Summer had arrived in Fort William, and the town was baking beneath the scrutiny of an unblinking sun. Call me a sceptic, but given the weather that we typically see in this part of the world in July I was neither expecting nor coping with it. I finished the meticulous packing of my frame bag, looking for the perfect piece of kit to fill the awkward shaped hole that was left, becoming hotter and more lethargic by the minute. Small herds of happy tourists ambled along the cobbles – elderly couples holding hands, or wide-eyed backpackers holding their rucksack straps and looking stuck somewhere between excitement and mild confusion. An enormous woman rumbled past, orbited by several sticky children wielding ice creams. The smells of hot tarmac and diesel fumes from the West Highland railway joined those of the sea and mown grass.
Sorry, I make it sound like a Mediterranean seaside town. For those who don’t share the warped Scottish view of what constitutes a heat wave, we’re talking mid-twenties here, and one of the rare days when sun cream is not just a token gesture. For which I am eternally grateful, of course, but I felt the need to escape the suntrap of tall buildings and hot concrete and into the mountains. I was looking forward to the chance to be alone for a few days, to ride and ride, and to be unsure of what I would find when I carried on riding some more.
Although I was heading into the empty land beyond the sleepy B&Bs and tourist shops, I was conscious that the glens of the West highlands haven’t always been a wilderness destination. Within living memory they were home to people, crofters who worked the land and saw them as the centre of their world rather than the margin. Spinning my legs up Glen Nevis, I was glad for the shade offered by the trees in full leaf. I passed the farm at Achintee, where seemingly hundreds of hikers were limbering up for their assault on Ben Nevis. Shorts and sunglasses were uniform; there was almost a festival atmosphere as so many gathered to celebrate the brief season when Scotland’s mountains seem to welcome rather than forbid. The tumbling River Nevis narrowed and steepened as I reached the road-head, and the super technical path to Steall Falls sharpened up my riding.
It happens every year, but I am amazed nonetheless by just how green the highlands are at midsummer. The drab browns and yellows of autumn and winter are tinged with yellow-green in spring, at least where the snow isn’t still lingering, but come July the seemingly infertile ground leaps skywards and there is a palpable sense of brief but joyful life. Luckily for us, all that growing uses up a lot of water, and I found the ground was pretty firm beneath my tyres, even if the grass was threatening to swallow the trail at some points. I left the well-built path sometime after Steall Falls, and struck further west still, following the Nevis as my guide. I passed a rusted gate, which allowed passage through a fence that no longer existed. Slowly, humans are retreating from the remoter parts of the land, abandoning our arbitrary boundaries and divisions, allowing the traveller to locate themselves within the natural boundaries of river and glen.
It was late morning when I arrived at Meadhanach bothy. The name is gaelic, and means ‘the middle place’, which seemed fitting as I ate my oatcakes and surveyed the scene. It sits at the meeting of two glens, beside the crystal upper reaches the Abhainn rath. To us, it is a remote place, a refuge for those who have come far from modern comforts and ‘civilisation’. For someone though, not so long ago, it was the very middle of their world, and the heavy soil of the little glen was farmed for oats or barley. As much as I tried, the idea of homeliness didn’t quite fit with this little stone cottage, alone and isolated from the rest of the world out here among the mountains. I pictured the scene here in January, where the days are blustery snapshots wedged between long, cold nights. I wouldn’t want to be here then. I thanked the weather gods again for smiling on me today, and began to follow the little river further west.
A brief note on highland ecology is needed. The fearsome Scottish midge, that pint-sized package of misery, is well known and bemoaned by many. On their own they are hardly a nuisance, but on a windless evening beside a loch, when they swarm so thick and fast that they’re making a significant contribution to your daily protein intake, they’re enough to drive anyone over the brink of insanity. Luckily, in the bright sunshine and breeze of midday the midges were biding their time. However, there is another airborne terror that I hadn’t counted on. If you imagine a delta-wing jet, but make it smaller and more vicious, then you have a good approximation of a cleg. They’re about the size of a bluebottle, and unfortunately for me inhabit upland grassy areas in Scotland during the summer months. Their bite hurts quite enough at the time, but a few days later it swells and itches to buggery, while also oozing all over your clothes. Lovely. I had two of them following me now; one would try to fly up my nose in a effort to distract me, while the other would land discreetly on my leg and tuck in. I tried to outrun them, but the trail had become boggy and slow-going. After ten minutes I had picked up six or seven travelling companions, and was beginning to crack. The only solution was to stop, hands raised and eyes on the lookout – float like butterfly, sting like bee – and squash it lightning fast before it had time to bite. It worked, mostly. I had to repeat this process every ten minutes or so until all the flies were dead. It became a long afternoon.
The sun was still high when I passed Staoineag bothy. This too used to be a homestead, and inside was a newspaper clipping of an interview with a man who had grown up here as a boy. I read it while I ate, and his words began to create a more human landscape than the one I had ridden through. He recalled a spot, halfway between Staoineag and Meadhanach, where the two crofting families would meet after the harvest was in, to relax and celebrate with a ceilidh on a flat patch. I wondered how close I had come that afternoon to an area that held happy memories for just a few forgotten people. Looking at the river outside, still running its rocky course between rowan trees, I thought I just might be able to imagine a life here, meeting my neighbours five miles away to dance in the summer grass. I celebrated myself, escaping the heat with a swim in a pool, and dripped merrily along to the next bothy on my route beside Loch Chiarain.
