The best part of long-distance hikes is seeing the world get bigger.
We spend so much time in cars, planes, and trains that the miles go by in the blink of an eye. Subtle changes in topography and flora aren’t noticed, and little corners of beauty are passed by undiscovered. Walk, and you see the world as it really is.
It’s my third day on the East Highland Way and I’m deep in the Scottish countryside now. The town of Ft. William is far behind (although still only an hour’s drive) and the rare villages now have barely more than a dozen houses. For hours I don’t see a soul.
Heading out from Tulloch I enter a forest. This, like so many woods in Scotland, is managed for logging. Rows of slim fir trees alternate with cut areas where tiny saplings have been planted to make the next crop. It’s a slow process, and not once does the roar of a chainsaw or the crash of a falling tree disturb my peace. After a few miles I come to Loch Laggan, the first sizable loch I’ve come across at seven miles long. The glassy water, unrippled by a single boat, reflects the hills beyond. All is quiet. I sit down to have lunch and enjoy the view.
There the peace ends, courtesy of an army of midges. These little insects are as annoying as they are persistent. They’re like miniature mosquitoes with more intelligence. First one flies around my head. While I swat it away, another sucks blood from my neck. The signal goes out, and within a minute there’s a hundred all around me. I wipe off my arms, neck, and face and my hands become smeared with mashed midges. Time to move. The strange thing about midges is that if you’re moving they have a hard time keeping up, but woe betide the hiker who gets caught while sitting peacefully by a loch. I finish my lunch on the go.
%Gallery-100127%Continuing along the southern shore of Loch Laggan I spot the spires of a Disney-style castle poking above the greenery. I’ve come to Ardverikie House, a stately home built in 1870 that recently gained fame as the setting for the BBC series Monarch of the Glen. I don’t own a TV, so I’d never even heard of this hugely popular show until I came to this part of the country. Now I sometimes feel like I hear of nothing else. The estate has become a pilgrimage site for fans, and locals tell me that people even peer through the windows and knock on the door. I can understand why there are Private Property signs everywhere.
Sadly, this means I can’t see the wonder of Loch Laggan, the ruins of a castle on a tiny island. The wooded, rough shores block the view from everywhere except the estate. Luckily there will be no shortage of castles on this hike.
I have another problem. The lone accommodation in this area, a B&B in the village of Feagour, has recently shut down. It’s 17 miles from Tulloch to Feagour, and the next place to stay is in Laggan, another five miles. I can walk 22 miles, but somewhere between 17 and 22 miles it stops being fun. So I’ve arranged for the folks at The Rumblie B&B in Laggan to pick me up at Feagour. Lazy? Sort of, but I don’t have anything to prove to anybody.
They’re meeting me at a waterfall on the River Pattack near Feagour. I arrive early (having, ahem, walked 17 miles in an hour less than I thought I would) so I have plenty of time to admire the falls. The fast-flowing river has cut a narrow gorge through the rock. The water, brown from the peat upstream, rushes down it. I scramble up the rocks to get a better view and to my surprise discover a wooden platform and railing, plus a path down to a parking lot on the other side. This rugged view of nature has been made safe for those who want to appreciate nature without actually being in it. Nothing can spoil the beauty of the falls, however.
Right on time a car pulls up and I’m whisked off to Laggan, a booming metropolis with two shops, a school, a public telephone, and some houses. I arrive at The Rumblie to a hero’s welcome. A Spanish couple is staying there who don’t speak any English. Their poor 14 year-old daughter has been doing all the translation on their vacation, using her high school English to book hotels and rent cars from people with heavy Scottish accents. The owner of the B&B knows I live in Spain and told the family that help is on the way. As soon as I get there the kid heaves a sigh of relief, all English stops, and I become translator for the evening to give her a well-deserved break. You never know when a foreign language will come in handy!
Next to The Rumblie is the Laggan community center, and I hear there’s a céilidth on tonight. A céilidth (pronounced “Kay-Lee”) is a traditional gathering to perform folk dances and sing songs. I’m exhausted from a long hike and two beers, but I can’t pass this up. I find the céilidth in full swing. Locals of all ages are gathered around tables in a long hall with a stage at one end. Old photos and children’s drawings about farm safety adorn the walls. A slim young woman is dancing to the accompaniment of a fiddle. I grab a beer and sit down. Everyone seems to know everyone else and the common greeting is, “What are you performing tonight?”. Not “are you performing” but “what are you performing”. Singers perform a series of Gaelic songs before a man with an accordion gets everyone out on the dance floor. I know nothing about the history of dance, but I think I’ve discovered where square dancing comes from. Scottish dances involves the whole crowd dancing together, making lines and circles and moving with each other in complicated patterns.
Then comes the next surprise. A crowd of Spanish and German teenagers come in, volunteers from a local farm where they do manual labor in exchange for learning English. Ironically the Spanish press reported a couple of weeks ago that farmers in Spain can’t find Spaniards to help out in the fields, despite a good wage and an unemployment rate of 20 percent. Instead the farmers have to hire Africans on temporary work visas. Good deal for the Africans, because they need and deserve the money more, but it’s weird to see these Spanish kids working for free in the Highlands when they could be making 1,000 euros ($1,271) a month back home.
Hey, if they stayed home they wouldn’t be seeing this! Every one of them seems to have acquired a local boyfriend or girlfriend and soon they’re doing the dances like they were born here.
It’s getting late and my eyes are getting heavy. As an old woman mounts the stage I stumble to my bed next door. I fall asleep to the lilting sound of her clear, strong voice singing in Gaelic.
Don’t forget to read the rest of my series on the East Highland Way.
Coming up next: Prehistoric forts and empty wilderness!