John O’Groats to Land’s End part 1: Scotland

So, here’s something I don’t think many English people are really aware of: Scotland is huge. I mean, I knew it was far away — I’d once driven from Swansea to Edinburgh, been to Glasgow a few times, but never really comprehended just how much of Scotland there is beyond the Central Belt. So, when looking through accounts of End-To-End walks before I set off I was somewhat surprised at how much of them was about getting through Scotland, but out some of that down to people (who were normally heading up from the south) just getting slower as they got past Hadrian’s Wall and the strain of so much walking started to get to them.

If you want to see how big Scotland is, try travelling the length of it — not by foot, by any means of transport. For me, there was a train journey to Glasgow, then another train to Inverness, a night in a youth hostel there, then a long train ride up to Wick, and finally a bus journey from there to John O’Groats. The best part of two days just to get to the start of my walk, and realising as I was getting further north how much the landscape was absent of human interference. That first night, I checked in at the John O’Groats Youth Hostel — they have a signing in book for end-to-end walkers, so if you’re ever there, you’ll find me in July 2006 — and then walked the couple of miles from there to John O’Groats itself, which is a pretty arbitrary spot to count as the end. It’s not the most northerly or westerly spot, you’re not out on a promontory, it’s just where the road used to end and the ferry to the Orkneys left from. It’s very much a cultural end, not a geographic one. The real end of the country (or at least, the north-eastern end) is Duncansby Head, a short walk up a path leading you to a cliff that looks out into the North Sea. Great views, but the only way you can got from there is away, right back in the other direction.

Look how determined I could be…

I set out officially the next morning, doing my best to fill in all the stereotypes of an End-to-End walker at John O’Groats, signing the book in the visitor centre, posing for a photograph at the signpost and then adjusting my pack for the last time before heading out on the A99.​

Ok, that’s a lie. It definitely wasn’t the last time I adjusted my pack that day. If there was anything that characterised my first day of walking, it was adjusting my pack, complaining about my pack, feeling the weight of my pack and realising I’d made a big mistake when it came to packing. My initial plan for the walk had been that I was a brave outdoorsman, and I’d rarely need to stay in a hostel or a B&B, but could instead rely on carrying a tent and sleeping bag with me, making use of the ample number of campsites and wild camping spots there’d be on the way. In retrospect, I’m amazed I persuaded myself that was possible, but I suspect that was part of my whole romantic idealisation of the idea of the walk as pilgrimage. I’d read the accounts of people doing their walks like that, and assumed that even if it might be uncomfortable (especially at first) it would still be doable. Maybe it was doable, and I should have continued, but the problem was that not only the weight a literal pain, it was slowing me down quite dramatically.

I’d not planned a huge amount for the first day, just getting from John O’Groats to Wick, about sixteen miles down the road, with a couple of stops in some of the little villages on the way. I’d thought I could do it easily by early-to-mid afternoon, but it was well into the evening by the time I got to Wick with various muscles screaming at me that not only was this a bad idea, but I also had to put up my tent and then sleep on a mat on the ground. If there was ever a time when I seriously considered giving up the whole idea of the walk as a bad idea, it was that first night.

Which is why I’m glad I came up with a better idea the next morning. I’d already planned doing some of my walking by shuttling — basing myself somewhere for a few days and using local transport to get to/from the starts and finishes and so with the tent pitched in Wick, I spent that day walking with just a small backpack all the way to Dunbeath in a lot less time than it had taken me to get the similar distance to Wick. That made up my mind for me — camping wasn’t going to work out, and the next day the tent, sleeping bag and sleeping mat were all stuck into a box at Wick Post Office and sent home…where they never arrived. So, if you’re ever in a dead letter office and see them there, still waiting after a dozen years to reach their final destination, do let me know.

One thing of interest along the A9

With a much lighter pack, I could get back to focusing on the walk itself, and that first week was a curious one. I found a good base at a B&B in Helmsdale (where you can get some of the best fish and chips I’ve ever had) and the sea and the scenery was suitably epic at times, but almost all of the walking that week was down the side of A roads. There are other ways from John O’Groats to Inverness, but they snake wildly off in all directions or are pretty stop-start (there were a few coastal paths, but never enough) so along the road I went, like so many end-to-enders before me. It was the start I needed, the way to get into that mindset of having to get up every day and keep walking and keep moving. Walking on a road makes you like a metronome, putting you into a steady rhythm of paces with nothing to do but focus on the way ahead, keeping your attention on the occasional traffic but generally allowing your mind to wander freely. A long walk like the end-to-end is as much a mental challenge as it is a physical one, it needs you to get into a whole new mindset of finding things to occupy yourself with. When you’re not navigating, and the sights you see aren’t dramatic after days of seeing similar, your mind will wander onto all sorts of things in an effort to avoid getting bored.

