A few steps outside my house is a proper, real-life Scottish mountain.
I mean, that’s what it feels like. It’s really at the bottom of my road, where it turns into the beach overlooking the waterway of the Firth of Clyde, and it’s really really at the other side of that, on the island of Arran. But when I catch sight of it just a few steps from my front door, it hits me with the same emotional force every time: now *that* is a mountain - and look, it’s right *there*.
It’s called Goat Fell, the highest peak in the surrounding Scottish county of Ayrshire. At 874 metres (2,867 ft), it’s fairly modest by Scottish standards - nearly 500 metres short of the country’s tallest mountain, and just short of being one of the 282 Munros (peaks over 3,000 feet / 914 metres in height). And it’s just there. Or rather, it’s 25 miles away, but such an imposing and spectacular presence, with its current shroud of white snow, that I’ll always associate it with living here in this time of my life.
This is what the mountains of Scotland do to you. They draw you in, fill your mind with their imposing immediacy, and make you feel deliciously small and insignificant. Even from afar - say, from the deck of the ship Wheel & Anchor will be using in late 2024 - every single colossal edifice of rock will have a stirring effect on you. I would wish that magical travel experience on everyone.
(My favourite Scottish mountain: the twin-summited behemoth of Cùl Mòr far to the northwest.)
But if you’ll join me by taking a few steps back, to see what all these mountains are really part of - well, that will truly make the breath whoosh out of you.
Once upon a time, there was an ocean called Iapetus, in the southern hemisphere of our world. To the right of it and downwards, over the south pole, sprawled the ancient supercontinent of Gondwana, comprising much of modern South America, Africa, Arabia, Madagascar, India, Australia, and Antarctica. And to the left was a scatter of smaller (but still colossal) landmasses - one of them called Laurentia.
The oldest rocks on modern Arran, and in many nearby parts of Scotland, were formed when mud and sand washed off Laurentia and settled onto the sea floor of Iapetus. (For the details, check out Arran Geopark’s comprehensive writeup of how the island was first assembled.)
It’s startling to realise just how utterly different the surface of the Earth looked a few hundred million years ago. Everything was everywhere else - and forming in utterly different local and worldwide climates.
Around 300 million years ago, Laurentia and Gondwana were in the process of being dragged north by the movement of shifting tectonic plates, and where they met, they smooshed together to create Pangea, a single super-landmass that seems to have contained most of the dry land on our planet at the time.
And along the boundary of that collision, somewhere just off the equator, a mighty mountain range arose! (Cue dramatic music.)
As the continents ground together, three things happened, generally speaking: the land went up, or the land went down, or it was more or less annihilated. When one side was pushed down - called subduction - it drove surface rock deep into the earth, where it melted and often welled upwards again in volcanic activity. And where it was shoved upwards, you have orogeny - the creation of mountains.
The mountains formed along the Gondwana/Laurentia/Laurasia collision boundary are projected to have been, in some places, the height of the modern Himalayas - yet stretching for much, much further. It was mountain-building on a scale that…well, if anything comparable happened at any other time in Earth’s 4.5 billion year old history, science has yet to discover it, as far as I’m aware.
But then, over the next hundred million years, Pangea started to come apart. Because of shifting patterns of molten rock welling up from below, Pangea unzipped itself in all directions, and its pieces drifted away to form the world’s landmasses we know today, on both sides of the Atlantic and Pacific and around all of Earth’s “new” oceans….
And along their edges, being worn down by millions of years of erosion into denuded stubs of their former selves, went the remnants of these Central Pangean Mountains.
Perhaps you’ve read Bill Bryson’s “A Walk In The Woods”? I’ve always loved it: impassioned, gloriously cranky, and - spoilers - ending in abject failure. Bill Bryson doesn’t hike the Appalachian Trail. He fails miserably, because, like me, he’s the very opposite of an athlete. High five, Bill.
The Appalachian Trail is famously one of the world’s most demanding and gruelling hikes. Covering 2,200 miles (3,540 km) across 14 states, it’s less of a journey and more of a lifestyle choice. The average time to walk the whole of it is six months, and many folk take even longer. It’s a huge commitment - but one that you can do at your own pace, allowing people of just about any age to have a go. (Hats off to M.J. “Nimbleweed Nomad” Eberhart, who recently became the oldest person known to have walked the length of it at the not-so-sprightly age of 83.)
But did you know about the next part of the trail?
The Canadian stretch of it connects to the northern end of the American A.T. and runs (with the help of a ferry here and there) all the way to the uppermost tip of Newfoundland - a properly sinew-stretching romp of 1,580 miles / 2,540 km. It’s listed as the International Appalachian Trail - but that’s only one of a number of other trails bearing that name, in Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Ireland, Isle of Man, Wales, England, Spain, Portugal, and Morocco.
So if, in some incredibly ill-advised moment of high ambition, you decided to entire as-yet-to-be-invented Great Pangean Mountain Trail, just the Americas side would give you a running total of 3,780 miles / 6,084 km! It’s now only a few hundred miles short of the length of the Silk Road - and you haven’t even crossed the Atlantic yet!
This is what you’re seeing when you look at a Scottish mountain: not just a colossal outcrop of rock that catches the late afternoon sunlight in a way that makes your knees feel weak, but the scoured bones of a lost mountain range that have spent millions of years being carried across the surface of the Earth until they’ve come to rest here, before they move onwards to - who knows where?
It’s quite the view from Scotland. You really should give it a go.
Wheel & Anchor’s Lochs And Castles Of Scotland 8-day cruise sets sail in late September 2024. Get more details here.
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