We were here to review gear, climb a mountain and have a bit of a laugh. Maleek, Niki, John and photographer Rachel – our group of four – had travelled to the Breadalbane area in the Scottish Highlands for a few days of walking, running, camping, drinking coffee and eating cake.
A squally adventure to the summit of Schiehallion
Schiehallion stands as an outlier. A Munro standing tall among few others. It’s a mountain as a kid would draw: pleasingly pointy and often snow-capped. It’s a Scottish mountain that, along with Ben Nevis, Suilven and Buachaille Etive Mòr, has become a cultural and historical reference point for the Highlands. There are songs and beers named after it. It was also the scene of an 18th-century experiment to ‘weigh the earth’. In 1774, astronomer Charles Mason chose the mountain’s isolated nature and cone-like shape to estimate the mass of the Earth. The work was carried out by Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne and mathematician Charles Hutton.
In their calculations, they were about 20 per cent off today’s estimation (which, incidentally, is M⊕ = 5.9722×1024kg). Our expertise is limited to map reading and the hydrostatic head of waterproofs, and we managed to employ both of those skills on Schiehallion. We were here to review gear, climb a mountain and have a bit of a laugh. Maleek, Niki, John and photographer Rachel – our group of four – had travelled to the Breadalbane area in the Scottish Highlands for a few days of walking, running, camping, drinking coffee and eating cake.
On the first day, we parked the van by Loch Tay, down the road from Aberfeldy, and took our chances on a clear morning to begin our walk up to Schiehallion. It’s an easy walk, but by the time we arrived at the top, we’d say unscientifically the Scottish weather was hitting around 70 per cent. The squall surrounded us on the final ridge as we ascended up to the 1083-metre peak, just as the quartzite rocks became the prominent material underfoot. Occasionally the clouds broke, bathing us in bright sunshine and revealing the valleys below us. It was a day with all seasons, like many late autumn days in the Highlands. We revelled in the drama of the day, the rain coming across the horizon, the glimpse of the vast mass of the mountain in front of us, the rock underfoot.
It is, of course, also very good for testing gear. The route back down afforded us a chance to slow down, with the knowledge that all we had for the rest of the day, was a chilled-out camp in the evening.
Schiehallion is as rich in botanical life as in cultural heritage. Heathers, mosses and blaeberry cover the gentle lower slopes. On our path, beetles scurried underfoot, wildly horned sheep scampered, and we brushed past the late autumnal flowering plants. Rainbows occasionally lit up the sky. A more Highland day we couldn’t have had.
Our expertise is limited to map reading and the hydrostatic head of waterproofs...review gear, climb a mountain and have a bit of a laugh.
Running through an ancient woodland
The Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog was lurking in the undergrowth. Probably. Maybe. The potential of an imminent attack by a rabid bunny didn’t do much to make us run quicker, mostly because the assembled runners were far too young to get a Monty Python reference. But as well as being a filming location for The Holy Grail – the comedy collective surely knew a beauty spot when they saw one – Tay Forest Park is one of the most beautiful spots in Highland Perthshire.
This woodland is an ancient blend of trees – some of the tallest in Scotland – that have witnessed hundreds of years of history. Plant hunters and foresters have foraged the earth for food, medicines and building materials. Troops loyal to Robert the Bruce hid among folds in the land, Iron Age hill forts still puncture the earth, and the earlier Picts left a clearly visible ring fort. It seems, beyond the hilarious fictional world of Monty Python, there are plenty of stories just as strange.
But for our trail run, it was in the footsteps of Sir Duncan Campbell who planted the oak, birch and Scots pine far back in the 17th century on Drummond Hill. He was known as ‘Black Duncan’ because of his ruthless character, but how someone who planted with such foresight and vision of beauty could have had a dark mood is beyond us on the day we explored his lands.
Sun shone through the trees, spraying sunlight across the undergrowth. We felt sealed off from the world, springing along the green tunnels of Tay Forest Park. Komoot put our distance at 8.11 miles, but it didn’t feel anywhere close. The bouncy trail, propelled us on, through the woodland. No killer rabbits and no ghosts of soldiers, just joyous sunlight that reflected our spirits. Trail running offers a freedom that is unsurpassed. It’s fun, it’s challenging and with friends like these guys, life-affirming.
Climbing the Hierarchy of Needs
Loch Tay: Cold, dark, and utterly flooring when you first see it. It makes our loch-side campsite pretty special. From the shores, wave-smacked on the windy day we arrived, the expanse of the Perthshire Highlands rises around us in vivid detail. The Tay Forest Park, Ben Lawers, the highest mountain in the Breadalbane region, and the loch itself, a place of meeting and settlements since the 8th millennia BC, according to the large-scale Ben Lawers Historic Landscape Project. The landscape won’t have changed too much in the proceeding ten thousand years. Camping in the 21st century is now as close as many of us get to connecting with nature, with the absence of the noise of modern life. Like the Bronze Age people and the Picts, the Iron Age people and during the Medieval Period, we have the same basic requirements: food, shelter, warmth and water. Camping strips us modern folk of most things but those. Grounds us, and forces us to appreciate the landscape around us.
After our escapade up Schiehallion, we descended back to our van and tent ‘basecamp’ lochside. Here we had warmth (sleeping bags, mats, pillows), shelter (van and a tent), food (a rather lovely chilli), water (that had been turned into wine) and rest. We then moved up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. We had safety and security (lights, reception, power, safety in numbers), we had friends (trust, acceptance), we had esteem in the mountain accomplishment of the day, and the top of the pyramid: self-actualisation. The sense of achieving potential, of learning, of reaching goals. Not bad for a couple of days in the mountains. And of course, we weren’t there to tick off the box. This is the life we want, that we need, that we love. An outdoor life… and nice stuff!
Words: Daniel Neilson
Photos: Rachel Keenan
Sidetracked // @sidetracked