The East Highland Way day four: Pictish forts and empty wilderness

Views like this reassure me that I’m doing the right thing with my life.

It’s day four of my trek along the East Highland Way in Scotland, and the terrain is getting increasingly rugged. My trip today will take me through the most remote part of my walk. But before I go, I have an archaeological wonder to see first.

I head to a hill overlooking the village of Laggan to visit Dun-Da-Lamh, a fort built by the Picts. These people dominated Scotland in the murky years at the very beginning of recorded history. They were Celts like their neighbors, but with a distinctive art and culture. History first mentions them when they fought the Romans in the third century AD. It’s from a Roman writer that we get their name, which means “tattooed people”, referring to the complex blue tattoos said to cover their bodies. The Romans found Scotland more trouble than they could afford and eventually pulled back to Hadrian’s Wall, leaving the Picts to expand their power over the Highlands. These were rough times and the Picts were the fiercest warriors in the region, except for a brief period when they got their asses whooped by the Vikings. The Picts defended their land with massive hilltop forts.

After a pleasant ramble through a sunny valley of farmer’s fields and a sparkling stream, I start a grinding trudge up a steep hill. The trail coils around the hillside, it being far too steep to walk up directly. After a sweaty climb I make it to the top and on a rugged summit see the remains of the fort. It is deceptively simple in design–a single thick wall–but when new it would have been virtually impregnable. Most approaches to the summit are almost too steep to climb, especially if you have angry blue warriors throwing spears and rocks down at you. The one easy route is barred by the thickest point in the wall. Here the stones are piled 23 feet thick, and in the days before artillery nothing could have broken through. A few ravines that allow passage to the top also have strong points defending them.

%Gallery-100245%The stones are of moderate size and I don’t see any that I couldn’t lift, yet there must be tens of thousands of them. The effort required to build this place boggles my mind. It’s obvious why the Picts chose this spot. It gives a clear view down two valleys and a sweeping vista of the surrounding countryside. No army could approach without being seen.

In the tenth century the Picts united with another people, the Gaels, and founded the first true kingdom of Scotland. Even before this momentous merging of cultures they did much to create a Scottish identity. Their material remains gave later peoples something to be proud of. How could the Scottish, looking at these massive forts, the Picts’ intricately carved stone monuments of warriors and animals, and their glittering hordes of gold, not feel proud of their past? This heap of stones where I’m standing did the same for the Scots that the Parthenon did for the Greeks. It gave them a sense of identity distinct from the stronger nations that later ruled over them.

I’ve sat on this hill thinking of the past long enough. I have 15 miles to walk to get to my next stop, the village of Newtonmore, and dark clouds are gathering on the horizon. I set out.

The land between Laggan and Newtonmore is the best part of the East Highland Way. I step off a paved road onto a dirt track leading into a seemingly endless landscape of fields, streams, and hills, silent save for the wind. The track soon dissolves into nothing and I’m walking across short grass and heather. Now my compass comes in real handy. According to the maps I have to go north through a pass between two steep hills, then turn east at a stream and follow it across a broad valley surrounded by grim peaks of gray stone. While the topography is pretty clear, it’s reassuring to do some reckoning courtesy of the magnetic pole to double check where I am.

Where I am is nowhere, and that’s just where I want to be. I don’t see a soul. The few old stone cottages appear to be long abandoned. A see a few sheep grazing, so somebody must come here occasionally, but how often? My only other companions are some grouse and partridge. Rain spatters down on me as I negotiate streams that have never seen a bridge and squish along sheep’s trails that happen to go in my direction.

One peak catches my eye. Silhouetted against the gray sky is a strange shape. It appears to be either a cairn or a single standing stone. Perhaps some prehistoric marker or a monument of the Picts? It doesn’t appear on my Ordnance Survey map, which is so detailed it even marks the old crofts that have lain abandoned for three centuries. That doesn’t mean the stone is a natural feature. The land is so vast that the cartographers could miss something, even though it’s so visible from the valley below. It’s visibility hints that it is man-made, a marker of some kind. What could it be?

I don’t have time to find out. While the rain has stopped the sun is beginning to sink towards the horizon. Scotland’s summer evenings seem to last forever, but the wouldn’t last the hours it would take me to get to that summit and back down. I continue across the valley and up a hill and see Newtonmore nestled next to the River Spey. I leave the mystery of the stone behind for the next hiker to solve.

Coming up next: Exploring Scottish heritage!

Don’t miss the rest of my series on hiking the East Highland Way.