An Exploration of Highlands, Scotland – Part 6

17 06 2007

9-17 June 2007

Part1 | Part2 | Part3 | Part4 | Part5 | Part6 | Part7 | Part8

Remember Me?

I alighted from the train from Fort William at Corrour station which is literally nowhere. There are hills all around and mountains in the distance. There is no definite sign of present day human occupation. The only building is the station itself, standing lost, next to a short empty platform incongruously placed in this landscape. From the platform, I had to only cross the railway line. The path leading into the isolation of Mamore Forest and the Ben Nevis range of mountains starts almost immediately. This was similar to my visit to Lanhydrock, where the path leading to the property starts right at the doorstep of Bodmin Parkway station.

After about two hours of easy walking in this remote terrain, without meeting anyone, I suddenly came across a woman coming from the other direction. “Remember me?” she said. Imagine the possibility! I have been in Highlands for less than a week. I have been travelling through remote parts of the land. I have met only a handful of people. Here, in yet another unpopulated and deserted land, was a woman asking me if I knew her. I was positive I had never seen her in all my life. It was like in one of those Hollywood movies. For some silly transgression or trespass, someone had nurtured a grudge against you. She has tracked you down to a remote region where death comes boldly but remains unheard. She has come with a vengeance, pulls out a gun to your face and says “Remember me?”

I replied that I didn’t really know her. She removed her sunglasses and I still did not recognize her. Then she mentioned that we had met near Shenavall Bothy last Sunday. Indeed, she was right! Soon after crossing the two rivers near Shenavall, I had passed this woman and her husband. They had been packing their camping gear to head home. I remembered having a little chat with them about the walks they had done in the Great Wilderness.

So here she was less than a week later, once again taking to the hills, the valleys and the peaks. She does this almost every weekend. “Don’t you get bored walking the same hills again and again?” I asked.

“I don’t walk the same hill twice”, she replied. She is doggedly pursuing a dream, which is to climb all the Munros. She has been doing this for many years. She has only about 50 Munros left. I wished her good luck in her conquest of the Munros which she promptly and humbly denied. She did not consider it a conquest at all. Often she has turned back from the Munros when the weather has been bad. With each “Munro in her bag”, she only becomes a little more humble. She added that in all her climbs, the Munros she had bagged last weekend at the Great Wilderness had been the toughest. This may be true but in all probability it is not. It is in human nature to hold in high esteem the most recent of experiences. It is in human nature to feel a greater challenge at every step. It is almost unbecoming of human endeavour to attempt something lesser when something greater has already been achieved.

But what is a Munro? In 1891, an orologist, if we may call him so, by the name of Hugh T. Munro undertook a mighty task of listing all Scottish mountains that stood above 3000 feet. In addition, he added subsidiary pinnacles or “tops” that rose distinctly higher than the elevation of a ridge or a mountain range. He identified 283 mountain peaks and an additional 255 tops that all stood above 3000 feet. His tables were published in September 1891 in the Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal, Volume 1, Number 6. His tables gave further details about position, the county where it stood and the best approach to ascend a peak. Much of his data is from OS maps. However, he does point out discrepancies between OS names and local names. Where heights are not given in OS maps, first-hand measurements and estimates have been given. This last point alone gives us a sense of the enormity of the task completed by H.T. Munro. Today, there are 284 Munros and 227 tops, based on a 1997 revision.

The first climb of all the Munros was in 1901. In 1923, another man climbed not just the Munros but all the tops as well. In the subsequent years, this sport has gained universal popularity amongst all hill walkers. Munro-bagging, as this sport has come to be called, is an attraction for enthusiasts from all over Britain and perhaps even outside Britain. New records and achievements are recorded almost every year. A completion of all the Munros is known as a “round”. Some claim completion of a round in one continous expedition. Those who do so record the fastest times for completing a round. Some undertake and complete a winter round, a tough challenge given the icy Arctic conditions at these high altitudes. Some set records in completing the maximum number of rounds. All completions are recorded by the Scottish Mountaineering Club and published on the Internet. The latest completion is by David Leask on 18th May 2007. He writes the following:

After 15 years, eight months, 275 walks, 99 repeats and loads of fun on the way, I compleated on Am Basteir. I’m the one holding the bottle and my fellow summiteers on the day were Rob Christie, Paul & Linda Johnston, Jim Watson, Douglas Macintyre & Ian Gibb (photographer). Given the wild weather and the tricky descent ahead of us the bottle remained firmly closed until we reached the safety of the floor of Coire a’ Bhasteir.

