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October 07, 2010

Lost: Black Jacket in Scotland’s Last Great Wilderness


Being a New Englander, I’m not shocked by the occasional “you can’t get there from here” coming from a local. On a trip last weekend to Knoydart Peninsula on the western coast of the Scottish Highlands, I was shocked to find that in some places, it’s actually true.

Our trip, guided by Stevie Christie of Wilderness Scotland, an outfitter named to Outside Magazine’s top adventure trips of 2010, started on a gray morning in Glasgow where we quickly exited the city and drove past Loch Lomond to the base of Ben Nevis, the highest peak in the British Isles at 4,049 feet. We hiked through the driving rain on a side trail to Glen Nevis, once described as the most beautiful half-kilometer on Earth by mid-century Scottish writer W.H. Murray. I was happy for my durable, sturdy, impermeable-yet-breathable shell that’s one of my must-pack travel items, double that for a trip to Scotland. But no sooner had we gotten to the glen, the clouds broke and the sun came out revealing leprechaun-quality rainbows beaming across Steal Falls.

Still wet from the hike, we continued on to our featured destination, the Knoydart Peninsula. Located on the Scottish mainland across from the Isle of Skye, it’s separated from the British road system by a rugged stretch of high mountains, meaning if you want to travel here over land, you’re looking at a 25-mile hike through rough country. The peninsula was once a tenant-farmed estate property home to as many as 2,000 people in 1800s. With the coming of the Highland Clearances, the population dwindled to almost nothing. But in the 1950s and 1960s, people began to return to the peninsula, and currently the population stands at about 150 full-time residents, enough to have a restaurant, a pub, a few lodges, and a modest forestry industry; not enough to have a bridge over to the mainland. Boats are the only real way to get there, and we had Bob, one of the owners of the Knoydart Lodge bed and breakfast, come by boat to the fishing village of Mallaig and bring use across a sea loch to the Doune Dining Room, for a family style dinner of fresh prawns and organic salads before hiking up a hill in the mud and rain to cars waiting to take us into the Knoydart village of Inverie.

The next morning we woke to more threatening weather, not that anyone was surprised. After a meal that would put any English breakfast to shame (Bob’s wife offers an extensive menu and cooks each one to order, no matter how many guests), we headed up another sea loch by boat, passing the humble homes of fisherman and the massive faux-castles of the ultrarich who come here seeking solitude. We hiked past the groundskeeper’s home near Camusrory, a hunting estate teeming with red deer, and the 19th-century ruins of an old farmstead. As we walked, the rain, once again, slowed to a halt and the clouds gave way. We marveled at our luck and stuffed jackets into bags, some hikers even wondering if they should put on sunscreen or lamenting that they hadn’t packed any. We hiked 600 meters up to a saddle beneath several Munros, 3,000-foot-plus peaks that serve as the Scottish equivalent to Colorado’s 14ers. While Colorado has 54 peaks above 14,000 feet, Scotland boasts 283 Munros. We lunched at the top of the saddle looking over the sea to the mountains of the Isle of Skye and descended through grassy knolls, valleys, and riverside oases reminiscent of Tolkein’s The Shire.

That night, we went to the Old Forge Inn for dinner, which claims to be the most remote pub in the British Isles. The claim may be dubious, but the locally sourced venison and fresh scallops were not. Nor was the scotch our group took to trying. It wasn’t the stuffy formal distillery tour you’ll find in other areas, rather it was just our group going up to the bartender and asking “What should we try next? Aye, that sounds good.” Total strangers at the beginning of the trip, our group soon began trading stories with each other and the local populace. Despite being in a place where less than 150 people lived, the pub was as lively as any you’d find in Edinburgh, and we stayed late into the night talking with the owner, the bar staff, and the dozens of townsfolk who treated us as old friends.

The next morning was a bleary one and we packed quickly, throwing items into bags, downing some haggis and baked eggs, and getting back on the boat over to Mallaig. This time, we stopped in Arasaig, a rocky bay surrounded by green hills. The weather acted the same. Just as we were going to don an impressive amount of hardcore rain gear, the skies above us cleared to a Mountain West blue and out came the rainbows, seals, and cormorants. We sea-kayaked in the hot sun (really) and shed layers on our way out white-sand beaches (seriously) on small islands that had more Pirates of the Caribbean than Braveheart.

I hadn’t even noticed that I’d left my trusty rain jacket back at the lodge on Knoydart until that afternoon, and then, only when the innkeepers there called Stevie to inform them. Embarrassed, I asked what could be done, since I was moving on to the Cairngorms National Park that day for the Adventure Travel World Summit in Aviemore. Stevie assured me they’d send on the jacket by mail, but couldn’t guarantee when it would show up. It would depend on the boats. Three days into the conference, the weather has remained summit and I haven’t had need of the jacket. So I’ll just enjoy this fine Scottish weather and wonder if my jacket can get here from there.

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Didn't do any sea-kayaking on Knoydart, but we did an amazing day at Arasaig (sp?), where the weather broke and we were surrounded by rainbows and seals. An amazing place certainly worth visiting.

I'm in Knoydart a few times every year. Most of the time I sea kayak into the far end of Loch Nevis from Mallaig. What a great place it is. Even though it is remote and a bit wild I always meet other people too.

If you had your jacket, you would not have enjoyed the Scottish weather. right?

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