A previous blog, ‘Endings and Beginnings’, described the lead up to when my wife and I finished our time with the international Christian organisation Operation Mobilisation (OM). It was 1994 and it had been 17 years since first joining in the autumn of 1977. I had started right after graduation in aeronautical engineering. Originally my thinking was to join OM for maybe a year or two and then return to something within aviation. Finishing student life I had thought my life direction would have some bearing on 4 years of study as well as the basic flying training undertaken. It was not to be. Indeed looking back there seems little connection between different periods of my life. Certainly not what I imagined a career path to be. For some their occupational journey has a natural progression as the years progress. That has not been my experience. I have to live with past decisions and motivations. As a Christian I also have faith in God to be leading me as well as a desire to do His will. Mixing all that together can seem messy. I don’t purport to have any ready answers.
Anyhow enough reflecting. It was the spring of 1994 when we left Japan and later that same year left OM. The time had come for Elisabeth and I to move on to a new stage of life. Doing so involved spending several months living with in-laws in Sweden and Scotland. We weren’t homeless but emotionally we were in limbo. It was not an easy time.
Through a friend I had been offered a job with Prison Fellowship Scotland (PFS). We moved to Glasgow, my home city where I was born and brought up. Glasgow was not new to Elisabeth either. We had previously represented OM in Scotland from 1987-90 and lived in Glasgow during that period. Despite this it would be a big transition. For me settling back in my hometown might seem familiar. However leaving OM was I imagine a bit like leaving the army. It had been a world where home and family life was often different from the norm. The ethos of the organisation permeated every aspect of life.
Moving to Glasgow would therefore in some respects be starting anew. During my years away a lot of the people I knew had become established in their work and home life. Many also I had lost contact with. Though growing up in Glasgow I also had few relations in the area. My family roots were in the north west of Scotland. Despite being married 10 years it felt like we were only just starting to think of settling down. Living in 8 homes on 3 continents had given us many rich and life enhancing experiences as a couple. However we had not really lived for very long anywhere. Writing this some 29 years later and still in Glasgow I guess we are settled!
Our initial accommodation was renting a small flat. It was owned by the daughter of one of the supporters we had whilst with OM. Wondering where we might find a local church we asked her where she attended. We went along to her church. West Glasgow New Church (WGNC) at the time met in a college building. It was a surprise to find several people I knew from the mid-70s. This had been when I was part of Glasgow University Christian Union. That experience and a warm welcome led us to join this independent church. It has been our church family ever since.
I began my work with Prison Fellowship Scotland (PFS). The world of prisoners, ex-offenders and their families was completely new for me. Like OM, Prison Fellowship was an international Christian organisation. I think at the time there were over 60 countries that had national groupings, all united as a federation. PFS was part of this global network. Prison Fellowship’s founder was an American – Charles ‘Chuck’ Colson. Chuck had been special counsel to President Nixon. Known otherwise as Nixon’s ‘hatchet man’ he was jailed as a result of the Watergate scandal. After his time In prison he founded Prison Fellowship. His book ‘Born Again’ is a powerful story of a transformed life and well worth reading. Chuck’s global leadership of the organisation was inspirational. This man who had risen to one of the world’s most powerful political positions had this to say of his time in prison.
“all my achievements meant nothing in God’s economy…. No, the real legacy of my life was my biggest failure — that I was an ex-convict. My greatest humiliation — being sent to prison — was the beginning of God’s greatest use of my life; He chose the one thing in which I could not glory for His glory.”
Each country where PF has a presence engages volunteers. They visit jails, befriending prisoners and sometimes their families. Serving alongside prison chaplaincies many of these volunteers faithfully visit, some for decades. Through them the lives of thousands of prisoners and ex-offenders have been touched. Lives changed through sharing the forgiveness and restoration found in Jesus. There are also disappointments. Some are in and out of jail, only to re-offend again.
In Scotland for me the world of prisons was to enter a sub culture within our society. Initially I did not know how to relate. Those in prison are first and foremost people. Winston Churchill said you can judge a society by how it treats its prisoners. They may be being served just punishment yet are also part of our common humanity. They too have fathers, mothers, spouses, partners and children.
“A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice;” Isaiah 42:3 NIVUK.
The motto of Prison Fellowship.
As mentioned a core part of Prison Fellowship’s work is to regularly visit jails, usually weekly. Small teams hold informal meetings with groups of inmates. These gatherings would often finish with an informal cup of tea at the end. Early on in my work I remember one such after meeting chat with an inmate. A golden rule was not to ask what someone is in prison for. However on this occasion the prisoner without being asked began to share how he had killed someone. I became aware of my body language recoiling from him, distancing myself. It was then I remembered that a number of the heroes of the Bible had murdered people. Men like Moses and David. The Apostle Paul had murderous intent before his conversion. Up till then I had been comfortable sanitising my view of Bible characters. I limited the scope of God’s work in people’s lives.
