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Friends walk longest straight line in Scotland

Written by Fiona

February 28 2022

Two Scottish explorers trekked through the Cairngorms National Park in a quest to follow the longest straight line between two roads in the UK. I wrote about this in The Scots Magazine. If you enjoyed reading this article, why not buy a Scots Magazine, or a subscription?

A non-stop adventure. Credit: Johny Cook

Adventurers walk the line

Two Scottish adventurers completed a wild, challenging and somewhat quirky journey on the “longest straight line in Britain between two roads”.

Calum Maclean and Jenny Graham, hiked, climbed, scrambled and waded the route from the A9 to the A939 through the heart of the Cairngorms National Park.

They followed a bearing of 67 degrees  – approximately east-northeast – for almost 50 miles non-stop. It took four days and three nights of wild camping.

The Highlands terrain, with no paths or trails, included steep hills, mountain summits, forests, crags, gullies, river crossings, bogs, peat hags and many miles of thick heather.

Calum, a broadcaster and presenter, described the process of walking in line straight line as “very unnatural”, while Jenny, a round-world record-breaking cyclist, says: “Walking in a straight line might sound like the simplest of all adventures, but it turned out to be the most complex navigation of any trip I’ve been on.”

The route that the friends followed this summer was created in 2018 by map makers Ordnance Survey (OS) after a question posed on the social media platform Twitter.

Roger Dalton (@100in7) 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 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, south of Corgarff.

They concluded the exact straight line distance was 44.43 miles with a total ascent of 17,700ft.

The highest point is the summit of Beinn a’Bhuird at 3927ft, also the UK’s 11th highest mountain.  Other mountains on the route include Beinn Bhrotain and Ben Avon.

Jenny and Calum on the longest straight line. Credit: Johny Cook
Tough terrain on the longest straight line. Credit: Johny Cook

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.” 

Calum Maclean, 32, of Aberfeldy, Perthshire, and Jenny Graham, 42, of Inverness, are thought to be the first to complete the journey of Britain’s longest linear walk without encountering a road as defined by OS.

There are reports of a couple of previous attempts but each was aborted. In addition, in the late Seventies, a few walkers are reported to have done similar, plotting their own routes by prismatic compass, usually used by surveyors, between fixed points. 

Calum and Jenny, who set off on August 27 at 9.16am and finished at 9.12pm on August 30, revealed it was much harder than they had imagined to keep a straight line on unpredictable terrain.

Jenny says: ”It’s really tricky to stop yourself veering from the bearing on rough ground. You think you know what a straight line is but then you look at the GPS and realise you don’t.

“You 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.”

Calum adds: “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.

“Even a small gully is hard when you have to go in a straight line. Common sense says go round, but we were determined to stick to the straight line.”

They were surprised by how slow their progress was. Jenny says: “On day one, we walked in a straight line for 11 hours and covered just 10 miles. They were the toughest 10 miles of my life.”

Day two did not feel much faster. Jenny says: “It took us 13 hours to do 13 miles. That’s a mile an hour. It was so tough on all the heather and with so many steep ups and downs.

“At some points I was crawling up heather on my hands and knees.”

Jenny and Calum on the longest straight line. Credit: Johny Cook

Calum adds: “I was cursing every bit of heather on day two. But also the terrain was incredibly monotonous at times. It was a real slog.”

Jenny described the journey as “very hard but also amazing.” She said: “We slept, ate and crossed everything in our paths in one straight line.”

Calum described the anxiety of not knowing what they might encounter. He says: “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.

“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.”

Another tough section came at the end of the the longest straight line on day four. Calum says: “The line just stopped but we weren’t at a road. It stopped at a track.

“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 more miles than OS had suggested for the route because we needed to make it to the road.”

Pain and blisters. Credit: Johny Cook
Dealing with the midges. Credit: Johny Cook

Despite the difficulties of the unusual feat, Calum and Jenny, who finished in 83 hours and 56 minutes, discovered many highlights. 

On day one, Calum, a keen wild swimmer, was delighted by the discovery of a hidden waterfall. 

He says: “We found a stunning series of waterfall pools tumbling through a gorge. 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 a little way off the line.”

As they came to the high hill pass of the Lairig Ghru on day three, they were treated to “amazing views”. 

Calum says: “There was a temperature inversion and the view was amazing. It was very uplifting.”

The friends also enjoyed days of sunshine and “the best blaeberries; so sweet and juicy.”

They both concluded that while tough, the longest straight line project had been ultimately rewarding.

Jenny says: “It was such a cool experience, doing something that others have not and reaching places I have never visited despite thinking that I knew the Cairngorms so well.”

Calum says: “I had a mix of feelings throughout, 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, 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.”

Jenny and Calum set off on Britain’s longest straight line. Credit: Johny Cook

Find out more about the longest straight lines in the UK

OS Maps details the longest linear lines without crossing a road. See https://www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/newsroom/blog/gbs-longest-linear-walk-without-crossing-a-road

In Wales, the longest straight walk without encountering a road is 13.79 miles and runs along the south of the Cambrian Mountains.

For England, the longest straight walk is in the North Pennines to the east of the Lake District. The straight line is 18.5 miles.

See the film

Award-winning adventure-film production company, Summit Fever Media, have made a 20-minute film of the longest line project.

The project was supported by EXPED UK (Expedition Equipment) and clothing sponsor was Montane.

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