When Luke Waterson decided on a last-minute holiday in Scotland and found everything was booked, he ordered a stash of OS maps, planned a 275-mile, 12-day hike across Scotland—and left the next day.
Growing up, the atlas was the biggest book our family owned. Too large for our bookshelves, it lay below, covered by the paraphernalia that got piled on top. It was an undertaking just to pull it out. And if I think back to my earliest wanderlust, it’s this: That silvery outline of a globe on the spine, stuck under a mound of much duller things.
That atlas—and soon enough, any cartography—began assuming a hallowed quality in my mind. Perusing a map became special, a treat for when I had the time. I’d spend hours tracing imaginary journeys across gridded depictions of counties, countries, continents.
These journeys shared a common theme. They all traversed all of something. A mountain was unexciting in itself; it was crossing the range that held the allure.
I especially loved a map’s extremes. I loved how Tierra del Fuego, for example, bulged audaciously beyond the bottom lines of an otherwise within-the-grid southern South America. I loved how a map page’s bands of lake-splashed brown announced high-elevation areas—and how road-free, building-free and savagely different they seemed compared to the paler, blander colors portraying civilization.
Nor was it enough, on these fantasy travels, to envisage myself immediately there at these extreme points. I had to earn my arrival, and the means was always on foot—Land’s End from London, the Boothia Peninsula from Vancouver, rock by rock, horizon by horizon. No other way would do because, well, I might miss out on something.
It must have been with this in mind when this summer, when I found myself with some unexpected free time, I decided to plan a long hike. I quickly realized that this was also the time of year many people would normally be going on holiday here in the UK.
But these weren’t ordinary times. The post-lockdown travel choices—jumping through a series of ever-changing hoops on a flight to whatever destination made that week’s green list, or a UK holiday oversubscribed by everyone who didn’t fancy the hoop-jumping—were limited.
Any accommodation worth staying in had invariably been booked solid, deep into winter. Wild camping then, I thought, dusting off my gear, and in Scotland, where it’s permitted.
Closer analysis showed that while I’d traveled widely in Scotland’s north and south, its east and west were gaps in my knowledge. It seemed obvious what I should do: Peterhead, Scotland’s easternmost point, to Ardnamurchan Point, its westernmost, on foot. Via whatever way there was. Sorted.
“Nothing piques your interest in places more than plotting your own walking route through them. When you’re hiking established trails, troops of walkers will have tramped the same path before you. But on a self-devised route, the scenes unfolding play out for you alone. And so they sparkle with their own one-off magic… They are your surprises or rewards, and significant to absolutely no-one else, at least not for the same reason.”
Holiday planning is so much simpler when you’re compass-point obsessed. I ordered the Ordinance Survey/OS hiking maps covering the 275-odd mile route (all 12 of them), waited for next-day delivery, hoping they’d come early enough to make the last train of the day to Aberdeenshire (they did) and by that evening, I was in Peterhead, incredibly itchy-footed.
I realized I was doing one of the few types of trips it was possible to embark on in a pandemic world with less than 24 hours of pre-planning. The big negative of travel now is how the impromptu has been squeezed out of it. This time, I was getting a bit of that back.
That evening and the 12 nights following, I’d open the next day’s section of map by torchlight with a vague (if that) inkling of what awaited me. Even when I’d decided the approximate course, my knowledge of what was to come was only topographical.
I’d seen no image of any place I would pass beforehand, because these places distinguished themselves primarily for falling by my arbitrarily chosen-in-the-moment wayside. Think how rarely 12 days elapse in this view-online-in-advance age where—with almost everything that you see—you’re genuinely seeing it for the first time…
And nothing piques your interest in places more than plotting your own walking route through them. When you’re hiking established trails, troops of walkers will have tramped the same path before you. But on a self-devised route, the scenes unfolding play out for you alone. And so they sparkle with their own one-off magic, this pathside thicket of wild raspberries you gorge upon or that gateway resting place. They are your surprises or rewards, and significant to absolutely no-one else, at least not for the same reason.
Peterhead, a gritty fishing port, was exactly the sort of place I would only have visited for leisure on a compass-point-to-compass-point trip.
