Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 10, May 20, 2022

May 20th, 2022

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 10, May 20, 2022

In 2016 I rode the train up from Biarritz to St. Jean pied de Port, the starting point of the Camino Frances. The cars were full of eager, but tentative faces, people clutching shiny new trekking poles and immaculate backpacks, others with studied indifference holding tattered and patched packs. The train emptied and, after an evening in a hostel, the throng commenced. The train from Glasgow to Milngavie had echoes of that trip. Sprinkled amongst the city commuters were West Highland Way trekkers, all of whom made their way to town center and the obelisk marking the commencement of the most popular long walk in Scotland.

The path itself was pleasant and easy, a good bit on an old railway line, and there were some pretty woods where I scared up a pair of ring-necked pheasants.

 

The Scottish National Trail overlaps the WHW for one day, then turns northeast onto the Rob Roy Way and other paths heading toward the Cairngorms. But for today, I walked with the pilgrims on their way to Fort William— a jovial and expectant bunch strung out over the first 12 miles of that trek. As you cannot wild camp in the Loch Lomond region and I’m planning a double length day tomorrow and a large storm crossed the area mid afternoon, I opted for a campground just outside Drymen, unpacked, pitched my tent and strolled the mile into town just ahead of the rain, spending the afternoon in the Clachan Inn (est. 1734, the oldest licensed pub in Scotland ) and crowded with WHW pilgrims, reading John McPhee’s The Laird and the Crofter.

T. Hugh Crawford

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 9 May 19, 2022

May 19th, 2022

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 9 May 19, 2022

I usually try to keep up with the local football teams when I visit a country or city. The other day in Peebles, I sat in a pub watching Celtic win a game and be awarded the Scottish Premier League championship trophy, then watched Liverpool win the FA cup over Chelsea in PKs, all in one afternoon. Yesterday in Kilsyth, I noticed some people walking about town draped in a flag, but given my sore feet, I was focused on getting plasters, etc. and neglected to check what was up. Later in the night I heard what was clearly a fan-base ruckus, and out of my hotel window saw red and blue smoke bombs deployed. It wasn’t until today, on stopping by the Hotel Artto to drop my bag, did I learn that Rangers had made it to the Europa league final, only to lose to Frankfurt in penalties. Now, here in Glasgow the afternoon after the game, tables of fans sitting in the sun on sidewalks by pubs occasionally erupt in chants, cheers, and table thumping.

 

The morning walk out was uneventful but the weather was beautiful. A good breakfast at the Kilmyths “Coachman” and I was down the road, soon gaining the canal path for a last day’s flat hike. The early hours on the canal are good for some solitude (only the occasional jogger), so the birds, particularly the waterfowl, are not yet disturbed. Yesterday’s swans were definitely one-upped by today’s. A pair were feeding in the canal and, on my approach, took to the air, or at least got off the surface briefly. The wings beat hard and they each push at the water with both webbed feet in unison, trying to propel themselves in the air. Then they were airborne, wing muscles powerful beneath all those feathers, they flew briefly, landing in the next widened part of the canal where, from my vantage point, they touched beaks, making the familiar double swan-necked heart image seen on countless Hallmark cards. Then the male proceeded forward while the female gathered from the rushes half-dozen cygnets who paddled behind her, making their way slowly upstream.

Thankfully today marks the end of the canal section of the trek (note: anyone considering the Scottish National Trail should arrange to bicycle that section). Tomorrow begins a whole new phase, heading into the Trossachs, an area I’ve visited before (Walter Scott land), and then on to the Cairngorms. So today I took the train to city centre Glasgow, wandered a bit, took care of some minor resupply, and rested my sore feet.

T. Hugh Crawford

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 8 May 18, 2022

May 18th, 2022

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 8 May 18, 2022

An unusual but (generally) pleasant evening required hotfooting it back to the Loch House Farm campsite as the rains rushed in. It showered, off and on all night, but my new ZPacks duplex performed. It starts getting light around 5, so I got an earlier start on the day’s walk — 32 official km on a flat canal path. I’m ready for some variety and to get off this pavement which is really hamburgering my feet. The early start meant grabbing some fresh rolls and an orange drink from a local convenience store (with the usual parade of folks stopping to buy a newspaper—something I really enjoy), then stretching out on what was essentially the same walk as yesterday.

