The SNT: Aberfeldy to Kingussie
At Last; the Epic Cairngorms!
Cairngorms National Park is the largest national park in the United Kingdom at 4,528 square kilometres (1,748 square miles) and it is home to five of Britain’s six tallest mountains (the greatest of the lot, Ben Nevis, looms over Fort William to the northwest instead.) I found the Cairngorms to be beautiful, desolate and, in places, rather boggy. It’s also the first place on the SNT where I had to perform true stream crossings (instead of just expertly utilizing stepping stones,) and it had some of the sketchiest trail maintenance (or lack thereof,) that I have ever seen. Honestly, I feel like a fundraiser or a committee needs to be set up for making the Cairngorms a safer place to recreate – one bridge in particular was straight out of a cartoon nightmare, and there was one place where a river definitely decided to have trail for lunch.
On the positive side, I found the Cairngorms remarkably tick-free; the midge population meanwhile was absolutely thriving, with no sign that the little terrors knew that autumn was coming. In the Cairngorms I also enjoyed the best weather of my entire trip with glorious blue skies and actual heat which made me long for the absent shade. Being incredibly exposed, the Cairngorms would be an especially uncomfortable place to be in foul weather and I’m grateful that I got to experience its meeker nature. I enjoyed watching all the wildlife in the park from the soaring golden eagles high overhead to the gentle red deer enjoying the park’s vast expanses.
Day 21 – Zero Precipitation?!
Travelled: Nowhere, unless you count my successful hunt for replacement gear and resupply chow in Inverness.
Things Seen: Cool old buildings, various gear stores, the River Ness, a laundromat which was too busy for me to utilize so I ended up doing sink laundry instead, various eateries which I did not enter (next time, I tell myself,) and the most bizarrely comfortable in-town transit bus ever (it was definitely built to go inter-city instead; I mean, the thing had a toilet onboard!)
Weather: Scotland opted to be spiteful for my zero day with a forecast of absolutely zilch precipitation and blue skies with big fluffy clouds. Grrr. (Although I am very grateful at the same time. Any day that it doesn’t rain here is a good day!)
Camp: A guest house in Inverness; it has a small resident population of wood lice trundling about on the floor, but at least there’s free in-room tea complete with an electric kettle. It’s a four bed room but I have it all to myself, which is perfect for my habit of hiding from other hoomans like a shy wild cavewoman. Wish there were laundry facilities; relying on an old heat register to dry my clothes is very time consuming and rather stressful, because I need them to be dry tomorrow!
Injuries: The right leg is still a bit grumpy but after some input from a kind Tiso employee I believe that I may have the problem figured. I’m going to change the lacing on my right shoe and if that doesn’t fix the issue I will buy new insoles when I return to Inverness.
Food Eaten: Batchelor’s Super Rice (golden vegetable flavour – haven’t the British ever heard of minute rice? I felt so hopeful because the package claimed a ten minute cooking time, but nope, I left it in my cooking cozy for forty minutes and the rice was still harder than al dente. So glad I decided to eat it for breakfast today because of its poor calorie count instead of taking it hiking with me, it would have made for an awful supper, plus of course it was really bland!) Also ate a yummy Gala apple, drank black tea, Tesco orange juice, Cadbury swiss rolls (which come in packs of 10, none of which made it home to the guest house,) Scot Mid cookie dough ice cream (gross, never again,) a ploughman’s sandwich which could have benefitted from some mayo and cold tomato with feta pasta (a meh staple of Scottish convenience stores apparently.)
Favourite Moment: Testing my new water filter (an MSR Trailshot) and watching delightedly at how freakin’ fast the thing filled up my 2L bottle. I think there will be somewhat less dehydration in my future.
Funniest Moment: Witnessing how truly disgustingly opaque and brown the wash water from some of my gear was; the socks were especially revolting!
Animals: A couple of super cute bernese mountain dogs in a cafe, a short haired tricoloured border collie and a legit scottie dog! Also a young seagull, and although I did not see them, I heard jackdaws outside my window. Additionally, there is a disturbingly enormous spider living happily by the front gate.
Stuff I Thought About: How much I am looking forwards to dry feet and good weather! Scotland is absolutely glorious when the sun is out!
