Across Scotland – chapter 3: return to Nymph-mania

Day 3  (38km, 554m)

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STEPPING out of the tent at 7.30am the day is so light and bright that this could be the middle of the day and being in bed feels like slumming it. The sun across Loch Arkaig casts a scene of calmness akin to Loch Beoraid.

Sunshine woke me at 6am and the hour and a half after that was a series of snoozettes, drifting off four and five times with the inner tent’s door open and the fabulous views across the water to wake up to each time (there are overtones of Groundhog Day). Such occasions are when a Troookstar, with its big open porch, comes into its own. Soak it up. It is a special feeling looking out from the sleeping bag.

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Sunday morning looking east from the Troookstar along Loch Arkaig

There are no sounds or smells in the air to detract from the enjoyment of the scene. No church bells, no coffee shops, no picnics, no burgers, no retail park traffic humming to the noise of idling engines. There are no jets and their vapours scorching across the blue sky; no Canadian rescue helicopters speeding their way to Gleann Donn. There are only birds flying swooping across the water, and even they respect the silence of the Sunday morning sun. In truth, who knows what day it is and who cares, because the world is as peaceful and calm as a librarian’s dog.

The fishing parties, if they have woken up, are quiet and out of sight, so not a soul can be seen anywhere.

The pasta pan that was steeped overnight is easily swished out and fresh water boils ready for a brew. The serene eastern reaches of the loch are viewed through a touch of haze like a soft focus on a camera lens, and the single track road that runs along the length of Arkaig would be noticeable only if there were cars driving along it, and there are none.

Two successive days of glorious mornings in Scotland in May. What is going on? Global warming, a new kind of Scottish independence or just pure good fortune? If the Loch Arkaig Informer publishes a Sunday edition, its front page story will be: “Highland sunshine sparks public inquiry.” Mercifully the day will not be a long stretch of unbroken sun, although it will remain warm away from the water’s edge, where a strong breeze off the water chills the air.

A layer of moisture on top of the Troookstar lifts away as the sun grows stronger. Brew cupped in my hands, my eyes are scanning across to the south shore of the loch, at a derelict homestead called Kinlocharkaig. Legend says that within half a mile further east, not far from the shoreline, lies hidden some of the hoard of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s gold – Spanish gold – sent in 1746 to support the young prince with the Jacobite rebellion. It is intriguing to think there really could be gold in “them thar hills”, but finding the hoard is about as likely as sighting the kelpie, or water horse, that was reported to have been seen in centuries past breaking the still morning waters of the loch. Who is to say a kelpie does not live here – at three hundred foot deep, the waters could hide all manner of creatures, even gold.

The first brew of the day is drunk from a big fat green plastic mug that is a reminder of the frenzy of reducing the weight of my pack in the weeks running up to the challenge. Frenzy is overcooking the procedure, it was more a case of “suppose I ought to lose some pack weight”. Going away backpacking on a weekend wander, a couple of nights, the few extra pounds here and there are not particularly a problem. They ramp up the workout, if anything. But on a trip of two weeks carrying the extra pounds day after day does make a difference, adding to that build-up of tiredness and fatigue as the days roll on.

Strathan. On left is Fraoch Brainn. path to Kinbreak in bealach to its right
Sunday morning looking west and the bog trot from the evening before. Sguirr Thuilm is the peak  with the snow on top. Stratham is to the right, as is the Troookstar

My dedication to the noble backpacking art of gram counting extended to the loss of seven pounds (3,175g) in body weight in the ten days prior to the start of. No cheese, chocolate or beer, which is real sacrifice.

The big green mug, weighing in at 30 grams, usurped an old blue cuddly titanium model, at 125 grams, giving a tidy saving of 95 grams, which is a fifth of a pound in old money. Little savings here and there add up and are needed if carrying several days of food. Swapping the Hilleberg Akto (which is accepted as being bombproof as a tent) for the Troookstar saved about 1.8 pounds (800 grams) and offered a whole new working space. Think three-bed semi-detached as opposed to one-bedroom flat.

The handle of the green cup – bought from the Swedish Woolworth-style shop chain Clas Ohlson – was cut away with a hacksaw, then smoothed down with 120-grade sandpaper, the fine stuff, to make for ease of packing rather than weight loss, so it is gripped in the hands and makes an excellent hand warmer.

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The uncut Clas Ohlson cup

Besides the saving in weight, the green cup also has two big gulps of extra volume more than the blue cup with its karabiner handle. Some walkers, trekkers and people on expeditions use the karabiner on the side of the cup to clip it to their outer wear and scoop water from streams as they walk. It’s a cool idea but a lump of metal bouncing about as every step does not appeal.

Greater volume means more tea can be drunk, more shortbreads can be dunked and longer can be spent outside absorbing the hills. Looking back on the route from the day before, the mountain peaks are free of mist and set against a back drop of blue, with the first tufts of cloud edging in from the horizon. The hills are light and dark brown, with green from pine trees and dollops of snow dotted across the higher elevations.

Pity the poor Jacobites traipsing across this place three hundred years ago in the rain or in winter being hounded by Hanoverian soldiers. The rebel Scots did not have lightweight kilts nor did the English soldiers have pack-away Gore-Tex redcoats, and neither side had the use of high-tech rucksacks, lightweight gas cookers, freeze dried food, polycro groundsheets, plastic mugs and global positioning satellite.

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My old blue mug – battered and bruised but loved

That little tuft of white in the west is the one blemish on the horizon; but the one cloud on my horizon is that the niggling, itchy, scratchy tickling from the day before has returned. Another tick check of the intimate Heineken variety is required in the Troookstar. It has to be inside, just in case the two sets of anglers rise early. A naked English contortionist along the bank might put them off their breakfast cigarette – and increase the clamour for Scottish independence.

Inside the Troookstar, wouldn’t you know it, more ticks have appeared. One on the bottom of my stomach underneath where the elastic belt of the boxer shorts was; and a couple at the top of the left leg, where one has delved into the groin. The stomach one is getting stuck in as well – the tick has been there so long it is asking for the cheese menu. The Lifesystems tick remover is no use because the tick has so little of its body protruding from my skin that even the smallest snaring groove on the credit-card size tick plucker can’t latch onto its body.

The blighters have all to be squeezed out, as was done the day before, pushing out their bodies and their nasty baggage. Fingers crossed, everything that has come with them has departed. Like yesterday the redness on the skin marks the points where they have indulged, but it occurs to me that the redness might be an open wound reacting to the alcohol wipe. Whatever causes the redness the marks left by the two ticks on the left leg will not die down for several days. It is disconcerting and creepy, when you think of the diseases that they sometimes carry. It’s best not to think about it.

