Loch Laidon Living

As the number of vaccines administered hits the millions, the end might just be in sight. I say that with one eye on a future that is still very much unknown. As one sage-like fellow said:

“Anything can happen, and often we are wrong. The best we can do with the future is prepare and savour the possibilities of what can be done in the present.”

With that in mind, I savoured the possibility of what I could do with a 36hr window.

I headed to Loch Laidon. For some camping, some eating, and some floating.

And watch the film here:

Do you take your swimming goggles for a walk?

This is a question you won’t often ask yourself. Although stranger things do happen I suppose. My mum used to take her cats for a walk (yes, all 4 of them) and it was always a thought that made me smile, the somehow odd idea that felines needed a lead to leave their home.

One of my guilty pleasures in the outdoors is removing my shoes and socks and dipping my feet in the water. Usually sore and sweaty, the wave of relief that bubbles around my toes makes my whole body refreshed and ready to go again, even after a long day.

I decided to take that idea a step further. A few years ago I was at a talk given by Calum Maclean about wild swimming at the Peebles Mountain Festival. A very funny guy, he’d pulled his broadcasting skills and love of outdoor swimming together to create some short films of his adventures. His Scottish Temperature Guide film is a hoot, you can find it here: https://www.outdoorswimmingsociety.com/calum-macleans-scottish-temperature-guide/

I’ve spent plenty of time in the water when kayaking, at the beach or dipping my feet on long walks. But building a trip around a swim in a wild and remote highland area, just like Calum, was not something I’d done before. And in the current climate, where swimming in your local council pool is a bit of a no-no, the idea of some socially distant swimming in a wild place really appealed. After some thought, I remembered Loch Kander. And packed my goggles in my walking bag.

I’d first spotted this loch when walking some of the Glenshee hills. Coming down Cairn an Turc on the way to Cairn of Claise, you spot the rocky edge of the corrie and it was a pretty stunning view, looking down into the corrie and the loch below. A perfect opportunity to go back to the loch, explore a new area and maybe have a dip at the same time.

I’ve made a couple of trips up Glen Callater as far as Lochcallater Lodge and Callater Stables bothy before.

The bothy is still closed at the moment due to the pandemic. I carried on along the path that is known as Jock’s Road on the edge of Loch Callater.

Alien feet?

After passing Loch Callater, you can see Corrie Loch Kander coming into view to the right of the waterfall.

The cliffs of Corrie Loch Kander looming behind the corrie entrance.

As the walk continued this massive waterfall had been getting bigger and bigger in my view so I took a wee trip up the hill to see just how powerful it was. Frogs and caterpillars were everywhere.

The last part of my outward journey took me towards the loch. But even this close, there was no sign of it yet.

But when they came into view, the corrie and the loch were absolutely stunning. High cliffs to the south and west didn’t prevent the strong, swirling breeze. This did make me wonder if getting my kit off, even in summer, was a good idea….

Some signs of recent rockfalls on the right.

The breeze was calmer near the corrie floor so I took of my walking gear, put on my swimming goggles and after 10km I was really looking forward to getting into the water. I think the smile tells you I enjoyed it. To me it felt a bit chilly to start with, and the water felt warmer as time went on. Calum Maclean would describe it, I think, as “no bad”. Definitely not roasting.

I don’t take many selfies, but I thought it was the only way to prove I actually got in! The coldest bit of the day was the drying off in the cool corrie breeze.

Looking back down Glen Callater towards home.

Seven hours after I left the Auchallater car park, I was back at the van. Feeling pretty clean actually after my mid-walk bath. I took my GoPro along so take a look at the film below. I’m not naked, that would be unpleasant for most people, other than my wife. And will I do this again? Will I take my swimming goggles to other baltic (cold, not Eastern European) lochs and waterways for a walk? Probably. But I need a wetsuit.

Grid Square Journeys no. 3 – NN 7941 (Meall a’ Choire Chreagaich and a Swim!)

For the third of my Grid Square Journeys, I needed to do some tweaking. I’ve used the same number of steps since I was first taught to navigate properly by Rich. But either old age or maybe too many injuries has meant my stride has started to change.

