The Scotland Diaries: The Arran Coastal Way, Part 1
We survived Goat Fell. Barely. And, as hard at that was, we still had some roughly 57 more miles to go to complete the 65 miles of the Arran Coastal Way. Surprisingly, my knees that were screaming on our Goat Fell descent felt great the next day. The bad news was we woke up and it was pouring rain. Not regular rain, but Scottish rain. The skies had opened up and it was raining sideways and it was very cold. Sunny skies one day, rainy the next. That’s Scotland. No matter, though. Dave, our guide, would not be deterred by bad weather and we all knew that. No real Hill Walker would. And, we were at least attempting to act like *real* Hill Walkers. So, we layered up and headed out for the start point and hoped and prayed that we wouldn’t be walking in this dreich all day.
For most of the morning, we closely followed the coastline. There were some sandy trails but some beach walking as well. More knee pain! However, after a little more than two hours of walking in torrential rain, the skies started to slowly clear. What started as a dark, wet and bitter cold day had now brightened and the rain had stopped. Some of us removed water-proof pants, stripped down a few layers and actually began warming up. It wasn’t long, though, that we came upon the most difficult part of the day’s route. It was our first encounter with the seaside boulders – not to be confused with the mountain boulders. Equally as dangerous to navigate, but throw in some slippery seaweed and very wet rocks and the seaside boulders presented a different kind of challenge. Hopping from wet boulder to wet boulder presented its own unique kind of challenge. For those of us who weren’t part goat or lithe like a panther, it was pretty difficult. And, when you consider that we were so remote – so off the beaten track – that an injury or a broken bone could not be attended to, it made the whole boulder-hopping scenario just that much more daunting. There was absolutely no cellular signal out there. Like none. Nada. And, no roads that we could see. I regretted not reviewing basic first aid before I left for Scotland. I hoped that someone knew how to make a splint. But, when those thoughts started to overwhelm me – to crowd the inside of my head – I knew I had to cease this thinking. I was able bodied, wasn’t suffering from blisters or muscle aches and slowly, and I knew I could make it through if I was careful.
It was when I realized this that I finally stopped, looked around and was overwhelmed with the incredible beauty of the untouched coast, the rays of sun shooting through the clearing clouds and the distant baying of the lambs and the sheep that seemed to delicately balance on the cliffs above like bits of foam clung to the rocks at the surf line below.
The temperatures had switched dramatically. I was warm now…and in no need of my coat. We were constantly looking ahead and around. This side of Arran jutted in and out and in and out. I had a rough notion of the geography, but lost track completely of when we would actually turn the north corner of the island to head back south towards Lochranza. Along the way, we made way for sheep in our path – mothers and babies and horned males grazing. We stumbled across a dead black-face lamb. It had just recently died. But, why? It looked like it had just laid down and went to sleep. No marks on its body to indicate any trauma. It lay peacefully in the grass very close to the sea. I couldn’t stop staring at it…and the image of this sweet baby stayed with me. Not sure why. Circle of life, I told myself. But, it seemed so cruel. All alone…
We also came across what appeared to be ruins of a small mining and salt-panning operation complete with what was left of an actual millstone. This was before we came upon the pretty-from-the-outside, but horrific-on-the-inside “Laggan Cottage.” For *real* Hill Walkers, I am guessing this is a version of a four-star bothy. It’s a place where travelers hiking on the cheap will stop for respite, food or a night’s sleep. Upon first entering the cottage, one spies a rusty ax and spade. Umm…OK? Then, a dirty mattress and all sorts of other filthy and disgusting accoutrements that seemed to delight Dave Lawson to no end. It was a bit too much like a set from a horror film for me, so I promptly exited and took a seat to scarf a sandwich and a protein bar. It was a nice break, I will say, and the views from the cottage were lovely. But, no-way, no-how would I ever sleep there. I am pretty sure the other walkers felt the same way. It was only Dave who seemed impressed by the set-up!
We continued on – still the maddening mirage of the northern most turn of the island in the distance. Towards the latter half of the walk, we encountered our first real experience with boggy walking. It was a time when I was thankful that I had spent a bit extra on my North Face hiking boots to get the Gore-Tex/waterproof version. The sound your boot makes when it’s sinking to your ankle in boggy seaweed, mud and god-knows-what-else is a slurpy “whoosh.” You really can’t avoid a misplaced step or two and just hope your boot stays on and doesn’t become entrapped in the goo. Yet another sensation to get used to.
We were coming up on hour five of this walk and close to eight miles underfoot. Again, I was middle to mostly back of the pack of walkers. One of our girls, Dave’s sweet niece, Lauren, had been struggling most of the day. We didn’t know with what exactly, except we thought maybe blisters and some sore knees from the Goat Fell ascent the day before. As we rounded (finally) the bend and could see Lochranza bay/inlet and the castle ruins in our sights, we looked forward to some flat beach walking and a bit of road. But, no sooner had we made the turn than almost in an instant, and definitely out of nowhere, a wind whipped up blowing straight in our faces. It was no ordinary wind, either – 25 to 35 mile an hour steady head winds. It didn’t appear our last mile was going to be the stroll we had thought.
