A wise man once said: ‘There are two seasons in Scotland.. June and Winter.’
I spent Christmas 2015 with my girlfriend in the stunning country of Norway. We weren’t there to explore but we rented a beautiful little cabin for the week on the southern coast in the small region of Askoy, about an hour from Bergen. We fancied at least one day of checking out the fjords and mountains so took a small road trip to Voss. We soon realised that wherever you are in Norway, you are going to be surrounded by one source of natural beauty or another. The scale of the mountains we drove through (quite literally most of the time) was phenomenal. It’s not hard to understand why the myths and legends of trolls, giants and gnomes came about in this country. It’s hard to describe the sheer size, bulk and beauty of the scenery, but I have seen a few mountain ranges over the years and Norway out did them all by a very long shot to say the least. I immediately fell in love with the country and I knew that my friends and I would love the opportunity to have a proper trip to explore and take advantage of the ‘right to roam’ laws that the country has to offer. So upon my return home to England I spread the news and sold it to them immediately. We opted to take a trip to neighboring Sweden, which also holds the same roaming laws and matches Norway in scenic beauty.
After our trip to Snowdon, we knew that we would have to get a few practice runs in before we depart for Sweden. We had to ensure we had all the kit we would need and that our skills were tuned perfectly for our trip. We would roughly be on the same latitude as Scotland which seemed to be an ideal place to go for a practice run as it’s a perfect distance to be away from the familiarity of home and would require us to take all the kit we would need. That way we would know what we can carry and what we might not actually need to take with us at the time.
I had researched the area of Galloway Forest Park and discovered at the same time The Mountain Bothies Association. The MBA is a volunteer run charity who, through subscriptions, maintain bothies in remote areas to essentially be used by walkers as shelter. No bookings required, no payments necessary, just turn up, treat it like your own home and leave it how you find it. I found this a little more exciting than I should have done, it fulfilled my dream of the remote cabin in the middle of the woods. No electricity, none of the home comforts, just a wood burning stove. Again I sold this idea to my friends without any persuasion. The plan would be to use a bothy in Galloway Forest Park almost as a final resort as we were aware that finding something like this in Sweden may be rather difficult. Our trip would be over three nights and we would spend the entire time travelling from forest to forest, building camp and sleeping in our hammocks. That was the plan anyway.
During the week before we left for Scotland, within an hours drive of where we were going to be in Galloway Forest Park, there were reports of a couple being caught in an avalanche and, due to the terrible weather conditions, an immediate rescue operation was looking unlikely. Then a couple of days later three men were taken to hospital after a day walk had taken a dramatic turn, leading to one of the group losing his life and the other two having to be treated in hospital. Needless to say, this didn’t fill us with the highest amounts of confidence and worried our loved ones alike. After a quick discussion and gentle persuasion to our families and friends, we agreed that the trip would go ahead. The weather reports for where we would be basing ourselves were improving steadily and we were kitted for the wilderness of Sweden, where snow and cold temperatures were more than likely. We also knew the location of the nearby bothy and would always have the car to fall back to if we absolutely needed to.
06:00am February 19th 2016 (almost a year to the day of our Snowdon trip) Dan rolled up to my house, as the designated driver, and I piled my rucksack into the boot of his car and off we went to collect Jack and Olie.
‘We’ll be at your house at 06:30am. Make sure you’re ready so we can hit the road before rush hour.’ Clear enough instructions we thought. 06:20 Jack and all of his kit in the car, ready to go. Perfect.
‘I haven’t got all my kit packed yet’ read a text received from Olie at 06:25. Wonderful..
07:10am, we finally hit the road.
A few albums later (Labbe Siffre, The Who and The Black Keys), we pass the border and immediately start putting on our perfect Scottish accents to read the road signs, and just generally insult each other. We had managed to avoid the rain for almost the entire journey, however, from the time that we approached the border and into the beyond, I don’t think it ever stopped raining. Eventually we reached Loch Trool, a beautiful, remote location in Galloway Forest Park. Home to Bruce’s Stone which was placed in commemoration to Robert the Bruce’s victory in the Battle of Glen Trool fought in the wars of Scottish independence in 1307. We jumped out of the car to have a quick look at the beautiful scenery before returning to the car, already soaked, to go over the route one more time before setting off. Our final destination would be a piece of woodland surrounding Loch Dee, just short of five miles to our west. We donned our rucksacks and hit the footpath in the hammering rain. We discovered a large waterfall coming off the hills which then ran underneath a bridge on the footpath with immense power and an incredible noise. It was very apparent that the harsh weather had been present for quite some time prior to our arrival.
The first problem we encountered was that the area had recently been cultivated. The map clearly displayed that the area we would be walking through to get to Loch Dee was mostly pine forest, however, due to the recent activities and thanks to Christmas and most probably Ikea, half of the area was barren. Luckily the path was still clear which made following the map easy enough, however when I suggested taking one of my short cuts through the wood, which I was certain would take us to the right place, I was soon corrected and informed we were still about three miles away. Who needs maps anyway?
