The Scottish Trossachs – and a winter paddling challenge
Just 30 miles from Glasgow, The Trossachs is a secret the canny Scots have kept to themselves. While bus-loads of tourists puzzle out the likelihood of a monster in the depths of Loch Ness, and everyone leaving Glasgow seems to head straight up the A82 for the obvious delights of Loch Lomond, the lucky few in the know can get on with peaceful fishing, kayaking, hiking and biking amidst the stunning lochs and heavily forested hills of The Trossachs. We travelled North and a little East of Glasgow to paddle in their playground…
Now that’s cold…
It’s so cold that it burns. And then my toes go numb. It’s excruciating and exhilarating. And life affirming and horrid. I need to get out quick. This is the first loch of the day in our ‘seven lochs in seven hours challenge.’ Unsurprisingly we are the only ones doing this self-invented challenge in the depths of winter. We hardly see another soul. Not this side of Loch Lomond anyway. Which to be honest, is how we like it. I hoped the hotel at Inversnaid would be open for coffee, but it’s too far from the madding crowd to be good business in winter.
Far from the madding crowd
Where else do you get seven lochs within a stone’s throw of each other? And where else do you get them to yourself? You might not have the same privilege in peak summer holidays on a hot day, but I imagine it’s still far less crowded than the nearby and very popular western banks of Loch Lomond; the largest loch in Scotland, the largest freshwater lake in Britain and the showpiece of The Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park . Actually, Loch Lomond is one of today’s seven scheduled lochs. But we are taking a dip on the east side, which is harder to get to by car and much wilder than the busy west bank that has the main A82 Glasgow-Inverness Trunk road running alongside it. The east side is certainly deserted today. Apart from us, a low mist, the odd bird and a few bubbles lapping around our toes.
Everyone likes a challenge
If I told the kids they were going to immerse themselves into seven lochs on a wet, icy cold day, they’d have turned on the TV and refused to leave the house. We’d have even less chance while our home for the weekend is a warm and cosy Forest Holidays Lodge, on the edge of the forest at the Forestry Commission site at Strathyre. It’s the kind of lodge that has a hot tub on the verandah, perfect for midnight stargazing. And it’s warm and toasty inside and made for slippers. Not toes with frostbite.
But a challenge…? What child doesn’t like a challenge? With a reward. Fish and chips in Aberfoyle. Or haggis if they want it.
Not swimming but paddling
Am I sounding like some kind of iron woman? A steely mother who makes her children go swimming in freezing lochs in winter. Well, maybe I’ve led you on a bit. When I say immerse, we are only dipping our little piggies into the water. But it’s no mean feat, getting kids from the warmth of the car into seven lochs, no matter how much of their bodies they have to take for a dip. By the last loch of the morning the initial novelty has gone out of the day’s activity and they are ready for their fish and chips. And so am I; four stretches of chilled Scottish water work up an appetite for some hot food. I could even manage a deep fried Mars Bar. And it’s on the menu in the Aberfoyle chippy.
In the afternoon it gets harder than we bargained for. The rain ramps up. We are soggy. The lakes are eerily quiet. Lovely but lonely. We sprint from the car to the edge of Loch Achray and dunk two feet in the rippling, frayed edges. The self imposed rule of this family challenge is both feet must go in at least over the ankles, although some insist on going further, deeper, colder. At the beginning of the day we dried our feet after each dunk, pushing damp socks onto damper skin. Now we forget the fiddly limp socks and push our numb toes directly into sodden boots that suddenly seem too small. We are Cinderella’s hiking, paddling half sisters.
Man made barriers
At Loch Katrine, where writer Sir Walter Scott, set his 1810 poem Lady of the Lake, and his 1818 novel Rob Roy, the only sign of life is a faint light coming from the cafe. The Lady of the Lake isn’t sailing today. The bike trails are deserted. The loch is fenced in. We can’t get to it. We walk around the water, looking for a chink in its railed armour. But there’s no way down.
“Shall we give Matthew a leg up over the gate,” I suggest, pointing to a jetty that’s prohibited to the public.
“I have another idea,” says my resourceful husband, pulling off his shoes.
Next to the footpath, at the side of the loch is a large puddle. We can’t confirm it’s loch water; more likely rain water, but it will have to do.
Puddle paddling – a new winter sport?
After the freezing lakes it is like warm bath. I can’t believe how comforting a puddle can be. I look out onto a metallic loch, with the wind at my back, and my family at my side and I bathe in the view.
“Shhhhh.” The trees seem to whisper, like the enchanted forest of the kids’ Enid Blyton story books “Don’t tell anyone else. This is our secret.”
But I’m not sure I’ll need to closely guard it; Scottish puddle water, in mid winter is probably not many people’s idea of a good time. However, these Scottish lochs in the heart of the Trossach hills are undoubtedly a hidden gem, a relatively undiscovered bolt hole from Glasgow and a very rewarding challenge And I’m loath to share them, even here, with you. But I will share the video of our ‘seven lochs in seven hours challenge.’ I hope you are inspired to find your own lake, ocean or puddle this Winter or perhaps even Spring. It might surprise you how much you enjoy it.
Forest Holidays Strathyre site can be reached by a short drive from the cities of Glasgow and Stirling. It consists of 35 lodges set in woodland, with Loch Lubnaig at your feet when you step out of your door, and Ben Ledi behind you. Just over a mile away, the small town of Callander acts as the gateway to Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park and is more commonly known as the ‘Gateway to the Highlands.’ Callander is a pleasant little place; its tourist information centre is a converted church and our kids loved the fudge shop next door.
Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park was the first of two national parks in Scotland. (The second is the Cairngorms National Park.) It includes 21 Munros, with Ben Lomond one of Scotland’s most popular mountains to climb.
Forest Holidays lodges are divided into three types of aptly named accommodation; Golden Oak, Silver Birch and Copper Beech. The first two come with a hot tub, or as it became known the loch hottub, highly recommended after a days dunking feet in icy lochs.
Disclosure Note: Our thanks to Forest Holidays and the team at Strathyre who provided us with accommodation to enable us to bring you this story. The seven loch challenge, paddling, wet socks, soggy boots, opinions and experience remain, as ever, entirely our own.