Peter Wright has a favourite phrase: “Imagine you’re a raindrop.”
Although it sounds like a pretentious instruction to a drama student, it’s actually the 63-year-old outdoor enthusiast’s way of defining his big project: the Scottish watershed walk.
Whichever way that raindrop travels on its route to the sea, be it the North Sea or Atlantic Ocean, defines which side of the watershed it landed on. And Mr Wright, a Duke of Edinburgh’s Award leader from Linlithgow in West Lothian, made it his goal to follow the route that divides the west-flowing water of Scotland from the eastern-draining land – all 1,200km (745 miles) of it, from the English border to the north coast.
The result of Mr Wright’s travels through the forests, bogs, moors and peaks of Scotland is Ribbon of Wildness – Discovering the Watershed of Scotland, the book he published last September and which he has been promoting with interviews with the BBC, STV and with blogs and Twitter feeds.
TGO’s Chris Townsend, the Mountaineering Council of Scotland’s president, said “The watershed certainly sounds like an opportunity to conserve a huge swathe of wild land running the length of Scotland, and a superb and challenging backpacking route.
“Peter Wright has done lovers of wild places a great service in providing the first comprehensive description of the watershed.”
Peter Wright’s raindrop leitmotif continued in his BBC interview in which he described tackling the route over nine months, with 63 days on the hoof.
Walking the watershed of Scotland in 2005 was, he said, achieved in the nick of time, as angina and the need for a triple heart bypass came soon after what he called ‘this epic venture’.
Peter Wright has also suggested setting up a Ribbon of Wildness Trust to help protect the land he walked through on his venture.
He proposes voluntary wardens to look after each of the five ‘marches’ into which he broke down the route, and the establishment of a charity to raise awareness of the watershed.
Interviewed on STV about the germ of his walk, Mr Wright said: “I went to the map library in Edinburgh, contacted geographical organisations and academics, but could find no definitive reference to a Scottish watershed.”
Similarly, he told the BBC: “One of the few subjects I was interested in at school was geography, so I reckoned Scotland must have a watershed.
“I wanted something that was going to be quite a challenge. Quite demanding; something that hadn’t been done before.”
But, as several contributors on outdoors discussion boards pointed out, there was a precedent.
John Davis said in a posting on Chris Townsend’s blog: “Dave Hewitt wrote a book about Walking the Watershed. I used to have a copy, but seem to have mislaid it.”
Richard Webb posted on the Townsend blog: “I really feel Dave Hewitt is getting done over somewhat.”
Hewitt, the editor of The Angry Corrie hillzine and outdoors correspondent of the Caledonian Mercury did indeed walk the Scottish watershed.
His account said: “In the summer of 1986 I was 25 years old, single, unattached and unemployed except for various part-time and voluntary community work involvements. I was also, and had been for a number of years, an extremely keen, regular and reasonably fit hillwalker. In a nutshell, I was footloose and fancy-free.”
And so he began his 80-day continuous south to north journey along the east-west divide and the result was his 1994 Walking the Watershed.
“Ostensibly the story of a long, long walk, it could also be filed under Autobiography, Geography, Topography, Survival Skills, Psychology, Asceticism, Meteorology and, at a pinch, Gastronomy,” wrote Hewitt, who has also contributed articles to grough.
“It is about a period of twelve weeks in the mid-1980s, about a country, Scotland, and a person, me. It is about the intertwining of these things, the weaving together of people, places and time in perhaps the simplest of all ways, that of putting one foot in front of the other: walking.”
One important difference between Hewitt’s route and that of Wright is that the former chose to head for Cape Wrath at the end of the journey, whereas the latter traveller finished his walk at Duncansby Head, both on the northern coast but at western and eastern ends respectively.
Wright says his is the true watershed route.
With the controversy bubbling away in the hillwalking community, we asked Dave Hewitt for his views.
“I must start by saying that Peter Wright’s watershed walk in 2005 was a fine and impressive achievement. I haven’t seen a copy of Ribbon of Wildness, but I congratulate him on that, too.
“I have absolutely no wish to rain on Peter’s parade, never mind on his watershed. But he has publicly said things over the past couple of years – for instance in an STV interview (in which he doesn’t name any of his predecessors but does accurately describe the watershed as ‘something that hasn’t been done very much before’), on his blog (‘the originality in my defining the watershed for the very first time … an entirely new long distance route’) and now in an interview with the BBC – such that I feel compelled to respond.
“I do this with considerable reluctance, and merely through concern that the achievements of several other walkers, myself included, are being repeatedly and widely misrepresented.
“Peter has argued for some time that Duncansby Head is the ‘true’ finish of the Scottish watershed, and that he is therefore the first person to have walked this ‘true’ route.
“I must confess to finding this odd in purely topographical terms. Scotland has a heavily indented west coast, a somewhat straighter east coast – and a substantial length of north coast. There is therefore a point where the west-east watershed splits into two branches – on the shoulder of a 796m hill named Carn Dearg, in Sutherland – and there is then a choice. The watershed walker, assuming they are going south to north, aims for either the north-western finish at Cape Wrath, as I did in 1987, or the north-eastern finish at Duncansby Head (or some might choose Dunnet Head) as Peter did in 2005.”
Hewitt continued: “I’ve always seen this as an either/or, a matter of personal preference, with both finishes equally valid in terms of the route.
“No one can do both, after all, at least not on the same walk. I’m not at all clear why Peter regards Duncansby Head, reached via a lot of doubtless fascinating Caithness bog, is the ‘true’ end-point of the watershed, while Cape Wrath, reached via some cracking final-fling hills – most notably Foinaven is, presumably, false.
