It was late one October evening when Ness Knight set up camp near Ardvreck Castle. The castle is a ruin, standing by a loch in the desolate north-west reaches of the Highlands. Some say it is haunted: the lairds who built the castle, the story goes, ran out of money halfway through its construction and sought help from Satan. He agreed – asking for one of the family’s daughters in return. Hearing of the deal, the girl flung herself into the loch, and is said to linger in tortured spectral form.
“I was alone, almost in pitch dark,” Ness recalls. “Then, suddenly, there was this shriek, like a four-year-old screaming in terror.” Was it the ghost? “The shriek was followed by bellowing and loud, desperate grunts. What had actually happened was that all the stags and does from the mountains had come down to the loch for water, and they were strutting their stuff and checking each other out.”
The marine life was so rich, and yet at my feet there was all this microplastic
They didn’t quieten down until midnight and resumed the noise in the morning. “The amount of testosterone and fire in them was incredible. I’d never experienced anything like it, and it gave me an amazing feel for that raw, rugged Scottish wilderness.”
We often think of the British Isles as tame, wildlife-wise, and crowded. But neither is true of the Highlands, and that was part of Ness’s justification for going there. She is an adventurer, having crossed the harsh Namib desert solo, paddle-boarded 1,000 miles of the Missouri river, and cycled the breadth of Bolivia without spending any money – but in exploring wild Scotland, she believed, she could show her online followers that you don’t have to take a long-haul flight to go adventuring.
Ness worked her way clockwise around the north of Scotland, starting at Glencoe and moving on to Skye. From there she went to the Outer Hebrides, visiting the hilly, weather-battered island of Barra, before heading back to the mainland.
Running and cycling, she then criss-crossed the north of Scotland, heading back to the north of the Highlands before going south, through the more forested parts of the region, and finishing up in Inverness.
She intends to make a documentary of the trip from her gigabytes of video – with similar plans for her forthcoming tours of Ireland, Wales and England – and has plenty of stories to fill it. Ness has more experience of extreme weather than most of us, and chose to visit Scotland in the autumn so as to avoid the cold of winter as well as the height of the midge season, but says she had never seen anything like the rain that assailed her as she hunted for a bothy east of Ullapool.
Ness had been cycling that day with a mountain biker friend. They made a hardy duo, but were no match for a savage change of weather. “There was gale-force wind and torrential rain – the entire mountainside was river. The entire thing was streaming with water a couple of inches deep.”
Somehow they found the bothy. “By the time we got there we were utterly bedraggled. Frozen. Our extremities were blocks of wood, with no feeling in them. To just shelter in the bothy, get a fire going, warm up and make some food, that was heaven.”
For many people, though, this kind of weather is just another facet of the place they call home. Ness spent much of her time speaking to the residents of its remotest parts about the challenges of the 21st century. Modernity has wrought rapid, sometimes painful change here, bringing more tourists (and tourist money) than ever before, but taking with it much of the stability that these old communities depend on.
A case in point: the 21-year-old crofter, Ruaridh, whose father owns a huge swathe of land on the Outer Hebrides. They are an old family of crofters, but Ruaridh’s brother, like many rural-born Scots of his generation, has chosen to find a living elsewhere. This means Ruaridh will eventually take over stewardship of the land, but it will be extremely difficult to manage.
“A huge number of the farms are going to the birds, in his words,” says Ness. “There’s no one to take them over because a lot of the youngsters are deciding now that they want to go to head off to the mainland to go to university or get a job. They’ve got social media, they’ve got TV – there’s this whole new world opening up, and to most them, being a farmer on the Outer Hebrides is becoming less appealing.”
There is hope in the form of the small number of mainlanders who have decided to take jobs as crofters. Ness spoke to a woman who did just that, bringing her young family with her. At first, she had tried to set up a bed and breakfast, and struggled to gain acceptance among the locals.
When she was unexpectedly offered the chance to buy some land, though, and started working it, “everything clicked into place for her. She felt really at home, and from that moment onwards she thought that going out there was the best decision she’d ever made.” With plenty of land to explore and a paucity of good internet connectivity, the crofter’s two sons have spent much of their childhoods outdoors.
There was much more. Paddle-boarding in a storm, swordmaking with a rural craftsman, snorkelling with a stranger she’d met in a car park, seeing otters and eagles and starfish and seals – and plastic. Ness remembers with sadness an otherwise pristine beach on the Isle of Mull that was dotted with little pieces of plastic.
“I picked up all the little pieces I could find in a two to three-metre-square area,” she says, “and my pockets were full in 20 minutes. It was a real shocker, because the marine life was so rich, and yet at my feet there was all this microplastic.”
Scotland, Ness says, is “choking” – a vision that’s scarier than any number of Highlands ghosts.
Merrell is proud to have supported Ness’s Scottish adventure. Begin your adventure at merrell.co.uk