Bell’s Hill (NT 204643, 406m) Harbour Hill (NT 207653, 421m) Capelaw Hill (NT 216659, 454m) Allermuir Hill (NT 227661, 493m) Caerketton Hill (NT 235661, 478m) Castlelaw Hill (NT 224647, 488m)
14.8 kilometres 685m of ascent
I’ve been meaning to get back to the Pentlands since my previous trip, last year. This time I wanted to make a northerly circuit, starting from Flotterstone again. My route would take me on to Castlelaw Hill, which hosts the Castlelaw Firing Ranges and their surrounding Danger Area, and my heart sank slightly when I heard the sound of volley fire wafting into the car park as I tied my boot laces. That decided me on my direction of travel—I’d leave Castlelaw for last, in the hope that firing practice would have ceased by the time I got there.
I headed off up the tarmac beside Glencorse Reservoir, and then took the path towards Maiden’s Cleugh. I wanted to get to Bell’s Hill first of all, but there was a bracken-stuffed valley between the path and the hill, so I followed the path upwards until the ground to my left levelled out and the bracken disappeared, and then cut across to climb steeply through short heather on to the shoulder of Bell’s Hill, which afforded a fine view down towards my starting point.
A path ran along the ridge here, heading in the direction I wanted to go—towards the low pass at the top of Maiden’s Cleugh. On the 392m bulge just to the northwest of Bell’s, I found a small group of teenagers lying in the grass, staring at the sky, while a supervising adult inspected his watch, apparently timing whatever it was they were doing. Something involving mindfulness, I suspect.
From this viewpoint, my planned route was laid out on the sky line for me, circumnavigating the little valley of the Kirk Burn.
In Maiden’s Cleugh I encountered another party of teenagers with another adult, climbing the slope towards whatever fate had befallen their comrades.
The climb on to Harbour Hill was enlivened by a flock of wheatears, and then by another group of teenagers, this lot strung out across the hillside and being shouted at by another adult. (Gad, being a teenager was just rubbish, wasn’t it?)
Down into Phantom’s Cleugh (got to love these Pentland toponyms) and then on to Capelaw Hill, with a strange iron sculpture on its summit.
The climb on to Allermuir Hill (the highest of a not-very high bunch) was full of distraction, involving at least three little hawks, hovering with wings motionless in the stiff westerly breeze, just a couple of metres above the tussock grass. They’d drop suddenly into the grass, evidently miss their prey, and then rise again, shifting position here and there across the hillside too fast for me to train my camera on them. From a distance they had the colouration of kestrels, but I’ve never seen a kestrel hunt like that.
Allermuir had a view indicator, a sprawling view of Edinburgh and Arthur’s Seat, and an uncommunicative hill-runner who made a circuit of the summit and then headed off towards my next hill, Caerketton. Caerketton was a lovely complicated, craggy little thing, etched by multiple paths, very different from its rounded grassy neighbours.
Then I had the exercise of getting across to Castlelaw. The obvious route was to reascend Allermuir and then walk off southwards down the ridge towards Fala Knowe. But I’d noticed a traversing path that linked Allermuir’s east shoulder to that south ridge. This was unfortunately on the far side of a barbed wire fence from the main path, but at a strategic point the top barbed wire strand had been snipped and folded back, leaving an easy step-over.
The traverse path itself was odd—deeply rutted, but bearing only cloven hoof prints as far as I could see. It got me across to a stone wall and the main track linking Allermuir and Fala, though.
From here, I could see that a red warning flag was still flying on the summit of Castlelaw—but the track took me all the way to the summit before I ran into the boundary fence of the Danger Area. It’s a nice viewpoint from which to appreciation the hills of my previous circuit, around the Loganlea Reservoir.
Then just a steep descent down the side of the Danger Area to reach Castlelaw farm and the way back to my car at Flotterstone. Halfway down I met two men in a white van, who were coming up the hill, taking down the red flags one by one. If I’d been ten minutes slower in my circuit, I could have avoided the flags altogether.
Balthayock Hill(NO 189240, 219m) Unnamed Point (NO 191237, 208m) Unnamed Trig Point (NO 193231, 184m) Glencarse Hill (NO 185227, 182m) Pawns Hill (NO 180229, c.125m) Goukton Hill (NO 180218, 99m) Pans Hill (NO 184216, 105m)
11.3 kilometres 387m of ascent
You’ll have spotted that I’m having difficulty coming up with descriptive names for some of these wanders in the Braes of the Carse. I’ve called this one the Glen Carse Tour because it explores the hills on either side of Glen Carse—the steep scarp centred on Glencarse Hill in the north, and the gentle ridge of Pans Hill in the south.
I approached them in a roundabout way, however, starting from a flat pull-off beside a field entrance at NO 181243, just north of the cottages at Craignorth. From there, I walked through the open gate of the field. A gate at the top corner of the field took me into another field, from which another gate took me on to the open hillside. From there it was just a stroll to the bare summit of my first hill, which is unnamed on the OS map, but which the folks over at the Database of British and Irish Hills have named Balthayock Hill for convenience, presumably because of its proximity to Balthayock Wood. A multitude of tree stumps attest that the woodland once extended across this hill, too, but nowadays it’s a good viewpoint, particularly for the crags below the hill fort of Evelick, and for a glimpse of the Tay to the south.
From there I walked speculatively south. My plan was to aim for the high ground at the east end of the scarp face of Glencarse Hill—another unnamed summit, this one marked with a trig. point that seemed to be oddly embedded in old woodland. A partially ruined wall and sagging fence line were easily crossed, and I found myself on the tussocky summit of a very minor 208m eminence. The main point of interest was that it bore two of the chair-and-ladder-up-a-tree arrangements that I keep running into in the Sidlaws and Braes of the Carse. One of them was bedecked with camouflage netting, confirming that they’re probably set up for shooting birds, rather than fire-watching.
A stroll alongside another old wall, passing through pleasant and fairly open woodland (a roe deer plunging noisily away, only half-seen), a push into the trees using the GPS for guidance, and I arrived at my triangulation pillar. It had the forlorn look of all surpassed and abandoned technology—presumably the woodland was more open, or perhaps absent, when it was first set up, but now it was useless.
