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updated 18 Dec 2018

Paddling Across Scotland

(The Ultimate Challenge 1986)

 by Val Hadden

From BFMC Journal 3, September 1988


We arrived at Mallaig Station at 10.30 p.m. to be greeted by Bob Dawes. “Oh, it’s the ladies from the Braes o’ Fife.”

No doubt most of the readers are aware that an entry of five women members, Jeannie Black, Kay Fyfe, Ali Hogg, Helen McAinsh and myself, was accepted for the wettest Ultimate crossing on record! Unfortunately Ali had to pull out, but this proved quite a blessing, for a male club member, Martin Dand, decided to join up with us. Hence our President’s reference in a past newsletter, ‘A Wander Across Scotland with Dand’.

Martin had entered the UC as a solo entry, but when he realized we might feed him he came with us as we had provisions planned for five and he seemed happy to partake of our large food dumps. Given the weather conditions it would have been a fairly miserable solo trip. He also had the choice of joining up with another party from south of the border but the man did have some taste and stuck by us ‘til our routes split at Braemar and he romped home a couple of days ahead of us.

We had decided early on that planning was important so, while the UC organizers required details of the route to be taken, we did our own planning. We planned a good balance of bothies, hostels and hotels so that we wouldn’t have too long without drying facilities, hot water, meals cooked for us and cosy bars to spend the evenings in … quite a holiday! We had a few training weekends and club meets at which we managed to put in five food dumps. At the end of each day when we were planning to sleep in a bothy we knew what we were having for dinner … at least hopefully it was still intact: tins packed with goodies.

Quite often our arrival at cold, fireless bothies coincided with a day of torrential rain. Our first food dump was at the Kinbreck in Glen Kingie and it had rained since we had left Sourlies that morning. We found our tins under the appropriate boulders and the intrepid Matrtin found some excellent ‘fire-wood’ and became the hero of the day. We had a fantastic fire, which dried our clothes and everyone else’s, including a young lad from London who doggy-paddled across the swollen Kingie with a pack on his back and even had to wring out his sleeping bag! We had quite a job explaining to another Sassenach where our tins of grapefruit segments, tuna fish and pineapple came from if we hadn’t carried them in! Further down Glen Kingie we were glad of the help of the above gentlemen to make sure we got over safely. The maximum size of party allowed on the UC is four, so strictly speaking we were still four women and Martin on a solo, but at that river crossing there were eight of us! Some solos had a lot of trouble at river crossings, the oldest lady, Janet Meikle (67), from Kirkcaldy, said she had to sit and wait ‘til someone came along! Another girl I met who had started from Loch Ailort had to retreat after two days and go by another route.

The next bothy was Luib Chennal in Glen Roy. I did not experience this bothy at night as I had to return south for the funeral of my favourite uncle who originally took me to the Cuillins at the age of10. However it was well and truly rubbed in that I’d missed the worst day. The food dump at Luib Chennal was buried on 1st March on a beautiful, clear, frosty day and it was retrieved on 21st May, intact, on a cold and very wet day.

Our next food dump was in Glen Feshie. This was the last one to be put in, three weeks before the walk, by myself, my daughter Kaye, and Doug Fyfe. He walked the four miles from Achlean and back again six weeks after breaking his femur in a skiing accident. I stupidly forgot the tin to put the packet food in so we had to leave a couple of carrier bags at the keeper’s cottage. It was a sunny afternoon when I walked up to Rhu Aitchechan with a pack on my back and carrier bag in each hand. “Ha, she’s been to do the Friday shopping in Kingussie,” commented some who obviously thought we’d brought them all the way that day. However they were pleased to share our cans of beer once we’d uncovered them in the juniper bushes. That day we only had one shower and actually sat and ate our lunch in the sun, and once we reached the bothy were able to sit outside till it got dark.

The next night was spent with BF members at Inverey. They had brought up a food parcel from Ali which had bottles of sparkling wine and strawberries and cream – never think this walk was hard going, we were well looked after, if not by us then definitely by others!

Once the comforts of the Fife Arms, much more suited to SAGA Tours that UC, were behind, we spent a comfortable night by courtesy of HM on Balmoral Estate at Gelder Sheil. One very snowy day in April my son and I had walked in with some biscuits, cheese and beer. Due to the snow lying so heavily we couldn’t tell what the ground was like so left the tin under a heather clump, and the beer under a bridge in some water … but not running water. It was so cold we couldn’t work in the water long enough to bury the cans, however we managed to build a dam to stop them being carried away. Originally there had been 11 cans – a boozy lot we were! When we went back six weeks later five were still there – not bad! Whoever found them were obviously not members of the Braes o’ Fife.

Our last bothy was at the end of yet another wet day and as we got nearer the east it definitely got colder. This could barely be called a bothy. It leaked rain and wind, there was snow in the fireplace and a great crack up the chimney. This was Sheiling of Mark. Quite high up between Loch Muich and Glen Lee. We had an awful day to put in this food dump, walking over miles of glaur at that time covered in snow, now just peat hag. We had buried a bottle of wine in February and much to our amazement it was still intact and must had stood temperatures well below freezing. This was another woodless bothy, but someone had told us of making a fire with heather. One poor lonely male joined us so there were five of us dashing in and out of the hut grabbing armfuls of soaking heather, like a scene from Monty Python. All for a couple of seconds of flame. Eventually we got some heat from the ash that accumulated and we did keep ourselves warm with the activity. The benefits of choral singing became obvious as good lungs were needed to act as bellows.

The next day saw the end of the remote country down through Glen Lee, and what was the worst river crossing yet to Glen Esk. A lovely walk. Once we lost the height we lost the cloud and actually had a lovely spell of sunshine. That night we spent in tents on the lawn of the Parsonage, by courtesy of Mrs Guthrie. She provided is with endless tea, pancakes, home-made jam, cakes and then dinner, and then more tea, pancakes etc, for around 30 people, all on the crossing. A very special night.

Two more days walking, yet again in the rain, it wouldn’t have seemed right otherwise, and then the sea. Once we had paddled in the North Sea we then were treated to a couple of bottles of Moet et Chandon – a fitting end, still wet!