|The Kintyre Way|
Leaving Claonaig ....
I was woken at 07:30a.m and quickly scuttled off to get some of my wonderful porridge and banana. Afterwards, I inspected my feet. They were okay and just a little minor surgery was needed to get them ready for the track; namely the use of sticking plasters to cover and protect two blisters, one on each heel.
We left the house at 09:15a.m and drove to our final destination of the day once more, the village of Clachan. As we waited for Dean to arrive, I decided that I liked the neat little place. We were on a small, straight piece of road with diminutive, white-walled houses on one side and a chuckling brook and tree-scattered hill on the other. An enclosed bus-stop sat by the side of the brook, which was running below ground level in a kind of trench. I can't be entirely sure, but a little reading around suggests that this hill is called Loup Hill and its steep sides were the scene of the last major battle to be fought in Kintyre in May of 1689, where the local forces of MacDonald of Largie, McAlester of Loup and McNeill of Gallichoille (all strong supporters of King James VII) were defeated by a Government force. It is hard to imagine, picturing the quaint little scene in which we waited for our lift, that the area once ran with blood and played host to the sounds of screaming men. I earnestly hoped that such a scene would not be repeated on our arrival back here later today.
Dean arrived at 09:45a.m and we all climbed aboard, to be taken to our finishing point of yesterday's walk where we would begin again today. Our route this day would take us on our first real traverse across the peninsula, from east to west. Mark and Dean once more engaged in chit-chat and it transpires that Dean, like me, once lived and worked in Guernsey. What is more, we both worked in the field of learning disability for the same trust and know the same people! What a communal place the world is becoming when two men from opposite ends of the country were enabled similar opportunities which led them both to share the same experience. I loved Guernsey. It was just an ace place to live and Dean could pay it no greater accolade than to say, whilst presently living amongst such natural beauty, that he would move back there like a shot. I understand his sentiments precisely.
Soon, we arrived back at Claonaig and Dean departed. I did some awful filming whilst standing (foolishly, it must be acknowledged) in a car park. This was due mainly to me having to dodge about in a skittish manner as soon as I'd turned the bloody camera on. A car had decided to choose that moment to swing by and circle me like a shark, while the driver pondered on whether he wanted to be here at all and, if not, how many circuits he could manage before I lost my temper and choked him. The answer was four. Fortunately, he gave up on circuit number three and parked his vehicle at a distance greater than my throwing range. While I was filming, Mark was approached by a Scottish guy in a hat and a conversation took place which I couldn't hear apart from frequent utterances of, 'Aye' from the bloke. Mark didn't elaborate at the time, but it turns out that the bloke kept asking him what the local bus times were despite being told repeatedly that he (Mark) wasn't a local. You'd have thought the hiking gear and the flat, Brummie accent may have given a clue and the message must have got through eventually, or else Mark just decided he'd had enough and managed to edge away.
We had been warned by an expectant Dean and several ominous pieces of literature that today's hiking was going to end up being a wet and muddy affair. We were about to tackle our first serious moorland and such was its waterlogged nature, that work was underway to move the route to avoid the worst of the boggy areas and drainage work was scheduled to try to stabilise the course that we had to take. That was for the benefit of lucky future walkers. For now though, with the Kintyre Way still in its infancy, we'd just have to get through it. We prepared ourselves; going through the procedures of checking and making our gear comfortable upon our persons. A Caledonian MacBrayne ferry hooted in anticipation as it began to slide away from dock for its short trip to Arran.
