Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 34 June 13, 2022

June 15th, 2022

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 34 June 13, 2022

Weather remained dismal so I met my fishermen friends for breakfast in Kylesku and later went with them to Rhiconish. In our conversation it became clear they had a deep understanding of the history of the area derived from their on-the-ground (or in-the-river) experiences of place. As a result, they knew the breeding habits of fish, the botany of riverine environments, a lot of geology and hydrology, the human history of land occupation (and de-occupation), and the current class-related sociopolitical circumstances of the strange economy that is the Northwestern Highlands today. I got a similar lesson from the crew back in the bothy near Laggan as one was government policy advisor, another a forester, and another a gamekeeper. All good friends but often on different places in the conversation. In my rather desultory preparation for this journey— I had originally planned this trek for 2020 before Covid intervened— I devoured contemporary Scottish nature writers and dug into early 20th and late 19th century books as well. It’s a hard history to learn, as the various traumas are often alluded to without specific context.

The history of the lands where American trails lead is often actively suppressed as those trails try to offer a “truly wild” experience without the taint of human presence— strangely chimeric attitude. I wrote a bit about that in a longer essay on a different topic regarding the lands where the Benton Mackaye and Appalachian Trail overlap:

Careering on the Lakeshore Trail in the Smokies, I encountered, of all things, cars—slowly rusting hulks of 1920’s vehicles, one with an old tree growing up through it. Not the sort of sight you expect in the so-called empty American wilderness, but also not surprising given the path I had been following was once a fairly well-made road. Heading north not far past the cars other evidence of Appalachian settlers emerges— old sheet metal, beams, axles, the remains of an old mill race and stone mill, and then the Calhoun House, the last standing structure of the Proctor community. In the late 19th century Proctor was an agrarian village. In the first decade of the 20th, a railroad was pushed there, and Proctor became a lumber boomtown, swelling to over 1000 inhabitants until the timber was exhausted. During World War II, the Alcoa aluminum plant needed smelting power, so the Fontana Dam was built, with the lake submerging parts of the town. A promised road to Proctor was never finished, though the “tunnel to nowhere” some miles to the east is now a tourist destination. The remaining town dwindled and then disappeared, with most structures disappearing into the regenerating forest. I would guess that disappearance was also hastened by the National Park service— a whole nother story of displacement. The whole essay is here:


In part because of the sheer depth of the time of human occupation in the Highlands landscape, the persistence of the past here is not so much suppressed as it is, for naive eyes at least, made puzzling. (I don’t mean to imply the lands of, for example, the Appalachian Trail don’t have a comparable history of human occupation, just that the more obvious marks one encounters when walking there are, at least for me, almost impossible to discern). I’ve spent days here struggling slowly up watersheds to some high bealach— out in the raw wilds of brute nature— only to encounter unmistakable signs of human occupation and industry. The position in the landscape seems to indicate subsistence farming as probable primary occupation, but, for me, those signs— stone walls, dwelling foundations, etc.— always prompted a halt to just look around and try to imagine what day to day life in such circumstances and seeming isolation would have been like. And of course the follow-on question of what became of the people who lived there.

These landscapes have gone through radical transformations— deforestation, subsistence agriculture, the clearances coupled with introduction of sheep and game production, to today’s parcelling up of huge tracts of land amongst incredibly wealthy landowners (often multinationals) and various activist environmental agencies (within and outside government). For all its deep time sensibilities, these spaces seem to be a constantly shifting, fluid occupation. Like the bogs I keep trekking through, getting a sense of history, of some foundation of the land, keeps sliding under foot.

T. Hugh Crawford

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 33, June 12, 2022

June 13th, 2022

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 33, June 12, 2022

Yesterday’s many crossings in heavy mist veiled a bit my awareness of a significant change in the overall terrain (though the rocks and my feet made me acutely if unconsciously aware of it). This glacial nature of landscape, the earth’s skin is scraped raw, exposing boulders prone to roll, massing in huge rock fields. My hike out from a sleepless night in that primitive shelter was still in driving rain, strong winds, and a lot of fog though there was some light low in the distant sky giving some optimism.

Much like yesterday, the trail was often indistinct and wound across several watersheds in what felt like a random pattern though the intent was clearly to take me close to Eas a’ Chual Aluinn, the highest waterfall in the UK. I stood and looked at it for a bit before I realized that was what I was watching. It is incredibly high, but was obscured by the rain and fog. Given the severity of the weather and the stress of yesterday’s trek, I opted for a trail taking me more directly off the mountain to the road to Kylesku, avoiding some navigationally difficult pathless bog trekking. The guides for the Scottish National Trail and for the Cape Wrath Trail all emphasize flexible route choice, so prudence won out over some sense of purity.

The skies did lift a bit, and occasionally I saw my own shadow, and the sheer scale of these rock-strewn slopes pressed hard. It is jaw dropping landscape that requires immersion in it— photographs are pale facsimiles. The other landscape feature— water—also asserted itself. I’ve never been on a mountain with water pouring out of seemingly every rock. It is impossible not to be walking in streams as the whole mountainside is more or less a stream. I followed that water from high loch to lower loch, to burn, to river, finally picking my way to the flatlands and the highway to Kylesku.

My initial plan was to push past the village to reduce tomorrow’s long trek a bit, but the ongoing bad weather and my experience yesterday prompted a revision. Two miles outside of the village, I passed Newton Lodge, a beautiful building sited on a bluff with signs welcoming travelers to their restaurant. As it was around noon and I wanted to get out of the weather and eat something, I turned in— only to experience yet another bit of that fabled Scottish hospitality. As I walked to the door, a woman working in one of the rooms said hello through the window, informing me that—common story across the region— the restaurant was closed because of staffing shortages. As I was about to turn and leave, she hastened to open the door and ushered me into the pub area, insisted I sit a moment, then went to get the manager. Soon a young man appeared, apologized for the restaurant closure, offered a cup of coffee, then checked with their sister hotel in Kylesku that indeed their restaurant was open and would take walk-ins.  He then offered to drive me there— I’m guessing I must have looked pretty rough to inspire such concern. I assured him I could easily walk the two miles to town, but thanked him for such hospitality. Both were such kind and concerned people.

Smelling the proverbial barn, I made short shrift of those last two miles and soon found myself at the Kylesku restaurant eating one of the best seafood soups I’ve ever tasted. The Loch here is an arm of the ocean so it’s a fishing village with seals and porpoises cavorting in the water. Just being out of the wind in a warm pub — just washing my hands in warm water—was the greatest pleasure. Realizing I was not going to walk further, I cast about for a place to stay, but, as I already knew, there were no openings anywhere. In wandering about, I found a nice small flat spot on a path above the hotel, just the right size for my tent. Pitched it, arranged my stuff, put on my dry town clothes, I returned to the pub, spending the evening talking to a number of people, particularly with a really wonderful couple— Andrew and Claire— who are fishers traveling about the area. They noted that the weather will continue bad through tomorrow and repeatedly offered to give me a ride to the next point, something given the circumstances I might consider.  It was another two part day—profoundly difficult morning, and an exquisite afternoon/evening. It was a day for gratitude.

T. Hugh Crawford