Monday, 18 February 2013

Here's the plan...

It was maybe seven or eight years ago that I first thought specifically about walking the bounds of the Tay catchment. However since the age of 14 when I started heading out on my own or with friends to the hills, the desire was there to spend an extended time in the outdoors, to link up familiar locations in long multi-day walks.

In those early days I cut my teeth on local hills around Tomintoul where my grandfather owned a house for forty years, spending many a day in the Cromdales or in the hills around Glen Livet and Glen Brown, wandering over the little hills whilst daydreaming about the bigger ones.

I shortly moved on to exploring the high Cairngorms, quickly climbing my way through the Munros in a series of summer overnight trips, staying in the bothies - Ryvoan, Faindouran, Corrour - often with our dog at the time, Sam, in tow. The thrill of self-sufficiency, of waking up in the mountains, was addictive. I also slept rough on occasion, in the heather in Glen Avon swaddled in a sleeping bag, rain jacket and black bin bags on a drizzly two-day trek from Inverey to Tomintoul, and in Glen Gairn on another overnighter to make a sun-frazzled sweep of Corbetts from Cock Bridge to Linn of Quoich. Ben Avon and Beinn a'Bhuird were climbed in a night walk from Tomintoul and back, with a two-hour nap in a heathery hollow. By 1991, at the age of 18, I'd climbed all the Cairngorm Munros and much else in those mountains besides.

I was hooked, and the seeds of the current scheme were planted. I had also discovered in my Cairngorm wanderings that I could cope with my own company at least for a time - indeed, I could handle with ease being on my own in the dark in the middle of nowhere - essential for a venture like this! Many of these early Cairngorms explorations were done alone, more by default than design. If like-minded people couldn't be found, that wasn't going to stop me. I was pretty obsessed.

That's how the Tay watershed plan - or at least the desire to do something of that ilk - was ultimately conceived, then. But what brought the idea fully formed out into the light? In the absence of mountains to climb I like to devour as much mountain literature as I can. Those of the long continuous walk variety, usually with some self-set goal, I find particularly appealing but also unsettling. The best of these books bequeath the thought: "I could do something like that", quickly followed by: "So why don't you then?".

For a long time I'd had an idle fascination with the empty lands south of the Cairngorms proper, and the long boundary between Perth & Kinross and Aberdeenshire, then Highland, marching erratically but relentlessly from the Cairnwell pass to Drumochter over many miles of high, featureless hills. Names like Gaick, Beinn Bhreac and above all An Sgarsoch epitomised desolation in my mind. You walk into the middle of nowhere but instead of finding enlightenment in a Ben Alder or a Seana Braigh, you find... more of the same. Walking this bit of watershed would be a challenge on it's own. It's the part of the route that I look forward to with most trepidation. I do have Ben Alder to look forward to afterwards though.

Somewhere in the back of my mind I was aware this was only part of something much bigger - the watershed of the River Tay catchment. I traced the line outwards. Seemingly disparate places were magically connected: from Glen Isla in the east to the gates of Glencoe, they all offered their waters to the Tay. At some point I learned that the Tay, whilst not the longest river in Britain, was the biggest in terms of sheer volume of water discharged into the sea. And moreover, in the breadth and drama of the landscapes it encompasses, what British river could rival it? So much of Scotland is represented within its bounds.

A couple of accounts of long walks finally dragged the idea blinking into the light. They were Nicholas Crane's 'Clear Waters Rising', a mind-boggling epic year-long walk along the mountain spine of Europe from western Spain to Istanbul; and Dave Hewitt's relatively homely and approachable, but no less enjoyable, 'Walking the Watershed', an account of a walk along the entire length of Scotland's east-west watershed. Despite the difference in scope, both these books epitomised the allure and the challenge - mental and physical - of the long walk. They also prove that it's the breadth of mind of the walker rather than the length of the walk that matters when it comes to communicating the experience. I dug out my own modest idea, dusted it down, and realised it could be a goer.