The main difference is that this part of the trail crosses the fall line dividing Edinburgh and Glasgow. Most people know what incredible engineers the Scots are and those who are unaware of that need only walk this part of the National Trail (Union Canal Way). The subtle but overwhelming evidence is that, for all these km out of Edinburgh I’ve been walking for two days, I’ve passed 50+ bridges, and only later today did I pass a lock. Basically the canal’s engineers built a perfectly level canal the distance from Edinburgh to Falkirk— more than 30 miles as flat as a spirit level. The fall line brings a different story and the drop is considerable. On the Edinburgh side today I passed a three- lock sequence, with a boat just commencing the process, and then came to the Falkirk Wheel— a 21st century old-fashioned engineering marvel that takes the place of 11 traditional locks by swinging a piece of the canal up on a giant wheel, whisking canalboat and canal up 35 meters in 5 minutes. The only way to understand is through the picture below (I was lucky that it was in action when I arrived this morning).

Apart from the engineering, today brought a couple of interesting encounters including a woman insisting that the worms wriggling on the pavement were leeches— I can neither deny nor confirm the report, only to verify that there were wriggling creatures on the pavement wet with last night’s rain. Later I passed a man in hiking gear with a day pack walking in the same direction with purpose. He had a fascinating rough, thick countenance like a character from an old movie. He asked where I was heading— I gave the usual Cape Wrath eventually but to X for the day answer. Today’s X is Kilsyth which I pronounced “kill sith”. He said you mean “kill syth” (rhymes with Blythe).  Grateful for the correction. A bit later I passed a fit middle aged couple and for the first time someone asked me if I was on my way to Cape Wrath. The Scottish National Trail is a fairly new route and most people down here aren’t thinking someone is walking the length of the country (unless it’s someone walking Lands End to John O’Groat). Apparently most people try not to think about the Cape Wrath Way. Was refreshing to talk to someone who understood the magnitude of the trek and expressed enthusiasm.

The other encounter on the path wasn’t with a human but rather a swan. All this trek I keep bumping into swans on the edge of the path or in the water, and I always think of William Butler Yeats’s “Wild Swans at Coole”—“But now they drift on the still water/ Mysterious, Beautiful”— or his brutal “Leda and the Swan”: “Being so caught up,/So mastered by the brute blood of the air,/Did she put on his knowledge with his power/ Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?” The latter poem prompts a healthy respect regarding the possible violence that swans can inflict, so I circle them on paths warily. But today a swan in the air rushed past, flying down the middle of the canal, and I was immediately taken back to 2015 and the New Zealand Te Araroa trail. The full day is detailed here—https://walkinghome.lmc.gatech.edu/te-araroa-walking-south-with-the-spring/day-28-2 — but I quote the swan scene here “I got half-way across the dyke, smiling at the sun drying all the stuff on my back, when from nowhere along comes a hail storm, which ultimately got to pea-sized, then the lightening began to strike on either side, like an artillery detachment determining range, and there I was, the only elevated upright figure anywhere nearby. The thunder was accompanied by the honking clatter of swans– a pair of black ones in the river beside me who were unsettled by the crack and boom. One took flight, the muscular effort to raising that bulk so it was just skimming above the water, going up the narrow channel as if it were a landing strip.” This is all just to say the notion of a graceful swan is a misnomer— they are powerful, intimidating, and ultimately supernatural creatures, something I glimpsed in that flight today.

The day’s hike wound down at the Auchinstarry marina, before turning up to Kilsyth for dinner and a bed. There were rows of canal boats on the water, one classic one was occupied by two older women talking on the small deck to the fore. Next to them was a brown spaniel, head on the rail looking longingly at the water just there below him. I settled into my room, treated the wounds my feet have suffered by the hard pavement on the canal path, then wandered to the Scarecrow Pub for pints and a prawn, chorizo and blood-pudding salad— delicious.

