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18 Apr 2024

Field Notes: Keeping close to nature's heart

On the eve of 'John Muir Day' (an annual celebration of Muir's birthday 21 April 1838) and near the end of a year-long internship at the Trust, Heather Graham embarked on an extraordinary journey aiming to visit all our sites in one week.

JMT Roadtrip - Heather Graham

As the end of my internship inched closer, I wanted to do something special to mark the occasion and ‘go out with a bang’. What better way to celebrate the incredible work of the John Muir Trust than to undertake an epic pilgrimage across the country to visit each of the wild places we looked after during my time here.

After mapping out the best route between each site - and packing up our little hired campervan with a plethora of pasta, snacks and plenty of water – we started our journey northbound.

Unfortunately, as we reached Inverness and night began to roll in, we realised that one of the headlights of the van was broken. A great start.

This put quite the spanner in our plans and meant our driving time was limited to daylight hours, preventing us from reaching our first stop on time. However, with only a two and a half hour drive the next morning, we made up good time and arrived to a pretty windy Sandwood Bay.


We were lulled into a false sense of security with a fairly easy walk from Blairmore car park along the moorland track, full of enthusiasm for our first hike. But once we reached the open dune grassland, Storm Kathleen made her entrance. After a very brief dip of our feet in the Atlantic Ocean the weather became much wilder, so we decided to begin our very arduous journey back, pushing against the 60mph winds. I have never experienced wind so strong and genuinely questioned at points whether it was safe for two fair weather walkers and a small Spanish street dog to be out in this weather. Thankfully, after an incredibly gruelling walk, we made it back to the car park in one piece and we headed off to stop number two before we were blown off the hillside.

Sandwood Bay 1 - Heather Graham


A short drive later, we arrived at the base of the magnificent Quinag. With the wind still as wild and light beginning to dip, we decided to hold off on our exploration of the site with the hope that the weather would improve by the next day. After figuring out the direction of wind using a towel as a makeshift flag, we parked our little van in hopefully the least wind battered direction.

Unfortunately, the next morning, although sunnier, the wind continued to rage around us. In an effort to prevent a repeat of our previous days mis-adventures, we decided to take a very short wander around the base of Quinag. After admiring the variety of moss and lichen species blanketing the undergrowth and peering into the small pools of water that dotted the peatland to search for any frogs and newts, we headed back across to the car park and a little way up the hill, getting a gorgeous view of the landscape around us. Before long the wind hurried us back down the hill to the van and we decided to let nature win this battle and headed onto our third destination.

Quinag - Heather Graham


Despite the wild weather outside, in the protected safety of the van the sun beamed through the windows and warmed us right up so we decided to take the scenic coastal route down to Skye. The views along the coast were quite spectacular and we arrived at the base of Bla Bheinn by dinner time, catching the most gorgeous sunset over the mountains.

The next morning the storm was begining to catch up with us, making for damp and overcast conditions. But with no wind and only light rain, we figured it was safe enough for a good walk along Allt na Dunaiche up to the waterfall. I was unsure as to whether there were purported magical properties of good luck or eternal beauty to this particular river, but I felt compelled to splash my face with the crisp water just in case. 

Skye, Bla Bheinn - Heather Graham


Next we headed south to catch the ferry to Mallaig, however, as we boarded, disaster struck. A crew member informed us one of our tyres was flat. And on inspection, it was very flat. So instead of arriving in Mallaig, parking up and catching the last ferry to Knoydart, our plans became very much shifted.

At the Mallaig harbour we battled with the van to change the tyre to the emergency spare before calling a local garage who unfortunately could only see us the next morning. Resigning to our fate, we embraced the unusually sunny evening and treated ourselves to some fish and chips and headed to a nearby beach, with the hope of reaching Knoydart the next day instead.

On spending the following morning in the garage, we found out that all four of our tyres were low pressure and a previous puncture repair was needing re-done. After all was patched up, we found ourselves with a couple hours before the next ferry so had a poke around the shops and a hearty bowl of Cullen skink before heading down to the harbour to catch our small boat across the water.

Mallaig harbour - Heather Graham

Once we arrived, we made our way straight to the bunkhouse to settle in. The promise of a wood burning stove, a hot cup of tea and a warm shower felt like pure luxury after the few wild days we’d had on the road so far! After chatting to a few of our bunkhouse mates we all headed down to the ‘most remote pub in Scotland’ for dinner, having a lovely evening chatting away and sharing our hiking tales from the previous few days.

