is hard to argue against. So Tash and I went all in. Nine days of hiking and camping, not a single scheduled night of respite in accommodation. Why should we? It’s Scotland in the height of summer. It’ll be beautiful and idyllic.
In the south of Scotland there is a Loch called Skeen. A loch is a lake. Loch somehow sounds more picturesque and ancient and quaint and grand and more whatever it is that one would imagine if just imagining a lake.
On the way, sheep casually strolled both the shoulder of the road and the road itself. A lady in a Mercedes slammed on her brakes and stopped inches short of shearing a yoe.
The carpark was filled with cars. We wondered if camping was allowed at the lake, for in most countries camping is frowned upon outside of designated areas, especially at popular locales. But this is Scotland where they enshrined in law one’s right to ‘wild camp’, which means camping pretty much wherever one pleases. To make sure, Tash queried the volunteer attendant.
“Oh, well, perhaps you could. There’s a spot on the far side of the loch that’s a little more sandy. You could try there.”
Already a sign. I realised later that he thought we were asking if camping was physically possible at the lake, or perhaps a sensible thing one would do at this particular spot. He was dubious. We shortly found out why, though first one climb’s Grey Mare’s Tail: a steep climb through fields of ferns to a view of waterfalls. Sheep gallivant on the slopes like goats. A sign read, “Keep dogs on their leash. Wild dogs have recently fallen into the gullies while chasing sheep.” Tough bastards, Scotch sheep.
It was windy and drizzly, but soon cleared to be overcast and windy. We followed the stream till we crested the lake. A pretty thing—water at eye level—stretching horizontal to the foot of a granite corrie (like a rock bowl comprised of mountains). A few more steps and it wasn’t so pretty. It was dark and windswept and the lake was surrounded by mud and bog.
A disquisition on bog
The OED, an old and trusted friend, says:
Bog, noun: An area of wet muddy ground that is too soft to support a heavy body.
Peat bog, noun: A brown material consisting of partly decomposed vegetable matter forming a deposit on acidic, boggy ground, which is dried for use in gardening and as fuel.
These definitions are woefully inadequate, if accurate.
Bog is not wet, but water-logged, and it is water-logged within the peat. The peat is a layer of humus anywhere from six inches to six feet deep, comprised of partly decayed grasses and bushes of decades, centuries, and eons past. Why the humus doesn’t decay into soil, only the Scottish know. It may have something to do with the fact that Scotland is just one extensive field of rocks. Perhaps, indeed, a single big rock. Like Uluru, or the planet Mercury.
So bog is soggy humus, but what no one tells you (along with not telling you Scotland is just one extensive bog on a rock) is the fact that stubby little woody shrubs (which I’m going to call bramble) is a major constituent of the humus, and bramble is the dominant flora atop the humus. To be clear, the Scottish bog—henceforth simply referred to as ‘Scotland’—isn’t grassed, it’s brambled with stunted ferns and bushes of a maroon-brown persuasion. Weeds fill the interstices. Now: try camping on brambled bog, dickhead.
The Skeen bog
We traipsed to the east around the lake, our boots (which in my case were sandals) sinking into a combination of bog and/or mud. It only got worse, so we traipsed around to the west. It only got worse. Now came understanding. The helpful volunteer meant that one doesn’t camp at Loch Skeen because there is nowhere to camp. Not a single patch of flat, or non-flat, grass, and all of it water-logged. We resolved to put the Jetboil on and have a cup of tea in the howling wind and think about it. Tash couldn’t find the lighter. I told her where to look. Then she threw our very expensive camera and I had to lunge to stop it rolling into the angry loch. She said it was an accident. I gave no quarter.
Tash still couldn’t find the lighter. I looked where I said to look and found the lighter. Words were exchanged. We agreed that we would not have a cup of tea after all, and that were it an earlier age one of us would have been drowned there and then. We disagreed as to whom.
Down we went. On the way we passed some young men with beards and beer-bellies carrying an esky and plastic bags and what looked like a ten quid tent. They were strung out along the path, literally sprawled against the slope in states of repose/throes of death. If only they knew what waited for them atop the hills.
“Don’t worry mate,” I said, “you’ve already made it 5% of the way.”
We drove off, thinking we had been unlucky in our first choice of spots to camp, expecting better to come.
A poor night’s sleep
For that night’s camp we had to settle on a patch of grass next to a lake, next to a road, which already had four or five tents set up. We parked and pitched and had an early night.