Over my five and a half years with PFS I visited almost all the prisons in Scotland. In certain company it would raise eyebrows when mentioning I had been in all but one of Scotland’s prisons. Only visiting!
All this talk of prisoners might sound that there was little regard for the victims of crime. One programme ran by PF was Sycamore Tree. Designed to challenge offenders to think of their victims. It works on trying to apply the encounter Jesus had with Zaccheus found in Luke 19 verses 1-10 to the offender’s own situation. Jesus desires hospitality from Zaccheus. Zaccheus’ subsequently desired to make reparation for his offences. In the programme symbolic or actual acts of reparation may be made to the victims.
Another practical form of care was Angel Tree. Then, on behalf of prisoners, Christmas presents were bought. They were then delivered to their children, often innocent victims.
A great priviledge on several occasions was to be part of a small team representing PFS on the international stage. This was attending conferences on Prison Fellowship International’s worldwide work. People representing different systems of justice and cultural approaches. Some advocating reform, some punishment and others restorative justice. These gatherings included ex-offenders, victims, law makers, law enforcers, prison officers, governors and judges. Also people like myself who didn’t feel they fitted in any particular category. All together trying to learn from one another.
One of Scotland’s most secure jails had a lovely chapel. Gaining entry through a series of locked doors was a sober reminder of just how incarcerated the men were. Yet in there the imprisoned spirit can sing. There can be remarkable honesty and little pretence. Lives are messed up. There is brokenness and regret. I recall that the singing of hymns in the chapel felt at times like they were trying to raise the roof. Many inmates readily identify with Jesus, the friend of sinners.
A 325km off road adventure from Glasgow to Aultbea, Wester Ross, Scotland. 23 – 29 Apr 2023
The following account is a kaleidoscope of experiences and feelings all concertinoed into 7 days in April. As such there were times when my short term memory was confused. There may therefore be an incident or two that is not strictly chronological. For this I apologise but can do nothing to amend this. In one way the week feels like one continuous experience.
Day 1 – Sun 23 April 2023. Milngavie – Inversnaid 55.4 km1,289 m Ascent
After months of preparation the day had finally come. The main feeling was ‘let’s get going’. The days beforehand had felt stressful. As if ready to start but waiting. It left the mind to ruminate and go over things needlessly. Had I this or that with me and many ‘what ifs’. Amongst the more irrational decisions I guess was to take my concessionary bus pass.
I was starting at the official start of the WHW in Milngavie to the north of Glasgow. As the adventure was to be ‘off road’ I didn’t fancy starting off with 6km of busy city roads from home.
It was encouraging to have a group from our church see me off. They joined in prayer for a safe journey ahead.
Elisabeth was coming out to Balmaha (after 32km) with a picnic lunch which was great. It also meant that I could travel light initially and pick up my main rucksack there. Good also at the beginning to have the company of 2 friends, Andy M and Jamie R.
The 3 of us set of at 8:01 am to the cries of well-wishers. It sounds like every minute of the next week counted but psychologically I needed to know I was ‘on track’ from the start. Our pace was good. Being fresh and excited and not carrying anything much meant that this would be the fastest for whole of week. And so it proved. Good to chat with my intial companions and settle nerves. Jamie left us after about 10km for his home nearby. Thanks Jamie for your banter. Andy and I continued on together to Balmaha where he would get a lift back home with Elisabeth.
It was a cool, dry morning. Good conditions and time passed pleasantly. At some point midway between Drymen and Conic hill 2 figures appeared ahead of us. As we caught up they turned out to be people we knew. Incredibly they had first hand knowledge of the remote bothy and the Cape Wrath trail area I planned to be later in the week. It was reassuring and a sign to me that God was going before. I just needed to put in the effort.
Our pace to Balmaha was so good that we arrived 1220, 40 mins before planned meeting with Elisabeth at 1pm. Time for a coffee in the little shop and then a welcome picnic brought by Elisabeth. Got to keep up the calorie intake! I would be running a calorie deficit for whole week and burning my fat reserves so eating was vital. It was time to say goodbyes to both Elisabeth and Andy. I was now on my own, That would be the case for next 2 days.
The trail along the east side of Loch Lomond is very familiar to me. It was still hard going especially between Rowardennan and Inversnaid. Lots of tree roots and undulations. At least during the first 3 days the trail would always be well marked. My pace was settling down to a fast hike. Good in some ways but in other ways made it a bit lonely. There were plenty of walkers but as my pace was faster I would only usually pass with a greeting and move on.