Then I headed westwards, aiming to come out at the top of the gully between Balthayock Wood and Glencarse Wood—an open vantage point from which I could plan my line to Glencarse Hill. And that worked well, the wooded slopes of Glencarse Hill appearing on the far side of a rather pretty (but stoutly fenced) meadow. Rather than try to cross the meadow, I took my line southwards, following an intermittent track that descended steeply into the gully. The mud bore only the marks of hooves and chunky bicycle tyres—no mere pedestrian would choose to take quite such a direct route down and then up again.
Glencarse Wood proved to be gorgeous open woodland with little in the way of undergrowth, and Glencarse Hill itself was crowned with impressive old beech trees, between which the Tay valley could just be glimpsed.
From there, I trickled westwards along another intermittent path, passing a splash of feathers where a raptor had recently plucked its prey. I skirted another little patch of meadow, this one full of grazing sheep, and conquered the tiny summit of Pawns Hill. The name probably has the same origin as Pans Hill, just across Glen Carse, but none of the suggested derivations seems particularly likely—a deposit for the loan of sum of money, a Scots name for the peacock, a chess reference, or a Greek deity mysteriously translocated?
From there, I aimed initially north, hoping to descend easily to the upper reaches of the Balthayock Burn, but I soon found myself on what seemed to be the remains of a broad woodland path. I thought this might take me somewhere interesting, but instead it petered out rather pointlessly among the trees, leaving me to descend (through more beautiful open woodland) to pick up what seems to have been an old driveway leading from a lodge in Glen Carse to Balthayock House.
It’s nowadays choked with invasive cherry laurel in its lower reaches, making it something of an adventure to push through in places, but it was probably once a fairly grand affair, to judge from the broken stone bench I encountered.
Eventually, after a bit of laurel-bashing, I reached the road in Glencarse. From there I could have walked back up to my car, but instead I walked only a short distance west before stepping over the sagging fence and climbing steeply up through a patch of trees to reach the open fields of Goukton Hill. There was a slightly awkward fence to cross, and then I was walking up past the poly-tunnel frames to the crest of the hill. Here, there was a large open area full of farm supplies, and another tiny summit, brightened and coconut-scented by flowering gorse. (The first syllable of Goukton is pronounced “gowk”—Scots for the cuckoo, though I heard none.)
Down into a very shallow dip, and then up to Pans Hill. There was a little fence-and-wall junction to negotiate (made easy by a few fortuitous gaps) before I reached the undistinguished summit among the trees, and then I hopped back over the fence-and-wall to reach a farm track that descended into Glen Carse. Three kilometres on tarmac took me back to my car, as well as giving me a glimpse of the current driveway of Balthayock House, which comes in from the west past a rather beautifully thatched lodge.
They were called ViewFinder Panoramas, they’d been created by Jonathan de Ferranti, and in my opinion they were things of exquisite, minimalist beauty. Each laminated strip showed the view from the summit of some named hill, colour-coded and annotated to allow the easy identification of other hills. They had been produced from Ordnance Survey Digital Elevation Models, rendered so as to depict the curvature of the Earth and the effects of atmospheric refraction, and then carefully annotated with the names and distances of individual peaks. On occasion, magnified sections were inset to provide additional detail. And features near the horizon were subtly stretched vertically so as to bring out the detail without giving the impression of distortion.
Here’s a comparison of the view eastwards from the summit of Ben Hope, compared to the corresponding ViewFinder diagram:
From the colour-coded distances, to the sector indicator at bottom left, to the bearings along the top of frame, it was a beautifully designed product. ViewFinders retailed for £1, or £1.50 for the larger, more complex products. You could order a bespoke view from the summit of your favourite hill for £16. Nowadays the entire catalogue is freely available on-line, covering worldwide views.
In 1999, Jonathan de Ferranti and I wrote an article together for the Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal, investigating whether it was possible to see any part of the Cuillin ridge in Skye from the Cairngorm plateau.* In this, we used Jonathan’s ViewFinder technology to revisit a question first raised by Guy Barlow in the same journal in 1956.† Barlow had constructed a wood and paper model, and concluded that Sgurr a’Ghreadaidh, on the Cuillin ridge, would be visible from the summit of Cairn Toul in the Cairngorms, because of a fortuitous sightline down the length of Glen Shiel. Jonathan produced a rendering of the same view and discovered that, although Barlow had the alignments exactly correct, he had neglected to allow for the position of Bla Bheinn, which sits east of the main Cuillin ridge, and which neatly blocked the view of Sgurr a’Ghreadaidh. The glimpse of Bla Bheinn, 90 miles away, was minute, occupying more or less a single pixel of the ViewFinder panorama, and in reality would need a telescope, strong refraction and perfect seeing conditions to appreciate. (In the scan below, Bla Bheinn takes its Anglicized spelling, Blaven.)
All of this is a roundabout introduction to Fabio Soldati’s excellent PeakFinder app, which is the natural successor to ViewFinder—indeed Jonathan de Ferranti is credited with providing some of the Digital Elevation Model data used by PeakFinder. With the huge leaps in processing speed and storage capacity that have occurred during the last two decades, it’s now possible to perform the necessary rendering tasks on the fly, producing annotated panoramas of pretty much anywhere in the world, on demand. Apps are available for Android and Apple phones at a cost of a few pounds, and there’s also a rather lovely on-line version. Here’s the view from Ben Hope again, compared with PeakFinder‘s on-line rendered view, and the version displayed by my rather primitive Android phone.
The on-line version provides shading, shows lochs and coastlines, and offers a few other bells and whistles, but the more basic rendering on my phone is beautifully clear. And having this software as a phone app produces multiple benefits. It can use the phone’s GPS to generate an annotated panorama for your current location, wherever that might be. And the app keeps its database locally, so it will work without a phone signal, provided you have already made the appropriate download. One quick 20MB download covers the whole of the UK, and you can add or delete additional areas as required, with most of the world available in handy chunks of data. If you have a smarter phone than I have, the app will use the phone’s orientation data to overlay its labels on the real view seen by your phone’s camera. This not only lets you easily figure out what you’re look at, but allows you to keep and share an annotated photograph. (Details on that one here.)
