Monday, 5 September 2011

John O'Groats to Land's End: The Central Scottish Way

A JoGLE hike links together long-distance trails - but sometimes it is sort of difficult to get from the end of one trail to the beginning of the next one. On this stage of my hike I had to get from the Southern end of the West Highland Way on the Western Side of Scotland to the Nothern End of the Pennine Way which is on the Eastern side. And in between the two is the most populated and industrialised area of whole Scotland - the region between Glasgow and Edinburgh. So manouvering through that bit of civilisation seemed to be complicated and the only sort of trail I could find was call Central Scottish Way. There is a totally outdated guidebook from 1996 by a guy called Erl Wilkie about this "trail" and my Cicerone guidebook was going the same way.

First of all the Wilkie book turned out to be completely useless, but at least the sketch maps in the Cicerone were good enough - especially since basically all of this stretch is along disused train lines and canal tow pathes. I was really dreading this section because I thought it would be ugly, noisy and camping almost impossible to find. Well, I was wrong on almost all points.

The old rail trails and especially the tow pathes turned out to be very scenic, mostly through woods and albeit always being close to civilisation most of this stretch felt very remote. Plus I could see a lot of old industrial monuments like old aequaducts and railway bridges. Of course it was not the peace and quiet of deep forests, but it was remarkably quiet despite the fact that there was usually a railway and a motorway nearby. But these old railway lines and the canals are sort of in a deep cut channel - some of it protected from the outside world by huge heaps of shale (Schiefer), another reminiscent of Scottish industrial past. On these tow pathes I felt like in a little protected world. The only other people around were cyclists and people walking their dogs.

Canal tow path
Even camping turned out to be easier than I had thought. The first day I had planned with the map to end at a place with some decent forest to hide in and camp. I found the spot with painfully hurting feet and very little daylight left. Ok, I had to climb over a fence to get into the forest, but I did not think much of it. And I also did not pay much attention to the fact that there were cow paddies all over the place and lots of muddy footprints. I was just starting to set up my tent when the first steer spotted me. I was starting to deliberate whether to move or not when all of a sudden a stampede of 20 young steers came gallopping towards me. I was nearly shitting my pants and started panicking. I grabbed all my tent stuff and stuffed it into my backpack ready to run - but it was already too late: I was surrounded by a bunch of angry young steers that seemed to bluff charge me. They came running after me at full speed and would only stop 2 meters in front of me by digging in their hoofs in an emergency break. To make matters worse I had just recently read an article of hikers getting trampled and killed by cows... I started sweating profusely and praying. Slowly I retraced my steps back through the muck to the barbed wire fence - closely followed by my young steer friends who would run towards me from all directions. And when I had finally made it back to the fence in one piece they would not let me get to the fence by crowding in front of it. How would I ever get out of this paddock again? Luckily part of this paddock had been fenced off with only one strand of barbed wire and I just jumped over it into safety - with my steer friends watching every single one of my steps. I was shaking - but I was alive. And I still had to find a campsite with hurting feet and almost no daylight. When I eventually found a halfway decent spot in the twilight I realised too late that I was about 20 meters away from an active railway line. Luckily the trains stopped running around midnight....

Canal tow path
Next morning I saw a tent set up right next to the tow path! Turned out to be a father and his son on a bike trip and they assured me that according to Scottish law you can camp everywhere on public land including tow pathes. And later on I realised that they were not only right but that there are designated mooring spots for canal boats along the tow pathes that even have drinking water and picnic tables - plus usually a nice lawn to camp on. But while I was chatting with the cyclists loads of people walking their dogs passed by. The cyclist were just cooking breakfast: porridge and coffee. Apparently one of the dogs seemed to like that, too and came running over to stick his head into the porridge pot while knocking over the coffee. I was laughing my socks off: This was a scene right out of a slapstick comedy. The dog eating the porridge while its owner desperately tried to chase it away and apologised profusely for the dogs behaviour - and then the cyclists examing the leftovers trying to decide whether they could still eat it! This day started very funny and ended up with a nice campsite in a little forest which was quite despite the fact that M8 was less than 1 km away. Well, at least this part of Scotland came as a very nice surprise....

Leaving the tow pathes and entering the country side again brought me to West Linton and a nice couchsurfing host - and a well needed rest day. And it brought a definite culinary highlight of this trip: Vegetarian haggis with turnips and potatoes! Haggis is probably something you do not want to know what it is made out of - but I will tell you anyways: It is the lungs, heart and liver of a sheep baked in its stomach. The vegetarian version consisted of oatmeal, lentils, carrots and nuts - and tasted absolutely delicious, even without the obligatory whisky. In my case this was Islay whisky, which has a very smoky taste due to the peat water used in its making. And after hiking through Scotland I know a lot about peat now. To make things perfect David, my CS host even has a very energetic dog, a mutt called Murphy who would nudge me immediately as soon as I stopped giving him back rubs. I am more and more becoming a dog fan now. Well, right now I am waiting for a dinner of salmon with Murphy at my side and life is very good again.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I loved the cow story.