An Adventure in Scotland
As a child, all my favorite imaginary games involved Star Wars figures going on quests up couch mountains and across long stretches of carpet swamps/meadows/forests/oceans. I realize now that the adventures were always about the landscape and the trek, and not about actually completing the quest. Something about the idea of being part of the natural world while moving through it delighted my imagination. It took me until age 50 to figure out it was time to do a long-distance walking trip for real.
Planning an Adventure
The plans centred on wanting to use my own two legs to cover some distance – not as a race or goal but as an open experience to see what would come from it. I consciously set no rules or goals other than where I would start and where I would finish. Planning was more about learning what the possibilities were so I could make more informed choices in the moment.
The decision to go solo was so important. I am a caretaker by nature and tend to make choices based on the needs of others. My youngest child has just graduated from high school and it felt like time to see who I am now. I’m lucky to have a partner who supported the idea of a solo trip and didn’t feel threatened by it. He had his own adventure holding down the fort at home…
I started in Berwick-Upon-Tweed just south of the border between Scotland and England because the Berwickshire Coastal path starts there and goes through St. Abbs, where my grandfather grew up. He was always a bit of a mystery to me and it felt meaningful to go there. Orkney was the endpoint because it’s one of those places that has always called to me, and I wanted to see Skara Brae for myself.
My backpack, fully loaded, weighed around 40 lbs with camping gear, water, some food, a change of clothes, etc. I packed the bare minimum and ended up using every single item I brought, except some first aid items, which I’d say is exactly how you want it to be! I went prepared to wild camp whenever possible but also thought I’d stay in inns or B&Bs or hostels sometimes too. I didn’t prebook any (which led to the occasional side adventure) except for the end of my journey in Orkney where accommodations were more limited.
Scotland has a whole lot of long-distance walking paths or “ways”. I walked two full long-distance trails, taking the train in between them to get to the starting points. After that my feet started to need some modifications so I did parts of three other long-distance trails rather than doing one or two end-to-end. All in all, I walked more than 375 km “on” the trails – unfortunately, my odometer sometimes inexplicably finished the day before I did – and lots more off the trails.
On (and Off) the Path
I was excited to go but had a long trip to get there so focused on one stage at a time. Upon arrival in Berwick-Upon-Tweed, a few clear tasks needed doing (get camping fuel, matches, etc.). Then, when there was nothing to do but start walking, I got a little nervous. No idea where I would sleep that night, what the trail would be like, or how my body would hold up – those were uncomfortable uncertainties! But once I started walking, those uncertainties became joyous freedoms. The scenery, physical work and wayfinding captivated my attention.
During the trip, my mindset was along the lines of “Everything I need is with me, inside and out”. I didn’t have to convince myself of this, I just knew it (after I started walking), and that was very freeing. I was very much in the moment with the birds, the lambs, the landscape, the flowers, and the satisfaction of using my whole body and brain together in concert.
The biggest difficulties were initially related to dealing with uncertainty about whether I was “on the trail” or not. My land navigation skills improved as I unlearned my dependence on external signposts and learned to use my whole brain, not just my eyes, to figure out where I was and where I was going. To not be bound by the concept of a singular path was a mind-opening shift which I will apply to the rest of my life.
By the end of my trip, the challenge was more about finding a balance between the needs of my feet and the desire to keep walking.
There was no singular favourite moment. I somehow managed to feel joyous as a steady-state, which was quite miraculous. I have a very non-athletic backstory (non-competitive, uncoordinated, etc.) so it felt wonderful to accomplish the physical journey and notice my body feeling strong and competent. It was awesome to look back at how much ground I had covered.
The End Results
In the end, one of my more challenging moments became a little badge of personal pride because I managed it. Let’s just say there were occasional challenges with navigation… Sheep paths sometimes joined up with human paths, and then obscured the original path, leading you (well, maybe just me) off in directions that the sheep wanted to be, but I didn’t.
Also, I maybe misunderstood a few key Scottish terms (Hint: ‘crossing a burn’ does NOT mean passing through an old forest fire site). These little errors resulted in not exactly getting lost, but on one particular day took up way more time and energy than I’d bargained for. Like any challenge, this led to lots of deep ponderings, like:
1. If you know where you are, and where you are meant to be, but can’t seem to get there, does that mean you are actually lost? and
2. Why the heck do I only hear the cuckoo bird calls (they sound like this) when I’m doing something questionable in the rain, alone, and miles away from anywhere?
3. What goes on in the mind of a sheep anyways?
You learn a lot when you decide, after a few too many hours, to stop looking for sanctioned ways over barbed wire fences and instead humbly backtrack and bushwhack to get to a popular bike route because your gear weighs twice as much soaking wet, and you can’t/won’t set up camp on a steep hillside that is basically one big stream. I mean burn.
Like the fact that many cyclists must not know just how see-through their bike shorts get when it is pouring rain. (Lots of speedy bikes passed me, and it was a long slog, ok?!)
And that Scottish innkeepers are very very kind to solo backpackers who look like they swam up the loch instead of walking in on the road.
But most importantly I was reminded that actively choosing to be a kind calm companion to yourself makes all the difference. I couldn’t even blame the sheep – I suspect they were as lost as I was. If I was lost. Not saying I was.
Trip Takeaways and Final Thoughts
I’ll probably write more about my takeaways from the trip. But in the meantime, to sum things up:
– Anticipating next steps too far ahead ALWAYS leads me astray.
– There is a profound difference between following a trail and making your way. Following a trail means you delegate decision-making and turn off vast swaths of your brain that collect valuable real-time information.
– Depending on someone else’s trail markings might not be the best way to get where you are going.
– The immensely personal and priceless experience of feeling undivided, from the world around me and also within myself. Hard to put into words.
If I could go again, next time I would do even more camping; I understand better now how wild camping works in Scotland. And my feet would appreciate new hiking boots.