The Angry Corrie 69: Nov 2006-Feb 2007

Shetland Mainland, Sutherland, Graceland...

by David Gray and Nick Spedding

THE FULMAR SOARED majestically above our heads, the azure ocean shimmered in front of us as we stood on the deserted beach, at one with Nature, with the gentle lapping of waves and the distant call of the curlew the only sounds. Enveloped by Wilderness, we reflected on our modest place in the order of things...

Cliché, cliché, cliché. Sod this, let's try again.

THERE IS A SMALL VOE on the island of Bressay in the Shetland Islands (HU507449, Landranger 4). It is no Sandwood Bay or Rackwick. It will never feature on any postcard from Shetland alongside views of Mousa Broch, a pair of puffins and a replica Viking longship. While it does have a pretty little blue-grey beach at its head with a lochan behind, the surprisingly large and cosmopolitan collection of plastic jetsam between the beach and the lochan is a reminder that a bay open to the southwesterly gales that ravage Shetland is use to neither man nor beast. This modest inlet is blessed with one unique feature, however. Its name: Elvis Voe.

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So at 11:20am on 20 April 2006 we set off to walk from the otherwise unremarkable Elvis Voe to an otherwise even more unremarkable farm several miles south of Forres called Presley (NJ012510, Landranger 27). In embarking on the Elvis to Presley walk, we were aiming to raise funds for Cancer Research. Ahead of us lay 420 miles, 15 Munros, nine Corbetts, one Graham and 43 renditions of Sham 69's "Hurry Up England" on Virgin 1215.

But what sort of walk was the E2P? Non-hillgoing laymen were certainly impressed by the idea of walking over 400 miles with a total ascent equivalent to climbing Everest twice, but in reality this equated to about one Corbett and 16 miles per day, hardly comparable to proper feats of endurance such as undertaking a round of the Munros in winter or starring in 31 largely forgettable matinee flicks, as Steve Perry and Elvis Presley managed respectively.

The route did take us through some wild country, occasionally in difficult conditions, and there were a few tough days when weather, distance, ascent and the odd blister conspired against us. But there were also days like the walk south from Thurso to Loch More, where the route was largely uninterrupted by anything as inelegant as topography.

So if not an extreme physical challenge, was the E2P the kind of venture where we would experience moments of self-awareness, the odd epiphany or even an American Trilogy? Nope. Some readers of TAC - and one or two high-profile former subscribers - may be disappointed to learn that we are not the sort of chaps who take to the outdoors in order to find spiritual enlightenment. We knew enough about ourselves to know that we would thoroughly enjoy an extended stravaig through the Scottish highlands and islands, and while we do not dispute that some hillgoers sense a close bond with nature, it's probably harder to do so if (a) there are two of you, (b) you like listening to a radio of an evening and (c) you both strongly believe that certain attitudes surrounding the consumption of the "authentic" wilderness experience are - like the majority of Presley's movies - rubbish.

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Apart from concocting a fictional connection between the music of Elvis Presley and the highlands and islands for our own amusement and (hopefully) the entertainment of others, the sheer variety of terrain encountered was arguably the main attraction; and, while much of the route will be well kent to baggers and hillgoers, many readers will be less familiar with the joys of walking in the northern isles and Caithness.

The spine of Shetland's south mainland from west of Lerwick to Sumburgh was an early delight. These were low hills - the modest Royl Field (293m) the highpoint - but the spectacular coastal views (especially towards St Ninian's Isle) ceded little to views from higher peaks such as Sgritheall or Streap. With the exception of Hoy, Orkney is much flatter than Shetland, but the ungrazed descent off Mid Hill (275m), Orkney Mainland's highpoint, arguably presented the roughest ground encountered anywhere on the trip.

Similarly, it might be expected that the vast, bleak Flow Country would hold little appeal, but the sheer expanse of peat bog was impressive, a point brought home when trying to make camp at Loch More. We could find no ground in which the pegs would hold, nor were there any stones, leaving us with the prospect of a night bivvying in £500 of brand-new tent - until we hit on the bright idea of using trekking poles as super-long bog-pegs. The patent is pending.

Thankfully, progress through the Flow Country was rapid on excellent paths. The Loch More, Badanloch and Loch Choire estates in Caithness and northern Sutherland must be prospering. Their manicured autobahns put some public roads to shame, yet estate workers were to be seen repairing them. To the south, Morven looked splendid - but not so splendid as to entice us across several miles of rough heather floating on peat. Instead, we took the short route out of the Flow Country across Knockfin Heights (438m), cutting down to just a few hundred metres our engagement with peat bogs reminiscent of Bleaklow's worst. Given the choice between Wilderness and the Easy Life, we'll take nicely tended paths and well-drained camping grounds any time. The summit of Knockfin brought uninterrupted views of the region's major heights: Ben Armine and Ben Klibreck to the south, Ben Griam Mor and Ben Griam Beg to the west, Hoy and Dounreay to the north.

