From May 13th through the 24th of 2016, I took part in The Great Outdoor Challenge, an annual rite in which three hundred hiking fools cross Scotland on foot. There are thirteen villages along the west coast that serve as starting points and one can finish anywhere on the east coast between Fraserburgh in the north to Arbroath, one hundred miles to the south. The hike is anywhere from 180 to 200 miles long depending on one’s route. It is unsupported. You carry in your own food, water and emergency supplies. You pick your own route across the country. There is no single, marked Appalachian Trail that you can follow on auto-pilot. With the exception of the first morning and a few other points early on, I was going solo. I would begin my hike in the fishing village of Shiel Bridge, a six-hour bus ride north of Glasgow. -Ben Marcin
The morning of the day I left Glasgow for Shiel Bridge. The skies looked to be in good form but, as they say here, if you don’t like the weather, just wait ten minutes.
Other than the mountains, canyons, lakes and general all-around beauty, there’s not much to see in Shiel Bridge. Two miles out, I turned east to enter Glen Licht for the business end of this hike. Stonehaven awaited me two hundred miles through this gap, give or take 600-700 turns. The next town, Fort Augustus, was a three-day walk from this point. On my back, I carried a Deuter 65L+10 pack with a stout Scottish broomstick and a half bottle of water (more on accessories later). Total approximate weight was thirty-five pounds.
A bothy is a mountain hut that is usually left unlocked and can be used as a basic shelter for trekkers or hunters. They are found in the more remote areas of the Scottish Highlands and can be a savior to a hiker during inclement weather. There were several of these along my route and they were popular with some of the Challengers. On the downside, the snoring can be epic.
This was my room for the first night: a Mountain Hardware SuperMega Ultra-Light tent, all two pounds and two ounces of it. Those are the Glen Shiel mountains in front of me. It would get into the 20s on this night. I put on every stitch of clothing that I carried and zipped my wife’s sleeping bag around everything but my nose. I can say that it was wise not to have had any beer before pulling off this stunt.
Walking up the Allt Garbh and the notorious Scottish weather was holding. Heading towards the outpost of Cougie where my first call to Challenge Control needs to take place. The deal was that I had to submit my route to CC and phone in four times during the course of my journey. If I’m late by a day and nobody else has seen me, they would send in a mountain rescue team to find me. There’s a three-year suspension if I screw up and forget to make one of the calls.
This is what my Ordnance Survey Landranger maps looked like. I had mine wrapped in large, gallon Ziploc bags to keep them dry during storms. This section shows my route from Cougie, circled in the upper left, to the Torgyle Bridge, lower right. About a seven-mile mile stretch of open country going south across a large trackless moor until I reached the tiny road heading three miles east to the bridge. I almost never follow paved roads on a hike; this was a rare exception. It would then be another ten miles to Fort Augustus, my destination for the night.
Earlier, I mentioned that I only carried a half bottle of water with me. Those cracks in the ground are running streams. Water is everywhere here and it is so clean that you can just dip your bottle in and drink away. On past long-distance hikes in other parts of the world, I typically had to carry up to ten pounds of water with me at all times. Not in Scotland.
I had to say no to the offer of a ride. As a Challenger, I was honor-bound to do the whole thing on foot so I bid old Checkers adieu and moved on towards Ft. Augustus.
One of the endearing aspects of walking across Scotland is that the access laws allow you to hike just about anywhere so long as you respect the property you’re walking on and take responsibility for your own safety. What a novel idea. In the States, if I’m not hiking in a public park, I’m trespassing. I’ve been shot at, chased down by ATVs and dogs, climbed countless barbed-wire fences in the middle of nowhere, all in the name of discreetly enjoying Mother Nature. That said, I didn’t dare walk past this gate.
The biggest decision for many Challengers is what kind of shoes to bring: hiking boots or non-waterproof trail shoes? Many of the elite hikers choose the latter figuring that they’re going to get wet anyway so why walk in boots that move like cinder blocks? The booters gamble that they can stay dry most of the time and they relish the superior ankle support. My decision? I took both. For this section of the hike, I had on a pair of Italian works-of-art, full-leather Zamberlans. I wore them for about 25% of the journey, mostly during the rougher sections. I wonder what the General’s men wore, almost three hundred years ago, marching across the Cairngorms chasing down the Jacobites?
The Challenge is not a competitive event. Everyone makes their own way across Scotland using different footpaths, farm tracks or ancient military roads. The Challenge is about using your wits to get to the other side of the country on foot in a fortnight. A story I heard on the trail was that on a prior event, one of the guys tended to be a bit of a show-off, getting up the mountains before everyone else and talking all about it at the end of the day. One night, while regaling his buddies in the pub, one of the boys went out back, found the biggest rock available and stuffed it into the bottom of Hercules’ rucksack. The next day, it was all he could do to hang at the back of his group, whining that he must have had too much to drink. Today, the stone rests on his mantelpiece.
Part bushwacking, part walking over the ghosts of old trails like this one across the Nuide Moss moors. Like most of my journey, I had it completely to myself. A gorgeous day. ©BenMarcin
One can almost smell the burning oil being poured on the marauding Jacobites. The Brits lost this one.
