In early 2014, as I was planning and training for an expedition I was leading to Greenland, I wanted to put myself to the test before taking responsibility for others. To do this, I set myself a the challenge of walking a route across Scotland on my own. As one of the objectives for the expedition was to produce a documentary film, I decided to film my walk to see if I had what it takes to do similar on a larger scale in the Arctic. The route of the walk was particularly special for me as it cut through Mackay Country in the northwest Highlands, the homeland of my own clan.
It was a damp, misty morning as I stood on the shore of Brora Beach with everything I would need over the next few days on my back. I began to walk inland, following a route that would take me across the north of Scotland and into Mackay Country before coming to an end at the village of Hope on the north-west coast. Traces of civilisation slowly began to fade away. Farm tracks faded into game trails and the silhouettes of wind farms and pylons gradually disappeared from the horizon.
After several hours of walking, I turned away from the course of the valley I was following and started to climb towards the ridge of Creag Mhor. The clouds hung low, casting dark shadows over the desolate moorland that lay below me. There was nothing but bare rolling hills for miles in every direction with distant rugged mountains that crested the horizon.
As darkness crept in, I began to set up a camp. I chose a spot next to a small burn on the foothills of Ben Armine. After a quick dinner, I got to sleep, despite having to battle the intimidating roar of the wind and rain that unceasingly battered the small tent for the majority of the night.
The weather was much calmer as I began to walk the following day. I descended into the Naver Forest and followed the course of a small but deep river that skirted the edge of the tree line.
A slight notion of worry began to build up inside me, as I knew that I would need to cross this river at some point in order to reach the road that would take me to the next part of my route. With the heavy rains the previous night, all the rivers in the area were heavily loaded and any potential crossings had been made much more difficult. In the distance a small scattering of boulders came into view that lay in the middle of the river. It wasn’t ideal but if I was going to cross anywhere, this would have to be it. Murky brown water gushed violently around the rocks, emitting a low gargle that could be heard clearly above the sound of the wind howling through the trees.
Not wanting to put this off any longer, I approached the edge of the river and unbuckled my rucksack. If I did fall in, I didn’t want to be dragged under by the weight of my bag! Using my walking poles to steady myself, I cautiously stepped onto the first boulder and could immediately feel the full force of the river beneath my feet. It was at this moment that I felt the most alone out of the whole journey. The nearest person was at least five kilometres away and I was at the complete mercy of whatever the landscape decided to throw at me. With a few careful manoeuvres, I hopped over the next few shaky boulders and, with a final lunge, made it to the other bank of the river. On this side of the river, I could be sure that I had made it into the boundary of Mackay Country.
A quick scramble up from the river brought me onto craggy plateau. I walked on due north for a few hours before finally making it to a road. I knew that this would take me much closer to Hope, where my journey would end. The first people I saw were a couple of cyclists, about to complete their Lands End – John O’Groats challenge. This was a welcome sight after not seeing a sole for two days! I walked on and as I turned a bend, the quietly shimmering Loch Naver burst into view. The late afternoon sky was a clear blue, only obscured by a cluster of dark clouds that clung to Ben Kilbreck, a Munro that towered over the western shore of the loch. As the day drew to an end, I was passed by several vehicles, mainly comprising of families visiting the area and campers travelling to a small caravan park that that was situated a short way along the road on the edge of the loch. I walked for as long as I could, but fatigue took over and before long I found myself plodding through the heather away from the road to make camp for the night.
I awoke on what would turn out to be my final day of walking after a questionable night's sleep sandwiched between two clumps of heather. I was forty kilometres from my finish point and had planned to make one final camp before completing the journey. However, as I was far ahead of schedule, I set off with quiet optimism about finishing that day. I passed a small gathering of hotels and B&Bs as my road intersected with the main road to the south at the edge of Loch Naver. From here I followed a track that twisted down into the valley of Strathmore. I pushed on as I reached Loch Hope, the final leg of the route. Despite continuously running out of energy, I made steady progress past the crags of Ben Hope.
With less than ten kilometres left to walk, I was confident that I would reach the end that day. Darkness had fallen but the flickering lights at the end of the loch kept me going as they marked the village of Hope where I would finish. The smell of salt was strong in the air and I knew I was near the coast. After twelve hours of walking and several periods of strong wind and rain, I made it to Hope where I gladly dropped by rucksack and caught a lift to the next town, Tongue.
As I completed this journey and, over the following week, produced a short film about it which can be seen below, I was confident that I was able to look after myself in challenging environments, lead a team and also produce documentary film footage. I also had the first taste of composing a soundtrack for my films. Here, a piece a arranged for our ceilidh band can be heard. This is something that I was to continue for many projects afterwards.
Since Clan Mackay lived in Mackay Country, there have been serious changes. The scattered small crofting villages and independent agricultural industries have given way to larger towns dotted along the coast, all of which practise much larger scale and more commercial farming. The biggest industry in the area now is tourism, something that there would have been very little of before.
However, there are some things that will never change in areas like Mackay Country. The challenges I faced as I tried to make my way across the landscape were the same challenges that ancient members of the Mackay Clan will have faced. While other areas of Scotland have undergone large scale urbanisation in past centuries, Mackay Country is one of few areas that has retained the original character of its landscape and where the presence of the founding clan can still be felt.