A grey Scottish gloaming was settling over the Bridge of Orchy Hotel as we pushed open the front door marked “Walkers Welcome”. In the dimly lit lobby a black-bearded head rose from behind the reception counter.
“Ah, Mister George,” it said in a thick east European accent, “you booked a queen room, no?”
“No, I booked a standard double or twin room.”
“Hah? No, you wrong, Mr George.” He placed a dog-eared piece of paper before me. “You book a queen room, see?”
It took a while to explain that my name was George Quinn, and “Quinn” was not the same as “queen.” The receptionist looked doubtful but eventually he handed over a room key. We grabbed it and headed upstairs to our comfortable but slightly shabby twin room.
Bridge of Orchy consists of one hotel – quite a substantial two storey building – about six cottages and their outbuildings, a tiny usually unstaffed railway station, a mini fire station, and an ancient arched stone bridge. But for the single night we stayed there the hotel and village surged with visitors. The hamlet is remote but it is an oasis for walkers. The following day as Emmy and I sat killing time in the bar I estimate well over one hundred sodden souls shuffled through the hotel’s warmth in the space of about two hours. They downed coffees and slices of thickly iced carrot cake or put weighty lumps of steaming pizza into their mouths, babbling through the crumbs in a hundred different languages.
The previous night I had ordered a serving of Scotland’s national dish, Haggis Neeps and Tatties. I had no idea what to expect. I knew that haggis was made from shredded beef and mutton bound with oatmeal, spiced with who-knows-what, and boiled inside a sheep’s stomach. When you’ve eaten chicken brains, and witchetty grubs, and dog meat (as I have) this sounds almost ho-hum. But neeps and tatties?
The waiter explained – wrangling his Romanian vowels into the corral of English – that neeps comes from “turnips” and tatties was the Scottish word for “potatoes”. Afraid that I might be disappointed to be served such proletarian fare he added:
“The chef gives it a good splash of whisky.”
In the event Haggis Neeps and Tatties was neither memorable nor forgettable. A grey mound arrived squatting in the middle of a plate anointed with gravy. It certainly didn’t look appetising, but I dug my fork into it anyway and discovered that most of it was mashed potato with an orange-yellow layer of turnip on it topped with some brownish organic matter. The brownish organic matter was (presumably) haggis. I raised a forkful to my mouth. Hmmm… not bad. It tasted quite nice in a bland savoury way. There was no hint of whisky though. It took me only a few minutes to devour it, and I have to say, I enjoyed it. When the waiter returned he seemed surprised.
“All gone, eh. That was quick.” I got the impression diners were not always as enthusiastic as I had been.
Emmy and I were customers of the Glasgow-based company Macs Adventure. To crank ourselves up (but not too suddenly) to the level of fitness required for the walk along Loch Ness to the other side of Scotland we had chosen an initial one-week package called “West Highland Way Rail and Hike”. This alternated sections of rail travel with sections of hard hiking up the length of the West Highland Way from Glasgow to Fort William and (as a bonus) on to Mallaig. Macs Adventure booked our accommodation for us – mostly in pubs and B&Bs – and transferred our suitcases from lodging to lodging using a “safari” service. All we had to do was walk or ride. We carried a small back pack – small-ish, actually, because each morning our backpacks had to be stuffed with a first aid kit, at least a litre of water, a rain jacket and water-proof leggings, fruit and sandwiches for lunch, spare socks, sunscreen and insect repellent, walking poles, maps, and a trowel for the possible emergency of trackside poos. I have to report that, as I write these words in Mallaig at the end of the Rail and Hike package, Macs Adventure have done a reliable and thorough job.
Back to Bridge of Orchy. At 2.00 pm on the rainy afternoon of August 1st we found ourselves on the platform of the Bridge of Orchy station looking across the rails and over a fence at walkers labouring, heads down under their ponchos and hooded raincoats, along the adjacent West Highland Way. One of them turned into the station and flung her backpack down beside us.
