In 1985 we were both young, married and still child-free but didn’t own a campervan. We did have a small tent and in that spring we carried it across Scotland from coast to coast on what was then called The Great Outdoors Ultimate Challenge, run by The Great Outdoors magazine and sponsored by Ultimate, who made lightweight tents. Just being able to be a part of this hiking expedition was tough, never mind the days of backpacking across remote Scottish glens and mountains. Our application for the Ultimate Challenge had to demonstrate our ability to backpack day after day, map read and survive in Scotland’s rugged terrain and in those days only 250 lucky participants were chosen. Once through the selection we had to submit a plan [by post] of our self-supported route for comments,. Although everyone finishes their challenge in Montrose, the west coast starting points vary and each route is unique.
The Great Outdoors established a self-supported Scottish coast-to-coast hike in 1980 and it is still going strong, although for obvious reasons 2020 didn’t happen. The walk is non-competitive, there are no prizes for reaching Montrose first and today people write blogs about their trips. The Great Outdoors Challenge writes, ‘Up to 2019, a total of 10013 crossing have been attempted with 8851 being completed – a remarkable achievement for a remarkable event.’ Mine is one of those 8,851 crossings.
An important part of our training and preparation for the challenge was eating Mars bars! In 1985 Mars had a promotion and eating enough gave us a discount on the National Express buses to and from Scotland. We left our Midlands home at 07.00 on a May morning with full rucksacks and full of excited anticipation after six months of planning. We arrived at our starting point of Oban on Scotland’s west coast in evening sunshine after an arduous journey of over twelve hours. On the coaches we were entertained by drivers, new to the route, who didn’t know the location of the bus station in the string of Yorkshire towns they stopped at! Without SatNav or online maps, they would look for road signs and even pull up and ask pedestrians the way.
Over the next memorable twelve days we carried our small Vango Mark Two tent, cooking equipment, food, clothing, camera, books and maps [my reading was Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles] from Oban across the notorious Rannoch Moor and through the Cairngorms to the east coast, sometimes in temperatures over 20C and sometimes in persistent rain. When we reached Montrose we were both grubbier, leaner and fitter.
Our recent trip to Montrose, Glen Clova and Glen Callater bought back heaps of memories of that unforgettable adventure. These memories flooded in as we parked near the Glen Clova Hotel and took the now well-made path up to Loch Brandy, a stunning example of a mountain corrie. Following the footsteps of our younger selves, we climbed up the indistinct path around the crags of the corrie to Green Hill. In 1985 we continued across these heathery bumps to Glen Esk, walking in thick low cloud and following a compass bearing between hummocks and lochans. I remember how ecstatic and relieved we were when we realised our navigation had been spot on and we reached the track at the Shieling of Saughs.
From the mountains we drove the Blue Bus to the wide sweep of Montrose beach to evoke more memories. On this recent trip we were lucky and delighted to see a group of dolphins leaping out of the waves as we walked along the shoreline. Continuing along the beach I wondered what had happened to some of the people we had met on our Ultimate Challenge. The UC was a journey full of camaraderie as well as tough walking and it appears this is still an important aspect of the event. With no mobile phones in 1985 we were encouraged to ring HQ in Montrose from telephone boxes whenever we had the chance so that they knew we and others we had met were alive and well. My journal for the trip is full of the people we spoke to, the joy of sharing an amazing experience and a hint of awe for the experienced participants. On our last night in Montrose we partied in the Park Hotel until the small hours; an evening packed full of laughter and walker’s tales, all the pain of blisters, soggy wet clothing and deep weary agony forgotten.
On this year’s autumn trip, after some splendid coastal walking near Stonehaven, we left the sea for Deeside and had a fantastic day crammed with a medley of weather as we hiked up the popular Morven [871 m] on the eastern edges of the Cairngorms. October hit us with sleet, hail, sunshine and rainbows but we were blessed with a view from the summit to Lochnagar and Mount Keen. An unexpected surprise was a specially designed box in the summit shelter that holds a book and pen for walkers to write in and even postcards of the hill to purchase!
In 1985, after seven days walking we were at Blair Atholl and could stock up in the village shop. Our walk from there up the remote and attractive Glen Tilt is a privilege I will never forget. After the Falls of Tarf we planned to cross a stream but following heavy rain the gushing torrent was too fast to paddle across and too wide to jump. One of the marvelous things about backpacking, as with a campervan, is that you are carrying everything you need with you and can be flexible. After much deliberation we decided to camp overnight where we were on the grassy spot by the burn and the next day detour to Braemar. The morning dawned wild and wet and we struggled through miles of thick damp heather that hid ankle-bashing rocks to reach the six miles of tarmac to Braemar. A welcoming B&B owner whisked away our wet gear to dry it out and fortified us with much needed tea and cake and that evening we ate salad and chips [the only vegetarian option in these unenlightened times] for £1 each in the Fife Arms.
From Braemar we had another memorable day of walking along the historic Jock’s Road through Glen Callater; a route that played an important role in the rights of way walkers in Scotland have. After the good track the path became steeper and boggier at the end of the glen, taking us up to the featureless plateau before the lovely descent to Glen Doll and onto Glen Clova. Jock’s Road funnels many Ultimate Challengers from their varied starting points onto the same path as they get nearer to Montrose. My diary notes how sociable the walking was throughout that day, including meeting Bob Dawes one of five people to complete all of the first ten challenges.
We were once again in a reminiscing mood as we drove from Braemar to the car park at Auchallater. From here we travelled alongside our youthful bootsteps on the track up Glen Callater but this time turning off onto Carn nan Gabhar [834 m], a fairly easy Corbett between Glen Callater and the A93. The weather was kind to us, the autumn colours were stunning and we stayed cloud-free, although the higher mountains all had their tops in the murk. We saw red deer but most thrilling were the couple of mountain hares we spotted near the summit as we descended towards Callater Loch Lodge.
The welcome in Scotland is still a warm one, the scenery is still breathtaking and the weather still unpredictable. But many other things have changed in Scotland since 1985. In 2020 you’ll pay a bit more than the £1.20 [equivalent to about £3.60 today] it cost us to pitch our small tent at Tummel Bridge or even the £2.50 [equivalent to about £7.63] we paid at what is now called Blair Castle Caravan Park [although I notice it is only £12 for two backpackers in low season]. Thankfully, nowadays vegetarian backpackers don’t have to survive on a plateful of vegetables and you can feel fairly confident you will be able to enjoy a good vegetarian meal in most Scottish hotels and restaurants.
All the photographs I have added to this blog post are from our 1985 Ultimate Challenge. You can see we both had more hair in those days, we were still wearing walking breeches and check shirts but my cagoule did contain some Gore-Tex.
During our 2020 campervan trip we stayed at a mixture of remote wild camping spots and Caravan and Motorhome Club sites [Forfar, Stonehaven and Banchory].