Preparing another brew turns my attention away from the ticks but not for long, because they are preying on my mind. They’ve had their breakfast, dinner and evening meal on me. Freeloading. Chomping away on sumptuous layers of chub, a tasty capillary or voluptuous vein at the Cafe de lard arse all night. Nibbling away, scoffing flesh, my flesh. One of their five a day. They give me the creeps and make the prospect of a plague of midges feels almost affectionate.

And there is another problem. When the base layers were whipped off to make the check for the ticks, mysterious holes have appeared in the wool fabric. They are holes too, not frayed pieces of material or little snicks. Two tops were bought new just weeks before the start of the challenge and they were in pristine condition, even the night before when one was worn inside the sleeping bag.

It has to be the ticks that have made the holes, munching their way through the fibre hunting for blood. If they can chew through flesh, eating through a strand of wool would be a piece of cake, as it were. There can be no other explanation, it must be the blighters picked up on the fall near Corryhully. The grass and vegetation at the pitch by Loch Arkaig is too short for them to have moved in overnight, and after the bothy, where a check was carried out, there was no vegetation that could have harboured ticks.

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Murlaggan, looking west along Loch Arkaig

There have been no moths; no thorny bushes, no passing through rough, chest-high vegetation; no bog is not going to rip a hole in the fabric, even at chest height, neither are the walking poles, dressed in zinc oxide plaster or not. The holes were not due to carelessness with the Swiss Army knife – there was no slashing at the wool in frustration at not being able to sleep. It wasn’t the flames of the gas burner, it wasn’t a cuckoo, it wasn’t the Canadian couple, it has to be the ticks. My skin is crawling again thinking that they have been creeping around my body for the past 18 hours at least. It’s so annoying. It is also annoying that they have bitten through the wool top. It took ages to source the two of them after numerous false starts with so-called Merino wool base layers that were bought from retailers who should know better – one so-called Merino base layer contained only 20 per cent wool, and the cynic in me wonders if all of that was Merino, or wool.

In our short time together a fondness has developed for the tops – which are 100 per cent wool but not real Merino, more like poor man’s Merino – Herdwick, from Cumbria. After two days of egregious sweating, they do not smell, they look okay when they are put on plus they do not have a company logo streaking across the left breast.

To make sure there are no ticks in the sleeping bag is receives a hefty shake as do the base layers in case more are lingering there. The fabric of the bag shows no signs of damage, so with luck they are not holed up there. The bag is constructed with man-made material – maybe that stopped them.

The ticks have rattled me. I feel dirty, like they are marauding across my skin, and feeling all the more vulnerable because I have no clothes on. A wipe over with a flannel helps, as does the fresh underwear. But I still feel grubby.

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Raw material – “Jose” Merino sheep

The toes need a fresh layer of zinc oxide plaster. They are okay, certainly not 100 per cent, certainly tender and just another factor to keep an eye on. They will have to be fine.

It is decision time about the day’s route. The planned route is the track near where the MSR tent was pitched and then head over the hills; the route now being considered is the single track road along the shore – with the prospect of spotting a sea eagle or two – and the prospect of a shower and a drying room.

At the MSR the path heads up the Dearg Allt and eventually comes out at Kinbreak bothy (NN002961) and into Glen Kingie followed by a trek through forest tracks to Glen Garry. This was the intended route for yesterday, with a stopover somewhere in the Greenfield area. Today’s route would have been a trek from Greenfield through the forest and eventually to the Great Glen Hostel, where a pitch has been booked. And those hot showers and the drying room are both so attractive after the tick attack.

The walk across to Kinbreak will be scenic, apart from being wet and sweaty because it is a hot day. From there though it is a slog along forest tracks to reach the hostel and about four to five miles longer that walking the shore road and up the side of Loch Lochy to the hostel. There would also be more miles of walking through pine forests.

Being ten miles behind schedule because of the late start from Lochailort is not a problem, or is it? It is at times like these that a walking chum is needed to bounce ideas off and to reach a reasoned and sensible conclusion to a discussion about a day’s walk – preferably inside five minutes, not the 55 minutes, it takes.

Scots are friendly people, but it would be a step too far to ask a friendly angler: “Can I bounce my ideas off you?”

“Hey Tam, he’s wants to bounce his ideas off me.”

“I’ll call the polis.”

The ticks have clouded the issue. Being able to shower means the ticks can be washed away psychologically, if nothing else. But my dithering is caused by having read people’s accounts of taking the road. Walkers, challengers and trekkers alike have called it something along the lines of a “slog along the loch”, which has not sold it to me.

Decisions, decisions. That hot shower swings it, so the slog along the loch it is. The feet, already tender of course, are going to suffer but at least they will stay dry, and besides, heading for Kinbreak across more went ground might prove a bog too far for the trail shoes and the walking poles.

The anglers are just stirring as me and my Moroccan blue rucksack head for the car park, where more vehicles have appeared overnight. In the south of England that would be the cue for a parking meter. On the other side of the knoll that was stood on the evening before, two backpackers are striking camp from a pitch well away from the left-hand anglers. These two were not there the night before, but maybe they were missed in the fug of tiredness. Either way they are too far distant for a yelled “you TGO?”

The older of the two left-hand anglers appears and is greeted with a hefty “Morning.” The attempts from Saturday night to speak the lingo are abandoned.

“Hellooo,” he replies. My arm is outstretched.

“Just wondering, are these of any use to you?”

Before his eyes are two wedges of oatcakes that between them weigh 400 grams – this is not gram counting gone mad, they have not been weighed with the anglers’ scales, the weight is written on the packaging. Two hundred grams times by two equals is about 53 grams short of an imperial pound. I am gram counting on this occasion because there is a long walk coming up and they are not going to get eaten by me. The appetite is shot. The food the evening before was forced down, and the shortbread dunkers for breakfast were more out of my habit of always having biscuits with my morning cup of tea.

The angler is very polite.

“Ach no, thanks very much, I dinnae touch ’em masself.”

It is tempting to suggest using the crumbled oatcakes as bait, they are versatile.

“No worries, have a good day’s fishing, take it easy.”

“An’ yersel.”

We bid each other farewell.

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Thick – Stockan’s red

Maybe he prefers the rough-milled oatcakes to these fine-milled versions. Rough ones are tastier for breakfast with a smooth spreading cheese or humous, while the fine ones are best with a hard cheese later in the day. Truth is, rough or fine milled, Stockan’s or otherwise, if the appetite was there they would have been wolfed down. In the sweep of the supermarket at Morrison’s in Fort William two days before, the word Stockan’s had popped out from the shelf and, without a second thought, two packets were slung into the basket. They weren’t needed.

