Cheese and Demons in the Scottish Highlands
“Here’s where you bail off!” The man’s thick Scottish brogue forced me to ask him to repeat the sentence. His intention became evident, though, as he slowed his Volvo to a stop at a fork in the highway. I sat in the passenger seat of his car, still not used to being on the left, and tried unsuccessfully to remember if he’d mentioned his name.
Guest Blogger: Mary-Preston Austin, Hillwalking Society
24 days into a hike from the Southern city of Glasgow all the way to Scotland’s northwesternmost point, my trail buddy, Thea, and I were cutting a flooded corner off our little-known route that was originally conceived to help Scots reconnect with their heritage and country: the Scottish National Trail.
We had reached the map dot of Killilin the previous day after slogging over a woodsy, impossibly muddy crag and emerging into a harrowing walk along a tight road with minimal visibility. Rather than repeat that less than optimal experience on the A890, we elected to hitchhike from there through Kinlochewe before regaining the trail.
The Volvo man supported our hypothesis that people who drive Volvos are more likely to pick up walkers. He gave me an incredulous look when I told him we were headed toward “Kin-lock-ee-wee.” In hindsight, pronouncing the “ewe” part in the same way you would pronounce the name of a female sheep makes sense in a country so heavily populated by the simple minded walking sweaters.
In spite of my lack of demonstrated intelligence, the guy was kind enough to take us as far as the fork in the road that headed toward our destination for the evening. Scots are notoriously hospitable, especially to hikers—“hillwalkers.”
It’s not a hospitality that can truly be explained without experiencing firsthand how happy everyone seems to be that you’ve chosen today to wander through their corner of existence in the world. Grins, waves, and calls of “Hiya!” welcome walkers to every populated nook of the Highlands, and a national compulsion obligates nearly every person encountered along the way to inform those they pass that it’s lovely weather today (regardless of conditions) and that the view is beautiful.
The same hospitality inclines many Highlanders to pick up hitchhikers. It hadn’t even occurred to us to thumb rides before an elderly couple in—you guessed it—a Volvo had grounded to a halt as we panted down a narrow lane, scoffed at our protests that we were wet and dirty, and drove us the rest of the way down the pass into the next town.
Unfortunately, this particular stretch of the A832 was less populated than the A890 we’d just left, and it took us an unprecedented 5 miles of walking before a caravan heeded our outstretched thumbs and picked us up. This time our benefactors were an Italian family on holiday, and they spoke little English but were happy to chauffeur us the rest of the way into the wee municipality of Kinlochewe.
Upon our arrival, we ducked into the town grocery store, smaller than your average 7/11, to restock the food stores in my backpack. Most crucial were the blocks of cheese for which we made a beeline as soon as we entered. To eat cheese in Northern Scotland is to live an episode of unparalleled flavor, packaged into crumbly little slabs of succulent treasure. Burning so many calories as we were each day, it was of utmost importance that we maintain a supply of quaggy, extra sharp gold.
From the shop we meandered to the Kinlochewe Service Station, a spot of some report. Marked as a stop on the famous North Coast 500 road trip through the Highlands, the little two-pump establishment was complete with a snack counter that, according to past travelers, boasted stellar sandwiches. Inside we munched on bacon and egg rolls, pleasantly surprised to discover an internet connection strong enough that we could call home with news of our continued survival.
While we sat, a two-seater Morgan 4/4 convertible pulled up to refuel. The gleaming car sported British Racing Green paint and a driver who looked like Santa Clause, had the jolly old elf elected to don a leather flying cap and goggles and drive a convertible through a light rain in the welcoming Highlands.
Scottish hospitality extends to their legislation, and an Outdoor Access Code allows for wild camping nearly anywhere, provided no one tries to pitch up in a city center, among someone’s garden, or on any active airport runways. As such, we wandered just past the service station into Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve.
The first of its kind in the UK, the Reserve contains some of the last surviving national forest after years of mass clear cutting operations for iron smelting dating back to the 1500s. After a mountain biker making his way around the North Coast shared some fresh raspberries he’d just picked with us, we found a spot to set up camp.
Thea, an experienced camper and delightful companion to boot, is completely rubbish when it comes to locating a relatively flat and level spot on which to place a tent. As it turns out, it wasn’t that there hadn’t been flat places for us to sleep in the past several hundred miles of our walk. It wasn’t that the lumpy gravel road just past Bynack Lodge, or the various slopes that had left the two of us tangled on the lower side of the tent by morning, had been the best options. It was just that we hadn’t been sleeping in them. Somehow after more than three weeks of camping with Thea, however, I had not wised to that fact. It wasn’t until two nights later, when we slept at cramped and awkward angles around the small tree in the middle of the tent floor that it occurred to me that perhaps I should take over tent placement. In Kinlochewe, still unenlightened, I started unrolling the tent and told her to find us a spot.
