It’s official: having walked the West Highland Way back in April of last year, Paul, Nathanael and I are this October set to pick up where we left off at Fort William and walk the Great Glen Way to Inverness.
It seemed fitting, therefore, to continue another journey in preparation for what will be the second longest walk I have ever undertaken — 71 miles to the West Highland Way’s 96. I had already walked from Carnoustie to Arbroath along the Angus Coastal Path, and had always wanted to attempt the next leg to Montrose.
According to Google, that’s a distance of just 12.5 miles along the A92, and should take no longer than four and a half hours to complete on foot. I, however, would be walking along the coast, a far more convoluted route that follows the contours of Arbroath’s Seaton Cliffs for the first few miles and then departs from the shoreline to accommodate various agricultural sites along the way. That said, I didn’t see it taking that much longer than six hours, all in.
As such, I couldn’t have been more relaxed about it. The journey from Arbroath to Montrose would be the furthest I had walked since Kinlochleven to Fort William the previous year, and yet I thought nothing of undertaking it without the slightest bit of foresight or training. I rose late, at nine, and wasn’t actually on the path until the back of eleven, once I had taken the X7 to Arbroath Bus Station and bought a cup of coffee for a liquid breakfast. I hadn’t even packed lunch, assuming that I’d pick something up along the way.
Although I’d been heading north along High Street since leaving the station, via the Co-op for a bottle of water, I didn’t consider my journey started until I’d reached Victoria Park — at that point the furthest I’d been from the town centre in this direction. Arbroath is by no means a big place, but between the harbour, the Abby and the town’s small shopping centre I had always contained myself within its limits. Arbroath is, after all, home to Pleasureland — and besides, I’d been warned off the infamously treacherous Seaton Cliffs since I was a child, and some of those negative connotations had apparently stuck.
There are three possible walking routes that lead northwards out of Arbroath — all in sight of one another, and neither providing an obvious edge over the others. Closest to the sea runs the esplanade, with its weather shelters and parked cars; next is a small path that snakes between the other two, rising and falling with the hillside; while I took the higher-most route along a row of surprisingly grand houses that enjoyed uninterrupted views of the shoreline — currently exposed at low tide. I watched as a man spat on the grass beside the path, only to apologise moments later as he walked by. And that was Arbroath.
It was a busier day than I had been expecting. I had barely joined the Angus Coastal Path proper when I saw three teenagers sunbathing in the long grass, a family of potholers encouraging their youngest member up the side of a cliff, and a visiting Frenchman taking in the Scottish scenery. His name was Michelle and he was from Lille (if I heard him correctly); our paces matched so that every time one of us stopped to snap a photo or tie a shoelace the other soon caught up. He was friendly enough, and we engaged in episodic conversation with every encounter, but I was more interested in the dolphins that appeared intermittently along the coast, and I think it may have showed. I never saw him again after Carlingheugh Bay.
Although forecast for sunshine, and at times really quite warm, it wasn’t long until the local climate remembered itself and opened the floodgates to compensate. I hadn’t dressed for rain — kitted out in a pair of skinny jeans and a hoodie I’d barely dressed for the outdoors — but thankfully the precipitation proved refreshing rather than penetrating. I had to keep stopping to change the lens on my camera — the default lens for scenery; the zoom lens for dolphins — and though I managed to keep most of the rain off I inadvertently soaked the latter in the remnants of my caramel latte while trying to juggle all the attachments. An hour had passed and I’d barely left Arbroath. I was beginning to wish I’d set off earlier than I had.
Like everywhere else I had been recently, including sections of the Isle of May, the higher ground surrounding Carlingheugh Bay was forested in a dense covering of Giant Hogweed, a plant known to cause burns and blistering when in combination with sunlight. I chose to descend onto the flower-free beach itself, past a small campsite beneath The Three Sisters where the resident campers were sheltering from the drizzle, and over a conglomerate of stones and shingle towards the seismic red sandstone cliffs at the northern end of the bay. It was hard going, and it wasn’t until I finally reached the other side that I was able to make out the hidden staircase back up onto the path. I promised myself a drink of water when I reached the top, rations be damned, and began my ascent.
I could see white buildings in the distance, shining invitingly from the opposite headland, and quietly hoped that they might signal a settlement of sufficient size to justify the presence of a shop or perhaps even a cafe. A sign pointed one and a half miles to Auchmithie, and I doubled my pace as the path took me further inland to circumvent a couple of private enclosures. No longer on the lookout for dolphins, I stowed my camera away and pressed on, eventually alighting onto Ethie Street and catching sight of The But ‘n’ Ben, a handsome and lively little hotel which unfortunately didn’t have a table to spare. Offered a consolatory Coke and a seat on the sofas, I took a moment to rest, re-hydrate and reassure myself that there would be food somewhere, even if I had to farm it myself.