The last two squares has seen me finish short of my goal, so after a bit of thought and some measuring, I’ve added 6 double steps to each one hundred metres. I’ve altered my timing too and you can see at the bottom my new stats.

So here was the plan, up to the top of Glen Quoich, in the hills between there and Kenmore. Far from dirty camping and cramped honeypot parking. Meall a’ Choire Chreagaich, a small peak to walk round, with a wee loch and not too much height, looked great. I stopped at an abandoned cottage on near the head of the glen. Good stonework and a solid roof, the sheep have made it their home.

I parked up at a road end, just a km from the start of my route. Note the lack of another soul or car. Bliss!

The weather was a mix of showers and brightness, with only a tiny point of blue sky seen all day. The going was fine, lots of heather. I could see the munros of Glen Lyon and Loch Tay, as well as Schiehallion, although the tops were shrouded in cloud. Lunch was the chunkiest cheese sandwich I think I’ve ever had.

And how did I do?

Distance-wise, I think the new steps made a difference to my overall accuracy and each section measured about right. Timing was more accurate too. My bearing was a little off on the northern and southern sections, although not by far. I’m aware that the long distances invoked, a full km, mean any mistake is exaggerated the longer the section.

It’s looks like a square, so maybe I shouldn’t be too harsh on myself. Here’s the stats.

After I’d finished I passed Loch Freuchie and remembered a waterfall I’d seen when before so pulled in and went exploring. The falls are 2km from the road and about 15m high so the noise of the water as I approached grew more deafening.

Definitely time for a dip. Not so much swimming, more bobbing, as a friend described it.

Grid Square Journeys no. 2 – NO 1314 (Balmanno Hill)

Fort William has Ben Nevis. Pitlochry has Ben Vrackie. Auchterarder has Craig Rossie. Even the smallest of village usually has a local hill, even if it’s pimple sized, which stands guard over the population. Bridge of Earn has a few. Which is handy as we are still unable to travel for leisure much beyond 5 miles from home. This is the second of my grid square journeys and after West Dron Hill last time out, I moved a couple of hills east to Balmanno Hill. Find out more about grid square journeys at https://challengekev.blog/2020/05/30/grid-square-journeys-no-1-no-1114/.

I ran my finger over the paper map to find an appropriate square to explore. Not easy actually, and I’ll talk more about that later. Once I’d chosen my walking venue for the day, I got my gear ready and pulled the bike out of the garage. Here is where I was going here.

The start of my walk in was about 5km away and the bike was going to be a saviour, knocking 10km in total of today’s trip, which with plummeting fitness levels due to coronavirus and excess crisp consumption I felt was a good move. The bike trip was all uphill on the way there too. So the journey back would be a free wheeling extravaganza, something my feet would surely thank me for later. On the way there, I passed Balmanno Castle.

As I pedalled up the 12% gradient, I slowed to a crawl near the old railway line and pushed my metal horse the rest of the way up to the top.

With my helmet tied to the bike and the bike locked to a fence, hidden behind a bush, I started trekking up the hill. Big steps at first as I was so excited to be out and climbing, quickly tiring to baby steps as my energy vanished in the warmth. Like the last grid square journey, I wanted to start off the square and I was looking for a top, just to the west of a phone tower. You can see the tower in the picture below.

Looking back while I climbed, you could see all the way to Dundee along the Tay.

After an in depth discussion with some cows, who followed me from the tower to the next fence, either in curiosity or in menace, I discovered an old tractor. With the key still attached! That might prove useful if I was too tired to get home in the heat of the day.

I also spotted this beauty, flying right over my head, in the same menacing fashion which the cows displayed.

I reached the high point where I planned to start and plotted my route, working out the distance to the square, timings, steps etc. If you read my last post, you’ll know that last time out I had a run in with some gorse, which was determined to knock me of track. Look what was in wait for me below.

So right from the start, I had to manoeuvre around what was becoming my yellow nemisis. If my calculations were correct, I’d hit the grid square just to the west of the Balmanno Hill summit, handily marked by a trig point. Now it’s worth pointing out I was pretending I couldn’t see the trig point. The whole point initially with grid square journeys was that I practise my navigation, so that I can find my way home in poor or non existent visibility.

