The Journey into the Highlands
Scotland has a rich history, full of tales of the supernatural. Apart from the renowned national drink or the blaring sound of bagpipes, Scotland is home to one of the world’s great Monster stories. Nessie, the monster of Loch Ness. But the real specter of the Scottish Highlands isn’t a serpent of the loch, it is the looming fog that warns of, and often accompanies, the coming rainstorms that the UK is infamous for.
The drive from Glasgow to Glen Coe and Ben Nevis was my first in a right seated car and driving on the left side of the road, a nerve-racking experience. As the steel and concrete of the industrial metropolis of Glasgow faded into the distance, standard suburban sprawl replaced it, soccer (football) fields (pitches) dotting the space between homes.
Quicker than the city, the suburb faded into farmland. Sprawling, lush green fields of grass gently sloping into iconic rolling hills. The further North we drove, the deeper the valleys of these hills descended, careening into steep ravines and rocky crags. The road grew wilder as double lane carriageways merged into a single lane, shoulderless country road. All the while, the gray clouds and mist creeping closer and closer, a siren’s song beckoning us deeper into those fabled Scottish Highlands.
The ravines deepened as the hills grew in stature, the road snaking around bends and down blind hills. Due to the Scottish government passing the Right to Roam Act in 2003, essentially the right to stay on any of the nation’s lands (within certain limits), we saw people camping every so often in spots of beauty. This included a group who had made camp on the shores of a peninsula jutting out into the loch in the valley, next to a ruined castle. A spectacular spot to wake up and have your morning coffee.
As the scenery grew more dramatic, so did the weather accompanying it. We continued North and the mist engulfed us as the rain began to fall. It began as a steady shower but quickly intensified and soon became a torrential downpour. Passing cars whipped around cut backs and over blind hills undeterred by the slick conditions and low visibility. We had a couple of, what felt like, close calls with logging and farming vehicles. Although my nerves were running high, we made our way through the highlands to our eventual destination with no problems. This experience, while trying at times, was not proving an impossible task, but merely an obstacle tackled one mile at a time.
Our sat nav instructed us to turn onto a single lane country road. Every so often there was a small shoulder to veer off if two cars find themselves in a game of chicken. Winding through thickets and along a valley stream, we came to a single lane wooden bridge. Just ahead of the bridge was a series of small waterfalls and rapids that were frothing and bubbling, fueled by the relentless rainstorm.
This was the reason I decided to get a rental car rather than taking the bus. Taking the bus from each destination to the next would have been easier; I wouldn’t have to drive, wouldn’t have to worry about getting lost, wouldn’t have to avoid out of control mad logging trucks, but we couldn’t stop whenever we pleased.
Exploring the Mundane
I pulled the Vauxhall Insignia off on the muddy shoulder. My foot squished and sunk in a half-inch as I stepped out of the car onto the rain-soaked ground. I jogged back along the bank to get to the single lane bridge. Underneath the bridge, the bedrock of the stream formed a shelf that was big enough for me to squat underneath and get up-close to the rapids. After a not so quiet moment admiring the power of this stream turned raging river, and a little photo-op of it, I jogged back to the car and we continued on our way. The single lane road continued to wind and twist through the countryside, sheep and cows grazing, paying the rain no mind.
Finally, the single lane merged with a crossroad and we were once again on a proper tarmac. The rain didn’t let up while we drove that day but this didn’t stop us from enjoying the striking nature of the landscape around us. This was the Lochaber section of the Western Highlands, considered the outdoor capital of the UK, and is deserving of the title. Apart from world-class fishing, numerous rivers and streams to raft, and snow sports in the winter. This section of the highlands includes; Glen Coe, a world-famous Glen, the site of the notorious 1692 massacre of the MacDonald Clan; Aonach Eagach ridge, considered one of the world’s most dangerous hikes and Ben Nevis, the tallest peak in the UK, our planned destination.
The Food and the People
After driving for a couple more hours we emerged from the mountains into a great valley. A Sea Loch emptied into this valley and we found ourselves in Glen Coe. Despite being infamous for the massacre of the MacDonald Clan, the area was nothing but charming. We had worked up quite an appetite at this point, having only snacked on some cashews, and we stopped at a fish and chips pub called Failte. After sprinting from our car through the driving rain to seek shelter inside, we were immediately hit by the warmth and the smell of the fryer.