Stockan’s are made in the Orkney Isles and are lovely. And as every oatcake aficionado with an ounce (or 28 grams) of common sense will tell you, they are excellent baggin [food] out on the hills with somewhere in the region of 450 calories in energy per 100g, they are not to be sniffed at – and better than cheddar cheese at about 405 calories in a 100 grams. They are like flattened porridge, a slow release system for fuel that might be thought of as bland by some people’s taste buds, but they are very palatable.

On a cordon bleu note, oatcakes are lip-smacking with a drop of Primula cream cheese, more so with extra-mature cheddar or, crème de la crème, proper creamy/tasty Lancashire cheese (not the dry crumbly rubbish) with a sliver of onion plus a macho slice of extra-red ripe, preferably fresh-picked tomato on top. Obviously such tomatoes grow wild in the Highlands, especially in May. If only.

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Thin – Sockan’s blue

These oatcakes are not going to be consumed by me and I’m determined to knock off some excess weight for the yomp to Laggan Locks. The plan is to leave them, with a note, for some lucky oatcake-loving walker/ outdoor enthusiast to consume as a freebie. In my haze after the latest tick encounter my thinking is that there is no better altruistic way of making sure these beautiful creatures do not end up in a bin. The Sunday walkers are moving in with more vehicles arriving, so the oatcakes will soon get a home. In four lines on a page ripped from my notepad I write in pencil: “Oatcakes. Help yourself. Unopened. Free to a good home.” It is a dry day, a little windy, so they won’t get rained on and if they do the note is in pencil so the ink won’t run.

Hang on, a potential oatcake muncher is approaching.

“Hello, you walking today? Would you like some tasty Stockan’s oatcakes to take with you? I’m not going to eat them, there’s nothing wrong with them. I’ve just lost my appetite and they weigh nearly a pound. I’ve not opened them.”

Should not have mentioned the weight, that might put her off. She is curious, though, spotting a freebie but at the same time wondering why anybody would give away Stockan’s. Does she want cheese to go with them?

“Oh right, yes, that’s very kind thank-you,” she says.

This lady is English, very polite and very posh, and looks over the goods as she speaks. She and her companions are trekking up Glen Dessary, she tells me, and cutting over the tops at some unpronounceable place and heading back down Glen Pean.

The oatcakes have a home and the walking for day three finally begins with my rucksack  400 grams lighter. Heading for the road, there are no rubbish bins, so the oatcakes could not have been thrown away had I wanted to do that. It is only later that it dawns on me what a lived-in-south-too-long numpty [a Scottish term for a stupid, ineffectual person] I have been, because leaving the oatcakes in a car park, even with a note, is a form of litter until, and if,  somebody picks them up. Either way it is abdicating responsibility, like dog owners who scoop the poop then hang the bag from a branch or leave it on the ground.

Thank goodness for the lady in the car park and my apologies to anti-litter campaigners.

Down the road from the car park, another backpacker walks half a mile ahead of me making a steady pace. Is this the person who was in the MSR? My hunch is that whoever the person is they are taking part in the challenge. Judging from the size of the rucksack, he or she is not a day walker and who else but a challenger would walk the length of Loch Arkaig unless they had to. He or she acts as the race leader, the person setting the pace. At some point I’ll catch up and ask: “You TGO?”

On the loch side fifteen minutes up the road, after a quick stop to fiddle with my shoes, the driver of a four by four truck is lashing a canoe to the roof, and stops to chat. (NM993917).

“Awreet?” he says, in a familiar Lancastrian twang.

We chat about the serenity of where we are. Then the nosey bugger wants to know where my accent is from.

“It is from near where your accent hails from, at a guess.”

Of course as it turns out he is another exile from Lancashire. He lives in Dumfries and Galloway and works on the railways. He is wending his way up the west coast canoeing in various lochs and locations. But he hails from Slaidburn, a beautiful area of Lancashire in The Forest of Bowland, an unspoiled gem of a place. A childhood refuge for me and, as the joke that does the rounds in the area says, a secret haunt of the queen. Who could blame her.

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Forest of Bowland – pictured from Whims Fell

“Why did you leave Slaidburn?” Small place is Slaidburn, but like all of Bowland the area is beautiful. Wild in places on the fells, but untouched and country-fied, an overlooked  place of beauty between the Peak District, the Dales and the Lakes

“Every sod wants to know your business, it were too claustrophobic,” he says.
Smiles all round. Now he wants to know my business!

“I’m walking across Scotland.”

“Bloody hell, what d’ya wanna do that for, you daft bugger?” he says with customary northern bluntness, little realising that I will be thinking that myself before too long. We chat for ages, 10 minutes and the rest of a long natter about the outdoors, Lancashire cheese, Trough of Bowland, Slaidburn, Chipping, Bashall Eaves, Clitheroe, Parlick Fell, Wolf Fell, Preston. All familiar places, connections in Lancashire. Nostalgia. Saying how we miss the place. Why the hell did we leave?

The man from Slaidburn departs with a cheery: “Good luck. You’ve got 15 miles of that.” He makes wave motions with his right arm, like he’s at a seventies disco.

“Up and down all the way to Clunes [the settlement at the end of Loch Arkaig].” He is only trying to cheer me up, and he has because I am smiling.
“Take care.”

The slow and steady backpacker is out of sight, lost to the distance. Viewed from the back and from afar there was no discernible feature about him except that the person walks like a bloke, is wearing dark greys and blacks and is tramping at a steady consistent pace. No limps, no discomfort, no problem. For me, a combination of halts for foot massages, water and natters will mean he goes off the radar for good. And his facial features are a mystery, because in all the time he is followed, he never looks back once.

The man from Slaidburn zips past in his truck with a “pip, pip” of the horn, a long wave from his right arm sticking out of a window and his canoe jutting into the air like the prow of a ship, strutting through the morning air. “Pip, pip” is the loudest sound in the air. Solitude returns.

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Loch Arkaig from the eastern end, with Sgurr Thuilm pointing up in the far distance

The house marked on the map at a spot called Murlaggan is empty. Its white walls stand out against a backdrop of subfusc browns and yellows. Inside it looks lived in, there are personal possessions and children’s toys littering the place. Is it home or holiday retreat? The latter at a guess. The name Murlaggan brings to mind Cornwall and Poldark and the Warleggans, it has that olde-worlde Cornish feel to it, but it is fair to assume that it is Scottish. Outside there is no livestock or visible means of sustenance about the property. No clucking chickens, grunting pigs or stomping horses. Nothing round the house such as a vegetable patch that requires caring for, except a gas tank for the cooker and the central heating. How would they get food supplies – it’s a tough call driving down here for a Tesco delivery man, woman or drone and by the time a pizza was delivered here it would be covered in mold.