T. Hugh Crawford

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 7 May 17, 2022

May 17th, 2022

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 7 May 17, 2022

As much as I enjoy wandering Edinburgh, today felt as if I was fleeing the city. The entire trek was on a paved canal path so the kilometers clipped by and the sounds of the highway diminished with each step. On a long trek, there are always those nice moment when you spend more than one night in a place. I returned to the Snax Cafe for my breakfast before departure—the person who took my order recognized me, so we talked a bit. Then it was off to the trailhead. The day’s walk was uneventful. The path was narrow and crowded, particularly with bicyclists, so I had to listen hard for the ting of a bell to jump off the path in time, and once was brushed back by kids on-off road motorcycles. But by and large the walk was pure peace.

By midday the canal was populated by long boats— mostly from a vacation rental company, so the pilots were anxious but clearly enjoying the process. Reminded me of afternoons in Oxford watching the boats pass by, though here the canal (the Union Canal) has no locks, quite an engineering feat, as are the aquaducts that carry the boats high above fast flowing river valleys.

On the approach to Linlithgow, I passed on the path a man in dress pants, white shirt and a sweater, who turned after we passed and said I looked to be someone on a great journey. I explained what I was doing and then noted that my day’s journey was almost over because I was right next to the town. He proceeded to tell me about Saint Michael’s church where Mary Queen of Scots was baptized and then directed me to the best old pubs in town. Love this place. Wandered through Linlithgow, finding a campground on a working farm (Loch House Farm) set my tent up in the corner of a field, walked back to the Black Bitch Tavern for a pint. Outside the town, the pub’s name is a bit controversial, but it refers to a local legend—the story of a black female greyhound who would swim the loch, taking food to her master who was imprisoned on an island in the loch. The Greene King corporation acquired the Black Bitch and was planning to change the name, a move that caused quite a controversy. (I wish someone would make an app to identify all Greene King pubs— while the local ambiance of the pubs they acquire can remain, the standardized menu always disappoints).

Had fish pie at the West Port, then a pint at the Crown Arms before heading to the tent before the rains came in.

T. Hugh Crawford

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 6 May 16, 2022

May 17th, 2022

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 6 May 16, 2022

When I was young growing up in the Shenandoah Valley, the highlight of the year was the county fair. There was barbecue, cotton candy, harness racing, carnival rides, hoochie coochie shows, and of course the livestock barn. Given that many of my classmates grew up on farms and showed at the barn, it always got a careful tour. Today’s walk was a misty wet stroll— had to get out all my foul-weather gear including gaiters and slipped my way across a couple hours of seemingly empty moor. Only a dozen miles or so from the center of Edinburgh, cell service regularly dropped and the landscape was only populated by wild ducks. However, on either side were intensive agricultural areas. It was like a really long version of the Shenandoah County Fair livestock barn.

I’m still following the recommended Scottish National Trail itinerary, but this slow circling of Edinburgh reminds me of all the days it takes to get past Auckland on the Te Araroa. Tomorrow I’ll double up some of the days, stretch my legs out and make my way out into the countryside. But for today, at the end point Balerno, once again I caught a bus to downtown and a hostel that had a laundry. Out of the rain, I got everything clean, then went for fish and chips at the Malt Shovel; then a brief wander about old town which made for a complete and fairly satisfying day.

T. Hugh Crawford

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 5 May 15, 2022

May 16th, 2022

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 5 May 15, 2022

Traquair (Innerleithen ) to Peebles (21 km)

Walking Old:   Since I often teach seminars on the literature and philosophy of walking, I’m regularly sent internet links to articles touting the benefits of walking for mental and physical well-being, claims often quite miraculous.  There is a peculiar dichotomy in that discourse as, on the one hand, walking maintains youth and health, yet in our culture (here I guess I mean the United States) walking is often associated with people we term “elderly.”  Young people have no need of walking as they can run, jump, gambol— why do something as pedestrian as walk?