What motivates people to dedicate 15 years of the best part of human life to pursue something that means nothing to the world? The Munroist is not going to be held in awe or revered in any way, even if she has made a new record for posterity to break. The Munroist has not changed the world for the better. She has not contributed anything for society or family. If anything she has neglected them in pursuit of a goal that is incomplete and misleading. “Compleation” it may be called but it is yet incomplete. This then is the key to understanding the motivation of the Munroist. No matter how much we achieve, there will always be peaks to climb. There will also be challenges ahead. We are all making a journey that is an endless human struggle against the laws of nature. The little achievements we make are perhaps the only ways by which we may learn to face the tougher challenges ahead. The peaks we conquer are perhaps only a way to realize how small we are in a vast landscape. There is much inspiration in nature. The Munroist must be credited for taking an active and proactive part in understanding the things of nature and the nature of things. If a Munroist has the satisfaction of completing a round, perhaps the greater satisfaction lies in becoming a better person, a better parent, a better social worker or a better teacher. This is the way she makes the world a better place: not by changing the world but by changing herself.

After a long chat, we took leave of each other in the middle of Mamore Forest knowing that neither of us would meet anyone for the next few hours. In fact, I didn’t meet another human soul for the next sixteen hours at least. She had done some social research on people’s involvement in outdoor pursuits. She made a valid claim that non-whites and people with disabilities are under-represented, which is why she recognized me so easily today. I had certainly made an impression last Sunday by carrying the torch for all non-whites of Britain! She expressed a much greater wonder by asking me “How can you walk in Scotland without gaiters? I mean, no gaiters, in Scotland!”

Mountains of Wisdom

Cloud covered peaks

Cloud covered peaks

The Chinese have a saying, “You may not be wise, but if you remain silent, you can fool a lot of people”. Yesterday afternoon I started walking into the Mamore Forest. Last night I stayed at a bothy which was in the middle of a vast bog beyond which lay the mountains. As I walked to a nearby stream for water I became conscious of a strange dichotomy – of being so isolated in this wilderness but at the same time being vulnerable in the crowded company of mountains who viewed me as an alien. As I ate my dinner at the bothy I peeped throught a window to view low-lying grass give way to rising slopes which in their turn climbed lazily to peaks shrouded in clouds. The Ben Nevis range stood to the northeast. Today I have walked closer to these mountains. I have traversed the passes and walked a great deal by the course of rivers and streams. All this while, the mountains have not said a word.

What a cloud-kissing spectacle these peaks make! They have seen everything. They have seen the birth of the world. They have seen and lived through great changes. They have suffered the Ice Ages. They have stood the test of agony. They have seen ice and snow, heat and cold, creation and destruction, anger and mercy. Yet they stand so calm and serene as if nothing has changed. They do not stand with a determined stoicism; rather, they stand unperturbed and move with the times. They stand apart from our fragile human worlds. We cannot move mountains. Only we are moved. That’s the greatness of mountains. They stand for us so that we may feel and understand the world, nature and ourselves.

The mountains suffer their sullen silence. Forget these words. Just pause and listen. They have an unspoken wisdom. They have no voice and no words. We as men and women may come and go. We may try to decipher their wisdom. We may try to penetrate their silence. Is it golden or sullen? Quiet calmness or silent suffering?

We may think that we have conquered the mountains, climbed the peaks, bagged the Munros… but no, no, no! The mountains know far better. There are on top of the world. Nothing can move them. Nothing can break their solidity. They are the firmament that makes the earth. They may stand motionless but the earth revolves at their bidding. They are the masters. They are beautiful usurations of the firmament on which we stand.

If mountains have character, streams and rivers too have a character of their own. The mountains do not deter their flow. No stone, rock or boulder can stand in their paths. They have a journey to make, a destination in mind and a path in sight. In each drop we see a reflection of purpose. With each leap and torrent we see the course of their journeys. They kiss the wind but do not draw its breath. They touch the earth but do not drag its elements. If they do, they deposit them safely before they lose themselves in the great seas and oceans. By one such river, the river Nevis, I savoured the last views of the mountains as I made my way to Glen Nevis.