Boredom is the killer for a long walk. When your mind is bored and it can’t find anything around you to occupy itself, you find yourself cataloguing all the little problems you’ve got at that time. How much are the straps of your rucksack chafing? Are these boots on too tight or too loose? Is that feeling in my foot a blister forming? How tired are my legs? Should I be stopping and taking a break? A litany of those can flood through your mind, each demanding answers that only spark of a new set of questions to follow up, and in that first week along the road, I soon found that I was capable of quieting down that inner interrogator, of getting into a mindset where I could walk, a state that was almost meditative in its ability to get away from those concerns.

And going back to the point I started this section with, it was a reminder of how big Scotland is. Inverness is pretty far north, but it takes a week just to get to there from the northern tip of the country, even if you’re going by the most direct route. I did take one sidestep on the way down, rather than following the A9 all the way, diverting off to the Cromarty Firth (after some angst over whether taking a route that involved a short foot ferry ride was cheating) to cross over the Black Isle.

The start of the Great Glen Way at Inverness Castle

Inverness isn’t a big place, but after a week in Caithness and Sutherland it feels like a huge city what with its multiple pubs, supermarkets, multiple train lines and lots of people out and about. It felt like something entirely different after those days of walking through small villages, but not entirely unwelcome — and while Inverness is a city, it’s not a large one, so when I set off from there on the Great Glen Way, I’d left it behind almost as soon as I left the centre, heading up into the trees and towards Loch Ness.

An actual view of Loch Ness and the Great Glen

The Great Glen Way is a curious thing. It runs from Fort William to Inverness — I was walking against the usual way of doing it, and through what should be stunning scenery as the long stripe of the Caledonian Canal cuts through the lower highlands before you reach Loch Lochy (and the naming of that always amuses me, making me think it’s only distinguishing feature is that it’s somehow more of a loch than any of the others) and Loch Ness, the biggest, longest, most-monster infested lake in Britain. For me, it was a relief, the first long stretch of my walk that would be away from the roads, out into the wilds but it soon turned out that the wilds in this case were logging roads heading through the plantations above Loch Ness, where the regular passage of trucks had ensured only the sturdiest roots and biggest, sharpest-edge rocks remained to trip up the passing walker who might have thought to turn his attention from the road to trying to glimpse a sight of the loch through the trees.

That for me was the problem with the Great Glen Way — where you wanted to see views, you were confined mainly to walking amidst trees with just hints of views occasionally being spotted through them, and when you finally got free of the trees your view was mainly of canals. Now, I’ve got nothing against canals, as they’re generally a sign that you’re about to get a long flat stretch of walking ahead of you, but it felt like the grand sweeping vistas promised by any of the guides to the Great Glen Way I’d seen were always just out of reach and not there for the walker to see.

My Great Glen Way negativity might also come from the fact that it featured my first really bad day of walking. It was my third day along it, going from a youth hostel at Invermoriston to another one near Laggan and Loch Lochy — though now I’m doubting my memory as neither seems to be there any more! I had a terrible night’s sleep on the Friday thanks to an entrant in the World Snoring Championship being mysteriously assigned to the dorm I was in in the hostel, and the Saturday was quite warm and sunny. The combination of tiredness and a hot day meant I was sweating even more profusely than I normally manage to do, and just generally not feeling right. This meant I was wearing various damp items with all the resultant chafing that comes with that. So, if you happened to be on the canal just south of Fort Augustus on a sunny Saturday in early August 2006 and saw a man changing all his clothes in what passed for tree cover at the side of the canal path, then I can only apologise for what you saw, but I did feel a lot better when I’d done it — and that night at my next hostel, I slept solidly for the whole night, despite being on a top bunk next to the door.