A quick stop at Rowardennan where I got water from the tap outside the toilets. For fluid intake I was mainly using electrolyte tablets with the water. Normally I make a drink that uses carbohydrates but didn’t want to carry powder. Arriving at Inversnaid my hoped for plan was to get a meal at the hotel there. However they said they were only catering for bus groups. I therefore had to make do with some snacks from the hotel bar and get my phone and satellite tracker charged.
It was then out into a chilly evening to continue about another 1 km north. There I found my bed for the night. Whatever warmth was in the air was quickly dispelled by the light northerly wind which was often the case throughout the week.
My rest for the night was near the loch side with a stream nearby. I was not alone whilst setting up camp. Two other tents were within 50m. Camping as such is not really my thing. Brick and mortar accommodation did not provide the flexibility for early starts and late arrivals each day. Also on most days there was nowhere to go for shelter anyway. Got my bivvy bag and sleeping bag sorted and boiled water for the 2 dehydrated meals I had. Think it was chicken tikka and beef bolognaise. Sounds exotic. Add water to a bag and spoon it out. Importantly it was 1,200 cals. Topped off with a powdered cappuccino mix.
Thought at close of day – For the only time all week I managed to listen to a podcast on my phone. An inspiring testimony by Bishop Sentamu answering the question ’what makes us human’. As a persecuted former judge in Idi Amin’s Uganda he knew what it means to suffer. I am feeling weary after just 12 hours of effort. Lord, what about 11 year old children in Pakistan denied an education. Some do back breaking menial work making bricks for 12 hours, just for pennies. I am weary this day by choice, they by force. I feel overwhelmed by the injustice of it all. Lord, have mercy.
Day 2 – Mon 24 April 2023. Inversnaid – Glencoe 58.7 km 1514m ascent
This would be my longest day distance-wise so determined an early start. I was up and going after a hot drink and snack. My plan was to get a full cooked breakfast at the campsite at Bein Glas about 2 hours and 10km away. On the way to breakfast I passed many campers seemingly blissfuly asleep. Terrain was quite tough going. There is a 4km ‘technical’ section where at times you are clambering on all fours. Even when racing this route all but the elite can traverse the 4km in under an hour. At many points on this journey I would envisage how things would be. Like expectations in life, though, there can be disappointment. However this time I was wonderfully surprised. I had the big full cooked breakfast including haggis and black pudding. As much coffee and juice as I could ingest. All in a warm, cosy environment. The hour there passed in a flash. It was time to move on.
North of Loch Lomond the terrain was more conducive to hiking and made reasonable progress. Stopped for a moment at the Kynaston bridge. The late John Kynaston first inspired me to get into ultra distance running. Family, friends and runners had rebuilt this bridge in memory of him. His was a remarkable life of service in the UK and overseas as well as a physical education coach. His example also encouraged many to push their limits physically. A life well lived – thank you John.
My next stop was in Tyndrum. The heavy breakfast meant that I had no stomach for anything fried so made do with sandwiches at the ‘Green Welly’ restaurant. It was then on up the gentle rise out of Tyndrum. About 500m out suddenly realised I had no gloves. These were the only pair I had with me. I had to return to the ‘Green Welly’. To go through Rannoch Moor later in the day I would need gloves. The staff were helpful and even put out a ‘glove alert’ over the tannoy throughout the complex. However nothing transpired. Only thing for it was to buy another pair in the outdoor shop.
As I returned to the trail I was bemoaning the fact that 40 mins, 1km and the purchase of a pair of gloves had been ‘wasted’. Only then I realised that where I had lost my gloves was probably the only place between Glasgow and Fort William where you could buy gloves. I carried on towards Bridge of Orchy thankful. Setbacks often have silver linings.
Leaving Bridge of Orchy there is a fairly steep ascent over the hill towards Inveroran. As I descended towards there a familiar figure appeared. Martin had been following on my tracker and it was great to then have his company for a few km. He had been helpful in giving advice on my route for north of Fort William. Got some fruit from him. Just as helpful was to have someone’s company for a while. As we approached Rannoch moor area he turned back to Inveroran.
My initial plan for the evening had been to arrive in Glencoe and make use of the facilities in both the ski resort and the Kingshouse hotel. Time wise I was running late. I had phone reception and discovered that the ski resort restaurant closed at 8pm. Kingshouse was nearly 2.5km further and would be too late to avail myself of their food. It was a push to arrive at the ski resort a few minutes before 8pm. Unfortunately no hot food or drink was being served. They managed to boil water for an instant coffee which refreshed my chilling body. Also grabbed some snacks and powdered porridge which thought would be handy for the morning.
It was then out to the campsite in the rapidly dropping temperatures. I found a spot beside 2 Israeli campers. Not that a bivvy bag needs much space. The real advantage was the toilet / shower block. Its warmth was mesmerising. Didn’t have energy to shower but determined that a plan B was to warm up in the toilets or even stay there all night. Temperatures were plummeting and later heard it was -5C that night at Loch Tulla which I had passed earlier. In the event I managed to bivvy the whole night but with little sleep.