Obviously since I tend to go off on all these long distance treks, I think about walking and health a lot. Each new trail prompts a serious re-evaluation of my ability to do it, and I have to admit that my ambitions have scaled back a bit. The rough mountain trails of the US hold less of an appeal than the more sedate paths in old countries like Scotland (this is not to say Scotland trails are easy, just that an approach to them is not so intense— perhaps as I finish this trek in the far north highlands, I’ll eat those words). Although I’ve backpacked most of my life, I only took up serious distance hiking in 2011 when my son Bennett and I did the first third of the Appalachian trail. While not young, I didn’t consider myself old then, and was happy to dive into the rigors that the AT brings. Three summers of getting back into trekking shape, losing more toenails in total than I have at any given moment, helped me understand the complex dance that is walking on uneven terrain with time constraints. But of course age brings additional constraints which for me included arthritis leading to knee replacement, something I recount here: https://walkinghome.lmc.gatech.edu/pointless-essays/learning-to-walk-again/ But also I consider a general diminishing of strength, stamina, and flexibility, which is just to say I approach the trail with a little more wariness than in the past


.

Which all brings me to the question of walking old. Without doubt, what I have found most fascinating this week are the older men and women I encounter on the path. In the States, the word elderly calls to my mind a certain feebleness, but here the paths are crowded by older, fit walkers whose faces glow with the pleasure they clearly feel by their exertions and encounters with the natural world. Much of this is geographic— Scotland has many small villages, each of which has walking paths radiating from city center, and right to roam laws make it possible to travel from town to town unmolested. I frequently encounter pairs of older people (or people at least as old as me) wearing well-warn hiking clothes, sitting nonchalantly on a muddy bank sharing a thermos of tea— faces radiating contentment. (I hesitate to compare their equanimity with the stress of American’s rushing to the gym or home for a peloton experience).

I wonder what life and health care in the US would be like if we simply had  access (near our own front doors) to paths that wander about in our own neighborhoods, our own community. I wonder what the status of the “elderly” would be given those circumstances. Of course that would have to include a population ready to give up some false sense of security to grant the simple right to walk across a field. If people in the US had the chance to see the pure pleasure on the face of that old couple sitting on a muddy bank, listening to the birds, greeting other walkers, and sipping tea, they would see that while wrinkles on their faces betray their years, their expressions are anything but “elderly.”

Oh yeah, I did walk from Peebles to West Linton today. It was in some ways a summary of the days leading up (without the traumatic weather). Some edges of town, hiking up through pastures, some open moorland, a lot of forests, and of course I lost track of the path twice, the second required all sorts of bushwhacking through a field quite close to a Manor house. One fascinating moment included watching farmers in the distance— far left and right— herding sheep on their quad bikes (now there is a transformative agricultural technology). I also spent much of the day on a drove road, and got to walk through the Cloich Forest which, while imposing, was just one more bit of industrial forestry. The latter part of the trek brought me through newly lambed pastures with one young lamb momentarily imprinting me, following as fast as she could (soon overtaken by her solicitous mother). Got to West Linton early afternoon in time for a pint and a phone charge at the Gordon Arms Hotel— fine establishment—then caught the bus to downtown Edinburgh to get a new pack cover and some maps, settling into a hostel over the Guildford Arms, one of Edinburgh’s great pubs— a fine evening spent there over whitebait and pints from an Orkney brewery.

T. Hugh Crawford

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 4 May 14, 2022

May 14th, 2022

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 4 May 14, 2022

In hiker’s parlance, a zero day is a rest day— walking zero miles (or kilometers). A Nero is short for “nearly zero.” After the last three long days, today was pretty close to a Nero— officially only 12 km. Of course since I was in Innerleithen, the actual trail was already a few km away, and because I got (sort of) lost, it might not qualify as a true Nero. Still, the whole point was to rest my weary bones.

I’d thought I’d have a quiet cup of coffee before setting off, but time in the northern latitudes wakes sleepers early, so I was ready to walk long before the cafes opened. Trusting my usual luck though, I passed a wonderful bakery which supplied me with a sausage pastry and coffee. Hiker’s tip— a meat pie is always preferable, but while walking, a sausage  pastry can be held in one hand with no chin gravy. With the streets empty, I made my way out of town, heading back toward Traquair, finding a short cut to the Traquair house, part of which was originally built by 1107 and is the oldest continuously inhabited house in Scotland. I was there long before the doors opened but was able to wander a bit in the silence. An impressive place.

