Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
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Loch Muick is a lovely freshwater lake on the estate of Balmoral, nestled in the Grampians of Scotland between mountains covered in heather. Right after Halloween 2016, I took my two girls on a 3-day backpacking trip around this loch, packing our tent, camping stove and a few fun goodies to experiment on the trail. Life being full of surprises, we met a wonderful cycling Scot, slept in a bothy and discovered the favorite lodge of Queen Victoria. Here’s to a memorable mother-daughters backpacking trip.
As all our Scottish backpacking trips, this one started with a train ride and by day, we went all the way from London to Pitlochry in Perthshire.
Renting a car was a complicated affair and we only hit the road after dark. Two hours later, we reached a car park but it was so dark outside that we didn’t feel like going far to pitch the tent. Heck, we were tired. We put on our heavy backpacks and in the car park, jumped with fright as we heard a loud snort and steps nearby. I switched on my headlamp immediately to find a startled red deer stag looking at us. It was enormous and ran away, but we were a bit shaken. One stag. Were there more? Yes, by the sounds of loud guttural roars around us, there were more and some were maybe fighting. We only went a few hundred meters before finding a flat spot between two trees. I could tell we were on the other side of a fence but hoped the inhabitants wouldn’t mind, Scotland being the real land of the free camper. I don’t think I’ve ever pitched a tent so fast and so badly, but all we wanted was a good night’s sleep.
If you’re a light sleeper, I do not recommend rutting season to camp in Scotland. Don’t these animals ever sleep? To give you an idea of the night entertainment, listen to this and tell me it’s not freaky as hell. I was listening to this sound on and off all night. Inside the tent, I secretly prayed to St Rita, St patron of desperate causes, that no red deer stag use our tent as target practice. Luckily, I emerged unscathed the following morning and stepped outside the tent to the most ridiculous sight. We had slept sandwiched between a fire road and a fence, a stone’s throw from the visitor center. Talk about going to Scotland for the great outdoors!
We would do better the following night. The only upside to being so close to the visitor center was that I could easily walk to the restrooms (with toilet paper and running water) and across from the restrooms, saw the most amazing spectacle. A herd of red deer or, as I understand it, a harem of red deer with a royal stag at the helm. I was a bit miffed that I didn’t have a real camera with a big lens to capture the scene, but it was beautiful nonetheless. I counted a dozen, maybe, and they did not seem to notice me which showed how wild they were.
Excited, I woke up my girls and sent them to admire the red deer herd as I packed up the tent. A few minutes later, we used one of the picnic tables outside the visitor center to cook hot porridge over our camping stove and ate it with nuts for breakfast. Refueled, we hit the trail.
From the visitor center, we followed the road and went over a footbridge to cross the glen, then quickly reached Loch Muick, the blue jewel of this trip.
We walked at quite a good pace and kept to the track skirting the sides of the loch, happy at how easy the trail was. An hour later, we entered a mini enchanted forest and Glas Allt Shiel. When you walk along a loch with nary a tree, it’s always a surprise to enter a thick grove of trees and even more of a surprise to find in its center an elegant Victorian house with turrets and gingerbread roof ornaments.
I’ll come back to Glas Allt Shiel later, but suffice to say that we were stumped. We don’t often stumble upon Queen Victoria’s lodges when we go backpacking and it seemed either out of place or too genteel for the rugged mountainscape we were expecting. If you look at the photograph, spot the far right window on the low building in the front. This is the bothy of Glas Allt Shiel, a royal coal cellar turned glorified shelter for wanderers.
Bearing a plaque outside the door, the bothy consisted of a dark ground floor with a wooden ladder leading to an attic and two windows. From what I’ve read, the bothy has been insulated since our visit and the stove replaced. Seeing as nobody was in sight, we dropped our bags in the attic and hoped that we would have the bothy to ourselves for the night. This seemed like a much more fun alternative to the tent!
I re-packed a bag with food and camping stove for lunch and we took a path through the woods in the direction of the waterfall.
In the entry for 16 September 1852 in Victoria’s Leaves from the Journal, she describes pony riding and walking from Allt-na-giubhsaich to 500 feet (150 m) above the loch and then descending Glas Allt past the 150-foot (46 m) waterfall and stopping at Glas-allt-Shiel for a packed lunch in a “charming room … [with] … a most lovely view.” The waterfall that she passed was our destination.
The path quickly rose above the loch and the autumn colors were so splendid that we stopped with a view on the loch to cook lunch. My girls had personally picked our menu and lunch was going to be mini elbow pasta with home-dehydrated leeks, carrots and celery, as well as chicken stock.