“Zo, ver are ze banks?” she said accusingly in a thick German accent, her eyes glaring up and down the station platform.
“Banks?” If there was a bank in the tiny deserted railway station I felt pretty sure I would have noticed it. But I remained open-minded and cautious. “I don’t think there is a bank here.”
“No no no no,” she said, presuming she was dealing with the village idiot. “Banks! Banks for sleeping!” She pressed her palms together, laid them against one cheek and tilted her head.
“Oh… bunks.” Behind me I saw a small printed notice taped to the inside of a window: “West Highland Way Sleeper Reception. Open 5.00 pm.” The young German was busy hammering on doors and rattling door knobs. When she saw the notice she yanked a mobile phone from her pocket and began jabbing at it. About fifteen minutes later a rotund Scottish gentleman strolled on to the platform and explained to her that the station bunkhouse would not be accessible until after five o’clock.
Apparently some railway stations in remote places are now providing limited but bookable and very cheap dormitory accommodation for walkers. The Scottish gentleman suggested she walk down to the Bridge of Orchy Hotel and wait in the bar until the bunkhouse opened at 5.00 pm. She protested.
“I have paid twenty-five pounds for a bunk this evening. I want to access it now so that I can claim a bottom bunk.”
Suddenly her outrage turned to pathos. There were tears in her eyes but the beginnings of a rueful laugh too.
“I can’t climb up on to a top bunk,” she whispered. “I can’t do it. I am hurting too much.” And she slumped on to a platform bench.
At this moment our train arrived for the journey to Spean Bridge. Emmy and I leaped aboard and from our comfortable, dry, warm seats, through a big window spotted with raindrops, we saw the girl sitting alone on the platform staring ahead unseeing, absently turning her mobile phone over and over in her hands.
We headed out of the station into the wilderness of Rannoch Moor. I was in for a surprise. The austere splendour of the landscape was far beyond what I had expected. The train sped over vast grass slopes between lakes and twisting rivers with huge knobs of mountain on the horizon. It was wild, open, wind-swept, empty country darkened in places with stands of forest. Crooked scribbles of water sliced vertically down the green hillsides. In the distance sinews of snow were still stencilled on the steep-sided mountains, clamped over their peaks like white spiders legs. As we raced towards Tulloch station in the centre of the moor a column of startled deer jumped away from the rail line and bounded off to suddenly evaporate in the green expanse of the plain. Somewhere inside I felt a knot of emotion. Several times goose-bumps crept across my skin. This was not an intimate, or friendly, or merely picturesque landscape. It was forbidding yet grippingly, emotionally beautiful.
After a comfortable night at the Distant Hills guest house in Spean Bridge, the following morning we hoisted our backpacks on to our backs and strode down the main street, the first yards in an eighteen kilometre stretch west into the centre of Fort William. It was a warm, silent Sunday. We walked into a small refreshing breeze under a cloudy sky flecked with blue. The walking was easy. It was possible for once to look left and right and enjoy the countryside. We walked through fields awash with daisies and clover, foxgloves and ragwort, thistles and shiny orange toadstools. Reeds grew in muddy profusion at the path side, jostling with dense sheaves of grass, bracken and blackberries.
Part of the path took us through the blasted environment of a commercial pine forest, then, as we approached Fort William, the path veered around a golf course. It took an hour to walk along the suburban fingers of the town to the kilometre-long pedestrian mall that hosts the business centre. Here back-packed crowds wandered from shop to shop. I too stopped at a souvenir shop and bought a tee shirt. Its message read “I walked the West Highland Way.” In my case it wasn’t strictly true, but there was no version of the tee-shirt with explanatory footnotes about trains and rain. And anyway, we had knocked over the last leg from Spean Bridge to Fort William with no trouble at all. I deserved a reward. We had hardened up. We were ready for Loch Ness.