Wind begat rain begat storm. Sometime around midnight another car pulled up two feet from our tent, an act of insanity as there was plenty of room elsewhere. What became clear over the next two hours is that the people next to us were drunk and taking drugs, cocaine from what we could tell, but who knows? Another car or two rocked up. The car that had parked next to us became their drug car. Somewhere between eight and twelve men with torches were in constant rotation through the drug car. At one point I asked them if they could stop opening and shutting their doors. They didn’t seem to understand what I was saying. They were drunk. And on drugs.
2am, a drunk, drugged-up Scottish man tried to get in our tent, not knowing one tent from another. I called out, telling him to fuck off. Tash then called out, then continued to call out—a tirade, if you will—letting out her vexations. The man then proceeded to stand out the front of our tent, making threats. Most choice was:
“I’ll throw a brick through your car window, you cheeky fuckers.”
I did not wild camp my fist on the man’s face, seeing as he was drunk, and on drugs, and had a lot of friends. Instead, we did the sensible thing and in the rain and howling wind we packed up our tent and drove off. It was 2:30 am. A mist had descended and I could barely see two feet. I drove anyway, trusting the sheep to know better.
Momentarily pretty then hellish
Tash slept. She woke up, put some coordinates into our car navigation system, and went back to sleep. Sometime later I realised she had inputted the wrong coordinates and I had to backtrack. I blamed myself, for I have long known that Tash is to direction as wind is to piss.
I suppose it was the afternoon when we passed through Fort William and on to the start of a walk that led to Steall Waterfall. The walk was fine, though popular (which in my book is a grievous black mark against something). We figured we would camp that night somewhere near the falls and forget the misery of the previous evening. It was raining.
Around the falls we found bog and mud, but that was irrelevant, for we had taken our Hennessy hammocks, designed for camping. All we needed were a few trees. We found those trees beside the stream. A lovely spot, really. It was about 5 in the afternoon, so we threw our packs down, got out some food, and sat on boulders looking over the rapids.
Then the wind disappeared and first a few, then a few hundred, midges descended. We had been warned about the midges: that the moment the wind drops they will emerge en masse to savage a man as a man savages a chicken leg, and I was their chicken leg. It made no difference that we were drenched in the recommended repellent, Avon Skin So Soft. My skin was soft, and no doubt that helped the midges plunge their proboscis through my supple dermis.
In a few frantic minutes we had assembled the hammocks and retreated inside. I read a book. Tash had no book. Tash had nothing. For four hours she lay there, alone, too far from my hammock to even talk to me, trapped, whilst wondering if the rains up-river would cause the stream to rise and for our bags to be swept away, not to mention ourselves. The sun finally went down about 9:30 and we slept fitfully.
We awoke to midges. We frantically packed and fled for our lives.
Isle of why?
We drove on to the Isle of Skye, a large rocky island, possibly the most popular tourist destination in Scotland. We headed for Talisker Bay. The beach was filled with rocks. There were many sheep. It was raining. No place to camp. We discussed the likelihood of an orca charging the beach and taking a sheep.
We headed back to Carbost where we had arranged to go on a tour of the Talisker Brewery. We were early, and it was raining, so we sought a pub for both shelter and whiskey. Alas, the town of Carbost has but one tiny inn, and every miserable tourist in Skye was crammed in there. We went to a corner store, bought a bottle of cheap whisky not made by Talisker, then sat in our car and drank. It was raining.
We did the brewery tour. The tour guide asked if we had any questions. “Why doesn’t Scotland have any trees?” She didn’t know the answer.
The tour concluded with a sample of Talisker’s worst whisky. We went back to the car to continue drinking our cheap blended swill while we plotted what we were going to do that night. Hennessy hammocks were out of the question. Not many prospects for a tent, either. All we’d seen as we’d driven across Skye was bog. Mean-looking bog. The rivers run black, the peat having bled its filth into every waterway.
As a last resort we camped at a paid-for campsite, which we are loathe to do because camping should be about solitude and finding one’s own way. We camped. We drank a lot of blended Scotch swill as we sat in our car. We laughed heartily as a family pulled up next to us and tried to establish a family-size tent in gale-force wind. The mother was very angry. I was very drunk and very amused. It stopped blowing and raining about five minutes after they finished setting up. The mother was very angry.
In the morning I got up and was nearly consumed by a waiting army of midges. No wind, you see. I fled to the car where I sat, trapped, for about an hour, waiting for Tash to wake. I couldn’t even make a cup of tea. We had a conversation about leaving Scotland that morning. We should have left Scotland. We did not leave Scotland.
(continued in Part II)