Friendly faces surrounded us as we awkwardly stood in the door frame, waiting for a host or hostess to seat us. Within no time a lovely middle age woman with a thick Scottish brogue told us to find a seat anywhere we liked and that someone would be right with us. We chose a table between two groups and as soon as we began chatting in our “American” accents the folks next to us struck up a conversation. Where were we from? How long were we here? Where were we going next? How were we enjoying Scotland so far? They couldn’t have been friendlier or more genuinely interested in what we had to say.
I went downstairs to grab a pint from the bar only to find it absolutely packed with Scotsman. A lot of rough-looking, weathered men in muck boots, some even rocking a kilt, stood to wait for their drinks at the bar. People made easy small talk with the men standing next to them even though it was clear either party didn’t know each other. The welcoming atmosphere was great. After getting a tall foamy pint of Belhaven’s Best I walked back upstairs where my fish was waiting and ravenously dug in, making short work of the healthy portion of Atlantic Cod.
After finishing our meal, and saying our goodbyes to our dinner mates, we hopped back into the Vauxhall and headed further North to set up camp below BenNevis. It was a shorter drive from Glen Coe to Fort William, the closest town to BenNevis, and once there we found a place and set up camp for the night. The ground was sopping wet and squishy, but we were road weary and wanted nothing more than to get our sleep for the next days climb. Quickly we threw up our tent, rolled out our pads and bags, tucked ourselves in and slipped away into sleep.
We slept in the next day and were slow to get moving but by noon we were at the base of BenNevis ready to start our climb. Luckily for us, the rain had stopped but the storm clouds still swirled overhead threateningly. With rain gear and extra layers ready we ignored the angry clouds and started our climb.
The foot of the climb was a series of roughly hewn stone steps and a steep gradient. We started off slow, but after a period of huffing and puffing got our climbing legs under us, and soon had a good pace going. Part way up we stopped to take a quick breather and encountered a couple coming down. We said our hellos and asked whether or not they had made the summit. They told us that they had planned to, but as they got near the top they met two mountain guides who told them that there were zero visibility and still a foot of ice and snow the last couple hundred meters to the summit. Basically, they were telling us without ice climbing gear (ice axes, crampons, ropes, etc.) we were not setting foot on the summit. The gear we hadn’t brought.
Despite our lack of adequate equipment, we decided to see how high we could go before conditions forced us to stop. We continued to climb and as proof of what the couple told us, we passed climbers coming down from the summit with ice axes and crampons hanging from their packs. Yet we climbed on.
Our reward for pushing on was the increasingly better weather. The clouds that had loomed over us, and at times opened up to dump their payload on us, had drifted off to the East and were moving farther away. The specter of the mist, fog, and rain had finally left us. Soon we were climbing under a clear blue sky with nothing but puffy white clouds floating by. The higher we climbed the more the temperature dropped, but the effort we were exerting kept us plenty warm. It was only when we stopped to catch our breath that we needed to put on an extra layer to keep the chill away.
Apart from the great weather, our second reward for our continued push came as we rounded a bigger cut back that connected one ridge to another. The trail opened up on a secondary summit field which held a mountain lake. The view was stunning and we stopped for a time to drink in the moment and enjoy the picturesque scene.
Eventually, we continued our climb to the summit, the snow field that still occupied the top getting closer and closer. We set a point in the distance, where the trail circled around the edge of the mountain, before cutting back and leading steeply to the summit, as our end destination. When we reached that point we sat down, hung out with some random high climbing sheep, and enjoyed the incredible view. As far as you could see were rolling green hills, streams and lochs, and the occasional small town or fishing village. The view was amazing! After we took some pictures, we began our climb back down.
I reflected on the different challenges that we met in order to get to this spot. If I had let my apprehensions about renting a car in a foreign country, bringing my camping gear across the Atlantic, driving on the opposite side of the road in a car that has the driver’s seat on the opposite side, and attempting to navigate our way all over a country that we had never been to nor knew anybody in, I would have missed out on an experience of a lifetime. This experience allowed me to grow and expand what I knew myself capable of. The specter we escaped was not the mist, it was our preconceived notions of what we thought we were capable of. The feeling that came from shattering those notions? To borrow an appropriate line from Braveheart, “FREEDOM!!”