Onwards along the road, a blanket of cloud has slipped in from the west, obscuring the blue sky of the morning, cooling down the day. The yomp is growing on me with its pleasing views across the water and west to the head of the loch and the previous night’s camp. It’s not as tedious as might have been thought, and there are only a few cars.

But the feet are suffering, becoming hot, hot, hot and then some. They are too hot even for a warm day such as this. Something is not right with them. Cool dips in the burns along the road side help chill them and the blue Zuuks, coming in as substitute footwear while the trail shoes take a time-out, manage to air the feet for a while before the trail shoes return, refreshed, for an encore, but they are not protecting the feet.

On the positive side, the pleasant slow plod means a good momentum can be achieved as the road weaves its way in and out of trees, chopped down plantations and brown fern with plenty of stops for water. My water consumption is very high and if I was a car my owner would take me to the garage to get the radiator checked over.

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Sea eagles, after dropping off their luggage

Socks are changed at Rubha Cheanna Mhuir by the water’s edge on a rocky outcrop shaded by trees. A campfire here the previous evening inside a circle of stones has not been extinguished  and the embers and half-burnt lumps of wood are brought back to life, fanned by a surge in the westerly wind and with a little encouragement from me. The embers burst into a flickering flame and abandoned bits of wood, tossed up from the loch and subsequently dried above the waterline, are piled on the red glow and the nascent flames to indulge the fire.

The opportunity is too good to waste, so the socks are dried on a frame cobbled together with sticks and the enticing smell of wood smoke replaces the staleness of foot rot. The intensity of the wind increases and wisps of smoke drift horizontally along the edge of the loch. With the fire thriving, this resting place on an old log is ideal to admire the changing weather, have a brew and a bite to eat – well shortbreads, out of duty because of having the cup of tea, not because I am hungry. The waterproof keeps out the sharpness of the wind, but my cheeks are kissed by moisture whipped up from the water where the white horses grow in stature as the waves become more agitated. Sat by the flames, head wetted and the bare feet toasting by the fire is fabulous. One of those moments to recall in the depths of winter.

While strong wind has pumped up the fire, quickly helping it regain its prowess, it is also making the fuel burn through quicker than if there was no wind, but it has smothered the wool socks in smoke and by smell they resemble kippers more than the sheep their fibres came from. The smoke reminds me of the Manx kippers freshly cooked and brought over by Manx neighbours on the Isle of Man ferry to Liverpool and Lancashire eaten from a bed of old newspaper in which they were wrapped before the EU said newsprint was bad for your health. As much as the memory of the kippers make the juices flow, I won’t be eating my socks.

A piece of wood thrown on the fire produces a horizontal line of smoke that is thicker and more noticeable than the smoke produced previously and carries itself along the edge of the loch, making a smokescreen that goes on for what appears like an age but is barely a minute until the deep red of the embers sucks the moisture off the wood. As a backpacker, you are conscious of causing too much fuss when walking, especially if you intend to stealth camp somewhere in the south of England; wary about drawing attention to yourself and being a nuisance. It’s best practice to proceed through the country quietly and unobtrusively and glean some comfort from being silent and discreet.

The horizontal line of smoke from the fire might be upsetting some folk further along the water’s edge, but a quick check reveals there is nobody about to annoy.

Actually. Wait on. Look again. It is. Yes it is. Up ahead is the greys and blacks backpacker. Thought he would be long gone. He must have stopped. He is chatting to the driver of a workman’s truck. Damn, he’s off again and too far away to shout hello or  “You TGO?” without appearing like an idiot.

Loch Arkaig is famous for being the home of sea eagles and two are nesting in the area this year and the spot by the fire juts out into the loch, partially hidden from view but with a good sightline up and down the waters – ideal for spotting them. And it is remarkable how many there are. Zero.

A guy in a caravan minutes down the road had told me with pride, and a deep Scottish accent, that: “This is their favourite place in Scotland.” He spoke like the eagles arrived every year, regular as clockwork, suitcases in claw, for their holidays, to the disdain of every other loch in Scotland.

He raised my hopes of seeing one of these magnificent creatures. After 30 minutes, it is clear that the eagles are not playing out this Sunday. Even sea eagles  need a day of rest. These birds have a wingspan of seven foot – a couple of feet more than the impressive, elegant and numerous red kites that hang tough across the Chilterns and my back garden. It would have been thrilling to have seen a sea eagle.

The feet aired, the socks dried and the shoes on, my feet are comfortable. It won’t last.

The fire has faded and is out for good on this occasion because it is doused with water from the loch. A quick check of the area reveals there is none of my mess or equipment left behind, but the plot is full of discarded cans of beer, tins of food, smashed and broken bottles, lumps of rusty metal and hundreds of cigarette butts, which is a joke because here’s me worried over even thinking about leaving a couple of packs of oatcakes in the car park.

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Kippers – Manx for the memory

The temperature edges up away from the water and the sky is cloudy, sunny and on occasion cold, then sunny again.  There are plenty more  refuges, caravan spots and holiday plots by the side of the loch. Some are occupied, some are not; some are in scraps of roadside woods and forest. One refuge is home to a couple of yappy dogs, and their owner says “hello”. In another a large immobile bloke stares out of a window from a caravan. There is no response to a friendly wave and a mouthed “hello” in an over-exaggerated fashion – my efforts to be friendly have made him more wary.

As the road wends its way ever closer to Clunes, more and more houses that are being renovated or built litter the area. A large amount of money is being offloaded here on homes or holiday lets. Another loch-side location is home to a couple of caravans, where a gaggle of chaps stand round a barbecue, supping beers in party mode.

“How ya doin’?” says me – in my northern English accent and making no attempt to blend in with the locals. One of the chaps – it must be his pad because he looks like he is in charge – replies in a Glaswegian accent.

“We’re good, man. De ye wan ae beer?” He holds up a can. It’s that Scottish friendliness again.

“I’m in the groove, as it were, so I’m going to keep goin, but thank-you all the same.”

“Nae bother, have a good one!”

“Cheers big man.

“And by the way, I know what you are thinking … I’d rather be supping a beer here than be that poor bastard over there right now.”

He laughs, they laugh. And that makes me want to stay even more. Have a beer, a natter, a bit of banter. Talk football, walking, Scotland. They seem like a really chilled bunch. But after the extended stop it is better to keep going. The party was one of those where one beer would lead to three or four more … you would not be allowed to leave after just one beer … it is a tempting proposition, but not this day – sadly. Besides this is a dry crossing – no beer until  Montrose.