Apart from using your phone’s current location, you can select a different location by choosing from PeakFinder‘s extensive names database, tapping on Google Maps (you need a data connection for that), or by entering latitude and longitude coordinates.
Tapping on any of the named peaks in the displayed panorama brings up some information about that feature, and you can also flit across to look at the view from its summit. The names of all the visible peaks in the panorama can be displayed, searched, and sorted by elevation, distance or heading. Tap on one of these names, and you’re returned to the display with a handy marker pointing out that summit’s location. So with a couple of quick taps I was able to establish that the most distant feature visible from the summit of Dundee Law is Windlestraw Law, east of Peebles and a remarkable 88km away. Here’s the PeakFinder display showing me where to look for it:
The display units are configurable, and you can pop up depictions of the tracks of sun and moon across the sky, for a given date. Here’s the sun rising over the Orkneys from Ben Hope:
Is it accurate? It certainly seems to be, when compared to summit photographs from my collection. For me, Jonathan de Ferranti’s ViewFinder panoramas are the gold standard, so I challenged PeakFinder to show me the extremely marginal view of Bla Bheinn from Cairn Toul that Jonathan identified twenty years ago. Here it is again:
Here’s the view from the web-based version of PeakFinder, with Bla Bheinn again occupying pretty much a single pixel:
And here’s the view on my phone, zoomed in to its maximum extent:
No Bla Bheinn. I suspect the difference comes from either the screen resolution or the processing limitations of my dumb phone.
Setting aside ridiculously exacting tests like the one above, this is an extremely impressive bit of a kit, even more so if you have a phone that will allow you to use the app’s photographic annotation mode. If you’ve ever sat by a cairn and indulged in an endless, fruitless debate about the identity of some little notch on the horizon (and which of us has not?), then you’ll certainly want to spring a few quid on this lovely little app.
* “On Seeing The Cuillin From The Cairngorms—Again” SMCJ 1999, Vol. 37 No. 190 pp 42-8. † “On The Possibility Of Seeing The Cuillin From The Cairngorms” SMCJ 1956, Vol. 26 No. 147 pp 16-24.
A short update on a remarkable phenomenon encountered earlier this year. You may remember the picture above from a previous post. It’s the Pitroddie Burn disappearing down a sinkhole in the Den of Pitroddie. It emerges from the ground a couple of hundred metres downstream, apparently none the worse for the experience.
I first encountered it in spring spate. So after a couple of weeks without rain in late June and early July, I thought I’d go back and see what it looked like. I parked at the Glendruid cottages (NO 210251), where a rusty gate gives access to the bottom end of the Den. (Glendruid comes from Gaelic druid, “starling”. Sorry to disappoint anyone expecting Celtic priests.)
In the spring, the track up the glen was a little overgrown, but easily passable. I had met a couple of dog-walkers, and had it tagged as a possible way up to Evelick Hill at some time in the future. But the summer weather had turned it into a riot of every thorny or stinging plant native to Scotland. There were shoulder-high nettles with stings that could penetrate my walking trousers. I felt a certain hankering for a machete. So I was a little fretful by the time I got to the point at which the Pitroddie Burn disappears underground, and even more so by the time I’d slid down the overgrown banks to take a look at it.
The area previously filled with water was now an empty circular bowl with a flow channel around the edge and a hump in the middle. The trickle of the burn simply dropped unspectacularly out of sight in a little patch of mud. Here it is after I’d cleared away a clog of dead vegetation. You can judge the small scale from the leaves:
I’d previously thought that there must have been some sort of rockfall hereabouts, but it was difficult to see where it might have come from. The rock cover also looked suspiciously uniform in scale, as if someone had pushed a huge dry-stone wall into the river. So I began to wonder if the river has actually been buried under the spoil-heap from the Pitroddie Quarry, which forms the whole north side of the Den just downstream from where the burn stages its disappearance, and just upstream from where it reappears.
Here’s the Ordnance Survey’s 6-inch sheet of the area from the 1843-1882 series:
The burn is clearly shown to flow continuously down the Den.
But here’s the same area, on the 6-inch sheet from 1899:
The quarry workings are hugely extended, and the burn is doing its disappearing/reappearing act just as it does today. So it looks like the underground watercourse was deliberately created by infilling, when a network of tracks was built to serve the quarry and smithy in their heyday. The tracks are now vanished, the buildings all but vanished, but the burn still flows underground.
This link should take you to a display of the area with the two maps superimposed. At the left there’s a menu, and a blue slider marked “Change transparency of overlay”. Slide it to the right to see the early view, and to the left to fade in the later view. Neat, eh?
So that was that. But on the way back I encountered a marvellous congregation of Green-Veined Whites, dancing in the sunlight like a little crowd of fairies.
Skiddaw Little Man (NY 266277, 865m) Skiddaw Man (NY 260290, 931m)
10.7 kilometres 740m of ascent
On the way home from Yorkshire, a few months ago, I took a quick swerve into the Lake District to spend a couple of hours wandering up and down the tourist route on Skiddaw. Other priorities meant that I didn’t get around to posting that walking report until now.
Even on a weekday in late March, the rudimentary car park at Ormathwaite was packed with vehicles, and the hill something of a processional. I wondered how busy the approach from Bassenthwaite in the north was—I’d made a decision to go for the rather plodding southern approach simply because of the relatively short road detour in and out of Keswick.
Anyway. It was a scenic enough walk, albeit along the sort of motorway track that’s required on such a heavily trodden hill. I passed the pretty Hawell Memorial, commemorating three shepherds of the district, and then struck off up the long zig-zag on to the shoulder of Jenkin Hill.
The view south, across Keswick and Derwent Water towards Scafell Pike opened up steadily as I climbed—I took about four photographs of the same view from slightly different heights.
As usual in the Lakes, I was feeling oddly under-dressed. On a bright spring day, I was strolling along in shirt-sleeves, but I kept encountering people who were wearing the sort of garb I associate with skiing in sub-zero conditions—swathed in multiple layers, balaclavas covering their faces, hoods pulled up. I couldn’t help but wonder what they wore in the winter.
On Jenkin Hill I turned left from the main drag and climbed Skiddaw Little Man, where I took another picture of Derwent Water, and then headed across the dip to the main Skiddaw ridge.