Anything to write about?: I have replaced my trusty but sadly lost bright green Sawyer Mini with an MSR Pocket Rocket; my ‘waterproof’ Bridgedale Storm Socks (which maybe only worked for a fortnight,) have been replaced with taller Sealskinz – which I know work because I loved them on the West Highland Way two years ago. (Although I did not love their tendency to painfully bind my big toe and its neighbour toe together, causing very bad blisters. This time I sized up to prevent that!)
Day 22 – Dry Feet and Standing Stones
Kilometres: 10.1 km/6.27 miles
Travelled: (Inverness to Pitlochry via ScotRail then Pitlochry to Aberfeldy via Stagecoach bus,) Aberfeldy to the pretty forest on Carra Beag above Pitlochry
Things Seen: The River Ness, Inverness’ train station, the River Tay, rainy countryside as the train sped by (until I fell asleep,) a literal parade procession of sheep which travelled past me, lots of forest, an actual open public bathroom in Aberfeldy, the village of Grandtully, Strathtay, and vast beautiful Scottish vistas.
Weather: Light rain this morning in Inverness which got heavier while I was on the train; by the time I got to Aberfeldy it was just sprinkles, then overcast and the day finished with gorgeous blue skies.
Camp: A beautiful spot in a very healthy, lovely forest populated by serenading songbirds and adorable British red squirrels who look like teensy foxes.
Injuries: Changing the lacing on my right shoe may have fixed my right leg’s issues; it has felt good ever since I made the adjustment. Left foot is slightly cranky in the arch; no other issues.
Food Eaten: Yeo Valley Peach and apricot yogourt, M&S cherry yogourt (never again, it was low fat which completely took all the joy as well as taste out of it,) a tomato and egg salad sandwich and a royal gala apple was my breakfast. Snacks were two pieces of cheese, sour fruit leather (it has lemons in it – which completely hide the taste of all else so not buying again,) a Mr. Tom bar (I finally found them again,) a Crunchie bar, a Snickers, four blackberries and a Reese Outrageous bar (which was hilariously literally just a rebranded peanut butter Oh Henry bar.) Dinner was Batchelor’s broccoli and cheese pasta, which was actually great! I will absolutely be buying it again, plus trying their other pasta side flavours.
Favourite Moment: A sweet, wonderful old man randomly came over to me while I was resting on a bench beside the bus stop in Grandtully and gave me some blackberries.
Funniest Moment: Witnessing the ridiculous procession of an entire large herd of sheep across a foot bridge – almost every other one would pause or outright stop to stare at me suspiciously before continuing on. I was surprised to discover upon finally gaining the opposite side of the bridge that there was no farmer involvement in the sheep migration across their forested pasture beside the Tay – they were moving with such decisive purpose that I fully expected to see a border collie slinking at their heels, but nope.
Animals: A legit scottie dog (Scottish Terrier,) a cute border collie/lab cross on the train (yes, dogs are allowed on public transport in Scotland, it’s amazing,) a purebred border collie and a brown dog (which seemed to be getting in the collie’s way,) herding sheep, the sheep themselves, cows (from the train,) two red squirrels, a rabbit, two very old beagles (I thought that they were bulldogs from a distance,) and a very beautiful blue roan patch English cocker spaniel, who was a grand master of looking cute for treats. I also saw my first mosquitoes of the entire trip (plus some midges, whom a local confirmed the other day are dying off. Ticks can apparently sometimes still be found all year round in Scotland though?! Aaaaack!)
Stuff I Thought About: Finishing the southern highlands, the AZT, my family, my great dislike for low fat yogourt as well as my shame for accidentally buying it. How much I wanna use my new filter, and solutions to various gear problems which I have had (such as how my water bottle never wants to play nice with my filter, which is what led to the loss of my beloved Sawyer Mini – I couldn’t get my stupid bottle back into the side pocket of my backpack because of the Sawyer being there so I stuck the Sawyer in my jacket pocket – which it fell out of.) I think to solve my filter problem (and keep it accessible,) I will be investing in a small dry bag for it which I can clip to my shoulder strap just like my toiletry bag. Additionally, a cheap carabiner might be the ticket for keeping my aggravating bottle in its pocket (actually kinda wishing I had not sent my reservoir home, but it did not occur to me to just have it live in my backpack side pocket instead of inside the backpack itself. Alas, it is now hopefully back in Canada and my 2L soft bottle will be a good piece of gear to bring with me to Arizona for the AZT. (I’m predicting that it may be a year or two before I can chase that dream; lotsa real life stuff has to happen first which I am avoiding thinking about. It sucks that there’s only a month and four days left – I love it here! I love this lifestyle – all I do is sleep, eat and hike, plus vapidly stare off into space when I first get up in the morning. (A time honoured tradition.))
