The agony and joy of the Great Scottish Outdoors

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.

 

scotland-landscape

The Great Scottish Outdoors: image from https://pixabay.com/en/users/tpsdave-12019/

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.

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117 thoughts on “The agony and joy of the Great Scottish Outdoors

  1. Yes, yes, yes and yes. Pretty much everything you wrote conjured up a memory from somewhere in Scotland and some experience of some sort. From getting drenched hiking near Oban and not being able to dry my clothes afterwards, to being eaten alive by midges at Loch Lomond; from the cloudy gloom of the summit of Ben Nevis to walking through blizzards in Aberdeen; and then there was the time I got sunburnt whilst camping on Gigha for 3 days. She’s a bonnie country all right.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Glad that struck such a chord. Oh the midges…I am told they prop up an ecosystem and birds feast on them but sometimes you think bloody hell Scotland. Beautiful landscape? Check. Good weather? Yes – first time in weeks. Warm? Unbelievably yes it is – first time this year. Oh…where the hell did all these insects come from. OH MY GOD RUN FOR THE LOCH!!

      It’s why I tend to avoid the west Highlands in the summer. But yeah…Scotland is bonnie and all is forgiven.

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  2. “That happiness found in hot tea and dry socks”. This tribute to the enchanting moodiness of Scotland is delightful. I never got a chance to stray far into the wilderness during my times there. I’m not sure how much I could handle, but I would certainly try if given the chance. I’m all full of moody daydreams now. Thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Enchanting moodiness is a good way of putting it. Scotland beguiles, threatens, seduces, contradicts – and that’s just the weather! Glad I’ve aided your daydreams! Love that…

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  3. Ah, such a beautiful piece, so well written and as a man who is welded to the outdoors and can’t go three days in a row without staggering up a hill or going down a mine, so well observed. Really enjoyed this, if it doesn’t chime with everybody it’s because some folk have no soul. The header photo is a beaut, by the way!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Sadly the photo is not mine Iain. I thought I needed a top quality photo to avoid being too downbeat. Thanks for the kind comments and I am always impressed by how much you get out and about those old Welsh mines and landscape!

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  4. Great piece Alex. This line particularly resonated. ‘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.’

    Liked by 2 people

  5. You’ve made me wistful Alex! My favourite Scottish outdoor experiences are all pre-daughter, but include climbing Ladhar Bheinn on Knoydart, a golden eagle seen on the descent from Sgurr nan Gillean on Skye, Liathach’s pinnacle ridge, and the landscape northwest of Ullapool. The midges are legendary – camping in summer involves mostly devising strategic moves against these creatures. But horseflies are worse – they land on parts of your skin that you can’t see and deliver a really painful bite – and they also tend to like the conditions that midges don’t! And don’t even mention the ticks and where they like to bite…

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s funny – I was supposed to be on Knoydart this very weekend but the plan fell through. I agree with you about the landscape north of Ullapool – beautiful, love that coastal road route. I still have to go to Skye although I’ve been 100 metres away from it.

      How could I forget the ticks or the dreaded post-trip tick check?! Blood-sucking creepy blighters. Luckily I seem to have avoided horse flies.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve always wanted to see monsoon in India. My mother spent time in India and loved the monsoon. There were no showers where she was (this was in the ’60s) so she said it was warm and perfect for washing her hair and the streets were always quiet as everyone was indoors. Thank you for your kind words about the article.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. The language here is beautiful. I have now been to Scotland twice (in the summer) and loved it. And nary a midge! But I am from the Pacific Northwest of the US and know the rain well. And in parts of southern Canada the combination of horse flies and mosquitoes can be quite as scary as the grizzlies! Thanks for sharing your lovely country!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you – glad you liked the article and the insights into Scotland. It’s remarkable how visitors to Scotland can somehow time their trip with wonderful weather and wonder what all the fuss is about. Pure luck I guess! I drove with friends through the US Pacific Northwest and do remember the weather was a bit poor. Didn’t make any difference – we loved it and had a great time.