Chiarain was the place that made me see why so many families had remained here in the hills even while the towns and cities elsewhere in Scotland grew. A dot on the horizon was the cottage, nestled between glowing hills with the lochain at its feet; the singletrack trail between me and my destination looped and curved around folds in the land, and it was all mine. It’s tempting, sometimes, to let the romantic overtake the reality, and to forget that for those that lived here, who commited more to the land than my fleeting visit, life would have been almost unrecognisably hard. This splendid isolation might soothe a need to be apart and separate from a busy world, but ego-massaging doesn’t erase the fact that I can go back to modern conveniences and security at the drop of a hat. I don’t have to be here, I’m just a tourist. Still, I was thankful to have chosen this particular moment to come and be a tourist. Time for more wild swimming, before many cups of tea to accompany a golden sunset. It had been along day travelling, but Chiarain was homely, the opposite of foreboding wilderness. Someone made a good choice to live here.
The morning was cool – mists draped over reed beds and the purple sky reflected in the heather blooms. As cosy as I was in my sleeping bag, I was up before the dawn as I had another long day ahead. Leaving the bothy was a drawn-out process; excuses were found to spend just five more minutes watching the emerging sun splash gold from between the hills. One more photo, one more turn of the head as the loch recedes. The trail drew me on and down towards the Blackwater reservoir, which hangs brooding in its high glen above the village of Kinlochleven. It’s a reservoir rather than a loch, flooded in the early 20th century to harness the water for industrial aims and power the aluminium works in the village below. Loch Leven is still recovering from the corruption of its waters from the aluminium smelting, but its story of slow recovery from exploitation and degradation is mirrored in many places, where trees and wild space are being given a chance to grow back out from beneath heavy human hands.
The deep, black water was another reminder that this is not a wilderness: human hands have played a part in almost every highland scene. In the patchwork quilt of a scorched and barren grouse moor to the mossy ruins of what was once a home in a now empty glen, we have been here before, and we cannot help but leave our mark. In a country that sells its own brand of rugged wildness to international tourists falling over themselves for a piece of the Braveheart experience, perhaps it sounds like sacrilege to say that we have no wilderness. Maybe it does, and when I first thought about the land in those terms, as a false image of wildness, it was a realisation that I wished I hadn’t had. It’s too much to hope for, though, that a small island in a populated part of the world would have escaped human hands for this long. We have chopped, cleared, burned and shot our way through the forests and wildlife of this country over the course of several millennia, and what faces us today is not the dark forest and wild moor that greeted the first people to arrive here after the ice gifted the land back to us. Change is inevitable though – it would be naïve to expect that wilderness to remain in a world where we can tweet what we cooked in the Jetboil from our sleeping bag, and buy a ticket to fly halfway across the world for the cost of a month’s rent. Was I thinking about the human changes to the landscape as the sun came up that morning? No, I was watching it burn the mist and shoot between the same hills that it has always shot through, and which it will continue to do so whether I am still alive or not. We have only changed the surface of the land as we temporarily inhabit it, but the deeper character beneath is made of sterner stuff. The bothy that I was leaving behind might be a small part of a wider human tendency to exploit and destroy, but in itself it is an addition made by people who lived with and depended on the land for their lives, and my own story is made richer by sleeping where they slept, and following trails that they walked.
Even the reservoir has a human story, in the form of the pitifully small gravestones in a tiny cemetery below the walls of the dam, the only monument to the men who dies in its making. I rode on the concrete surface of the conduit that carries water from the reservoir down to the pipes of the aluminium works, a mossy highway through birch and rowan trees, until I joined the trail known as the Devil’s Staircase, and began the long climb up and over a saddle before dropping into Glencoe. The thing about bikes is that despite themselves they are quiet, and the more adventurous early morning walkers climbing out of the glen were a little surprised to see big rubber tyres bouncing down the hill towards them at that early hour. It was only 7am but already the heat was building (i.e. I was wearing a t-shirt and not hypothermic), but the miles began to tick by as I joined the old military road crossing the wastes of Rannoch Moor. The military roads, built to help English armies travel to control the rebellious highlands in the 18th century, are themselves signs of our need to control and tame difficult landscapes, but now I needed it to be able to travel myself. The contradiction of our desire for wild places is that they would be no fun if you couldn’t get there.
The final section of the ride took me back to the sea, to the fishing town of Oban, but not with out a rollercoaster ride down Glen Kinglass to the mouth of Glen Etive at Taynuilt. All the while I passed the shapes of former settlements, despite the modern day emptiness of the remote West Highland glens. Only Glenkinglass Lodge gave a human presence to the baking earth, and my stops to refill water from burns became more and more frequent. It would be too great an irony to suffer from dehydration in the wettest corner of our island, but summer was getting well and truly carried away with itself. I would have given anything for the cool mists of the morning at Chiarain, which now seemed to have been a very long time ago, as of distance and time become the same thing when the day’s rhythm is dictated by the turning of cranks and the rolling of the trail.
As I returned to the busy parallel reality of tourists and motorhomes, spinning the final few miles to Oban and my date with a massive portion of fish and chips, the road surface returned to tarmac, the sounds of humanity became louder and my two days of isolation receded behind me. It would be wrong to say that the journey had taken me through a wilderness, because I had been tripping over reminders of previous occupants the entire time that I had been out there. Why should I resent the people who were there before me, and who built the trails and bothies which had become part of my journey? In an increasingly developed world we are more and more hung up on the idea of pristine nature, a land outside time from before we were served the eviction notice from Eden. I sat beside the harbour in Oban and stuffed myself silly with freshly caught haddock, listening to the sound of a ceilidh band who were playing on the high street and watching the sun set once again behind the fishing boats. Before I got up to go and find a camp spot for the night, I felt silly to have fretted over the wildness of one place compared to another. Wilderness applies only to a land that we look into as outsiders – I doubt the families living in the remote cottages would have had time for the talk of their home as wild or remote. More likely, they would shaken their head at stupid talk, and gone back to the fireplace at the centre of their own world.