I finished just beyond the trip point and turned north, looking over Bridge of Earn itself.

With my next section plotted, I sauntered north towards the village enjoying the view, down what turned out to be a much steeper grassy slope than I saw on the map.

I stopped after completing my planned steps, a wee bit short of the trees. And it was clear from the map I hadn’t reached the north west corner of the square. This left me in a bit of a quandary. I knew I wasn’t at the corner of the square, I could see that from the trees (although it’s always possible that the trees are marked on the map incorrectly) and the height measurement I checked on my phone. But if I was on a hill where I couldn’t see anything, I’d have to rely on my skills without the benefit of sight.

I decided to move on from this spot, as if blind to the beautiful wind blown trees you can see below. That south westerly wind must be pretty strong up here.

I turned west, and after plotting my course started moving.

Into this.

My yellow nemesis had returned, in the same way the Daleks kept popping up to foil Dr Who’s plans. And when I looked up I could see where I needed to get to, just west of the point in front of me in the picture below. But I could find no way around or through the thick, spiky gorse bushes. As you’ll see from the map of my final route at the bottom of the post, I trailed a long way off course trying to find a way through the heavy gorse blanket.

I could see where I needed to get to. But in low visibility I wouldn’t. I’d only see the dalek bushes. I debated with myself what the best thing to do was. I decided to use my sight and height and worked out a route that would get me to that point.

Trees are much more friendly than gorse.

The next two pictures give you an idea of what I was facing in terms of spiky gorse hell. In the first picture, you can see the route I took. From the top right of the picture, you can see a line of clear ground to the woods, down through the woods to about half way, then out onto another clearing to a burn, then back up this side of the hill. But you can see some of the massed banks of gorse on the right.

And in this picture, you can see just how much of the hill is gorse covered at the moment. I had walked all the way round the top of the gorse bank that you can see to the top of the gorge on the right before turning back. And not a single spot of clear grass to walk down. Never mind a blanket, more a wall.

I was hungry and the top at the north west corner of the square made a fab lunch spot. Legs or hot dogs?

I set off south after lunch on much better ground and with no daleks to get in the way.

And then east.

Wood sorrel for snack time.

This tree is grasping the rock it’s growing on, gripping it’s base with roots like fingers.

I continued east, the peak of West Lomond in the background.

And then heading north. More gorse, but plenty of routes round it this time. You can see the trig point on Balmanno Hill in the centre top of the picture. After my lunch, I went back to poor visibility so was relying purely on my navigation and I was curious to see where I would finish in relation to the trig point.

And here is where I finished off. A little west of my final destination.

You can see the peaks of Beinn a’ Ghlo in the background.

So how did I do? Let’s see.

How critical shall I be? My navigation skills are getting better. I use the 5 D’s which are as follows:

  1. Distance – How far to the intended destination?

2. Direction – What is the bearing?

3. Description – What we see or feel on the way and what will the destination be like?

4. Duration – How long will this take? and

5. Dangers – Are there any hazards on the way?

I learned these from a fab mountain guide that I know, Rich Parker. You can find out more about Rich and navigation here: https://www.access-mountain.com/single-post/2015/10/25/How-to-avoid-geographical-embarrassement

I completed a full square this time which is an improvement on my last outing, although that push towards the middle of the square while trying to outwit the gorse gives the square a slight cracked window look. Here are my notes (first number is direction, second number is estimated distance, then comes my estimation of the ground, then estimation of double steps needed, estimated duration, and actual time in brackets):

So what have I learnt?

First, finding a good square is not always easy. There are a few other squares near me that would be easy to practise on, low level and fairly clear of any obstacles. At the moment though they are being used for crops by the local farmers.

Secondly, what are these grid square journeys for? I need to consider the purpose of these trips a little more. Should I consider myself blind, as if in a mountain whiteout when practising, ruling out the possibility of using what I can see to guide me? Or should I just go with the conditions and if I can see where I need to get to, use that information?

