Category Archives: Walking

CCCP 2017: Corrour

I introduced the Crow Craigies Climbing Party last year, when I described our trip to Bonar Bridge. This year took us to a cottage at Corrour, at the east end of Loch Ossian.

Corrie Odhar cottage, Loch Ossian
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Loch Ossian has a certain glamour to it—a remote and pretty loch that takes some effort to get to. Most people arrive by train, at Corrour Station, which sits in splendid isolation in the middle of a bog about a mile from the west end of the loch, and they either stay in the station’s limited accommodation, use the Youth Hostel on the loch shore, or camp.

Our aim was to climb the higher hills surrounding Ossian. In a week dogged by rain, we nevertheless managed to make a pretty thorough job of it, as a map of our various routes shows:

Corrour routes
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Sgor Iutharn (NN 489743, 1028m)
Carn Dearg (NN 504764, 1034m)
Diollaid a’ Chairn (NN 488758, 925m)
Geal-Charn (NN 469746, 1132m)
Aonach Beag (NN 457741, 1116m)
Beinn Eibhinn (NN 449733, 1102m)
Meall Glas Choire (NN 436727, 924m)

29.4 kilometres
1580m of ascent

Eibhinn / Dearg ridge route
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We walked up the Uisge Labhair, where a winding boggy path follows the north side of the river all the way to the Bealach Dubh. But a couple of kilometres before the bealach, we climbed northeast up the slopes of Sgor Iutharn, crossed the summit and peered down the rocky crest of Lancet Edge. From there, we went west to the dip below the massive bulk of Geal-Charn, and then north along a traverse that brought us out at the path between Geal-Charn and Carn Dearg. There’s an obvious line initially, which weaves pleasantly enough across rocky shelves dotted with tiny lochans, but the last hundred metres before the path involves traversing a steep grass slope a long way above Loch an Sgoir—tussocky enough to provide secure footholds, but distinctly unpleasant if you have any sensitivity to that sort of exposure.

Once on the path we ambled out to Carn Dearg, which gave spectacular views of a cloudy Ben Alder, and a glimpse of the legendary (but sadly closed) Culra Bothy in the valley below. Sleety rain blew through on a cold wind while we were on the summit, and we walked into the teeth of it to recross Diollaid a’Chairn, before the sun came out again for the slog up Geal-Charn.

After the slog, the stroll—Geal-Charn’s big grassy plateau was a welcome relief after the steep ascent. From there we wove our way across to Aonach Beag, then the long, curved ridge of Beinn Eibhinn, with its twin summits a couple of hundred metres apart.

A grassy ridge, a short but steep pull up Meall Glas Choire, then a long descent through heather and bog (easily managed by staying as high as possible for as long as possible), and we were at the little dam on the Uisge Labhair, with just a kilometre-and-a-half of service road to walk down to our cottage.

Carn Dearg from the top of Lancet Edge
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Carn Dearg (on the left) from the top of Lancet Edge
Lancet Edge above Loch an Sgoir
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Lancet Edge above Loch an Sgoir
Descending towards Beinn Eibhinn
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Descending towards Beinn Eibhinn
Crossing between the summits of Beinn Eibhinn
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Crossing between the summits of Beinn Eibhinn

Beinn na Lap (NN 376695, 935m)

6.5 kilometres
540m of ascent

Beinn na Lap route
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Morning rain cleared in the afternoon, and we nipped up Beinn na Lap by the tourist route. Usually this is a smash-and-grab hill, climbed between trains from Corrour Station, but we lazily drove along the lochside and parked at the foot of the muddy path. It’s just a matter of walking directly uphill for a while, and then along the ridge for a while, to get to the summit.

At the cairn, we found some plastic shot glasses stuffed into the cairn, which we tidied away and carried down with us. A later check of social media revealed that, two days previously, there had been no less than three parties on the summit celebrating the completion of a Munro round. It appears that for some people it’s too much effort to carry down a tiny plastic object weighing a few grams, once they’ve finished using it.

Three simultaneous completions on Beinn na Lap seemed remarkable, so I contacted Dave Hewitt, who maintains a database of Munro completion dates and final hills. In Dave’s dataset, Beinn na Lap is the third most popular final hill, after Ben More (Mull) and Ben Lomond. He has records of ten days when their were double completions, and one amazing day when five separate parties were celebrating a final Munro on the hill. (Gad, I’m glad we didn’t run into any of that.)

Parked at the foot of Beinn na Lap
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Parked at the foot of Beinn na Lap
Summit of Beinn na Lap
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Summit of Beinn na Lap
Head of Loch Ossian from Beinn na Lap
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Head of Loch Ossian from Beinn na Lap

Carn Dearg (NN 417661, 941m)
Sgor Gaibhre (NN 444674, 955m)
Sgor Choinnich (NN 443683, 929m)

13.1 kilometres
920m of ascent

Carn Dearg & Sgor Ghaibhre route
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We had 24 hours of continuous heavy rain the next day, and despondently watched the rivers filling. Our plan to visit Ben Alder went on hold, since it involved a double crossing of the broad Uisge Labhair. So when we ventured out the following day, our next trip was designed to avoid river crossings.