The ridge itself gave me my first view down on to Bassenthwaite Lake, and a glimpse of the path that comes up over Longside Edge and Carl Side—I’m really going to need to go back and come up that way.
And then on to the trig. point on the main summit, Skiddaw Man, and its little view indicator (surprisingly basic for such a well-patronized hill).
I walked along the ridge a little farther, for the view northwards, and then turned to descend the way I came up. And it was here, at the south end of the ridge, that I had another encounter with the Hill Police.
I seem to be doomed to have one of these meetings once a decade. In my thirties, I was approached and chastised by a man wearing a kilt, for leaving my rucksack by the cairn while I nipped over to another summit a kilometre away (on a cloudless day of light winds, and carrying a compass with my return bearing already registered). In my forties, on a Grampian plateau in foul weather and worsening visibility, I was stopped by two men who told me to turn back immediately (at which point I had to explain that I had already turned back—I had just come up from the opposite direction to them). In my fifties, a young woman interrogated me in the car park about my plans for the day, and then assured me, with a combination of concern and disdain, that I didn’t have nearly enough food with me (I suppressed the urge to tell her that my provisioning plans had been working pretty well for the last thirty-five years).
And now, barely into my sixties, the Hill Police were at me again—I can only deduce that, while I imagine I radiate an air of calm capability on the hill, I’m actually coming over as a hapless idiot to those around me. On this occasion, a man wrapped in more clothing than Hillary and Tenzing wore on Everest came striding across to my shirt-sleeved self and directed me to descend the hill immediately, because the wind was “lethal” and I couldn’t “be up here dressed like that”. I was staring at him with some bemusement when I happened to glance over his shoulder and burst into laughter. Two young women were arriving from the direction of Carl Side, and they had not only stripped down to their T-shirts for the climb, they had rolled up the T-shirt sleeves. He wheeled around, stared at them incredulously for a moment, waved his arms up and down, shouted “My God!” in their direction (much to their consternation), and then strode off without another word.
This year the Crow Craigies Climbing Party stationed itself in Dornie, on Loch Alsh, handily placed for any number of hills. Static high pressure over the North Atlantic brought a succession of warm, humid days with light winds, often with low cloud in the morning dissipating to bring blue skies in the afternoon. The moral pressure to go out and climb something every day was therefore fairly high. So we did. Our routes are shown below in red.
Beinn Sgritheall (NG 836127, 974m)
14 kilometres 860m of ascent
The guide books tend to send you up Beinn Sgritheall via a madly steep ascent from the south. But, in anticipation of warmth and lack of fitness, we chose a longer walk in from the west, along a gently graded forest track and around Loch na Lochain, before joining the route from the south in the Bealach Rarsaidh, with its pretty little lochan.
The lochan afforded us a welcome glimpse of a diver (a loon, to my North American readers). It was no more than a characteristic silhouette against bright sunlight, but the jaunty upward tilt at which it held its beak suggested it was a red-throated diver.
I fired off a few telephoto pictures blindly, and a little bit of manipulation of the resulting images confirmed the sighting, bringing out the diagnostic grey head and red throat.
Then it was just a matter of the unavoidable steep climb up the ridge to the summit, with stunning (albeit hazy) views of Loch Hourn below, Knoydart to the south, and orographic cloud pouring over the ridges of Skye to the west.
Beinn Bhuidhe (NG 970182, 869m) Sgurr nan Saighead (NG 974178, 929m) Sgurr Fhuaran (NG 978167, 1067m) Sgurr na Carnach (NG 977159, 1002m) Sgurr na Ciste Duibhe (NG 984149, 1027m)
13 kilometres 1500m of ascent
This was a trip along the classic Five Sisters ridge. We parked a car under the Bealach an Lapain, and then drove a second car back to the coast at Allt a’ Chruinn, our starting point. There’s a little parking area for six cars at Allt a’ Chruinn. We walked a short distance up the road from there, and then we made a turn on to a surfaced track that looked unpromisingly like someone’s driveway, but which took us first up the service road to a small dam, and then on to a beautifully engineered path which followed the Allt a’ Chruinn almost all the way to the col at the head of Coire na Criche.
A traditionalist, intent on visiting all Five Sisters, would have turned left at this point, to visit 876m Sgurr na Moraich. Moraich is part of the classic pentaptych* of the Five Sisters as seen from the Mam Ratagan, across Loch Duich. It bulks large from that viewpoint, its relatively humble height being concealed by the fact it’s the closest Sister to the viewer.
But Munro-baggers, scorning anything under 3000 feet, have tended to ignore Moraich and reinterpret the Five to include the Munro Top of Sgurr nan Spainteach, at the east end of the ridge, which is obscured by Sgurr na Ciste Duibhe in the classic view.
The day being unfeasibly humid, we turned resolutely to the right, leaving Moraich to languish unloved.
We walked in cloud. It lifted more slowly than we’d hoped, and we had crossed Sgurr na Carnach in poor visibility before shafts of sunlight began to appear, and long tunnels in the cloud began to reveal neighbouring peaks and glens.
Sgurr na Ciste Duibhe turned out to be our last summit of the day. The cloud came down again, briefly, and we took an absolutely classic wrong turning on the double ridge that leaves the Bealach nan Spainteach. So we dropped out of the cloud to see the main ridge a little above us to the left, while we had been lured into following the spectacular rocky outcroppings of Druim Dubh Thollaidh.
Hmmm. It wouldn’t be too much trouble to climb back to the ridge to take in Sgurr nan Spainteach. Then again, the vista ahead was tempting—a long grassy rake all the way down to the car waiting in Glen Shiel, which would spare us the ghastly steep descent from Bealach an Lapain, which no-one remembers fondly.
So we descended. And it was lovely—a riot of wild flowers and waterfalls combined with easy walking. I’d certainly recommend it as the only pleasant way off the ridge at this point.
Sgurr na Forcan (NG 940130, 963m) The Saddle (NG 936131, 1101m) Sgurr na Sgine (NG 946113, 946m)
Another day, another classic traverse, served by another well-engineered path. This one’s a stalkers’ path that zig-zags up the hillside from Glen Shiel, and delivers you neatly to the base of the notorious Forcan Ridge of The Saddle.