The end of the Great Glen Way in Fort William

Fort William feels like an achievement to have reached, not least because it had taken me just under two weeks of walking to get there, and I was actually going to have two days off there. Note for future travellers: there really aren’t two days worth of things to do in Fort William, especially if you’re too busy resting your legs to do the one thing — climbing Ben Nevis — that would usually be a great way to fill a day. I did manage to book accommodation for the next week, though, but had to abandon my plans to carry straight on down the West Highland Way on discovering there was nothing available in Kinlochleven and as that’s the only place on the West Highland Way between Fort William and rejoining the A82 at the top of Glencoe, I had to take the long way round, which meant a few days after one of my worst days of walking, I had one of my best days. As I wrote at the time:

The Pap of Glencoe

“For a start, it fitted into the best pattern for walking — uphill in the morning, downhill in the afternoon, with a pub in the middle for lunch — and the weather was good, the threatened rain holding off for most of the morning, then when the clouds started going away in the afternoon, it didn’t get too bright to burn me or too hot to walk comfortably in. The morning was a fantastic walk up from Glencoe village to the Kingshouse, steadily moving upward but at the sort of incline that’s comfortable rather than punishing. Besides, I had to keep stopping just to admire the scenery as the glen went up the sheer sides or disappeared down another long green avenue into mist, each turn of the road or path revealing something new, and always the temptation to turn around and see just how far I’d come. I then joined the West Highland Way for the first time at Altnafeadh, and did the quick three mile traverse of a small hill, stopping occasionally to gaze down Glen Etive as it was revealed before stumbling into the Kingshouse like many weary travellers have done before me. How many of those also had the venison sausages with mustard mash for lunch I don’t know, but I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who comes after me — tasty and filling, yet not too heavy to stop you from having an afternoon’s walking on it.

Alone on Rannoch Moor

The afternoon wasn’t entirely downhill — there was an uphill section to start with, going past the White Corries ski station, but that was relatively short, and worth it for the fantastic views of Rannoch Moor and the Black Mount it revealed. But from there, it was a steady descent across the moor, but like the morning, not too steep as to be troublesome, but enough to let you know you’re moving downwards. And it’s even more fun going downhill when you go past heavy-footed people walking uphill past you, their eyes focusing past you on the slope they still have to ascend. Though when the last one of them had gone by, I realised I was all alone on the Black Mount, and there was likely no-one within a mile or two of me — even the road was a couple of miles from the path at that point. It was quite amazing to be that isolated, even in the Scottish wilderness, though I did tread a little carefully after that moment of awareness as I knew help might be a while away if I was to slip.”

One thing I missed out in that account was that was the one time in my journey that I met — very briefly another End-to-End walker. Well, the one time I saw one that i knew about, it is possible that many of the other people I passed going the other way might have been doing it too, but this was someone doing John O’Groats to Land’s End, but somewhat quicker than me, and with a support vehicle accompanying him.

One thing you find when looking up routes for doing the End-to-End is that there’s a route various sites and guides recommend that’s relatively short and easy because it follows main roads all the way rather than footpaths and trails. I’ve seen guides suggestion you can do it in around a month on a route like this, walking around 30 or so miles a day, usually with someone else accompanying you in a car to provide you with bag carrying, drinks, accommodation booking and everything else. It was one of the ways I’d considered doing the walk, but only briefly, mainly because I didn’t know anyone who I could persuade to take on that sort of role, or have the confidence to go and raise the levels of sponsorship and support needed to do it that way, but also because for me it took a lot of the romance out of doing the walk. While I was doing it for charity, I was also doing it for myself, to explore and see the country and there’s a limit to how much time you can take to stop and look around at the world when you’re on a schedule that needs you to complete another eight miles before lunch and then be whizzed away from wherever you stop for the day to a hotel somewhere else. There comes a point where you stop being a traveller and instead start becoming more of a walking machine instead.

As a case in point, the walker who went past me was a publican doing something that had been called the Great British Pub Walk to raise money for charity and somehow to raise awareness of pubs. He passed me — and we had a little chat, before he had to get back up to his pace — on the A82, a few miles before we reached Kingshouse. Kingshouse is a fascinating place, an old coaching inn in the middle of the moors, miles from anywhere else and established hundreds of years ago to cater to all sorts of weary travellers passing through the Highlands (and, as the name suggests, serve as a convenient base for ensuring the King’s power over the area). And yet the demands of the timetable saying that he had to be a certain distance down the A82 before ending for the night meant the person celebrating the ‘Great British Pub’ didn’t even stop there.

So yes, this is my justification for the fact that my walk took a bit longer than some people do, and my route was somewhat meandering. I wasn’t averse to walking down roads where necessary, and didn’t feel any need to take a path or a trail just for the sake of it, but I wouldn’t have traded away that afternoon crossing Rannoch Moor for a walk down the A82 instead. I think that was likely the most isolated and far apart from any person I’ve ever been which made that long day of walking worth it.