We set off along the B8001 once more. It took us benignly uphill and then we were required to turn left onto the B842 We were only a few minutes into the walk, but I saw that the hedgerows were pretty and alive with birds, the fields vied for my attention with a glinting sea and Arran was standing importantly over it all. I stopped to film the lads walking over a stone bridge and up a road flanked fervently with ferns and brambles. Of course, this meant that Jo and Mark, with supernatural awareness, ceased moving as soon as the camera came on and had a little confab whilst leaning on the stonework of the bridge and casually studying the unseen brook below. Bod was already around the corner and out of sight and I waited, swearing silently, until the other two followed. I then took a last shot of Arran and jogged up the hill to catch my companions. We continued uphill on the road and the view became more delightful. Arran was ever the backcloth, the sea lay splendidly before it and deciduous trees began to close in on each side of us as we ascended along the road. I have a great fondness for oak trees and enjoyed their company as we were ushered along beneath their knotty branches. After a while, we took a right turn and climbed a narrow track over grass and amongst a lightly wooded slope. We stopped at a table and benches to prepare ourselves for the imminent bog. It was a kind day; sunny and quite warm, so I removed the leggings of my walking trousers and revealed to unprepared members of my group legs of an unwholesome, pasty and hirsute character. Maniacal clouds of 'mozzies' began to partake of me so I liberally sprayed myself with repellent, to such a degree that Bod complained on behalf of the welfare of the surrounding woodland. We were off again, but Mark and Jo had taken a moment to read a sign concerning the way ahead.
"It says here to allow nine hours for the boggy bit." Mark commented.
"Nine hours?" I responded plaintively, searching for signs of levity on my brother's face. There were none, he just nodded. This was not cool. This would mean that we would come off the sticky bits at eight p.m in the evening and still have some walking to do. I became inaudibly concerned.
God and a few sheep ....
As if to underline its intentions, the trail took us heartily uphill straight away and also became immediately moist and sloshy. We climbed and soon broke clear of the treetops and into the open, where a soft wind began to tousle us. Bod led, I was just behind him, Jo followed and Mark was the tail. The ground abandoned sloshy and explored boggy very quickly. The turf squelched. It shifted. It glittered with water. I started to have the impression that I was walking on a giant matt of thatched grass which lay upon the surface of a shallow lake. Whole sections moved and sank as you put your weight on them and I found myself becoming wary of the possibility of a sudden, panicky plunge through the surface vegetation and into sinister and murky depths. Bod and I encountered a particularly treacherous piece of sod and after negotiating it, stood a few paces off and watched the approach of Jo.
"Are you going to warn him?" Bod asked by way of conversation.
"Nope," I shook my head and we both grinned and waited.
A boggy climb
Jo disappointed us by not being sucked down into mire; perhaps leaving just his cap floating on the surface. He put one foot in, which immediately sank out of sight, and gave a surprised 'Whoa!' again before he walked on. Drat - and Mark had witnessed it too, so he wasn't going to entertain. In fact, he had more serious things on his mind.
"My knee's hurting," he said. I had noticed that thick tussocks of grass lay submerged in the water and easily turned your foot when you trod on them. This happened on a frequent basis and it was surprising how soon your ankle and knee joints began to be tested by this. On top of this, the ground was heavy going and Mark was feeling the effects.
We walked on, but Mark began to drop behind as the pain in his knee told on him. It was a constant uphill trudge too and I was breathing fairly robustly for much of the time. Our reward for this toil was generous. We were now three or four hundred feet up and moorland rolled away from us in the direction we had come from to merge into trees, more distant hills and eventually the spacious dazzle of Kilbrannan Sound. It was beginning to look wild around us, apart from striding electricity pylons which loped along to our left and over the top of the next rise.
We rested and Bod whirred away with a camera. Mark was someway back and took several minutes to reach us. It was pretty obvious that he was getting some drama from his knee. The bog went on and we splashed over it and ever upwards. A fence was running parallel to us on our left (south of us) and joined us in the climb. Amidst the bog and stalwart tussocks there were occasional firm bits of trail which would suddenly surprise your feet. Bod and I were walking a little ahead of the other two and came upon such a stretch of terra firma.
"I'm startled at treading on something which doesn't say 'squelch'," I said to Bod as we walked along and then amended my statement, regrettably. "Apart from that frog."
The terrain enforced frequent rests upon us and gave us the chance to regroup. My knee and ankle joints had, without creating any kind of a fuss about it, become sore. This ground really twisted at you. However, I was grateful as I admired the beauty of the landscape about us. If anything, it had become even wilder and we were now completely surrounded by moor, an environment we had begun to share with a small number of black-faced sheep. Even Bod was moved to comment on it as we plodded on again. I looked around at the undulating low hills and wild grass and was happy to agree, but the bleakness of it caused me to consider something.
"God only knows what it's like up here in early February, though." I pondered for a few seconds as woolly forms languidly marked our progress. "God and a few sheep," I amended.