In a Mountain Bothy

As far as I know, bothy is a word derived from the Gaelic word “bothan” which means a hut. In the Great Wilderness, I stayed at the Shenavall bothy for the first night. For the next two nights I stayed at Carnmore bothy which is even farther into the wilderness. Yesterday, I stayed at Meanach bothy, which is east of Ben Nevis and within the Mamore Forest. This bothy is marked on OS map as Meannanch.

When a hill walker travels to far and remote places, finding a shelter let alone a proper accommodation is a difficult business. When a long walk requires more than a day, as it had been for me from Corrie Hallie to Poolewe, the walker is required to seek a good night’s rest and sleep in the middle of nowhere. The most common solution is to carry a tent, a sleeping bag, gas and cooking stove at the very least. But these things add to the weight of the load and makes walking more an ordeal than a joy. So the walker often compromises in one of two ways. For a short trip, the walker gives up sleep for a night. A basic shelter provides agreeable but not comfortable rest. Food is light but adequate. For a longer trip, the walker altogether gives up such remote wanderings in preference of shorter trips closer to where comfortable accommodation is available. Of the former, I quote my experience in the Lincolnshire Wolds. Of the latter, I quote my most recent day drip to Bodmin Moor in Cornwall: I would have preferred a complete traverse of the moor had there been a suitable accommodation along the way.

In Scotland, no such compromises had to be made. I did not carry a tent and yet I managed nights of good and comfortable sleep in places as remote as any on the British Isles. The thing that made this possible was nothing more luxurious than a basic bothy. All three bothies where I stayed were stone buildings. Shenavall and Meanach bothies had a sloping slate roof and chimney pieces. They had doors and windows. The loft had been boarded so that people could use the space for sleeping. Shenavall bothy needed maintenance with its loft stairs. At Meanach, there were no stairs to access the loft. Rather, one had to use a ladder than had been nailed to the floor! At both bothies the floors had been boarded. At Meanach, one of the two rooms had a stone floor. Shenavall had a couple of tables and some chairs. The same was the case with Meanach.

Carnmore bothy was a lot more interesting. It had once been a barn. This barn had possibly been in two parts partially separated by a stone wall. The timbered ceiling looked new and was roofed by corrugated sheets. The stones that made up the walls were large and rough. They were held together by mortar and modern cement. There were two doors into the bothy but one was locked. The floor was neither of wood nor of stone. It was rough earth, sand and mud. The best part was that there were four iron beds with spring supports over which clean plastic sheets had been laid. The bothy kept the rain out. There was little draught. It was quite warm as well inside the bothy. The ambience of the bothy that had once been a barn was completed by the presence of the skull and horns of a fine specimen of Highland cattle. So even in this basic bothy there was some furniture and a touch of art decor.

How did such bothies come to be? Who builds them in the middle of nowhere? Who owns them and for what commercial value? Who takes the trouble to maintain them and why should anyone bother? The answers to all these questions and more can be found at the website of the Mountain Bothies Association (MBA) which was founded in 1965 although bothies had existed long before that time. Historically, such buildings had been built on estates as shelters or lodges for farmers, stalkers and shepherds who worked for the landowner. Many such buildings had been built in the 19th century after the Clearances had already done the damage to crofters and their residences which had been even more basic. After World War II, lifestyles changed and people moved out to more comfortable surroundings elsewhere. This was also motivated by the advancement of transportation. It had become easier to get around. It was no longer necessary to live in a remote location to manage the estate. Once these buildings had been abandoned but not disowned, their gradual deterioration started. At the same time, hill walking became more popular. As people’s lifestyles changed, more people took time for leisure not least of which was hill walking. These hill walkers found a new use for these derelict buildings. In time a partnership was established between estate owners and hill walkers. These bothies are still owned by the estates but walkers are allowed to use them free of charge. Some may however be closed from time to time such as during the stalking season. This is true of Carnmore bothy which is smack in the middle of Letterewe Forest with deer all around.

Possibly the greatest factor for the success of this partnership is the contribution that hill walkers make to these bothies. The bothies are maintained mainly by walkers, in particular those who belong to the MBA. Work parties are organized. The MBA website regularly notifies all upcoming work parties and walkers are invited to contribute. If walkers plan to be in the area around the scheduled dates they tend to pitch in to lend a helping hand. Without such maintenance all bothies will sooner or later be in a state that’s unsafe and uninhabitable. The selfless volunteerism of these people must be praised.