Unlike the last few days which have been on well-established old tracks—the St. Cuthbert and South Upland Ways— today required point to point navigation with little to no signage (which accounts for a number of missteps). Fortunately the destination was always clear— due west along the River Tweed to Peebles. I guess to provide some variety, the path-makers decided to take me up a ridge above the river through an old forest, past on old slate works (a geology lesson in itself) where I flushed a deer (reminded me of home). The tough part came when the path markers gave out. I think Storm Arwen has forced a rerouting of a number of paths, and while some were probably re-signed immediately, others (like the one I was following) drifted off the map. By mid-morning I found myself on a well-made forest road that, according to my navigation software, was not where I was supposed to be. Fortunately I knew the river was down the ridge and there was likely a road there (hopefully on my side). I proceeded cross-country scrambling over down trees to gain a road that soon became my route. Never was a crisis, but was cause for some excitement in what was supposed to be a calm stroll to Peebles.

I was curious about a sign on a broken down fence I encountered in my perambulations: “Private Shoot.” I’ve been reading Nick Hayes’s Book of Trespass which tells stories of hunts on private land, so it was interesting to think my disorientation was somehow linked to some upper-class pleasure. My pleasure was gaining the paved bicycle path in Cardrona, then following it to city center in Peebles—a lively town full of Saturday wanderers enjoying the sunshine. I found myself in a Costa, sipping coffee looking out the window with the sun shining and people walking about. I felt I needed to get out there to walk around, then I remembered that’s all I’ve been doing the last 3 1/2 days. Spent the latter part of the afternoon in the Crown Hotel Pub watching Celtic take the trophy of the Scottish Premier league(and listening to drunken Scots argue over nothing). A day well spent.

T. Hugh Crawford

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 3 May 13, 2022

May 14th, 2022

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 3 May 13, 2022

Much as I like to celebrate life on the open road, some days fall into the category “no fun.” I’ve already heard the term “Scottish weather” countless times, but today even the most grizzled Scot owned it was some wind. Guess I should have been suspicious when the weather just posted an image 🌬, particularly since today’s hike was billed as a beautiful trek along the ridge line.

Of course it was not all brutality, the morning out of Melrose included more beautiful wandering along the River Tweed. After a half-Scottish breakfast (I declined the tomatoes and beans, and they didn’t offer blood pudding), I wandered down Main Street, picking up some oat cakes and fruit as today’s route crosses no towns. I soon passed the rugby field— clearly the favorite sport in this region—heading toward the river with its fishermen and dog walkers. After a bit, climbing up the river bank brought Skirmish Hill, a place where in 1526 various Scottish nobles (including James V) decided to kill each other. At one point later I had a wonderful sense of deja vu as the path opened out onto the Tweedbank train station, the spot where, on my first day, I caught the bus to Kelso on the way to Kirk Yetholm. Then there was a lot of walking through sheep fields and the edges of a large town (Galashiels) until finally breaking out into the true countryside. There were pastured hills and woods with the forest floor carpeted with Scots bluebells. Near midday, I began the long climb out of the valley to a high hill topped by the Three Brethren— three large stone cairns next to a trig point looming over a broad landscape.

That’s when the unfun began. Initially it was just like much of the ridge line I’ve been in so far— far below stonewalled sheep and cattle fields and close cropped pasture, and closer by, heather about to bloom. But on the distant hills were forests, not a Sherwood Forest full of oaks and merry men, but instead a plantation. I was crossing land owned by the Duke of Buccleuch, apparently one of the largest landholders in all of the UK. While much of the land was open, vast tracts were planted up in nice clean rows of pine—one of those monocultural pine plantations derided by environmentalists. Of course Scottish tree plantations date back at least to the Earl of Atholl whose land on the slopes of the Cairngorms became test ground for both mono and poly arboriculture. But here we are talking straight-up industrial tree farming.

