Thursday, 14 August 2014

TGO Challenge 2012 - Shielin of Mark to Tarfside

It's lovely sauntering along on a walk across Scotland.  One can take one's time, pausing as one pleases, taking in the views and resting a while, before pressing on in a lackadaisical fashion.  No one to nag one into motion.

It's a bit like writing this trip report, really. 

So there was I in the beautiful setting of the Shielin of Mark bothy (aside from the huge encampment of silnylon and noseeum mesh, and iffy bodily sounds), and at the first sign of dawn, I was awake.  There was a rumour that the rooms at St Drostan Hostal, Tarfside are like rocking horse gametes at this stage in TGO Challenge fortnight.  I like to get up early to enjoy the absolute best part of the day on the trail. 

I found a suitable place, as close as possible to Andrew Walker's shelter entrance and everyone else's water supply, to have a whoopsie and then got myself on the way.  

My first objective was my first ever summit of the crossing.  Muckle Cairn.  It is a fairly insignificant top, with a roughish ascent from the Sheilin, but on a clear day as it was on this, erm, I forget which day number I am on, but on this day, it was crystal clear.  Far reaching views to Lochnagar, and seemingly a view to the coast out to the east, but not quite.  The panorama was beautiful.
Lochnagar from Muckle Cairn

The other way, from Muckle Cairn
My mobile phone found a signal at this point and a handful of messages came through.  The best of these, by a Highland mile, was one from my good friend declaring the birth of his first daughter, Sofia.  I whimpered, and shed a joyful tear.  The emotions of the Highlands were running high.  

The way down to Glen Lee was clear, and then it bit me.  No, not one of the Adders that frequent the area, but a sharp jabbing, and ominous knee pain that I had never felt before.  

Not now!!!!  Not now!!!!  I'm only a midgie's widgey from the east coast!!!!!  

NOT NOW!!!!!

I pretended I hadn't felt it and carried on.  A hundred yards later, it bit me again.  This time was worse.  I gave it no attention, feigning a pause to take in my surroundings.  I bounced a little on the joint, it felt good and I carried on.  

Reaching the point where the track becomes more established, and the descent levels somewhat, ZAP! It got me again but this time was far more gentle. I walked through it and it disappeared.  500 yards or so of fear, discomfort, worry, disappointment, despair, all disappeared and I felt like skipping the rest of the way to the Stables of Lee.  I didn't.
The upper reaches of Glen Lee
Glen Lee plantation. 

It's a weird mix of a glen, with obvious forestry works but I really liked the walk down the upper stretches.  I was all alone.  Totally, and completely alone.  It was early-ish, and the air was just beginning to warm from it's cool, post-dawn chill. It was fresh.  Everything was crisply vivid.  And then whoosh!

A bird of prey emerged from beneath the tree line, into the blue/white backdrop of the morning sky.  It was a bird of prey, without question, a buzzard.  Cool. 

Too big, the beats were too slow.  Too effortless.  Too strong. 

A Golden Eagle!!!!  I watched it for a moment.  Almost crying again.  My heart was in my mouth.  I'd seen several so far, but this was the closest view.  It was just across the Glen from me.  I felt as though it could hear me breathing, so I held my breath without realising it.  I gasped inwards when I realised.

But something wasn't quite right.  It just wasn't behaving like a Golden Eagle.  I can't explain what I noticed, I still can't, even now.  But I had seen this before.  Where?  What was it that was different.  It was more chunky, where had I seen this before.  

The thoughts raced through my head so quickly, like I was wracking my brains but without any effort at all.  Mull!  It was on Mull.  It wasn't a Golden Eagle at all, it was a White-Tailed Sea Eagle.  My chest tightened, and I dried up.  That was it, a 100% unequivocal sighting of one of the rarest birds of prey in our Isles.  It settled again in the pines on the northern side of the glen, it was huge.  I reached for my grossly inadequate smartphone and fired off a couple of shots.  Then I hit the video camera button, something I rarely do when I see something special, for fear of missing something in the experience.  This was too good not to record.  I filmed it for only a short while and whooped, proclaiming my sighting to an empty Glen Lee.  I stopped filming and focused my eyes on the bird.
There's a White Tailed Eagle in there, I promise you.

...and here too. 
It's partner must have heard me, for a second Eagle erupted into the air and they wheeled about for just a few moments longer before heading off beyond the trees and out of the glen.  

I wiped the tears from my eyes, and composed myself before singing my way down the track.  John Denver - Rocky Mountain High.  

Here's the video.  Sorry for the shouting, and my audio caption, but I hadn't prepared a commentary.

"And the Colorado rocky mountain high
I've seen it rainin' fire in the sky
I know he'd be a poorer ma-a-a-n if he never saw an eagle fl----y....etc..."