And thirdly, I need to think a little about the number of double steps and timings per 100m I base my calculations on. My timings in the last two journeys have been sometimes nearly dead on, while in others, they’ve been a fair way off. My stepping is more reliable but you can see from my route above that I’m generally short of my planned destination, the corners. Am I choosing the wrong ground difficulty, or are the numbers of double steps wrong? It could of course be both, I’ll dig around a little deeper and come up with a modification for next time.

And finally, I’m running out of local hills and decent grid squares that are close by. I hope the travel restrictions are relaxed soon. Maybe I need a tardis.

Grid Square Journeys no. 1 – NO 1114 (West Dron Hill and Pitkeathly Loch)

The coronavirus lockdown of the last 10 weeks has finally started to ease a little. On Thursday, 67 long days after it started, Nicola Sturgeon signalled the start of phase one of the lockdown relaxation. I can go to a garden centre (not unheard of, they usually do awesome cakes), play croquet (unlikely but if desperate, you never know) and mingle with one family a day, as long as we remain socially distanced and take our own cutlery. I loved how the First Minister specifically mentioned this at the briefing, as if she had already fully planned her own first barbecue in a post lockdown world. A lovely example of a politician in touch with what her constituents might be asking about.

Hill walking is now back on the agenda, as long as you don’t drive, remain within five miles of home and stay within your own personal limits.

We moved house on November and one of the advantages of daily exercise since March has been the chance to get to know my new local area in a way I probably couldn’t have done in a non-covid age. The lovely Spring weather has been perfect for this. Despite the hardship of the last few months, a rain-sodden spring could have made it even tougher.

As well as exploring my new ‘hood, this year I had made a full year plan of microadventures which didn’t quite get moving. I’m also keen to refresh my navigation skills and I’ve been thinking about a way to tie all this up in a nice, neat package. And so I give you….. grid square journeys. In my head, if it’s done correctly, it would look like this:

The premise is simple. Walk around a grid square on an OS map. Or any other map. A friend of mine on Instagram was looking at maps of The Shire last night. A grid square journey around Hobbiton or Rohan or The Lonely Mountain would be pretty mind blowing.

Anyway, you can choose the square. Those squares are built up from the blue lines that go from left to right and up and down on a map and cross each other regularly creating the grid effect. One square is 1km long in each direction so making a total perimeter of 4km (plus don’t forget to add the distance to get to your chosen square).

The simplicity appeals and this is a much shorter distance than I’d usually go for, but I wanted to see the 360o view of a square, seeing all that it has to offer from every angle. Every rabbit hole, every cave, every pimple hill or mountain.

But the real clincher is navigation, using only a map and compass. No GPS, no phone (other than turning your tracker app on at the start and end to log your route and see how you got on) or any other help. It was a challenge, how close could I get to a perfect square?

There are so many squares to choose from. Some easy, some hard, some so remote you’d need to cover the distance of three OS maps to get too. I started close by (within the 5 mile limit imposed by the Scottish Government) and on a lovely, sunny and warm day. So here goes.

I was going to journey round square NO 1114, which was actually a bit challenging, with hill ground (West Dron Hill), plantation and a loch to consider on my route, the healing waters of Pitkeathly Loch no less. I might have needed those waters as it had been so long since I laced up my boots. But it’s a hill I wanted to explore, and shouldn’t a challenge be fun and pique your interest as well? So up I went, along the back road to the start of the Wallace Road and up over the hill.

Forward toward West Dron Hill.
Backwards towards Bridge of Earn
On the Wallace Road heading towards West Dron Hill Farm.
A fenceless gate on Dron Hill
Found a geocache on the way up, near the gate.

By the time I reached the top, I was feeling the heat but it was a gorgeous day and I decided on a start point for my grid square saunter. I wasn’t going to just start on the grid square, I needed to navigate to it too. So on the map further east of my square you’ll see an old ruin marked West Dron Hill Farm. That would be where I started.

And I set to work. I worked out my direction (pretty easy on a grid square I know…), how long it would take (in distance and duration), any dangers to look out for and how I’d know I’d reached my destination. I’ll include all the info for each stage at the end for those who might be interested.

