Our hiking adventures in the Cairngorms and Glen Coe were even sweeter with the help of Murray and Allan from Kingdom Guides.
In search of Kingdom Guides
Our 2018 trip to Scotland wasn’t our first trip to this wonderful corner of the world. We did a few hikes in Glen Coe and Isle of Skye when we first journeyed to Scotland in 2012. This time around, Brenda was adamant that we have a guide. You see, I seem to have a knack for not quite following the trail and getting a wee bit off course. Case in point, this gem of a video from 2012 on the Isle of Skye.
Dear readers, I hope you will note that I have always gotten us back in one piece and safely into the pub afterward for refreshments. I call that successful hiking. However, Brenda still wanted to have someone on hand who knew the trails and the country. Especially given that I wanted to try my hand again at the infamous Ring of Steall.
Why Kingdom Guides?
As I began planning our 2018 adventure, I consulted the all-knowing Google for enlightenment. As expected, Google provided a laundry list of possible guides. I checked out their sites and looked up reviews on Tripadvisor and zeroed in on Kingdom Guides. I think it was the fact Murray and his comrades are all accredited navigational instructors and their site just jumped out and said, “Hello mate…lets hit the hills!”.
I contacted Murray via email and advised him of our trip and my desire to hike the Ring of Steall. I also mentioned we would need a guide while in the Cairngorms, and Murray offered up a walk over North Corries and Cairngorm toward Ben Macdui. This all sounded perfect and his prices were great, so we booked Kingdom Guides for our two big hiking extravaganzas during our Scotland vacation.
It was windy on the morning of May 4. When we arrived at the Cairngorm Mountain car park located just a few miles from the beautiful home called Kirkbeag which we had rented near Aviemore. Murray met us at 8:30 sharp with his friend and fellow Kingdom Guide Allan. Murray advised us the wind could pick up as we headed higher up the mountain. The gray skies revealed patches of blue and a twinkle of the sun as we headed out.
In between gusts of wind, we talked with Murray and Allan. Turns out they have been pals for 30 years. They met at their former jobs with the police and shared a love of walking about in the great mountains of Scotland. They also share a fondness for giving each other a hard time. While Allan was explaining to Brenda and Angie some of the types of lichen and moss that grow in the near arctic-alpine environment of the Highlands, Murray quipped “You know your walk has taken a turn when your guide resorts to talking about the plants.”
The trail up Cairngorm was a moderate and steady climb once we left the car park. Our first bit of adventure occurred at a little stream that was strewn with rocks and had a bit of snow. Murray at first asked Allan to bust a trail through the snow. Allan chunked away at the snow to reveal the rocks beneath. However, Murray had a change of heart and decided to take us up further to some larger exposed stones. Together with a small sling in case one of us tried to get away downstream, Murray and Allan helped us across the water.
You may wonder, why is this stream crossing a big deal in this story. Well, you must go back to our Scotland 2012 trip. In addition to getting Brenda lost, I found ways to take her through bogs and several streams. Toward the end of that trip, she was not looking forward to scrambling through streams anymore.
The tundra-like terrain in the Cairngorms stretched for miles. The blowing wind and distant peaks gave you the feeling of being far removed from civilization. Adding to the ambiance was a small gathering of reindeer. These adorable creatures are happily at home in the highlands. Reindeer were once native to this region some 8000 years ago. They were reintroduced in 1952 and a small herd of close to 130 individuals live wild in the highland mountains. The reindeer are ideally suited to the tundra conditions of this area. They are wild animals, yet showed us no fear. They even started to come toward us when we stopped. Murray mentioned their handlers feed them, so they are always on the lookout for a free meal.
We were trudging up the steep trail as thick wet clouds descended upon us. Murray announced that we had a couple options for the rest of our hike. We could soldier on into the fog toward Ben Macdui or come around a bit on the Cairngorm plateau to the top of Cairngorm. Given the limited views, wind, and the need for a beer (or two), we opted for Cairngorm.
With that, Murray took us toward the peak and through the snow. The snowfield on the assent wasn’t huge, but it was hairy. Murray had told us that the snow tends to be more ice and slush. He also said that Kingdom Guides do a lot of winter hikes as the spring and summer climates have become wetter which makes for tougher walks. The winter snow packs hard and can be navigated fairly well as long as you know where you are going and are prepared. However, at this time of year, the snow was wet and heavy which made for a bit of slog. Murray broke trail for us and we clambered up on to the plateau.