As we climbed out of the valley (in which Loch Trool was located) into the open hills, the wind and rain picked up and seemed to be trying its best to be blowing us off our feet. We passed beneath two neighbouring waterfalls, aptly located on the map as ‘waterfalls’ which thundered down beside us and cut their paths through a small pine forest to our left and just beyond them we got our first glimpse of Loch Dee. We decided that we should spend the first night in the bothie, out of the weather, which would allow us all of the following day to explore the local forests and find a perfect camping spot. Even though the weather was horrendous and the mist and fog descending on the lowlands around Loch Dee was thickening, this was truly an area of outstanding natural beauty. The rolling hills collapsing into the pine forests which subsequently melted into the loch was definitely postcard worthy. Sadly I couldn’t get any pictures around that area due to the rain being so bad, but I will be going back as soon as I can, and pictures will be taken.
We finally descended into the valley towards Loch Dee and soon, surrounded by pine forest, came across the White Laggan bothie. A sight that was greeted gladly with joyful hollering because it was the exact image we had had of our dream remote cabin. Placed far back off the path, framed by trees and with a small fresh water stream that ran off the hills and right beside the entrance. We would be very happy and comfortable here. Our only concerns were that it may have already been claimed by other walkers seeking shelter, or perhaps a dead body even. I approached the front door quietly and opened it, calling inside for any response. Silence. Well that ruled out walkers seeking shelter at least and soon enough we managed to rule out the ridiculous idea of a body as well.
What you should understand is that these bothies are more or less completely empty, stone buildings. We were fortunate enough that this one had a wood burning stove, and even more fortunate that the previous occupants had left some fire wood in a log shelter outside. The interior was split into three separate rooms; one large one by the front door, which would be used to hang wet clothes to dry, then through a door from that room was the main ‘living room’ with a stove and a table. Adjoining this was a small kitchen type room with nothing but a table in it. In the picture above, that would be the room with the white window frames at the front. We were extremely greatful for the shelter from the wind and rain, but the bothie was still very very cold inside, so we got straight to trying to cut the fire wood.
Ray Mears once said that wood warms you three times, ‘the cutting and collecting, the transporting back to camp and finally the burning.’ We certainly proved this to be true. Well the first two anyway. Some tools were also left in the log shelter to help cut the wood, just a couple of old saws but they did the job for the most part. We used our own tools for the remaining work. We certainly warmed up by cutting the wood and taking it to the stove, however when it came to actually burning it, that’s where we hit a hurdle. Between the four of us we have made countless campfires but no matter how we tried, how we split the wood, what tools we used, it just wouldn’t catch.
But then it got even more interesting, and the beginning of the most surreal camping experience of our lives. And no it didn’t involve nudity.
Whilst both Olie and I were crouched over a small, damp log stove, swearing and shouting all sorts of profanities at the even damper fire wood, we heard somebody walk into the room. Assuming it was Dan or Jack I just continued my efforts and verbal persuasion towards the fire, which was now starting to catch and produce a moderate amount of heat but also a ridiculous amount of smoke.
‘Oh hi guys,’
Well unless Dan or Jack had become incredibly feminine, we had company. My initial assumptions were that we would be joined by another group of walkers and we might all be sat around the fire chatting and drinking tea. Little were we aware that this wouldn’t quite be so..
I turned and saw through the haze of smoke a figure of a woman and some more figures in the background shaking off their wet coats. Well this still matched my assumptions and we all said hello and began our introductions. I didn’t realise until the third handshake that my hands were actually completely black from the fire and now, I could only guess, were two of the other strangers’. We welcomed them even more when they said they’d brought a couple of bags of fire wood. I felt that dear old Ray Mears would be ashamed of us and disappointed that we wound up using a ready to go plastic sack of wood when we had the makings of a fire brewing already.
We very quickly realised that these were not your everyday ramblers seeking shelter when the room filled with a blaring bright light coming from a spotlight placed in the big room at the entrance. After a sneaky peek to investigate, I then discovered that the room was also filled with about eight university students with their blankets wearing slippers and their pyjamas, drinking beer and smoking. Whilst we, on the other hand, sat in our wet hiking gear, in a dark room with a small log stove providing very little light or warmth. The four of us all looked at each other and couldn’t help but laugh as we dug into our boil in the bag meals.
‘Do you mind if we put some music on?’ one of them asked..
I have an enormous love for music, and it’s had a huge impact on my life in many ways, like it has most people. However I was concerned about what kind of music are they going to play. My ignorant self obviously associated these people with whatever computer produced digital noises people call music these days, but what we heard was something amazing. I grew up listening to the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Cream, Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix and, as it happened, it appeared that they did too.