West Dron Hill Farm to the grid square.
Am I in the right place?! Looks like I’m wearing a pork pie hat. Which I wasn’t.
Maybe including a plantation was a bad move. It was pretty hellish moving around in there.
I had to make a few detours for gorse bushes.
How am I getting up there! (Pitkeathly Hill)
Pitkeathly Loch. With added gorse. I couldn’t find a way to the top of Pitkeathly Hill so I handrailed around the east side of the loch until I reached its tip.
Easier going at last.
And back near at the start of the square.

How did I get on? Let’s see. Here’s my information. The first few lines are what I use for measuring 100m and the rough time I take. Then each block is a section of the walk. Each section has my start and end point. Under that it has my bearing, my distance, the grade of terrain, the number of double steps, the time I estimated and in brackets is the actual time it took.

As I said the only time I touched or looked at my phone was at the very start to turn it on, and at the very end to turn it off. And I was so hopeful to see how I’d done.

I suppose it could have been worse. The first two sections were pretty ok. The plantation section was awful and the trees and undergrowth made staying a straight line pretty difficult. The gorse hampered my progress on a number of occasions. And it’s triangle!!!!! Not a square! I can’t really explain why that happened. My phone could have lost the signal? There is a wind farm in the area, I walked right under some of the turbines, could that have affected it? Where it stopped is also where I had my lunch, so maybe stopping for a wee while caused an issue with the app.

Whatever happened, it’s a start. I had a fab day in the hills, never far from home, I practised my navigation (and realised I’m in need of lots more practise…..) and I found a new way to explore the hills. And next time, my square will be squarer.

Well. Are you going to give it a try?

Insulating Bernie’s Floor and Walls

I appreciate good insulation. I have plenty myself which means I’m usually too hot rather than too cold. Even on a mountain top in winter, my layers of body fat, combined with some forward motion, keep the fingers and toes cosy and warm.

I finally had some time to start turning Bernie into a more than just a van. The dream has been to give her a more impressive decor and the last two days have allowed me the chance to get started.

There are, according to YouTube, at least 3459 different ways to insulate a potential camper van yourself. All of them different. And each of the film makers stressing that their way is the ONLY way to do it properly. So for the lay man like me, doing this for the first time, I’ve taken my time to research the best method which will keep Bernie cool in the summer and got in the winter (on top of a mountain or otherwise). The internet has been a big help. And my friend Rich has also faced a barrage of questions, having done this sort of thing before. I am forever in his debt and the free pints will never stop flowing.

I took Young Johnston shopping. He kindly agreed to carry the small stuff like screws and aluminium tape while I carried the insulation, timber and plywood.

First the floor. The ply floor was removed and aluminium foil insulation run underneath on wooden batons.

Young Johnston helped with measurements. And also in the creation of bungee spider webs.

I though that would take an hour. It took 4. Thankfully the lessons learned (e.g. how not to break drill bits) kept me in good stead for the walls, which came next.

I stripped the ply and put it to one side. I would use this again later.

Aluminium foil and recycled plastic bottle insulation (never even new there was such a thing until recently) were put up, hopefully in the right order, and secured.

I surprised myself with the neatness of wall one after the ply was reattached. In contrast to the mess on the floor.

Wall two next. And it was twice as big.

Last fix of the day was to insulate and cover a footwell, to ensure warm but also would increase floor space by a few more cm2, which in a wee van like Bernie would be useful. A few sawn pieces of ply, insulating materials and some offcuts of flooring lino and I think it looks pretty good.

You can maybe tell by the last photo, this job took me into darkness, by which point I felt I’d done enough. A floor and two walls complete. Still a roof and three doors to go. She’s not ready for a night up Ben Nevis just yet.

The Sole Purpose of Your Feet is Toe-tal Fun

My feet are important to me.  We are a team.  On a daily basis they allow me to play “Chase Me” with my son and wife, run to the kitchen to grab a bag of crisps and do all the other important things a busy dad/teacher/outdoor type needs to do.  So it’s been pretty frustrating during this summer holiday that my feet have decided they need a rest and so have prevented me getting up into the hills and mountains, which is where I’d be found most summer holidays.  That exasperation has probably been pretty noticable to my wife, although she has made me smile and laugh and helped me mostly forget the annoyance of being laid up on the couch while my feet enjoy their holiday.