Thought for the day – I think of the many in our world for whom there is no room in the inn. People displaced by war and famine. No choice but to lay their head on whatever piece of earth they could find. Hopes for the future all but destroyed. Lord, do you care? Of course you do. You have given mankind responsibility for our actions. Actions that cause others to suffer. Your heart is broken by their pain. Lord, again I am here by choice. I have a plan B if pain or discomfort are too much.
Day 3 – Tue 25 April 2023. Glencoe – Fort William 48.7 km 1198m ascent
In the morning decided plan was to boil water for the powdered porridge sachets I had bought the night before. That would have to do me to Kinlochleven. Shivering trying to boil my water a couple Antony and Lindsay from a neighbouring tent noticed me. Think it must have looked like I had had a rough night. She came over with a very welcome mug of hot coffee. The kindness of strangers.
It was then off down into the valley to a slowly warming sun. Hauntingly beautiful in any weather the valley is the stuff of legends.
Passing Kingshouse hotel it was on to Altnafeidh. Then the trail headed up the Devil’s staircase. Reassuringly I was still passing walkers. At the top of the staircase I stopped for a moment and met two young women walkers going in other direction. They were doing an ‘off road’ JOGLE (John O’Groats to Lands End). Taking 3 months to do it. Continue to be amazed at the number of people who take considerable ‘time out’ to be outside.
I made it to Kinlochleven around lunchtime and headed to the small supermarket there where I devoured a welcome cold lunch.
My next stop would be in Fort William. This sector held many memories of late night/ early morning trudges as nearing the end of the traditional West Highland Way (WHW) Race. This time it felt a bit easier as I ascended up to and along the Lairig Ghru. Still it took a long time and once again found myself facing a later than expected end of day.
Descending into Fort W. I followed the WHW into the town but then left to traverse across town and join with the Great Glen Way. Tonight would be luxury. Staying at a bed and breakfast. Elisabeth came walking to meet me and lead me through the urban housing of FW. Eventually we reached our accommodation neatly situated beside the Caledonian canal and 30m from the Great Glen Way. The start point for day 4. Meanwhile a shower and a hot meal. It was a curious sleep that night. After 2 nights in the cold it felt very stuffy. As if my head had got used to outdoor, overnight conditions.
Thought for the day – Lord, am touched by the kindness of people. The compassion of a welcome hot drink. There is goodness in your world.
Day 4 – Wed 26 April 2023. Fort William – West of Loch Loyne 37.5 km. 1318m ascent
Breakfast was a bit rushed but otherwise welcome. Plan was that Cammie Kennedy would motor up to Fort W. Elisabeth would pick him up from town and take him to day 4 start point. Cammie very generously took several days leave from his work to accompany me on this the more challenging and arduous second half. It was fantastic to have him. He kept me company, he was strong, super fit and knows the mountains and bushcraft much better than me. We had spent many hours together in the mountains previously in all conditions. Crucially he could also navigate – I have trouble finding my way round retail parks. He was also fresh and ‘ready to go’.
According to plan Cammie (hereafter known as ‘C’) arrived. After some last minute preparations we set off about 0900 saying goodbye to Elisabeth who was returning to Glasgow. Going along the canal it was still dry and cool. It was, as you’d expect on a waterway, flat and not at all difficult. A gentle introduction to what was coming.
We followed the Great Glen way and canal for a few hours. Then departing from the trail to go through Achnacarry. The village is unusual in that the land and road in the village is private and owned by the chief of the clan Cameron. Both C and I have connections to the Camerons. It felt an interesting diversion to visit the clan museum shop. More interestingly and to the point was that they sold ice cream and coffee. We thought there would be no food available from Fort W. that day. This was a blessed, unexpected bonus.
We then proceeded through the estate and followed a road for a few km before heading north initially on a forestry type path. We were now entering wild, remote terrain. Apart from a brief stop in Cluanie we would not really return to civilisation till Kinlochewe 2 days later.
We climbed with the beautiful loch Arkaig behind us. Before it disappeared I reflected how many years before I had spent a week near there with a hill walking group. It was past the western end of the loch in Glen Dessary. Once quite populated the valleys are now largely silent. Many had emigrated to escape remote rural poverty. I wondered how many of the remote valleys we were about to visit were once populated.
Anyhow, pressing on we reached Poulary where there was a couple of houses. If I was to finish in 7 days we would have to go further today. And so we continued. For the first time on the whole trip it started to become quite damp and misty. A change from our original route meant we could cut out what seemed an unnecessary detour round the head of a valley. However it also made for boggy terrain.