The Forcan is a classic scrambling route, and pretty mild in comparison to, for instance, the Skye Cuillin. Heights and exposure don’t bother me particularly, but I am not a natural scrambler, so it was good to have my friend Rod (who insists on a mention—hi, Rod) as my trusty guide. He prevented me from doing anything daft, which (in scrambling as in life) is the main secret to success.
We’d walked in under cloud, but it was very obviously lifting, so we sat for a while below the Forcan until the summit had cleared. It’s a lovely ridge, and under Rod’s tutelage I only whimpered a little on the way along. Crampon scratches on the stone are a good guide to the route, but occasionally misleading—people wearing crampons for a winter traverse generally have ropes, too, and there’s an interesting 10m drop on the main ridge that a mere pedestrian (like me) is better off avoiding by using the sissy path that circumvents it on the left.
We crossed The Saddle’s twin tops, as confused as everyone else about which is the higher, and then descended into the Bealach Coire Mhalagain to cross to Sgurr na Sgine.
Sgine is very much the poor cousin of The Saddle, but provides fine views along the South Shiel Ridge, and also back to the Forcan.
Then we headed back to the bealach and climbed a little way up the far side to find a path that traverses below the Easter Buttress of the Forcan, along the line of one of those mad and apparently pointless stone walls that traverse the Highlands. And then back down to the glen via the stalkers’ path, although we cut a corner by descending steep grass, to avoid one of its wider zig-zags below Biod an Fhithich.
Bla Bheinn (NG 530217, 929m) Bla Bheinn Southwest Top (NG 528215, 926m)
9 kilometres 954m of ascent
The next day, with clear skies from the outset, we drove to Skye to take in Bla Bheinn (or Blaven, as it’s often Anglicized). The car park at the foot of the Allt na Dunaiche is a rather stealthy affair, these days. At some time the roadside sign has fallen off its pole, leaving only an unmarked and unpromising-looking entrance to a rough forest track—you have to drive up that for a short distance before the parking area becomes apparent through the trees.
Like the Saddle, a good path takes you to the foot of the hill. And like the Forcan, all hell then lets loose. Above the lovely little alp of Fionna-choire, the path turns into a treadmill of scree and steep rock, with a final little scramble up a gully to reach the breathtaking summit view.
And it really is breathtaking. To the west, the long jagged ridge of the Black Cuillin; to the north, the rolling mounds of the Red Cuillin; to the south, the Small Isles of Rum and Eigg; to the east, the mainland hills, laid out from Knoydart to Applecross.
We lingered at the top for a long time, in air so still that bees were audibly going about their business around the summit cairn. Then we traversed to the Southwest Top, a journey of a couple of hundred metres that involves a short but interesting shuffle along an exposed ledge, and then dropped down steep scree to a grassy shelf poised above the Fionna-choire and below the crags of Slat Bheinn. Here, someone had laid out a neat little circle of contrasting stones, reminiscent of the more complex artworks that adorn the ridge of Beinn Liath Mhor. Above us, somewhere among the crags, an eagle chick bellowed its hunger with an echoing CHEEP CHEEP—we scanned the sky for parental wings, but saw nothing.
More scree took us back into Fionna-choire, and back to the path down the glen.
By this time, a certain yearning had set in for a day that didn’t involved sliding around on scree and/or dangling above near-vertical drops. So we headed off to make a tame little circuit of the two easternmost hills on the South Shiel ridge.
We parked near the Cluanie Inn, and set off south along the old road that used to connect Glen Cluanie to Glen Garry—a link now severed by the expansion of dammed Loch Loyne, but still a fine quick way to reach the path that ascends Craig a’ Mhaim from the east. There was no wind at all on the summit, and life was made a little wearing by an overwhelming number of crane-flies, all of which seemed intent on flying into our eyes and mouths. From there, a broad ridge and then a surprisingly narrow rocky neck took us to Druim Shionnach—where there was no wind, but also no crane-flies. Along the way, we chanced to peer down into the northern corrie, and saw that we were not the only ones feeling affected by the heat—a deer was lounging in the residual snowfield below.
After sprawling in the sun for a while, we headed off to follow the hill’s northern ridge (to which the name “Druim Shionnach” more strictly applies) down towards the Cluanie Inn. There’s a little awkward navigation to circumvent the crags in the upper part of the hill, but thereafter it’s a pleasant stroll down to the outlet of Loch a’ Mhaoil Dhisnich, from which a path descends the rest of the way to Loch Cluanie.
It was on the slopes above Mhaoil Dhisnich we had our most startling wildlife encounter. I was descending in the lead, when suddenly a very young red deer calf, still sporting its juvenile white spots, erupted out of its couching place a few metres to my left. It emitted an oddly catlike mewing noise, and then galloped over the near horizon in a panic.
When my companion (Rod again—hi, Rod) caught up with me, we stood for a moment to discuss what had happened, until we realized we had a red deer hind fidgeting in our peripheral vision, a few metres to our right. She had clearly responded to the distress call of her calf, and was unsettled to find the calf absent and a pair of humans standing about chatting. We froze in place—and after a moment she walked delicately around us to reach the calf’s couching spot. She sniffed and licked the heather for a few seconds, and then suddenly her head came up and she wheeled around and galloped off along the calf’s exact line of flight. Either the calf had called again, or she had caught its scent on the slight and errant breeze.
We breathed again, and walked off down to the Cluanie Inn to celebrate a rare and strange encounter.
Moruisg (NH 101499, 928m)
7.6 kilometres 800 metres of ascent
Finally, a bit of a tame day, at least for Your Correspondent. For reasons too mind-meltingly complex to share with you here, we ended up undertaking a two-car walk using only one car. So I climbed to the top of Moruisg, came back down the same way, moved the car down the road, and then walked up the Allt a’ Chonais to rendezvous with the remaining contingent of the CCCP, who had hiked across country to get there. We were slightly wrong-footed in the early part of the walk by the existence of a previously unsuspected deer fence—so our route up the hill was dictated by the location of the gate in the upper part of this fence. But thereafter there was a decent path up steep grassy slopes, which brought us out at the northeast end of Moruisg’s short summit ridge, where a large cairn stands to confuse the unwary—the summit is actually at the other end of the ridge, sporting a small and dilapidated cairn of its own.
