Friday 24 August 2012

Merciless Attack on Scottish Virgin

Glen Tilt Near Blair Atholl

Is it possible to be ‘almost’ a virgin?  Well if it is, in terms of Scotland, I am almost a virgin.

Semi-retirement arrived for me this month.  One of the long anticipated advantages of this is the prospect of having more time to spend in the hills before my body finally rebels and tells me I am too old.  I have formulated various plans and goals about how I may make the most of this opportunity, keeping in mind that as the amount of time I will have available to enjoy myself has increased, there has been a corresponding fall in the financial resources I have to benefit from this time.   I think that is Catch 22, not that I have ever read Catch 22.

One of the things I want to do with this time is the TGO Challenge (TGOC), the unsupported annual coast-to-coast walk across Scotland.  Whilst I have masses of day hill walking experience I have never done any long backpacking trips - 4 days being the most I have ever done.  I also have limited experience of Scotland, despite having walked and climbed a great deal in Wales, the Lakes, and the Alps and over the years done various mountain leadership training courses.  The TGOC seems a great opportunity to rectify this limitation in my CV.

My understanding is that places on the TGOC are hard to come by.  In particular, I have been conscious that the entry form requires potential participants to set out their Scottish experience and I need to increase mine.  Thus, I recently set off on what was to be a gentle introduction to backpacking in Scotland and one that would also allow me to test out some new gear ie my MLD Trailstar, Oook Tub and MLD Superlite Bivi, which Martin Rye (@Rye1966) had recommended as a great combo of gear.  In addition I also had with me a new Neoair XLite sleeping mat, one of my leaving presents from work.  I found later that this had been designed by the devil, but more of that anon.

So at the back end of last week I landed in Blair Atoll at the southern edge of the Cairngorms, found a good spot in the village to abandon my car, and then sat there in the driver’s seat waiting.  It was heaving down.  And I mean heaving down.  Muggy, very warm, no wind but as much water as you ever did see.  I am aware that many backpackers have a sort of fatal acceptance and belief that they take bad weather with them.  I am starting to think like this.  It’s like watching England play at football.  The only way to get them to score is to stop watching.  Irrational but true.  If I watch, they always concede a goal.

Anyway, after killing time eating my sarnies in the car, the rain eased and I donned the old Paclites and in the middle of the afternoon I set off up Glen Tilt.  This was to be no epic.  No navigation challenges, very little height.  Just me, a rather too heavy pack, some new scenery and a fabulous low level walk.

The River Tilt was a bit of a revelation.  You just do not get rivers like that in Cumbria, my regular stomping ground.  In the Lakes the streams always look crystal clear, and they gurgle at you like a contented baby.  If it rains hard they sound a bit like a baby crying for its dinner.  Lah, lah, lah.  In contrast, the Tilt was a brown seething mass that would challenge and, I suspect, defeat the most talented of white water canoe specialists.  At first I wasn’t certain if this was its “normal” state.  However, I began to notice that trees that must usually be well above its banks were in the water.  It was very much in spate.

River Tilt

And so I made my way along the track up the glen, passing on the way a few delightfully isolated cottages, some the haunt of holiday makers, others those of estate workers.  Forest Lodge was supposedly 8 miles from the road.  It felt a long 8 miles.  To someone less used to the Scottish terrain the notion that you can walk 8 miles along a valley without gaining much height is quite foreign.  But Forest Lodge was reached and passed.  I had now been walking for about 3 hours, and about 30 or so minutes after the Lodge there was a wide expanse of flat, if hummocky ground alongside the river.  There were already 4 tents here, but it was easy enough in this spacious environment to find a spot to camp without spoiling the peace of others.  Within 5 minutes the Trail Star was up, the practice pitching in the garden having paid off.  And a few minutes later it began.

I had heard about the Scottish highland midge.  But nothing had forewarned me as to just how terrible it is.  I was going to say that it hunts in swarms.  But “swarm” doesn’t do it justice.  The attack started slowly enough.  I started to notice the occasional irritating bite on my hands and along my lower back where my shirt wasn’t tucked in properly.  Nothing to bother about really.  I had even prepared myself with a midge head net and some of the legendary Avon Skin So Soft, allegedly used by the Royal Marines to keep the wee beasties at bay.  I spread this over my hands, face and arms and sure enough I soon started to notice the tiny creatures dying, stuck to my oily skin.

