Ben Vrackie (NN 950632, 841m)
Meall na h-Aodainn Moire (NN 941622, 633m)
900 metres of ascent
This one is much less eccentric than most of my “familiar hills from an unusual direction” reports—the route to Vrackie from the west is well-documented, but considerably less-travelled than the tourist route from the south. There’s even the potential to link the western approach with a southerly exit (or vice versa), because both approach routes now form part of what’s called the Bealach Path, linking Pitlochry and Killicrankie over the moorland, with a return link through the Tay Forest Park on the Killiecrankie Path. You can find out more about these (and other) routes from a pretty booklet about the Pitlochry Path Network, available as a pdf file here. But I’m afraid I didn’t know anything about the woodland Killicrankie Path when I set out, so this is a straightforward there-and-back-again walk rather than what would have been an interesting circular hike.
I have weird history with Ben Vrackie. I climbed it back in the 1990s, on a damp, still day when the cloud base came down to 600 metres, and as I approach the summit through thick mist, I suddenly realized that I could hear a child weeping. With the hair standing up on the back of my neck I jogged uphill towards the sound, to discover a family group sitting at the summit, the father comforting a little girl. He turned to me and said, in outraged tones, “A goat just stole her sandwich!”
Now, that’s not a phrase you hear every day, but it was probably uttered on an almost daily basis on the summit of Ben Vrackie during the ’90s, when walkers were plagued by a couple of near-feral goats. They were quite prepared to climb on top of people and to stick their heads into rucksacks in search of food, and were sufficiently infamous to generate a detailed report in The Angry Corrie (Scotland’s First & Finest Hillwalker’s Fanzine). You can find an excessively flattering portrait of the offending animals here.
Secure in the knowledge that the goats have long since departed for the Great Sandwich Bar In The Sky, I parked at the Killiecrankie Visitor Centre and walked a short way north along the old A9 (now humiliatingly demoted to the B8079) before turning right through the tunnel under the new(ish) A9 and heading up the road past Old Faskally House. I soon encountered a poem affixed to a gate that bypasses a cattle grid on the road.
The tarmac ends at a three-way branching which is confusingly signposted, for me at least:
The sign to the Bealach Path appears to point steadfastly towards a large padlocked gate (here decorated by a recently sheared sheep). What wasn’t immediately evident is that there’s a fourth way, to the left of the sheep and behind the grassy mound, which at the time I arrived was little more than a pair of faint tyre tracks crossing a field. This unpromising looking line turned out to be the correct route, gradually become clearer as it ascends the hillside, and eventually turning into a well-worn track that has suffered some catastrophic water erosion along part of its length.
(A new section of path has been created that bypasses the worst of this, forking off to the right as you ascend.)
The track slowly ascends towards Meall na h-Aodainn Moire (“mound of the big face”, of which more later), and eventually a signpost points off to the left, signalling the route towards Ben Vrackie. OpenStreetMap suggests there’s a branch farther back along the Bealach Path, bypassing the slight rise and fall incurred by the signposted route, but I didn’t notice it. It’s round about this point that Ben Vrackie starts to look quite challenging, as you get a view of its steep southern face and pointy summit:
The path descends to the head of Loch a’ Choire and then loops around its pretty northern shore to join the tourist route coming up from Pitlochry. I scared up a couple of irate mallards as I passed the reed beds.
Then it’s just a matter of climbing what is in effect a three-hundred-metre staircase to the summit—the final steep section has been beautifully engineered against erosion with a set of irregular rocky steps.
At this point I began to run into various family groups clattering down the path in T-shirts and trainers, with scant regard for on-coming traffic. Each time, I’d stop and step courteously off the path to let them pass. This action seemed to trigger a strange solicitousness, or perhaps I’m just looking particularly old and weary these days. But three times during my ascent someone turned to me as they passed and asked gently “Are you all right?” in the sort of tones usually reserved for wild-haired, bare-footed and pyjama-clad people roaming the streets at midnight. Three times.
So I was feeling slightly put-upon by the time I reached the summit to enjoy the airy views that had been obscured by mist on my previous visit. Here’s the view north to the triple summit of Beinn a’ Ghlo:
And then there was this:
I’ve encountered the “photographing my dog sitting on the view indicator” thing before, when I climbed East Lomond, but I thought it was some sort of one-off eccentricity. Now I’m guessing there’s a social media meme driving this otherwise inexplicable behaviour.
After a bit of lunch, I headed off down to the loch again, where I encountered a pretty memorial bench in a fine location:
And notice, if you will, the prominent hill at upper left. That’s Meall na h-Aodainn Moire, and I wonder if its distinctly cliffy appearance from this angle accounts for the name “mound of the big face”.
At this point I decided that I’d visit its summit rather than retrace my steps along the lochside. So I followed the path, visible above, that runs along the earth dam that pens in Loch a’ Choire, passed another nicely placed memorial bench, and then followed a slot in the heather that took me up to the broad shoulder between Meall na h-Aodainn Moire and Stac an Fheidh. I wandered out to the heathery top of Stac an Fheidh (“high rock of the deer”) to grab a photograph of Vrackie that shows the line of the path well:
Then I followed another track that took me high on the shoulder of Meall na h-Aodainn Moire before dropping down to join the Bealach Path just north of its highest point in the Bealach na Searmoin. (This is “pass of the sermon”. I don’t know why, but wonder if it was a route by which outlying communities reached the old parish church at Moulin, long ago.)
A diversion to the summit of Meall na h-Aodainn Moire gave me a nice view across the bealach to Meall Uaine (“green mound”). No prizes for guessing how it got its name:
Then it was just a matter of retracing my steps to the car. Along the way, I had my best wildlife encounters of the day, in the form of a succession of Peacock butterflies on the trackside vegetation:
And that was that. My surreal relationship with Ben Vrackie felt like it had been preserved by the weird solicitude of the descending family parties, and by the canine-portraiture episode on the summit. But there was one more bit of weirdness to follow. As I took off my boots in the Visitor Centre car park, I was abruptly approached by a young woman who was clutching the traditional mobile phone in one hand and a little bottle of mineral water in the other.
“Have you done the bungee jumping?” she asked, without preamble.
“No, I haven’t.”
“But have you ever done bungee jumping?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Well, what have you been doing?”
“Walking.” (I waved a newly doffed boot at her.)
“Where’ve you been walking?”
“And that’s a hill, is it?”
“But you haven’t done the bungee jumping?”
At which point she turned on her heel and left as abruptly as she came. A few seconds later, I heard her voice floating across the car park: “No, he was no use—he says he hasn’t done the bungee jumping.”
I’m glad we got that settled.