Ye’ll tak’ the high road and I’ll tak the low road
And I’ll be in Scotland afore ye
But me and my true love will never meet again
On the bonny, bonny banks of Loch Lomond
From “The Bonny Banks of Loch Lomond”
My name is Jim Burnham. I am a US photographer and I enjoy finding photographs in places I’ve never been before, with minimum preparation and a vague itinerary. This is a true Focus Trek from the Highlands of Scotland.
The traditional interpretation of “The Bonny Banks of Lock Lomond” goes something like this: Jailed and condemned to die for his support of Bonny Prince Charles in the war of 1745, a MacGregor penned this spiritual Scottish song while jailed in Carlisle, England. His friend, who was jailed with him was to be set free and would be taking the “high road” back home. Because he would be put to death outside his homeland, the Celtic myth insists MacGregor’s soul would return via the “low road”.
Our trip was not quite as dramatic (I was not imprisoned or killed, much), but it did start out rather inconveniently with our flight being delayed because of heavy thunderstorms in Toronto and a missed connecting flight to Glasgow.
Our new flight was booked to Heathrow with a connection via British Air to Glasgow. This resulted in my bag being “misplaced” at Heathrow. You know that one lonely bag you see going ’round and ’round at baggage claim? That was me. I didn’t get it back for another three days. I also needed to relearn how to drive a stick with my left hand from the right hand side of a car. I already have a manual at home, but this took some getting used to. I had it down within a couple days, though. And I found I can do roundabouts now. Not so 17 years ago.
And why do the roads seem a bit narrower in Scotland than in Northern England? Regardless, after my third trip to the UK, I managed to return my third rental car back without a scratch (at least no obvious ones, some were hidden by the caked on mud from the roadside trenches).
And those trenches! My fear? Having to give way for an oncoming car and bottoming out landing in one. They looked deceptively shallow. White knuckle rides were common, especially for my wife, who had a front row seat to all the hedgerow/rear-view mirror mash-ups.
Erin and I joined 12 other people in a magical place called Gargunnock House in the very southern border of the Scottish Highlands. The house sits just east of Gargunnock, a small village of around 1,000 people 12 miles West of Stirling. This rolling 400 acre estate is part of the Landmark Trust, which rents out these historic properties to help cover the cost of maintenance and restoration. Originally a Tower House built as a defensive post in the 16th century, it has been modified several times over the last 300 years into what you see today. The front is actually a more modern attachment (if you consider 18th century “modern”) to give the discombobulated elements a more unified look.
I easily could have photographed inside the house for days. It has its requisite dining room, study, parlor, library, kitchen. It has bedrooms scattered almost randomly around the house with room for up to 16 people. Weekly rates are very affordable at £845 ($1079). It’s in the middle of nowhere, though. That means spotty cell phone signals, if any. My best spot was in the lawn by the grazing meadow by the sheep. Oh, being Scotland, there are many sheep. But let’s get back to the house!
There are passageways to secret doors…
Creepy oil paintings (the eyes follow you) and mounted hunting trophies…
Servant bells (anyone who watched Downton Abbey recognizes these)
The place gives off an air like the previous residents simply picked up everything and left, maybe for the week,maybe for good, and you are just watching the place while they are gone. You get to use their dishes, sleep in their beds, and wander their maze of hallways and levels. But gads! They took their servants with them!
Like commoners, you have to cook and serve your own food. While that might seem quite “pedestrian” to the aristocracy, it was just fine with this group. They all knew each other. We weren’t all strangers. Well, I was for the most part, at the beginning. But when people tear themselves away from their screens, they tend to do something called talk. It may be foreign to some, and you don’t realize how much you really don’t need to know what everyone else you know is doing at every second until you are forced not to know. You still care, but your “likes” go into conversation and laughter instead of two dimensional glowing approvals with popping sounds.
There are still popping sounds, but it’s coming from the fire in the 18th century hearth.
There is history here. Who are these people in the oil paintings? Why does the foppish gentleman in one oil look eerily similar to the lady in the other painting? Did Chopin actually visit here? Did he do the puzzle with the dogs on it? Was HE the one who lost the last six pieces? The person who got up early on the last day to finish it wants to know. The same person I walked brazenly by in my underwear because I didn’t think anyone was actually going to get up early to finish that thing. I want to visit Chopin’s grave. I need to know if his cold, bony hands still clutch those last six pieces.
There was no bathroom near our bedroom, so my daily journey included a semi-secret door and a descent down a steep spiral stone staircase with a rope railing to the bathroom on the lower level. That’s kind of special.