I don't know why, but I remember that this phrase seemed to become lodged in my mind and was repeated back to me for whole sections of the crossing of the moor. God and a few sheep, God and a few sheep, walking up and over the next hillock, God and a few sheep, splashing through a particularly puddled thatch, God and a few sheep, these rocks are uneven on the feet, God and a few sheep - it became almost like a chant in my head and then faded away without warning, so that I immediately forgot how much it had plagued me.
Climbing (and sometimes swimming) ....
I spent quite a bit of time staring at the ground as well as the view around us; mindful of tripping stupidly over an exposed clump of grass, I suppose. In doing so, I was pleasingly struck at how lovely looks in its natural habitat, rather than when desiccated and clutched, for example, in the liver-spotted grip of an antique gypsy. I strode by jaunty clumps of mauve and lilac spears, as they thrust themselves through the green of the grass. And there were hundreds, thousands of such spikes which together, presented me impressively with a floor covering to admire and nod at. Floor-gazing also showed me that there was more wildlife squirming about me than I would have credited, given the streaming conditions. Frogs, I could understand; we saw several and let's face it, there probably isn't a more ideal land-based habitat for them. But were a surprise. Bod and I came across one as it breast-stroked out of the way. Its little coat was beaded with drops of quagmire but it looked unconcerned. It merely took another deep breath and plunged onwards, this time achieving an admirable butterfly stroke.
As Bod withdrew from a squinting inspection of his sat-nav he announced to me that we had climbed to an altitude of 'about 700 feet'. We waited for the other two and all had a breather together. I remember at this point feeling that my feet were beginning to take a battering and pointedly saying nothing about it. We started off again, the four of us together. But, we were momentarily halted by our first obstacle. There was a trench of water amongst the long grass, which cut across the track in a challenging way. I approached it first and, after pausing significantly to gauge the best way forward announced melodramatically, "Well - here goes!" and launched myself at what I thought looked the most secure bit of land. This proved to be a poor choice and I watched, a little aghast, as my leg disappeared into green mire and brought forth from me a tormented cry.
The laughter of one's friends and family can be a humiliating experience. Jo, in particular, seemed afflicted and continued to chortle as I dragged my saturated limb from the water and inspected it. My bare leg had taken on the appearance of the Incredible Hulk's and remained a sickly hue for the rest of the day's walking. I looked gangrenous. Enlightened by my idiocy, the others very quickly found a secure route around the obstacle - one that would have been obvious to me if I hadn't been so focused on trying to jump across it. We set off again with me producing a moist, marshy sound with every other stride. Jo, apologising whilst doing so, maintained his merriment.
After ten minutes, Bod and I had walked ahead and stopped again after a few minutes to allow Jo and Mark to catch up. They weren't in trouble, but had merely gone along at a more casual pace. I turned the camera on and began to film them as they approached us. My frustration had slid into something akin to fatalism and so I really wasn't surprised when they both at once stopped and crouched down to examine something, before discussing it casually and at length whilst the camera ground on. The wind was buffeting us at this altitude and as they approached, I had to project my voice against it as I called out to Jo.
"Twenty-to one." Bod and I laughed.
"What - did - you - find?"
Jo couldn't resist replying in mock indignation, "Twenty-to one!" before telling us that they had been watching a frog. It was at this point that the route got really testing. We had to continue on boggy terrain, which also became undulating; sometimes requiring us to climb little steep mounds and dunes, then dropping us without preamble into ditches awash with emerald water. We were eager to contour around these, rather than to test their muddy depths and this meant jumping and leaping from dune-top to mound and getting tangled in thick grass. There was no sitting back, smirking and waiting for somebody to come a cropper now; we helped each other through by pointing out 'safe' areas the lead walkers had passed through. My ankles sent out a fresh demand to pack this nonsense in. My knees agreed. Still, we made our halting way upwards and before long had to take another break. Jo broke out elevenses of biscuits and we looked around us at this latest scenery. We were now truly in wild country and had a three hundred and sixty degree view of uncultivated moorland, which was being pummelled by a bluff wind. Even the pylons had given up the chase. Mark took the opportunity to lie down and ease the pressure on his knee. Bod, as was his wont, perused his map and sat-nav. Again, we moved on and still we travelled upwards along a winding path before, at last, reaching the zenith of the day's walking altitude. We stopped at a place called Lochan Fraoich (Heather Lochan) at an altitude of approximately 760feet. The reason that we stopped, as Bod pointed out, was that from here we had views of both of the islands Arran and simultaneously. I filmed this; unfortunately, as we later discovered, Mark's video camera was lodged on settings which reduced every breath-taking vision to either a total white-out or else a smudged blur. The resulting filming when viewed has me smugly pointing out the fantastic landscape that we are passing by each day and dishing out lavish compliments as to how lucky and humbled we are, whilst the unfortunate viewer has to watch my videoed self pointing importantly at something resembling a smeary bogey.