I started to prepare my dinner.  The swarms became multitudinous.  I leapt around, waving punching and slapping the air.  I cursed, alternately, the midges and the midge net, the latter because it seemed to make the heat rise to sub-tropical levels.  The attacks continued.  My face, my scalp my arms, my ankles, my back.  Nowhere was safe.

I retreated to the Trailstar.  This of course, was a complete waste of time being a single skin, door less shelter.  At this point I cursed, very mildly, because he seems such a nice chap, @bryanwaddington for his tweet to me at the end of May “My advice would be to use the Trailstar a bit before ordering an Oookstar…”  Bryan wasn’t to know he was advising a moron.  I now know that an Oookstar nest or similar is essential in Scotland in the midge season.  The inside walls of the TS were almost completely black as hundreds of thousands of the devil’s spawn made themselves comfortable, waiting for me to climb into my sleeping bag.

Ah, but I could defeat them.  I had the Superlite bivi.  I zipped myself in and peered through the midge net.  And got hotter.  And hotter.  I couldn’t breathe.  I opened the net.  They launched themselves at me.  Whilst I tried to fend them off the Neoair attacked me from below, bending and wrapping itself around me like the most amorous of boa constrictors.

The next 8 hours are now a blurred memory, a wakeful, prolonged nightmare.  I didn’t sleep for more than an hour the whole night.  I had naively thought that the midges would need their sleep too.  They didn’t, or they fed on me in shifts.  I will not describe the indignity of an attempted early morning ablute, save to say that the midges showed no respect.

The weather was still but the skies dark.  I was packed early and I headed off back down the glen.  After an hour or so the heavens opened again and I spent the next two trudging wearily back to the car.  As I got to the end of the estate road the sun came out.  I had long since decided I was a complete whimp to allow a few insects to spoil my two days.  Getting home again and seeing myself in a mirror, made me realise just how tasty I had been.  The dreaded lurgy itself never made a man’s body look so red, spotty and blotchy.  I counted over 100 bites just where my watch strap had been.  The Scots and all lovers of Scottish hills must be far hardier than I ever imagined.  Next time I will be more aware and better prepared….


  1. Ah the midge, one of God's little jokes on mankind. :-(

    You wonder why considering the loss in revenue the little buggers inflict on Scotland, that they haven't a way to wipe them out.

    And thus the Trailstar.
    And Midges
    And why I bought the Oooknest to go with it.
    Also, why the Challenge is in May :-)

    A shame really, because Glen Tilt is a wonderful valley, and sitting out with a dram in the evening looking at the sunset is a joy.

    CHALLENGE application in the next issue if TGO mag. Oct issue. Should be out about Sep 6th. Good luck. Go for it, you'll love it.

    1. By the way.
      Good write up :-)

    2. Thanks for the comments, Andrew and for the link to the superby, moody picture of Glen Tilt.

      I subscribe to TGO and will be ripping out and filling in the application form when it arrives. Whether I will get beyond Mr Manning's vetting of applications is another matter. But one thing is for certain, by this time next year I will have more Scottish experience come what may. I hope to be up there again in a couple of weeks, this time with the Akto until the Oooknest arrives, and an anti midge repellant spray, of course.

      PS in your first comment the line "And thus the Trailstar" reads like the start of a poem. Was that intended? Is the W in your surname short for Wordsworth?

    3. Not intended as such, although I have penned the odd ode. Well about 200 actually.
      Must get round to publication one day.
      So, probably won't.
      Could be an interesting blog post though.

      Glen Tilt is rather fine isn't it.
      That was on this years challenge from my camping spot. Wonderful.

      You won't be dissappointed by the Oookstar.
      Well, I wasn't.
      He does a double one now.
      David Lintern was testing it on the challenge this year.

      On insect repellent, although I have NOT tried it with apocolyptic size midge hordes.
      Alan Hardy suggested A.Vogel insect repellent.
      Mind you, he walks in shorts all year round, and I think he is immune to insects.

  2. I'm sorry David, but I was rolling around mission Control, giggling!

    I forget about Scotland June - September. April & May are wonderful. No midges...

