Dilston to Balloch
Lindisfarne, Stirling Castle, Ben Nevis, Kilmartin Glen, Dunadd
Time and tide wait for no man.
We were up EARLY and out the door by 7:15 a.m. on Thursday morning. The North Sea tides were what was pushing us. The incoming tide would make it impossible to leave Holy Island after 11:30 a.m., while the priory and museum didn’t open until 10:00 a.m.; therefore, we had to get there early enough to be first in line for the priory in order to get off the island before being stranded there for another six hours. Along the way, we passed through Bamburgh, site of a massive castle. Bamburgh was once the stronghold of the kingdom of Bernicia back in the 6th Century, and there has been a castle there ever since. Bamburgh is only a small town now.
We arrived on Holy Island at 9:45 a.m. and went shopping for souvenirs. In particular, Errol was looking to bring back a bottle of the famous Lindisfarne Mead. We scooped up the stuff we were looking for and were, as hoped, first in line at the priory, only to be shooed out by an officious timekeeper. We had to wait a few minutes before their watches said ten o’clock.
The priory ruins are not those of St. Cuthbert’s Lindisfarne. The Vikings’ first raid on England was at Lindisfarne in 793. The church and dormitory remains now in evidence were built long after during the Middle Ages. The priory was dissolved under Henry VIII, and the ruins are from the decay associated with the Reformation.
Ruins of the Priory Church
St. Cuthbert's Retreat
When he needed solitude, Cuthbert would walk across to this tidal island and wait until the waters rose.
St. Cuthbert’s monastery was centered more on the site of the present village church. Actually, we saw no less than three churches on Holy Island: a Reformed church, a Roman Catholic church (St. Aidan’s), and the Church of England parish church of St. Mary the Virgin and St. Cuthbert. We visited this church, too, as part of our visit. I put down my stuff and went up to the communion rail and knelt there for a while. So, even though we missed out on entering Durham Cathedral, I still got to pray with St. Cuthbert, one of my spiritual heroes. It was a very moving experience.
Over the Border
We got off the Island in good time and made our way north. We stopped in Berwick-upon-Tweed for some grocery shopping and made it to Bonaly Scout Camp on the south side of Edinburgh by 3:00. We were looking forward to doing some laundry and taking showers. We had plenty of time to piddle around. We kidded Jeffrey about wanting to defect to the UK.
There were some disappointments. The washing machine was super-slow to fill. The evening showers were freezing cold (the morning showers were scalding hot). The rain set in. Dinner was late, and our camping gas gave out in the middle of it. Dinner was very good, though; we made our own bangers and mash and added the ubiquitous Brown Sauce the British put on them. Brown Sauce is basically a brown gravy heavy on onions with a good bit of Worcestershire. On the plus side, the boys were still cheerful and cooperative and I got a good nap in the van before dinner.
On to the Highlands
Next morning, we left Bonaly early and got to the gates of Stirling Castle around 9:45. We had a great tour, after which we were let loose upon the castle. I was here five years ago, and they have poured enormous effort and millions of pounds into renovation. They have redone six royal rooms dating to the regency of Mary of Guise/reign of Mary Queen of Scots. New tapestries of authentic pattern adorn these rooms as well as the Great Hall. More tapestries are being produced on site, and we got to watch the work in progress.
Church of the Holy Rude
Manning the Guns
Stirling Castle as it is now was largely built by James IV, was added to by James V, was the home of Mary Queen of Scots, and was further remodeled by James VI and I. In the Civil War, it was taken by Cromwell’s New Model Army. In the Jacobite Rising (the ’45, I think), it was briefly besieged by the rebels, but the Grand Battery of the Parliamentary forces in the Castle blasted them to oblivion and shook the whole castle when it did. After that, the Castle became an army base. It was the home of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders until 1964; it still houses their museum and the Queen, who is Colonel-in-Chief of the Argylls, occasionally comes to dinner with the regiment at Stirling yet.
After some dithering about in town, we left Stirling around 2:30 and roared up the road to the Great Glen. We turned aside a few miles to see Loch Ness; Nessie was not in evidence. Turning around towards Fort William, we arrived at Glen Nevis Caravaning and Camping Park just at 6:00 and made camp before dark. Glen Nevis has a great campground and wonderful facilities. Lots of hot water, non-cranky washing machines, even a scullery to wash dishes in.
Looking for Nessie
We made a British stir-fry with sliced turkey, onions, peppers, and broccoli, seasoned with Brown Sauce. We had sticky toffee cheesecake for dessert. The tents were damp but okay. The skies were overcast with the moon rising behind Meall an-t’Suidhe (pronounced mell an tee), the lower companion of Ben Nevis. It was chilly but not uncomfortable. We got ourselves ready for the big day coming and prayed for good weather. My boots were in sad shape; the wet had made the Shoe Goo on them come loose, and I had a serious break in the leather on my left boot. If I got them through the next day’s work, I would finally have to retire them.