Anything to write about?: I really adore Scotland’s culture concerning dogs; today I learned from a lady on the train that a third of all Scots own one, and therefore dogs are a big part of Scottish life. Apart from a few sheep fields which have had bad luck with off leash dogs bothering the sheepies, I have yet to see any outdoor place here where dogs are forbidden. Dogs are allowed on buses, trains, in pubs, bars and cafes. It’s amazing, it’s wonderful, and honestly I have yet to meet a Scottish dog who wasn’t well behaved (which is probably luck on my part, because there’s gotta be some miscreants.) Scotland’s attitude towards dogs makes Canada look like a boor – I can’t even count the number of places where dogs are forbidden back home. Often, there’s more outdoor places where dogs can’t go then where they can, and that always seems so unfair to me. The responsible dog owners shouldn’t be closed off from places just because other people don’t know how to pick up (as well as bin) their dog poop. The only reason I believe that dogs should be forbidden from an outdoor space is to protect other animals, be they sensitive livestock like sheep or endangered mountain caribou.
Anyway, those are my feelings on Scottish dogs. Also I have trouble understanding why scottie dogs are so frequently associated with Scotland when on both of my trips here so far I have seen only two; a far better breed to represent Scotland would be the border collie because they are everywhere! They are easily the most popular breed here, followed by (English or working) cocker spaniels, springer spaniels, labrador retrievers, west highland terriers, border terriers and beagles. I rarely go a day without seeing at least one border collie.
Day 23 – Wish Granted!
Kilometres: 20.14 km/12.41 miles, and I know that my InReach is full of shit concerning my speed now because I believe that I would be a significantly greater distance up Glen Tilt if I were actually moving at a pace of 42 kph/26 mph!
Travelled: Pretty forest on Carra Beag above Pitlochry to another pretty forest, this one nearish Blairuachdar above the River Tilt.
Things Seen: Mostly the River Tay, which turned into Loch Faskally, which turned into the amusingly dubbed River Garry (I can only imagine that some self-important dude decided to name it after himself.) most of it was mercifully on actual trail (amazing, I know,) in forest although there was a sketchy section after Killiecrankie where I had the ‘pleasure’ of walking on a one lane road highly frequented by lorries full of whatever the hell they mine at Shierglas Quarry. (I amused myself by smiling and waving to the drivers who would grin and wave back. Scots are so nice!) As I came into Pitlochry a wish of mine was granted: two years ago on the West Highland Way, while climbing the laughably named Devil’s Staircase, two Harrier fighter jets swooped overhead barely fifty metres above; naturally I could not help hoping that I would be lucky enough to see such pure awesomeness again – and I did! A shrieking roar split apart the sky above me and I looked up just in time to see another Harrier bank sharply overhead, just above the tops of the trees. It was amazing! I am so grateful that I got my wish granted, and to top it off, about an hour later I saw a military bomber fly low overhead. It was so cool seeing both military aircraft and it completely made my day. I also really liked Soldier’s Leap, a narrow part of the River Garry where a Redcoat fleeing a bunch of homicidal enemy Jacobite soldiers escaped his foes by leaping 5.5 metres/18 feet across the river. I think I’d be capable of superhuman feats too if I had a pack of murderous smelly dudes in kilts chasing me too. (I’m sure that the Redcoat smelled equally fragrant.) All the buildings in Blair Atholl (pronounced something like ‘Bla-atho,’) were sweet old stone ones.
Weather: Overcast loveliness all day long with no wind and not even a spit of rain, huzzah!
Camp: A flattish spot in the forest above the River Tilt and below a stone wall where there is a fox or badger den. Above that is a field.
Injuries: Nada, apart from a bit of chafe.