At another point, on a part of the road where there is a steep climb and turn to the left behind a thin veil of trees, a loud conversation between two men on a speed boat in the water below is overheard. One guy sounds as if he owns the boat and is boasting and showing off to the other chap. His talk is of a deal here, a £100,000 there “you know what I mean, Gordon?” kind of conversation. They are faffing about with the motor boat, revving it up and getting all middle-class macho men. Leave me out of it, just passing through.

A car that belongs to a couple that were passed near their wild campsite at Rubha Giubhais – shortly after Murlaggan – flies past. The woman is driving, she would have seen me wave in the rear-view mirror after stepping to one side. They are wondering: “Who the hell are you?” She waves back regardless. Friendly. You feel guilty because she had left their tent backwards in her none-too-functional underwear and gave me an eyeful of her nether regions, although she did not realise it. Looking on from the roadside it had felt like an invasion of her privacy, even though, after they had both emerged, they had not spotted me. At least it was possible to confirm that she had no ticks.

The road veers away from the water nearing a dam at the head of the loch, a couple of miles before Clunes. Window shopping for campsites, they seem few and far between. Loch Arkaig is full of the private plots, with permanent caravans in situ and many have wood sheds and car parking with a hard surface; flower gardens and all the paraphernalia of long-term accommodation around them, but nothing much for wild campers.

The best chance of a pitch would be a picnic area (NN120911) where a Natural Scotland information board informs those people that care to look about the wonderful butterflies in the area: chequered skippers, pearl-bordered fritillary, large heath and Scotch argus. There are dragonflies, dippers, chats and flycatchers round here, with the possibility of otters, pine martens, golden eagles and ospreys.  Fantastic.

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Glen Mallie – and Invermallie bothy (somewhere) – from the north bank of Loch Arkaig

Between Ardechive and Achnasaul from a rocky beach the view extends back down the length of Arkaig. Hills and heights either side of the water, and clouds allowing only short glimpses of intense sunshine and blue sky. The demarcation between water and hills fades and fudges in the distance. On the shore, pieces of trees and logs have been washed up and dried. A thin layer of vegetation covers the area where the water has not reached for some while. Along the shore, a golden retriever wades into the loch, oblivious to the cold sweeping from the water.

Nearing Achnasaul, away from the stiff cooling breeze off the loch, a blast of sunshine and still air sap the strength as the temperature jumps. Gorse bushes and trees hold in the heat.

At Achnasaul the road, still a single track after about ten miles, crosses a small bridge, and edges onto a sneaky, sharp pull up a short, severe hill. Three walkers have been ahead of me for the past 15 minutes – but not the greys and blacks walker. Slowly, ever so slowly, we are getting nearer to each other. They disappear from view.

A chap who runs a salmon farm on the loch stops to say hello. He knows all about the challenge from its earliest days as the Ultimate Challenge and talks of it fondly. He is very encouraging and friendly, a good craic. Reading between the lines of the conversation he is saying challengers, in general, respect the land  more than other people that visit the area. The rubbish abandoned at Rubha Cheanna Mhuir springs to mind. We talk about the beauty of the area, and what a glorious place it is to work – for him.

At one point he asks: “How you getting on with the walk?”

“To be honest my feet are killing me,” I tell him and proceed to witter on about them for far too long. He was being polite, he did not want to know the nitty-gritty of ailments caused by my poor planning, but talking to a third party about the feet helps me crystallise my thoughts about them and realise that they are becoming a problem.

“Ach, you’ll be fine, you’ll make it, just keep going.”

Farewells are said and minutes later a motorist approaches from behind, engine revving, gears crunching. The loudness of the crunching makes me think the car is nearer than it is. He or she is driving a new vehicle, which is worrying for the gearbox. On another steep short rise in the road the car is behind, driving slowly and after stepping to one side to give it room to pass the car stops in the middle of the road on an incline.

The driver steps out, an older lady – older that is than me. Her car engine is running and the driver’s door is left open. Not half closed, not slightly ajar but open wide, at full stretch, ninety degrees to the rest of the car and at the mercy of any vehicle coming the other way. Not that it is likely, but it is potentially life-threatening to the door.

If this were a suburb of any number of metropolitan hubs across Britain, the vehicle would be carjacked, unless the car owner was a robber and leaving the door open for a quick escape. Why has she got out, alighted – daintily it must be said – from her car? Highland road rage; is she going to mug me, grab the backpack and high-tail it to Fort William? (The blood sugar levels are low again).

As the lady approaches, her grey hair, tweeds and pearls come into view. She might be a Scottish incarnation of Ma Barker? Hopefully not because there is no way I could defend myself with the Karrimor walking poles. At the first sign of trouble they will wilt like a fresh-plucked bluebell.

The lady has a mesmerising, comforting soft Scottish brogue: “Would you like a wee drop of water? It is sweltering oot here. Just wait while I open the boot [it’s a hatchback] … my husband usually does this … now where is that button? … och, it is such a nuisance.”

After a struggle with a concealed switch the lady pings the catch and the hatch flings itself into the air.

“Ach, there we are. It’s no my car, it’s ma husband’s. I cannae get used tae it.”

Where is her husband? Shouldn’t he be here? There are no passengers in the car. She rummages in the hatch of the hatchback, struggles to pull out something big. What is going on?

Joy of joys, this is not Ma McBarker, this is a saviour. This lady is offering bottled water – and without a hint of irony, bottles of Scottish spring water – that have at some point been placed in the back of the vehicle at Morrison’s in Fort William.

“Now,” she says with an authority seen more in Miss Jean Brodie than Mrs Mack from the television soap opera Take the High Road: “Do you want to fill your wee bottle, or take the whole lot?”
The lord, whoever he, she or it is, bless us and save us. Why be so suspicious of friendly behaviour  – this is not a Loch Arkaig drive-by shooting and mugging (people can live in the south of England too long). This is just a woman being incredibly kind. Just pure good human nature – and it is fantastic. Scottish friendliness.

Such kindness makes me feel stupid. Mind working overtime.

“Would it be rude to take the whole bottle?”
“No, no, you take it. It is a hot day.”
It is sweltering and one litre of a two litres of the Scottish Highland water is downed in double quick time. Seems a little excessive.

Just saying thank-you to this lady is inadequate, but giving her a big, huge corpulent hug to say thank-you for being so kind would be a step too far. Whoever you are, thank-you, thank-you, thank-you, kind Scottish lady. After a dubious hill start she is away at high revs in low gear in her husband’s car – bless her and her kindness.

