In the past few years, Scotland has become a refuge for my husband and me, the country's long-distance walks serving as moments out of time from our too-busy life in Paris. We've started something of a tradition: Each year, we block out a week or two and set off for days of hiking in the magnificent Highland scenery and nights in country pubs. We've trekked the Great Glen Way near the shores of Loch Ness, trudged along the West Highland Way in both driving rain and intermittent sun, and bagged a few Munros (Scottish peaks over 3,000 feet), all in search of fresh air and mental quietude. This year we planned to tackle the new Kintyre Way.
Launched by a group of innkeepers and other business owners late last year, the Kintyre Way covers the little-visited Kintyre Peninsula in southwest Scotland. It crisscrosses the peninsula from north to south, from east to west and back again (and again!), passing through villages at intervals of between six and 17 miles. Planning the seven-day hike--including nightly stops and the bus ride that'll take us from the walk's end at Southend back to our starting point at Tarbert--was easy, as most details are predetermined.
The difficulty proved to be finding an able partner. Two weeks before we were to depart, my husband had to pull out because of an overloaded work schedule. His replacement? Friend, dancer, massage therapist, and virgin hiker Cari Green. She later said it was the trip of a lifetime.
A SPECTACULARLY SCENIC--and rather nauseating--three-hour bus trip from Glasgow precedes our arrival at Tarbert. Once claimed from local clans of Scots by Vikings, Tarbert is now home to some 3,000 residents and a couple of great pubs. Though we haven't the opportunity to savor the small port's beauty, we manage to snatch a taste here and there as we follow the Way's blue markers south: the ruins of Tarbert Castle, fortified by Robert the Bruce in 1325; astonishing views over East Loch Tarbert; a young doe passing through delicate forests of ash and elm; and a cluster of old stone shepherd huts radiant in the soft afternoon sun.
The 10 miles of gently rolling terrain prove to be easy walking, and, four hours after our start, we begin the descent into Skipness. A scrap of a town, Skipness isn't much more than a scattering of cottages, a tiny convenience store, and a beautiful old church. Blackberry bushes line the route, and our fingers soon turn purple. We feel like Huck Finn's protégées--packs on our backs, walking sticks in hand, and stomachs full of wild berries.
But with the sun setting in the distance, we put on a burst of speed. It's nearing 5 P.M., the time we've arranged to meet Kelvin Moller, proprietor of The Old Smithy B&B and--along with his wife, Moreen--our host for the next two nights. He's waiting with his little turquoise car to drive us the remaining few miles to their cottage in Clachan. This pickup service is unusual as far as Scottish walks go; however, the layout of the Kintyre Way makes it necessary: The official map ends day one at Claonaig, which isn't so much a town as a ferry terminal for people heading to the isle of Arran. The closest place to stay is two miles back in Skipness, but by October the village's sole option, a B&B, was booked up. Luckily, Kelvin and Moreen--10 miles further down the road at Clachan, day two's end point--offer a pickup and drop-off service.
With the floral bedspreads, timber furniture, and lace doilies, The Old Smithy is pleasingly reminiscent of grandma's house. And while Moreen offers to whip up a delicious dinner ($33 for two), Cari and I opt for a bacchanalian feast at the historic Balinakill Country House, a 10-minute stroll away. We indulge in three scrumptious locally sourced courses in an atmosphere of country grandeur: The drawing room where we take predinner drinks has a roaring fire, deep sofas, and wood-paneled walls, while the dining room combines white linens with antique sideboards and that slightly musty feel of aged splendor. But our attention soon turns to the food: fresh scallops, slow-cooked lamb shanks, and chocolate mousse satisfy our ferocious appetites. We consume with gluttony but no guilt, the reward for a day spent hiking.
Day two begins with a lavish breakfast before we bundle ourselves--packs, boots, hiking poles, and all--into the back of Kelvin's car. He's keen for us to begin our second day of hiking, which will take us from last night's finishing point at Claonaig back to Clachan for a second night. It'll be difficult, he says, and on these short autumn days, an early start is essential.