Food Eaten: Oatcakes, not very salty salted peanuts (it’s okay, I prefer them less salty,) my last fake Sainsbury’s Snickers bar, a Nature Valley protein bar, a Bounty bar, a Mr. Tom bar and for supper I had Tesco macaroni and cheese with my cheese ration added in. Unfortunately, even with the real cheese added in (a stick of Red Leceister and a stick of Mexicana,) it still tasted more like noodles with vaguely cheesy corn sauce (they put corn starch in it – evidently a lot of it.) In an attempt to make my dinners seem less bland I have been eating two Saltstick electrolyte tablets upon reaching camp; dunno if it is helping on the flavour end of things but I know my body appreciates them, plus I seriously anticipate what I call my ‘salt candy.’ (They taste like weird salty orange candies.)
Favourite Moment: Seeing the Harrier! So so cool!!!
Funniest Moment: I amused myself over many things today; the name of the River Garry, the name of the River Tilt (why I find this one funny I do not know,) how I accidentally walked straight into a spider web (thankfully I have learned that Britain’s spiders are all harmless,) and my use of a poor unsuspecting tree for (attempting to) dry my laundry, a thing I now regret as I have discovered no less than three ticks in my tent since bringing everything in, one of which was damned near microscopic. I will be spraying myself down before going to sleep – inside my tent, in the hopes that the icariden will make any remaining ticks’ lives hell. (I hate them so much. One had the nerve to walk on my iPad’s screen.)
Animals: A red squirrel, sheep, cows, horses, several cocker spaniels, a cocker/springer spaniel cross (apparently known as a ‘sprocker,’) some border collies, a west highland terrier, a yorkie, some mutts and some labrador retrievers. Also the fudging evil deserve-to-die ticks and various assorted spiders, which I guess are okay. Maybe.
Stuff I Thought About: The inherent coolness of fighter jets, how dumb Covid is and how my thru-hiker life is blissfully free of worrying about it (looove not hearing the news, looove not seeing paranoid posts on social media.) I really enjoyed the nice weather, and all the wonderful friendly people whom I met; it really was a great day.
Anything to write about?: It was nice and rather reassuring to hear Scots talk about other foreigners currently visiting Scotland too today. Apparently Germans really like it here, which doesn’t really surprise me because Germans also really like British Columbia. (Germans seem attracted to nature like bees to flowers.)
Day 24 – Splendid Cairngorms
Kilometres: 31 km/19.26 miles which makes me seriously question the accuracy of Walk Highlands’ distances on these lags – they claim that Blair Atholl to Bynack Lodge is only 27 km/16.77 miles, but I started today several kilometres up Glen Tilt, past Blair Atholl and despite following the exact track of Walk Highlands’ .gpx points, my recorded distance is much greater. I’ve had the perception that Walk Highlands’ distances might be off for a while and this gives some substance to my suspicion. Perhaps their distances don’t count in these magical things called hills?
Travelled: Camp nearish Blairuachdar above the River Tilt to Bynack Lodge.
Things Seen: The River Tilt which was often full of twisted contortions of sedimentary rock. My day started with bushwhacking down the hill from last night’s camp, then I spent much of the rest of it following a boring gravel road up the splendid but amazingly long Glen Tilt. I passed through forest and farmland, cursing the dull road which I felt in my heart was an insult to the words ‘national park.’ Being Canadian, I am used to the protected grandeur of national parks where hikers grumble about having to hike up a mere seven kilometre gravel access road (despite it being considerably easier than the alternative.) The gravel road was so dull that I developed an adolescent case of whine, my brain jumping to that juvenile phrase “Are we there yet?” Thankfully, the road eventually branched and my fork was blissfully decrepit – less friendly to cars. The glen continued to curve and eventually the road vanished, turning mercifully into beautiful single track. I had already perked up at the road fork but upon seeing that trail – that lovely, thin, proper trail – my heart all but sang. It was far more interesting and fun to walk on; I passed a very cool suspension bridge overlooking a pretty waterfall, periodically checking Viewranger to note my progress. Finally, the glen opened up, becoming a tundra plain which made me think longingly of mammoths and timber wolves. A couple of hours later I at last saw the lodge, and I am very glad that tomorrow is supposed to be shorter. Also at one point I accidentally found a practice shooting range and it was very creepy. There were spent bullets on the ground and some imbedded in a stump, with a deer target in the distance.