And the wind the weather people predicted hit with full fury. I had passed some hikers who were heading east (the wind at their backs)— they looked on me with pity, knowing what an afternoon I was in for. I’ve been in worse (that would have been an attempt at the Tongariro Crossing in 2015: https://walkinghome.lmc.gatech.edu/te-araroa-walking-south-with-the-spring/day-43/), but today did involve some staggering wind. Thankfully all my equipment (including those titanium knees) performed. It was straight up exposed ridge hiking in the teeth of gale force wind, the only respite was in the lee of one of the Duke of Buccleuch’s tree crops (one bright spot was a stretch on an old drove road, making me glad I had read A.R.B Haldane’s Drove Roads of Scotland).

On entering the forests, it became clear what I was experiencing was the merest trifle. Massive old trees, whole swaths of timber were down, almost as if some giant child had brushed their hand across the landscape, flattening arbitrarily tree after tree. I was inspecting first-hand the handiwork of Storm Arwen, an extra-tropical cyclone that, between 25–27 November 2021, devastated the woods across the UK, with nearly 100 mph winds hammering this corner of the world. The only comparable experience I have was the derecho that smashed into the mountains of Virginia in 2012. There the hail was as large as I’ve ever seen and thousands of old growth was leveled (https://roanoke.com/archive/volunteers-clearing-the-appalachian-trail-of-blown-down-trees/article_15302054-c1b2-59fe-9bd7-fd977ac1bb76.html).


Fortunately by mid-afternoon I was descending to Traquair (the official endpoint of today’s trek) and in a light rain I made my way to the Tweedside Caravan Park in Innerleithen where, after waiting in a pub for the rain to abate, I pitched my tent and then had an amazing meal (duck confit) at the Traquair Arms (a place well worth a visit). Very happy tomorrow will be a short day.

T. Hugh Crawford

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 2 May 12, 2022

May 13th, 2022

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 2 May 12, 2022

When hiking the Appalachian trail, I tended to obsess over wet feet (an unfortunate obsession to have, particularly in Vermont). The trail is so brutal, it beats your feet to death, so factors like wet feet can exacerbate an already fragile constitution. On New Zealand’s Te Araroa, I quickly learned that wet feet were a requirement. On the North Island, many sections of the great path are actually routed down the middle of a stream. I remember on the South Island crossing Waiau Pass, running down a melting glacier to find a place to tent in a wild woods. There I built a fire (something I rarely do) and dutifully dried my shoes and socks. The next morning, on hiking out all of 20 yards, I had to ford a waist deep icy stream. So much for dry feet. (https://walkinghome.lmc.gatech.edu/te-araroa-walking-south-with-the-spring/day-78/).


While not nearly as dramatic as running down a glacier from the highest point on the Te Araroa, I did find myself reliving the old wet-feet anxiety when, on heading out from the Lillardsedge campground after a fairly heavy midnight rain, I had to find a way to cross a field to regain the trail. A tree line which was probably the remnants of an old hedgerow provided a guide and a path, but of course it was completely overgrown with coarse grass and within seconds my feet were sloshing in my shoes. My Appalachian trail spirit screamed “turn around” in one ear, and my Te Araroa sprit just said “sweet as.”

I crossed the field without much incident beyond moisture and found a first-rate trail winding through a lane of old beech (with the highway humming in the background). It turned quickly into a pleasant wander through fields, hedgerows, small towns with beautiful old chapels, and of course Welly-shod dog walkers— just the experience I expected. There were parts of that woods walk that reminded me of the eastern mountains of the US, except the dominant trees were beech rather than oak or poplar. You have to love a good beech forest.

The afternoon was spent following the River Tweed, with swans, fly fishermen, and carpets of wildflowers (dominated by Ramsons). Late afternoon took me through the Eildons, three peaks made famous in Scott’s “Lay of the Last Minstral.” The path went up through the saddle, so I was tempted to summit, but as per the last few days, mid-afternoon brings mist and rain, so I opted for the descent into Melrose, a beautiful town with a ruined Abbey.

