As good as weather apps are (and they are good), they’re not infallible, especially in the UK. While they will give you a pretty accurate assessment of weather conditions, they can lull you into a false sense of security.
For the casual outdoors-goer, the birth of the weather app has been a game-changer. Having an hourly update streamed direct to your mobile phone can make you feel like you’re an omniscient weather-god: ‘Sure, it’s blowing a Force Ten Gale now, but thanks to WeatherTech.app I can confidently predict the high winds will abate between 2.13 and 3.42 pm, giving way to a gentle breeze from the SW, light cloud, and only a 6.3% chance of precipitation. Meaning, with just a little rescheduling, we can still get our daily hour of outdoors!’
But weather apps aren’t infallible. They can’t tell you definitively what the weather will be like on the spot where you stand.
If you’re out on the hills in Scotland, for example, you can be enjoying near-Mediterranean heat on one side of a valley, while watching a Biblical hailstorm on the other side. Local conditions, the terrain, wind speed and the like, will determine where and when the rain or snow falls, quite often in frank opposition to what an app is telling you.
While taking a brief winter break, we had travelled up the West coast of Scotland, to Ullapool, the regional centre of the North-west Highlands, standing at the mouth of Loch Broom. We had a bunch of work to do, but being in one of the most spectacular parts of Britain, there was no way we wouldn’t be out in the open, enjoying a few hours of scenery, drinking in the air and listening to the sound of wide open space.
On the morning of our planned walk, the BBC Weather app had predicted a few hours of clear weather. From the Ullapool pier we had spied the ruins of a broch, an Iron Age hilltop fort, on the opposite shore. Loch Broom is a sea loch, extending a couple of miles or so inland from the open water of the Minch. You can follow the road on a long loop around the valley, southeast to northwest, taking in the villages of Letters and Loggie. We figured we could drive a reasonable distance and then follow a path parallel to the Western shore to our destination. If we timed it right, we could trek to the Broch, avoid the rain, and be back in time for supper.
At the scheduled hour of departure, it was still raining. Heavily. We checked the app for Ullapool weather. ‘Bright Sunshine’ (sun emoji). Hmmm. Undeterred, we set off, windscreen wipers set to ‘You Have To Be Kidding’ mode. Thankfully, as we rounded the head of the valley, the weather caught up with our internet oracle, and the clouds began to lift. Not exactly bright sunshine, but clear enough to make us believe the app wasn’t just making up stories.
Once we’d parked up, the walk was easy going, although we had to battle with a pretty stiff wind. Up a small incline, down a small incline, along a bit, along a bit more, over a blind summit, unexpected Highland Cow, potentially angry, back the way we came, round another route, bit further than it looked, unexpected mud, almost over the boots, along a bit more, recalcitrant sheep, leaping a burn, the stony shore, and then at last the Broch, standing proud atop a ‘machair brae’ (as Walter Scott may well have called a hill with some grass on it).
Our cow-induced detour had set us back twenty minutes or so, but we were within touching distance of our destination, surely close enough to sprint up and sprint back, before the weather closed in. But best check the Weather app, eh? Just in case. Whip out the phone, tap on the icon… no signal. Tap the icon again. Still no signal. Hmm.
What the heck.. we’ve come this far, we thought, let’s chance it – surely we had enough time before the weather closed in? Of course, once we reached the broch, we became distracted; trying to recreate the architecture of a roughly 2000-year old ruin from a tumble of stones and tangle of gorse. Here was a roughly 2000-year old fireplace, still intact. So over here was probably a 2000-year old breakfast table. Maybe set with 2000 year-old teaspoons, granola, yoghurt and fruit compote, Or boar. Perhaps herring. We were unsure what constituted a 2000-year-old breakfast. As we idly speculated, a squall poked its nose round the seaward side of the loch. Too late we looked up. The wind came billowing in like a boulder down a mountain and the landscape disappeared under a near-solid wall of sleet.
Our walk back to the car took on a different hue. Mainly sleet coloured. Horizontal sleet. The kind you could use as a guide to put up the perfect shelf.
But here’s the thing. If you’re going to go gallivanting around the Highlands in winter, you can’t be afraid of a bit of sleet. If you’re suitably attired, you don’t need to worry about getting wet. What is more, you get to enjoy a landscape undeniably wilder and more romantic than any witnessed in the halcyon days of Summer. And the return to the warmth of the indoors, and a hot cup of tea makes the whole thing seem worthwhile.
And the real lesson of the day was this: use an app for all it’s worth, but don’t neglect the methods of forecasting that have been part of human knowledge for roughly 65,000 years. You can still read the sky for signs – look up at the cloud formations to give you clues. See where you stand as a weather front develops, sense the shift in the wind to tell you conditions are about to change. Look to the horizon, against the wind, and see what’s in store over the next hour. For a starter’s guide to reading the sky, check out wikihow’s illustrated guide.