From the Hills to the Sea
After wild camping at Shielin of Mark, I started the last phase of my journey across Scotland, leaving the hills and mountains behind and walking through glen and farmland to the sea. I was sad to leave the challenge of the hills and mountains behind, but looked forward to the more social side of the Challenge that occurs in the final days of the event.
Day 11: Sheilin of Mark to Tarfside – 10.77 miles (248m ascent)
Graham and I were among the last to leave Shielin of Mark the next morning. I was really running low of food at this point and squeezed two packs of Justin’s Nut Butter into my mouth, straight from the pack, followed by my remaining cashews and honey roasted almonds. I knew we’d be in Tarfside in just a few hours and I’d heard that there was some food there so I wasn’t that worried. Still.
We had one minor hill to climb called Muckle Cairn before descending to Glen Lee and it’s Loch. Calling Muckle Cairn a hill is probably generous. It’s a big mound of peat, and getting over it required picking our way around the bogs, heather, and streams that run down it. It was all pretty anti-climactic after climbing Lochnagar the previous day.
Still when we got to the top, we had some fine views down into Glen Lee which is a perfectly formed highland glen but in minature. We had followed a compass bearing to the track that starts at the top of the hill and picked up our pace downhill when the walking got easier. Once we dipped below the surrounding hills, the background noise of the ever present wind died down, replaced by the woosh of cascades that run by the track, carrying snow melt and bog runoff to the Loch.
As we descended, the level of civilization started to increase, much to my dismay. My Challenge was coming to an end and I dreaded re-entry into the world of time and to-do lists. Thankfully, my route through Tarfside and Edzell provided a gradual re-introduction to a more urban existence.
We were clearly at the edge of an estate, judging from the burned heather and felled trees on either side of the path. In no time, we came upon the Stables of Lee, a stone house that does double duty as a camping spot for the gameskeeper and hay storage for horses. There are rings attached to the outside of the building with leather straps attached, no doubt for tying up horses.
Graham and I stopped for water at a stone bridge and came across another group of Challengers gathered around Colin, who’d found an freshly shed adder skin on the ground by the track. It was still moist and pliable, so he collected it for display at the local museum back home.
Believe it or not, Scotland has poisonous snakes which live in the heather and like to sun on rocks. I was fortunate to avoid any, or maybe they avoided me. I’m told that a bite is not lethal if you have a healthy immune system but that you should seek medical attention if bitten.
Graham fed me a half candy bar and we continued on at a casual pace chatting with other Challengers on the way to Tarfside. As hikers descend on the east coast, they are geographically channeled together along the glens, campgrounds, and back roads of eastern Scotland, where entire towns greet them in an annual celebration. Such is the case with Tarfside, a small village, with just a church, a phone box, and a masonic hall.
We soon passed by the estate farmhouse and out buildings at the end of Loch Lee, passing dog kennels and horse stables and headed through sheep pasture to the monument on the Hill or Rowan overlooking Tarfside. I picked up my pace. I was thinking about food and I wanted to find out whether Tarfside was going to satisfy my need.
The Hill of Rowan is not a big hill, but it was the high point in the area, and my quads dreaded the thought of climbing it. Luckily the track passed along it’s side – I was afraid that Graham would want to climb up to the monument, a beehive shaped pile of stone. We both breezed by it and the track led us right to the door of St. Drostan’s, a small chapel and retreat center rented out for the weekend by Challenge sponsor, The Great Outdoors Magazine (TGO).
I had no idea about what to expect when we arrived and as I turned the corner I saw backpacks piled up against the wall and shoes strewn outside the side door. No one is allowed inside the lodge with their muddy wet shoes, not that Challenger socks are any less toxic. My own would have dropped a bull in full charge.
Hot food and beer are available inside, freshly cooked by the “Ladies of St Drostan’s”, who are an institutional feature of the Challenge. Simple rooms are available at the lodge as well as just hot showers, for people who want to camp out or are just passing through.
I entered the kitchen and met a lot more challengers as I checked in with the ladies. I ordered a bacon buttie and wolfed down a granola cake and a pot of tea while I caught up with the other hikers in the bustling little room. The food is not free, so I paid up and made my way with Graham down to the village green, where it’s traditional to camp for the night.
We were amongst the first to arrive for the evening and had our choice of pitches in the large green field. By evening, a small crowd had gathered with about 20 tents. More would arrive the following day.
I set up camp and did my chores, throwing out my trash in the dumpsters and getting fresh water from the outdoor tap at the elegant washrooms next to the green. It was only mid-day, but we decided to hang out for the party that evening at the Mason’s arms. I tried lying in my Duomid, but the heat inside was too intense in the mid-day sun. Instead, I found a park bench in the adjacent playground and finished my book about the Battle of Britain: not a stunning read, but historically interesting.
Writing section hiker has so dominated my free time the past 3 years that my normally voracious appetite for reading has waned. During my hike, I made a point to take a break from writing, which was agonizing, but helped me understand just how important it is to me.