We ended up pitching the tent on top of a large mound that was not only quite dome shaped, but also completely surrounded by a low bog. It took some truly fancy footwork to make it into or out of the tent dry. I was skeptical that this was the best possible place in the entire Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve to sleep, but Thea assured me that it was. Gingerly braving the bog, we leapt from the tent back to the path and headed back to the intersection that marked the center of Kinlochewe.
Sparse though it was, we had planned for Kinlochewe to host a short rest from walking, so we elected to eat supper out and take a break from the peanutbutter tortillas, fruitcake, and oatmeal that supplied most of our calories. The single hotel in town was far too pricey for our tastes, but near the entrance to the nature reserve was one more restaurant: the Whistle Stop Cafe. Fried green tomatoes were not on the menu.
Run by an effusive woman named Lis, the cafe featured a collection of random paraphernalia, from oddly shaped driftwood clocks to intricately hand painted landscapes. The bathroom smelled like perfume, and a little bottle of hand lotion by the sink was the perfect congenial touch for two tired and dirty walkers.
The menu was as varied as the decor, and food was prepared fresh by Lis or one of her two kitchen helpers. It smelled positively dreamy. I had the “Connie’s Mistake,” a sandwich loaded with meat and dripping with savory white cheddar, the flavors tied together with a tangy mystery sauce the let each bite melt in my mouth. Thea treated herself to a lemon chicken pitta, which she recalls with gleaming eyes as “citrusy, Italian spiced,” and an “explosion of taste that created an ethereal space within which speech is impossible.” Our trail diets may have left us easy to please, but Lis and crew blew our culinary hopes and dreams out of the water.
The blackboard above the counter detailed the daily desserts, and neither of us could resist the advertised homemade Belgian chocolate cheesecake with fruits of the forest. Topped with a scoop of homemade vanilla ice cream and the syrup of berries picked right out back, the flavor was positively overwhelming.
Even with the highly active metabolism of thru-hikers, the Whistle Stop Cafe satisfied us both entirely and, as the little cottage-like establishment began to shut down for the evening, we meandered back to our tent in the bog. What happened next, following an uneventful night’s sleep, is a morning to which we have referred since only as “The Incident.”
It wasn’t the first time we’d been exposed to midges, nor would it be the last, but it was the worst. Rural Scotland’s most abhorrent plague, the nearly microscopic, gnat-like creatures attack in the form of a sentient carpet of demonic proportions, bombarding the eyes, noses, and mouths of their hapless victims. They coated the little green backpacking tent like a humming layer of charcoal, pouring in smaller regiments through tiny holes at the seams of the mesh.
With nowhere to go, we dove through the door into the swarm, landing with muddy little splashes in the bog. To an outside observer, our flailing and grasping for any article of clothing within reach to cover our faces and heads would have been quite a sight. For the next half hour, we sprinted up and down the path, dashing in to grab and shove our things into some semblance of packing until we couldn’t stand it and had to escape and gulp mouthfuls of air some distance away from out besieged campsite. We didn’t speak, we ran in opposite directions, and we tried to avoid one another, lest our combined presence be more enticing to our assailants.
A woman came toward us on the trail, tiny white poodle in tow. She took one look at the carnage—our gear strewn along a half kilometer of the trail, our red eyes and heaving chests—and turned right back around. Thea, the most even-keeled individual I’ve ever met, lost it that morning. A final mad dash through the droning fog to shove the tent, dotted with the bodies of hundreds of midges whose ranks had made nary a dent in the swarm, into my bag, and we ran.
Thea and I have seen bears. We’ve dealt with snakes and raccoons. At age 5 I even got attacked by a bird. We are, however, in firm agreement that The Incident was by far the most calamitous wildlife encounter we’ve ever experienced. Feeling sorry for ourselves, we wandered back into the Whistle Stop to drown our frayed nerves in some tasty sustenance.
Lis and her staff, sympathetic to our morning melee and careful to keep the door shut behind us, did not disappoint. We were delighted to try the “eggy bread,” which turned out to be a somehow way more delicious version of French toast. Thea treated herself to a huge scone, and I channeled my self pity into another slice of the cheesecake dreams are made of.
On our way out to hit the road again, we noticed a sign informing us that Lis would be taking a year off from the restaurant. It was to remain open under different management, but she wanted to travel. We wished her the best.
Just under 4 months later, the Whistle Stop Cafe closed permanently, relegating the cheer that it brought me and Thea to a welcoming and mouth watering memory.
As we walked out of town, continuing a trek that would see us limping into the lighthouse of Scotland’s northwesternmost point in just 7 days, a Volvo containing a family of French-Scots pulled off ahead of us. “Need a ride?”
Guest Blogger Mary-Preston Austin from Hillwalking Society started to blog about the Hillwalking Adventures experienced during travels in the Scotland Highlands. Follow her on the road on Hillwalking Society and on Instagram.