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TGO Challenge Trip Report – Zero Day

Mendel Hiking Boots

Planters at the Columba House Hotel in Kinguissie, Scotland (Meindl Boots)

Taking a Zero

When I was planning my original Challenge route, I built in an rest day into my schedule, called a zero day here in the states. My plan was to stop in Kinguissie, at the half way point of my hike, to pick up a mail drop and spend a full 24 hours off my feet. Schedule-wise I arrived a half day early, after 5 and a half days of hiking, traversing 85 miles from Shiel Bridge on the west coast.

When I first arrived in town, my first goal was to find a comfortable place to stay. I followed the signs to the tourist information office which I’ve found is the fastest way to get an overview of a small town and a B&B booking in Scotland. The signs however didn’t lead anywhere so I resorted to walking up and down all the streets in search of a nice B&B with a garden where I could sit outside and read on my day off.

After a quick walk through town, I ended up at The Hermitage, a 4 star B&B located near the town square. Unfortunately they were booked, but they found me a room at Columba House, a 3 star inn that proved to be perfect for my needs with a large garden and an attached restaurant/bar. I got a nice room with a high ceiling and tall window overlooking the back garden.

The first thing I did after I got my room was to take a hot bath. My shins and quads were aching after 5 days of hard hiking and soaking in the hot water was a luxurious way to unwind my sore muscles. After that, I made a cup of tea and sat naked on the easy chair in my room reading my book, The Trudeau Vector, while it rained lightly outside. Great book, by the way, if epidemiological murder mysteries are your sort of thing.

Downtown Kingussie

Kinguissie High Street

After a spell, I took another walk around town to do a few errands. My shoulders had become sore in the past day and it felt incredibly good not to be carrying a backpack. I found a pay phone and did my Challenge Control check-in . I saw lots of other Challengers passing through town who were doing the same.

For dinner, I had a nice venison stew and turned in early, the effort of hiking for 5+ days finally catching up with me.

At breakfast the following morning, I sat with two other Challengers, Norma and John Keohane, who had stayed in the inn overnight. Hearing that I had time to kill, John encouraged me to visit a retired Challenger named Derek Emsley who lives in Kinguissie and say hello. John had visited him the previous day, as had Ozzie Mike, a Challenger from Australia.

Derek and I are not complete strangers, actually. We had corresponded via the Challenge message board about the Kinguissie Post Office hours when I was planning my route, explaining how small town Post Offices close early on some days.

Ruthven Barracks

Ruthven Barracks, Kinguissie Scotland

A bit of Scottish History

After breakfast, I headed off to  take a proper tour of the famous Ruthven Barracks and to do my resupply errands before dropping in on Derek. Ruthven is the kind of historic ruin that we like to tour when we visit Scotland and I wanted to take some atmospheric photos of the place to show when I got home.

One of the things that becomes apparent when you walk across Scotland is that the population is concentrated in the river glens and that there are few roads connecting them to one another. Anyone controlling a major road or a river crossing would effectively control all commerce passing by.

This was the case with Ruthven, which is built on top of a natural mound of sand and gravel deposited by glaciers at the end of the last ice age, 14,000 years ago. Originally erected as a wooden castle in the 1200’s, it overlooked a reliable crossing point over River Spey before it was bridged in the late 1700’s.

Ruthven Barracks

Ruthven Barracks Building

The castle was rebuilt in stone in the late 1500’s by the Earl of Huntley. By then, Ruthven was an important enough population center to be granted Burgh status with the right to hold its own fairs and markets.The Barracks were added around 1720 by the Hanoverian government to house troops for policing the road, which today, is still a principal link between the Lowlands and Inverness.

Hiker Resupply and Mail Drops

I had sent a food parcel to the Kinguissie Post Office Post Restante to see if mail drops are a reliable way to resupply in Scotland. My package contained backpacking food from my food sponsor Packit Gourmet as well as more ramen noodles, toilet paper, lithium batteries, hand cleanser, Starbucks instant coffee, and some fresh clothes.

Hiker Resupply in Kinguissie

Breaking up my Mail Drop

This being my first Challenge, I really didn’t know what resources I’d find in Kinguissie before I got there, so sending a mail drop was a good way to hedge my bets, despite the fact that I found two food stores in town.

