Wednesday 10 May 2017

Taking on Scotland's bothies - Strathchailleach

bothy /ˈbɒθi/ noun
(in Scotland) a small hut or cottage, especially one for housing farm labourers or for use as a mountain refuge.

Strathchailleach bothy is a short detour from the Cape Wrath trail, one of the most remote parts of Scotland and I was lucky to drop in here a couple of summers ago for a brief lunch stop.

Starting from Kinlochbervie, Neil, my walking friend, and I had camped at the stunning Sandwood bay overnight. It had been a wet and windy night, with very little sleep. After a breakfast of porridge and prunes we started towards Cape Wrath, the most north-westerly point of British mainland.

Sandwood bay Scotland
Sandwood bay

Sandwood bay Scotland
Camping in Sandwood bay

Sandwood bay Scotland
Stunning Sandwood bay

Soon we hit the bog. Walking through mud, slosh and water, trying to find a solid foothold was tiring. The midges were out with vengeance, making it annoyingly uncomfortable. The fragrance of the Bog Myrtle was heavy in some pockets, providing brief respite from their nasty bites. My energy was draining fast and the knowledge about complete inaccessibility in these extreme remoteness was fast eating into my spirits. With no human settlement for miles around and no phone signal, it was intimidating. Lack of sleep, walking through peaty bogs and fending swarms of midges, I had started to whine and moan. Neil suggested we take a break at the bothy, but my aching muscles and dwindling spirit was reluctant to take the detour. But Neil kept insisting and I am glad he did or else it would have been difficult for me to finish the walk and at the same time deprive me of a unique experience.

Strathchailleach bothy Scotland
The bothy appears in sight

Strathchailleach bothy Scotland
Strathchailleach bothy

Strathchailleach bothy Scotland
From the front with its pretty red door

Strathchailleach bothy Scotland
A few rustic benches outside

The bothy indeed presented a welcome stop. The best part was, it provided dry ground to put down our packs and rest the backs. After a brief rest it was time for food, meant a visit  to the kitchen. And surprise! A house with the most basic amenities, located in such remoteness had this incredible backsplash. This was nothing I had ever seen before neither did I expect. Turns out, this place was called home by a James Macrory-Smith for thirty two years and these murals are his handiwork.

Strathchailleach bothy Scotland murals
The kitchen murals as our Scotch dumplings are getting fried

Neil butter fried the Scotch dumplings for a much needed high sugar, high calorie treat (sans fried eggs which he kept complaining about). The utensils were washed in the river and all rubbish packed in our bag's designated compartment. Energised, I looked around the place while Neil filled up the visitor log.

It is incredible anyone could call such remoteness their home for thirty two years. James Macrory-Smith had left his identity in the murals he had painted. There were three rooms, one with a basic wooden platform to sleep on, the second room was used as the lounge with a fireplace and basic seating and finally the kitchen with the murals. Here is his story as written on a board in the lounge. 

'This isolated house is thought to be the last on mainland Scotland that was lived in as a permanent dwelling without any services. No piped water, sewerage services, electricity or gas. No postal services and no road.
This was the adopted home of JAMES-MACRORY-SMITH who lived here as a recluse for thirty two years. Better known as 'SANDY', he walked out for his pension to Balchrick Post Office and on to the shop, The London Stores beyond Kinlochbervie for his supplies, ususally spending some time at the bar of the Garbet Hotel. His return route sometimes took him to the footbridge of Strathan where he sometimes overnighted, though he always described it as a cold house. This walk is about twenty one miles in all and Sandy did this every week - Winter & Summer.

Sandy had some other abilities as witnessed by his artwork on these walls. He was also known to be an astrologer. What kept him here for so long? The writer believes it was the close proximity of the finest naturally drying peat bank in the north. Sandy was rarely without a cosy fire.

About 1996 he moved out to caravan accommodation in K.L.B. After a short illness he died on 20th April 1999 at Raigmore Hospital, Inverness aged 73 years, and now lies at rest in the nearby cemetery at Shiegra. Over the recent year Sandy was, I believe, the living ghost seen by many in the Bay of Sandwood. Now he is the real one.'