Bagging the Ben
We were up early again. Really, all through this trip, the Venturers did a great job of setup, takedown, and being ready to move at a moment’s notice. We were a small crew, and that makes a nimble crew, but still, they probably take the prize for efficiency of any crew I’ve ever taken anywhere. By 8:00 a.m., we were at the trailhead, hoisting our packs. We were about to tackle the tallest mountain (4,409’) in Great Britain.
The trail began at the National Parks car park. We crossed a bridge over the Nevis River, walked through some sheepfarming country, and then the trail began in earnest across the knees of Meall an-t’Suidhe, rising as it went. After it joined the trail leading directly up from the Youth Hostel next to our campground (an insanely steep trail too reminiscent of Scafell Pike), the Mountain Track began to climb more steeply. As we approached the saddle between Meall an-t’Suidhe and Ben Nevis himself, the wind began to pick up. A lot. It increased in intensity steadily all the rest of the way up to the clouds. In the saddle between the two mountains there lay a very large mountain lake: Lochan Meall an-t’Suide. The path led up to another that circled the shoulders of Ben Nevis.
Starting up the trail to Ben Nevis
Bridge on the Mountain Track
Errol Schlepping Up the Mountain
Seen from the shoulders of Ben Nevis
N.B. My digital camera’s battery failed as we started the trail. Some of the pictures in this post were taken with a disposable camera I carried as an emergency backup. I recharged my camera battery on our way down the coast the next day.
By this time, the cold was really searching its way into our clothes. The wind was blowing a full gale. Conditions were subarctic. When we stopped for a break, I got out my emergency map to show the crew the way up and to explain the importance of staying together when the clouds closed around us. A series of switchbacks with decreasing distances between them would bring us to the final approach. There were five right-hand switchbacks, which I intended to count as we went up in order to keep track of our distance.
The grass failed somewhere beyond the first switchback. We were now walking through a moonscape of bare rock. Nothing but freeze and thaw was responsible for what’s up there, and nothing lives but crazy hikers. Beyond the third right-hand switchback, the clouds closed in on us. Visibility was still fair – far more so than when I did this mountain five years ago – and there was no snow on the ground. The path was still visible. We trudged on. The wind was still blowing insanely.
After the fifth right-hand switchback, the trail went forward in an easterly direction. There was a shepherd’s corrie – a ring of rocks – at the beginning. Twelve large cairns defined the path, followed by three large cairns on the right warning not to go that way, followed by two more cairns. And then we were at the summit. We saw clouds boiling up out of gaping cliffsides, all too easy to slip over in bad conditions. If you went over, it’d be a couple thousand feet before you even bounced.
It's not the fall that kills you, it's the sudden stop at the bottom.
An old weather station was at the summit. It was used a hundred years ago when they were compiling the baseline data on weather in the UK. There was also a monument to members of the armed forces, saying, “Blessed are the Peacemakers.” We reached the trig pillar that defines the summit at 1:15. We took a couple of pictures and then we left. It was four and a half miles to the summit and it was going to be four and a half miles back down to the trailhead.
Memorial, Old Weather Station
Summit of Ben Nevis
We made it!
Errol was really hurting on the way down. T.C. was our hike leader and did an excellent job of making sure we kept Errol with us. We were back at the trailhead at 5:00 p.m. Nine hours to go nine miles up and down a mile-high mountain: that’s some good stuff. I dropped to the pavement and did my traditional five pushups with pack on. T.C. and Errol did, too.
Victory is sweet
We got back to camp and took one of the most wonderful showers any of us had ever had. I shaved, too. And then we were all warm and clean and heading into town for our victory dinner. We went to the Ben Nevis Inn where I ate on my last visit. We started off with a couple of appetizer portions of haggis with peppercorn cream sauce. Everybody liked it. Entrees ran the gamut: I had venison pie with red wine gravy, mash, and whipped cheddar; Errol had steak pie, mash, and peas; T.J. had beef lasagne; Jeffrey had hunter chicken, chips, and peas; T.C. had an escallope of pork with cream sauce, green beans, and mash. We cleaned our plates. T.C. wanted more, but we could all have eaten another two entrees apiece. Dessert followed: T.J. had Bramley apple pie with hot custard (a revelation!); Jeffrey and T.C. had sticky toffee pudding and ice cream; I had the raspberry and whiskey mousse with ice cream; Errol had the hot Bramley apple pie with a special salted caramel-whiskey ice cream. T.C. was still hungry, so we bought crisps on the way home to eat in camp.
It had stayed dry all day, but rain settled in for the night. It backed off in the morning for a while, but we were handling some very wet tents. Still, we got out in good order and spent an hour and a half souvenir shopping in Fort William – our last chance to grab some goodies before heading home. We were “oot and aboot,” as they say.
