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November 10, 2001
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A Long Haired Highland Cattle stares blankly at passers-by. One of many sites to see along the way for ambitious "Monroe Baggers". (Erik Olsen/
The Perfect Fire
Finding Warmth in the Scottish Highlands

By Erik Olsen

G L E N   C O E   Scotland,  
— It was about two miles outside of Glen Coe when the hail started. It came down heavy, a few of the stones as large as ping pong balls, and fell upon the road (and our heads) with a sound as hard and sharp as gunfire.

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The 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 thought.

Dangerous Munros

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.

The mountains 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.

Rambling Man

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 buffalo ranch.

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.

"If you 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 anew.

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 upbringing.

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.

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