We grip our seats as Kelvin swings the car along narrow country roads and around sharp corners, turning his head back often (much to our dismay) so he can better convey his love for the area. "It's still really wild here," he rhapsodizes as we fly over another bump. "Nothing much has changed in a long time--one or two new houses maybe--and you don't have to go far from the village to be in real wilderness." Which is exactly where we find ourselves 10 minutes later. Cari and I stride past waterfalls and maneuver through moorland, enchanted by both the open space and savage beauty.
All that wide-open space and challenging terrain takes on a different hue after two hours, as we begin to exert real effort. Following two miles of gorgeous sea views, a hidden waterfall, and a small hill, the ground becomes uneven and marshy as we enter a six-mile section of rain-soaked farmland. (Months later, we learn that the Way has since been rerouted to avoid some of this boggy interlude.)
At 10 miles, the day is one of the shortest on our itinerary, but the going is slow and tough. It takes us six hours, and the day is more than half over when we finally catch sight of the old-growth forest two miles out of Clachan. By the time we descend past the raucous residents of a turkey farm, we are definitely looking forward to doffing our boots and packs in exchange for a hot shower, a plate of tea cakes, and Moreen's promised roast beef dinner with all the trimmings.
The next morning, warm scones, homemade bread, bacon, sausages, and eggs are all washed down with copious cups of tea before we wave good-bye to the Mollers. Day three is nine miles, and we hug the coast on the way to Tayinloan, passing the point of a 16th-century clan skirmish, and in the distance, standing stones and a stone-lined burial cist. Next to the stunning scenery, it's the historic landmarks that are a highlight of the Kintyre Way. Fought over by the Vikings and the Scots in the 11th and 12th centuries, the peninsula is scattered with Neolithic standing stones, ancient Scottish burial sites, castles, and crumbling stone churches.
But the best part of day three proves to be the many animal sightings. We spy playful seals, graceful waterbirds, and even a lone otter nibbling on a lunch of fresh fish. The water is a Tahitian blue (though it's probably not Tahitian in temperature), and in the distance we can see the isle of Gigha. It's the kind of breathtaking seascape that casts a rosy glow over all--from the miles of slippery beach stones to the somewhat rustic lodgings we later encounter at The MacDonald Arms Hotel in Tayinloan.
The hotel, between the forest and the sea, is an old coach inn dating back to the 1700s, and it feels due for a little renovation. Still, what it lacks in gloss, owners Alastair Smyth and his son, Greig, make up for in hospitality. Cari and I are given free access to the laundry room, the steaks we have for dinner are huge, and, when we discover that we are short of cash, Alastair writes us out an IOU as we leave the next morning, content with our promise to pay in four days' time when we pass by on the bus back to Tarbert.
"PEOPLE TEND TO FORGET about Kintyre because it's not really en route to anywhere," says Marcus Adams, co-owner of Carradale's graceful Carradale Hotel. We're chatting by the fire in the drawing room--showered, changed, and awaiting dinner--after day four's 15-mile trek. "By setting up the Kintyre Way, we're giving people a reason to come and explore the whole peninsula, to enjoy the scenery, the food, and the people."
This certainly describes how we spent the past eight hours. After departing Tayinloan, we climbed nearly 1,500 feet and undertook a complete traverse of the peninsula from west to east, trekking among pheasants and grouse, passing beneath giant windmills at the Deucheran Hill wind farm, and descending through old-growth forests of moss-covered trees--where the leaves were blazing scarlet--to enjoy some of the trip's most startlingly beautiful terrain.
It was all in stark contrast to where we find ourselves now, sipping tea by candlelight and anticipating an elegant dinner in the Carradale's slightly too formal dining room. (If we were to return, we'd eat in the bar.) Over tender steaks and a deluxe cheese plate, Cari and I joke about spending our last three days cozied up here. But the walking bug has bitten, and, tired feet aside, we're ready to keep moving. Our faces are bronzed, the rain showers have missed us, and--with more than half the hike completed--we've become addicted to the open air.