The Baps of Jura ....
We all noticed how much cooler it was up here. We were at the top and exposed to the bite of the wind and I took the opportunity to zip my trouser legs back on. I was grateful to conceal my left leg, which looked like a limb rediscovered in a trench on the Somme. Mark had taken a warm top out of his rucksack to combat the wind and soon noticed something.
"The contents of my backpack smell like a museum."
We all looked at him.
"My top smells fusty," he insisted. "Here!" and he shoved his top under my nose. He was quite right; his clothing had the exact, timeless and slightly mummified aroma of a large city museum. Why, we don't know.
We had stopped on the edge of a small lake and we now skirted around it and sloshed through sodden vegetation. Bod and I were leading again and unexpectedly found ourselves in the company of two sheep, which took one distressed look at us and cantered off ahead together. Of course, I was compelled to crack the age-old line;
"I don't fancy yours much, mate."
"I quite fancy both of them," Bod replied.
We had seen pine trees ahead and had convinced ourselves that this would mark the end of the bogginess; after all, said Bod, trees wouldn't like to have their roots in water. On the contrary, we now entered this lightly populated forest, known as the Archaglass forest (which bewilderingly means 'green field') and discovered that not only did the pines grow in still water; they actually seemed to reach their roots eagerly forward to have a good old paddle. We splashed on, something of the shine taken off our positivism. As we found ourselves negotiating another uphill slope, Bod and I decided to look for somewhere to stop for lunch, as it was now 1:10p.m.
We chose the top of the slope and nestled down on the driest ground we could find amongst the ferns and the heather. Before long, Mark and Jo joined us and Mark asked us if we could slow down the pace a little. We'd obviously marched on, forgetful that Mark had to try and keep pace with a gammy leg. It was a relief to take the weight off my own sore feet for a while and look around me as I gobbled down lunch. Jo, obscurely, disappeared into the depths of his hoodie as he sat on the ground. He looked like an elf, or a Jedi Knight with a cheese sandwich. We all sat a little apart and mostly in silence and set off once more at 1:45p.m. My feet were still sore, but the track pretty soon became less boggy or, rather, intermittently so. We hadn't been going long when we encountered another view that I felt I had to commit to film. I had the track going downhill ahead of me as I stood upon a plateau. Banks of violet heather bloomed everywhere; the trees were abundant and glossy with life, distant hills added a sombre touch and Jura stood like a clenched fist on the edge of sight.
On drier ground at last
"Those are called the paps of Jura," assured Mark.
"Baps?" enquired Jo.
Bod had stridden off as I began filming. Jo was putting a fleece-top on, as there was still a chilly wind slicing around.
"Should be called baps," he concluded.
I filmed them as they walked off in Bod's wake and Mark's voice briefly rang out in fake Scottish, "Hey, Juh-ra! Thas' a fine pair of paps yer've got on yer!"
I waited for the inevitable and the lads didn't let me down; they stopped halfway along the track and leaned in close to have gesture-filled conversation. Walk-away shots wouldn't feel the same without it now.
We traipsed down a hard track lined with more heather and were soon led to another little lake named Fuar Larach ('Cold water' - I wasn't about to find out) which we walked alongside for a while. There was then a stretch of this hard track which was liberally sprinkled with rocks of varying sizes, protruding from the ground like old bones. Mark and Bod got into the kind of abstract conversation I might usually expect to hear between two patients on a Section 3 - that is, detainable under the Mental Health Act for psychiatric treatment with or without given consent. They appeared to find it necessary to distinguish between heather growing within a fenced-off area as being 'domesticated' and heather growing in a manner not as confined and therefore being 'wild'. To my mind, it was all accidental where the heather ended up and I couldn't see how a few metres of rickety boundary marker made any difference, but they rattled on about this subject for far longer than its content justified.