The accommodation worked out better for me from then on, including the opportunity to spend two nights in a bunkhouse in the old waiting room of Bridge of Orchy station. It was very interesting to be sat casually on the platform eating breakfast in the morning sun while watching the Fort William sleeper train pass through. Walking the rest of the West Highland Way — even if I was doing it in the ‘wrong’ direction was much more pleasant than the Great Glen Way, full of great views and interesting places, so it was with some sadness that I had to turn away from it before I reached the beginning to head towards Edinburgh and the central belt.

Having left the Highlands behind, the scenery along this part may not have been as dramatic or famous, but it was still interesting, and here following an old canal was interesting as it was following old routes through the former industrial heartlands of Scotland, caught in an uneasy decision about their future, deciding whether to disappear into obscurity and just be a route for people to follow, or to try and be something more that might bring people in to see them for themselves. That urge for the latter is what possibly explains the Falkirk Wheel.

The Falkirk Wheel in operation

There’s a point just outside Falkirk where two old canals used to meet. It used to be that you could take a turn off one of them and follow a series of locks up to the other one and then travel down it as normal. Over time, as the canals got used less and less, the series of locks fell into disrepair and were closed, meaning that you still had two canals going near to each other, but with no way of getting from one to the other and far too large a difference in height between them to make any conventional linkage possible. So far, so standard for eighteenth century infrastructure entering the twenty-first century. Except that in the 1990s, it was decided it would be a good idea to fund a series of grand schemes around the country as part of the Millennium celebrations, and someone in Falkirk realised that would be a good place to get the money to link the two canals together again — but not by a series of locks this time, they were going to go for something far more grandiose.

And thus the Falkirk Wheel was created, and it’s truly a sight well worth seeing. One canal runs along the ground in front of you, while the other follows an aqueduct above it and the two are linked by a pair of giant rotating metal arms, each one capped with what appears to be a giant apostrophe within which are caissons of water, each large enough to hold a canal barge. Barges go into them at the bottom or top, it rotates around very slowly, but by the end of a half-rotation, a boat that was in the lower canal is now ready to go sail off through the upper one and vice versa. On a sunny day, like the one I passed by it on, it’s very easy to find yourself spending ages just watching it gracefully and near-silently rotate around, a stunning combination of the beautifully simple and the fiendishly complex — it seems easy to think about transferring them with a rotating wheel, but the problem with rotation is that it’s not very good at keeping things that need to remain level — barges and the water they’re in, for instance — level throughout the journey around the Wheel, especially when they weight several tonnes. It’s something else I would never have seen if I’d stuck to the roads, anyway.

A man in a tutu on a unicycle, juggling. There’s the Edinburgh Fringe.

With three weeks of walking done, I’d finally made it as far as Edinburgh, just in time for two important events: the Fringe, and my birthday. If you want to understand the Fringe, and all the fringes to the official Fringe that have spread off it, the best way I can describe it is through one old picture of it I found while writing these entries. There’s a man with wild hair, wearing a tut and riding a unicycle while juggling, and only a few of the people who were passing him by thought this was interesting enough to stop and watch. As for my birthday, pizza was eaten, drinks were had and Snakes On A Plane was watched. Being able to stay with an old friend while passing through Edinburgh made it a decent weekend, and on the Monday morning I was heading out, ready to finally get through the last few days of Scotland before getting to England.

Two views of the Tweed

Again, if I hadn’t made the point clear enough so far, Scotland is very big and it doesn’t start with the central belt (which should be obvious, given the name). There’s a lot between Edinburgh and the English border, and the border country is an interesting place, one I’d only ever seen at a distance as I zipped through on a train or in a car. Rolling hills and uplands, small towns that are deeply rooted in long history and a culture that grew out of a history that’s separate from a lot of the rest of Scotland and England. The borders and the Southern Uplands were something I really only scraped a bit of the surface of as I passed through there in those last few days of Scotland, but one that I keep reminding myself I should go back and see again sometime.

This, believe it or not, is the Anglo-Scottish border.

One thing I’d decided to do was enter England at a point in the middle of nowhere, from where it would be easy to pick up the Pennine Way and start my journey down through England following it. This meant my departure from Scotland on that last Friday was heralded by the roads gradually becoming of lower and lower quality, starting on a main road as I left Jedburgh, then back roads that became tracks and bridleways and finally a path that led to a rather nondescript footpath sign and like that I was in England again. One month and one country down…

Part 2: Northern England

Many, many things. PhD student at QMUL. Councillor. Ran the 2019 London Marathon for Brain Research UK. @nickjbarlow on Twitter.

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