The views were striking one minute and obscured in clouds the next. Such is weather in Scotland. The vast landscape suggested a place of extremes which requires a hardy constitution to survive. I imagine that the early highlanders who made a go at living in such a place had to be tough as nails. This could explain their tenacious spirit and fondness for scotch.
We pushed on to the summit of Cairngorm as the clouds started to march back in. Despite the growing cloud cover, the views were awesome in the truest sense of the word. The trek down featured a cobbled pathway that makes the going a bit treacherous. We took shelter from the wind near the Ptarmigan Restaurant which caters to skiers in the winter and walkers in the summer. We could have enjoyed a hot tea, but decided to rough it. Murray and Allan debated the merits of ham and cheese sandwiches versus cheese and ham sandwiches. I believe a cheese and ham was deemed to be superior.
Fueled up, we made it quickly off the cursed cobbled path and back to the car park at the Cairngorm mountain ski center. We chatted with Murray about our next outing in one week at the Ring of Steall. Our plans were to meet at Ben Nevis and then head out. It was here that Murray added that the hike along the Ring of Steall was three times harder than what we had just done. I’m pretty sure I heard a couple of groans from my adventure team. Murray and Allan were off to guide several parties on the Isle of Skye. We thanked them for a wonderful walk and then headed off in search of food and beverages.
Hiking Buachaile Etive Beag (the Wee Buachaile)
Our next excursion with Murray and Kingdom Guides started in the car park in the village of Glencoe. Our destination was to scamper up Buachaile Etive Beag for some lovely views of Glen Coe and the Rannoch Moor. At this point you may be asking “Hey Chuck, I thought you guys were hiking the Ring of Steall?” As much as I did want to run like Mel Gibson in Braveheart along the ridgeline, I knew that we just didn’t have the endurance level for the mighty Ring. I let Murray know that we were looking to scale back our hike and he was happy to offer up suggestions. This led to our meeting in Glen Coe and a short drive east on A-82 to the car park at the trailhead.
The skies were a tumble of gray. They didn’t look threatening, yet teased at the possibility of rain. In our hearts, we hoped for the sun. We thought the winds were gusty on our hike to Cairngorm, but we had not experienced real wind until we tackled the Wee Bauchaile. The wind was fierce and unrelenting. Angie was nearly blown away and we weren’t even close to the top.
The accent started out fairly moderate. Murray led the way as we traced the edge of the valley before turning toward the summit. The path quickly became a steep staircase that we called the Stairway to Heaven. I thought as my heart was hammering, that nothing good comes easy and the stairway to heaven should be tough enough for the reward at the end. It turns out that it was very much worth the effort.
Murray shared stories of Scotland’s history as we climbed. He pointed out the cottage once inhabited by Dr. Hamish MacInnes who designed the full metal ice axe and the rescue stretcher. Dr. MacInnes explored much of Glen Coe pioneering several winter routes and helped to create Scotland’s modern mountain rescue program. You can add his name to the long list of innovative Scots.
Murray also pointed out the Hidden or Lost Valley where the MacDonalds would keep cattle out of sight from the British and rival Campbells. Not far from this area is the site marker for the Glen Coe massacre of 1692 where 38 members of the MacDonald clan were murder by government forces while being hosted by the Campbells. Murray told us you can see a sign saying “No Campbells” at the Clachaig Inn which is close to the massacre site.
Once we had climbed up to the saddle between the two tops of Buachaile Etive Beag, we took a short break. The wind was howling and both Brenda and Angie decided to stay back while Murray took Jeff and me up the last climb to the top of Stob Coire Raineach. The assent was rocky and steep as the wind tore at our jackets. These hardships were rewarded with magnificent views from the top. Murray pointed out the broad head of Ben Nevis to the north and expansive Rannoch Moor off to the east.
Murray had mentioned to Brenda and Angie that we would be no more than 40 minutes up and back and that was true. We had scampered up, took in the majestic sights, and then skedaddled back down. While we were up on top, Brenda and Angie made their way lower to get out of the wind. We caught up and took a quick break to eat a snack. On our descent, we shared stories about scotch. We learned that Irish whiskeys are rubbish, Dalwhinnie is a fine entry level scotch, and that we might want to give a smoky scotch like Laphroaig or Lagavulin a go. There is so much you can learn while on a hike with Kingdom Guides.
We then headed over to the Clachaig Inn for a refreshing beverage and to revel in yet another amazing hike in Scotland. We wouldn’t hesitate to recommend our friends at Kingdom Guides to anyone looking to explore the exhilarating landscape of Scotland. Murray and company added laughter, history, and excitement to our Scotland adventure vacation.
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