Eventually we made camp for the night in the middle of a moor by a stream. Again the north wind was chilling as we made bed for the night. Then a frantic effort to heat some food before dark. For me, it was probably the roughest night outside. It got very cold but also wet. I almost said to C during the night that I needed to move and would need to force march myself up the impending hill to keep warm.
Day 5 – Thu 27 April 2023. West of Loch Loyne – Maol Buidhe bothy 43 km. 1506m ascent
At 5am I told C I must move and get some body heat on my torso. I was on the border of shivering and fortunately had the presence of mind to do something about it. As we set off C noticed a certain type of moth. To me it seemed it was watching our predicament with its false eyes.
Brighter prospects were ahead of us. Our plan was to move for 2 hours and once again try to catch a full cooked Scottish breakfast. This time at Cluanie Inn where our path would intersect the road to Kyle of Lochalsh and the island of Skye. To avoid disappointment it was important not to over visualise good things to come. We arrived at the Inn just as they started to serve breakfast. We were blessed beyond expectations. The waiter A let us join the hotel guest breakfast clientele. We must have looked a bit strange to the guests in our damp attire as we charged phones and power banks and devoured down the hot food. When A learned what we were doing he very kindly proferred small food boxes for us to take food away with us from the buffet. The kindness of strangers.
Though the weather remained damp our feelings were lighter. So on fuller stomaches we headed off into the hills again. It was going to be a long day to get to our bothy for the night. Often there were faint tracks which I am convinced some of which were made by animals. Either deer or sheep. Sometimes we would come across some old road which we would follow for a bit. Danger was that a relatively nice road was easy to remain on. Perhaps for too long and only to discover it is not going the way we want.
A word about safety and navigation. We were using Ordnance Survey (OS) online maps on our phones backed up with paper maps if needed. Neither C nor I were on the best phone network. It meant that for much of 3 days we were without phone signal or clear online maps. Throughout the trip either C or I carried a GPS tracker and emergency transponder. It meant that those following and supporting knew where we were. Should there be a need for it pressing one button sent signal and location to emergency services. Not so high tech was a 10m mountaineering cordelette ( a 3mm thick but v strong rope). There were quite a number of rivers to cross. Had the earlier part of April been wet (which it wasn’t) many of them could have been torrential and very fast moving. Having a rope in such cases would have been essential. In the event most of the time the rivers were not that high. However on one occasion I was wading across a fairly fast flowing river at knee height. About 2m from the far side the water got deeper. Testing depth with my poles discovered that it was probably 1.2-1.5m deep with a clamber up the river bank. I am so thankful I had presence of mind to not attempt. Immersion and swimming in a chilled state would have been foolish. With nothing warm to change into in a remote place would be dangerous. Believe someone must have been praying at that moment. I retreated and found another point to cross.
Our anticipated refuel station was the Glen Affric youth hostel. I had called the Inverness youth hostel the week before enquiring about picking up food as we passed through. A super friendly guy Mark was on the end of the line and said he was going there for 2 weeks. He assured me of plenty supplies. It felt reassuring as there would be nowhere else to get them for the day.
Located at Allt Beithe the hostel was a welcome sight with smoke coming from the chimney. Upon entering sure enough Mark was there in a nice, cosy room with stove. Wonderful. Shortly after arrival a figure appeared. My cousin Ewen! He had come in to meet us on his mountain bike. He also offered food and fruit. Ewen was a great help and appeared on 2 other occasions. He had offered to help if we needed anything after Fort William. He had our tracker info. so just appeared without our help.
After being plied with food and tea from Mark he also generously supplied us with some camping food for a donation. Ewen took a video of us for about a km after leaving the hostel.
From time to time C’s knowledge of the natural world would appear. Once this was combined with a lyrical flourish. Upon hearing the dulcet tones of the cuckoo he was excited. This was an endangered species and it was nearby! He then declared…
“The cuckoo comes in April, In May it sings all day, In June it changes it’s tune and in July it flies away.”
Our destination for the day was Maol Buidhe bothy, one of the remotest lodgings in the UK. The main attraction for the 2 of us is that it would have 4 walls and a roof. I could not imagine another night outside in the cold, boggy, damp conditions. Mile after mile of bog passed. At one point C pointed to some distant object and declared it was the bothy. Turned out to be a mirage. Bogs are as bad as deserts for conjuring up wishful thinking.
At long last a white object appeared in the distance. This time it was the real thing. However the shelter was not about to give up its comforts easily. The sting in the tail was a substantial river to cross.