Strathchailleach bothy Scotland
Looking at the lounge from the bedroom through the corridor

Strathchailleach bothy Scotland
Memories of James Macrory-Smith

Rested, I was now ready to take on the bogs again. The bothy had served its purpose, a welcome shelter for everyone visiting Scotland's outdoors. But we still had to cross the river flowing beside the bothy. After last night's rain it was flowing fast, meant a tricky crossing. As I had anticipated from my previous walking experiences, there was a fall. However, incredibly for a change, it was the infallible Neil who slipped this time instead of me. Thankfully it was a hot day and he would soon dry up. We had a good laugh as we continued on our walk - Kearvaig would be for tonight.

Read about Kearvaig here - Taking on Scotland's bothies - Kearvaig

Taking on Scotland's bothies - Kearvaig

bothy /ˈbɒθi/ noun
(in Scotland) a small hut or cottage, especially one for housing farm labourers or for use as a mountain refuge.

Kearvaig bothy, the only bothy where I have stayed overnight but had the experience of a lifetime. Though, given its accessibility from Durness by a bus service (infrequent, but still existing) makes it not as remote as many of the others dotted around the Scottish wilderness. However once here, you can definitely soak in the incredible ambience of true Scottish wilderness.

After a long tiring day walking through the peat bogs of the Cape Wrath trail (and visiting Strathchailleach bothy on the way which I wrote about in my previous post. You can read about it here Taking on Scotland's bothies - Strathchailleach) Neil, my walking friend and I finally reached Cape Wrath, the most north westerly point of the British mainland.

Cape Wrath Scotland
Cape Wrath lighthouse - the most north westerly point of mainland Britain

It was late afternoon. The lighthouse on the cliff is another of the Stevenson's constructions standing against the ravages of the North Atlantic ocean. This is the most north westerly point of the British mainland. Though the name rings of nature's ravages visible in its rough and rugged terrain, actually in old Norse it means the Turning Point, definitely an important navigational point in the old times.

Bog walking isn't easy and I say I earned my diploma in bog walking on this particular outing. My legs were tired and the boots were soaked in the peaty bog. A few blisters were raising their harsh heads. Kearvaig was about an hour away, but the thought of putting another step forward was daunting, but it had to be done.

It seemed a much longer walk than the 3 miles to my tired and sore legs. We walked on a track through a desolate landscape, it was grassland and rolling hills as far as the eyes could see, the sea keeping us company on our left. The area is used for military training and during the period the road is closed as live ammunition hits the ground. A timetable is published by the MOD and needs to be checked for planning a visit.

I was keeping a snail's pace, but Neil, staying true to the spirits of a walking partner was keeping me cheerful. Despite smothering myself in Smidges and stuffing my pockets with Bog Myrtle, the midges were relentless. We passed the Cathedral stacks to our left and knew the bay wasn't far away. Soon we were on our final descend, glad I had made it.

Cape Wrath Scotland
The stacks of the Cathedral rock, sea birds nesting grounds

The sun had already set, leaving golden streaks in the sky above the sea. The bay was surrounded by cliffs and between them stood the bothy, a silhouette, as the west sky still glowed in the twilight. It was a heavenly picture and a photograph I have shared over a number of times on my page. The welcome couldn't have been any more majestic.

Cape Wrath Kearvaig Scotland
Kearvaig bothy at sunset

There were already people staying in the bothy. Given its accessibility by bus from Durness, it is often visited by people wanting to cherish its wild, secluded atmosphere. The place is still without electricity, sewerage and running water. There was smoke from the chimney - an inviting sight after a long and tiring day.

Some say the bothy is haunted. A lady, an artist, had mysteriously died here a few years ago and the stories taking shape from there. Though the truth is, she was found by some walkers on the edge of death, emaciated. She was then airlifted, but died in the hospital a couple of days later. The mystery still remains as to how a young woman, experienced in surviving the wilderness, get herself to the limit of starvation.