Rather than return to the coast as expected the path after Auchmithie veered left, taking me into Ethie itself. The path stopped at the entrance to a field, and for the next mile or so I walked almost cross-country along overgrown tractor tracks and saturated grassland before picking up pavement again at the other end. It was hard to be sure where Ethie started, and every time I passed a house or an outbuilding I was left to wonder whether that was it, or if the village proper was still to come. I could see Ethie Castle just off of the road, over a thatch of small trees, and determined that this had to be the full extent of Ethie even as I turned right and followed a lane demarcated for Ethie Mains. It was around here that I passed an unofficial sign pointing to Lunan Bay.
Stupidly, I hadn’t bothered to research the route at all, let alone pack directions or even a basic map of Scotland, assuming that this section of the Angus Coastal Path would be as straightforward as that which had connected Arbroath to Carnoustie. However, I did recognise the name Lunan Bay from parental anecdotes of family holidays past and for some reason assumed it to be roughly equidistant between Arbroath and Montrose. Worryingly, the next official way-marker pointed in three directions, none of them to Lunan Bay. Instead I had the option of turning back the way I’d come, turning left to some place beginning with a ‘P’ or continuing on to Inverkeilor.
I opted for the latter, on the basis that it had been trailed for a few miles now and therefore must surely be of some importance to the route, but a short distance later found myself unceremoniously deposited onto a deserted street with no further directions to choose from. Still reluctant to backtrack, I decided to return to the coast using one of the various unnamed roads leading out of town and, hopefully, presumably, pick the Angus Coastal Path up again there. I stopped to ask an elderly dog-walker which way it was to the sea, only to be directed back to Lunan Bay and told that I was still considerably closer to Arbroath than Montrose. I had by this point been walking for nearly five hours, and yet this woman was suggesting I had barely walked six miles. What the..?
I doubted her dubious directions, still certain that I’d walked further than her pedestrian estimates and long passed Lunan Bay, but was too polite to ignore her advice and strike out in an altogether different direction, so I set off down an anonymous road and hoped for the best. I was starving, tired and essentially lost, so couldn’t help but try to formulate some sort of Plan B should I never make it out of the interchangeable Angus countryside. I could call a taxi, I told myself, but couldn’t imagine what I might say over the phone to dispatch. “Where am I, you ask? Well, I’m in Angus. Near some Highland Cows.” I knew that the train didn’t stop between Arbroath and Montrose from many trips to Aberdeen, and only had two £20 notes which I wasn’t sure any local bus service would be able or willing to break.
What felt like an hour later I finally reached Nethere Dysart, a B-road that also doubled as route one of the National Cycle Network. I stopped a cyclist and asked where she’d come from, desperate for someone with a reflective vest and without a dog to tell me that my chosen destination was at least physically possible, if not overly plausible. Nobody else I’d spoken to had actually made the journey themselves, including two fit-looking day-trippers that had merely stopped at Carlingheugh Bay. She was cycling to Arbroath from Stonehaven, and happily contradicted my last contact by suggesting that I was actually only a few miles out of Montrose, if I stuck to bike route as she had. Knowing that I could walk that distance in just over two hours, and therefore still make it to Montrose before the last bus, I decided to abandon the Angus Coastal Path, wherever it was, and stick to the side of the road instead.
After a short distance I finally happened across Red Castle at Lunan, and — even more excitingly — somewhere to eat on the bay itself. Lunan Bay Diner is located just off of the road, opposite Blair-Imrie Hew A, and it was open and still serving and full of people still in contact with the outside world. I ordered a cheese and haggis toastie, a hazelnut latte and an overpriced bar of organic chocolate and retired to a window seat to watch the car park in jealous wonder. I got speaking to an Aberdonian couple at the next table who were house-sitting for their daughter while she was on holiday, and who had passed me earlier in their car and couldn’t believe that I had walked all that way, and still had so far left to go. I was pretty amazing, I thought, wasn’t I?
I had barely left Lunan Bay Diner when another couple pulled over and offered me a lift, if not to Montrose then at least a few miles further up the road. I thanked them for their kind offer and politely declined, then declined again when they insisted, before explaining that I was actually out here on purpose with the express intention of actually doing it on foot, thankyouverymuch. I watched them drive away, cursing my senseless determination as they went, knowing that I’d soon regret my stubbornness. By this point the rain had stopped completely and the sun was out in force — sun cream was among the many items I hadn’t bothered packing, and I could already feel my face beginning to burn.