The Hike Up Gargunnock Hill
By yon bonnie banks and by yon bonnie braes
Where the sun shines bright on Loch Lomond
Me and my true love were ever wont to gae
On the bonny, bonny banks of Loch Lomond
This traditional song was very meaningful as we were somewhat close to Loch Lomond (pronounced “Lock LOW-mon”). We even drove most of the way around it. More on that later.
From my secret cell phone spot by the sheep pasture, I spied the trailhead of Gargunnock Hill at Hillhead Farm on a satellite view of the area. (Not altered from Google, a true screenshot)
It snaked up the nearby hill to the south and before dinner one night I took a walk up to Hillhead Farm where I found the trailhead. My plan was to hike up to the top of the hill the next morning before sunrise. I tried to convince another guest to join me at 4am (sunrise was at 4:34am) but moved that to 4:30 to make it more palatable. We agreed that if he was not there at 4:30 that I would go up alone…and I did. I guess that’s a little much to ask anyone. But I have to get up there before sunrise because the possibility of the sky exploding with light is best right before sunrise and up to an hour after.
My trek took me along the pastures of Hillhead Farm, through a few unlocked gates. As it was “lambing” season, I made sure not to upset the herds camped out along the trenches and trees along the trail. Scotland has “Right to Roam” laws so as long as I was staying on the trail and not disturbing the flock more than by just walking by them, I was ok. One locked gate had me nervous, but the law is pretty clear that for recreation or exercise, I am within my rights to wander across private land. Fires, logging, hunting, and off-roading in a truck would be forbidden, which is probably why the gate was locked. I was hoofing it, like my furry friends.
I had no idea how far this hike would be, but I was determined to make it to the top along the switchbacks. It was an easy climb along established two-tracks. Of course, I stopped every 30 or 40 feet for the wild Foxglove and ferns.
I looked back on Stirling where the sun was rising and silhouetting the hills and the Wallace Monument on Abbey Craig, finished in 1869 to honor Scottish hero William Wallace.
Lots of sheep. I called them my “sheeple”. They were generally not amused.
O Flower of Scotland,
When will we see
Your like again,
That fought and died for,
Your wee bit Hill and Glen
(From the Flower of Scotland, the Scottish National Anthem)
They blanket the hillside. Like a wool…you know…blanket. Popping out of trenches and looking at me disapprovingly. They followed me from the front sometimes.
The weather was perfect. Not too cold, not too warm. Not too clear. Not too cloudy. But I had sandals on, not my hiking shoes. So I had only shorts, a t-shirt and light jacket that I bought the day before in Stirling. If it did start raining. I didn’t have much shelter. These are not hiking sandals. I still feel my feet as I write. But my hiking shoes were in my bag, with all my other clothes (and tripod), which were probably still having a spin in baggage claim.
The wee birdies sing and the wild flowers spring
And in sunshine the waters are sleeping
But the broken heart it kens nae second spring again
And the waefu’ may cease frae their greetin’
I finally made it to the top by 7am. One shelter and one outbuilding marked the near top. One small hill to climb and I got to see the cell phone towers that strain to reach their signal out here. I had 4G at the top. But I was too busy to care.
My plan was to make it back down to the house by 8am. I figured I had walked close to 3 miles up the hill. I could probably make it back down there in an hour. But there are always photos. Best laid plans are not guaranteed. But I did make it, exactly at 8am. And it was about 3 miles, 6 miles in all, in sandals. Ow.
I did catch a glimpse of the mythical “black rabbit” of Gargunnock House. Wanted for wanton destruction of garden plants, and general lasciviousness and possible collusion with Russian Racoon Dogs. He came out of nowhere, paused, lit a cigarette, then looked at me with a stare that said “I don’t care if you see me, but you might not survive the hike back.” We will not risk another frontal assault. That rabbit’s dynamite.
The group kidnapped my wife and took her to various Scotland related attractions while I waited in vain at the house for my bag to arrive (Spoiler: It didn’t). I had some time to do weird things with champagne glasses in the kitchen. However, most of the time I spent going through all the photos from the hike.
There is a footpath that connects the house with the village proper. It’s about a mile into Gargunnock, a sleepy little place with the nicest people EVER. This gentleman entertained us with a traditional Scottish ditty at the Gargunnock Inn.
Our evenings were all cooked in the house by two or up to twelve people in the group. Chicken, salmon, lobster, crab, champagne and wine. (Not all on one night, please, we’re not gluttons). The sun didn’t go down until 10pm and that’s when dinner usually ended. Then it was into the parlor for whiskey, pleasantries and jovial debates about the day’s pheasant hunt, the commonwealth and the possibility of a peasant uprising.
I’m only kidding, we drank beer too.
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