The Angry Corrie 51: Sep-Nov 2001

Never mind that old Duke of Edinburgh ... it's time for the Rob Roy Challenge

as explained by Barry Winston

IN RECENT YEARS, I have become increasingly disconcerted by the encroachment of the nanny state into our illustrious sport. One only has to think of the ever-increasing use of GPS devices and mobile phones, and the way in which Munrobaggers and their fellow travellers have usurped the once pure ground of hillwalking. Some people have attempted to justify the use of GPSs on the grounds that a compass is also an artificial aid. Although this argument is self-evidently ludicrous, suppose that we take it seriously. Then, logically, we should go to the hills without a compass.

We at the Department of Palaeonavigation at the University of Pumpherston (formerly Pumpherston Primary School) were concerned that the process might already be irreversible. However, one of our research students drew to my attention the excellent biography of Rob Roy MacGregor by that doyen of Scottish mountaineering, Bill Murray. What particularly struck me was the contrast between our hi-tech coddled walks and those of Rob, out in all weathers and seasons without benefit of GoreTex, fleece and, crucially, map and compass. Knowledge and understanding of the land, the ability to read the weather, to navigate by sun, stars and wind: all these skills were Rob's.

So, what do I propose, you may well wonder? Nothing less than the Rob Roy Challenge. By taking up the challenge, you will help to ward off the forces of dumbing-down and globalisation. There is no organisation to join, no sponsorship form to tout round and no list of successful completionists. Only you will know if you have succeeded; you will certainly be aware if you fail.

First, you choose your own route; its length can be suitable to your inclination and available time. Let me suggest Glenfinnan to the Cluanie Inn. You may make it longer or shorter, as you wish, although at least two overnight stops should be included. To pay for this freedom, you must keep to the following basic guidelines.

Bronze level

1 You must not carry a map, compass, or use those of any other person after starting your walk.

2 You must not carry any electronic device, with the exception of a watch.

3 Your route may not use public roads, whether classified or not, apart from the following concession. Because you may need to walk a small distance along a public road in order to gain access to hills on the other side, you are allowed to do this for not more than 5% of your total route.

4 Your walk may be confined to glens, in which case you cannot become lost. Of course, you may use the high ground if you wish.

5 You may carry a stove. This is to avoid environmental damage.

Silver level

As for Bronze, plus:

6 No stove allowed. You must live on cold food.

7 You must not make use of a watch. You may have one with you for use on trains and buses at the end, but it should be set to a random (and incorrect) time for the walk.

Gold level

As for Silver, plus:

8 The only clothing permitted is sandals and plaid.

9 The only food permitted is a bag of oatmeal for making drammach.

There is a further concession (Bronze only). Although strangling and gralloching a stag with your bare hands is within the rules, you may feel the need to restock with food at a conventional shop. You may travel to the shop as long as you return to the exact point where you reached the road in order to resume your walk.

There is no requirement to steal any Hielan' coos, but if you do manage to return home with one or two, this will be regarded as special merit. There will also be a special extra award for the first person to complete the full "North of the Great Glen" option from Ardgour to Cape Wrath.

To sum up, the objectives are:

a To reach your destination.

b Er, that's it.

(Remember: an advantage of this challenge is that, unlike ordinary hillwalking, you can never be lost, as any route between A and B is equally valid.)

After the theory, the practice:

I originally wrote about the Rob Roy Challenge in 1999, for the journal of the Jacobites Mountaineering Club, after which sundry Jacobites started winding me up along the lines of: "When are you going to do it?" Why not?, I thought, and so on Tuesday 22 May 2001 the bus dropped me at the Cluanie Inn. I set off with normal backpacking gear, except that I had no map or compass. After leaving the road, I set my watch to a random time without looking at it, then put it at the bottom of my rucksack. I reached Inverie on the morning of the fourth day, having enjoyed three camps. The last (high) camp was not in the original plan but the weather was so good that I didn't want the trip to end.

Although it all started as a spoof, I can highly recommend doing this. It gave a feeling of freedom I had not experienced before. No checking the map to see which hill I was looking at, how high I'd climbed to a bealach, how far there was to go. In particular, not knowing the time to within several hours was very liberating. I would, for example, wake up with the sun; with a watch, I would have thought: "It's only six o'clock" and would have gone back to sleep. As it was, being warm and sunny, I ate breakfast, packed and left. When I reached Inverie, I didn't even have to ask the time; the Western Isles was just coming in to the jetty, so I knew it was elevenish.

I have subsequently done another Rob, still mainly to bronze level (although again with a randomised "silver level" watch). Having found the first Rob too easy, in late June I set off with a guy called Chap (or possibly vice versa). I asked him to keep it a secret where he was going to camp that night, then followed him to a loch of which I had never suspected the existence. Here we enjoyed an idyllic and midge-free campsite. I then had to get to Achnashellach station, which I managed by midday on day three.

I'm happy to report that the verb robroying has already entered the language. Would-be robroyers should note that it is equally valid to robroy in the eastern Highlands, and to robroy in winter conditions. In the latter case, the "bronze" level is replaced by "brass". Although not strictly conforming to Rob's own travels, you may like to do your robroying in other countries, eg Englandandwales.

Since my robroying trips, I have read Jonathan Raban's beautiful book Passage to Juneau. Starting on p93, he gives a wonderful discourse on early navigation and the radical effects of the introduction of the magnetic compass. It certainly made me rethink my previous ideas.

The suggestion that GPS is only an artificial aid like a compass has never impressed me. There is a difference in kind, not merely of degree, between (a) using a piece of natural material (lodestone) to interact with a natural geophysical phenomenon (the earth's magnetic field) and (b) using rocket science to place numerous satellites in orbit and having Far Eastern factories producing small computerised devices to interact with them. However, Raban has opened my eyes to the way in which early navigators used the sea itself, its waves, its currents, its swell, together with the stars to cross their oceans. He argues that the introduction of the compass made the sea into a void; the compass enabled a straight line course while ignoring the sea itself.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q How will you explain yourself to the Mountain Rescue?

A Assume that if you don't know where you are, the MRT shouldn't be able to find you.

Q What happens if the mist comes down?

A You'll discover the answer when it happens.

Q What happens if you break a leg?

A See previous answer.

TAC 51 Index