on the west highland way

Sat, Oct 4, 2008

Last weekend was my sister’s wedding and I had to give her away and with Dawn’s mum up visiting, I thought it would be a great idea to walk part of the West Highland Way on the journey down to Glasgow. I had to be there during the week for the rehearsal and Dawn and her maw would follow on the Friday, when we’d meet up. So the plan was, I’d get the bus to White Corries and make my way down to Tyndrum, get the train down to Glasgow, go to the rehearsal, meet the new rellies-to-be, eat all their food then head for what used to be the Viccy Bar in Stockwell Street, to meet up with me old pals from the Orion MC. I was also hoping to meet up with old friends at Bridge of Orchy, as I lived there for a year way back in 1989 and I knew they were still around, having met Kate and Kenny when I was leading for the HF there last year.

Blackrock Cottage

I jumped off the bus and made for the cafe at the White Corries chairlift, much better than the Kingy in my opinion. The food is great, staff really friendly and it has the best view of any cafe on the planet, looking straight across to the Buachaille and it has its own spur of the WHW when you’re heading north. So I’d thoroughly recommend a stop at the cafe. The weather was pretty grim though, very low cloud and slight drizzle as I plodded up the gnarly cobbled path to the highest part of the route and headed down to Ba Bridge. I was going against the stream and passing all sorts on their way north, from day walkers with a guide, to fully laden, sweating types who didn’t look as if they were too happy. I’d initially planned to take the high route from Meall a’Bhuiridh to Stob Ghabhar, bivvying on the summit but after the recent blasting in the ‘gorms and the sudden change in the forecast from clear skies and sun to low cloud and rain, I thought I’d take the easy option of the WHW. Plus I’d always wanted to visit Ba Bridge.

Ba Bridge

I didn’t take many pictures as the weather was so monochromatic and dull and as the wind was minimal, the clag was going nowhere, as were the midges, a few stalwarts lasting the course. Real hardmen, biting for all their worth. I’d been wondering about camp spots along the way between White Corries and Inveroran, perhaps camping at Ba Bridge but there two problems with that. The first was, I was cooking with gas, as they say in Weegieville and in the end it only took just under three hours to get to Inveroran. I seem to be able to do that. Walk for hours without a break at around 6kph. Now and then I stopped to look out over Rannoch Moor and listen to the absolute silence, watching a heron lift off and glide across the reedy lochan. It reminded me of the book we read at school, The Flight of the Heron. That book had a profound effect on me and more or less started my interest in Scottish history, Jacobitism, Gaelic and hillwalking and to boot, this was my most favourite area of Scotland. I have so many memories of these hills, the people who live here and the times we’ve spent partying, climbing, walking, cycling and all sorts, just up the road. I really love this area. This is where it all started for me really, almost thirty years ago.

To return to the route, the second impediment to camping along the way was the propensity for WHW walkers to defecate at any and every flat spot, especially beside a water source. At every nice spot along the way, with a nice view and a flat area, there would be a turd, all nicely wrapped in decaying bog roll. I spotted lots of really nice spots to plant a tent for the night, next to a burbling stream but sure enough, there was another little brown jobby, looking up at me as if to say, “twasn’t me, I had no choice in this”. I very seldon walk recognised routes such as the WHW so factoring in turds to the wild camping equation is a new phenomenon. I normally plonk the Akto next to a burn in the hills, or humph enough water up to the heights to enjoy a really wild camp but down here, among the “great unwashed, quite literally”, it was an eye opening (and watering!) experience. It was rather anthropological in a way. You see, the vast majority of people walk the way from south to north, presumably as that’s the way the books point and well, people are like sheep in some respects, they’ll follow the majority. Striding out from White Corries, the way was quite pristine. Not a turd in sight, even at the bridges across the small burns where there were some nice camp spots. However, the closer I got to Inveroran, the higher the turdometer climbed. It mostly started just before Ba Bridge, reached peak output (ouch!) just above Inveroran then tailed off completely until Victoria Bridge, where the incidence rate spiked, mostly due to the lack of facilities at the main camping spots on either side of the bridge. From this scatalogical distribution I can only infer that well breakfasted campers were making their wearisome way up the steepish incline above Forest Lodge and between there and Ba Bridge, bowel evacuation was taking place at a rate determined by individual physiology and genes. The vast majority of the walking population seemed to have made it to the top of the incline before dumping their loads while some large bowelled stalwarts had struggled on to Ba Bridge before answering the call of nature. And not a single one had thought to march off onto the moor and bury it. No sir. The views were so good they had to share them with their little brown friends.

