Is Scotland the next big adventure travel destination?

It’s no secret that the adventure travel market is booming. It is estimated that that segment of the travel industry generated $89 billion in revenue in 2009 alone, and 2010 is expected to be another banner year. One destination that is helping to contribute to that massive revenue is Scotland, a country that already garners more than $1.4 billion in adventure travel per year, and yet analysts are forecasting an increase in the number of visitors to the country of more than 70% over the next three years.

More than 3.2 million adventure trips were booked to Scotland in 2008 and with the predicted increase for the years ahead, travel companies are already ramping up to help meet the demand. New options for hiking, cycling, and paddling in Scotland are in the works, offering plenty of active adventures for travelers looking to explore the country’s varied landscapes.

The most popular draw for adventure travelers is undoubtedly a multi-day hike through the famed Scottish Highlands. Those treks can consist of a few days of short day hikes while staying in luxurious accommodations or up to ten full days of walking during which travelers stay in simple inns each night. The trails pass through low lying mountains covered in mist and heather that are surprisingly rugged, and breathtakingly beautiful.

Many of those same mountain trails are also accessible by mountain bike, which make them a lure for an entirely different crowd. Road cyclists will find plenty to enjoy as well, albeit on the quaint roads that wind through the Scottish countryside. Kayaking and canoeing are also popular ways to explore the Highlands and the country’s famous Lochs, while the beautiful rocky coastlines offer some of the best sea kayaking found anywhere on the planet. Mix in a rich history and culture, and you have all the best ingredients for your next adventure trip.

With so much to see and

[Photo credit: Warwick Bradly via WikiMedia]

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 five: exploring Scottish heritage

Newtonmore is the biggest village I’ve stayed in since starting the East Highland Way. With a population of 1,000, you could almost call it a town. It’s pleasant, with lots of interesting shops and pubs, yet feels too big and claustrophobic after hiking through the Scottish wilderness yesterday. I need to get back on the trail.

Before leaving town I can’t miss The Highland Folk Museum. This remarkable outdoor museum has recreated shops, homes, farms, and businesses from all eras of Scottish history. Well, they’re not all recreated. They’ve actually collected many genuine historic buildings from all across Scotland and display them on 80 acres of land. Costumed workers who really know their history hang around and tell you about them. Think Colonial Williamsburg with kilts. Sadly, this remarkable glimpse into Scotland’s heritage may close due to budget cuts. Welcome to the Age of Austerity, where the past is discarded and the future uncertain.

I spend all morning exploring thatched roof huts, a one-room schoolhouse, and a sawmill that would never pass modern health and safety regulations. It’s all so fascinating that it’s early afternoon before I set out for Kincraig, my next stop. One problem with the new trail is that some parts are still along paved road, and for a time I’m skirting the edge of a busy thoroughfare. Thankfully there aren’t too many of these stretches. It’s no fun walking along a country road with no shoulder. At least the drivers are understanding. Mostly.

Soon I come to Ruthven Barracks. This old stronghold of English power sits proudly on a hill, its walls still intact although the interior and roof are now gone. During the rebellion of 1745-6 it was nearly abandoned as all available troops went off to fight the Jacobite rebels. Only a dozen men remained to defend it as 200 Highlanders converged on the garrison. Hiding behind stone walls and firing out of the gun ports, the English fought the Scottish off. Then Scots came back with artillery and the English did the smart thing and surrendered.

Not long afterwards on a waterlogged moor called Culloden, the Scottish and English armies met in battle. The MacLachlans, my ancestors, stood on the left flank. About six thousand Highlanders, some Lowlanders, some French soldiers, some Irish, and even a few English stood with them. The Jacobites wanted to put the House of Stuart on the throne and were led by Charles Stuart, better known as Bonnie Prince Charlie. The English army, supporting the reigning King George II of the House of Hanover, prepared to meet them with a larger and better-armed force.

%Gallery-100286%My ancestors stood proudly in line as the English artillery opened up on them. They waved their swords in the air and boasted how they were going to kill the English. They must have felt proud that one of their kinsmen, the repetitively named Lachlan MacLachlan, was one of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s top officers. Some sources say he was in charge of supplies, but if so he did a crap job because the Jacobites went hungry much of the time.

Cannonballs ripped through the Scottish lines. The right flank could stand no more and charged without getting orders. Bonnie Prince Charlie sent Lachlan MacLachlan off to the left flank to get them moving too, but a cannonball decapitated him before he could deliver the message. Eventually the MacLachlans and the rest of the left flank surged forward, eager to kill the English. They soon got mired in boggy ground, and the famous Highland Charge that had destroyed the English army at the Battle of Prestonpans ground to a halt. The Scottish ranks staggered under withering volleys of musket fire. The right flank had reached the English, but soon got cut off and wiped out. Within half an hour nearly a third of the Jacobite army lay dead or wounded on the field and the rest fled for their lives. The MacLachlans never even reached the English lines.

So my ancestors never got to kill any Englishmen. I can’t say I’m sorry. Why would I wish any harm to the English? They brew such good beer.

Ruthven Barracks had one more chapter to play in the Jacobite uprising. The day after the disaster at Culloden a few thousand Highlanders gathered here, defiantly declaring that they would continue the fight. Soon the sad news came from Bonnie Prince Charlie saying the cause was lost and they should save themselves. Perhaps there were a few MacLachlans among the disappointed men. Perhaps not. Most of them lay dead on the battlefield. They would lie unburied for many days until being heaped into a mass grave.

Beyond Ruthven Barracks the East Highland Way winds through fields and woodland before skirting the edge of Loch Insh. It has finally stopped raining. The clouds break and a surprisingly warm sun glints off the loch’s placid waters. This is typical Scottish weather, what one Scot described to me as “four seasons in one day.” You have to bring clothing for all seasons, and keep your raincoat strapped to the webbing on the outside of your pack for quick access.

I stand looking at the loch and thinking of the folly of my ancestors. To rally around one monarch to overthrow another seems ridiculous to a modern mind, and perhaps it did to them too. Whatever they thought, their feudal clan system did not allow for dissent.

To be perfectly honest I really don’t care that they lost. I’ve never been one for secondhand patriotism. I have Irish ancestors too but I don’t drink green Guinness on St. Patrick’s Day. Guinness is an odd choice for wannabe Irish patriots anyway, considering that Arthur Guinness was a Unionist, the brewery is currently owned by a company based in London, and the brewery may have played a willing part suppressing the Easter Uprising. (Interesting photo here)

So no green Guinness for me, and I’m not going to moan about the disaster at Culloden just because a bunch of my relatives got killed there. If they hadn’t been, someone else’s family would have. It’s not like I’m the only person with a mass grave in my family’s past. At least mine has a marker.

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

Coming up next: Strange sculptures and cursed castles!

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.