I've learned over the years that if I want to enjoy these long-distance walks, I need to expect some physical discomfort. But even for a walking enthusiast like me, day five's 20-mile path from Carradale to Campbeltown presents a long stretch of daunting and, at times, downright difficult terrain. We predict eight hours of walking, and that's not far off the mark. The views and scenery are jaw-dropping, particularly tranquil Torrisdale Bay and the ruins of the 12th-century abbey at Saddell. Unfortunately, the peacefulness instilled by such sights isn't enough to offset the painful realization of how far we have yet to trek. It's a relief when we eventually spot Campbeltown in the distance.
Following a dinner of lamb shank, a long sleep, and our now-routine breakfast ("Eggs, mushrooms, sausage, and extra bacon, please"), we pump Richard Bamford, our host at the Ardshiel Hotel, for advice as his black Lab lolls at our feet. With only a six-mile walk to the hamlet of Machrihanish scheduled for the day--the Way's shortest section--we're in no rush. And Campbeltown is a bustling metropolis, compared to the villages so far. It's the biggest town on the peninsula, home to 6,000 people; in the Victorian era, it was the whisky capital of the world.
Richard suggests a walk out to Davaar Island, a finger of land connected to Campbeltown by a stone causeway accessible only at low tide. Though the idea of viewing Archibald MacKinnon's 1887 cave painting of the Crucifixion is appealing, the idea of walking in the drizzle is not. Richard directs us to the Springbank Distillery, calling ahead to book us a place on a tour. The guide, Jim, proves an entertaining host, and our group of German, French, Canadian, and Australian whisky-lovers tops the tour with a tasting of three single malts at the nearby whisky shop, The Tasting Room. The whisky is just what we need to lubricate our weary legs for the walk over to Machrihanish--or so we convince ourselves.
Later, at East Trodigal Cottage B&B, it becomes apparent that we forgot an important law of hiking: Always make sure the night's meal is within easy distance. The Beachcomber Bar & Restaurant is a mile up the road, but the rain has arrived, and we have no desire to walk there and back. Mike Peacock, who owns the B&B with his wife, Linda, offers to take us to the supermarket in Campbeltown, as he has to run an errand nearby anyway. We grab a couple of prepackaged meals, which we combine with Linda's generous plate of chocolate cake and tea biscuits. We sleep the sleep of the contented.
THE KINTYRE WAY'S website advises using a compass for the final 17-mile section, but we find no need. Yesterday's rain has blown out, and the markers--every 100 yards or so--are clearly visible. This, in fact, proves to be one of the best-marked walks I've undertaken.
Having passed through a couple of herds of Highland cows at Ballygroggan Farm, we begin climbing through heather and moor, our breath stolen as much by the view as by the ascent; in the distance is the northernmost tip of Ireland, while below us, the cliffs drop steeply to the Atlantic. Passing by the ruins of stone cottages, we marvel at the communities that once clung precariously to the coast.
Almost too soon, we reach Columba's Footprints at Dunaverty--depressions said to have been left by the saint after he was banished from Ireland--and round the point to complete the last few hundred yards. At Dunaverty Bay, a lone seal guides us to the last marker, at the bay's end just outside Southend. As we touch the post, the start of the walk--90 miles and one week away--is a distant memory.
That night, at the Anchor Hotel in Tarbert (following a bus ride from Southend via Campbeltown), we reminisce about our week of walking. We've forgotten the tired legs, the aching feet and shoulders. Instead, our conversation is about the scenery, the haunting ruins, and the sense of achievement that comes with covering so much ground on foot.
"So you did the walk, did you?" asks the Anchor's barman. "How was it?" We pause, at a loss to explain. He smiles anyway. I guess our tired grins say it all.