Above Inveroran

Enough of the West Toilet Way however! I made Inveroran and over a coffee and cake learned that Mary from Auch would be coming in later as she worked there now. That was an easy decision. Bridge of Orchy or Inveroran. I hadn’t seen Mary in almost 20 years so I went back down to Victoria Bridge, dodging the turd infestations like a contestant on Strictly Come Dancing, passed a couple of car campers encased in anti-midge head mesh and plonked the Akto down on the far side of the burn, well away from everyone else and their crepuscular bowel evacuations, which seemed to be as near as possible to their tents. The other side of the bridge was mostly taken up by a chap in a classic car with a sprawling tent and an industrial sized gaz bottle. He must have been really hungry, I thought to myself.

Camp at Victoria Bridge Inveroran

The night passed well in good company and drams. Mary introduced me to the local stalker, who had a bit of the Gaelic and we swapped tales of people from yonks ago. Nothing really changes here and everyone knows everyone else. 20 years ago I’d been living at Bridge of Orchy as a student waster type and had taken the bus up to White Corries and walked back over the tops, to Clashgour, where Rab And Jean had fed, watered and bedded me for the night. Rab and Jean were superb folks. Rab being the local stalker/farmer. I remember one wild night in winter, spent at Clashgour over fine drams and a roaring fire, he told of the time he’d driven his argocat out onto Loch Dochard as the ice was so thick. Unfortunately it had cracked in the middle and he’d gone under, argo and all. He managed to climb back onto the ice and ran all the way back to Clashgour, in a blizzard and soaked to the skin. He went back the next day with the tractor and hauled the argocat out and left it to dry for a week or so, when it started first time. The keeper from the Glen Etive side of the hills used to drive across the pass, below Beinn nan Aigheanan and past Loch Dochard for a night of drams and story telling at Clashgour. Those were the days!

Rab took me out one winter day in Februrary 1989, to shoot hinds. I had this weird way of handling a gun, where I’d hold it in my right arm but sight with my left eye, which was no use at all, at all. So Rab made me pull my hat down over my left eye and sight with my right. Practicing on an old barrel to make sure I was up to it, he taught me about the ballistics of the rifle and how to aim depending on the distance. All of which I’ve forgotten. The next day we spent low down, across the river from Stob Ghabhar but we had to get across it first. That meant walking straight across the torrent, keeping low and as quiet as possible. When you stalk, the route you take is dictated by where the deer are and where the wind is coming from. If you get upwind of them, they’re off. So to stay downwind, you have no choice but to grapple with the land. No risk assessments and finding safe places to cross. You cross where you won’t be noticed. I then had to crawl through a couple of feet of snow for what seemed like ages, holding the rifle in a waterproof sleeve in the crook of my arms, using my elbows for movement, with Rab directing from behind. All the while, heavy, thick flakes of snow fell from a leaden sky, reducing visibility, so we had to get as near as possible to the selected hind. There is method in this. Rab would watch the herd and make his choice. He singled out an old gal, her coat darker than the rest and she was thinner and noticeably different from the others. From then on we made for her, crawling through snow drifts, soaking from the river crossing, freezing cold and noses streaming. Eventually we reached a small knoll about 300m from her and I took the heavy, well oiled rifle out of the leather sleeve, shouldered it and lined her up in the sight, marking the spot where I’d been taught to go for. So many “toffs” end up doing a “neck shot” and the stalker has to finish the animal off but I knew where to hit her, to make it quick and painless. She’d lived her entire life free on the hills. She’d bred countless calves who had continued the herd. Now she was old and tired. You could see by the colour of her coat and the way she moved that she was an old gal. She probably wouldn’t have made it through the winter. One of the worst in many years it turned out. I had a great responsibility now. I had to make it quick and efficient. If she spotted us she would be off. I watched her through the telescopic sight, Rab whispered something in my ear about being quick, she turned side on to us and I squeezed the trigger. She instantly disappeared from the sight view, dropping like a stone. The job was done. Clean and quick. It was the least I could do for her.