Upon entering the bothy we found there were already 4 occupants for the night. Two were in the room upstairs and two downstairs. The downstairs couple Peter and Andrea were from Hungary. I think it might have been something to do with our appearance. Almost immediately they started offering us food which we eagerly consumed. Nuts, chocolates, even a risotto we cooked on their frying pan. All adding to the food we had brought. They could not have been kinder or more attentive. The kindness of strangers. At one point I said to Peter that he was an angel. Gave him the Starfish QR code which he promised he would look up once back in phone contact. They were carrying loads of gear, I think 19kg, compared to our 7kg. Their food apparently was being sent ahead to drop off points. We apparently were helping them as there had too much food to carry. Always happy to assist in this way! The bothy had a fireplace but nothing to burn. With no trees or dead wood for many miles around it was probably little used.
As the daylight faded the rain grew more intense. Was so thankful we were inside. I was looking forward to going into my sleeping bag and imagined a night of luxury not inside a wet bivvy bag. Beware of visualising the future too much. As I settled for the night I felt it was quite damp but hoped my weapon against the cold would kick in. There was no fire but there were hand warmers! Little bags that when outer packaging is opened and rubbed give out about 50C heat for up to 10 hours. You can off course use on hands but also feet etc. However something was not right. Suddenly realised that water was dripping inside my bag. I was lying under what was a very leaky roof! Before it got too bad managed to move to a drip free area for rest of night.
Day 6 – Fri 28 April 2023. Maol Buidhe bothy – Kinlochewe 42.9 km. 1149m ascent
Next morning the rain had stopped and the air felt clearer. A brief brew for a hot drink and also eat most of our remaining rations. Saying goodbye to Peter as we left. As said the bothy required a river crossing to arrive and on our departure another river needed to be crossed. It was as if there was a special entry and leaving requirement. Starting day 6 seemed to have a nice ring about it. Might I, dare I, think a 7 day target was now possible? No, could not entertain that thought till the end of day if we made it to Kinlochewe. Every day had its unique challenges, hardships and blessings. Beware the mind games of doing anything other than living in the moment.
Our aim was to end the day at the campsite in Kinlochewe. C was concerned for me not to spend that night in a bivvy. At a time when phone coverage worked he got in contact with Ewen and wondered if he had a spare tent he could get to Kinlochewe. No problem – it seemed nothing was too difficult for him. It was arranged that Elisabeth would pick up from Ewen’s home near Inverness. She was travelling north to Aultbea by car from Glasgow that day. A dry tent to look forward to. Once again blessed.
Some of the valleys we entered were stunningly beautiful and unspoilt.
Each day there was a continual interplay of the physical and the mental. When stopped it felt mentally stressful as then had to organise food, clothing and shelter needs. Of course it was physically easier when stationary. When moving it felt mentally easier. I was making progress, the km were passing, I was getting nearer my daily and week’s goal. However the 12 -13 hours of movement was physically demanding. Although we were not running we were going about twice the speed of the few Cape Wrath Trail walkers we met. We could call it a fast hike.
Our only possibility of food on the way that day was at a hostel near Craig. Bit of disappointment as we couldn’t find anyone around. Nothing for it but to press on. C looked a bit disbelieving as the route now pointed to a barely visible path rising steeply through the bushes.
Once we had gained a bit of height we determined to use our lightweight stoves to get a hot drink and eat a little of what remained of our diminishing supplies. There was still about 16km left to go before day’s end.
For the last few km we wearily joined the single track road from Torridon heading for Kinlochewe. Probably the most dangerous time of the whole day. We nearly got knocked off the road by a speeding camper van which seemed unaware of our presence. It feels vulnerable to be unsteady on your feet with a rucksack on the road.
Arriving at the campsite we were soon joined by Elisabeth who brought food as well as a tent and warm clothing from Ewen. It was a 3 man tent so it felt like a mansion. Elisabeth was going to motor on to Aultbea. Great to get a shower that evening and contemplate that there was only 1 day left and we were on target.
That evening we realised that the earliest breakfast in Kinlochewe would be 0830. It would mean a late morning start to what would be a long and challenging day. A call to Ewen and it was sorted. He would come along for 0730 in the morning, pick up tent and any excess gear we wished to shed as well as bring breakfast. Fantastic, thank you Ewen.
Day 7 – Sat 29 April 2023. Kinlochewe – Aultbea 38.85 km. 1776m ascent
A new day but with a spring in my step. Enthusiasm however was dampened as C shared how he felt the blisters he had been trying to manage were getting worse. Studying the map he realised there was no easy way out if he had difficulty continuing. Not wanting to cause me problems on the last day he decided to not join me. It was hard. We had shared the meat of the whole journey for these past 3 days. Ewen arrived with our breakfast and took our gear as promised. Cammie got a lift with him to Aultbea so would see him at end of the day. I would be alone but it had only been possible to come this far with Elisabeth, Cammie and Ewen’s help.