"You do realise we've got to put up with this crap all week?" I murmured to Jo.
We came across the rather ugly site of stumps of trees and blighted earth. This was a logging site and not very aesthetically pleasing until it ceased, suddenly, leaving a fringe of trees lightly swaying at the edge of the ruin.
"Those survivors must be crapping themselves, wondering when they're for the chop," said Mark as we walked by.
The walk began to take us around the edge of a loch of a beautiful shade of turquoise. It reminded me of photographs of the vast lakes I have seen in New Zealand and I had to commit it to celluloid. Its name is Loch Ciaran and I thought it was breathtaking. I can't entirely be sure of the meaning of the Gaelic title of the loch, but it appears that in the 6th century there was an Irish Saint of that name who may have visited the peninsula. At any rate, it lies just a mile south of Clachan and an outlet stream from it flows to enter the mouth of West Loch Tarbert. It is apparently popular with anglers for the brown trout which inhabit it. It was also at this spot that we had our first distant sighting of a wind farm that we would be walking past two days hence. They were nearly due south of us and I zoomed in on the turbines as they rotated. They still looked toy-like and remote. I suppose they must have been about 8 or 9 miles away at this point and they stood in an area identified as Deucheran Hill.
We travelled on again. Bod had a theory that his hands were swelling slowly but continuously through each day's walking. He was at a point today where they felt heavy and less dexterous. What was more, Bod insisted his hands were swelling by a greater degree each day. He was expecting a further progression of their ballooning after tomorrow's trekking and each day thereafter. "By the time we do the 22 miles on the last day's walking, I'll have comedy hands like Brother Lee Love," he mused.
A detour to the turkeys ....
To our ample surprise and considerable disappointment, the track suddenly veered from the nice, solid and completely acceptable stony track we had been ambling along and back onto marshy ground. We began to grumble. After all, we had to be pretty close to Clachan and the end of today's journey so what was going on? Be that as it may, we were forced to tackle bog, tussocks and up and down humps all over again. My feet were actually a little painful by now and it was a case of gritting my teeth and getting on with it. I noticed that some of the watery bits were every bit as deep as they had been up on the moor and hoped that my irregular stumbles didn't end with a mid-life Christening. I could hear bursts of cursing behind me; somebody wasn't happy. One bit really took the biscuit. We were prompted onto a track briefly, but then treacherously led up to a barbed-wire fence.
"We're not seriously supposed to negotiate this, are we?" I asked of everybody.
"Yes," answered Mark with a face that was set and a little sullen.
We helped each other through as we had on the moors earlier, holding the top strand of the wire at its greatest height so that others could crouch down and squirm through without becoming witlessly snagged by the backpack. It was all a bit of nonsense and the trail also meandered pointlessly. It was as if the architects of the route had had a certain quota of miles to fill and had realised that they were short when Clachan was reached, so had scrubbed out the original last mile and asked somebody's three year old to draw a line from point A to point B, superimposing the result of this onto the blueprint of The Way. We now had to pass through what was actually a very pretty little valley with a stream (a tributary from Loch Ciaran) dashing through it. On a normal day, fresh out of the house and with a mug of coffee in one hand, I would have taken this sight in with a sigh and a little bob of pleasure, but right now I had my vehement gaze only on the steep slope of the valley that we had to walk along. The ground was angled, tussock-laden and uneven and it hurt my ankles. It was a relief to get off it, climb a short track and enter deciduous woodland for a second time.
We wound our way beneath the canopy of oak; climbing for a short while and then heading downwards again in time to meet 300 turkeys. It's no good you doing a double-take at the page - you read me correctly. We had obviously stumbled across a farmer's collection of livestock. There they sat, smelling fairly unpleasant. To be just to them, if you stuck 300 humans within a fenced off area of somewhat limited space and comprising largely of mud, provided no means for them to bathe and invited them to sit around in their own excrement for months on end, you could hardly expect them to be at their best. So these birds ponged a little and even if I could have made them
understand, then it would probably not have given them much comfort to know that they would not have to put up with such poor living quarters for too much longer. Christmas was but three months away. On the bright side - they cheered us up no end as they were comically noisy. We discovered that a few hundred turkeys gobbling at you as one, is an amusing cure for a foul (no pun intended) mood after a day of toil and discomfort, especially as they did so on cue.