The last thing any of us expected from this camping trip was being sat in front of a log burning stove with the soundtrack supplied by the wonderful sounds of Pink Floyd. It just added to how surreal the experience was. The next thing we knew were were sharing our food (Dan’s flapjacks again), singing along to The Weight by The Band, which by the way is a fantastic tune. I am fairly certain we wound up on some type of film that evening as we soon discovered that the group were actually ‘Adventure & Wildlife Film-makers’ and they were using equipment which cost more than anything I have ever owned. We were even allowed to take over the music for a moment, which ended up with almost the whole of Pink Floyd’s catalogue being played throughout this small bothy in the Scottish lowlands. All the while the rain hammered down, the wind blew and night fell. We were soon left to our own devices, which we appreciated, and the door separating our room and theirs was closed. We put the last of the wood on the fire, finished our food and settled down for some sleep. Falling asleep to ‘Any Colour You Like‘ from Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of The Moon’ (one of the greatest pieces of music on the greatest album of all time) just finished our night off perfectly and I have never slept better on a camping trip in my life. We could have been transported to the 70’s for all we knew.
We woke up at about 08:00am which, for a camping trip, seemed quite late and one hell of a result. The bothy was silent and we could only assume that our guests were still sleeping. We made some coffee on our stove and went about packing away our kit as quietly as we could. Eventually came the time when we had to collect some drinking water from the stream outside, which meant walking through the mini hippy commune that had been erected next door and getting a few moans and groans from them as we opened the front door, allowing the cold and rain to be blown in and straight onto them.
The water from the stream was perfectly clear and fresh off the hills which made for delicious drinking. However it isn’t recommended that you drink it straight from the source all the time as, especially from the hills where sheep are roaming, the bacteria levels could make you rather unwell. We had brought with us some, supposedly tasteless, purifying tablets which we placed into our containers to do their job. Half an hour later, these tasteless tablets made our water taste like something from a swimming pool. It was unpleasant and really not very appetising. In future I would recommend taking the extra time to boil the water to kill off the bacteria and just allowing it to cool.
So it was time for our departure and, as we said our farewells to the commune, we stepped back out into the driving rain. We decided that we’d take the five mile walk back to the car and find another area with a bothy nearby to continue our venture. The walk back to the car was wet and cold but took half as long as luckily it was mostly down hill once we got out of the Loch Dee valley. In the morning light, which actually looked like the rest of the day due to the weather, the hills looked incredible with waterfalls cascading into the river below and the mist being blown just across the top of them. The car was soon a sight for sore eyes and, as we removed our wet clothes and rucksacks, we made a wonderful decision. Like most wonderful decisions, it started with one very simple question.
It was still early, about 10:00am, but we thought we could at least get a good breakfast or something nice to eat and set us up for the day ahead either way. We had spotted a pub on the way into Loch Trool the day before and drove there to see what they could offer. As we pulled up outside it had the air of one of those pubs where outsiders weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms – especially damp, muddy outsiders. So we decided to head into the town not too far down the road and eventually found The Black Horse. On the walk from the car to the pub myself and Olie popped into a petrol station to pick up some quick supplies. After speaking with the cashier, who was far from Scottish, we realised that we hadn’t actually heard anybody with a Scottish accent since our arrival; the group of students at the bothie was English, and one was even Swedish. We walked out, crossed the road and into the pub. If it wasn’t for the TV playing in the background, I am fairly certain the place would have been totally silent as we were greeted by everybody turning and watching us approach the bar. We ordered our drinks, from a Scottish barman to our surprise, and took a table that had become empty soon after our arrival.
I can’t exactly remember what the reason was, or why we even considered it, but we had decided that we would in fact end our trip there. We finished our drinks, fairly quickly, and left for Sainsbury’s to pick up some breakfast. By the time we had reached the car we knew we’d be lucky to get home at a reasonable time without getting stuck in the rush hour traffic, but we decided to give it a go, put home into the sat nav, and left rainy Scotland behind and soon reached rainy home instead. After letting my girlfriend know that I would be returning home earlier than expected, she drunkenly informed me that she was having cocktails in London – an evening which couldn’t have been further on the other end of the spectrum to my chosen weekend activities. This is a pretty good representation of our relationship and the topic of a blog to come.
After a few more cocktails she then decided to inform me that she had taken my keys with her. So on top of being cold, wet and muddy, I was also locked out of my house. So on the way home the decision was made that Dan and I would stay at Jacks (Dan did actually have his keys but the prospect of sharing a bed with me was obviously just too strong.) To anybody else the idea of getting into a warm bed, with or without Dan, would be perfect after a night in a cold damp bothie in Scotland, but I wouldn’t trade my hammock for anything in the world (no offence Dan).
We are due to make another trial run before we leave for Sweden, as I can’t imagine sat by a log fire listening to Pink Floyd has really set us up efficiently, but we had a great time nonetheless.
We swore to never tell this story because, as you can see, it wasn’t exactly the greatest camping trip we could have had. We were after a slightly challenging forest camp in our hammocks with a crackling campfire between us, however what we actually had seemed more like a small holiday in comparison. I just figured it was too good a story not to tell and thinking back to laying in my sleeping bag with Any Colour You Like lulling me to sleep still makes me laugh.
So basically the only message I can pass on as a bit of an education, is that the quote ‘There are only two seasons in Scotland, June and Winter’ actually does seem fairly suitable, and the wise man was Billy Connolly.
So until next time.. I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon.