From the Canyon Edge -- :-Dustin

Thursday, September 25, 2008

A Hackers Hike Across Scotland

The Sprint in London

I attended a Canonical sprint in London in August 2008, during which I:
Tech talk over...now about my trip :-)

I spent my evenings eating and drinking with some of my Canonical co-workers in London. Of note, I did drink a bottle of Lone Star beer (the National beer of Texas) at the Texas Embassy. I paid 3.50 British Pounds for that bottle. This translates to a cool $7, which is approximately the cost of a 24-pack of Lone Star cans at the gas station closest to my house. I wandered around Parliament and Westminster Abbey, through Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square.

Scotland

I did take advantage of my proximity on the isle of Great Britain to complete a life-long dream of mine...hiking across Scotland.

The Plan

I suppose I should start out with my plan. My intention was to hike over 5 days the Speyside Way, a 70 mile trek up the Spey River, over some of the most beautiful terrain in Scotland and through its most famous whisky making region. This is the Bordeaux, Napa, or Tuscany of Scotland. I would carry a 45 pound backpack. Sounds excessive, but remember I worked the previous week in London, so this included backpacking irregularities such as my laptop, power supply, UK power converters and accessories. I also brought a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, blow-up pillow, small stove, pot-and-pan, water purification, a sizable first-aid kit. Ideally, I have learned that I'm most comfortable distance hiking with about a 35-38 pound pack. Which is roughly what I had, plus computer.

London to Aberdeen to Buckie

I left early on Saturday morning, August 23, 2008, flying from Gatwick to Aberdeen in Scotland. I caught a bus from Aberdeen Airport to the main bus station down town. I then boarded another bus, which I was taking to the coast town of Buckie.

When I boarded, I asked to bus driver to please let me know when we reached Buckie. He gave me a toothless grin, and in one of the many, varied Scottish accents I was to hear over the next 6 days, said, "Well, laddy, you'll have a differrrrent drrrriverrrrr by then!" I should have been concerned at that point. Although we traveled only about 60 miles, it took nearly 4 hours, stopping at every township and hamlet in between. It appears that I boarded the bus that delivers every little old lady in Scotland to and from the grocery store.

Buckie

In any case, I made it to Buckie early in the evening. I had plenty of time to check in to the Old Stagecoach Inn, and then wander around the town. Buckie is now a tiny fishing village, but in the 19th and 20th centuries, new ships were constantly under construction in its shipyards. I leeched wireless off of a coffee shop that had closed for the night long enough to send a few emails. I'm sure I looked positively amusing to the few passers-by, sitting on a street curb with a laptop :-) I made it back to the hotel to get some food, beer, and my first taste of Scotch in the motherland. I made an explicit effort to chat it up with the bar tender, to absorb and immerse the culture and language as much as possible. He pointed out that an older couple a few tables away were actually speaking in Gaelic, which is a relative rarity these days. I called it an early night, and retired to my simple little room, and read the first 5 chapters of The Hobbit--deliberately chosen considering the adventure I would embark upon the following morning.

When morning came, I cinched up my pack and headed downstairs for a full Scottish breakfast. Cereal, sausage, a strange looking fried egg (pink yolk?), and an English muffin. Oh, and the freshest milk in the world. This would become a staple of mine for breakfast, over the next few mornings. After a bout with the credit card machine upon checkout (Scottish credit card machines are racist against American credit cards), I set out. From my hotel, it was about a quarter mile hike down to the beach, and then another three quarters of mile to the beginning of the Speyside Way.

The trail started on the northern outskirt of the town. There's a bulletin board at the start with decent maps of the first 20 miles of the trail, or so.


  • Tip to hikers out there... If you're carrying a hi-resolution digital camera, take pictures of any maps or information you find, and then mark it as a "Favorite" so that you can recall them easily later. With 8 megapixels, you can zoom in with great detail. Fewer maps to buy and carry around ;-)

I had a local gentleman take a picture of me at the start, while I held the leashes to his two Scottish Terriers.

The first 5 miles of the trail were quite a nice amble down the beach, from Buckie, through Port-o-Gordon (which the Duke of Gordon built to move the 'ruffians' further away from his estate), and on to Spey Bay. The weather was cool, in the 60's, and overcast. The water was astoundingly cold! I saw 5 seals sunning themselves on an ancient lava outcropping, with a placard talking about local legends of mermaids and men-of-the-sea. I met a really jovial gentleman from Port-o-Gordon who was out for a walk with his two chocolate border collies, beautiful dogs that made me miss my two Australian Shepherds back home. He told me quite a bit about the area, and warned me to mind the 'gypsies', roving nomads living out of RV's and making messes of beaches all across Scotland. I walked by the 'gypsy' park a few minutes later, and it did look like a scene out of Snatch with a pack of wild dogs roaming about. I also passed the 'Lennox' Inn :-)

I strayed off the trail just a bit to walk down on the sandy beach itself. This turned out to be a bad decision, as it forced me to ford a small stream. After looking for a decent place to pass, I took off my boots, put on my flip-flops, and walked knee-deep straight through the icy, icy water. Brrrrrr. I spent about a quarter of a mile slowly catching up to a lady walking down the beach in rubber boots, launching a tennis ball with a plastic thrower for her border collie. Once I caught up, I walked at least a mile with her, and her dog Moss. We had a lovely conversation, about how she lived in California for a bit in the 1960's, and then about Scotland, and specifically about wind energy. She's heard about the wind farms going up in Texas and Oklahoma, and asked what I thought. (Generally, I'm in favor of them, as a supplement to other forms of alternative energy.) It seems, however, that these turbines are going up across Scotland and many of the locals are none-too-happy about it. They say that it ruins the views, the landscapes. Perhaps it's the engineer in me, but I think they look beautiful in their own way.

Spey Bay

The trail followed the coast until it hits the mouth of the Spey River, where there's a town called Spey Bay. There's a visitor center, all about the dolphins that can be seen playing in the bay. Unfortunately, I didn't see any dolphins. But I did drop my pack for a while, and enjoyed a cappuccino and a chocolate pastry.

At this point, the trail turned inland, where I would follow the Spey River upstream for about another 60 miles. The river remained on my right, with fields of barley to my left. I saw a few dozen locals on the trail, walking a dog, or riding mountain bikes. One really pleasant gentleman was attached to 6 woolly daschunds! We spoke for a few minutes. He shook my hand, genuinely honored that I taken the time to travel from Texas to Scotland and hike this trail that he loved so much. I was happy to oblige him.

About two miles inland, I dropped my pack to rest a bit, have a snack and call home. It was finally late enough in the day that Kim would be awake back home on a Sunday morning. She told me how it was 102 degrees back home, while it was 62 degrees in Scotland. As we spoke, a couple of groups of kayakers paddled by, and I briefly wished I were paddling instead of hiking :-)

Thereafter, the trail turned away from the river a bit, and I encountered my first Scotch pine forest. And yes, it smelled like cleaning chemicals are intended to smell :-) The trail itself got a bit softer under foot, being composed more of mud and moss, than of rock. That was a pleasant change around mile 7 of the day. The giant beach trees were incredible too. By the way, Scottish thistles are positively amazing!

Fochabers

Around mile 10 of day 1, I strolled into Fochabers, and directly sought out the nearest watering hole. I suppose the proper word would be "nearer", as there only seemed to be two... It was happy hour at the Gordon Arms, busy and bustling on a Sunday afternoon, with most people watching soccer. I got a lot of funny looks as I hobbled in, dressed in my rain gear (it had been drizzling off and on), and loaded down. It was voted by the locals that I looked like a well-known Scotsman, Mark Beaumount (the second time in a week such a proclamation was made).

At this point, I had covered my required 10 miles of the day. I had the number of the local campground, as well as a couple of inns. But it was still early, and I had some energy, and the next day's hike was set to be longer and cover several serious elevation changes. I opted to push on a bit further. I said 'goodbye' to my rowdy, new Fochaberian friends.

Slorach's Woods

The trail out of Fochabers winded through a few farms, and onto a small, disused asphalt road through Slorach's Woods. I saw plenty of sheep along the way. After walking about 4 miles or so, climbing in elevation along the way, and then I started looking for a place to camp. Within another mile, I found a brilliant spot, maybe 100 feet off of the road, back into the woods, on a centuries old mound of moss. The night air on the side of this little mountain, the Hill of Cairnty, got pretty cold, pretty quickly. And the wind through the trees was almost constant, and creepy... I read about this phenomena a few days later, known as the Old Wives Tongues.

Morning brought a heavy fog, and a distinct smell of rain, and slugs the size of my fist! I ate a couple of potato cakes slathered in Nutlella, a handful of dried fruit, drank a tea, and struck camp. By the time my tent was packed, it started to rain, and I set out loaded down and getting soaked.

Bridgeton Farm

Monday would be my longest, hardest day on the trail by far. The entire morning hike was on asphalt, which tends to be harder on your knees and feet when loaded with a heavy pack. I hiked downhill for the first few miles, until I reached the river again, and the bridge over to the town of Rothes. From there, I turned up hill and hiked through the enormous Bridgeton Farm (in Texas, we'd call it a 'ranch'). As I rounded the perimeter of the farm, I started climbing the ridge heading up the mountain that overlooked the entire valley. This is Ben Aigan. Still raining, the trail got really, really soggy, and my socks and boots were thoroughly soaked. At about mile 3 of the day, I met a pair of day hikers coming the opposite direction. They had parked at the foot of the hill, and took a walk up to one of the scenic overlooks, and were heading back down. I hadn't spoken with another soul all morning and so the conversation was much needed! And they gave me the best advice I think I received all trip--The Highlander Inn in Craigellachie.

Another 3 miles into a practical rain forest, and I met a trio of mountain bikers also coming the opposite direction. They asked about the terrain on the trail that I hiked that morning, as the map had it marked for hiking, and not biking. Considering that most of the mountain biking I've done on the Barton Creek Greenbelt in Austin is far more difficult, I told them that the terrain was quite doable--go for it!

A few minutes later, I came around a very high bend on the mountain that rewarded me with 40-mile views, all the way back to the sea, from where I came the day before. Spectacular! I could see countless pastures and farms, the bridge from earlier in the morning, the town of Rothes, and a couple of distilleries. This was roughly the highest point of elevation on the hike, far above the pastures of sheep and Highland cattle, so the next time I passed a running stream, I filled my water bottle and treated it with iodine. If you've never tasted purified mountain water directly out of a stream, it's a very beautiful thing...

Craigellachie

At this point, I started the long, pounding haul down the mountain, and out of the Ben Aigan forest. Upon exiting the forest, I was back on asphalt and my joints and feet were none too happy about it. I could feel the blisters welling up. The outskirts of Craigellachie were positively picturesque, with fly fishermen testing their luck with the famous Scottish salmon beneath ancient, remarkable masonry bridges, and the odd castle or two.

The Highlander Inn

The advice I got from the pair of hikers earlier in the day was not to disappoint... The Highlander Inn delivered! Mind you, I had hiked 11 miles so far that day, climbing and descending a few thousand feet in elevation, in a pretty contant rain with 45 pounds of dripping backpack and blistered, wet feet. When I saw a sign that said:
I thought I had died and gone to heaven!

Now I had every intention on stopping in for a beer, maybe even a steak, but I was planning on camping again that night, and hitting the trail again the next day. Until I stepped into the place. It's quite possibly one of the coolest pub-inns in the world, and for 40 pounds per night, a real deal!

So stumbled in the back door around 4pm, and there were two gentlemen at the bar (who looked at me with sort of wry smiles), and the bar maid. I asked if I could get a bed for the night, and of course one of my new friends-to-be at bar remarked, "Well don't ye alrrrready have one in that pack of yourrrs?" Everyone's a comedian when in a pub in Scotland :-)

As much as I enjoyed a hot shower, I didn't waste much time, I was ready to get back down stairs and start sampling the whisky and these cask conditioned ales!

I took a seat at the bar, eager to get some conversation (I'd only spoken with the 2 hikers, and the 3 cyclists all day long). The best way to do this is clearly to buy a round! I first met Roy, a retired carpenter, and Andy, a sailor in the merchant marine. Between 5pm and 7pm, the whole town poured in, each greated by first name. Joe, an ex-pat from Chicago, sat to my left. The proprietor, Duncan (who looks like a more jolly version of Anthony Hopkins). Countless others whose names have unfortunately already escaped me.

It turns out Roy and I had quite a bit in common. He, too, was a hiker who enjoyed long distance "hill walking" as it's called in Scotland. In fact, we had hiked some of the same routes, including parts of the Grand Canyon and Yosemite. More than that, Roy had grown up right there near Craigellachie and Rothes and Dufftown, and seemed to know just about everything there was to know about the area. He gave me a list about a mile long of the things I could see and do on this hike. Roy seemed to be the second person on this trip who was genuninely honored that I was walking their Speyside trail.

Eventually, it came out that Roy had retired from carpentry and started his own business as a private tour operator, specializing in expertly informative visits to the area's many whisky distilleries. I sheepishly asked what tour would cost me, and Roy responded that he generally took groups, and that it would probably be too pricey to go on my own. Oh well...

So I probably had 7 pints of ale (way more than my share), and thankfully only had to climb one flight of stairs to make it to bed ;-)

Oh, one more thing the Highlander Inn has, besides 300 malt whiskies, and multiple perfect ales, is WIRELESS INTERNET! Yeah, I've been lugging my Thinkpad X61 for nearly 30 miles now, it was nice to be able to use it as something other than ballast. I caught up on email, learned I had be approved as a MOTU (woohoo), started reading the Ruby-on-Rails saga, and caught up with some friends back home.

More importantly, though, I did some research over breakfast, Googling and mapping the area. I had decided to skip a day on the trail, and stay an extra night at The Highlander (this place really is heaven). I would leave my heavy gear, and just take a day pack and hike into Dufftown, the Whisky Capital of the World. Roy had given me some good advice on what I might see and do there. I was dying to see some of the stuff that's just a bit off the trail.

And this is that critical moment in the adventure when the most unexpectedly pleasant thing happens. It's Luke and Obi Wan finding Han and Chewie in Mos Eisley Cantina. Or Bilbo Baggins stumbling upon the Ring of Power (about where I was in The Hobbit at this time).

While I'm just finishing breakfast, in walks Roy, with a proposition... He has group of 3 booked for a full day of touring, and if they're willing, I could join them, and we'd split the bill 4 ways. Win, win! It was perfect! Roy apologized for not thinking of it at all the night before and we mumbled something about too many pints :-)

The Whisky Tour

So took only my camera and jacket and jumped in his van and we drove all over the area. We started at a ruined castle from the 1500s called Auchindoun which is up on a high plateau with 360 degree views. Gorgeous stone construction, absolutely breathtaking. And Roy surprised us with a dram of whisky, a Duncan Taylor 13 year. Then we drove past a couple of scenic overlooks, with views of the river, and the valley, and the mountains, and the distilleries, distilleries, everywhere!

We drove past a number of those, to a little town called Dufftown, proud claiming to be the Whisky Capital of the World. We took a few pictures of the old clock tower where some famous brigands were hung from, and then went over to Kirkton of Mortlach. Cool name huh? It's the 3rd oldest church in all of Scotland. Founded in 556. Yeah, that's 3 digits, 556 :-) Only the foundation exists from that date, most of the rest of it is from the 13th - 15th centuries. And we walked around this ancient graveyard. Most of the tombstones were too old to read, but some were readable. And most people weren't buried in a casket or crypt back then, if you look really closely in some of the gravel you're walking on, you can sometimes make out little bits of bone and teeth. Gross, huh?

Also, in the middle of the graveyard is a "Pictish Standing Stone". It's similar to the types of stones found at Stonehenge, much smaller, but thought to be arranged by the same type of people. It's got carvings on it from 3000 years ago. And it's been documented as having been standing in that very spot since 1010.

Now, another little surprise, a dram of a Duncan Taylor Rarest of the Rare 28 year old single malt. Mmmm. Roy withdraws it out of one of the coolest contraptions I've ever seen, made by Roy himself.

After that, we went to this little old town hall, which is having a charity fundraiser, raising money for cancer. Little old ladies with a handmade crafts (where I picked up something nice for my wife) and homemade local food. So I had a bowl of soup for a pound (soup is usually 3 or 4 pounds in a restaurant), and a giant plate of pasta made from scratch, covered in a creamy basil tomato sauce for about 2.50 pounds (would have been 10 pounds in a restaurant).

So then we drove out to Glenlivet, which is one of the more famous single malt Scotch in the world. We walked around the visitor's center for a few minutes and then took about a half hour tour. The tour was pretty similar to the winery tours we've taken. Small group, they walk you through the process. It was interesting and educational. Then there was a scotch tasting at the end, where I had a nice 18 year old Glenlivet.

So we drove by another ruined castle, called Drummin Castle, from the 1300s, a little less impressive than Auchindoun, but still cool. Roy broke out another bottle of whisky, this time, a 33 year old Glenlivet. It tasted like milk, butter, fire, and honey. Excellent. From the castle, we could actually see a "burial mound" a little ways off on a distant hill, and the remnants of a stone circle. And seeing that, we begged him to drive us by a stone circle or some standing stones. So he did. We literally open a gate into a sheep pasture, stumbled through goat poo, right on up to a mound, with 3 large standing stones. These things have probably been there for 4000 years. Simply amazing.

By this point, we were way over time, and his wife was calling him. So he dropped us off back in Craigellachie, and we went to the "other" hotel to have some more Scotch. Roy was a carpenter before he was a guide, and so he did all of the beautiful handiwork and renovation in this other bar, so that was cool to see.

On the way back to the Highlander, we detoured over to have a look at the Craigellachie Bridge, a marvel of engineering when it was built in the 1800s. I had dinner with the Canadians and talked politics for a while, then called it a night.

At this point, I was behind schedule, and needed to cover almost 30 miles that day. That wasn't really going to happen, as the weather was looking bad and the terrain tough. So I had to cheat a little bit. I hiked an 2.5 easy miles to Aberlour, where I could catch a bus that would drop me about 18 miles down the trail in Grantown-on-Spey, and then I'd cover the rest on foot to Nethy Bridge.

Aberlour

The hike to Aberlour was incredibly scenic. It followed an old railway bed. The bridges, tunnels, and flora, fauna were all really beautiful to see. Numerous fisherman were wading through the Spey, and others just taking in the scenery. Thistles were popping out of every thicket. And heavy clouds moved rapidly across the sky.

I had a couple of hours to kill in Aberlour (home of Walker's Shortbread cookies), so I paid my obligatory visit to the Official Speyside Way Visitor Center, signing the registry. It appeared that there were only about a score or so through-hikers such as myself who had signed the book in 2008. Suprisingly little company ;-) The Visitor Center had a video about the trail, as well as exhibits on the wildlife in the area. It also had a computer technology exhibit that I found most entertaining! The locals directed me to a pub called The Mash Tun for lunch, where I had an excellent plate of potatoes and a good beer.

I caught a bus around 1pm, and a quick 30 minutes later, I was nearly 20 miles down the trail. It reminded me how fast we blow by things traveling by car! There was an elderly gentleman that eerily reminded me of Moonlight Graham from Field of Dreams who volunteered to be my tour guide on the bus. He pointed out and naming each mountain and each distillery, giving me his rating of the whisky. (The locals all seem to love Macallan, for what it's worth...)

Grantown-on-Spey

I made my way out of Grantown-on-Spey, and opted for an extended detour through the Anagach Woods. Okay, okay...I took a wrong turn, and added a few miles to my day ;-) It was well worth it, though. This heather-cladden glen was simply spectacular. There were red squirrels everywhere, barking at me as I walked. The crumbling bridge across the River Spey was a site to behold too.

Again, the trail joined the disused railway bed, and I was hiking again through pastures and tunnels where trains used to run, perhaps a hundred years ago. Along the way, I did run across a deer, who wondered at me, as much as I at her. And it took me nearly an hour to walk across the sprawling ranch, Balliefurth Farm. On the plains, I saw what my eyes had come to recognize as ancient burial mounds, once Roy pointed them out near Dufftown. And both near the trail, and on the horizon, I could the remains of ancient castles and little ruined homes. I ran across a couple of furry companions (here, and here), as well as couple of really slimy ones!

Nethy Bridge


Eventually, I made my way to Nethy Bridge, where I had camping reservations at the hip and hippie Lazy Duck Hostel. Here, I helped round up ducks and chickens and put them in their own individual homes for the night.

When I checked in, I was told that there was a laptop in the garage with internet access where I could check my mail, and that there was wifi too, if I moved closer to the house. Because of the latter, I didn't pay much mind to the public access laptop. I should have, though ;-)

Later that night, I was sitting around the campfire with Alex the volunteer summer help (a Canadian oceanography graduate student), a couple from the Czech Republic, and another pair from London. The Czech couple shared a flash of some homemade plum liquor. Mmmm. I was talking with the guy from Czech, and it came out that we were both computer programmers, and I mentioned Ubuntu. The hired hand working there at the camp immediately lit up, and mentioned that they have Ubuntu on the laptop in the garage! I could not have been more excited ;-) I immediately went to the garage and snapped pictures of the prize machine. We love seeing Ubuntu in the wild, far corners of the world. +1 Scottish Highlands!

I left the Lazy Duck Hostel bright and early on Thursday morning, as I had a long hike to Aviemore, where I needed to catch a train to Edinburgh that day. My last day on the trail would turn out to be the day of a thousand spectacular views, hiking through the mountain moors, with the Cairngorms always on the horizon. These are the pictures that coffee table books are made of!

Boat-o-Garten

I hiked through a field, a forest, and moor (where I saw mushrooms the size of pizzas), and on into Boat of Garten. There's quite a bit of to-do about the ospreys native to the area, but sadly, I didn't see any. I had a late morning cappucino and a stack of shortbread cookies at The Boat, and a great conversation with the Czech bartender. He, along with everyone else that morning, suggested that I take the old steam railway from Boat of Garten into Aviemore. And it took every ounce of my being to say "no"! I really, really wanted to finish the hike on foot.

I was rewarded with 7 miles of picture-perfect vistas, some 360 degrees views (1, 2, 3) of Scotland, Scotland, Scotland. I met a number of day hikers, and even more mountain bikers on this leg of the journey.

My adventure was rapidly drawing to a close, and I could feel it as I entered the outskirts of Aviemore. By this point, I was physically aching from 55 miles of hiking over the previous 5 days. And mentally, I was ready to be back home in Texas, with my wife and my dogs.

Aviemore

But there was still a few surprises left... Right in the middle of a neighborhood in Aviemore, there stands a 4000 year old Pictish stone circle in amazing condition. What little jewel just steps off of the trail. And the 3 hour train ride from Aviemore to Edinburgh was very beautiful too. Extended mountain scenery, and then lakes and coastline.

Edinburgh

I got to Edinburgh around 6pm, and checked into my hostel immediately. I didn't think I could walk another inch, and so desperately wanted to just curl up in bed. But that's just not my style ;-) I had but a few hours left in Scotland, and I had never been to Edinburgh, so out I went to walk the Royal Mile, see the castle, and the churches, and the Heart of Midlothian.

And to finish matters off, I settled down to a plate of haggis, neeps, and tatties, a pint of ale, and a dram of whisky ;-)

I have photographs and memories to last a life time!

:-Dustin

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