The median age on this year’s Challenge was about sixty. Most were men, most were from Scotland and other parts of the UK. Earlier, at the bus station in Glasgow, I’d noticed a very compact man in his 80s sitting on a bench with a small rucksack and walking pole. He had the sad, world-weary eyes of somebody knowing what he was getting into. I walked over and asked him, “How many times”? He said this was his 33rd crossing. I asked him another question about the hike. He looked at my 35-pound pack, closed his eyes and went back to sleep.
I saw a number of these on the hike, mostly the result of The Clearances that took place during the 18th and 19th centuries. This was the forced removal of Scottish farmers and their families by estate owners (many of them outsiders) to make way for sheep farming among other things. I’m not a historian but I believe that quite a number of our Appalachian residents are descendants of Scots who were forced off their lands during this time.
Glen Feshie, The Cairngorms
My Mom said I looked pretty beat in this selfie and I suppose she was right. However, I remember feeling strong at this point, about 90-95 miles in. No major aches or pains, not even the hint of an oncoming blister, the bane of the long-distance walker. The thirty-five pounds on my back was now an afterthought. I had my hill legs. I was one of the lucky ones so far. Over the past twenty-four hours, I’d started to see and hear about a number of Challengers who were suffering from various injuries. Some had pulled out, others staggered onward. One hiker fell down a field of scree. He then posted photographs of both of his sprained ankles. Another Challenger showed me his feet. They were shredded and covered with blisters. He was taking the next day off to recover and hoping to continue on. I knew he was finished. Three days later, I ran into one of his hiking buddies and asked how his friend was doing. Quite well. In fact, he had just spoken to him by phone that day – he was in London sipping a martini. ©BenMarcin
This ten mile stretch of heaven-on-earth was the highlight of the journey. Best experienced on a nasty weather day.
Sometimes Scotland couldn’t decide whether to rain or shine. On this day, she decided to do everything at once.
The package from ZPacks arrived in an envelope the size of a large Christmas card. Inside was $500 worth of rain gear – a rain jacket, rain pants and rain mittens. Total weight six ounces. I was certain I had been scammed but on this afternoon these items, and my Zamberlans, got me through the day mostly dry.
Caledonian Pines in the Linn of Dee.
During my single off-day, I’d found a trail that cut through a nice set of wooded hills behind the old town and I used this to start today’s hike, a twenty-miler to Ballater. I knew I would have to climb a fence a couple miles out but this only meant I would be walking alone again.
Almost all of the Challengers I met used professional grade hiking poles. I prefer a big stick. It leaves one arm free and I can test the waters, muck and sewage just as easily. My ideal stick is long enough to push aside thorns and sticker bushes and strong enough to deal with oncoming dogs. In fifty years of hiking, I have never had to hit a dog although there have been some tense standoffs. Once upon a time, I had to whack a raging rabid raccoon who was trying to turn me into Old Yeller. On one of the very rare occasions when I didn’t carry my stick, I was set upon by a pack of wild dogs and had to get rabies shots. So no skinny hiking poles for me.
Looking at my Landranger map, I saw that I was closing in on the Queen’s estate in Balmoral so I cut up the hill here to avoid any unpleasant encounters with knights on horseback or whatever they send out after trespassers these days. As it happens, not far from here I saw a security camera up in the trees, a reminder of when I once wandered into the perimeter of Camp David.
The hills in Scotland are not the highest but they go straight up. The man in the pub last night advised me that the shortest way is not always the fastest. I went for it anyway.
How do you prepare for a long distance hike like this? I doubled up on the pushups, moved my runs from thirty-five minutes to over an hour and even mastered a couple of those eight-minute boot camp workouts. I can now tell you that there is only one guaranteed way to get ready for this: put on a 35-pound pack and walk for 8-10 hours. Up and down hills. Repeat for eleven days.
Attempting a shortcut.
Day 12. The finale. 177 miles in.
One 25-miler ahead of me, much of it through the Fetteresso Forest. My job today was to stay off the wide, muddy forestry roads criss-crossing the region. Unfortunately, this would be totally unavoidable in some sections. ©BenMarcin
Like the old horse that sees the open barn door across the field, my pace quickened – I knew that the North Sea was just beyond that last bump on the horizon.
Closing in on the prize, I decided to break one of my hard and fast rules. ©BenMarcin
Done. 202 miles. The plan was to strip to the waist and walk in but it was in the 40s and a nasty wind was blowing so I relented. I’m certain that some of the Scots I’d met along the way would think nothing of it. On my way to the surf, I stumbled on the rocks and almost snapped my ankle. It was the closest I would come to not finishing the hike.
Born in Augsburg, Germany. Most of my photographic essays explore the idea of home and the passing of time. “Last House Standing” and, “The Camps”, have received wide press both nationally and abroad (The Paris Review, iGnant, La Repubblica, Slate, Wired Magazine). My photographs have been shown at a number of national galleries and venues including the Baltimore Museum of Art; the Delaware Art Museum; The Griffin Museum of Photography in Winchester, MA; The Center For Fine Art Photography in Ft. Collins, CO; The Photographic Resource Center in Boston; and the Houston Center for Photography. “Last House Standing (And Other Stories)” was featured in a 2014 solo exhibit at the C. Grimaldis Gallery in Baltimore. My work is also in several important collections including the Baltimore Museum of Art.