Walk on

Karen ThorburnThree years ago, in March 2015, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity arose to witness a 96% solar eclipse darken the skies over northern Scotland. My husband and I parked up behind Evanton before breakfast and began an hour-long ascent of Cnoc Fyrish. We quickly realised our idea wasn’t an original one when we crested the summit of the hill and found a couple of dozen people already gathered around the Fyrish Monument, overlooking the Cromarty Firth, waiting for the spectacle to unfold. Our efforts paid off in spite of the overcrowded hilltop and unseasonably cold wind. An eerie darkness descended over Ross and Cromarty; lights twinkled from the industrial sites at Nigg and Deephaven; and the twenty-strong crowd gazed skyward as the clouds parted to reveal the eclipse. We descended through the forestry plantation in bright sunshine and overtook a couple who hadn’t reached the top of the hill, despite looking capable. The woman turned to me and commented, “This is my first and last walk ever. This is crazy!” Just like the eclipse, this remark stayed in my mind.

I’ve been walking for pleasure and exercise since I learned to put one foot in front of the other as a young child. I’ll admit I wasn’t always as enthusiastic about a long walk back then as I am now, but I was undoubtedly inspired as I explored the length and breadth of Scotland with my parents and brother during my childhood and teens. I remember my dad taking me shopping in my home town of Perth for new walking boots and leaving the store with three pairs in the same attractive style but in different sizes; boots that I would have the pleasure of growing into in years to come.

Walking the Fife Coastal Path at West Wemyss with my dad in March 2000 aged 14.

A few months prior to that early morning adventure on Cnoc Fyrish, I completed the longest and most challenging walk I’d ever embarked upon. Preoccupied with my newly-penned Bucket List (a jumbled compilation of goals I want to achieve during my lifetime), I felt the need to take on a challenge which I would remember for years to come. At the time, I was regularly travelling by train between Inverness and Edinburgh with work and came to know this long stretch of railway line well. My favourite part of the journey, besides the magnificent Forth Bridge, was the Fife coast between Kirkcaldy and Inverkeithing. Ever the landscape photographer, I always allowed myself a brief respite from the laptop screen to gaze out across the Forth estuary to the distinctive profiles of North Berwick Law; the Bass Rock; Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags; and the Edinburgh skyline with the Pentland Hills beyond. I spotted notices at various stations advising passengers to “alight here for the Fife Coastal Path.” I’d found my next adventure.

I booked time off work and packed everything I could possibly need during my 117-mile trek, from my tent and camping stove, to my walking boots and hydration pack. For once, I was travelling light where camera equipment was concerned. It was with some reluctance that I left my DSLR and tripod behind and set off with a compact camera attached to my belt. The aim was to have an adventure without the discomfort of a heavy camera bag weighing me down, and without the distractions of landscape photography consuming my time. I consoled myself with thoughts of using the walk as a reconnaissance exercise and returning at a later date with my professional camera equipment, to do justice to the landscapes of the Fife coast.

The Fife Coastal Path at Pittenweem

My parents joined me on the first and final stretches of the Fife Coastal Path and my dad gave me a round of applause as I climbed the steps in Newburgh at journey’s end, where I relaxed in the backseat of my parents’ car, drinking instant coffee and pouring over my Fife Coastal Path map, recalling memories from every mile of the walk since leaving Kincardine eleven days previously. I had trekked 101 miles of the 117-mile route on my own, sometimes feeling homesick and often bemoaning my aching feet, but mostly enjoying the sense of freedom as I took up to 38,000 steps per day, appreciating the diversity of my surroundings, and pondering other life goals occupying real estate on my Bucket List.

Babbet Ness between Kingsbarns and Boarhills

Walking a long-distance route presented an excellent opportunity to raise funds for a good cause. With my grandad approaching the final months of his life at the time of my adventure, it seemed like a fitting tribute to fundraise for a well-known cancer charity. I read some key facts about the condition as I launched my campaign and was alarmed by the statistics: half of all people born in the UK after 1960 will be diagnosed with some form of cancer during their lifetime. However, there is reason to be hopeful as experts estimate that four out of every ten cases could be prevented by lifestyle changes. Advice such as eating a healthy, balanced diet, keeping active, and enjoying the sun safely, struck a chord with me and occupied many of my thoughts as I walked across beaches; trekked through peaceful woodlands; marched through post-industrial landscapes; and meandered along the pavements of quaint fishing villages. To make the fundraising more engaging for my sponsors, I pledged to capture a photograph on every mile of the walk and post each image on my blog.

Looking towards Newburgh

My grandad passed away before I could even complete my Fife Coastal Path write-up but, at the ripe old age of 89, I could rationalise this loss. However, I was unprepared for the future. Less than three years after completing my hike, I unwittingly embarked upon the longest and most challenging journey of my life. Once again, I found myself sitting drinking coffee in my parents’ car, parked in Newburgh, overlooking the final few yards of the Fife Coastal Path. Beside me, in the passenger seat, sat my dad, a shadow of his former self, gradually adapting to a slower pace of life following chemotherapy.

The end of the Fife Coastal Path

When life unravels like a piece of string and everyday joys are eclipsed by circumstances beyond control, the easiest course of action is to hide away in the darkness and admit defeat. Some days, finding the energy to simply open the door and step outside can be a challenge. Life has changed dramatically since I pulled off my walking boots in Newburgh in September 2014, but I’m pleased to say that my outlook hasn’t been altered. If anything, I’ve become even more determined to accomplish my goals, whilst being mindful of the ‘here and now’ and finding moments of joy in simple pleasures. Walking may or may not maximise my life expectancy and resistance to disease, but I can guarantee that it will help to lighten the shadows running through my days and bolster my physical and mental health in the coming years. The best days of my life are invariably the ones when my step count soars to new heights and I engage with my surroundings in the great outdoors. My memories of the Fife Coastal Path serve as a constant reminder of the importance of finding the willpower to cross the doorstep, live life to the full, and make memories to cherish until my dying days. I wish I could turn back time and encourage the lady at the foot of Cnoc Fyrish to persevere and discover the delights of walking.

Walkhighlands guide to the Fife Coastal Path

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Walking can be dangerous and is done entirely at your own risk. Information is provided free of charge; it is each walker's responsibility to check it and navigate using a map and compass.