We stood up and walked over to her lifeless form. Rab gralloched her and we stuck our frozen hands in her warm innards, gently steaming in the thickly falling snow. Rab then took the rifle and tied her hinds legs together and I dragged her back to the river, carried her across and we loaded her onto the argocat and drove back to Clashgour. That was 20 years ago and it’s as vivid in my mind as the day we laid the old ‘gal to rest. The stalking season was always a dread for the professionals as they’d have to play host to moneyed toffs who couldn’t shoot but when they left, the game dealers came and took the carcasses, with the toffs departing with the skulls and antlers, produced by boiling the heads outside in huge barrels. Then the hind culling season began and the stalkers got on with their jobs, cleanly and efficiently.

Some people consider deer stalking an anachronism. A victorian relict but the landscape has been so devastated by humans, that the natural habitat of the deer has long been destroyed. Our deer in the highlands are a travesty in comparison to their European counterparts who still have their forest habitats. Ours are smaller and weaker in comparison. They may be tougher but it’s no life for anything to endure, especially when new forest plantations are springing up while deer are excluded from what is arguably their natural environment. Hence the only humane thing to do is to cull them. There are PR disasters of course, such as Mar Estate and the toffs are mostly not up to the job but the stalkers just get on with their jobs, out of the limelight and I suspect without their input, there would be an environmental disaster of starving herds.

So I have all these memories of this area and I had a great night at Inveroran and I didn’t get too tipsy that I couldn’t do the turd tango past the happy campers back to my wee Akto. All round me that night the stags were bellowing and in the dark of night I had to get up to answer the call of nature and was instantly greeted by a loud bark from across the burn. A grazing stag was making his presence felt. Keep away from my birds he was saying, so I beat a hasty retreat to the tent.

Sunrise over Loch Tulla

I left early the next morning, before the sun had come up and headed over the WHW to Bridge of Orchy and then down towards Tyndrum, pausing at the Club Hut, MacDougall’s Cottage, an old railway linesman’s cottage next to the way. MacDougall worked on the “permanent way” and it was his job to walk the line every day, looking for faults. He would walk as far as the next permanant way man’s section then turn back to the cottage. If you look up on the side of Beinn Odhair when you get to Auch, you’ll see an exact copy of MacDougall’s Cottage up on the railway and there’s another one on the side of Beinn Achallaider, all permanant way workers’ cottages. I stopped at the hut for a while, loads of memories flooding back as this was our club hut in Clachaig MC days, before we became the Orion MC and gave the hut up. The tales I could tell. I climbed my last ice route in Coire an Dothaidh from here, having to walk back the long way, round the back of Beinn Dorain and Auch as the avalanche risk was sky high, only to fall madly in love with my future wife that night in the hut. I could fill a book with the Tales of the Club Hut but I’ll just mention one more fact. There’s an old tree next to the hut where I learned to prusik, just before heading off to the Alps.

The Club Hut

On the way to Tyndrum I had a brew up on the county march, in a raw wind, sat on a rock a few metres above the way, waving now and then to passing walkers heading north. They all seemed very cheerful, which was nice. I then got the train to Glasgow, rehearsed my wedding duties, went to the rellies-to-be and ate all their food, then spent the rest of the night with the club down the Viccy Bar. Well it’s not called that now and it’s a Sky Football theme pub with a crap beer garden out the back. All things must change though. At least some things change for the better.

The old Victoria Bar and Clutha Vaults Stockwell Street Glasgow

You can see all the pics here.

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