Ordnance Survey maps: sometimes government CAN do a great job

map, maps, OS maps, OS, Ordnance SurveyThe BBC recently interviewed a cartographer for the Ordnance Survey. This government department is in charge of mapping the United Kingdom, except for Northern Ireland, which has its own agency.

If you like maps or plan to hike in the UK, the Ordnance Survey maps are simply amazing. They’ve been measuring and drawing this green and pleasant land since the eighteenth century and produce the best maps I’ve ever used. In the interview, cartographer Dave Wareham explains how he uses GPS satellites and OS ground stations to get his measurements to within “a maximum tolerance of 2.6cm.” That’s one inch to you Yanks.

The smallest scale maps are truly amazing, with every fence, building, postbox, and public telephone carefully marked. If you know how to read a map and use a compass, it’s virtually impossible to get lost with one of these in your hand. Unfortunately, a poll back in 2007 discovered that the majority of Brits can’t read maps. If the UK government wasn’t ruthlessly slashing education spending they could add a map-reading course.

It’s nice to see a government project that works well. In the days of GPS and Google Maps, the Ordnance Survey still sells three million copies maps each year. They even turn a profit. My only quibble with the OS maps is that they’re updated only once every three or four years, which isn’t enough in some parts of the country, as I discovered while hiking the East Highland Way.

Still, they’re the best maps you’re going to find. If you’re having trouble shopping for that outdoorsy type in your life, grab some of these to inspire their next hike.

Hiking the East Highland Way–the practicalities


Hiking a brand-new trail has both advantages and challenges. The main plus to hiking the East Highland Way was that I had the trail all to myself. I never did meet that mysterious German who was a day ahead of me, and I met nobody else doing the trail. Hotel owners along the route do report a steady trickle of hikers, and that trickle will only increase. In the short term, however, you will get some peace and quiet on this hike. Another advantage is that you get to feel like a trailblazer, helping out with a work in progress.

Some challenges are apparent from the beginning. While the route already has a website and a Facebook page, there’s no guidebook. The East Highland Way guidebook is due out in a month or so and in the meantime author Kevin Langan can offer helpful advice. Check the website for contact information.

Accommodation requires some planning. If you want a roof over your head at night instead of a tent, your options are limited. Most villages only have one or two places to stay so you need to book well in advance to ensure you have a room. Do not simply walk into a tiny Scottish village in the hopes of getting a room that night. Chances are you won’t, and you might have a long walk before getting to your next chance for a bed. Luckily all of the places I stayed on the route were friendly, helpful, and good value for money. Some, like Tulloch Station, require you to reserve meals ahead of time. All are accustomed to serving hikers as a major part of their business and have useful amenities like drying rooms for soggy gear and information about local trails. Many sell hearty packed lunches, which again need to be reserved in advance.As I commented in a couple of previous posts, the trail is having a bit of a teething problem in that a few short stretches have no trail at all and one is forced to walk along rural roads with no shoulder. This situation is be potentially hazardous and will hopefully be solved in due course. I tended to walk along the grassy side of the road, an awkward way to move but at least it kept me safe from the cars.

While there are some pitfalls to this new route, I don’t hesitate to recommend it. The East Highland Way passes through some beautiful and remote countryside and isn’t crowded like some of the more popular routes like the West Highland Way.

Like with all Scottish hikes it is essential to pack clothes for all conditions. The weather can change from hot and sunny to freezing rain, and everything in between, in the course of a single day. Sturdy, waterproof boots are also a must. A couple of days I needed sunscreen! Getting sunburned and soaked in the same afternoon is a very real possibility in the Highlands. Other essentials are the Ordnance Survey maps numbers 41, 42, and 35. In addition to covering the entire route, these finely detailed maps enrich any hike by pointing out spots of historical importance. Don’t rely on them too closely, however. As I discovered on my final day, the OS maps can be a bit out of date. The guidebook will include sections of these maps with the route clearly marked. Also, a good compass and a sound knowledge of orienteering is essential for any long-distance hiker. Forget the GPS. That’s for wimps!

So if you’re looking for some solitude and scenery in the Highlands, give the East Highland Way a try. With sufficient preparation, you’ll have a great time.

Check out the rest of my series on the East Highland Way!

The East Highland Way day six: strange sculptures and cursed castles


It’s the last day of my hike along the East Highland Way and the trail has given me a special wake-up treat, namely this view of Loch Insh in the early morning. I love this photo because it captures the most alluring aspect of Scottish lochs–the way their placid waters reflect and soften the light. Lochs are the magic mirrors of the Highlands, capturing the surrounding trees and hills and turning them into something ethereal.

Like all the villages I’ve stayed in, Kincraig vanishes within minutes of me setting out. I’m soon back in the countryside. Well, almost. First I have to negotiate a farmer’s field made squishy from yesterday’s rain and then stop to admire the Frank Bruce Sculpture Trail. This local artist, who sadly died last year, carved eerie human images out of trees. He left much of the tree in its original shape, so it looks like the people are growing naturally out of the wood. Sorrowful faces, giant hands, and struggling bodies rise out of the ground between living trees in a quiet woodland. It feels like I’m in the middle of a forest in which some of the trees have suddenly come to life. Bruce’s work is social commentary too. A grieving Third World mother holds her starving baby in front of some fat rich men, while nearby two patriots are locked in a life-or-death struggle.

