HIKING

TRAVELLING SOLO THROUGH SCOTLAND

It’s a classic case of chicken and egg. I love travelling alone. I prefer hiking solo. But was I forced into liking it because I had no one to travel with, or did I avoid travelling with others because I prefered going it alone? Either way, I do travel solo. And I do enjoy it. So the outcome is the same. Perhaps if I hadn’t been forced into doing it I would never have realised that I actually appreciate it. Just a thought…

I travelled solo to Scotland in June 2018. One of my dearest friends, Sara, lives in Edinburgh. The previous year she had a baby, Maya, and I was yet to meet her face-to-face. So I decided to combine a trip to see them with a road-trip around Scotland’s best hiking spots.

I flew into Edinburgh, rented a car, then drove to the Cairngorms National Park. The plan was to wild camp. But, Scotland being Scotland, it was pouring with rain. It was torrential – rivers were forming on the road. I knew before I even arrived in Braemer, that pitching a tent was out of the question.

So I booked into a hotel. That’s the beauty of travelling alone. No one else to discuss decisions with. No one to make me feel like a wuss for not camping in the rain. No pressure. I am the maker of my plans.

The next day I walked in the Cairngorms the entire day. I summited Scotland’s (and thus the UK’s) second highest mountain, Ben MacDui, 1,309m. It was a long slog, but the scenery was breathtaking. It was as dramatic and open and wild as northern Sweden. But more accessible, less formidable. There was softness bound in a rugged dramatic frame. It was beautiful.I could escape the real world, entirely, for a day – save for a few short but welcoming conversations with other walkers – and be back in time for a cooked dinner and an early night in front of the TV. All this just a couple of hour’s drive from Edinburgh – I could get used to that!

The next day I drove, via Pitlochry – touristy but somewhat charming – to Fort William. More spectacular scenery awaited me. I watched with an appreciative smile as the clouds scudding across the sky created shadow puppets on the fields below. Slate stone farm houses stood firm against the wind, while trees and hedgerows danced to and fro. Cattle, sheep, deer and eagles played homemakers on the landscape. This was their country. I was just visiting.

Fort William was a bit of a disappointment. The High Street had nothing redeeming about it. Ben Nevis was shrouded in cloud. Blue skies had been chased away by a bleak greyness that occupied the horizon doggedly. Rain returned with a vengeance. The same thought I’d had approaching Braemer returned – sleeping in my tiny one-man bivvy tent was the last thing I felt like doing. I pulled into a layby, scoured the Internet for hotel availability in my price range – which I’d suddenly expanded – but the result was the same everywhere: no room at the inn. Camping it was then.

I rocked up at the campsite. Parked the car. Wrapped myself in my waterproof jacket and headed straight for the nearest inn. It was warm but empty so lacked cosiness. But the roof, as you’d expect from a fully-functioning pub, was solid – unlike my tiny tent.

I ended up being on the receiving end of a ‘conversation’ with a man visiting the area for the umpteenth time. I didn’t care that I couldn’t get a word in edgeways and that he was clearly blowing his own trumpet. I zoned out and drank two beers, which he paid for!

The next day I climbed Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest mountain. Seeing as it’s just 1,345m I decided to make the way up a little harder. I’d booked a guide with a view to climbing up the north face. The weather had other plans and owing to the rain we had to alter our plans. Instead we climbed Tower Ridge, the full story of which you can read here. If you’re not interested in taking on this bigger challenge, you can slog up the south side.

On day two in Fort William I stayed close to camp, preferring just a couple of shorter walks. I didn’t fancy a long day in the wet, after two nights in a sodding campsite – with one more to go.

The following morning, in anger and misery I packed up early – you don’t do lie-ins when you’re freezing, damp and tired in a one-person tent. I was on the road by 7am. The only place open for coffee then was McDonalds, somewhere I avoid like the plague otherwise, but with my craving for a warm drink burning in my stomach I put my morals aside and went in.

Back on the road, rain drizzling again, I drove to Loch Lomond. The plan was to stop along the way and go for a long walk just after Glencoe. But the rain had sided with the wind and together they succeeded in scuppering my best laid plans.

I did get out the car though. I walked for around 45 minutes. It was just too beautiful to drive on past. The valley was narrower here, filled with a stream masquerading as a river thanks to the persistent rainfall. The green of the grass and shrubs was a vivid emerald. The hills were rolling, up and down, up and down, for as far as I could see, with the road weaving a way through them, snaking left and right.

The journey took an age. I got stuck behind a whole stream of caravans and motorhomes. But I didn’t mind. It gave me more time to drool over the scenery. The mountains sloped first into hills, then onwards into open plains. Moorland sprouted into farmland.

Just as the water stopped falling from the sky, the ground became strewn with lochs, growing in size as I drove south. I arrived in good time to climb Ben Lomond. The wind was still battering the landscape but the rain had fizzled out. That stranger, the sun, was creeping into the picture again.

If Picasso had ever come here he’d have made a masterwork of nature’s masterpiece.

The walk up Ben Lomond wasn’t hard, but my god, it just wouldn’t end. Talk about false summits! This is the Pinocchio of false summits. Anyway, it took just a couple of hours for me to get up there and the view, well, it was outstanding. The loch, the hills, the forests, the fields, the sky, the clouds, the villages, the boats. There was foreground, background, depth, light. It was like a painting. If Picasso had ever come here he’d have made a masterwork of nature’s masterpiece.

I slept in a B&B that night. Thank god! And I slept like a baby. For 10 hours! The next day I drove to Edinburgh to spend two nights with Sara and Maya. Their company was welcome. But I realised that constant conversation, being present and alert, takes as much energy as my days out in nature. The contrast between company and alone time was all-too tangible. I realised I’ve become quite the loner. But being alone in nature isn’t the same.

In nature I’m alone but I’m not lonely. At home, with nothing but Netflix, Instagram, WhatsApp and a fridge full of food for company I often feel lonely. Walking home from a bar on Friday night, alone, seeing lots of happy people, together, going home with company, loved ones, friends, I feel lonely. I feel lonelier in the city, toiling with routine – workout, commute, work, commute, eat, sleep – than I do with a day outdoors, wandering along a winding path of dirt with the trees, mountains, valleys, rivers and fields for company. I guess it all comes down to where I feel happiest. Time for a change?