However, the summer has still given me opportunities to explore and spend time with Mrs Johnston and Young Johnston.  And I remind myself daily about how lucky I am to have my family and be able to do the things we do, so much of it outdoors.  For instance…

Young Johnston and I went off to find the Bunnet Stane.  And as well as admiring this rocky spectacle, I don’t think I’ve ever eaten as many hula hoops in one day before.

We’ve been to the capital to measure Young Johnston’s height.  He is now officially taller than the Scott Monument.

We’ve been teaching Young Johnston to drive cars and boats.

We’ve been looking for animals, at Blair Drummond Safari Park and closer to home.

And we spent an amazing week on Skye with Paul, Sas and Finn.



There are still three weeks of the holidays to go and loads more adventures to be had.  The photo above, Blaven, was the view from our cottage which was one of the reasons for taking the cottage in the first place.  Did I miss not getting to climb its slopes?  Yes, very much so.  But our week on Skye was one of the best wee holidays we’ve been on as a family and it reminds me how lucky I am to have what I have. After a week of the best the island had to offer, we were all…… dead on our feet.

History v Progress?

I love a bridge. And this walk was full of bridges, large and small. Some of historical note (as in you can find info on the internet), others not…… Starting with this beauty.

My wander started in Tomatin, just under the Findhorn Viaduct. And I was aiming for Boat of Garten, following one of General Wade’s old military roads. As I climbed higher and looked back, the road was clear to see although it more resembled a river after the recent snows than a road. I saw a weasel and a deer and a buzzard. This was looking back toward Tomatin.

I left the moor behind and dropped down to the Slochd, a high point on the A9 I’ve passed hundreds of times by car, but never in foot. Below is the old A9 (foreground) and the newer A9. Plans for the future duelled A9 we’re being looked at higher up the hill on the left.

After passing an abandoned cottage at Ortunan and forest plantations I reached Insharn and after crossing another lovely old bridge, the view opened up ahead.

I reached Sluggan Bridge, an impressive structure which crossed the River Dulnain, and another ruin. The bridge was one of General Caulfield’s.

It’s hard to tell from the picture but the bridge is huge and makes a lovely gateway from the moors to the Carrbridge forestry, and the final few kilometres of walking through sun kissed trees down passed Kinveachy and into Boat of Garten.

The history of the bridges and paths and the progress of the later roads and future A9 are a contemporary headache which everyone shares. What’s more important, the history or the progress?

Our history helps us to learn, often from our mistakes. But history, in the form of one of General Wade’s roads, won’t allow 21st century communications to seamlessly stride on. This struck me in its most blunt form as I passed Ortunan. Over the top of Wade’s old path, a tipper lorry and road roller were filling in the past with new stone to improve the road, allowing modern day road vehicles to rumble conveniently over them, presumably for access by geological teams planning the progression of the new A9 dual carriageway.

I was left feeling a bit shameful of my fellow man as the historic old right of way was turned into little more than a forest road. But I appreciate the need to make A9 journeys safer and quicker, especially as it’s a road I use often.

Appreciate the history while it’s there I think is the answer. Walk over those old bridges and follow the line of the old roads and take pictures and films of how they looked on the day you were there. So you can appreciate how different they become later. Check out the film below:

What I Did in 2018

img_8824-1Don’t let the title fool you, it’s not 2019! Happy new year to one and all. 2018 is here and it’s a good looking number. Much more attractive than 2017. More curvy? Bigger? More contemporary?

I’ve got a few resolutions. Take on the challenge of a new job (that I start in 7 short days). Spend more time with my wife and family. Lose a bit of weight and get a bit fitter (a daily box of salt and vinegar Pringles has added a few rolls). More outdoor adventures in my boots, on my snowboard and in my tent.

I’ve got one more resolution or plan which is going to be tricky but fits in with my love of the outdoors. This year, I’m going to walk 1000 miles. By New Year’s Eve, I’ll have walked at least 1610km in 365 days. In everyday life as well as in the hills. Easy? Well, I’ve managed a solitary, single kilometre on day one. So I’d better get a move on!

And the post title? Let’s just say I’m an optimist.

Whatever you’re planning this year, good luck and happy adventuring!


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