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Two determined Scottish adventurers have completed a wild and challenging journey along Britain’s longest straight line unobstructed by road. Broadcaster and presenter Calum Maclean and round-world record-breaking cyclist Jenny Graham hiked, climbed, scrambled and waded the route between the A9 to the A939 through the heart of the Cairngorms National Park in what is thought to be the first complete end-to-end journey of the route.
Following a bearing of 67 degrees (approximately east-northeast) for four days non-stop, with no paths or trails, they crossed steep hills, mountain summits, forests, crags, gullies, river crossings, countless streams, a waterfall, bogs, peat hags and many miles of thick heather. Self-supported they wild camped each night wherever they stopped.
“Walking in a straight line sounds like the simplest of all adventures but it turned out to be the most complex navigation of any trip I’ve been on,” tells Jenny. “You think you know what a straight line is but then you look at the GPS and realise you don’t. You also have to let go of everything that is in your head. Sometimes this means not doing what appears to be the most sensible when looking at the terrain.”
You think you know what a straight line is but then you look at the GPS and realise you don’t
“We tried following a compass bearing but it wasn’t that accurate. Then we followed a line on our GPS devices, which was better but still difficult,” explains Calum. “Even a small gully is hard when you have to go in a straight line. Common sense says to go round it, but we were determined to stick to the straight line.
“At times, following the line did feel very unnatural. I had a mix of feelings, from monotonous and depressing to really joyful. Overall, it was quite gruelling. But, then, when we reached the summits and got the opportunity to gaze back from where we’d come, it was a real feeling of satisfaction. We could draw a line with our eyes, which linked the heather below our feet to the river in the glen below, the deep hidden gullies, rocks on far off hills and beyond into the distance. In those moments, I think the purpose of walking a straight line became a bit clearer.”
In the heart of the Scottish Highlands, home to some of the wildest and extreme landscapes as well as some of the highest peaks on the British Isles, the mountains of the Cairngorms form the UK’s largest National Park. The highest point along the line is the summit of Beinn a’Bhuird at 1197m, the 11th highest mountain in the UK and the route summits several other munros including Beinn Bhrotain and Ben Avon.
“We walked in a straight line for 11 hours and we covered just 10 miles on day one. They were the toughest 10 miles of my life,” recalls Jenny. “At some points I was crawling up heather on my hands and knees. However, completing the route and sticking as close to the line as possible while exploring the national park in such a unique fashion was pretty special.”
Of course in drawing a line across one of the most extreme landscapes in the country, it was likely that they’d encounter technical and potentially dangerous terrain.
“We knew there would be many crags on the straight line and we were worried about what we would come across. There were huge slabs on some descents and they were wet with water running over them,” explains Calum. “A few times we attempted to down climb but it was too risky and so we had to slightly detour off the line. This only happened a few times though, thankfully.”
Even when the landscape was mostly featureless, the challenge didn’t let up with the many miles of deep heather-covered hills, mountains and moorland making the pair’s progress slow and torturous.
“I was cursing every bit of heather on day two. But also the terrain was incredibly monotonous at times. It was a real slog,” says Calum. Even then at the end when the pair thought they were done, The Longest Line still had one more trick up its sleeve.
“The line just stopped but we weren’t at the road. It stopped at a track,” he remembers. “We looked at the map and we had to make it through a thick forest to get to the A939. This was one of the toughest parts of the entire line. We actually did a few kilometres more than OS had suggested for the route because we needed to make it to the road.”
We could draw a line with our eyes, which linked the heather below our feet to the river in the glen below, the deep hidden gullies, rocks on far off hills and beyond into the distance
The journey wasn’t without its moments of euphoria though. On day one, Calum, a keen wild swimmer, was delighted by the discovery of a hidden waterfall.
“We found a stunning series of waterfall pools tumbling through a gorge, which resembled a series of steps,” he says. “It was a place I might never have visited if it weren’t for walking the line – and they’re now bookmarked for a return to swim, as they were about 100m off the line, which was too far (off course) for us!”
And as the days passed, the pair became more familiar with their challenge.
“I am not used to walking with a backpack – they weighed about 16kgs – and at first it was hard. I was really worried about my sore ankles the first night. But then I think my body adapted,” says Jenny. “It was such a cool experience, doing something that others had not and reaching places I had never visited despite thinking that I knew the Cairngorms so well.”
The Longest Line began in 2018 initially by an off the cuff question posted to Ordnance Survey’s Twitter when Roger Dalton wrote: “What (and where) is the longest distance you can walk in a straight line in England/Wales/Scotland without crossing a road (defined as a paved surface for vehicular use).”
Intrigued, OS experts then set about searching for a route and decided the longest straight line between tarmac roads was from the A9, just north of the Drumochter Pass, to the A939, suit of Corgarff. They concluded the exact straight line distance was 71.5km (44.43 miles ) with a total ascent of around 5394m (17,700ft).
At the time of plotting the line, an OS expert commented: “I wouldn’t recommend anyone do it unless they are very conversant with a map and compass. It is not following known tracks or paths and it looks like there may well be several scrambles along the way, too.”
While there are reports of a couple of previous attempts, each was aborted, making Jenny and Calum’s journey the first complete crossing of the longest linear walk in Britain. The pair finished the 78.55km journey – with a total ascent of 5706 metres – on Monday evening (August 30) with a total time of 83 hours and 56 minutes.
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