The Glen becomes lovelier after a treat like that.  Loch Lee was shimmering when I reached it, and the sound of Black Grouse was bubbling across the water.  I couldn't see them, but they were there.  It was like they wanted me to know it.   A Sandpiper made curved flights from the near shore, into the loch a dozen or so yards, and back to the shore.  It was keeping just far enough away from me to guarantee it's safety, and close enough for it to be a treat.  I reached the end of the loch, and then the road at Kirkton and a Yellowhammer fizzed across the road and whipped over and into the back of a hedgerow.   This was too nice.  No one deserves a walk like this.  I greeted the first person I met with a friendly acknowledgement, not wanting to impose myself on his morning, he reciprocated with a warm smile.  
The tower at Kirkton

Getting there...

...still getting there...

A sign that says so much more than its words.
I passed the impressive Kirkton tower and then a short walk across what now seemed like lowlands had me arriving at the welcoming sign for St Drostans.  I was at Tarfside.  It was no later than mid-morning and I was lucky enough to be welcomed with a choice of rooms.  I picked a single room so I could relax without fear of bothering anyone else and headed back to the kitchen for a bacon sarnie.  A bacon sarnie and a great chat with Alvar, and Ann, and others whose names escape me.  Soon, more TGO'ers arrived, Russ and Herman, shared great tales of previous challenges, good walks, and fine company.  It's an impossibly nice place to spend some time.  I strolled into the village of Tarfside itself to find the watering hole and the campsite for later on.  I found the latter easily, but the Mason's was nowhere to be seen.  I should have done more research.

I later found out why.  

I loitered with the campsite folks for a while during the afternoon, banter a plenty.  Dave Pickles, Andrew Walker, Alan Sloman, Pete Molenaar, Lindsay Jones, Bryan Waddington, Ian Cotterill, Eddie and Alastair Hunt, so many great people.  P C Pickles fought gallantly with his Akto, eventually claiming a weak victory by getting it pitched nicely.  Thank the skies that it was dry! 

The evening came and there were some gamekeepers (or similar shoot workers) waiting by the door of the Mason's which I had now discovered was little more than the front room of a large house, so Lindsay Jones and I lingered with them.  They were nice enough chaps and were curious about our 'challenge'.  Shame they do what they do, really. 

The evening was filled with challenge tales, japes and photo sharing, old friends meeting again since their last encounters on 'crossings' of days yore.  Lynsey Pooler was there, and Valerie, and Morpeth (Peter Shepherd).  
If he isn't blurred...

...then he is.  It's like some sort of law of physics.

Lindsay Jones, Pete Molenaar, other challengers - names please?!!!!

The wide choice of ales at the Mason's.  I chose Guinness, and then McEwans, and then it ran out.

Eddie and Ian are here.  Others too.

Valerie and...?  SORRY!!!  It's been 2 and a half years!  ...Thanks Alan, it's Big Ian. 

Haven't a clue who this one is.  Looks like trouble, though.

Morpeth, on the right.  Ian C on the left.

Dave Pickles & Bryan Waddington.  Fine chaps.

We got drunk, and somehow I managed to get back to my pit at St Drostan's. 

THE day of my life was over. 

I had planned to finish my write up this evening, but this post has taken me far longer than I expected.  I thought I had forgotten a lot of the detail, but it's still in there.  Ready for recall on demand.  But you have to walk the walk again in your mind.  Don't you?


  1. A wonderful day, Sir. We saw the White tailed eagles as well.
    That's not the Stables of Lee bothy, by the way. It's an un-named little dwelling that used to be encircled in the plantation until they cut it down.

    That's Big Ian sitting next to Val.

    The estate cut down the eagles' favourite roosting tree, by the way, a little while after this. It was quite deliberate. It had been pointed out to them how important the tree was.

    1. Cheers Alan. I'll make the correction re the bothy. That is much higher up the Glen. What was I saying about memories coming back so clearly?

      I didn't want to bring that part of the eagle story up for fear of ruining the wonder of that day. But I did hint at it with my comment about the estate workers. I can't tell you how disappointed I was to hear about that.

      Thanks also for the pointer re Big Ian. He was good company.

      Can't wait to go again. Can not wait!

  2. Arggghhh. I have tried to comment twice before and it's disappeared both times. Third time lucky? A great read, well worth waiting for! I loved hearing about the eagle. I did the same leg as you this year, and if you fancy reading and contrasting with my experience my blog post is at:

  3. Bacon Butty.

    I haven't read this yet but I have a feeling I know what you're talking about...

    Thank David for the comment. It was such a good day and I'd forgotten to remember much of it. Except for the eagles. I think about that most weeks

    Can't wait till Oct TGO mag. Can not wait!