At the end of April, I had the opportunity to visit Scotland for a conference on Arctic plants. At the time, Ross Campbell was in Scotland as well. He was waiting to return to Canada and eager for a VOC-like trip. After a quick discussion, we decided that going to the Isle of Skye, where a bothy (hut) had been built in memory of our friend and VOC member Neil Mackenzie, would be a great way for me to see some of Scotland. As well as visiting Bell’s Bothy, we could attempt to climb the Inaccessible Pinnacle, and visit Neil Mackenzie’s parents (Margaret and Angus). This would easily fill my four days in Scotland after the conference. On the last day of the conference in Stirling, however, I had the opportunity to fully experience the difference between a mile and a kilometer.
I had heard that there was a tower built by my ancestors in the 1600’s. Before meeting up with Ross, I wanted to see this tower. The tower is about 13 miles out of Stirling. Without thinking, I assumed this meant that I had about 13 km of jogging/walking to do. Walking rapidly, 6km takes less than an hour so 13 km should be approximately an hour and half. Adding a bit to account for miles the whole trip there and back should take about 4 hours. I googled the route at the conference, drew a map on the back of the conference program, and set out. Before too long I had made it onto the highway and was enjoying the endless farmland that extended in all directions. Fairly quickly, I arrived in a small town and asked a few people if they knew of a place called Elphinstone Tower. This question got me puzzled looks as a response and prompted queries as to whether I was lost. After another half hour of walking, I encountered a second town. People here also had no clue about an Elphinstone Tower or any of the landmarks I mentioned. Now slightly confused, I continued on, walking through fields of sheep and cattle to avoid the highway. About six towns later, I had begun to conclude that I had miscalculated the distance fairly significantly. I was determined to reach my ancestors’ tower though and I began to jog a little faster. Eventually, in a very small village, a woman out walking her dog finally knew about Elphinstone Tower directed me down a small lane into a forest filled with enormous fir trees. It felt almost like BC. Before long, I was walking through an old cemetery that surrounded the ruins of a medieval tower. Ivy and other plants had grown up and taken over the tower but I could still see the beautiful stonework cut into the top of the tower. After discovering a couple of dug out graves and with the sun setting, I decided I needed to find a faster route back to Stirling. After quickly jogging several kilometers into the next town, I hopped on the bus and rode it back into Stirling.
Early the next morning Ross arrived in Stirling to pick me up. We were off to the Isle of Skye. About halfway through the drive, the car began to complain via a car alarm that the fuel tank was low with still another 50 miles to the next major city. Ross and I reassured ourselves that one of the smaller places before that would have a gas station. We had no such luck however, eventually rolling into the main city/gas station on the last few fumes from the gas tank.
With no further mishaps, we arrived at the Isle of Skye and set off hiking down the narrow winding roads to the trailhead for Bell’s Bothy. After a short and easy hike, we arrived at the bothy. There are actually three buildings in the lowland/bay. The one farthest from the trail is the old locked bothy, the middle building is someone’s cabin/house and the far hut is the new Bell’s bothy. One other person was at the hut and he was planning to go explore the Cuillin Ridge solo the following day. After this long day mostly filled with driving, we had dinner and were quickly asleep.
The next day we set off for the Inaccessible Pinnacle. Hiking along the coastline, we came to what people refer to as the “Bad Step”. As tourists in a boat stopped to watch us cross, their leader/guide explained that, normally, people boat into the bay to avoid this step… Before long, however, we had traversed the step and headed further up the valley. The skies were bluebird and Ross kept remarking how unusual that was for Scotland. I was struck by how much the landscape reminded me of the Canadian High Arctic.
Being on a sketchy snowfield, well below the summit, near our turnaround time, we had apparently misjudged the distance involved and, therefore, chose to turn back. We hiked back slowly through the valley crossing the Bad Step again just as it began to get dark. This time, when we arrived at the bothy, it was nearly full. Lots of people were planning to begin the Skye traverse the next day.
In the morning, we hiked back out to the car, planning to access the Inaccessible Pinnacle from the other side of Cuillin Ridge. The other approach is short and fast but, before we even got to the trailhead, we chose to visit a place called the Fairy Pools. It was packed with tourists, making it hard to believe that, just on the other side of the ridge, lay the bothy and peaceful, quiet valleys. Eventually, we got back in the car, decided it was too late to attempt the Inaccessible Pinnacle that day. For us, the peak has lived up to its name. As we were driving back, deciding on our next plans, I spotted our friend from the first night at the bothy hitchhiking on the side of the road. He was not supposed to be back yet.
We stopped to pick him up and he looked pretty beat up. His watch was smashed. “I fell off Cuillin Ridge”, he said. We listened to his story. It was a wakeup call, reminding both him and us how precious life is and how easily it can be lost. In town, we decided to call Margaret and Angus Mackenzie (Neil’s parents) to let them know we had found the bothy. They invited us over for dinner at their home near Inverness.
We drove east towards Inverness trying to follow Angus’ instructions. Fairly quickly though, Ross lost cell reception and we were left with only old fashion navigation techniques. At an old pay telephone booth, covered in French sayings and filled with open but reasonably full bottles of alcohol, we tried calling again for more detailed instructions but the phone was out of order. Eventually, partly by chance, we spotted a hill that resembled a hill that Neil had once described to us as being in his backyard. Finally, homing in to where Margaret and Angus lived, a couple out walking their dog directed us the last short way and before long we were welcomed inside for a wonderful dinner.
We discussed the VOC and what people have been up to over the last year. It was strange to be so far from Vancouver and still be talking about the VOC and mountains that I know so well. The conversation was wonderful and inspiring. We talked until Ross and I needed to leave to drive back to Glasgow. On the drive back we reminisced about the VOC and discussed what a great club it is. We arrived at Ross’ house late and fell asleep immediately. The next day, Ross’ mother fed me a ‘true Scottish breakfast’ and Ross took me on a tour of downtown Glasgow. I tried deep fried pizza and blood pudding. Early the next morning, Ross drove me to the Edinburgh airport.
Overall this was a great trip! Ross was a wonderful tour guide and I could not have done the trip without him. I also really appreciated Ross’ family’s hospitality and having the opportunity to meet with Margaret and Angus Mackenzie. Scotland is a beautiful place that I would like to go back to and explore further.