We carried our backpacks up the steep wooden ladder to the upper floor on tired legs, lighting up our way with head torches. There were two large rooms in the upper storey separated by a landing. Someone had helpfully left a couple of sleeping mats in the room, a welcome find since I wasn't carrying any. It would be a little more comfort than just a sleeping bag on bare floor. Downstairs was another room, which the other occupants had taken up. This one had wooden platforms for bed. The young group of boys had arrived by the bus from Durness. From the room a corridor led to the kitchen, the main entrance door to the right of the corridor, a hall to the left from where the ladder led upstairs. A couple of spades were hanging from the corridor wall, a reminder of the lack of facilities, a much needed accessory when answering nature's call in the wild.

The kitchen had a long table with benches and a fireplace. The boys had found some wood and had started a fire. A couple of tea-lights on the table provided what little illumination the place had. There was another room behind the kitchen where a girls' group had put up. They were planning to spend a couple of days in the bothy.  

The company was good, but unlike them, we had a long walk and craving for sleep. Neil made a dinner of spiced couscous as I tried to help by chopping some vegetables we had in the bag, for an added zing. The tea lights were dying so dinner had to be finished by head torches. This was followed by washing up in the river by the bothy, I made sure I kept the moral support going for Neil.

I stood in the dark, smelling the sea breeze, hearing the waves crashing on the cliffs. There was still a faint glow in the summer night sky through the cloud cover. Scotland cannot give more than one day of clear skies. A few raindrops barely made it to the ground in the strong sea breeze. The only sign of life was in the bothy amidst the miles of remoteness that surrounded us. It was time for bed.

Fortunately I was carrying my ear plugs, so even with the ruckus in the kitchen I could sleep in the room right above and keep warm from the heat of the fire. Neil had to escape to the next room and was soon joined by another tired walker who had tried in vain to sleep downstairs. The young group was probably up all night.

Kearvaig bothy Scotland
Kearvaig bay - early morning

My boots were still soggy despite staying out on a windy ledge overnight. I walked barefoot to the beach, feet too sore for any cover, even flip-flops. The waves were crashing dramatically on the cliff faces in the early morning high tide. It was mesmerising and I stood frozen there, almost hypnotised by its wild beauty. Neil went for a little hike up the cliffs for a closer view of the Cathedral rocks. I tried to accompany him but after taking a couple of steps had to give up on the idea of any more walks.

Kearvaig bothy Scotland
Bothy by the beach

Kearvaig bothy Scotland
A misty morning

Kearvaig bothy Scotland
Time to leave

We left after a late breakfast. One of the girls was chopping firewood for the night.

Braving midges we waited for the bus but it was full, meant waiting for the next one which the driver assured us would not be long. It was another hour before we were on the rickety ride to Kyle of Durness. From here a boat would take us across the water to Keoldale. Once on the mainland we would walk to Durness, or probably try hitchhiking.

Kearvaig bothy Scotland
The bus leaves without taking us

Monday 1 May 2017

Edinburgh's charming Old town

Morning in Edinburgh, the first light washing the castle in its golden glow.

Edinburgh, the capital city of Scotland.

Alongside being the political capital, Edinburgh also counts as the historical and cultural capital of Scotland on the visitor's map. For over a decade I have been lucky to call the place my home. Though I did leave the country intermittently, but was never away for long. And on every return, as the flight touched down, I felt the familiar warmth in my heart, of returning home.

Surprisingly for a capital city, the place emits a 'small town' feel like no other. Probably my reason of falling in love with it even more. The city is built on seven hills, similar to Rome, and at its very heart is the Castle rock, a rocky crag, an ancient volcanic plug. Perched on its top, dominating the city skyline is one of the world's most photographed castles.

Edinburgh castle has been a medieval royal residence and fortress and in its history of over a thousand years, one of the most attacked places in the world too.

Edinburgh castle Scott Monument view from Salisbury craig
Edinburgh castle with the dark spire of the Gothic Scott monument

The castle esplanade stands high above the city providing a spectacular viewpoint, highly enhanced on a clear, sunny day. The city stretches around it as far as the eyes can see.