But so too were the ragged walls of wonderfully-named Duffdefiance, a one-time center of illicit whisky production in the lonely Ladder Hills where I would camp on day four, and the cobalt course of the River Scaddle bisecting the Ardgour wilderness that I would follow throughout day 11.
I would never have come to see any of them for their own merits alone. But they were places, my beautiful places. Not necessarily because of their appearance or because I had each utterly to myself, but because I had planned the way between them, calculated where to best depart one map at so as to arrive on the next map near path X, having avoided major road Y without forgoing a tantalising-looking expanse of hill range Z.
Orienteering like this, there are no worries about whether you make so-and-so flight, get a table at so-and-so restaurant. Only two things stand in your way—the land and your ability to cross it.
You pore over maps seeking where water sources rise (after all, you ‘ve got to refill your drink bottle) or where contours bunch together (the tough climb might be worthwhile if it yields that view).
“… gradually, the way I had walked became more formidable than the way remaining. Negotiating one section of trackless terrain emboldened me for the next, and there were more ‘I did it’ moments.”
Knowing that each fully opened map sheet roughly corresponded to a day’s walking, I would glance ahead to grid squares, where streams wider than one line’s breadth met patches of woodland that edged the moor. Those were my favored camping spots, where there’d be fresh water, shelter and the intoxicating proximity of true wildness.
I gave the land such rigorous cross-examinations I became bonded to it—and it to me. I knew how it deceived cartographers’ eyes by destroying that bridge they marked; it knew how I blundered through the bog I intended to skirt, screaming curses no-one else heard at it—when in reality only my map-reading could be blamed.
Scotland, I discovered anew, is the type of challenge that orienteers relish. Its map language vividly shines a light on its culture, and leaves clues as to what you might spy on the trail.
Among the 30-odd words I encountered here for ‘summit’, there are ‘sidhean’, fairy hill, and ‘buachaille’, a hill shaped like a shepherd. No rights of way feature on Scottish maps, as most land is publicly accessible, but as a result, fewer paths are distinctly marked. And those that are, particularly on a rain-damp map, bear strong resemblance to the symbols for power lines, which are less fun to walk along.
The easy-to-follow country lanes of the east erupt, with little warning, into entire mapsheets of pathless mountainside where you must switch from complacently following signposts to furiously scrutinising mapscape contour lines and crag lines for that optimum through-route.
And inevitably, as I found only upon reaching the first serious highlands, the valleyside paths that are the main means of crossing them run overwhelmingly north-south. Heading westward-bound, it was over the top then down then up again, like a brutal multi-day rollercoaster ride.
There were certain tricks to the trade. Estate tracks were among the few that went against the grain and in the direction I needed—a ruined croft could have just enough sheep-nibbled grass to provide respite from the midges lurking in the heather-cloaked moor that dominated the route.
Equally, 12 days and nights of choose-your-own-adventure hiking across rough country and making camp wherever tiredness overwhelms at day’s end is hard, despite the intense beauty.
The dirt never really washes off, swamp always soaks through, and the rucksack straps always cut through. Map misreadings dollop miles onto your journey sooner or later—and unfailingly at the worst possible time. It is hard to conceive I would have endured the whole of it without a compass-point-to-compass-point traverse as my motivation.
But gradually, the way I had walked became more formidable than the way remaining. Negotiating one section of trackless terrain emboldened me for the next, and there were more ‘I did it’ moments.
And on the thirteenth morning, the land finally gave up. There it was, Ardnamurchan point. It had all linked together—main roads and market towns to mires to mountaintop trig points to this lighthouse-crested headland where seals basked on the skerries, and sea surged around me on three sides.
And an orienteer’s elation seized me, the sensation of eventually coming out the other side OK, of having glimpsed the great and the good and the pleasant and the bad of the land, rather than just an airbrushed snapshot. And now, there were no more turns of the map.
Luke is a Wales-based writer and author whose latest novel, Song Castle, is set in 12th-century Wales. He writes primarily on wildernesses, specializing in Britain and the Andes/Amazon. As well as bylines for the BBC, Independent, Telegraph and others, he has contributed to 50+ travel/reference books.