It’s effective and more than a little creepy. The images stay in my mind until something more troubling occupies my thoughts. The route is taking me through an undulating, forested valley between several hills. Trails crisscross the area and I have to be careful to take the correct one. Soon I run into trouble. I come across a paved road where none appears on the map. I know I’m on the right spot judging from the relative position of the surrounding hills, so this road is a bit of a mystery. Next a few houses appear, also not on the map. For the past five days the Ordnance Survey maps have been meticulously accurate, yet now they show glaring lapses. The explanation is simple–this particular section hasn’t been fully updated since 1998. I was aware of this beforehand, but what could I do? The land has changed drastically. New trails are everywhere, curving away out of sight into the woods going who-knows-where.

%Gallery-100361%Time for a compass reading. I know where I’m headed–a small loch called Loch Gamhna and a bigger one just north of it called Loch an Eilein. From there I head pretty much due north to Aviemore, the final stop on the East Highland Way. Studying the topography (with the reasonable assumption that the shape of the hills hasn’t changed!) I see my route will take me through the gap between two hills ENE of my position. If I follow my compass reading I can get there even if the hills are out of view behind trees.

Just as I finish my reading a middle-aged man appears along the trail with his young daughter.

“Are you lost?” he asks.

“No, thanks. I just needed to take a reading because these maps are outdated.”

“Well,” he says in a haughty voice, “You should spend a little extra for the most up-to-date version.”

“I did, but–“

“Nature is a work in progress, you know,” he interrupts.

“Yeah. I was wondering which of these new trails can take me to–“

“Don’t you have a compass?”

It’s still in my hand. I hold it up.

“I’ve taken a reading, what I’m wondering is–“

“If you’re having trouble reading it I’ll check my GPS for you.”

“Never mind, have a nice day,” I say as I turn and leave.

It’s obvious this guy isn’t going to be any help. He’s playing a game of one-upmanship to impress me and his little girl. She doesn’t look impressed, only bored. I know how she feels.

So off I go following my compass readings. Now and then I get glimpses of the two hills I’m shooting for and I see I’m on track. It would be nice to have confidence in the trail I’m on, though. So far it’s been heading in the right direction, but if it veers off on another course I’ll have to slog through the woods. As I’m taking another reading an elderly man on a mountain bike appears. His face looks about seventy but his body appears half that age.

“Do you need any help?” he asks as he pulls up beside me.

“I’m headed to Loch Gamhna. I’ve taken a reading so I know where I’m going but I was wondering if this trail actually leads there.”

I feel grateful he lets me finish my sentence, unlike the previous guy.

“Yes, the OS maps are all wrong for this area nowadays. I’ve spent many an hour lost around here. If you follow this trail for another mile you’ll come to a cairn at a fork on the trail. Take the righthand path downhill and over a stream. Keep following it and you’ll get there. I see the route on your map has you going on the eastern shore of Loch an Eilein. I suggest following the western shore. There’s a good trail and you’ll get a better view of the castle.”

I thank him and he pedals off. That’s how people should treat one another out in the wilderness. Helpful and no attitude. The first guy was useless. If I had truly been lost, Mr. Superiority could have been downright dangerous.

I follow my friend’s directions and they’re right on target. Over the river and through the woods to Loch Gamhna I go. It’s a marshy little loch with tall grass growing in its shallows. The stalks wave in the increasing wind. Just past it is the large Loch an Eilein. As it comes into view its sparkling waters turn dull. The sky has clouded over. Great gray clouds swoop in from the north. I take the mountainbiker’s advice and head along the western shore to a spot across from a small island. Taking up almost the entire island is a low castle built in the 14th century by Alexander Stewart, the infamous Wolf of Badenoch.

During the Middle Ages he was the terror of Scotland, ruthlessly destroying the opposition in order to assert his authority over much of the Highlands. When the Church opposed him, he even sacked the cathedral at Elgin. This devil in armor is said to still haunt his island stronghold. A local woman tells me that as a child she used to row out to the castle with her family and it always felt uncomfortable there. Someone else tells me the castle gives off a strange echo. I try it, standing directly opposite the gate and giving a short, sharp shout. The shout comes back to me a second later, too slow for it to have bounced off the castle. It must have bounced off the opposite shore, but it sounds like it’s coming from within the battlements. Even stranger, the echo sounds louder than my original shout. I shout again and the echo comes back even louder.

Just then the sky opens up in a torrential downpour. I’ve woken the Wolf of Badenoch in his lair and he’s seriously pissed! I hurriedly don my rain gear and slosh on to Aviemore.

And there my hike ends, at a friendly little village at the heart of Scotland’s hiking culture. People with backpacks are everywhere, converging on this spot from a dozen different trails. Yet I have seen none of them on Scotland’s newest trail–the East Highland Way.

I always feel a tug of regret when finishing a good hike, especially one that has given me six days of serene nature, historic wonders, and insights into my own past. I enjoyed it even more than last year’s journey along the Hadrian’s Wall Path. I always treat myself to a long-distance hike around my birthday to cheer myself up, and when I turn 42 (ugh!) next year you can bet I’ll be back in the Scottish Highlands.

Coming up next: Hiking the East Highland Way, the practicalities.

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

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.