trailhead we were seeking was not far; another two miles ahead, but
the fierceness of the hail and the sudden and absolute disappearance
into the clouds of the mountaintops we'd come to enjoy, convinced us
that it was time to find someplace warm.
We found a hotel
called the Clachaig Inn, an old horse-changing depot for Scottish
riders that had been converted into a lodge, mostly for climbers.
There was no other place for miles, so we decided it would be a good
place to stop. We made our way along a single-lane road, where a
herd of long-haired Highland cattle stared at us like hippie cows
caught in a permanent drug-induced stupor. Further up, a
boulder-filled stream gargled on one side, while on the other, rose
the sheer cliffs of Coire nan Lochan. Such a strange name, I
All around us were places with unusual and unpronounceable names:
the Aonach Eagach Ridge, the Buachaille Etive Beag,
Allt Coire Gabhail, and Loch Achtriochtan. It is as if
the people who spoke the strange language from which these words
come — Gaelic — wanted very much to keep it to themselves, like a
secret tongue developed between friends.
around us were not - by most standards - very high. The highest, Ben
Nevis, stands at just 4406 feet, and is the tallest in all of
Britain. They were, however, formidable. Known locally as "Munros"
they rise from the valley floor like monstrous citadels, providing
those with a heart for adventure with ample challenge and danger.
Twelve people died here last year attempting to "bag a Munro",
according to the local constable.
But we were not attempting
anything difficult. My fiancée Liza and I had come merely to take a
hike, a "ramble" as it is called here, across the Scottish Highlands
to a place known as the Lost Valley, famed as the hiding place where
the Clan MacDonald retreated when attacked by other clans. The
valley was recommended to us by a friend as an ideal place to
experience the beauty and remoteness of the Highlands.
The Scots and the Brits are quite fond of rambling. The same week
we arrived, in fact, the British Parliament passed a new law that
would allow free passage for ramblers on private lands. Such a law
seemed unusual. Nothing quite like it could be passed in the US, I
don't think. Imagine Ted Turner being told by the government that he
has to allow troupes of dread-locked backpackers to amble around his
We entered the lodge and found it nearly
empty. We took a table in a humid, smoky-smelling room where the
ceilings were supported by gnarled, knotted tree trunks. The bar
shelves were lined 20 feet across with various brands of Scotch
whisky, the real Scottish stuff with names like Blairmhor, Knockdhu,
Clynelish, Balmenach, and the local favorite, Glencoe. The latter
came in a bottle the size of a fire extinguisher.
Needful of Fire
It was still early, and although there were others in the lodge
enjoying the decadent pleasures of an English breakfast, we felt as
if we had the place to ourselves. It felt nice just to be drying
out. What the place needed, though, was a good fire. I noticed an
old iron stove in the corner and went to the bar and asked the
barman if he'd mind if I started one.
"Not a'tall," he said,
wiping dry with a rag the inside of a pint glass. I'd hardly started
crumpling up paper, laying a few twigs down, and then some heavier
logs, before the barman approached and took over.
don't mind," he said, taking the piece of wood I held in my hand
like a parent removing a dangerous object from a child's grasp. "Let
me show you the makings of the perfect fire." I stood back and
watched as he removed everything I'd put into the stove and started
The Magic of Peat
He took a handful of kindling and arranged it into a birds nest
on the bottom. He then opened a nearby box and removed four black
clumps of something that looked to me a lot like hairy dirt. I asked
him what it was.
"Peat," he said, handing me a fist-sized
clod. The peat was hard, almost as solid as stone, and had pale
strings of plant root worming through it. It smelled musty and
earthy. Like dirt. It didn't seem like something that would burn.
"Ah, you'll be surprised," he said. "Once this catches, it'll burn
hotter than the devil's den."
He lit the kindling, and a
short time later, the peat caught. The air filled with a pungent
aroma, sulphurous and sweet, like burning Fourth of July fireworks
snakes. It was a harsh, but pleasant smell that stirred memories of
my days as a young pyro.
From a nearby bucket that looked to
be 500 years old, he withdrew a few chunks of coal, and carefully
laid them over the burning peat. "You've got to be careful where you
put the coal so it catches the most heat. Otherwise, you'll end up
with nothin'. A dead fire." I held one of the hunks in my hand and
turned it over curiously. It occurred to me just then that I had
never before held a lump of coal, an ignorance borne of a California
The Perfect Fire
Finally, he placed the logs I'd tried to use in the first place.
"Larch. An excellent burn," he said in a voice I swear belonged to
Liam Neeson. "There," he said, clapping his hands together. "Now,
that's how you do it. This'll burn for 'alf a day b'fore it needs
stokin'." He went back to work behind the bar, and I watched the
fire burn. It's delicious warmth soon filled the room, and we
decided to stay for awhile. We hung around for the rest of the day
eating steak and potato pie and drinking pints of Guinness. He was
right. The fire burned hot and perfectly for over six hours.
Later, as my wife and I walked along the road back to the
hotel, I mused silently on the need here for the perfect fire. The
foul weather and the region's remoteness make fire indispensable, a
key facet of one's existence; and yet for us, it was just a nice
convenience. Still, how wonderful it was to be comforted by the
fire's warmth when coming in from the cold.