I checked into the Station Hotel, late lunched on a haggis burger, visited the abbey (which is where Robert the Bruce’s heart is buried),  wandered the town, finally boarding The Ship—another classic pub, this time filled with football fans waiting for the game to commence. Still adjusting to time, weather, and pure physical exhaustion, I found myself returning to the Station Hotel early for some luxurious sleep on a real bed (no tent and thin sleeping pad for me): a day well spent.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

Walking to Cape Wrath Day 1, May 11, 2022

May 12th, 2022

Walking to Cape Wrath day 1, May 11, 2022

In 2014 I walked the Pennine Way, finishing at Kirk Yetholm just across the Scottish border. What I remembered most about that hike was wandering the Yorkshire Dales and the crazy weather up on the ridges, but the last part was in the Cheviots, a different topography and sensibility. Obviously settled by farmers for millennia, the granite mountains are humped, rounded hills covered with close-cropped grass— the work of sheep over centuries. That world doesn’t change at the border, so today was spent climbing cheviot humps, covered with grass and sheep— it’s lambing season— and rimmed with gorse (loved by Eeyore, enjoyed at a distance by walkers, but a brutally difficult plant to manage).

Technically I started the Scottish National trail yesterday at Kirk Yetholm as I left the village to stay in Town Yetholm (1/4 mile) at a campground. I set up my new ZPacks duplex tent— my original Soloplex lasted through the Te Araroa, Nepal, the Camino, TransSwiss, Laugavegur, Tasmania, and the Benton Mackaye before finally giving up the ghost. I’m loving the replacement. The wind was brutal even though I was pitched in the lee of the shower house, but I slept like the dead, causing a late start.

That first night in Town Yetholm I stopped at The Plough—the town pub and a classic rural establishment. Late afternoon a crowd of locals had gathered, picking up on the stories they probably had been telling the day before— lots of good natured ribbing which they soon directed toward me. My ear not yet attuned to the accent, I missed half the comments, but from their demeanor, none of the insults were Ill-intended. And of course there was the obligatory large dog sleeping in front of the fire.

I was reminded how close the community is in rural pubs—composed of locals and the many walkers who fill the paths all over the country. They returned from their walks and burst through the pub door. You can see the wind still in their faces. It takes a moment for the outdoors to leave them, then they set their inside faces, warm from the day’s walk and the close air of the pub. I half listened while eating bangers and mash, soon dozing off, so rousting myself like a dog from the fire, I made my way back to the campsite huddled against a strong wind.

Before setting off in the morning, I stopped at the local post office/convenience store where I got McVitties Digestif crackers (fundamental hiking food) and some cheese and crackers. While sipping my coffee I was greeted by a stream of farmers stopping by to pick up a newspaper before returning to the fields. Even the gruffest were quick with a greeting and smile. Just before I left, the woman running the store stopped by the front door. We were looking out over the Cheviots with their gorse lit up by the morning sun. She asked where I was going, smiling approvingly when I said I was heading up to the hills. We talked the weather and she explained how much of this area have their own micro-climates—that in the winter one village will get snow and the next won’t. Then she looked up to the hills declaring it a wonderful place to live— something for her that was simple fact.

The morning’s walk was a long slow climb out of the valley, occasionally crossing the river and fields of sheep—it’s lambing season, so sometimes a wide berth was necessary. Late morning the trail worked up to the top of the ridge with the wind continuing to howl.  Most walkers on this section are doing the St Cuthbert, and they start from the west to hike to the sea. I passed many of them, all with the wind at their backs, while I plowed ahead face first. Sometime later in the morning I crossed Wideopen Hill. Measuring 1207’, it is the highest peak on the St. Cuthbert Way, which just is a reminder this is part of the Lowlands. By midday I was in Morebattle eating a big lunch, and then set off for a pretty difficult afternoon— first some nice forest walking, mostly in beech and birch woods. There are no accommodations at the standard endpoint (and unlike most distance walkers here, I’m not using a baggage and van service), so I needed to push forward, making a long day even longer, finally landing at the Lillardsedge campground around 6:30– too long for a first day trekking. Still, a nice place and I slept once again like the dead

T. Hugh Crawford