Just finished my dinner at Meanach bothy while the peaks beckon

Just finished my dinner at Meanach bothy while the peaks beckon

In conjunction with this is the mutual respect that walkers have for each other. A person who stays in a bothy must follow the Bothy Code. He must leave the bothy as tidy as possible. He must take with him all rubbish he brings or creates. If he intends to start a fire, which is usually a necessity in winter, he must bring his own fuel. Since very few bothies have toilets, he must do his business well away from a water source and bury his waste properly. If he must pitch a tent, it must be pitched some distance from the bothy. If he intends to stay for more than a few days, permission of the estate owners must be sought. Groups larger than six are not permitted. Problems of human waste, litter, vandalism or even shortage of volunteers usually lead to closure of bothies. Originally, I had planned to stay at Meanach for two nights but on the first night I managed only a few hours of interrupted sleep. The bothy was alive with rats. I spotted at least two. The worst part was that I had to sleep on the same floor where the rats foraged boldly, sometimes nibbling close about my head. These pests are encouraged by undisposed litter. It therefore becomes every user’s responsibility to carry all litter with him.

I had familiarized myself with all such details before the trip. Bothies are not widely advertised. Only those who are seasoned hill walkers know their locations. Members of the MBA will invariably know them via the message boards at their website. I came to know of the locations of the three bothies from a Lonely Planet guidebook, “Walking in Scotland”. At Meanach bothy a spade had been provided to bury human waste. This was missing in the other two bothies where I made use of my walking stick for the purpose. In all three places I found a stream quite close to the bothy. At Meanach I boiled the water before drinking. At Shenavall, I did the same. At Carnmore, I used iodine tablets on the first day to purify water before drinking the same. Iodine makes the water murky and gives it a bad taste. On the second day, I succumbed to temptation. There’s nothing worse than returning from a long day of walking and climbing, the tongue dry and the body thirsty in its every cell, pass a clear mountain stream, its water sparkling, its unspeckled drops leaping and bounding on granite rocks, but unable to drink for fear of giardia or other harmful micro-organisms. However, I had every faith in the stream at Carnmore which I drank directly. The stream I had suspected the day before had become nature’s gift. After two days in the wilderness I had become familiar with it. It had lost its wild aspect.

The Truth about Midges

There’s nothing new here. Whatever others have said about them is true. They are a menace. They can make your day or an entire holiday miserable if you have not come prepared. Insect repellent helps. A net to cover the face and neck is even better. I later learnt from the Beinn Eighe Reserve Visitor Centre that rubbing bog myrtle leaves produces a scent that keeps midges away. I had the first taste of midges on Sunday morning at Shenavall; or rather, they had the first taste of me.

I stepped outside the bothy early in the morning when the sun had not yet warmed the day. The mist hung heavily across the valley. The mountains and peaks were no longer visible. The pass that I was meant to follow had looked achievable the previous evening. In a valley covered in mist, everything was made mysterious and dangerous. There was little breeze. These are perfect conditions for midges. I had taken only a few steps towards the stream to draw some water for making breakfast. I was surrounded by midges in their scores, who began feeding on me voraciously. I cannot say whether they bite, sting, suck or drain. They seem to be capable of everything given their unified strength. They come without a sound but leave you screaming.

They must like me exceedingly. They were so quick. The taste of Indian blood formed on idli and sambar, dosai and chutney, or spicy vegetarian korma must have been new to their Scottish tongues. It must have whetted their appetite to uncontrollable proportions. Fortunately I had come prepared. I had done enough research on the likes and dislikes of midges. When I chose to stop for a rest in my walks, I chose a breezy spot. Only on one occasion did I use the net. At all other times the insect repellent proved to be sufficient. I had to apply it liberally on my face and on my ears in particular which they have been quite fond of.

Part1 | Part2 | Part3 | Part4 | Part5 | Part6 | Part7 | Part8

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One response

19 02 2013
Peter Aikman

You may care to revisit Shenavall and see the improvements and alterations since your visit, that were started by IMC and carried on by MBA in 2012. Further work is planned for 2013 – see MBA website to see how you can help.

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