Awesome scenery and endless rain, joyful dolphins and ruthless midges, whisky and crisps for dinner – a light-hearted look at the despair, joy, agony and peace when you try to do anything in the Great Scottish Outdoors.
When I daydream of winter walking I think about the crisp air that sparkles in your soul and the frozen puddles that hiss and creak underfoot. There’s the satisfying crunch of frost and frozen grass and mountains elegantly capped by snow set against a sharp blue sky. There’s the delicate intricacy of frozen cobwebs hanging from hedgerows and the smell of a fire from a cosy whitewashed cottage on the edge of bare woods; a beautiful austere world etched in monochrome.
It can be like that. However, as I slithered and squelched through an affluence of mud and cow crap oozing in shades of brown, it was clear I wasn’t walking through that dream. In my struggle to stay upright I could barely look at the small highland mountains which were snow-streaked rather than capped, and hid their half-arsed wintery grandeur under wreaths of gloomy rain clouds. It was somehow raining and not raining and the vividness of countryside was reduced to muddy browns and greens.
My time in the Scottish outdoors walking, exploring ruins, building paths, cleaning beaches, camping, cycling and playing cricket can be joyful and life-affirming. It can also be masochist, miserable and sometimes just downright disappointing. That’s just for the soft core adventurers like me who don’t go off-piste and are back home in time for tea. For the hardcore it can be fatal, those explorers of the realms of ice, rock, cloud and mountain who edge with the abyss and sometimes fall. The hardcore train in Scotland, not because the mountains are more demanding than anywhere else, but because of the challenging and fast variability of the conditions and the weather.
I have seen some of the fittest men I know broken by cycling into strong headwinds on the lonely peat lands of Lewis, those mad lavender-lycra sucking on endless packets of energy gels, fighting for every yard in a desolate unyielding landscape. ‘You beautiful mad fools’ I shout from the warmth of the support van.
I’ve camped on Rannoch Moor as the temperature plummets towards freezing, whisky is frantically passed around and our feral offspring have donned so many layers of clothes they look like mini versions of the Michelin Man. (Oh whisky! A wonderful way of dealing with the same landscape from which it springs).
I have left home in the early morning rain and been sunburnt by lunch. In Scotland you pack all the gear, just in case, and count yourself lucky if you use none of it, even if you have to carry it for miles. You always pack your sense of humour.
I’ve camped hungry where there isn’t a shop, or indeed anything for miles, and feasted on stale crisps, a crushed banana and a hip flask of whisky. I’ve walked in storms on moors where there are no trees and no shelter. Where there is nothing else to do but keep going.
Then there’s the early morning chilling sensation of slipping on cold, damp clothes that will never dry or the sting of catching a cricket ball with freezing hands. I have friends who would, if they could, go wild and roam the great Scottish outdoors forever. Ask if the weather was good for a week trip and they will reply that it was wonderful because it was sunny for an hour on the Tuesday. They blithely ignore the rain and storms that dominated the rest of the trip. That’s Scottish outdoor optimism which I have been conned by before, and willingly conned myself with as well.
A Munro bagging friend of mine was climbing the last of his scalps. A hundred metres from the summit a storm descended and forced them into shelter. Visibility was so bad they were in danger of walking into the void. They were driven back down, a hundred metres from the claim. ‘Ach,’ shrugged my friend, ‘what do you expect. This is Scotland.’
And then there are the midges. In the tourist marketing photos of sunny glens and heather clad hills you don’t see the midges. If there is any mention in the tourist brochure it’s a wee cheeky chap, a little cartoon character, a joke…nothing to worry about. No mention that they don’t understand the concept of mercy; that they are pre-programmed to lock into your trails of carbon dioxide like a missile seeking heat. No mention that billions of them roam the hills and glens existing solely to hunt you down. Once I abandoned a camping trip within ten minutes of arrival because the midges were so bad they were trapped behind my glasses and I couldn’t see anything. When midge bites kick in you float in a sea of skin crawling, itching, buzzing histamines. Someone once described a midge attack: “at first you worry you are going to die. Then you worry you are not going to die.” It’s why the locals sit about with midge net hats, looking like extras in some greasy highland horror movie.
So why do it? I once, perhaps a little aggressively, asked a French tourist this question whilst we were sheltering from gales in a bunkhouse. The wind howled and the lashed ferries and boats swelled uneasily in the harbour. It was cosy but her accent conjured up another world somewhere else; a summer of love in a chateau, wine, a light of sun warm enough to wear very little let alone the ubiquitous waterproof and boots. She looked at me like I was an imbecile. ‘This is beautiful. So moody.’ True, of course! On a ferry to Arran I once saw Spanish tourists scramble for their shiny new waterpoofs when it started raining. They looked delighted. For those who bake on the hot Castilian plains this rain and mist was pure elusive Scottish romance and exotica.
It’s curiously liberating to walk through wind and rain, to endure a kind of cathartic soul scrubbing that cleanses and strips away everyday stresses and woes, to reduce everything that matters to warmth and dryness. There is a peace in it. Afterwards there is a gluttony of sensuous pleasures. That happiness found in hot tea and dry socks, the satisfaction of a pint and a dram of whisky by the fire, a hearty meal and, damn it, I deserve lashings of sticky toffee pudding – I’ve walked miles today. The way you drag your aching and exhausted limbs to bed for a deep, rewarding sleep. After camping there is the glow of achievement and, on the return to civilisation, a new found but soon to be lost appreciation for hot baths, clean sheets, soft beds.
There is also one more moment to enjoy. It can happen anywhere but I especially remember it camping in the Western Isles when, after a day of rain, the clouds parted and a red brick sunset light poured out of the heavens. “When the sun comes out this muted brooding world pours out colour and light. The sea glows in hues of milky green turquoise and blue, speckled with the white crests of waves. The beach is now a glorious bright pink-yellow, the lochs tinged with orange seaweed, the rocks a-flutter with clumps of sea pink.” The Gaels, who have such a rich language to describe their landscape and weather, don’t, as far as I know, have a word to describe this moment of a magical flowering of the senses, when everything lifts and is exalted.
Scotland is of course staggeringly beautiful and sometimes precisely so because of its weather and downbeat miserablism. It is wild, grand, desolate, beautiful, blazing in colour and drowning in grey, moody, ever-changing. Far better writers and artists than I have eulogised the beauty of its many landscapes, its history, culture and wildlife. They don’t perhaps cut to the heart of the matter like my Munro-bagging friend.
Shrug your shoulders, face the rain, mutter “This is Scotland” and think of a whisky and beer at the end of it all.
Oh…and more on those joyful dolphins.