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