How to Earn a Scottish Breakfast
Eggs, bacon, sausages, more bacon, toast.... When you're spending a week walking on the rugged Kintyre Peninsula, you can eat as much as you like--and that's not even the best reason to do the trip.
In the past few years, Scotland has become a refuge for my husband and me, the country's long-distance walks serving as moments out of time from our too-busy life in Paris. We've started something of a tradition: Each year, we block out a week or two and set off for days of hiking in the magnificent Highland scenery and nights in country pubs. We've trekked the Great Glen Way near the shores of Loch Ness, trudged along the West Highland Way in both driving rain and intermittent sun, and bagged a few Munros (Scottish peaks over 3,000 feet), all in search of fresh air and mental quietude. This year we planned to tackle the new Kintyre Way.
Launched by a group of innkeepers and other business owners late last year, the Kintyre Way covers the little-visited Kintyre Peninsula in southwest Scotland. It crisscrosses the peninsula from north to south, from east to west and back again (and again!), passing through villages at intervals of between six and 17 miles. Planning the seven-day hike--including nightly stops and the bus ride that'll take us from the walk's end at Southend back to our starting point at Tarbert--was easy, as most details are predetermined.
The difficulty proved to be finding an able partner. Two weeks before we were to depart, my husband had to pull out because of an overloaded work schedule. His replacement? Friend, dancer, massage therapist, and virgin hiker Cari Green. She later said it was the trip of a lifetime.
A SPECTACULARLY SCENIC--and rather nauseating--three-hour bus trip from Glasgow precedes our arrival at Tarbert. Once claimed from local clans of Scots by Vikings, Tarbert is now home to some 3,000 residents and a couple of great pubs. Though we haven't the opportunity to savor the small port's beauty, we manage to snatch a taste here and there as we follow the Way's blue markers south: the ruins of Tarbert Castle, fortified by Robert the Bruce in 1325; astonishing views over East Loch Tarbert; a young doe passing through delicate forests of ash and elm; and a cluster of old stone shepherd huts radiant in the soft afternoon sun.
The 10 miles of gently rolling terrain prove to be easy walking, and, four hours after our start, we begin the descent into Skipness. A scrap of a town, Skipness isn't much more than a scattering of cottages, a tiny convenience store, and a beautiful old church. Blackberry bushes line the route, and our fingers soon turn purple. We feel like Huck Finn's protégées--packs on our backs, walking sticks in hand, and stomachs full of wild berries.
But with the sun setting in the distance, we put on a burst of speed. It's nearing 5 P.M., the time we've arranged to meet Kelvin Moller, proprietor of The Old Smithy B&B and--along with his wife, Moreen--our host for the next two nights. He's waiting with his little turquoise car to drive us the remaining few miles to their cottage in Clachan. This pickup service is unusual as far as Scottish walks go; however, the layout of the Kintyre Way makes it necessary: The official map ends day one at Claonaig, which isn't so much a town as a ferry terminal for people heading to the isle of Arran. The closest place to stay is two miles back in Skipness, but by October the village's sole option, a B&B, was booked up. Luckily, Kelvin and Moreen--10 miles further down the road at Clachan, day two's end point--offer a pickup and drop-off service.
With the floral bedspreads, timber furniture, and lace doilies, The Old Smithy is pleasingly reminiscent of grandma's house. And while Moreen offers to whip up a delicious dinner ($33 for two), Cari and I opt for a bacchanalian feast at the historic Balinakill Country House, a 10-minute stroll away. We indulge in three scrumptious locally sourced courses in an atmosphere of country grandeur: The drawing room where we take predinner drinks has a roaring fire, deep sofas, and wood-paneled walls, while the dining room combines white linens with antique sideboards and that slightly musty feel of aged splendor. But our attention soon turns to the food: fresh scallops, slow-cooked lamb shanks, and chocolate mousse satisfy our ferocious appetites. We consume with gluttony but no guilt, the reward for a day spent hiking.
Day two begins with a lavish breakfast before we bundle ourselves--packs, boots, hiking poles, and all--into the back of Kelvin's car. He's keen for us to begin our second day of hiking, which will take us from last night's finishing point at Claonaig back to Clachan for a second night. It'll be difficult, he says, and on these short autumn days, an early start is essential.
We grip our seats as Kelvin swings the car along narrow country roads and around sharp corners, turning his head back often (much to our dismay) so he can better convey his love for the area. "It's still really wild here," he rhapsodizes as we fly over another bump. "Nothing much has changed in a long time--one or two new houses maybe--and you don't have to go far from the village to be in real wilderness." Which is exactly where we find ourselves 10 minutes later. Cari and I stride past waterfalls and maneuver through moorland, enchanted by both the open space and savage beauty.