The south-west horizon is taken up by the Pentland hills rising beyond the city limits and the big hump of Arthur's seat and Salisbury crags is to the northeast. Below, and surrounding the castle, is the Old town, the medieval city that still lives on alongside the modern world. The city has been built on different levels, which is clearly visible from this elevated viewpoint. You can see the impressive building of George Heriot's school straight ahead as the different levels of old buildings gradually melt into the much newer Edinburgh. On a Saturday morning you might even catch a glimpse of the blue and white tents of the Farmer's market on the Castle Terrace. A freshly fried buffalo burger from here is a good way to start a morning walk.

Walk around the esplanade and though the view to the east is restricted, the distinct red and white cluster of buildings of Ramsay Gardens with their sloping roofs paint a pretty picture. Behind these would be Calton hill topped by the observatory, Nelson's monument and the distinct neo-classical structure of the National monument. This was designed after the Parthenon of Athens but by many, is considered a folly, a misfit. Having run out of funds, the structure was never finished.

Beyond Calton hill, from the mix of old and new structures of the city, church spires reach out to the sky till the gaze meets the blue waters of the Firth of Forth in the north.

Still looking north but much closer, a busy city life unfolds across the gardens in Princes street. Located at the edge of the eighteenth century New town, the buildings on Princes street are from different eras. Some are ornate, some stark, standing side by side in strict discipline. The pavement below is overrun by shoppers, visitors and the daily bread-earners as double-decker buses, and now the trams, ply the street beside them. And finally you turn around to the castle on the west, a grand entrance across the moat.

The castle is the most popular tourist site in Scotland and is definitely worth a visit. If history doesn't interest you, then definitely visit for the views.

Every year during August, the festival month, the castle esplanade explodes in a medley of lights, colours, music and the harmonious rhythm of marching feet. This is where the Edinburgh Military Tattoo takes place almost on all nights of the festival against the spectacular backdrop of the castle.

Edinburgh Military Tattoo on the castle esplanade
Military Tattoo on the castle esplanade

Edinburgh Old Town West Bow
West Bow

Edinburgh Old Town Victoria Street
Victoria Street

The Old town has an eclectic mix of traditional and modern pubs, restaurants and fast food joints serving food from around the globe, quaint little cafes brushing shoulders with international ones, souvenir shops and tattoo parlours dot the Old town. The place is always busy with tourists and students alike as this is where the old University of Edinburgh is located too.

From the castle esplanade the Royal Mile slopes downwards to the east, all the way to the Palace of Holyrood House. Comprising of four streets Castlehill, High Street, Lawnmarket and Canongate, this is the heart of Old town. As the name suggests, the Royal Mile stretches for a 'Scottish mile' joining the two royal residences. The palace is the queen's official residence in Scotland where she still holds her summer tea parties. Beside the palace is the new Scottish Parliament, a modern structure which has been the cause of controversies, not only for what happens within its walls.

Walking the Royal Mile is a must when visiting Edinburgh. Its cobbled stoned streets lined by old tenement buildings standing cosily against each other, only interrupted by its many closes, passages made between buildings which lead to lower streets, courtyards and gardens. This is how the different levels of Old town are connected - closes, steep stairs and narrow wynds. Be adventurous and walk down them to find where they lead to. Some of these places are half a century old and you can imagine they wouldn't be as perfectly cobbled stoned as they are now. They would have been used by the common people in their daily commute to the various markets as their names suggest.

Close, Edinburgh
Old Fishmarket Close - Leading to Cowgate.

Close, Edinburgh
Advocate close - leading down to Cockburn street.

The old buildings on the Royal Mile now house museums, souvenir shops, pubs and restaurants. As your travel brochure will tell, many significant architectural structures and important buildings line the Royal Mile, each of which are worth a visit. But if you can do only one, make it the St Giles' Cathedral, an important place of worship of the Church of Scotland. Entry is free and you are welcome to make a small donation. The interiors are no doubt impressive but visit the Thistle chapel and you will definitely be awestruck by its extraordinary wood carvings.

St Gile's Cathedral Edinburgh
St Giles Cathedral entrance

St Gile's Cathedral Edinburgh
A quiet Royal Mile and St Gile's cathedral on a winter evening

Exiting the cathedral, walk around the courtyard and see if you can spot the Heart of Midlothian. Behind St Giles is the old Parliament building which you can visit as well. Walk down, past Cockburn street, which deserves a visit too, and you reach the North and South Bridges. In the corner lie the Tron kirk, which hosts a Scottish food and craft market inside.