And that was that. We had spent an unprecedented six days in the Scottish Highlands entirely without rain.
* A pentaptych is a painting, often iconographic, in five panels. Hill writers are tediously fond of trotting out the word triptych for any trio of hills, particularly the “Torridonian triptych” of Alligin, Liathach and Eighe. So I thought I’d give pentaptych an outing. I might even wheel out heptaptych when we get to the South Shiel ridge. Some days I’m just mental like that.
I’ve climbed these two hills from all sorts of directions, including a previous report from Glen Doll. But I’ve never come at them from the Glen Prosen side. While Glen Doll has a sort of bustling cosmopolitan feel to it, with its big car park, picnic tables and visitor centre, Prosen feels like sleepy hollow, with the road simply coming to an end at Glenprosen Lodge.
I parked on a patch of grass just above the lodge buildings, and walked off on the broad track up the glen—the sun was bright, but the cloud shadows were moving quickly, making me wonder what might come my way later in the day. I was heading for Kilbo at the head of the glen, a shieling marked as a “ruin” by the Ordnance Survey. From there, the Kilbo Path rises northwards, to pass between the summits of Mayar and Driesh before descending through Corrie Kilbo into Glen Doll. Kilbo is from the Gaelic cuil bo, “cattle nook”, which could apply to either the northern corrie or the land around the southern shieling.
Kilbo proved to be anything but a ruin, however. Some time in the last decade it has been completely rebuilt as a rather fine shelter for (I’d guess) deer-stalking and grouse-shooting. It was locked up solidly, with every shuttered window firmly padlocked in a way that would do credit to a high-security compound in Lusaka, rather than a remote highland cottage. I can only assume that the estate has had problems with walkers causing damage while using the building as a convenient bothy.
(For comparison, here is a nice photo of what the place used to look like—it also shows the nearby forestry before it was felled.)
The Kilbo Path ascends the Shank of Drumwhallo just behind the cottage. “Shank” is a Scots word for a ridge that descends from a hill, and there’s a whole row of them on the north side of Prosen—from west to east, the Shanks of Drumwhallo, Driesh, Strone, Barns and Ord. As I reported in my previous post about this area, Drumwhallo has a counterpart in Glen Doll, the Shank of Drumfollow, which probably has the same etymology—druim falamh, “empty ridge”.
Much of the forestry marked on the map in Glen Prosen has been cleared, and the patch of woodland behind Kilbo was no exception. Rather than trudge up through the dispiriting blasted heath that remained, I struck uphill behind the shieling, following a forestry vehicle track up the east side of the cleared area, before crossing the Burn of Kilbo and climbing to join the Kilbo Path on Cairn Dye. A pair of roe deer bounded away as I cleared their sky-line, the male’s antlers sheened with velvet.
At its north end in Glen Doll, the Kilbo Path follows a beautifully engineered gradient on the west side of Corrie Kilbo, sheltered from the prevailing winds. Here in the south, though, it follows the ridge line—affording wider views, but always exposed to the wind.
I was soon up in the col between Mayar and Driesh, where I turned westwards to visit Mayar first. The intermittent sunshine of the morning was being replaced by lowering dark cloud in the west, so I put on a bit of spurt. Mayar offered a broad view down Glen Prosen, showing the way I’d come in the morning, and the distant dot of Kilbo shieling.
Then I was heading eastwards towards Driesh, with the wind strengthening at my back, and the first hint of dampness in the air.
Corrie Kilbo still had a cornice of snow decorating its crags, over which I peered down towards Glen Doll.
I’d no sooner reached Driesh’s sheltering cairn, than the cloud clamped down over the mountain top and a thin rain started to fall.
I didn’t tarry long at the cairn—just enough time to set a compass course south for the Shank of Driesh, which was my route back to the glen. After descending fifty metres or so through cloud, I got visibility back, with the scar of the Landrover track coming up the Shank providing an easy landmark ahead. As I descended, relays of mountain hares took turns at running madly and then freezing to watch me go by, all of them still bearing the last traces of their white winter coats.
A batter of sleety rain from the west decided my next move. Rather than follow the ridge-line down, I dropped eastwards towards the ominously named Dead Water, successfully finding some shelter from the wind.
From there, I hooked up with yet another Landrover track, this one serving the grouse butts on Shank of Strone, and then descended gently through the (partially cleared) Glenclova Forest. Quite why this forest is named for a glen on the other side of an 800m mountain ridge to its north, I don’t know.
After a while, and just as the rain was starting to properly settle in for the duration, I popped out of the forest right next to my car. For once, I had managed to park in a place that was convenient for my return route.
Montague Hill (NO 196285, 227m) Beal Hill (NO 203273, 257m) Evelick Hill (NO 199257, c270m) Pole Hill (NO 195260, 288m)
17.9 kilometres 580m of ascent
So, another little segment in my exploration of the Braes of the Carse. This time I parked in the Glen of Rait, in a little pull-off below the crags of Swirlhead at NO 204277. It’s said that Cromwell’s army camped below Swirlhead in 1651, while subduing the country between Perth and Dundee, and it still looks as if the area might accommodate a small army in reasonable shelter.
My first hill was Montague Hill, named for Montague Farm nearby, which in turn took its name from its one-time owners (whose name, ironically enough, means “pointed hill” in French). Dorward writes that the hill’s name is locally pronounced mont-AIG-ie. I walked up the road from my car, and turned up the muddy track that loops around the north side of the hill. After a while I climbed steeply uphill, to arrive next to a plantation fence. I followed the fence around three sides of the plantation, to reach the summit on tussocky moorland with fine views to the north-west across Strathmore, and to the termination of the main Sidlaws ridge at Bandirran, Dunsinane and Black Hills.
Back more or less the way I came, and to within a few metres of the car, at which point I went around a pair of fenceless double gates, across a rather precariously fastened gate just beyond, and out on to the moorland of Beal Hill, where I scared up a small herd of roe deer. The summit is wooded with beech and Scots pine, and crossed by the low ridge of some ancient wall. Through the trees, you can peer out at the silver thread of the Tay.