The two-litre bottle of water is just a quarter full on reaching a row of rubbish bins in a layby. The bins spill over with empty beer, lager and cider bottles and cans, plenty of red and white wine empties too, plus three empty bottles of cheap vodka and an empty litre of bacardi. We are not talking a few discarded empties round the bins, we are in the realms of mountains of the things. Eight five-foot high rubbish bins overflowing with booze detritus, rubbish from parties up and down the loch side. With one exception everybody encountered on the loch road has been warm, welcoming and chatty and maybe this pile of rubbish is the reason why. More power to your elbow.

montane-grand-tour
Montane 70l Grand Tour

Up ahead are the three walkers that were spotted half an hour earlier and who are at this point just a few hundred metres (yards when we leave the EU) ahead. Two Geordies and a bearded Scot, it turns out when they are finally tagged.

Geordies? Well their accents are certainly north east. It is an educated guess. One of the Geordies kindly helps me retrieve the bottle of spring water from a side pocket of the rucksack. He is a thick-set chap.  They, presumably all three, had the previous night camped higher in the hills north of Loch Arkaig, judging from their talk. They had also been offered water by the kind Scottish lady. God bless her indeed.

Banter is exchanged and three become four until the waterfall at Eas chia-aig (NN176888) at the end of the Loch Arkaig. The thicker set of the two Geordie boys looks familiar, but where the hell from? My last visit to Newcastle upon Tyne was 20 years ago. Maybe this chap has one of those familiar faces – whatever that phrase means.  On the trek leading up to the waterfall, one side of the road is decked in forest trees, the other is decorated with lines of the intense, hypnotising yellow of gorse bushes, which are higher, brighter and wilder than I have seen anywhere else. In the wild on the hills, sheep and livestock keep the vegetation trimmed in their role as nature’s bush barbers. Here though the yellow is a tantalising contrast with snow on the mountain tops in the distance. That might be Ben Nevis over there, the peak is not a million miles away.

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Thick yellow gorse and possibly Ben Nevis in the background

The familiar-face thick-set Geordie disagrees, he thinks Ben Nevis is more to the east. This is the kind of situation when having a proper sized Ordnance Survey 1:50,000 fold-out map, not the printed sheets of my route and foul weather alternatives would come into its own, with a quick compass bearing clearing up any ambiguity. But being a slave to gram counting the printed sheets are all that are available on my route planning until just outside Newtonmore, where the full-size OS maps will be deployed. That summit has to be Ben Nevis. Check it later, online or with a map.

The waterfall is a lovely spot, especially as the sun has reappeared from behind a cloud. Oh, it has gone again. Hang on it’s back – playing peek-a-boo – then gone again behind a hunk of grey. That is the pattern for the rest of the day. Clouds that are not carrying rain and drops of sunshine.

The Geordie with the familiar face is saying what a great pitch the waterfall would make. It would, it looks fantastic. And the sound of running water, when not making you want to go for a wee every five minutes, makes a great accompaniment to a good night’s sleep.

Looking down at the stream, the bearded Scottish chap points to a row of stones that has been laid through the flow of the water, forming a shallow barrier, with a gap in the line of stones at one end.

“That’s the poachers for you,” he says. “They funnel the salmon in there through the gap and they are easy to pick off.”

“Really?” Hmm, fresh salmon cooked over an open fire, that gets the digestive juices flowing. But my misunderstanding, this is a false dawn. There are no salmon in the pool or thereabouts. It is not the season, as the anglers the previous night would have told me, had the question been asked.

This site is a hell of an ordeal for the salmon, because above the clear pool and the salmon trap are two decks of waterfalls. As beautiful as the waterfalls are, they must be some struggle for the fish to climb. Good luck.

The potential campsite is a beautiful spot. Picnic tables on flat areas of short-cropped grass. Up ahead is a car park. Not a good sign. The Geordie with the familiar face is talking about staying at this point for the night. The three decide to linger and are mulling over whether to make camp here or hereabouts, when the tourists and malingerers have departed, then the next day saunter up the side of Loch Lochy to Laggan Locks, where they have accommodation booked at the Great Glen Hostel.

They talk about having a few pints at The Eagle – the floating pub/restaurant at Laggan Locks – and then heading for the hostel. But with a few slugs of whisky left they decide to stay at the waterfall.

Their decisiveness proves the point that conclusions are more easily reached when you have walking companions. These three would have been ideal at Loch Arkaig, instead of drawing up lists of pros and cons; taking to myself like some over-egged fruit cake, all that was needed was a couple of Geordies and a Scot. They have made a decision in 55 seconds, not 55 minutes.

It is hard to make out whether the three men in are one party or have met up on the trail. The north-east boys are definitely a tag team, you can tell from the way they talk to each other and the way they interact, they have known each other for some time. Walk mates and work mates, at a guess, because their body language says they know each other well, they face other people together almost mirroring each other’s postures. But the Scottish chappie seems apart from them, but together right now of course. Anyway they are a good craic, which is all that matters.

The north-east chap with the familiar face has a Montane Grand Tour 55-litre sack, which appears virtually the same as the 70-litre sack, the one that disorganised people such as me use to ensure that all their equipment fits in without having to complete a logistical puzzle each morning when striking camp. The straps on the pack tighten up the body of the sack to stop the load wobbling and off you go. We talk about the pros and cons of the pack, and our conclusions are favourable for both sizes of pack.

Laggan Locks, the Great Glen Hostel and that hot shower are calling. Farewell to the Scot and the two Geordies, who are later revealed as Darren Fowler and Stuart Dixon. But, my apologies, I don’t know the name of the Scotsman.

From Clunes the walking on tarmac continues, along a road called the Mile Dorcha, or dark mile. Either side of the road, which is barely wide enough for one car, are ditches, which will spell trouble if two cars meet. It spells trouble for me when a new red Mercedes C220 kindly speeds up as he passes by – a little too close for comfort, thank you very much – requiring me to step into a ditch.

This is an odd area, because the rocks on the ground and even the lower lengths of the trees, are covered with a layer of moss, a green skin that numbs the edges of the stones and disguises fallen branches and is at the same time scary and enticing. There is a quality to the green and the moss that makes you want to touch it, see if it is real, yet its menace suggests it will suck you in like a squelchy African swamp, or the bog at the head of Loch Arkaig.

Really this place should be called the green mile, not the dark mile.

During the stop by the loch side an idea had formed to divert across the head of Arkaig, where the dam is, and traipse over to Invermallie, a bothy that is known for its flooding. Pure curiosity, nosiness, just to see what it looks like, on my part, but the thought resurfaces only on the Mile Dorcha, by which time it would mean turning round, back-tracking and that goes against the grain, as much as it would be interesting to visit the place.

Last task of the day is a seven-mile tab along the forest path that forms the West Highland Way in this neck of the woods, to Laggan Locks. Thoughts of that hot shower and being rid of the ticks keep me going.