In general, I think that mail drops are an effective way to resupply on the TGO, but they take a lot of forward planning to execute. Next time, I will spend more effort figuring out which resupply towns have good food shops and which don’t, so I can place my parcels at locations where they’ll provide the most value and keep my food weight as low as possible.

Derek and Marian

After breaking up my food parcel, I headed over to the Emsley house for an unannounced visit. Derek and his wife Marian, another former Challenger, were most gracious in welcoming me and we sat in their garden in the sunshine and reminisced while I gorged on Marian’s homemade fruit cake.

They’ve both retired and are living the life, traveling around the world, with many trips and cruises to the far east. We chatted about quite a few topics ranging from gear to work-life balance, and Derek’s advice to me was simple: live for today. Amen.

I was actually lucky to catch Derek and Marian in when I arrived. They had been in and out for a few days, hosting and shuttling a Challenger who had recent pacemaker surgery to and from the trail each night, slackpacker style, so he wouldn’t have to carry a heavy backpack. I can’t remember his name, but he’d gotten a special dispensation from Challenge Control to use wheeled transportation to sleep indoors each night and return to his previous end point each morning. Quite a story.

After a few hours, I left Derek and Marians’ company and went back to reading in my hotel’s back garden and watching some newly hatched ducklings. Visiting them both had been lovely and I plan to keep in touch.

Back on the Trail

After a relaxing stay at Columba House, I left before 6am the following morning, headed to Glen Feshie, the Cairngorms, and Lochnagar which would prove the highlight of my trip.

Taking a rest day had been restorative and I’ll probably do this again on my next Challenge hike. If you are walking though Kinguisse and looking for a good place for the night, be sure to give the Columba House Hotel a try. The owners Myra and Bill are very nice people and the house is a welcome refuge.


  1. Fascinating images of the barracks. Missions from the 1500's in the Southwest show similar construction details.

    ~ The points where wood meets stone in a building always have a lot to say about the builders. Notice those beam pockets in the wall—huge. Obviously this was funded with public money. The large joists fill almost half of the floor space to avoid the use of posts in the middle of the rooms. These days, our joists fill a scant 5-10% of the floor.

    ~ Each floor was constructed on top of the wall, with stonework filled betwixt the joists. Then a lintel stone was set to bridge the top of each joist as the masons continued upward from those handy and safe work platforms.

    ~ This design, with masonry pockets completely capturing the ends of the joists, can be very dangerous in fires. As the floor burns through and collapses into the center of the room, each joist acts like a lever to tear apart its pocket in the wall. So even a little fire in one room can bring down the whole structure.

    ~ But that didn't happen when the floors came down at Ruthven. I suspect even then, they had enough experience with this type of catastrophic building failure to "back cut" the ends of joists at an angle. This leaves the tops short so the joists can't lever the stone pockets as they fall. And thus the need for lintel stones over the resulting air space in the pockets.

    ~ Every picture tells a story. In this case, the story tells us why there are any standing ruins left to photograph. This advancement in building technology can still be seen in renovated brick structures throughout New England.

  2. I took a look at these barracks some time ago, and what struck me was the stalls in which the soldiers slept. Firstly they were very short. Indicating that the average height of men of this time (circa mid 17th century I think) was much shorter; perhaps 5ft ! Secondly, the stalls, or cots as you might call them seem to indicate that men slept in pairs. Very cosy, and no doubt warmer in an unheated barrack bedroom. It caused me to wonder what the attitude to homosexuality was at that time. I never did research the question. I seem to recall that Roman legions considered it perfectly normal for a man to have relationships with both men and women, and that the male / male relationship was somehow more 'noble'? It’s fascinating how social attitudes and norms change over time.

  3. I read somewhere the the soldiers slept two to a bed and that they also paid for their own room and food.

  4. Great story and posting Phil! I hope to do the TGO Challenge myself one of these years – I admire you for giving it a go!!

  5. Ken, I have managed to gain entry to do this years challenge in May. At present, I have a few medical issues that may mean I will not be fit enough to give it a go this year; I'll have to wait to see how my treatment goes.

    Crossing Scotland holds many possibilities for exploration. Clearly you don't have to do it as part of the TGO Challenge, but if you do I guess you get many opportunities to meet like minded souls, to share ideas.

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