After a spell of reading in the sun, I made my way back to St Drostans for seconds and met Humphrey Weightman, who instantly recognized me as soon as I spoke. We’d corresponded by email before the Challenge and he’s familiar with my stomping grounds in Vermont and New Hampshire, having lived for a while in Boston. After a refresher course in Gaelic place names from Humphrey, I walked back to St Drostan’s for a second feeding.
By now, more Challengers were arriving and I ran into Henry Shires just as he got to the end of the track at St. Drostan’s. The first thing out of his mouth was “where is the campsite?” I immediately introduced myself – I’ve owned a few tarptents in my time and Henry and I had corresponded about using the Scarp 1 on the Challenge. He asked how my Scarp had been, and I sheepishly admitted that I’d brought a Duomid instead. He wasn’t offended. In fact, he’d brought along his new lighter tent, the Moment, and we all got to see it later.
I explained about the food, camping, and party later in the evening and sent Henry on his way. After a while, I trundled back to my camp and found that a Duomid ghetto had formed around me. A fellow name John (last name anyone?) had set up a silnylon one beside me, followed by Rob Chandler in his stealth colored cuben fiber model. We were soon joined by the one and only Andy Howell who also has a white-as-snow cuben Duomid like my own.
I made some Packit Gourmet Creamy Polenta that night which I think was the last food I had left. This is a great meal by itself and has become one of my favorite backpacking dishes. You just add water and it thickens up in the pot. It was a good choice before the party that night because I knew I’d be quaffing a few brews later on.
When I arrived at the Mason’s Arms, the party was in full swing, the little room bursting with thirsty challengers and abuzz with conversation. I met still more new Challengers and many an old friendship was rekindled that evening. It was worth spending the day in Tarfside on my first Challenge but next time I think I’ll tack on another day in northwestern Scotland and do some more walking and wild camping before heading back to a more urban existence.
Day 12: Tarfside to North Water Bridge – 16.1 miles (250m ascent)
I was not the first person to pack up the next morning. Not by a long shot, and I was amazed that 2/3 of the hikers had already packed up and left by the time I emerged from my Duomid.
Graham had said a quick goodbye earlier as I was waking. He was taking another route to the east coast and I’d miss his company. We had formed a lasting friendship and I’m sure we will stay in touch.
I packed up my gear and headed down the road for a mile to The Retreat, a museum and cafe, for breakfast. When I came to the building, I knew I’d arrived at the right place judging by the backpacks piled outside the door.
All the tables inside were taken, so I asked Henry Shires and another hiker named Michael, who I’d met on the second morning of my hike in Glen Affric, if I could sit with them. Michael recognized me but confessed not remembering my name. I explained where we’d first met and that he was walking with two women and lived in Dartmoor. He was amazed at my recall. The truth is that I’d been keeping a detailed diary of my crossing using a miniature digital voice recorder. Worked fantastically, as a matter of fact.
I ordered up two bacon butties and a tea, ordering after Henry and Michael, but finishing before them. The place was busy and they were politely waiting for the check when I plunked down the money for my meal and asked them to take care of paying. Sorry guys, I seem to have lost my manners. I bolted out the door and left them sitting there.
Next stop was the town of Edzell and there are two ways to get there. You can walk down the road along the northern side of River Esk, or cross the river and walk over hills and pasture. It’s an easy choice really, and there had been much discussion at the cafe that morning about what bridge to use for crossing the River Esk since many have been closed. I decided to see whether I could skip a bridge altogether and just ford the river.
I walked down the road for about a quarter-mile before I saw a dirt road leading down to the river. I headed down and started scouting for a good fording spot, climbing over a barbed wire sheep fence to get to the river bank. I found a decent spot almost immediately and had started across when a farmer drove his land rover down to the bank and advised me to cross lower down the river at a “gorge where I’d have to throw my pack across.”
He was surrounded by a bunch of farm dogs, including a large Chesapeake bay retriever, whose intentions were unclear. I decided to ignore the farmer’s entreaties and walked across the river in front of him. The current was a little pushy and the water rose above my knees but I made it across the Esk without incident. So much for bridges and boots! I was loving my Terrocs.
I climbed the steep bank on the other side of the river, and headed down Glen Esk, along a good track eventually coming to sheep and cow pastures full of lambs and calves. Walking through herds of sheep is not scary: they just run away. Cows are a different story, especially when they have youngins, and I had to counter some bovine intimidation with some toots on my rescue whistle and arm waving. Always a surefire way to get an animal to back down.
I had expected to meet other Challengers along the path down Glen Esk, but surprisingly didn’t not see anyone until I’d nearly made it to Edzell. I think they walked along the riverside while I followed a track higher up in the hills.
Edzell is much larger than Tarfside, with a main street, pubs, restaurants, B&B’s and a food store, which was closed during the lunch hour when I arrived. Edzell is also home to the famous Tuck Inn, a good restaurant, well worth stopping into for lunch. Graham had told me about it and recommended a stop.