It is funny what goes through your mind when walking. My latest train of thought is that there must be a name for people who collect bothies in the same way that there are names for people who climb hills: Munro baggers, Corbett collectors, Graham grabbers, Donald doers and Marilyn mounters. What would be a good name for the people: bothy boilers; bothy bounders; bothy braggers?

Walking through the forest on the west side of Loch Lochy is tedious and unrelenting, with only the roaring sounds of cars on the A82 on the other side of the water in Laggan Forest to add interest in the form of trying to identify them by their engine noise.

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The waterfall at Eas chia-aig (NN176888) but no salmon. Bottom right is the edge of the trap

A Spanish couple, at Allt Na Faing (NN233911) say hello. She sits on a ground sheet reading a guide book to Scotland in a thirty foot by thirty foot clearing in a bend by the side of the track, the Great Glen Way, while he cooks on a open fire that has flames a foot high and are the colour of flames seen in old westerns – they look too high, too powerful and too yellow to be real. The soot on the outside of his cooking pot is all too real and will need a good scrub at some point. The Spanish couple look really chilled and in our conversation – they speak excellent English – it is clear they adore Scotland. “There’s room for your tent,” she says in her smokey accent, pointing to the ground to my right and her left. It is a lovely, kind, invitation but, while my staying might be an intrusion on their privacy, the real reason the offer is declined, is the fixation with taking that hot shower and getting those ticks out of my head. Otherwise it would have been excellent to stop and maybe learn a little Spanish.

From the end of the Mile Dorcha the route is lined with pine trees and while their branches block out the views, concentrate hard enough and you can smell pine and the air fells cleaner among the trees. Heading towards Kilfinnan, near the end of the forest (NN268949),  you have to admire the pitch-spotting talents of a young German walker who is on a five-foot wide verge on the side of the trail, the only possible pitch for some way. He is reading a book, cross legged outside his tent while a meal simmers in the pot. His love of Scotland – as with the Spanish couple – is matched only by the fluency of his English. He has spent three weeks wandering in the north west of Scotland and does not want to return to Germany … the job … the hum-drum … the usual complaints, be you Spanish, German or British. And wow, does he know about Scotland. There was a clan battle, he tells me, near the Mile Dorcha, and also one up at Laggan Locks, the Battle of the Shirts, named, as one theory attests, because the day was so hot the warring tribes discarded their plaid (the tartan worn over their shoulders) and fought in shirts.

The chap – the thought of telling each other our names is secondary to the interesting and vibrant conversation on his part – is walking south. I tell him that had he continued south he would have encountered a sign at a block of locked toilets that indicates there is an official wild camp site nearby. He smiles as the irony of the words “official” and “wild” are not lost on him. He humbles me, because while he offers fascinating details about battles of yore in the Highlands, all he gets in return is information about a padlocked lavatory.

That shower beckons.

Outside the houses on the road through Kilfinnan are signs that warn would-be car parkers not to even think about it, which strikes me, rightly or wrongly, as the English disease of nimbyism. The view opens up across to Laggan Loch just as the path dinks down past sheep that have given birth or are just about to in a field next to an area marked on the map as a graveyard (NN279956), but no headstones are visible.

At last the tedious Great Glen Way is left behind, this is the home run to the hostel, on the other side of the canal lock. A chap stops to tell me of a campsite down towards a telephone kiosk to the right.

“There’s a couple of geysers there already.” The mind is playing tricks again and for a moment geysers is translated as hot springs and then into showers, which is totally the wrong end of the stick, because as he tells me “it’s just a pitch with a tap”.

mile-dorcha
Mile Dorcha: green, green, green

Stood outside and above the Eagle pub, in its berth on the Caledonian Canal, the walk to the Great Glen Hostel is just a short stretch up the road. It makes sense to take advantage of the Eagle for a bite to eat because, despite the lack of an appetite after 24 miles, at some point food needs to be taken onboard – but what paltry appetite I have shrinks to zero after ordering a pint of lime and soda for an eye-watering £4. People pay more for drinks in the south of England than the north of England and Scotland, so I am familiar with pricey, but £4 is a tad on the heavy side, especially for a lime and soda.

“The soda comes in bottles,” says the lady behind the counter. “That’s why it is so expensive.”

She is smiley and Northern Irish and very welcoming.

“Fair enough,” is my feeble response.

At least she has the wherewithal to warn me before she takes the lids off. The first sip of the drink, over ice, and £4 is no longer expensive because it is so refreshing, it’s a non-alcohol version of cold dry cider on a hot summer’s day.  The mood inside the boat is calm, warm and inviting, but the rucksack, left up top, needs company and I prefer to be outside – plus food always tastes better in the open air for some reason.

Boots and socks off and the left foot resting along the line of a picnic bench above the boat, drinkers and diners come and go: couples and foursomes disappear into the bowels of the boat; three blokes smile and have a chat before the prospect of beers draws them in.

Talking, people-watching and looking at the magnificent setting of the barge mean that waiting half an hour for my food order does not feel like an eternity. But the appetite has returned with a bang and I’m beginning to wish my Stockan’s oatcakes hadn’t been given away as I spot signs all over the shop, or ship, warning people that the orders from the posh menu take preference over the pub-grub orders of the hoi polloi, such as me.

the-eagle
The Eagle where me and my tick-sullied body landed

Sadly when my stodge, in the form of the sausage and chips with an extra portion of chips, finally arrives it is disappointing. The sausages, always the gauge of a meal, are really cheap and nasty – think smooth paste not the meaty bangers from the Crofter – and the chips are straight from a freezer and taste limp; all for £6.50. Even doused in sachets of ketchup and mayonnaise and laced with vinegar the chips and bangers do not pass muster. I’m sure the beer would have been fantastic and the posh food was top banana, but the long-awaited bangers and chips plus lime and soda were the only items that I taste and let’s be clear, the sausage and chips are atrocious. My blood is boiling, despite an empty stomach being filled, and in my head a vociferous complaint is being compiled.

The lady from Northern Ireland who took the order and served it and was a real sweetie, climbs the stairs out of the barge.

Right here we go.

“Everything alright?” she asks with a lovely smile in her charming Northern Irish accent.

I am about to say “the food was warm, rubbish and over-priced at £6.50 and £4 for a lime and soda, well” – but to cries of “wimp” echoing round my head, I say: “That hit the spot, thank-you.”  So much for vociferous.

“Hello!” A fellow backpacker, head down and determined, zips past on the tow path.

“Oh hi, y’alright?”

He has the look of TGO, but there is no time to ask because he is gone in an instant, like a whippet on drugs.

The Northern Irish lady is back to clear the tables.