    Have a chat with Sean at Oookworks for your salvation.

    1. Mission control, Alan? That's not your big hospital visit is it? If so good luck.

      I'm glad to have amused you. The experience for me was all part of life's rich tapestry, which is easy to say in retrospect.

      I was in touch with Sean at Oookworks almost as soon as I got home but your advice re visiting Scotland in April / May sounds wise. Despite this I may try again in September and hope for more breeze.

  3. I love reading accounts of backpacking in different places to see the differences in perspectives and trials. Great report and congrats on the semi-retirement. Please keep the midges off ships, planes...they are not welcome in the Rockies of America. Thanks for warning me away from Scotland in August, I shall remain a Scottish virgin.

    1. Thanks Nathan. I wouldn't wish Scottish midges on you. You already have bears and snakes. Don't let me put you off, though. The Scottish Highlands are very beautiful indeed.

  4. As a user of a tarp all year round in the Highlands I find the following are useful in the Midge season:-
    1) Bug spray
    2) Head net
    3) Mosquito coils strategically placed
    4) Chain smoking
    5) Camp as high as possible - turn your usual sheltered pitch on it's head and go for maximum exposure to the breeze. Do not camp in the glen.

    1. Thnaks for the advice anonymous. I haven't smoked since I was last behind the school bike sheds but I am popping down to the newsagents later to get myself 20 Woodbines.

  5. PS It helps to wear light coloured clothing as the little sods seem to cluster on black or dark items. Make that 200 Woodbines.
    Anon (rhymes with John)

  6. Camp high in September, or have an inner. Last September I bleed in the forests making for high ground. Midge time is hell. Idiots say you get used to them. Truth is you get an inner from Sean.

    Good luck with the TGOC application. Might see you on it next May.

  7. Having recently had a similar midge experience on the Minigaig (and we should know better, we live in the highlands!) this made me giggle! Don't use bright colours, thry loved the orange Paramo, pink Thermarest and even pale grey trousers. In fact, colour is irrelevant, they like flesh!! The Challenge is the dog's do dahs, you'll love it. Good luck in the draw!

    1. Thanks Louise. TGO should arrive in the post anyday now with the entry form. In the interim I hope to get back up to Scotland for a few days. Will take the Akto this time and lots of DEET although I suspect my saviour might be the forecast wind and rain...

  8. Oh dear. Yes we can laugh, we have the T shirt. But seriously, NO repellant stops them. Its only the females that bite btw, the males just land and cause irritation running round your skin. Midge jacket or midge hat is needed in these months but the most important thing , unlike what many of us do in the south of the border is to camp in a relatively exposed windy spot and not too close to water or trees. They don’t fly when the wind is over 5mph and you should be ok. He says!
    I agree with others, get an Oookworks inner.

    1. Well, Alan, there is no way I am going to make the obvious comments in reply to your statement that "it is only the females that bite...whilst the males just...cause irritation". Mrs Fellbound may be reading this!

      Sean should be sewing my Oookworks inner as we speak.

  9. What a wonderful post and you are ahead of me in the TGOC entry, I will be trying for 2014 due to an unforseen mishap in the lake district. I am now following in your footsteps and find your writing very witty, entertaining and gratifying. You will be having the experiences I will not need to endure, I'll just pick the good bits and have the perfect walk on the perfect day in the perfect glen. Seriously many thanks I will follow you more closely and take heed of your superior experience. Many thanks.

    1. Hi Paul

      Thank you for your very kind comments. They have given me some impetus to think about some more posts as I am not updating this site with the regularity I ought. I have done a few splendid day walks recently, albeit they were rather uneventful. I am not certain about the "superior experience" bit. I have masses of day walking experience but much more limited backpacking.

      Good luck with planning for the TGOC in 2014. I am formulating plans in my head for alternatives if I do not obtain a place on the 2013 crossing. I am now going to check out your site and find out more about your "mishap" in the Lakes!

  10. I laughed at this , last time I was up Scotland it was October I think so missed out on this wonderful experience, just ordered my trailstar and no nest lined up yet, I have a Bivvy with a net on but you've talked me out of that idea I think.

  11. A nest should do the trick, Dave. I got mine from Oook Works. Well made but a long lead in time from order.