That was a few years ago and at last I'm going to do it. I can't find any evidence so far that anyone else has done it. It would be nice to do a first, something original - I loved Hamish Brown's 'Mountain Walk' but a non-stop round of the Munros has been well done, and really would be beyond my scope anyway given my family commitments, and probably fitness and experience as well.

The Tay walk also meets other criteria: rather than being just a long wander, as in the aforementioned books there's a clear route, a challenge and a goal to discipline the resolve which will undoubtedly waver at times. It also has that egalitarian aspect that shone though in Dave Hewitt's book. It's not about bagging summits - although plenty will be bagged (or double-bagged: I've climbed almost all the Munros on the route). Tracing the route on the map last night I was delighted to see the humble grassy hills of the Ochils east of Glen Eagles linked to the Black Mount and its view into the fanged mouth of Glencoe. There will be plenty of Highlands, but a fair slice of Lowlands too.

In firming up the route, the first big question was where to start and finish. Obviously it was going to be a circular route. My initial instinct was an anticlockwise journey from Perth, as it's where the river becomes tidal. Warm-up days would take me across the gentle Sidlaws to Forfar, Kirriemuir and so into the Highlands above the Angus glens. On the return, in the final days into Perth I would be following the watershed between rivers Almond and Earn rather than Earn and Forth, treating the Almond as the final major tributary rather than the Earn. I pictured myself setting off one morning from the middle of one of the bridges over the Tay, returning triumphantly to the same spot from the other side some weeks later, a bit leaner, hairier and more sunburnt.

However, neat as this sounds, excluding the River Earn, which is inextricably linked with the Tay, seemed wrong, as did finishing so far inland, albeit where the river technically meets the sea. And what about that other, greater city that is almost synonymous with the Tay? Could Dundee credibly be left out of the loop? Further investigations on the internet unearthed a couple of maps showing the 'official' boundaries of the River Tay catchment area. The line clearly starts just outside Broughty Ferry, and returns to the opposite shore of the Firth of Tay in far north-east Fife. It has to be this route. What is lost in the Sidlaws will be made up for with a traverse of the 'unfashionable' eastern Ochils, finishing up on the wide sands and big skies of Tentsmuir Point on the edge of the North Sea.

At this stage, having done an initial mapping of the full route on the OS 1:50,000 maps, a few other general concerns emerge. Firstly, in the lowland sections, finding campsites could be tricky; there may be a lot of tedious (and potentially dangerous) road walking; and the tamed nature of the land with farming, forestry and fences will make the watershed hard to follow accurately all the time. Also, at the risk of sounding like a complete cowardy custard, I can't help worrying a bit about fearsome farm dogs, shotgun-toting Farmer Palmers and herds of over-curious cattle (have I been living in London for too long?). I will need to buy or borrow more detailed 1:25,000 maps of these areas and maybe scout out the route by bike or car over the next few trips up north so I know what to expect.

In the Highland sections - particularly the aforementioned journey from the Cairnwell to Drumochter - I'll be especially isolated and vulnerable to the elements. Getting lost in this featureless area in bad weather could be as easy as it would be inadvisable. Also, will I be able to carry enough food and fuel to get me through this section? There are no quick ways off this bit of the watershed once committed, and no easy access to civilisation. Will I need to consider burying a food cache or two in advance a la Hamish Brown?

All to be worked out in due course...

There are also more ephemeral fears. What will all this isolation and solitude do to my head? There is a passage from 'Clear Waters Rising' that has stayed with me. Alone in the evening in an Alpine hut in a snowy forest, the author hears mysterious footsteps outside, and later has a disturbing dream. Maybe it was a supernatural experience, or maybe too much time alone was messing with his mind.

On the flipside, another passage I remember well - this time from 'Walking the Watershed' - describes the author's feelings, camped high in the hills on a starry night near the start of the walk, as he realises that this is just the beginning, and that many more nights like this lie in store.

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