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15 September 2014

A Short Ride in the Hills by Simon Jacyna

 Editor’s Note:  The following article was written by one of our members after riding in (and winning) the Silver Boot Challenge.  It is not a SERC-organised event but, if you would like further information, please contact enquiries@serc-grampian.org.uk

The West Highland Pony Camp is an innocuous title for one of the most unusual and demanding challenges in Scottish riding. Started in the 70s by Teddy Gray of the Garry Gualach Outdoor Centre the challenge is simple – organise a horseback expedition in the Scottish Highlands covering at least 35 miles with one night away to finish at a given destination on the first Friday in June. The twist is that this is a competitive event – teams compete for the coveted Silver Boot and points are awarded for days ridden, total mileage, speed, the number of passes climbed and daily distances in excess of 30 or 35 miles. Penalty points and a cold supper await those who arrive late at the destination. Originally the Boot always ended at Garry Gualach but recently it has moved around the Highlands to from Kingairloch in Ardgour (which is so remote that the grid reference is printed on all the road signs) to Tomintoul in the east. This year’s venue was Libby Whittome’s house in Contin.

Most teams ride for five or six days, covering up to 190 miles, but the nature and scale of the challenge varies enormously. First timers usually do a shorter ride on easier terrain, but with experience and confidence move onto longer routes in more mountainous ground.

We had been runners-up twice and this year we, the Bays and Grays, decided to go for a high scoring adventurous route. The choice of where to go was settled when Janet announced she would like a nice pub for her birthday and wondered what Knoydart was like. As Inverie is home to the Old Forge, the remotest pub in mainland Britain, accessible only by boat or a 15 mile walk over the hills, there was only one way to find out.  An evening was spent with maps spread over the floor looking at the possibilities then we divvied up the route between us and started the research. This entails a lot of hillwalking and phone calls to gamekeepers and landowners.

One trip involved a drive to Mallaig, the train back to Glenfinnan, a six hour walk in winter sunshine to the A’Chuil bothy in Glen Dessary, a cold, damp night then nine hours in the rain to Inverie, which was suffering a powercut, then the ferry the next day back to Mallaig. The outcome? A dodgy path with several ‘interesting’ bits (i.e. bogs) and an extremely daunting bridge over a gorge. Enquiries revealed that Icelandic ponies do go that way occasionally, and have fallen through the bridge!  As Bobby easily equals two Icelandics in weight it was definitely time to look at Plan B. Eventually we settled on a route starting at Tomdoun, through Glen Loyne to Kinloch-hourn, to Inverie and back via the Barisdale coast path, north to Shiel Bridge, up Glen Licht through Glen Affric to Tomich then via Erchless and the Orrin dam to Contin – 130 miles in six days.

We eventually assembled at Tomdoun, via a detour back to Janet’s house to collect her helmet, to find Leon, Mary and Roger anxiously waiting for us with Hunter and Solo saddled up and ready to go. Near disaster struck within 500 yards of the public road when the horses fell into their first, and totally unexpected, bog which left Solo minus a shoe. The path steadily disintegrated and it took us nearly three hours to cover the two miles to the Loyne where thankfully we rejoined a firm path.

Kinloch-hourn at last, and great entertainment for the gamekeeper as we  plastered the horses in midge repellent and put on their fly rugs; Bella resplendent in pink.

The Tomdoun Hotel would provide ample material for another series of Fawlty Towers; our arrival was greeted with a pantomime routine of “we’re booked in for the night”, “Oh no you’re not!”, “Oh yes we are”. ‘Plump and grumpy’ moaned incessantly at ‘vague and dreamy’, oblivious to the audience, ‘cool blonde’ announced stiffly “Michael is cooking tonight, service will be slow” while ‘cute blond’ played with a piddling puppy and escaped in the first available car the next morning. Mobiles only worked outside where guests fed the midges which were taking advantage of ‘vague and dreamy’s’ inability to buy the right gas cylinder for the brand new Midge Eater which sat unused in the rain.

By an amazing coincidence Robin Pape was due to shoe the Barisdale ponies the next day and could fix Solo on his way in – at lunch time.

Next morning’s arrival at Kinloch-hourn provoked some consternation as the horses were conspicuously absent from their paddock. Consternation gave way to screams from Janet who spotted a large patch of pink on a cliff face. Thankfully this was only a rhododendron in full flower and the horses were several hundred yards further up the mountain, looking wistfully at a closed gate that stopped them escaping to Kintail. Leon left us to wait for Robin while he drove the 80 miles to catch the ferry from Mallaig.

The Barisdale coast path can only be described in one word – sensational. It is a masterpiece of drystone-work hugging the cliffs and the coast; very narrow and exposed in places, alternately perching precariously above the sea or following the high tide line.

Another near disaster awaited us when Bobby got tangled up in the lift bags used for the footpath repairs and sunk into the peat, nearly trapping me. Swift action with the penknife and he was able to lunge out unharmed.

