"Och, It's a Bit Blowy Out"

Braving the Scottish Highlands in November
  |  Gorp.com
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The rugged countryside of Bonnie Scotland.
The rugged countryside of Bonnie Scotland.

CAN'T SAY I WAS ENCOURAGED when the streetlights came on at noon. But we kept driving through the rain, through villages made of wet gray stone, past fields that stayed deep green even in November, and scores of sheep that seemed to glow in the feeble light.

We stopped near the foot of Ben Ledi, a huge lump of a mountain mutely telling us that we were entering the Scottish Highlands; its amber flanks were threaded with waterfalls disappeared into a ceiling of solid cloud. Next to us ran the River Leny, a peat-colored stream plunging with savage good cheer over a disproportionate number of rocks.

"Are you feeling tough as a tractor?" inquired Derek Simpson as we pulled on our last pieces of kayaking gear. Derek and his partner Janet Bigger live in Edinburgh. They are friends of a friend of mine and had graciously taken me up on an idea that they show me a few of Scotland's rivers. And why not? Janet is one of two women known to have plunged off the 20-foot waterfall that is tucked somewhere on this stretch of river; Derek is a masterful kayaker, a cheerful person, and the approximate size and tensile strength of one of the Orkney Islands. The answer to his question was, "No." Only Scottish people and unshorn sheep feel robust in this wet, leaching cold. This is a nation whose public bathrooms alone can trigger your hibernation instinct. I lived in southern Scotland until I was nine. Then, I too was tough as a tractor. I believed that proper weather was somewhere around 40 degrees with a good drizzle, that England was a superpower with a heart made of flint, and that the hedgehog was the most exciting animal on earth. I remember weekend outings to lochs and castles, and occasionally to the coast of the North Sea, where we would look at tidal pools and go for swims that lasted several seconds. Then someone would get bronchitis, and we'd come home. I even remember sunny days when the fields spread out in a patchwork of every conceivable shade of green while the wind rattled softly through the oaks and beeches.

Scotland's rivers reach their highest and most kayakable levels around the winter months, a phenomenon that would seem cruel anywhere else. Here, it merely gives the Scots a chance to be more Scottish. The friend who had connected me with Derek and Janet learned to kayak in Scotland and came back with tales of heading into the winter waters wearing several sweaters and a flimsy nylon jacket.

The Scots match the impossible weather they were born into with sheer will. They don't need to be told by any fitness gurus that going outside is a good thing to do; these are the people whose ancestors turned away the Roman army. Introducing the Scots to the concept of living with nature, of accepting its climatic caprices, would be akin to introducing Edward Abbey to the idea of writing about the desert.

We pushed off the bank in our yellow plastic boats and started paddling. The light dimmed another notch, making everything look like a historic event. I immediately felt better, armed with the knowledge that whatever was going to happen would happen soon. With a generous infusion of adrenaline making the rounds, I could almost see. The riverside was lovely, with roots snaking down its banks and pussy willows springing up like bunches of lit candles.

What happened wasn't what I expected would happen. I didn't end the day in the company of an emergency room doctor saying, "Och, lass, we're out o' anesthetic, you'll just have to bite on this while we set yer shoulder right." Instead, I joined Janet in walking around the 20-foot waterfall, as well as the even more awful rapid just downstream—a mean-hearted little gorge where the water piled off a huge rock into an undercut wall. "This is the place where most people come to grief," said Janet as we watched Derek negotiate it with aplomb far below us. "The trick," she said, "is not to panic when you're underwater and you feel yourself jammed against the wall."

But downstream, it happened. Derek pinned his kayak on a hidden rock. Pinning is just about the worst thing that can happen to a kayaker. It's far worse than swimming, which usually just means a few bruises and a gulletful of water. Pinning means that you're sitting in a boat that is stuck on a rock. If you don't part company with the rock or your boat quickly you could become really stuck and the current could pull you under. The sight of an empty kayak pinned on a rock is sickening; one occupied by a person made my blood turn to ice. Janet and I pulled over in horror. This is a big deal, my adrenaline told me. But my adrenaline was wrong. Derek got out of his boat and swam over the waterfall just downstream, walked back up the bank, plunged into the foamy current, pulled himself back onto the rock, and maneuvered his boat free.

"Och," said he, streaming with water at the river's edge, "it's a learning experience."

It got dark at about three, so we headed into the nearby town of Callander for a nip. It was here I learned that kayaking in Scotland holds some unexpected dangers, what with the airborne terriers and all. Derek had been kayaking on the Tay, one of Scotland's biggest rivers and a rich salmon habitat. People pay thousands of dollars a week to fish here, and the fishing guides don't often take kindly to other people on the river. Derek got quite close to a boat containing several fishermen and one small terrier when the man in charge (whom the Scots call a "ghillie") told him he was disturbing the fish.

"I said I might be disturbing the fish, but they were killing them," Derek recalled with a grin. "That's when the ghillie threw the terrier at me."

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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