A Brief Scottish Escape
Produced in Partnership with KEEN Footwear
Calum Maclean // Photography by Johny Cook
Drizzle hits the water softly. There’s barely a breath of wind here. Protected by the surrounding trees, it’s a different world to the exposed hills in the distance. As I stand over the knotted roots and peer into the water, there’s suddenly a break in the cloud. The sun creeps out, the sky clears – the day has taken a step into the middle of summer.
As I cross the railway bridge and glance towards the mountains, my fears are confirmed. Where the vast bulk of the Cairngorms should lie, instead I see only a grey wall of cloud. Forecasts of fog and rain have proven to be accurate, and with gusts hitting up to 50mph on the summits my original plan – a journey onto the plateau, before a camp by a high mountain loch – appears to be dashed.
As I scour the map and talk myself into a new journey, my initial disappointment turns to hope, then excitement. I have 24 hours before I have to be home, and I’m in the natural outdoor playground of the Cairngorms – the possibilities are near endless. With time on my side, I start the long walk. From Aviemore, still bustling with tourists and cars, I head west, and soon enter the forest.
I’m heading for the wide expanse of Glen Feshie with a couple of friends. With its regenerating pine woods, potential for plunges into cold dark water and the promise of a bothy fire to dry me out this evening, I have all I need.
The first stop of my journey is at Uath Lochans: a series of brilliantly dark pools, said to resemble the pawprint of a bear when viewed from the sky. Drizzle hits the water softly. There’s barely a breath of wind here. Protected by the surrounding trees, it’s a different world to the exposed hills in the distance. As I stand over the knotted roots and peer into the water, there’s suddenly a break in the cloud. The sun creeps out, the sky clears – the day has taken a step into the middle of summer.
Even on the coldest, foulest of days I have rarely been able to resist a swim, and the urge today is overwhelming. In a flash my clothes are in a pile and I’m stretching out, swimming for the dark heart of the loch. It’s not cold, but far from warm. I didn’t immediately feel that need to jump back out. This is a temperature I’d describe as ‘not bad’. With each forward stroke, my hands disappear into the gloom; I dive under and sunlight penetrates the surface, a deep shade of whisky brown. I shout out in joy, and the surrounding land replies with my echo. I’m alive.
To get warm after a swim, I like to get clothes on and then I like to move. I head for the nearest hill: Creag Far-Leitire. It’s only a short stroll but I’m rewarded with an incredible vista. I look over my swimming pool to the forests beyond and the far-off hills. Again, I see no mountains. A slight panic felt when the sun came out – or FOMO perhaps, wondering what I could be missing up there –has now subsided. Thick fog has enveloped all the higher land. Were I up there now, I wouldn’t even see the amazing scenery. My decision has been the correct one. The clouds will eventually steal the daylight, and I must keep moving, but not before collecting one valuable resource.
Late August into September sees vast swathes of blaeberries appear in the woods and on the hills – in my opinion, the finest of foods to pick and snack on during a walk. They can be eaten fresh, saved for baking, or (as I like to do) added to porridge first thing in the morning. The berries shine under the recent rain, and moving gently over the bushes I soon fill my small tub (and belly).
The path leads further into Glen Feshie, emerging eventually from the trees into the wider, open glen. Crossing the ‘pony bridge’, the last bridge over the River Feshie, leads onto the well-maintained paths of the east bank of the river. We walk between open heather and clumps of forest – this glen is a fantastic example of the regeneration of Scots pine in the Cairngorms National Park, helped in large part by the reduction in deer numbers here. But I’m on the lookout for a different animal: the elusive, swift red squirrel.
Eventually my path will lead to Ruigh Aiteachain, which translates from Gaelic as ‘the slope of the small juniper wood’ – and it’s clear to see why, with a hill behind us covered in juniper bushes. Gaelic place names surround us, from thick woods to the small streams, giving us an insight into how the land was viewed and used. I feel that having this appreciation helps give us a sense of place. The Scottish Highlands – particularly the quiet, wilder corners – hold a special place in my mind. I feel it’s where I’m meant to be.