“To me, both are legitimate, and it’s a case of take your pick. There is even a theory that any of the mini-watersheds leading to part-way along on the north coast, eg the watershed between the Kyle of Tongue and Strathnaver – would also be a legitimate finish. “
What was Hewitt’s view of Peter Wright’s view that the watershed hadn’t been walked before?
“With all due respect to Peter Wright, that’s nonsense,” Dave Hewitt said. “In terms of what I know, Peter is the fifth person to have done some form of it – and there may well have been more.
“The pre-Peter timeline as I understand it is as follows:
- My own walk covered the Scottish watershed, from the border to the north-western finish at Cape Wrath, in a single 80-day push from 11 April to 29 June 1987.
- Martin Prouse did Rowardennan to Ben Hope in one go in July and August 1994. Ben Hope isn’t on the watershed, but Martin followed the route all the way through the Highlands to the north-west/north-east split on Carn Dearg, then finished with the most northerly Munro.
- The late Mike Allen did the whole UK route, in numerous chunks, from Land’s End to Cape Wrath, April 1988–October 1994. He crossed the border on 24 May 1992. This, to my mind, is the most impressive and pioneering of any of the watershed walks.
- Similarly, Malcolm Wylie did the whole UK route north–south in annual sections each lasting roughly a week and a half, and wrote a short account of this in issue 76 of The Angry Corrie.
“He started at Duncansby Head on 9 July 1996 and reached the border in the summer of 2000.
“I spent a very enjoyable afternoon walking a few miles of the route with Malcolm and his son Tim in the Moffat hills on 21 July 2000. He reached Land’s End on 20 June 2009.
“This, like Mike Allen’s walk, was an amazing achievement. Malcolm did the same route north to south as Peter Wright was later to do south to north. They both connected Duncansby Head with the border at Peel Fell via the watershed – but Malcolm completed it five years before Peter set out.”
Peter Wright said: “If we went to some other countries, notably north and south America, we would find that their watersheds are very well known, and indeed celebrated. But not the Scottish watershed. Because, as I discovered, nobody had actually ever defined it.” What was Hewitt’s view of this?
“Peter is right to say that the American watershed – particularly the North American watershed – is celebrated. There are songs about ‘the Great Divide’.
“I would also agree that the Scottish equivalent is barely known, at least as a continuous, connected route – although, again, it has found its way into music.
“Even when my book came out in 1994, I had no expectation that the Scottish watershed would become more widely known as a consequence, at least not beyond the core hillgoing readership.
“While certain short sections – the Ben Lomond tourist path, for instance – will always be popular for less esoteric reasons, I can’t see the route as a whole ever becoming a busy walk, and neither should it be. For all that it passes through much wonderful country, it’s too long, too meandering, too rough and with too many ups and downs to appeal to any but a very few long-distance enthusiasts.
“If by ‘nobody had actually ever defined it’ Peter means identified and mapped, then I’m afraid he’s mistaken. The four watershed walkers known to have preceded him – myself, and Messrs Prouse, Allen and Wylie – clearly each did this. Even almost a quarter-century on, I can recall the excitement of spreading maps across the floor of my Glasgow flat in the winter of 1986-87 and marking the wiggly line with a red felt pen.
“The eventual Walking the Watershed included numerous hand-drawn maps of the route.
“But a few people were aware of the watershed even earlier. My friend Richard Webb – we first met, by chance, in Kinbreack bothy during my 1987 effort – had already thought of it, and mapped it, before deciding it looked ‘Too bloody hard’.
“And then there is this passage in Martin Moran’s well-known 1986 book The Munros in Winter, when he discusses the Caithness to Land’s End watershed with fellrunner Martin Stone, who says: “I’ve traced the route on all the maps, it’s the last great challenge.”
“That was in February 1985. As far as I know, Martin Stone didn’t actually tackle the route – he did, however, run the first sub-24-hour Paddy Buckley Round later that same year, a tremendous feat, well beyond my own abilities.”
Dave Hewitt is at pains to emphasise he does not want to belittle Peter Wright’s effort nor his literary production. “I repeat my initial point: I have no wish to diminish Peter Wright’s achievement,” he said, “but I am puzzled – even a little troubled – by his eagerness to publicly proclaim himself the first ‘true’ watershed walker, when the evidence indicates that he is no such thing.
“Were Peter to say, instead, that he was part of a tradition of watershed walkers, and that his decision to steer towards Duncansby Head in 2005 was a development of, or an alternative to, the Cape Wrath option, then neither I nor, I suspect, anyone else would have any quibble.
“Ultimately, I can’t speak for the other known watershed walkers, only for myself.”
Hewitt said the watershed has never been a race or a competition – it is arguably the antithesis of such things, Hewitt contends. “So if, even all these years on, someone emerged who had walked the watershed in, say, 1977 – whether with the north-west or north-east finish, it doesn’t matter – then personally I would seek them out, shake their hand, buy them drink and congratulate them on having beaten me to it by a decade.,” he said.
“Thus far, such a person hasn’t appeared, and it does still seem that what I did in a surge of youthful energy in 1987 might well have been the first walking of the route. I was hugely lucky to be able to do this, regardless of whether anyone preceded me. Similarly, Peter Wright’s own watershed walk in 2005 was notable in its own right, and he should surely let it stand on its own two legs.”
grough asked Peter Wright for his response to Dave Hewitt’s views, but by the time of publication, Mr Wright had not responded.