From there, I picked my way south and west, roughly following farm tracks and convenient gates, and then descending steeply to the boggy headwaters of the Balmyre Burn, scaring up snipe and curlews as I ploutered through the mire.
An improbably low barbed wire fence here turned out to be easy to step over, but probably not if you’re anything much under six feet tall. Then I climbed sixty or seventy metres up steep grass to find myself more or less at the level of the minor road running over from Evelick to Dalreichmoor. A gate there took me on to Pole Hill, and another gate let me walk around the east side of the hill, following a fearsome barbed wire fence blocking access to the summit, until I reached the promontory hill fort on the hill’s south-east shoulder. The terraces here look spectacular in the low lighting on Google Earth, but are rather difficult to pick out, let alone photograph, on site.
Although the Ordnance Survey provides no name for this shoulder, Colin Gibson calls it “Evelick Hill”, which is at least occasionally attested in old documents on-line, so that’s the name I’ve gone with here. The name comes from Gaelic eibhleag “ember”, which Dorward links to the possibility of beacon fires being lit on this handy vantage point. The fort certainly commands excellent views into the Carse of Gowrie, and together with its companion on Law Hill, overlooking Strathmore, nothing much could cross the pass between Pole Hill and Murrayshall Hill without being noticed.
Back to that fearsome fence surrounding the summit of Pole Hill. Here there were two parallel fences, presumably erected by landowners either side of the divide. A gate in one fence no longer served a useful purpose, since it opened only into the gap between the two fences. But I found a low spot and slid under the second fence unscathed. The trig point on Pole Hill gave views all round—into Strathmore, across Evelick Hill to the Tay and Fife, north-east to Beal Hill, and west to the obelisk on Murrayshall Hill, visited on a previous trip.
But I was bound southwards, to the little steep-sided valley of the Pitroddie Burn, which would take me to the road, and then five or six kilometres on tarmac back to my car. Choosing a route was tricky—the ground was everywhere steep, with crags fringing the upper slope here and there, and a quarry at the bottom towards the eastern end. So I went west, to follow the little notch a stream had cut in the steep ground, affording a slightly gentler slope.
This went well, if wetly, and brought be down into the headwaters of the Pitroddie Burn. All I had to do was follow the burn downstream for about 600 metres, and I’d arrive at the footpath through Pitroddie Den, which would take me to the road. It looked easy enough on the map.
What the map doesn’t show is the dense willow and gorse that clothe the sides of a steep little cleft, at the bottom of which the burn meanders boggily back and forth. The burn was in spate with meltwater, and a barbed wire fence running right down the middle of the cleft meant that each meander had to be crossed within a very limited range of options. As I got farther downstream, the burn grew ever wider, and my broad-jumps ever more precarious. And the vegetation closed in, pushing me towards the barbed fence. By the time I emerged at the neat little gate which gives access to the Den itself, I was a slightly stressed and grubby shadow of my former self.
But beyond that, the woodland opened up, the path was easy to follow, and the burn stayed decently to my right at all times. Until it disappeared. One moment a broad and busy watercourse, and then gone. It simply ends in a still pool surrounded by steep banks, and I picked my way down to the water’s edge to find out what on earth had happened to my nemesis river.
Towards the south side of the pool there was a vortex, for all the world like the one that forms in bathwater when the plug is pulled. And below the vortex, a black hole in the riverbed. The Pitroddie Burn was draining underground. It’s there on the map, a little east of the sector I posted above—the blue line of the watercourse ends at NO 203252, and reappears at NO 207251, four hundred metres farther down the Den, where the burn simply gushes busily out of the hillside as if nothing unusual had ever happened to it. Remarkable.
From there, it was plain sailing along the road to Kilspindie and Rait (a huge flock of geese occupying the flat grasslands south of the road), and then a steady pull back up Glen of Rait to the car. That road is not ideal for walking, I must report. It’s narrow and winding, with many blind corners which give Audi drivers (why are they always Audi drivers?) ample opportunity to mow down the unwary. Take care, or avoid it altogether.
Dron Hill is an outlier of an outlier of the Sidlaws. I didn’t include it in my Sidlaws Gazetteer because it felt like it might be one of the Braes of the Carse, but it actually doesn’t feel like it belongs there either. Either way, it’s one of those rare instances in this area of a settlement taking its name from a hill, and not the other way around—dronn is Gaelic for “hump”. And this “hump hill” is reputedly easily climbed by walking a few hundred metres from the little hamlet of Dron to its east, but that really seems far too simple, doesn’t it?
So I walked in a couple of miles from the north-west, having parked at the gate of Little Ballo woodlands (NO 269348). I’ve been this way before, when I first visited Redmyre Loch and climbed White Hill, and I wanted to have another wander around that area. The path from Little Ballo to Dron is prominently signposted, but deeply disappointing. It starts as a broad woodland path, and ends as a broad farm track—but there’s a kilometre in the middle in which it is no more than a shoulder-wide muddy slot between whin bushes, rutted by the tracks of bikes and horses.
I followed the track down past the Redmyre sheepfolds, Redmyre Cottage, and a grand-looking house just beyond that, to a corner (NO 291325) where the track turns towards the road at Dron. There was a field gate here that looked like it would give access to the hill, but I chose instead to dive into the open woodland to its left, with the vague expectation that I’d find a fallen fence or a broken gate at the top end. No such luck—although I was able to step over one line of fencing, I ended up teetering over some rather sturdy barbed wire to get access to the open hill. It’s not a good route.
But Dron Hill itself is a delight—rolling grassland dotted with beech and pine, the just discernable ring of a prehistoric fort, and lovely views south to Dundee and the Tay estuary, and north to the main Sidlaw ridge.
From the summit I dropped northwards, following a prominent animal track towards a bridge over the Dron Burn that’s marked on the 1:25,000 map. That took me to a gate, which took me back to the field gate I had spurned on the way up. So that’s the easy route. (Oh well—you can’t guess right every time.)
From there I had aspirations to get back to my starting point by skirting around the south side of White Hill, where the map shows a track linking the Redmyre sheepfolds to the Redmyre estate buildings and then on to Littleton, from where I could walk up the road to my car. But this proved to be an abortive attempt. Although old maps show this as the main, tree-line approach to the estate buildings, there has been a determined effort to block the route, with electric fencing and a new plantation of trees in place. Walkers are instead routed northwards, on a line that eventually links back to the Little Ballo path I’d come along. I wandered southwards for a bit, to see if I could connect to a remnant of the old southerly route into Redmyre (also prominent on the old maps) but ran into even more fences.