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  7. I love this! You have made me really desperate to explore more of Scotland!

    Does DEET work on the midges? Or does nothing placate the little blighters??

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! I’ll be honest – I try and avoid the worst areas during the worst times (West coast highlands in the summer) but last time I tried Smidge and that seemed to work as well as wearing long-sleeved tops. Others swear by Avon Skin So Soft which apparently kept Mel Gibson going while they were filming Braveheart.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It’s similar in the West of Ireland. When there are lots of midges, the valleys are just horrible!

        I’ve never seen Avon Skin So Soft. Thanks for the suggestion! 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

  8. A great piece that perfectly sums up the trials and tribulations of Scotland’s outdoors.

    While there certainly are (lots of) silver linings, ‘enjoying’ Scotland’s wild places can sometimes come over as a pretty masochistic pastime. Another answer to your “So why do I do it?” question lies in the unpredictability of Scotland’s weather and midges. If you *knew* the day in the hills was going to turn into a nightmare, chances are you wouldn’t head out. But we can (and often do) get four seasons in one day … it’s just that predicting the good times is a very tricky business !

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re right – it’s the unpredictable nature of Scotland that makes it so rewarding. Last Monday I was on Ben A’an and it was an ever-changing view of cloud, sun, rain cloud and light. Wonderful. Then I got a rain lashing hitching back into Aberfoyle! So long as you have the right clothing and are prepared it’s not a problem and if the forecast looks good just go, if you’re lucky to have that flexibility. Thanks for your comments!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I woke up groggy this morning in a zombie daze and reached for the light of my phone to keep my eyes open. Your words are incredibly beautiful to read and you captured a feeling that resonates with me although I’ve yet to experience for myself. I can’t wait to go to Scotland now to become immersed in the beauty of the yin and yang contrast.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Great post! We travelled parts of Scotland last September in our camper van & even with the midges we can’t wait to do it again – brilliant week. Also had many childhood holidays up in the highlands and it’s strange because the memories are always scenery & being eaten alive by midges, but the scenery wins every time 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Such a beautiful article! Great! Thank you! It’s funny to read about these kinds of experiences, especially now that I made the choice to move here, in Scotland. A beautiful country! Haven’t had the chance to get out as much as this place deserves but it’s great to see that there are others who struggle with the new surroundings haha

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I think I need to visit Scotland. I mean, if it rains, it rains. It can’t be too different to here (Ireland) but I love the accent and I really want to just… visit. Explore. See for myself.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. This made me dream of going to such outdoors again, in Europe particularly! The outdoors there are totally different from the tropical rainforests and sometimes dense jungles in Asia. Thanks for sharing the romantic side of the Scottish outdoors. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Great post – you’ve summed it up nicely – and we are on our way up there at the end of the month. Twelve years after falling in love and returning twice yearly, the adventure begins for us – just bought somewhere under a mountain to escape to!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I felt like I had been transported to Scotland while reading your piece. There are no seasons in California (until the unusual torrential rain recently) so your dramatic weather does sound exotic!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can get envious of that Californian warmth and sunshine but then I realise I would really miss the seasons, especially autumn and Scotland is especially beautiful in the autumn even when it rains. Glad I made Scotland come alive for you!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Sadly not my image but it certainly conveys Scotland on a good day. Travel is great but there’s as much weird and wonderful things to discover in your backyard and neighbourhood as there is in distant lands and sometimes we forget that.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Great choice for favourite place in the world! Now that’s a real brain teaser…if you had one spot to go to before you die. Interesting – I think, off the top of my head, the night view from Waterloo Bridge in London. It’s beautiful but it’s also just home!

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  16. Love the way you honestly portrayed the Scotland outdoor experience with some good realistic romanticism–totally made my Sunday and lifted its spirit into something more worthwhile! Thank you for sharing, and never stop writing!

    Liked by 1 person

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