At this point, I lost my sunny disposition and wondered what I had done wrong to deserve such contempt by the weather gods. I literally had to bend at the waist and thrust my upper body ahead of the rest of me to gain the leverage to keep moving forward in the gale force winds. “Really?” I kept saying under my breath. By the time most of the group made it to the car park, we had reached our limit. It had been six hours and nearly 11 miles of wind, rain, boulder scrambling, bog hopping and more boulder scrambling and wind again. The sun was indeed out, however, but our support crew was apparently not in the vicinity and we had little to no cell coverage in order to coordinate pick-up.
Meanwhile, some of my non-walking guests who had arrived on the island and were waiting at our cottage were phoning me saying, “Where are you?” At that moment I didn’t really know where I was or felt like explaining how I got there. Dave’s niece, it turned out, had been walking most of the day with horrific blisters on her heels. Sweet Jesus – I don’t know how she did it. True grit, was all I could think of. Lauren was a force to be reckoned with and we never heard a peep out of her in the way of complaining. Thankfully, Doreen to the rescue with our collective supply of Compeed blister wraps (greatest thing EVER!) Doreen got Lauren bandaged, but the tales Doreen told later of the state of Lauren’s feet were cringe-worthy.
Today was an early rise. One of our walkers had been fighting a chest cold the day before and despite the strong will to continue, it was clear she needed a day off to recuperate. The Clarks offered to take her around the island while we went trekking and so we were one down in the group. Dave’s niece, Lauren, arrived at our starting point looking ready to go. I knew she was still hurting but she appeared determined to tackle the day. However, what none of us really knew at the time was that we faced a nearly 17-mile day on hard road surfaces. We were walking from Catacol to Blackwaterfoot. The Longest Day.
This wasn’t at ALL what I had envisioned for the walk. I had thought it would have been more of a group activity full of camaraderie. Goat Fell felt like that despite some being faster to the summit than others. The slippery boulder hopping the day before kept us together by necessity. But, today was different. The only obstacle we faced was that hard roadway, the elements and our own psychological and physical limitations. I had to literally fight back the tears at times. Instead, I focused on putting one foot in front of the other and really, really REALLY trying to stay in the moment. The scenery was beautiful. Truly stunning. I was in Scotland and on the coast. My two very favorite things. How many other people would KILL to be here? There would be no crying in Scotland, I told myself!!! I had already cried enough on Goat Fell. Happy tears, but tears nonetheless. These were my thoughts even as I had to strain my eyes to see the dots of brightly colored jackets of the rest of my group on the horizon in front of me. I paused, I took a lot of photos and I breathed the sea air.
A half hour later and warmed by tea, coffee and hot chocolate, we set off again. The rain had stopped. Gray clouds remained, but the sun started poking through once again. At this point, I was no longer paying attention to the time. Instead I was watching the miles. My fitness watch was counting them off very slowly. No one knew for sure exactly how long we would walk that day. And, if Dave knew, he wasn’t telling. Lauren had slowed again and I could tell she was favoring one of her feet over the other giving her a hobbled appearance as she walked ahead of me. But, again, never a whimper out of her in terms of a complaint. I had my eye on her because I couldn’t imagine the pain. My own feet were getting hot. I could feel the friction from the road on the balls of both of my feet. I couldn’t remember the last time I had a blister from walking. Is this what it felt like when it started? It didn’t feel good but I wasn’t hobbled in any way. Keep going.
At this point, however, I was no longer a tourist. I was just trying to finish this leg of the Coastal Way while still enjoying the journey. A visit to the Standing Stones would have to wait. The group had moved way ahead. I thought they might stop at King’s Cave to let Lauren and I catch up. But, when we got there, the picnic area was empty. Lauren and I walked together then and I was so grateful for that. Neither one of us was feeling great. My feet were hot under me and at one point, I felt a small little burst of fluid enveloping the bottom of my left foot. It was an odd sensation, but could only assume a blister had broken. Was this good? I wasn’t sure. The grade of the road had increased. We were walking an incline. Surely, Blackwaterfoot was “just around the corner.” I could hear Dave’s words in my head. Both Lauren and I had run out of water. For the past two days, we had been sharing water amongst us when someone ran out. Except on this day, it was just the two of us now and both of us had long drained our water bottles. While the sun was out and it was beautiful, we were hot and parched. I saw a farmer ahead of me off to the side of the road. I asked him how far we were from town and he replied, “About a mile – all up hill.” Gee. Thanks, Farmer MacDubh! Well, a mile was a mile and we had walked nearly 16 miles already. What is one more?
When we got back to the cottage, our missing walker looked revived. She had a great day with the Clarks – as I knew she would. My other friends, the Inglesons, had arrived with the largest pan of cheesy lasagna I had ever seen. We invited all the walkers and support crew back to the house for dinner but only the young ones – Gary and Lauren – came. I was truly in awe of Lauren that she completed that 17-mile day with really bad feet. Such a determined young woman. This quality will take her far in life. I wish some of my other millennial friends would take a note!
We ended the evening with more laughs, a beautiful sunset over the water and yes, more Compeeds. This time for me. It turns out, the blisters on both of my feet were quite large. One had popped but the other had not. I didn’t know how I was going to strap those boots on in the morning, but I knew I had no choice. I hadn’t come all this way not to finish. Four days done. Three more to go. Tomorrow would be just another day in paradise. That’s what I told myself as I drifted off to sleep with the soft sounds of the surf crashing below my window and thoughts that maybe Ross Poldark would rescue me!