Day 10 – Cadder -> oak tree between Milngavie & Drymen (16km)
“It was lovely weather before you came!” my Mum tells me again and again as I watch the rain from her window. I can’t imagine Scotland ever having lovely weather.
So it comes as no surprise to me that it’s shitting down when I rejoin the trail in Cadder after a couple of days’ break. I walk on asphalt and past golf courses to Milngavie, and decide that the rain is a blessing: there’s no rich golfers around.
For just one day, the SNT joins Scotland’s most famous hike, the West Highland Way. (This is section 13 of the official trail notes). Even in the pouring rain, there’s hikers in town. I imagine that this place must be a hikers’ hub when the weather’s good.
The West Highland Way is immediately better than all the miles of hiking I have done so far. I head through mossy forest, past a loch, and there’s even Dumgoyne mountain (or is it a hill?) giving me a dramatic view.
Because the West Highland Way is so popular, it’s easy to see where others have camped. Some spots are good, some are impractical. But it leaves me with a feeling of comfort, knowing that so many others have hiked here before me. Even if it’s just for one day, I’m no longer alone on the trail, no longer the only person wild camping. I camp under a big old oak tree. The sky comes alive as the sun sets, and then the inevitable rain begins.
Day 11: Oak tree -> Aberfoyle (28.5km)
It’s 10am by the time I have packed my tent away, and at least four sets of West Highland Way hikers have hiked enthusiastically past me.
I walk with a man called Grant, who’s also hiking the West Highland Way. Well, I say that I am walking, but really I am almost jogging to keep up with him. Stupidly, I don’t tell him how exhausted his fast pace is making me.
I walk with Grant as fast as my little legs can carry me for the next five kilometres, before realising that we have walked five kilometres in the wrong direction. We hitchhike back onto the trail, and reach Drymen at 2pm.
Exhausted by Grant’s pace, I say goodbye to him and have a soup in the local tearoom. Once again, people want to chat to me. One old man talks about how wild campers leave a mess in nature. “I’ve seen the photos!” he says. I tell him that anything that’s not making profit for someone is demonised and labelled as bad. He’s not convinced.
I join section 14 of the official trail notes and walk on tarmac and through pine forestry. It’s atmospheric as it rains and the clouds cover the pine hills. I see a beautiful roe deer.
I look for the perfect camping spot to shelter from the rain, but I’m being too fussy and end up in Aberfoyle just as it’s getting dark. I camp on the outskirts of the town in some woods just before the Outdoor Education Centre at the start of section 15.
It pelts it down with rain the whole night. I wake up a few times, wondering whether the tent can really withstand this much heavy rain.
Day 12: Aberfoyle -> between Callander & Comrie at Arivurichardich (22km)
I walk for most of the morning through pine forestry. It gets much more interesting when the track ends and I paddle along a flooded little wild path.
Unfortunately there’s building works going on to “improve the Rob Roy Way”, and it’s likely that this magical path has since disappeared. It’s Sunday, and I assume no builders are working today. So I ignore the diversion sign, duck under the orange tape and continue on my way. Suddenly I’m confronted by two deafening bulldozers digging up the ground. The workers tell me that they’re racing to get the track done before the bad weather hits.
I pass some lochs, then arrive in Callander, where my Mum and step-Dad are waiting to meet me for lunch. They’ve travelled for about four hours to come here.
It’s late afternoon when I join section 16. I grumble loudly to myself as I reach the top of a beautiful crag: there’s an old monument celebrating the Queen of colonialism, Victoria, ruining nature.
The trail becomes a bit more remote and the orange-coloured moorland makes me feel bleak. I camp at a closed-up house, probably used occasionally for deer hunting, at Arivurichardich. The rains sets in again as I put up my tent, and the wind starts to howl.
Day 13: Arivurichardich -> mountain pass between Comrie & Loch Freuchie (30km)
Storm Helene is due to hit the UK within the next day or two, and there’s now a weather warning for high winds which I need to try and beat. This means it’ll be a long two days of walking, trying to get the kilometres done so that I am in a safe place.
It’s a squelchy walk on a boggy 4WD track towards Comrie. The rain sets in so I start section 17 immediately, despite my aching body. I pass through enchanting beech woods to Devil’s Cauldron, an amazing small gorge with a ferocious waterfall. This is the first nature I have seen on the SNT which has taken my breath away.