"Altogether now!" invited Mark and they obliged to a bird; crowding around him on their side of the fence and giving voice. They associated us with food, of course. Ironic really, when you think of what was in store for them. We walked around their compound and they followed us, some taking clumsily to the air for a few yards in their eagerness to be fed. We left them behind and it was very soon after this that we hit proper tarmac road again for the first time in hours and were taken swiftly back to the village of Clachan.
Seafood roulette ....
We had done it. There was still a little moaning from us about that unnecessary last mile or so as we took our boots off and ventilated throbbing feet. I didn't feel any new blisters, but I had riled up the existing ones. Mark and Bod were mysteriously wet and told me that they had both fallen into bog on that last section. That would be a moment for chagrin, I thought; to survive the main bit of wild moorland unscathed and then take the plunge on the home straight. Mark was sure he did have new blisters and outsized ones at that. Jo had retired to the bus-stop shelter, but he was okay.
"That last bit was created by committee," grumbled Bod as he peeled off gaiters swathed in muck. They looked as if they'd been modelled by a hippopotamus for a few days. But we were done for the day and it hadn't taken us until 8:00p.m, only 4:00pm. Two days down, four to go!
We limped home (I discovered that some of my leg muscles quickly tightened up after I had ceased to ask them to propel me forwards at any great speed) and I used the laundry room to rid my clothing of 2lbs of crud and an undertone of fusty perspiration.
We ate in tonight, with Mark and Bod fixing the food for the evening. Now - here we had a dilemma. Such was our haste to get going this morning that we hadn't really bothered to properly inspect the food-stuffs we had bought from the local shop. We had acquired some prawns.
"Hey - Morag! D'ye ken those packets o' pranns that we won in the tombola las' Hogmanay? The ones we fergot aboot and left in the conservatrry fer a week? Aye, well ye'd never guess! Those four Sassenachs I told ye had arrived - they've only gone and bought the lot! Aye, paid money fer' 'em! Aye, ah know! Och, ne'er mind autopsies, I'm chuffed tae bits - I'm lockin' up fer the day an' comin' home before the silly buggers bring 'em back!!"
It was now, beyond the threshold of sustainable hunger, that we realised our mistake and discussed together whether we should just go ahead and eat them. I had dreadfully vivid images of trying to walk tomorrow, doubled over and emitting helpless grunts as my bowels shuddered in the grip of violent, peristaltic activity. Or of having to lever my exposed buttocks over a virginal brook and vent catastrophic ingredients of Chernobyl-like potency. In the end, we took a risk and cooked them up in a curry. Jo, who is vegetarian, offered us a look of deep sadness and sympathy and I must confess that I ate in the manner of someone who has been sat down to feed on a plate of live scorpions. This was not so far from the truth, as there may well be a sting in store later.
After we had eaten, Mark approached me and showed me his heel. I have to admit I was impressed with his blister-producing prowess. He had a beauty there; in fact it was so busty and gravity-defying I was suspicious that he'd had an implant. No wonder the poor sod was limping.
I hadn't phoned mom and dad yet, so gave them a quick call to assure them that we had made it up to Scotland okay and hadn't already expired on some remote hilltop, or been gored by a bull. We drank beers and Mark and I also partook of the single malt whiskey we had rewarded ourselves with.
Bod had seen seals! They had been out on the rocks and in full view of the window of our lounge area and I had missed them. Full of vexation, I watched a totally glorious sunset instead; a fiesta of rich oranges and fiery reds, underlined with bruised purple. It was rather fantastic. We all drank a little and laughed at a few episodes of Fawlty Towers on video, but tiredness drew us seductively to bed. I pulled out my bed-settee and wrote a few notes up of the day's adventures but, really, my eyelids were drooping before I'd done more than a paragraph. I don't remember falling asleep it was just wham, lights out buster.
See Route on ......