It’d be cool if they reintroduced wolves to Scotland, if only just in this national park. Lynxes, too.
Camp: A nice spot in a sparse larch grove beside the crumbling but very cool ruin that is Bynack Lodge, with sunset views of deer silhouetted on a nearby ridge as well as an owl perched upon the lodge. There’s a creek helpfully close by and there are incredible views of mountains in all directions, as well as the tundra-like environment which is the highlands.
Injuries: I can confirm the hated return of The Chafe. I wish that hostels had bath tubs so that I could soak away in bliss instead of standing under a gradually cooling shower of pure torment. I also find myself believing that all hostels should have laundry facilities, and in a land where it rains so much, I cannot bloody comprehend why they do not. Rain equals mud!
Food Eaten: My last pack of coconut oatcakes, peanuts, various bars, cheese, fruit leather and Tesco tomato rotini side which was better than their attempt at macaroni but still somewhat meh.
Favourite Moment: Reaching the open part of the glen, then Bynack Lodge.
Funniest Moment: Dunno if there was one?
Animals: Two red squirrels, deer, an owl, sheep, happy chickens, three grey horses, midges (they greeted me when I got to the river near Bynack Lodge,) a six month old very shy yellow lab puppy named Cello, a black cocker spaniel, a german shepherd carting a ball in its mouth, a toad and a tiny frog which I almost stepped on (same with the toad actually; I live in fear of accidentally killing amphibians because there are so many here. They blend in too much for my liking,) I also saw a golden eagle and some kestrels playing near the waterfall with the suspension bridge. (I think they were having a grand time with the thermals produced by the sunny weather.)
Stuff I Thought About: Transformers, various songs, a certain video game about a blonde dude riding around an awesome kingdom whose name starts with an ‘H,’ how happy I was about the calm sheep in Glen Tilt, getting to Kingussie, and being creeped out by the road as I worried that I would be following it all the way to Bynack.
Anything to write about?: Soft coniferous tree cones and known deciduous tree leaves make good kleenex – toilet paper does not. In a bind, so do rocks. (This knowledge brought to you by my nose, which likes to run incessantly whenever the weather is remotely inclement and problematically when I am eating.)
Day 24 – Dragonflies and Golden Eagles (The Midges Are Evil)
Kilometres: 31 km/19.26 miles again
Travelled: Bynack Lodge to a place which I have grumpily named Midge Bridge for the greeting party which I received. It’s near Stonetoper, which I keep reading as ‘stormtrooper.’
Things Seen: Desolate beauty in all directions, shining rivers and streams snaking across a land which appears straight out of the ice age. I wish that I had the energy to give today proper credit; I spent my gumption sidestepping down boggy trails, dancing on stones across rivers, cursing at crumbling singletrack which could turn an ankle and breezing along gravel roads, all the while with the sun blazing upon my left side as Glen Feshie seemed to curve with the sun’s day time journey across the sky so that the sun always shone on my left shoulder. I saw escarpments of rocks, creepy dead tree root bulbs and places where a river ate the road, then the trail beyond it. I saw (and crossed,) a deteriorating bridge straight out of an adventure movie and I saw a paddock of baby trees, fenced off against predation by deer, by hare. (“Reintroduce Scotland’s predators!” screamed my tree hugger mind. “Just here, just in the park, at least just here!”) I saw ruins of lodges and cottages, forests and vast burgundy landscapes of purple heather. Cairngorms National Park is magnificent and deadly, a place in need of much respect.
Weather: Cloudless blue morning; over the course of the day there were gradually more clouds, but still patches of blue. Very warm for Scotland.
Camp: A patch of grass beside a questionably safe wooden vehicle bridge, hopefully far enough away from said bridge so that I won’t wake up to annoying comments like “Oh, a tent!” and, the classic: “Do you think somebody is dead in there?”
Injuries: There’s a blister on the same spot on both heels but neither is bothering me. Chafe was less of a problem; quite a few midge bites and scratches from walking through heather after a cyclist gave me bad directions (always check Viewranger! Don’t listen to other people on the trail for directions, remember that 99% of them have never even heard of the SNT!)