We started the next day with an early morning to make up for lost time, packed up our bags and readied ourselves for the hike across to the other side of the peninsula. The sun was shining and for a moment you could have been convinced that it was midsummer.

After taking a number of wrong turns in the woodland and getting slightly lost across the wet heath, we eventually found ourselves on the right track following Allt-Coire Torr an Asgaill. Once we reached the end of the valley we climbed to the smallest peak and marvelled at the view down into the valley, surrounded by Ladhar Bheinn and Coire Dhorrcail. Being completely in the wild with no roads, paths, cars, pylons, or other humans for as far as the eye could see was something truly peaceful and awe inspiring. After a quick refuel of lunch by the river, we realised time was ticking on and we needed to hurry ourselves along to make the last ferry back to Mallaig.

Knoydart - View from Coire Dhorrcail, Heather Graham


On returning to our van, we headed down the road to our next stop in Glen Nevis, spotting a number of magnificent red deer along the way. With only two days left and four wild places to go, we started our day at Steall Gorge early the next morning.

After a very picturesque walk over and down through the rocky mountainside with gorgeous views back up the glen, we made it to the open grassy meadow and could see the impressive waterfall cascading in the distance.

As we got closer, we started to notice the brave individuals crossing the notorious wire bridge across River Nevis. After a brief rest at the base of Steall Ban waterfall, we headed back to find the carpark now completely packed with other keen explorers starting their adventures and make our way to the second stop of the day.

Steall Falls - Heather Graham


As we arrived at the Braes of Foss Loop car park, the rain makes an appearance once again, so we donned our raincoats and headed off. Our legs felt very grateful for the easy walk around the base of the stunning Schiehallion.

As we took in the sights, I reminisced about the previous time I visited – it was also rainy and overcast – and I admired seeing the hard work from all the partner organisations to restore the areas of mountain woodland here. After our leisurely stroll we hopped back into our van and headed further south to stop number seven.

Schiehallion - Heather Graham


The next day brought with it a burst of summer sunshine which filled the morning with enthusiasm and energy to complete our epic travels. However, as we began our journey towards Glenlude, we drove once more towards darker skies.

A brief wander up Glenlude Hill brought us a lovely view of the valley and we could see all the new trees that had been planted the previous day. Seeing the success of this community engagement was very special and reminded me of how important it is. But before long the rain caught up with us and we hurried back down to the van for the last stretch of the adventure.

Glenlude - Heather Graham

Lake District

Driving down the motorway the sun started to shine once more giving us a false sense of hope that we might end our adventure with a dry walk, but on arrival we found ourselves in a damp and overcast Helvellyn. Although no longer under our management, it was kept on the planned route as it had been in our care when I started my role a year ago, and I was keen to see our legacy in person.

Our first attempted walk was cut unexpectedly short when the path suddenly submerged into the water. This was a brutal reminder of the article I wrote last autumn about the disasterous impact that flooding has here in the Lake District, and how important continuing to be a part of the Thirlmere Resilience Partnership is. 

We headed over to option number two and began a very slippy climb up the hillside, granting us impressive views over Thirlmere to Helvellyn itself. However, as the weather got more threatening, we decided to admit defeat to the whims of the wild and head back down. We only just managed to get to the safety of the van before the heavens opened to release a huge rainstorm, bringing our adventures to its finale.

Helvellyn - Heather Graham

On arriving back home the rain had lifted and the sun had begun to blaze, creating a beautiful rainbow arching over my house. I couldn’t help but feel that mother nature was praising us for our resilience and determination to complete our epic feat.

After unpacking the van, loading the washing machine with many pairs of damp socks and cooking up the biggest pot of macaroni cheese, I relaxed into my home comforts and felt truly in awe of what we had accomplished.

JMT Roadtrip 1 - Heather Graham

I feel humbled that not only did I have the great privilege to go and visit all of these incredible wild places, but also to have contributed in my own small way over the last twelve months to the work that goes into caring for them.

It is a bittersweet feeling to know that my time with the Trust is coming to its conclusion, but I am eternally grateful for all the experiences I have had and know I move forward with pride, knowledge and strength and that I will cherish these memories for many, many years to come.

Keep close to Nature's heart... and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean...

John Muir quoted by Samuel Hall Young in Alaska Days with John Muir (1915)

Lichen at Glenlude - Heather Graham

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