Down the Argyll coast
By about ten, we were ready to leave Fort William behind. We headed south and ate lunch on the road. By early afternoon, we were in Kilmartin Glen. We had a look at some very nice medieval grave slabs in the local church and a reconstruction of a monk’s kill.
Re-used Medieval Grave Slabs
T.C. takes up the hermit lifestyle
A mile or so away, we found some standing stones and the mysterious monument called Temple Wood. The earliest parts of this shrine dated to about 5,000 BC. Like Stonehenge, it had been rebuilt several times over the centuries. It was small, its ring stones no bigger than grave slabs. Nearby stood the Nether Largie Cairn, an ancient barrow. The boys thought it was cool to explore the grave.
Cyst grave at the center of the monument
T.C. and Jeffrey explore the Nether Largie Cairn
We continued on and came to Dunadd, the old royal stronghold of the kingdom of Dalriada. This is where the ethnic Scots (from Ireland, “Scotia” to the Romans) entered the land. In the 9th Century, they merged with the Picts, whose power was centered around Fife, and Alba (“Scotland”) was born. The hill of Dunadd stands alone, dominating the valley. It’s a natural fortress. High above the stronghold, there is a final summit where the king’s house would have stood. In between, there is an area where most of the inhabitants could see the king stand. There is where the kingstone lies. A royal footprint is carved in it. The king would stand there and place his foot in the print and complete his accession ritual.
The Gates of Dunadd
From there, we ran down the coast through Lochgilpead and Inverary to the shores of Loch Lomond. By 4:00, we were tired of driving. We turned off at Balloch, looking for the National Parks campground I stayed at five years ago. We couldn’t find it right away, so we settled for a private campground near the Loch. Its grass was really wet and boggy, but it had a large gravel parking area in our site. We pitched our tents on the gravel so they would be less wet. We made a supper of penne pasta. Then we went to bed. At 8:30. It was raining again, and we were pooped.
Balloch to Ellettsville
The day that never ends
I was wide awake at 3:00. No going back to sleep. I got up instead. Errol got up at 3:45. He forewent his sleeping pad to make quicker work of packing. “I feel like I’ve been pummeled by tiny statues,” he said. We made coffee. A bit of rain went through at quarter to five, but then the stars began to come out. The clouds were breaking up, and the full moon had a moonbow all around it. We got the crew up at 7:00, ate a fast breakfast and packed up for the last time in the growing light.
We shuffled down to the airport, just 40 minutes away. Dropped off the rental car. Made it through security with twenty minutes to spare before boarding. There were only fifty people on the plane. We were told we could sit anywhere not claimed, except for the tail. Errol and I chose the emergency exit row. Someone came to claim those seats, so the stewardess gave us an upgrade to business class. Score! Legroom!
I managed to snatch some sleep on the plane, but just enough to continue to function. We came into Philly at 12:30 local time (our bodies said it was 5:30 in Britain). We went through Customs, and learned that T.J. had an apple in his pocket from the day before that he had neither eaten nor thrown away. The Customs people told him to report to the Ag inspectors for disposal. As we exited Customs, he held back to do that. When he failed to appear rapidly, we sought out a supervisor. We explained that T.J. didn’t know how to answer the questions of officialdom. Errol was allowed to go back to gather him. T.J. was talking to all and sundry about a bird that had gotten into the building somehow; meanwhile, the Ag inspector was beginning to tear his luggage apart and swab it. Luckily, the supervisor cut that short and T.J. was allowed to go on his merry way.
We grabbed some pizza for supper (remember, our tummies were on British time still). Then we boarded a full flight bound for Indy. We arrived safe and sound, though my duffel didn’t make the flight. Kara picked us up and we returned to Ellettsville, where the crew set up the tents for airing. My bag was delivered at 12:45 a.m., by which time I had been up for almost 27 hours, bar my nap on the plane. And the trip was finally over.
The boys had a grand time. Errol enjoyed himself immensely. For me, well, this trip has three meanings. First, it was a promise paid off. I’ve been promising this trip for some time, and keeping my promises (especially to kids) is really important to me. As Robert Service’s poem said, “A promise made is a debt unpaid.” We’s all square, now. Second, though we picked the timing of this trip to get cheaper airline rates and take advantage of the extended fall break the schools were instituting, it turned out to be kind of a birthday present to myself. I turned sixty just five days before we left. It was especially good to measure myself against the big Ben and know that I’ve still got it. Third, this trip was, in Baden-Powell’s famous definition of Scouting, “an adventure in good company.” We spent ten days cheek-by-jowl, and are still friends. That should tell you something. I delight in each of my companions. You guys are the best.
Rougher! Tougher! Buffer!