So I set off through the village to eventually join the rather faint track along the east of Loch Maree. At times it was very hard going. My feet had been swollen and nearly always wet for some days. Could have done with a shoe size larger. The path to Letterewe was very hard to follow and at times seemed to be just animal tracks. Passed some amazing waterfalls with caves. At one point the path became quite clear but ended with what was probably a 4m drop into a deep pool in front of a waterfall. Maybe many decades ago there had been a bridge.
At last the well tended buildings of Letterewe estate came into view. It was accessed by boat from the other side of loch Maree.
I was now leaving loch Maree with a very welcome and fresh looking sign saying ‘Poolewe’. Poolewe was the coastal village about 10km south of Aultbea. Although not headed for there it signalled that the end was within reach. A steep climb but on a fresh looking 4 wheel drive trail. It tempted me to think that this was going to be the terrain all the way. A long journey on 2 feet is prone to many false imaginations. About half way up in the warming sunshine I decided to have a hot drink courtesy of my micro stove. Also ate some of the snack bars I had left and been carrying for emergencies.
Pressing on upwards along this wide and clear path I reached the mountain pass. I was then greeted with two shocks. Firstly the path stopped and completely disappeared. More disconcertingly I was crossing over into the Fionn loch area a few km south east of where I should be. Was later told I also climbed an extra 300m needlessly. I should have borne left on another path just after having my hot drink.
The one saving grace was the sheer beauty of Fionn loch. To think that my maternal grandfather had spent decades as gamekeeper in this area. I was a mere tourist passing through. He lived off the land.
There was nothing for it but to continue contouring along north west until I would hit the trail. Once on the trail it was not long before another surprise. My cousin Ewen again. He had come to meet me by mountain bike. There, in the middle of the trail, was a frying pan, stove and 2 gigantic hot dogs with trimmings cooked for me. They tasted fantastic. I only managed one but gladly took the remaining one for later. It would be needed as energy levels were later to dwindle.
Continuing on Ewen followed me for a bit taking photos until he took his leave into the distance on his bike. Back with my own thoughts I realised there was probably almost 20km left.
Following the trail would lead me to Poolewe. My destination was Aultbea so in time I had to depart from the Poolewe track and enter what was labelled ‘Bad Bog’ on maps. It couldn’t be worse than I had been through surely? I was wrong. It was also featureless and to add to a slight sense of peril I lost my paper map. Still only a blank tracker on OS with no features and no phone service. It also started to chill with the ever present north wind. It all made for what was for me very challenging navigation. At last a familiar track appeared 8 -10 km south of Aultbea. At one point I could even see the sea! I was going to make it.
On approaching Drumchork on the outskirts of the village I heard the sound of bagpipes. Played by a local piper Anndra it was a great welcome to be greeted by Elisabeth, my parents and Cammie. I had determined to go all the way to my parents’ home so there was still another 2km or so to go. And another bagpipe welcome!
A week had passed (actually 157 hours); 421,397 steps; 325.15 km; 9,750m climbing (approx. 9,800m descent).
I am thankful and conscious of the prayers and support of many. As said before I could not have done it without Elisabeth’s support. Psychologically in encouraging me when doubts arose and of course practically. She has loads of experience in all my endurance events! Cammie coming on board for the second half was crucial. I doubt very much if I could have done that on my own. My cousin Ewen was also a critical help at strategic points – thank you.
Several times during the week I was moved by the solitude but was not alone.
“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.”
As with previous endurance runs I am fund-raising for Starfish Asia. They help disadvantaged and impoverished children from mainly Christian families in Pakistan get an education. A solar panel system for an average school costs about £2,000. Generous donors have given over £6,500. This will equip at least 3 schools – this is way beyond my expectations, thank you so much! For most of the Starfish schools a lack of power is an increasing problem. Solar panels being installed provide stable electricity, especially for lighting and fans during the summer. There is a dedicated fund-raising page set up with Starfish for this purpose. If you would like to help you can donate here If the page has closed you can also donate at starfishasia.com
A 325km ‘off road’ adventure from Glasgow to Wester Ross, Scotland
23 – 29/30 Apr 2023
At 8am on Sunday 23rd April I hope to start off on the ‘Highlander’s Return from Milngavie’s High St on the outskirts of Glasgow. This is the official start of the West Highland Way (WHW). My hopes for this journey are varied. Aspirations are part pilgrimage – an inner as well as an outward journey. For sure the 7-8 days will be a long and, at times, arduous journey. How it all plays out is part of the adventure. How much actual running and how much fast or slow hiking remains to be seen. Mixed in it all I trust there will be enjoyment!