We had a blast cooking on the JetBoil and kept lifting the lid to check if the pasta was cooked. In theory, they were 3-minute pasta but when outside with a camping stove, it takes a while longer. Was it ready yet? Finally, it was ready and we enjoyed fuming hot bowls of pasta with the most perfect Scottish scenery. My girls had started playing an imaginary game and when I suggested that we continue to the waterfall, they didn’t seem interested at all. From afar, I saw mist coming down Lochnagar mountain and decided to leave the girls where they were while I ran to the waterfall and back.
It was a nice waterfall but I only stayed long enough to take this pic. I didn’t like the idea of my two girls, ages 10 and 12, by themselves so I ran back to them in record times. All together, we came down the mountain to the loch and Glas Allt Shiel. It was shortly after 2.30pm.
It was about 3pm when we reached the lodge and spotted a van in front of a side door that was open. Open? Curious as a mouse, I left the girls to play on the beach while I investigated. Turned out that one of the staff was turning off water for the season as nobody would come during the winter season. “You just missed the Cambridges (Kate and William) by a couple of days!” he said, not joking. The royal couple had celebrated Halloween at Glas Allt Shiel with a few friends. Despite myself, I felt a bit starstruck. This was way cool.
The lodge inside felt like entering a fairytale. Some of the furniture had been there since the reign of Queen Victoria in a state of suspended time. Upstairs, Queen Victoria’s bedroom still had the original wash basins and a bell to ring the staff. Downstairs, the front parlor was decorated with plush armchairs, wooden tables and a few Victorian paintings. The lodge as a whole was comfortable but simple. Clearly, this was a holiday home and meant to be enjoyed after outdoor recreation. Oh, I loved it. More than a bit thrilled, I went over to my girls and gave them a full report.
Somehow, it had seemed like a good idea to carry a folding portable wood stove made of stainless steel in my backpack. Since we had plenty of time on our hands and spotted a few dead branches and pine cones, I quickly whipped it out and with my girls, we sat in front of the mini wood stove waiting for a miracle to happen.
Would it be so powerful as to heat up three mugs of hot water? Would we be impressed with our newly-acquired barbecue? Would we become the new grill masters of the woods?
For one, it took forever for the fire to even get started. I’m no Ray Mears, but come on. Wood + dry moss + matches = fire, right? Not in a million years. Damp wood and pine cones simply refused to do the job. After cursing Hephaistos for cruel lack of assistance, I resorted to fire lighters (the chemical kind) and succeeded. Hurray! Except.
Once thoroughly heated with a raging pine cone fire, the portable wood stove disintegrated and collapsed. The pin that held the metal plates together didn’t survive its first fire and all plates came apart.
So much for showing my girls how to heat a mug of hot chocolate in the wild without gas.
After failing at making a fire in a portable wood stove, we retreated to the bothy where we failed to make a fire in the real wood stove too. Fortunately, a Scottish cyclist arrived with his bike and rescued us from a frozen evening. We had an absolute blast getting to know this wonderful man, a semi-retired chef. Cycling 50 to 60km a day through Scotland, he was a true wild camper and had slept in absurdly cool places like bird hideouts, church cemeteries and abandoned house gardens. He told the most extraordinary stories about the Victorian invention of kilts, tartan and Scottish romantic ideals, cows swimming between islands in the Orkneys and his cycling trip from Norway to Russia. Not only that, but he was a gold star fire builder!
As soon as we got chatting, we all decided to build a fire (with his help) in the stove as it was getting super chilly inside the bothy. I sent the girls out to gather small wood and set out to saw off a big branch he brought back from the grove. For some reason, I’m very happy using wood saws and enjoyed sawing wood by the light of my headlamp. When the girls returned, they told us about the gazillions of stars they’d seen in the night sky. I went out too. The Milky Way was sparkling in full splendor.
The Scottish cyclist (I wish I remembered his name) was absolutely amazing, engaged the girls, asked about their hobbies and we had the best evening. He seemed happy to spend a bothy evening without “drunken debaucherie,” the usual bothy crowd. Very gentlemanly, he opted to sleep downstairs by his bicycle while we slept in the attic. When I woke up the next morning, a roaring fire was already warming up the room while he was cooking his porridge. We made pancakes that we shared with him (he really liked the luxury of maple syrup with pancakes) and we all got ready to leave, parting ways with wonderful memories.
By mid-morning, we were hiking around Loch Muick via the other side, doing the full loop around the loch by the water’s edge. When we reached a couple of bridges at the end of the loch, we stopped for a few fun pics and to embrace the views.
An hour or so later, we were back at the car and having some time on our hands before the night train, stopped at Killiecrankie to enjoy splendid fall colors in the trees along the gorge and to see the famous Soldier’s Leap, the spot where a Redcoat soldier leapt 18ft across the raging River Garry, fleeing the Jacobites.