Escape into Scotland: Wilton hiker shares his native trek

All the long flights to Hong Kong and other aspects of his stressful job got Robert McWilliams thinking about making a change in his life.

“I had this idea in my head: Wouldn’t it be great to walk across Scotland?” the Wilton resident said.

So, in his early 50s, McWilliams did what so many people like him — successful career, married with children, living in the suburbs — dream about doing. He left the rat race for a little while.

He said the goal was to “take a rest,” not retire, and begin rethinking how he lived so he’d have more time for the things he truly enjoyed, such as family.

McWilliams soon was making his way across his native Scotland with a heavy backpack, sleeping in a tent, huts, youth hostels and hotels along the way.

He spent six weeks walking across the country, traveling 420 miles from the northwest tip to the southern border with England.

“I was quite nervous if I’d be able to do it,” McWilliams said. “It’s a long way from home and comfort. What happens if it gets too difficult? I eventually realized after a few weeks that I would make it.”

This despite physical challenges such as injuries to his ribs and a leg muscle and plenty of rain and wind — consistently bad weather “even by Scottish standards,” as he put it.

McWilliams, 58, said he hoped to figure out what he would do next in life and to learn more about Scotland.

But an extended hiking trip leaves less time for contemplating one’s future than you might presume. More immediate needs as well as taking in the scenery tend to take precedence.

“You think about staying dry, you think about not getting lost, you think about what kind of burger you’ll have that night if you’re lucky enough to eat at a pub or restaurant,” he said. “You don’t really have time for big thoughts.”

McWilliams has chronicled his journey in the book “The Kiss of Sweet Scottish Rain: A Walk from Cape Wrath to the Solway Firth.” The 312-page paperback by Homebound Publications is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and many local bookstores.

“Struggling with terrain, injury, atrocious weather, and above all his own fragile confidence, McWilliams weaves into his narrative the threads of his life that led to the journey, and discovers that the rewards of adventure are rarely those that were anticipated,” according to the book’s publicity material.

McWilliams now works as an information privacy consultant. He previously was a business manager for Reuters in Asia, South America and the United States. He’s the HAN Network’s hiking columnist, writing and taking photographs for the Taking a Hike feature that appears monthly online at arts.hersamacorn.com.

He was born in Scotland, but when he was 3, his family moved to England, where he was raised. Now an American citizen, he discovered on the trip he knew less about Scotland than he thought and wants to keep learning more. In the book he writes about visiting many Scottish historical and cultural sites.

McWilliams has enjoyed hiking his entire life. As a teenager, he would take the family dog on long walks in the countryside.

He began hiking more seriously once he moved to Connecticut, where he takes a lot of day hikes. He also goes on extended camping and hiking trips elsewhere, including California, the American and Canadian Rockies, the Smokey Mountains and northern New England. He’s often joined by his family but also enjoys hiking by himself.

McWilliams did prepare for the Scottish journey, especially the early days in the very rural far north. “I thought through the first week of the trip in detail, but after that I was pretty much winging it,” he said.

His family was supportive. His wife understood the frustrations with his job, and his children were excited about the change in direction he was making in his life.

He went in the fall when hiking huts — known as bothies — weren’t occupied and nearby hostels and hotels weren’t fully booked as they are in the summer.

McWilliams enjoyed the basic task of walking every day, especially when contrasted with the competing demands and multi-tasking involved in modern life due to ever-present technology and media.

“There’s a real simplicity to it,” he said. “You walk from A to B, and tomorrow you repeat it. You’re not besieged by anything.”

He met a lot of interesting people on his journey, many of whom he describes in the book. “People were very friendly and talkative,” McWilliams said.

He carried a cell phone with him, and would text his family in the United States every day if possible and talk to them at other times.

McWilliams had the idea of writing the book in the back of his mind when on the trip, but it wasn’t a certainty. While walking, he found himself daydreaming and thinking about what he was experiencing. “I was kind of writing a book in my mind,” he said.

A few months after returning, he began to write some passages and eventually approached a publisher. “I didn’t realize it was such a long process,” he said of writing his first book.

The adventure helped him gain confidence. “I was worried if I would see it through and have the endurance,” he said.

But he completed his journey. “Now, at its end, the hardships had become as precious to me as its untroubled moments,” he writes near the end of his book.

For more information about McWilliams and his book, visit robmcwilliams.wordpress.com.

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