The view, however, was sublime, and as I crossed the railway I approached one of my favourite vistas in all of Scotland. I used to go to university in Aberdeen, and on regular bus and occasional car journeys to and from the city I had always marvelled at Nether Dysart Farms and the railway bridge that connects it to the next section of headland. The geography from my current position didn’t make sense, and I couldn’t for the life of me divine how I could have seen it from the motorway, which at this point was nowhere to be seen, but I still found myself delighting in the drama of the landscape. I took a few photos, safe in the knowledge that I was no longer lost or hopelessly behind schedule, and then set off for Fishtown of Usan, the next and only settlement before Ferryden.
The worst was by no means over, however, as the next six miles very nearly proved my undoing. I’ve always found road to be the hardest surface to walk on, bar sand or snow or molten lava, and as the cycle path diverted from Nethere Dysart Road on what I could only assume to be a pointless detour designed to make up the miles I seriously considered ignoring it and continuing on the most direct route possible. Like Ethie, Usan seemed to be an umbrella name for a cluster of businesses and residences rather than a village with any discernible centre. Usan was close to replacing Guardbridge as my safeword, a cry for mercy that stemmed from an earlier walk from Dundee to St Andrews. Eventually, however, I set eyes on Ferryden — at least what I hoped was Ferryden — and a mile beyond it, just over the River Esk, Montrose itself. I let out an audible whoop, looked around, and satisfied that there was nobody within earshot sang myself a little song of encouragement. I was very nearly almost there. Just three small miles to go.
I was feeling so optimistic that I stopped short of Ferryden and skewed right, in almost the opposite direction, towards Scurdie Ness Lighthouse. I’m a sucker for a good lighthouse, and had been eyeing Scurdie Ness since Usan where its upper reaches were just visible over the hills. According to the sign it was just over a kilometre away — not even a mile! — along a grassy verge at the side of a paddock of black and white Ben & Jerrys cows. Unexpectedly, I ended up running it, as the cows pursued me along the side of their enclosure — either mad with BSE or badly mistaken in thinking I was there to feed them with my zoom lens and extortionate chocolate. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen cows charge before, but they’re surprisingly intimidating pack animals, and every time they closed the distance between us my eyes were drawn to the ridiculous little wire fence separating me from several tons of angry, hungry beef.
At the lighthouse I finally rejoined the Angus Coastal Path, which must have either lead me completely astray or inconspicuously crossed my path at some point after Lunan Bay. I also noted an information board, and stopped to read about the marine life that calls the River Esk and Montrose Basin home. Apparently the dolphins I’d seen earlier — and had regularly watched feeding in the River Tay — were actually harbour porpoises, though bottle-nose dolphins were apparently known to frequent the area too. From the illustrations at least they seemed to be a little more active than their porpoise cousins, and I stared out into the glistening waves in the hope of finally seeing something breach the surface. No such luck.
By the time I made it across the bridge into Montrose I was exhausted, footsore and a little bit sunburned. I was experiencing stabbing pains in the back of my left knee whenever I extended it for the next step, and the toenails on my right foot were proving unusually and inexplicably sensitive, too. I quietly feared that I might lose a toenail or two, and therefore have to amputate a leg. Desperate for a seat, I stopped for what felt like the umpteenth time that day to ask for directions, in the shadow of enormous yellow tankers moored in the harbour, before trundling along the high street until I reached the terminus for the X7 back to Dundee. For want of a Costa or Starbucks to kill the time until the next coach, I limped across the square to a Subway which seemed to have filled that particular niche with uncharacteristically comfortable couches, and reached out to the Twittersphere to reassure the world that I was still alive.
Without a doubt, Arbroath to Montrose is one of the hardest walks I have ever done. Initially, I thought I was simply unfit, but considering the consistency with which I met my targets once I joined the cycle route I can only conclude that the Angus Coastal Path is considerably longer and more challenging than anticipated. Nearly a week later I am still feeling a slight but noticeable tenderness in my legs, which doesn’t bode particularly well for the 25-mile first day with which we are planning to kick-off the Great Glen Way. I am obviously going to have to keep at it — first by walking the same route in reverse, from Montrose to Arbroath, sticking this time to the coastal path throughout with a bag full of provisions and plenty of time to spare, and then perhaps with the next leg to Stonehaven.
The path must go on.