Oh well. Time for Plan B. I headed back to the track junction at the sheepfolds (NO 287331), pausing along the way to commune for a while with a very relaxed red squirrel in the woodland to the south. (Redmyre have set up a squirrel hide here, but this little fella was just running back and forwards across the track on some obscure squirrel business.)
Then I walked back up the ghastly route to Little Ballo as far as a gate at NO 283338.
I stepped over the collapsed fence next to it (you can see it in the picture, above) and then followed a vehicle track through the trees and up to Redmyre Loch. Last time I was here, I was greeted by strange bird noises, which proved to be emanating from a little group of Whooper Swans. This time the loch was dotted with Mute Swans, Canada Geese, and whole flotillas of ducks … and there were more strange noises. Here’s what it sounded like, courtesy of the good people at xeno-canto:
Male wigeon, calling. They obviously didn’t get the “quack quack” memo from Duck Central.
Marching on past Redmyre’s eccentric mock-Tudor boat house, I followed the track south, to finally reach the Redmyre estate buildings, after walking a couple of kilometres around a triangular route to get there, instead of a couple of hundred metres along their old approach road.
After that, it was plain sailing—a scenic stroll westwards down what seems to now be Redmyre’s only access track (completely replacing its historical approaches from east and south), to reach a muddy junction at Littleton Farm, and then about a kilometre up a quiet road to my car at Little Ballo.
Tinkletop Hill (NO 260304, 184m) Gallows Knowe (NO 272311, 162m) Rossie Hill (NO 277310, 173m) Kirkton Hill (NO 260318, 253m) Forehill (NO 243320, 250m)
16 kilometres 520 metres of ascent
Well, a look at the map suggests that “circuit” isn’t quite the right word, but I’m hard pressed to come up with anything better. This was a wander that started and finished in Abernyte, with the intention of taking in the significant hills around that village. Since it looked like I was going to be crossing farmland to get to some of my chosen summits I chose a frosty winter day—the crops would be in, and the inevitable mud of the farm tracks would be frozen solid.
I parked on a piece of waste ground just outside the village, and walked back down the B953 to a field entrance just opposite Milton Farm. The gate was wide open, and I could see my line to Tinkletop very clearly—up the hill along two field margins, turn left, and then another field margin to take me to the wooded top of the hill. The only slight difficulty along the way was a little, low, temporary electric fence, about a half a metre high, strung across the track. This was very easy to step over, apart from the inevitable hysterical instability induced by straddling a bare electric wire.
Tinkletop sounds like it should be a geographical feature in the Shire, from Lord of the Rings, rather than a real place. David Dorward, in his book The Sidlaw Hills, offers two possible origins for the name. One is the possibility that the hill once bore a watchtower and alarm bell (though “tinkle” seems the wrong word); the other is that it comes from tinkler, a Scots word for a tinker or tinsmith. On this occasion the summit bore nothing but an impressively shallow-rooted windfallen tree.
Down the way I came, and then back along the road into Abernyte village before turning right at the signpost to the church. The presence of the church explains the name of nearby Kirkton Hill, named for Kirkton Farm, the farm-toun by the church. It was on my list, but first I wanted to find a way into the Rossie Priory Estate, which surrounds Rossie Hill. I had my eye on the entrance, marked on the map, opposite Kirkton Farm, but this proved to be locked. So I wandered on up the road, and then turned into an open field that took me across to the saw mill at East Newton. A short distance up the Knapp road took me to the North Lodge entrance to the estate. I then followed my nose and the 1:25,000 OS map, going pretty much back the way I’d come except now inside the estate grounds, and walking along narrow forest tracks.
The 1:25,000 shows both Gallows Knowe and Rossie Hill apparently completely enclosed by fences. Gallows Knowe actually turned out be encircled by the remains of an ancient wall, which constituted no barrier to reaching its heavily wooded summit.
The top of Rossie Hill, however, is encircled by a deer fence—with an open gate in its south-west side and a disused track running up to the (again, wooded) summit.
I followed estate tracks down to the West Lodge, and then headed for something I had noticed at the roadside as I walked up past Kirkton Hill—a wee gate and plaque announcing the Millennium Glebe Walk.
This gave a direct line between the farm fields, straight on to Kirkton Hill, and then wound up the shoulder of the hill, past various strategically placed benches, then into the trees and eventually to within a few yards of the (wooded) summit.
But at least there was a chance of a view nearby, where the edge of the woodland looked out over the fields towards the west end of the Sidlaw ridge.
I wove my way north-westwards, following the wall that separated trees from grazing land, eventually hopping over into the fields at an obvious crossing place, with a plastic tube threaded over the barbed wire, and a stone provided to step down on to. Then it was just a matter of choosing a line across the empty field to reach the gate at North Pitkindle Farm. From there I walked a short distance down the road to join the B953 again. South would take me back to Abernyte, but I headed west for my last hill of the day.
Forehill is another name assigned by the folk over at the Database of British and Irish Hills—the 250m summit is unnamed by the Ordnance Survey, and the name Forehill (“Front Hill”) is actually associated with a 233m subsidiary hump, enclosed by Forehill Wood.
I walked a short distance up the farm road to Pitkindie, and then turned through another open field gate. Following the field margins took me to the top of the hill, which is traversed by a field fence.
Then I dropped down the other side, still following the fence, until I came down to the headwaters of the Abernyte Burn, near the farm aptly called The Ford. After following the field margin parallel to the burn, I walked through the farm yard and out on to the track that runs from The Ford all the way back to Abernyte. This used to be the main road connecting Bandirran and Abernyte, but now it’s a pleasant (and in places slightly overgrown) walk down the Whitehill Den and then the Whitehills Farm track.
I was just reflecting on the fact I hadn’t seen much in the way of interesting birdlife, when two pairs of bullfinches, the males an almost luminous pink in the low sunlight, came down to take a look at me in turn.
“Stay there,” I said, reaching for camera. But they flew away.