Loch Choire on the "wrong side" of Ben Klibreck may also be unfamiliar to many, but is well worth a visit. The beach at the southern end is a delightful corner, although we would not recommend the path that goes up by Meall an Fhuarain and comes down the headwaters of the River Brora towards Dalness. An appalling wade in wet weather, it rivalled the low-level tramp between Steall and Culra for unrelenting underfoot misery.

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Another highlight was Ben Nevis, although future E2P challengers may wish to think long and hard before inviting novice hillwalkers to accompany them, as we did. We were joined on the Ben by David's cousin Paul and his mate Scott. Whereas Paul had a few Munros under his belt, Scotty had something of a "late Las Vegas era" physique, and his hillwalking CV consisted of two training ascents of Bennachie, both achieved with difficulty. This did not bode well for our tight schedule, and with Scott slumped over a rock with a mere 1200m of climbing ahead of us, we knew we were in for a long day. Progress was glacial and we were passed by countless others, including a large party of Dutch walkers, a number of poorly equipped day-trippers, and some bloke carrying what looked suspiciously like a 30-year-old organ, muttering something about hoaxing the John Muir Trust. (That's nothing. I've got a 45-year-old organ - Ed.) Although it took Scotty five hours 40 minutes, he made it to the top without supplementary oxygen and undeterred by weather that was deteriorating ominously. Between them, he and Paul raised £1600 for CLIC (Cancer and Leukaemia in Childhood) and Cancer Research.

The epic on Nevis put us behind schedule, but this merely provided Nick with the opportunity to indulge in the kind of Machiavellian route-planning that would have met with approval from both Colonel Parker and Murdo Munro. With half a day to make up, the good Dr Nick suggested we abandon the plan of a high-level traverse across the Monadhliath in favour of a crossing of the Fara, a dash to Kingussie and an opportunistic bag of Geal-charn Mor above Aviemore, the latter brazenly included to annoy Nick's Corbettbagging friend Paul who has yet to climb it.

Although the bulk of the walk was spent in relative solitude, our running straight into the middle of the TGO Challenge did provide an opportunity to observe backpack-bonhomie at close quarters. Our suspicions were first aroused by a threesome trying to cross the Abhainn Rath as we splashed on towards Staoineag bothy late one evening. Then came a lightweight tent at Luibeilt, with another pitched across the river. The next day our fears were confirmed by two Challengers met on the aqueduct-cum-path to the Bealach Dubh. After climbing Ben Alder and Beinn Bheoil in thick weather, we decided to forgo the pleasures of Culra, assuming - correctly - that anyone staying there was unlikely to be "lonesome tonight".

Next morning, a steady parade of backpackers passed our tent heading for Dalwhinnie. Only one took our scenic route over the Fara, a friendly Dutch chap who was brewing coffee and enjoying the views back to Alder and the Lancet Edge when we joined him at the top of Meall Cruaidh. He went up even further in our estimation on revealing that his route to Braemar included Carn Bhac and the Top of the Battery - the annual ascent of which is our preferred demonstration of just how fat and unfit we have become over Christmas. His less imaginative colleagues, we surmised, were carefully listening out for the call of the curlew on the Loch Ericht path, reflecting on their modest place in the order of things, happy to be at a dozen with Nature.

After encountering the Montrose-bound masses, we were left with conflicting feelings about the TGO Challenge. We had previously been pretty dismissive about the hype and the self-importance surrounding it, and particularly contemptuous of having to be vetted by a committee sitting in judgement, giving the imperial thumbs-up or thumbs-down to prospective Challengers. In our view, if one is experienced enough to walk across Scotland, one shouldn't require "official" authorisation to do so. One friendly Challenger, encountered near Kincraig, neatly summarised our thoughts on the matter: "It's a bag o' shite", he volunteered.

Most of the Challengers met were friendly enough, and the "legendary" camaraderie among participants did appear genuine. We spent a very pleasant few hours wandering into Kingussie with one Shirl "Peewiglet", who had temporarily misplaced one of General Wade's roads - strange for someone who could identify a pair of Inov8 Terroc trail shoes at a distance of 500 metres. A high proportion of Challengers appeared to be watching the final of the Champions League in the Tipsy Laird later that evening, although most of them obligingly cleared off to bed before the pub quiz, allowing the "Not the TGO Challenge" team to vanquish the local favourites and win a further £20 for Cancer Research. (It would be nice to be able to claim that victory came courtesy of our knowing some snippet of Elvis trivia, but we did at least triumph on a music-related tiebreak, courtesy of Nick's inspired guess that Hilary Lester was Renee of Renée and Renato fame.)