Food Eaten: Cheddar oatcakes, peanuts, various bars, cheese, fruit leather and Ainsley Harriot ‘spice sensation’ couscous. (He shall forever be known as the couscous man to me.)
Favourite Moment: Sprawling across a quite ergonomically shaped boulder in the sunshine, soaking in the heat like a lizard.
Funniest Moment: This was actually last night but I discovered that this whole time that I have been trying very hard to use up my one grey fuel canister I have actually been using it interchangeably with its twin; thus, neither have died yet, to my frustration. (They’re taking up room in my pack and they suck. Never buying GoSystem isobutane again.)
Animals: Dragonflies, a frog I think, two golden eagles, some grouse who startled when I sneezed, some songbirds and a kestrel or falcon whom I accidentally spooked from beside a stream where the poor thing had been drinking. Also three random white-grey horses of unknown breed, from a distance. Looked kinda percheronish.
Stuff I Thought About: I was very ranty, annoyed and saddened by the poor level of trail maintenance in what is supposed to be a national park. There was a bridge over a waterfall (let’s call it Doom Falls,) nearish Cnapan Beag which was literally falling apart – there was an actual nightmare broken board in the middle of it, and the whole thing was the definition of rickety. To cap it all off, some individual had (instead of, you know, fixing the bridge or installing a better one,) welded a legit sign declaring ‘use at own risk.’ NO. No, that is not how it works – first of all, the bridge was spanning a literal gorge where if you fell you would die. Second of all, this was a proper bridge with handrails and everything – not some shoddy log, or a ladder turned horizontal, or a board, or frigging cables that you must balance on precariously where you expect a possibility of falling in the drink, where it is reasonably okay if you do. Third, did I mention that this is in a national park?! National parks are supposed to get more maintenance, more love, so somebody please throw some damned money at Cairngorms National Park so that some desperately needed trail maintenance can be done – this place deserves better! It deserves pride, and at least a bit of polish because right now it feels very neglected. Anyway, that’s my outrage for the day.
Anything to write about?: No, I am cold and I want my couscous, plus the battery on my headlamp died; hoping to grab a hostel tomorrow to charge things. Maybe take a break again in Inverness.
Day 25 – I Got to Pet Horses!
Kilometres: 21.2 km/13.17 miles
Travelled: Midge Bridge in Glen Feshie to Kingussie (hostel in Inverness)
Things Seen: Today was mostly a beautiful forest walk through native, heathery, spider web filled forests populated by scores of mushrooms. It featured a beautiful view of a pretty lochan with a bird blind, a view of some ancient barracks on a hill above Kingussie which were castle enough for me, and a large wetland. Also some pastoral views.
Weather: Practically cloudless blue sky; I was grateful to have shade!
Camp: A cozy hostel in Inverness; didn’t want to return to that weird buggy guest house where I stayed before, ugh. This place has a drying room! (Which somewhat made up for the annoying lack of laundry facilities.)
Injuries: Nada, except for the chafe which Body Glide helps tremendously with, and some chafe on the underside of my upper arms from rubbing against my abrasive pack straps.
Food Eaten: Cheddar oatcakes, peanuts, various bars, cheese, fruit leather, spicy macaroni and cheese plus weird rice with mushroom stroganoff sauce. Also picked up clementine juice and ate cottage cheese with chives as a snack which I regretted slightly (forgot how odd British cottage cheese is.) I also drank an overpriced hot chocolate in order to use the WiFi of a cafe in Kingussie but my dyslexia prevented me from entering the password correctly; shoulda just gone to the train station.
Favourite Moment: Getting to pet the horses; their numbers included a fuzzy little grulla foal! Also talking to my parents.
Animals: Dragonflies, a tiny frog, many butterflies, horses, sheep, cows, seagulls and mountain hares.
Stuff I Thought About: My planned zero tomorrow, finishing my section to the Great Glen, drying my soggy clothes (still wet from the sink laundry incident,) food.
Anything to write about?: I was so distracted by reading about dogs that I actually forgot to write so this entry is written from memory on the day after.
Next: Kingussie to Fort Augustus (the Great Glen at last!)
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