I battle my way through giant ferns and walk through farmland and over moors. The surrounding mountains are shrouded in cloud, and there’s fiery early-Autumn colours on the trees. I paddle through lots of burns.
Today is the first day on the SNT where there’s no waymarkers. I practise taking compass bearings and brushing up on my map reading skills to prepare myself for the more difficult Highlands.
It’s evening and it’s about to get dark. I can sense that rain is about to hit me hard again, so I set up camp, finding a dry spot on the moorland, just before the top of a pass. I don’t get any sleep as strong winds and heavy rain batter the sides of the tent. This is Storm Helene. It has arrived early and I’m exposed, camping in the middle of it.
Day 14: Mountain pass -> Aberfeldy (38km)
I’ve had no sleep and I need to walk 38km to get to safety before the next severe weather warning hits. I take the tent down in the rain and hike through the squelchy ground in thick fog. There’s water gushing everywhere, and new bubbling streams escape down the hillside.
I can’t see a defined path anywhere, so I slosh through water down the hill towards the river Almond. In normal weather you should be able to paddle through, but there’s no way I’m risking my life doing that in this rain. There’s a bridge marked on the map, and a bridge mentioned in the trail notes, but squinting my eyes down the hillside, I can’t see any sign of it. So I ambitiously squelch down to the small dam, and hope that there’s a way of crossing there. I’m in luck, and with relief I cross the dam’s small walkway onto a prominent farm track.
I walk through the glen, engulfed in thick white cloud. I’m surprised and annoyed that in this relatively remote valley someone’s made a small golf course.
I hike past a farmer on his buggy, dragging a dead sheep along the ground behind him. Another sheep lies dead outside the farmhouse.
It’s a boggy route on a grassy little trail past little lochans. I reach Loch Freuchie, the start of section 18, at lunchtime and soldier on: only 19km to go to reach Aberfeldy!
The second half of the day is easier. The sun comes out as I climb a quiet asphalt road and traipse through moorland. Finally I reach the beautiful Birks of Aberfeldy, a small strip of woodland surrounded by farmer’s fields. There’s a small gorge with a raging waterfall.
I arrive in Aberfeldy at 6pm and stay at the amazing Breadalbane hotel. The manager, a French man called Lio, is my guardian angel. He really cares about people, takes an interest in hikers, and goes out of his way to make me feel at home. He washes my stinking wet clothes and dries them out. This hotel really is the medicine I need to feel better after days in the rain. (Hikers, ignore the strangely bad reviews and stay here!)
Aberfeldy becomes my favourite town on the SNT. I go to the lovely independent cinema and eat in the Persian restaurant. I stay here for three days, eating Lio’s breakfasts. I’m so grateful to be inside as Storm Ali powers through, taking down trees.
Day 15: Aberfeldy →Pitlochry (15km)
I finally leave Aberfeldy (and begin section 19) after three blissful nights of rest and comfort. I’m excited: Chris is due to meet me at my next destination of Pitlochry, meaning that I’ll no longer be hiking alone.
I walk along the river Tay. A tip to hikers: don’t camp under birch trees if there’s winds forecast: I have to climb over numerous birches that have fallen in the two storms. I probably wouldn’t camp under pines, either, for the same reason.
There’s pheasants everywhere, purposely bred in many areas of Scotland for shooting. Looking across to the other river bank, I spot men with dogs on an estate. And then I see another man ‘beating’ pheasants into the sky. The men start shooting. I’m sickened that this is an enjoyable hobby to some people, and wish that there was a bridge over the river so that I could interrupt their ‘fun’.
I pass numerous sheep and open and close many gates. Sheep and gates are my constant companions on the trail, and I’m tired of them! To me, the sheep symbolise the loss of wilderness. And the gates symbolise private property, and the domination of humans over non-humans.
I arrive in Pitlochry with dry feet (a miracle!) and visit the very informative John Muir Trust exhibition (even if I hate their views on deer culling). I then pitch my tent in a beautiful spot at Loch Faskally and wait for Chris.
I know that hiking with Chris will mean walking less kilometres per day, which will be good for me. I have pushed myself too much – walking til it’s almost dark. I’m also relieved that Chris is joining me because the SNT will get more difficult after Pitlochry. There’ll be lots of potentially tricky river crossings, and I am only just over five feet tall, weighing less than 50kg, so don’t want to attempt them alone, especially with all this rain.
I walked these sections in September 2018. For Oldie Outdoors’ account of the same sections in a different season, see here.