The view from the summit of the Mam Barisdale was superb, but very different from the winter when I had struggled up there through knee high snow.

At Inverie Cara, our landlady, took one look at us and insisted on washing our jods. She was seriously into clean, so they went in at a very hot wash. Khaki turned to a delicate shell blue, leaving me exceedingly grateful that neither Janet nor Mary wore burgundy.

The Old Forge sells seriously good food and beer and I awoke to rather less of a hangover than I deserved and we were off on day three for a more leisurely ride back to Kinloch-hourn. We discovered just how narrow and exposed the path was when Bella stepped into mid-air leaving Janet rolling and somersaulting fifteen yards down the hill towards the water. Bella managed to keep her feet and scrambled back up to the path a few yards further on with only a few scratches.

We reached Kinloch-hourn without further mishap and found the other Grampian team -Molly, Dawn and Fiona, discovering the idiosyncrasies of the hotel.

Day four and the horses were once again at the top of the hill, so another late start after another mountaineering excursion to round them up. We started with a steep climb up through woodland and then onto the open hill. Upper Glen Arnisdale is wild and lonely, but marred by the powerlines which we followed for several miles on a good path. The Bealach Aoidhdailean is seldom used by walkers and the path here became fainter. We had a few more ‘route finding problems’ – trail speak for more bogs and a lost shoe for Bella. Pylons had some use as tethering posts, as we lunched at the summit of the pass surveying the route ahead. Tricky ground around Suardalain was not as bad as we expected and we were soon on the path heading for our fifth pass over a shoulder of The Saddle. The horses had bonded well as a group and we had learned that leading on steep ground is no fun. Bobby led the way while I clung to his tail for a tow, Solo and Bella followed behind while their riders brought up the rear. We continued along the edge of a deep ravine then scrambled up more steep rocks beside a waterfall and at the summit a stunning view of the Five Sisters opened up before us. A long lead on a superb path downhill to Glen Shiel at last, where Roger discovered he had lost his coat. The farrier, Robin again, together with the other Grampian team, was waiting for us at Morvich at the end of a surprisingly tough day - eight hours to cover just 18 miles but with another two passes to push up our score.

Many people consider the Allt Ghrannda to be the scariest place they have ever ridden and it does live up to its reputation. The path gets steeper then suddenly the horses were  scrambling and sliding up steep rock with sparks flying and a smell of burning iron. Around a corner and the path levels out on the side of a steep gorge with a large waterfall thundering below us with mountains towering all around. The route continues on a drystone causeway where a large cascade rushes down a gully, crosses the path and crashes down into the gorge below. Another steep climb up to our sixth pass then we followed the winding path to lunch at the Camban bothy. After this the path improved as the strath widened and we picked up speed with a long canter on the sandy path through the ancient pinewoods next to Loch Affric with Sgurr na Lapaich and Carn Eighe towering above us, still with snow on their upper slopes. This led into forestry plantations where we decided to take the longer route into Tomich which brought us up to 30 miles for the day.

Our final day was the longest at 33 miles, starting with 12 miles of tarmac. We quickly got into a rhythm of trot ten, walk five, trot ten, lead five, trot ten and so on to cover the miles but keep the horses feet comfortable. At Erchless we had a long walk up the hill then onto a stony path. The horses woke up when they saw the huge herds of deer lurking on the skyline like Apache warriors preparing to ambush. After our final pass we descended onto an endless track which led across monotonous moorland next to a hydro-electric pipeline. We plodded steadily through showers into a cold wind. Crossing the Orrin dam on a narrow parapet thirty feet above the water was exciting; the horses were quite spooked by metalwork crashing in the wind and water surging at the bottom of a deep shaft.

Leon met us at the bottom of the hill with boards so we could cross the cattle grids then we continued through giant trees to Fairburn House, from where at last we could see our destination four miles ahead.

Shortly before the finish line we caught up with Jenny and Morven from Tayside who did a superb ten day ride, completely unsupported, from Blair Atholl.

Through the gate, quick photos then it was a well deserved bucket for the horses who certainly looked very tired by now and Leon had the champers cooling for the rest of us. Molly’s team came in an hour later, while Libby and Lou arrived at 10:45 after a three day gallop around the mountains to the north. We spent a convivial evening, over a superb meal cooked by Libby’s friend Maudie, swapping horror stories about bogs, precipices and locked gates.

Next morning we each spent an hour with Alan (he is a keen cyclist - the ladies say he has nice thighs) measuring and scoring our routes.

We assembled that evening for more jollification and the presentation. Somehow we won, the Silver Boot, and the privilege of organising it next year. The destination? Mar Lodge probably, see you there??

Many thanks to Libby for her excellent hospitality, Mary, Janet, Roger and Leon for superb companionship, and of course the real stars, Bobby, Solo, Hunter and Bella.

PS. Photos of Simon, Mary, Janet, Roger and Leon’s 2003 Silver Boot trip are on the ‘Links” page on this website.