Once again, there were packs piled outside the door and the place was full when I arrived. I sat down at George Griffin’s table and surveyed the room. Henry Shires and Michael were enjoying another meal together and Andy Howell was at another table. Same crowd, different town. I had an unusual craving for a classic coke so I ordered one without ice, a pot of tea, and the spaghetti bolognese special. These didn’t last long.
I asked George for directions to the campground at North Water Bridge. I didn’t have any firm plans to stay there, but everyone else seems to be stopping there for the night, so I figured I’d join them. We were eating up the miles to the sea.
I nipped over to the store and picked up some more food, including cheese, crackers, candy bars, and cake. I love eating cake for breakfast, washed down with Starbuck’s Via instant coffee.
I packed up and headed down the road, trying to make sense of George’s directions which included crossing a bridge and taking a right down a road for 4 miles, or something. George surprised me by popping around a corner as I headed down the Edzell high street. He’d been waiting for me, since finding the bridge is tricky. Nice bloke that George. He was always looking out for me, for which I am grateful. We were joined then by Rob Chandler who I was to get to know better during the rest of the afternoon. Good guy. Fast walker.
The bridge out of Edzell is impossible to find without local knowledge. It’s a suspension foot bridge that sways madly as you walk across it. George sent me over first, videotaping my crossing, which I half expect to see posted on the internet anyday. He took 80 hours of video during the Challenge and has published a video journal of the Challenge on his blog. We walked a very similar route and reliving it in the video is very different than looking at photos: very vivid.
After the bridge, we marched down the road past an airforce base and through the Woods of Edzell. The word march is apt here because Rob and George must have been doing 4 mph here and I had to struggle to keep up with them. I prefer 3 mph on roads.
As it turns out North Water Bridge is an uninspiring campground located next to what passes for an interstate highway in Scotland. Camping next to a highway is not my idea of a good time, but I was resigned to a social finish and had already walked 16 miles for the day. Be forewarned: the pleasures at North Water Bridge are few. The strongest drink in the camp store is milk, but there is wireless, laundry, and hot showers.
We set up camp and hung out. I took a shower and Andy Howell interviewed me for the Outdoor Station podcast series. I ate and socialized a bit more, but the temperature started to drop and I got cold so I got into my sleeping bag and soon crashed for the night.
Day 13: North Water Bridge to Montrose – 8.19 miles (97m ascent)
I was the first Challenger to wake up the next morning, rising at 4:30 am and on the road by 6 am. I had 8 or 9 miles to walk to get to Montrose, the only potential problem being that I didn’t have a map for this stretch of the walk. I had realized this the previous evening and traced an OS map, drawing in the OS grid so I could use GPS coordinates if need be to figure out where I was. However, once you cross the 4 lane highway outside the campground, getting to Montrose is a straight shot and well signed.
By leaving so early, I missed a lot of traffic and had a pleasant walk past farmers’ fields to Montrose and the sea, despite intermittent rain. With the cloud cover, the contrast between the brilliant yellow fields of rapeseed and the surrounding green fields made a striking picture.
I arrived at the outskirts of Montrose just after 8 am and went looking for the Park Hotel to check-in at Challenge Control. They had a package of clean clothes for me and I wanted to finally meet Roger Smith. By chance, I managed to find the hotel quickly, only having to ask one person for directions. I just headed to the center of town and started walking down to the sea, arriving at Challenge Control just as Roger was unlocking the door in the morning.
Roger is an amazing person. He’s run the Challenge for something like 19 years, organizing all the details, and ensuring the safety and well-being of all Challengers, as they make their way cross country. I had spoken with him during my normal safety check-ins along my route and he was always inquisitive about my journey, despite the fact that 300 other people were calling him all day long with their own updates.
He graciously invited me into the 2nd-floor room in the Park where the Challenge is monitored and got me processed. I was fussed over by the other Control volunteers, fed tea and cookies, and then sent on my way when the place began to fill up with other Challengers.
By luck, I had booked a room at the Links Hotel next door for two nights and didn’t have much farther to travel. My room wasn’t ready yet, so I dropped off my bags and headed out to do some errands, including buying a clean pair of shoes, more food, and a few books to read. I had some time to kill before the awards dinner the following evening. After walking through magnificent Glen Muick and 10+ days of Gaelic immersion, I had a strong urge to read The Hobbit again!
I won’t bore you with more domestic details, other than to say that I spent the remainder of the day cleaning up, washing clothes, and feeding my revved-up metabolism, eating everything in sight.
The next day, I hung out at the Park Hotel bar with other Challengers, meeting still more people and catching up with friends that I’d met on the crossing. Later that evening I went to the Thursday night Challenge dinner which is a rollicking event, MC’d by Roger Smith. Special awards are given to Challengers who’ve finished their 10th and 20th crossings which gives you some idea of the tradition and kinship that have developed around the Challenge.
Henry Shires and I were both recognized twice, as foreign Challengers and first-timers.
Later that evening, I had a private ceremony with my loyal companion and totem animal Basil, the first Moose to cross Scotland on the Challenge. Moose have been extinct in Scotland for several thousand years and Basil’s goal on this hike was to raise awareness for their future reintroduction.