I had a reality check a few weeks ago. As part of my preparation I went on an overnight wild camp trip to test and familiarise myself with my gear. It was also to try running with a full load. This was in the Kilpatricks hills that nestling near the north west shoulder of Glasgow. It rained steadily for most of the night and through the following morning. It made for quite a miserable experience in my little bivouac (‘bivvy’). All right for a night but not good if, during the event, one wet night is followed by another long day and another night in the rain. Not an appealing prospect. At least on my practice overnighter I went home for a shower! The lesson learned is having a plan B if the weather proves adverse.
Part of me is looking forward to starting each morning with the thought that the only goal for the day is to cover the miles. Actually I prefer to speak in kilometres. They are psychologically easier for me – they pass quicker than miles! Just covering the distance is a deceptively simple sounding aim. Simple but know it will require sustained mental as well as physical strength. Rest, eating enough calories and recovery will be important at the end of each day. I am very glad to not be on my own from day 4 onwards when Cammie Kennedy plans to join me. Grateful for his commitment to help.
Anyhow, enough thinking. It will soon be time to stop imagining what might or might not be and put one of many steps forward. Maybe see you on the trail!
It has been asked if I would be blogging along the way. This will be very unlikely as trying to do 40-50km/ day and attend to food, sleep and shelter needs will likely take up all available time.
As with previous endurance runs I am fund-raising for Starfish Asia. They help disadvantaged and impoverished children from mainly Christian families in Pakistan get an education. A solar panel system for an average school costs about £2,000. At time of writing this generous donors have given almost enough for 1 school – thank you! If we can provide for 2 (£4,000) that would be fantastic. For most of the Starfish schools a lack of power is an increasing problem. Solar panels being installed would provide stable electricity, especially for lighting and fans during the summer. There is a dedicated fund-raising page set up with Starfish for this purpose. If you would like to help you can donate here
A 325km off road adventure from Glasgow to Wester Ross, Scotland
23 – 29/30 Apr 2023
Over 65 years ago my parents moved from their Highland coastal villages in Wester Ross in North West Scotland to Glasgow for work. Many thousands of Highlanders have done the same migration. Glasgow was where I grew up. However I spent many long and happy summer holidays on Scotland’s north west coast. Often meeting with cousins and other relatives. It left fond memories of that time of life. Upon their retirement my mother and father moved back there to where they had grown up.
From 23 – 29/30 April 2023 I have set myself the challenge of doing an off road 7-8 day trail run/ fast hike from Glasgow to Aultbea, Wester Ross in the North West Highlands of Scotland. The idea has been in my mind for several years but have kept putting it out of my mind.
It’s not an immediate yes. It takes a while for all parts of me to get onboard. I may even dance with the idea for years before I finally commit to it.
Nimsdai Purja, ‘Beyond Possible’
Finally deciding to do it now feels like a kind of pilgrimage. Travelling to my family roots on two feet. Other feelings include fear, anticipation, excitement, a sense of impending adventure and the unknown, all in equal measure.
The plan is to take 3 days from Glasgow (Milngavie) to Fort William following the 155 km of the West Highland Way. This route is familiar to me, and is a marked trail. After Fort W. the next 4-5 days will be partly on the Great Glen Way, Cape Wrath Trail and my own variation. A rough estimate of the total distance from maps is about 325 km (203 miles). As the terrain is rugged in the second half the route planned may have to be adjusted.
From Fort William it will be all new territory with several sectors of it trackless. Think bogs, moors, hillsides, valleys and streams in off grid, remote areas. Trying to go around mountains rather than over. For me this will be the first time doing several long-distance days in a row and resting during the nights. Weather conditions could be a factor. It will be very different from the 24-36 hour continuous runs I have been doing previously. It requires an additional skill set in addition to endurance.
‘Accommodation’ along the way will be a mixture of several nights wild camping (bivouac), staying in at least one bothy (basic remote shelter), maybe youth hostel and even a bed and breakfast. Idea is to travel as light and fast as possible. Trying to pick up food along the way and/ or eat wherever it is possible. Aiming to carry no more than 6-7kg. I am deeply grateful to Cammie Kennedy, a regular running buddy, for being willing to accompany me for the 4-5 days from Fort William to the end. His experience and skill in mountain running and wild camping is much appreciated. He has helped me to keep focussed and think through practical and mental issues. At Fort William and at the end my wife Elisabeth will also be helping. A consistent encourager in all my endurance endeavours.
As with previous endurance runs I want to fund raise for Starfish Asia. They help disadvantaged and impoverished children from mainly Christian families in Pakistan get an education. A solar panel system for an average school costs about £2,000. It would be great to raise enough for 1 school, but if 2 (£4,000) that would be fantastic. For most of the Starfish schools a lack of power is an increasing problem. Solar panels being installed would provide stable electricity, especially for lighting and fans during the summer. There is a dedicated fund-raising page set up with Starfish for this purpose. If you would like to help you can donate here