The bridges connect the Royal Mile in Old town with Princes street in the New town. Below the South Bridge, hidden away in its impressive arches, are the old vaults. These were built during the late eighteenth century to house shops and taverns. However the place wasn't weatherproof and soon became uninhabitable, to be taken over by the many dark characters who hounded the city. The vaults were blocked up for safety reasons and were only discovered as late as 1985. These can now be visited through tour companies.

Cross the bridges and continue your walk downhill, walking past the fifteenth century John Knox house standing out from its surrounding buildings with its striking exteriors, the Canongate kirkyard and the Old Tolbooth tavern. Keep an eye for the various wellheads you will find dotted around the Royal Mile, the only source of water for the common people during the medieval times.

Watching the old town rise all around you as you walk, it is very difficult to stick to your planned route and to not wander. Travel brochures lists down the places to visit and the main sights to see. But they do not prepare you for the impact when you actually walk here. Every street you pass invites you with its intrigue and you will definitely miss out on seeing the real Edinburgh if you do not follow your instincts. So drop your plans and head where your heart wants, speak to the locals and you will definitely see the Edinburgh that does not appear in the travel brochures.

Royal Mile Cowgate Edinburgh
Niddrie streets through Cowgate leading to the Royal Mile 

Old Tolbooth tavern Edinburgh
Walking down the Royal Mile at Old Tolbooth Tavern

Walking the Royal Mile is like walking through history, tinted with the colours of modern day tourism. The reason I find, that the best time for a leisurely walk is on a late Sunday afternoon, especially during the short winter days. In the dark and cold, as the last few hours remain of the weekend, you will barely find another soul around. At least not the ones you can see but then, there maybe some which you can't.

With its medieval world charm and the bagpipers playing in the background, it is easy to lose yourself in the romanticism of the old town. But the place holds a secret deep within, and a gory one too. Hiding from plain view, buried under the streets of Old town, lies the old city, the city of the dead.

The Great Plague of 1645 killed more than half of Edinburgh's population. The only way to escape certain death was to run, abandoning the victims. The result, hundreds of plague victims were bricked up in their homes and left to die. A new life started above them in a new city. It is believed that the spirits of the victims still live on under the streets in the haunted vaults and alleys. Ghost tour operators run regular trips in this forgotten city. Ghosts are always a top tourist draw.

Edinburgh Scotland Royal Mile
Royal mile shops

Edinburgh Scotland Royal Mile
Phone booths on Royal Mile

Edinburgh Scotland Royal Mile
Greyfriar's bobby as the world moves around it

Edinburgh Scotland Greyfriar's bobby
Greyfriar's bobby
Walking the popular historical centre during busy summer weekends can be overwhelming. However, escaping from its hustle and bustle is not too difficult either.

Nearby, to the south of the castle is the Meadows, a public park with vast green fields and tree lined paths. At the other end of the town, where the Royal Mile ends in the east, lies the gigantic open space of Holyrood park.

The Holyrood park is the result of another ancient volcanic activity, the marks clearly visible in the geology of the surrounding hills and the crags of Salisbury. The hills rise to their highest point at Arthur's seat. At 251m, this is Edinburgh's highest point and provides amazing views of the city and the Lothians. The lush green ancient volcanic landscape also has three pretty lochs of St Margaret, Dunsapie and Duddingston, home to a wide variety of birds.

Edinburgh Meadows Arthur's seat
The Meadows with Arthur's seat in the distance 

Edinburgh Meadows Arthur's seat Scotland
Arthur's seat from the Meadows

I have spent many weekends walking the Old town, with or without a camera, finding hidden corners I have never visited before. I never knew where a close or a street will lead to, but more often than not, there was a surprise waiting.

In the Old town, there is no worry about getting lost, because only by losing your way is how you discover the true spirit of the place. But if it indeed worries you, look around and the distinctive shape of Arthur's seat towering over the city will guide you back.

Edinburgh Holyrood park Salisbury craig Scotland
Holyrood park from Salisbury craig