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Over the Hills and Far Away

a sunset over a body of water

Scotland’s Landscapes are open and rich in adventure.

There’s nothing quite like it. All week long you weather watch, what’s going to happen on my days off? Will it be blue skies (yes, it does happen) or am I digging out the heavy waterproofs? Which one of the three different pairs of boots or three different rucksacks will I need? East, West, North or South? Is it for a walk or is it a climbing day? Maybe we need bikes or canoes? Is it a day trip or are we camping? Man all week long you plot, plan and scheme the adventure and then usually, right at the last minute, you change your mind and go do something completely different. The whole process is a giant waste of time and energy, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

With a landscape like ours it almost demands further investigation. We are also so lucky here with our very user-friendly Land Access laws and regulations. Access to the vast majority of the landscape is as simple as common sense allows and very little of it can be considered off limits. What brilliant variety too. Here is the littlest of summaries of what is on offer here. This blog could have been ten times the size, honestly!

The much over-looked Southern hills with their rolling miles, long distance routes and colourful farming land. There are large areas of commercial forestry in the region and this is home to some world class mountain biking. Cheeky wee crags and fantastic sea cliffs all offer great options when the weather turns “pure mince” (awful) further North. Easy access from the centres of population but if you know where to go those tranquil spots can still be found. Secret lochs with lovely brown trout, frying pan and butter in the rucksack. Lunch is served.

Cairngorm National Park – The danger and the awe.

The Cairngorm National Park up in the NE corner is a special place. Distances grow up there, as do the heights. Five of the eight tallest peaks in the UK can be found here. The main plateau of the hills sit consistently above 1000m and 57 degrees North, it’s an Arctic environment and a place worthy of much respect. Stunning cliffs rise from lonely lochs. Perfect wee campsites by tumbling streams. Grouse in perfect camouflage, that when startled from their hiding spot and fly away, give the passer-by a proper fright. Good network of paths and no hunting season to worry about in National Parks. Also a good selection of mountain huts for use in wild places. Known as bothies. Great for meeting other like minded souls or sheltering from that storm when camping looks challenging. Many a fun bothy night had, very few of which could ever be put in print…Overall an incredible environment but one with consequences. Go explore our wild places, but go prepared.

To be honest, during the anticipation phase, you’re mostly hoping for a miracle and the far NW is smiling at you. Aye, it’s a long drive from the big cities in the central belt where most of us live, but once you hit Ullapool and begin to drive North up the A835 it becomes pretty obvious why the effort was made. Up here the distances and heights shrink but the hills offer instead pure character. Suilven, Stac Pollaidh, Cul Beag, Cul Mor, Quirang, Foinavon, Arkle are all about drama and detail. Even their names sound sexy! The nearby Torridon area has a trio of giants held in great regard. Towers of Old Red Torridon sandstone, some with quartz dressings, sit atop 3 billion-year-old Lewisian gneiss and rise dramatically from the shore and on a clear day offer views never forgotten. Pure diamond.

From Glen Coe to Ben Nevis you will need a head for heights.

Mostly though, Glen Coe and the surrounding area was more realistic. But you’re not going to get the peace and quiet these days! On the Northside of the glen sits the Aonach Eagach which translates as the Notched Ridge. A superb, airy traverse along a narrow rocky crest. Never difficult but always exposed. Great fun. Recommended experience for those with a head for heights. In winter with a hard coating of ice and a full moon, it is a thing to make your heart sing. On the Southside lie peaks, hollows, faces, ridges, hidden glens, corries, buttresses and enough terrain to keep you amused for years. This is the perfect place to hone those skills. Ben Nevis, our highest at 1345m, sits just a short distance away. A mountain of great substance.To the experienced stravaiger a playground of almost year round limitless potential. To the inexperienced and naive, and sometimes the unfortunate, a place of rescue helicopters and newspaper headlines. The surrounding Grey Corries and Mamore ranges provide outstanding high-level traverses.

On to the Scottish Islands – A landscape like no other.

Out on the islands much, much fun is to be had. An array of ancient volcanoes to explore. Arran has two great shapely horsehoes of peaks rising from the sea. Mull has wild miles of rough nothingness. Skye and it’s Black Cullin hills provide an air of immediate seriousness unlike anywhere else in the UK. An 11-mile long chain of gabbro and basalt which are almost Alpine in nature. Think sullen charcoal needles standing defiantly, taunting and beckoning in equal measure. A place where apprenticeships end and serious studies begin. Graduation day. Come and play they say, we offer pleasure and memories of a lifetime, the price is pain and study, a fair deal in my book. Nothing worthwhile is easy. Come and play they say, just make sure you know the rules.

Wild about life.

It’s been a fun journey. What started as a naive enthusiasm grew into an absorbing obsession. The love has never changed. So many memories and experiences and friendships won and lost. Camping in a red deer rutting zone during fighting season, 2mm of nylon between me and pointy death. Searching for and finding the Secret Bothy. Getting sick from drinking water from a stream infected by dead sheep. Sunrise on Beinn Macduibh, our second highest. Sunset on Ben Nevis, our highest peak. Lost in the Cairngorms whilst learning the dark art of navigation. Twice. Cullin ridge in a day.Listening to the noise of streams turn into music as I fall asleep in my tent. Always camp by streams, always. Driving 4 hrs to Skye only to find I forgot my boots. Twice. Not some obscure bit of optional kit, but my actual boots. Abandoning all metal and running for cover in electrical storms. Icy peaks under moonlight. Thinking will this frozen loch hold as I walk over, such a bad, bad idea. Long nights in bothies with peat fires, the best of company and empty whisky bottles in the morning,…. plans much shortened for the day ahead! Lonely 16 hour days in thick cloud, hearing footsteps following you and your name being shouted in the wind. A brocken spectre here, the aurora borealis there. Watching the map disappear out of my hands into a white-out, 1000m up on a snowy plateau thanks to an extra violent gust of wind. My companion loved that one. It was a good while until I told him we had a spare map. Oh how we laughed, well I laughed anyway. Watching dippers play in the river and otters sleep on the shore. Ravens teaching the young to fly in the thermals and listening to the croaks of delight. Swooped by a golden eagle whilst balancing along a high exposed crest. Even met the fairies once, but that my friends, is another story.

Scotland is a way of life.

Thanks for reading. It’s really just me sharing a little love for my land. Sounds simple but the journey has been life changing and life affirming. I am who I am today because of these hills and the skills and confidence and chance meetings they provided. The Alps and Canadian Rockies became firm friends. If you come to play in our hills, take care, much love and maybe see you out there?

Writing things like this make me realise just how lucky we are.

Written by Mark Ruis – Tour Guide