Gaelic place names surround us, from thick woods to the small streams, giving us an insight into how the land was viewed and used. I feel that having this appreciation helps give us a sense of place. The Scottish Highlands – particularly the quiet, wilder corners – hold a special place in my mind. I feel it’s where I’m meant to be.
In life I can find it hard to fully relax, to switch off from things, even to sit and read a book without distraction. By coming to places like this, it gives my mind the chance to be calm, to forget worries.
We cross one last trickling stream, and the chimney of the bothy is in sight. Smoke gently rises; the fire is already lit. We soon make new friends over whisky and settle down. One particular highlight – we have a friendly bothy dog for the night! After a frantic welcome of jumping up, cuddling and wrestling, I calm myself down and leave the dog be.
In life I can find it hard to fully relax, to switch off from things, even to sit and read a book without distraction. By coming to places like this, it gives my mind the chance to be calm, to forget worries. My mind is alive with possibilities: ‘what can I hear, where can I go, what haven’t I seen here?’ But I don’t feel as though I’m escaping from things; it’s what I’m gaining from these places and experiences that counts.
As night comes, I’m into my sleeping bag and reading by the light of my head torch. I leaf through In The Cairngorms – a book of Nan Shepherd’s poems. The first poem I land on is ‘The Man Who Journeyed to His Heart’s Desire’. I fall asleep to the crackling of the stove and the dog’s gentle breathing.
First light creeps gently through the bothy window. The building is still warm, the last embers of the fire not long dead. I peer through the glass, past the pile of dead midges lining the windowsill, and decide that breakfast is best enjoyed outside, under the trees. A short-lived decision. The midge is the scourge of the Scottish hillwalker: barely the size of a full stop, yet attacking in vast numbers and with a sharp enough bite to drive the most stoic of us wild. If you’re ever feeling a bit tired, standing amongst midges for even 20 seconds is guaranteed to give you a rush of adrenaline. For me, the fighting instinct appears. After much swearing, flapping at the air and face-rubbing I’m soon inside. I wolf down my porridge – not an easy feat under a midge net!
Over drams last night I managed to glean some information about a potential swim nearby, a waterfall that thunders down the rocks and is only just off my return route. I’m told it’s less of a swim, and more of a natural power shower, but that’s good enough for me – I need a new focus after the midges.
I walk back through the woods with soft eyes. An Australian bushman once told me that to see wildlife, ‘you must have soft eyes, like a detective.’ He described this as being able to see your feet, whilst also looking in front of you – being aware of your peripheral vision. As I stop for a second, directly in front of me is an unmistakeable shape. The bushy tail, the small body – I’ve found my squirrel. After contemplating me, it quickly heads up the tree, the only evidence of it now the gentle swaying of high branches as it hops between the tops.
Following my bothy tip, I head off the path and follow a faint trail that winds gently uphill, under fallen trees, across boggy ditches. It’s not long before a rumbling comes into earshot. Is that the wind? The trail disappears as I continue towards the noise. All of a sudden we’re out of the trees, and facing a river. White water streams down over wide sloping rocks – it’s an open gorge, and my shower is up ahead. I strip off and stumble over the wet rocks. It’s barely knee deep and certainly not a swim, but I lie down under the falls and feel the thunder of water on my body. A million icy fingers rattle on my head and shoulders, the most invigorating of massages.
As we exit the forest, we’ve reached the tarred road again. It’s a bit of a walk back to the train station; cars appear, and slowly no bars on my phone turn to one, then full data reception. My initial plan never came about, but I still managed a journey and experience in nature – and my mind is calm and fresh.
Calum was wearing the new KEEN x Sherpa Adventure Gear Innate leather hiking boot. This new collaboration is in support of child literacy in Nepal. For every pair sold KEEN and Sherpa will donate €15 to Room to Read, an organisation that seeks to transform the lives of millions of children in developing countries, like Nepal, by focusing on literacy and gender equality in education. For more information visit: https://www.keenfootwear.com/en-gb/innate-sherpa/