“Another lime and soda?”

“No thank-you, that also hit the spot.” (Hit the wallet, if I were honest).

She provides directions to the hostel that will mean avoiding most of the road.

“Follow the path up from here. Turn right at the wooden bridge and follow the road back on yourself for a short while. Just don’t go beyond the wooden bridge.

“Did you enjoy your food?”

Right time to be honest, polite but honest, here we go, she’s offered a second chance.

“Just what was needed, thank-you.” Bottled it again.

“That’s good, I’m sorry it took so long.” She is such a star.

Just to round off the episode this lying, lily-livered lummox says: “Not a problem, thank you very much.”

It is not a complete lie because it was just what was needed but not at that price and taste.

Taking advantage of a rare mobile signal, a phone call home and a whinge about the blistered left foot and sore legs are met with a “well you can’t give in now. You’ll have to keep going.” Brutal, but true.

After sitting down for so long it is tough getting the legs going again, even though the walk to the hostel is easy. The thought of that shower pulls me out of a daze and a call to the hostel upgrades my tent pitch to a room in a dormitory.

“There is plenty of room as it’s Sunday, it’s usually quiet compared with the rest of the week,” says a chap at the hostel.

Ten minutes later the same chap, a polite and efficient young Canadian behind a reception desk, tells me: “There is only one other person in your dormitory.”

The room holds eight people, but two walkers in there sounds bearable with plenty of space to spread out. Two bottles of cold Lucozade are added to the room bill before it is settled – plenty cheaper that another lime and soda from the Eagle.

In the reception area people mill about. A few Dutchmen and Dutchwomen, a German couple and another man whose accent is hard to determine.

great-glen-hostel
The Great Glen Hostel

The other person in the dormitory turns out to be the chap who had sped past the Eagle like a whippet. He introduces himself as Stan, from Pateley Bridge, North Yorkshire. We bypass the jokes about the traditional animosity between Yorkshireman and Lancastrians. This is Scotland, after all, not the Pennines and besides this is the 21st century.

“Pateley Bridge? That’s where the Backpackers’ Club held their annual general meeting this year. Did you go?” For some reason I assume that Stan is a member.

“No I didn’t, I am a club member, but unfortunately I was running the marathon that weekend so missed it on my home patch. It was a bit annoying. Can’t see as they will be back up there again for a few years.”

Stan said THE marathon, not the Nidderdale marathon, nor the Marston Moor marathon, THE marathon. That can mean only London. Nice one.

The race was on the weekend of April 24 and here Stan is three weeks later thrashing across the country in the heights of Scotland. Stan is 67, has a bus pass, and is on his sixth coast-to-coast crossing of Scotland in the challenge and he runs marathons too. Blimey Charlie, I take my hat off to him. What does this geyser eat for breakfast? There’s not a pick of fat on him.

We are either side of the dormitory in the bottom section of bunk beds. Our berths are separated by a huge wide window that looks out across the lawns of the hostel onto the A82 and beyond to the Laggan Forest, where the walk continues tomorrow.

“Do you mind if I spread mi stuff out,” I say.

“No, no, help yourself.”

The Troookstar is laid out for an airing along with the sleeping bag.

Stan’s gear is all neat and tidy and organised with none of his equipment spread out; he has showered already and is off downstairs to eat.

I need my shower. Being security conscious, the door to the dormitory needs a hefty yank to close it properly. It occurs to me that being security conscious is one thing in a crime-ridden metropolis but perhaps locking the dorm door at a quiet hostel in the Scottish Highlands on a Sunday night is taking security a tad too far. It is habit and I can’t help myself, but lightweight gear is worth a lot of money and by its nature easily carried away. Maybe I have lived in the south of England too long – the voices in my head are telling me paranoia is bad for you.

Stan said nowt. He just wandered off. Left his stuff. Never a second thought.

In the shower, the eagerly-awaited shower, another check for ticks reveals nothing, but then it is not a full-on Heineken rubber man check, I need to buy a mirror to inspect the hard-to-see places.

The shower will not get hot, not even tepid, no matter which combination of knobs and switches are applied, so there is nothing else for it but to shower in cold water. It takes your breath away, but you get used to it after a while and the water still leaves you clean and it is amazing how efficient those micro towels are at drying the skin. It takes a few wringing-outs, but the job’s a good one and the feeling of the body warming up after the cold is invigorating.

Back at reception, to report the cold shower, the amenable Canadian chap suggests using an alternative shower – the one Stan has used – that will be warm for sure, he says, because it is the one he uses every morning.

Heading for shower number two I say “evening!” with a grin to a bunch of Italian people milling about in reception.

“Si”, a signore in the party replies with a mustachioed smile. The hot shower leaves me super clean and in the laundry room my two wool tops and a pair of undercrackers get a similar thorough wash. If there were ticks or anything else remaining in the fabric then a hefty dose of detergent applied during the hand wash in the basin will have seen them off. In my head the ticks have been eradicated. That feels good.

Drying space is at a premium in the laundry; people’s equipment is hanging off every available piece of furniture or wall space. A smidgeon of a gap is found on a radiator, which is tepid. In fact the room is not hot, just damp by virtue of the water swilling about on the floor of what is a former dairy building.

But I am roasting because the only practical top I have available to wear is my down jacket, which is unzipped to let out some of my body heat – let’s hope nobody walks in because it makes me look like the seventies pop singer Alvin Stardust – but without the hairy chest.

The laundry door is locked overnight, which appeals to my security-minded brain so all that is left is to down a cup of tea and to tidy up my gear in the room.

There is an important question that needs airing.
“Stan, do you mind me asking; do you snore?”
“I’m as quiet as a church mouse,” he says.
Stan does not ask me whether I snore.

“One other thing, do you mind if we keep the window open slightly? Just for the air.”
“Oh no, go ahead,” says Stan.
“Cheers, we’re on the first floor, so we should be safe from prowlers.”

What? Safe from prowlers? Get a grip. It’s Laggan Locks not Moss Side, Manchester, for crying out loud. Stan stifles his laughter.

At 10.30pm, with blinds down and window open it feels great to settle in on a mattress under a duvet after being washed, fed and watered.
Stan is soon spark out, thinking what does “safe from prowlers” mean?

On with the eye blinds and ear plugs from the sleeper train, two silent northerners in slumberland. Not a cuckoo to be heard.

What happened to the oatcakes? Did the walker and her companions enjoy them? What happened to the mystery greys and blacks walker and the Scot and two Geordies? Go to sleep. The last sound heard outside is a car zooming along the A82; the last noise inside the room is from my throat, a reprise from the meal on the boat. Excuse me.

Goodnight Stan.

Goodnight sausage.

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