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WE REACHED PRESLEY at 11:58am on 20 May, a month after leaving Elvis and two minutes ahead of schedule - although our punctuality had more to do with luck and a short (9km) last leg than any Bonington-like microplanning. The end of the E2P, much like Presley itself, was low-key. Mentally, we had finished the walk in Ferness the previous evening and had celebrated the achievement with "One Night" at the Covenanter's Inn at Auldearn. Thus, quiet satisfaction - rather than uncontained excitement - was the order of the day as we passed Logie House, turned left on to the A940 and walked the last few hundred metres. A black-and-white sign at the junction of a farm track and the main road marked the end. Five of Nick's friends joined us for the last day, and we were met by David's wife and father-in-law. The fourth estate was not present to record the moment for posterity.

Presley itself comprises a house next to the road and a larger farm complex a couple of hundred metres beyond. The inhabitants appeared blissfully unaware of the existence of the E2P. Two people arriving by car appeared intrigued by the small group enjoying a wee drink and posing self-consciously for photos next to the Presley sign, but did not act on their curiosity.

Not the most arduous walk ever attempted, admittedly, but hopefully a sufficiently original and entertaining way of raising £13,633 (give or take 4p) for Cancer Research, for which we must say a big Elvis-style "thankyouverymuch ...thankyou" to all those who donated.

So if the first E2P Challenge (no applications or vetting required) didn't aspire to be the fastest round of this or the hardest round of that, didn't confer much in the way of Nature-enlightenment and was a bit light on camaraderie (we met our first walker high above Loch Broom on day 11, and spent many days on the hoof without meeting anyone at all), what was the attraction? Essentially, as hinted at above, it was conceived as a way of celebrating the fact that Elvis Presley's brief 1960 acquaintance with the runway at Prestwick might have given rise to a deep and disproportionate love of the highlands and islands. The evidence is compelling. Witness the number of Elvis song titles that defined our route:

The 1973 concert movie Aloha from Hawaii provides compelling evidence that Elvis was something of a bagger. During the gig, he performed You Gave Me a Mountain, with the line "It's been one hill after another, I've climbed them all one by one". And a delve through the Scottish Mountaineering Club archives may well confirm the rumour (spread by us, admittedly) that Elvis made a clandestine ascent of Bod an Deamhain clad in the garb of a stalker, a trip immortalised in his 1963 hit (You're the) Devil's Point in Disguise. Similarly, Lawdy Miss (Stob Choire) Clawdy and Baos Bheinn Nova Baby are reckoned to refer to days spent in the Grey Corries and Flowerdale in 1957 and 1963 respectively. (That's enough crap Elvis puns - Ed.)

With so much of Scotland steeped in Elvis hillwalking mythology, it was only a matter of time before someone attempted the E2P pilgrimage. And when the time came, the importance of such a venture was not lost on the local and national media. Heavyweight broadsheets such as the Huddersfield Daily Examiner, the Shetland Times, and - to Nick's aunt's delight - the Sunday Post were quick to acknowledge the importance of such a trek. Colonel Tom Morton, a distinguished public-service broadcaster, also debated the merits of such a walk on his Radio Scotland show.

Intriguingly, however, while the walk received generous coverage in the national and regional press, there was absolutely no interest from the outdoor media apart from TAC. Emails to Cameron McNeish and Chris Townsend at TGO went unanswered, five or six emails to the editor of Outdoors Magic were ignored and an email to Trail likewise elicited no response.

Having given some thought to this apparent snub, we have come up with four theories:

The Clash theory - the E2P was too similar (only twice the length and ascent) to the tremendously important and exclusive TGO Challenge. Also, TGO may have put all their Cancer Research eggs into the Steve Perry basket (in contrast to TAC which has devoted a significant amount of space to what are obviously two very different ventures).

The Damned theory - a damned rubbish idea for a walk that doesn't deserve any damned publicity. Sponsored walks by such as are much more deserving of publicity in TGO.

The Killing Joke theory - the E2P doesn't fit into the JMT/TGO paradigm of authentic wilderness and how it should be enjoyed. The wilderness is a serious business and the land should be appreciated in a reverential and serious way, by serious individuals who wish to feel seriously "at one" with nature, preferably seriously alone apart from a nearby curlew. The Scottish mountains have a deeper "spiritual" connection and should not be trivialised by a couple of jokers who like to listen to a radio in the evening, for god's sake.

The Undertones theory - Cameron McNeish checked out our website, noted that we were sponsored by TAC and decided not to touch us with a Pacerpole. TGO's partner, Outdoors Magic, was also tipped off. McNeish may also have been jealous that we included a couple of Corbetts that he has (allegedly) yet to climb.

Conspiracy theorists are invited to form an orderly queue...

TAC 69 Index