We headed south, along the track to the dam on the Allt a’ Choire Chreagaich. The Harvey’s 1:25000 map shows a couple of handy ATV tracks branching off from this, and we used one of these to get ourselves high on the slopes of Carn Dearg (yes, another Carn Dearg). We had a sunny day, but a strong westerly wind blew us over Dearg and on to Sgor Gaibhre. From there we descended into the Bealach nan Sgor, below Sgor Choinnich. There’s a lovely shelf of rock at the east side of the bealach, creating complete shelter from westerly winds, and we were able to tuck ourselves in there and have a bite to eat without the wind blowing our crisps out over Loch Ericht.

Then over Sgor Choinnich and down to join another of the ATV tracks shown by Harvey’s. This took us down to the dam again, and what turned out to be an easy ford in the narrow river. (Plan B had involved pushing through the forest and/or climbing a deer fence to avoid the river crossing, so we were pleased to get back to our starting point so easily.)

Climbing Carn Dearg, Strath Ossian beyond
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Climbing Carn Dearg, with a view up Strath Ossian
Descending Carn Dearg towards Sgor Gaibhre
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Descending Carn Dearg towards Sgor Gaibhre
Loch Ericht and Schiehallion from Sgor Gaibhre
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Loch Ericht and Schiehallion from Sgor Gaibhre

Ben Alder (NN 496718, 1148m)
Sron Coire na h-Iolaire (NN 513704, 955m)
Beinn Bheoil (NN 516717, 1019m)

33.2 kilometres
1580m of ascent

Ben Alder & Beinn Bheoil route
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The next day, the forecast predicted light showers at three, and rain setting in at seven in the evening. With a day of dry weather and an easy river crossing under our belts, this was our chosen day for Ben Alder. It was just a pity that the weather forecast was completely wrong, over the whole of Scotland, on that day.

We went back up the path beside the Uisge Labhair until we drew level with the Bealach Cubhann and the broad western shoulder of Ben Alder. The river crossing was easy, exploiting one of the many shallow gravel banks at this point. On the south side of the river, there was a short stretch of bog-trotting before we were able to strike off uphill and then along the easy angle of the ridge towards Alder’s huge summit plateau. A ring ouzel flirted with us for a while, until we were safely off his territory.

We climbed into thin cloud, which seemed on the verge of clearing by the time we reached Alder’s huge cairn and lightning-struck trig point. But after twenty minutes, we were still sitting in cloud—so we pushed south along the crags above the Garbh Choire, finding an intermittent path and running into a couple of young folk on a Duke of Edinburgh Award expedition, coming up from Benalder Cottage. At that point, the rain started, about seven hours early.

The path vanished into the confused ground of the Sron Bealach Beithe, and there was a little tricky navigation in poor visibility to keep ourselves safely away from the crags on the north side.

Visibility returned in the Bealach Breabag, and we could see Loch Ericht and Loch a’ Bhealaich Bheithe on either side of us, apparently enjoying thin sunshine—we seemed to be trapped in a little local weather caused by a cap of orographic cloud on Ben Alder and neighbouring Beinn Bheoil. On the ridge of Beinn Bheoil, we could see the rest of the Duke of Edinburgh crew, trudging upwards.

So, in a half-witted triumph of hope over experience, we climbed Beinn Bheoil. The rain got heavier; visibility closed in farther. It was miserable.

Back to the bealach then, and the prospect of a long walk home around Ben Alder. We squelched down the path to Benalder Cottage (an idyllic location, and a haven that allowed us to duck out of the rain for a few minutes). Then we squelched up the long, beautifully engineered stalkers’ path that links Benalder Cottage to the Bealach Cumhann. It was nice not to have to watch our feet for a while, and pleasant to know that the navigation was easy from here on. But persisting rain and the swollen rivers coming down off Ben Alder to our right reminded us that we still had a broad river crossing between us and home.

But the ford turned out to be still easy, and we churned wearily back to the cottage in boggy conditions. All in all, it was a criminal insult to two gorgeous hills to climb them in such foul conditions.

Summit cairn of Ben Alder, in the mist
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Summit cairn of Ben Alder, in the mist
Descending to Benalder Cottage
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Descending to Benalder Cottage
Benalder Cottage
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The haven of Benalder Cottage
The path to Bealach Cumhann
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The fine path from Benalder Cottage to Bealach Cumhann

Beinn a’ Bhric (NN 317642, 876m)
Leum Uilleim (NN 330641, 909m)

11 kilometres
600 metres of ascent

Leum Uilleim route
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Our last day involved another morning of rain, followed by a quick circuit of the Leum Uilleim horseshoe. Leum Uilleim is “William’s Leap”, but no-one seems very sure who William was, or where and why he leapt. This another hill that’s usually climbed between trains at Corrour Station, and it’s probably most famous for its guest appearance in the film Trainspotting:

We parked the car next to the station, crossed the railway line, and then followed a track that ran alongside the rails for a while before turning uphill on to the ridge of Tom an Eoin. From there we walked across to the rocky little summit of Beinn a’ Bhric, and then on to the cairn of Leum Uilleim. Both these hills are simply jaw-dropping viewpoints—the Ossian hills to the east, the Treig hills and Grey Corries to the north, a complex cavalcade of the the Nevis range, the Mamores, Glen Coe and the Black Mount to the west, and a long jumble of hills stretching from Bridge of Orchy through the Lawers range to Schiehallion in the south.

We gawped, we chortled, we spun on our heels and argued about what we were seeing—and then we dropped steeply off the Sron an Lagain Ghairbh, crossed the bog, and drank some beer (at an eye-wateringly marked up price) at the railway station.

A very fine last day.

Corrour Station
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The teeming metropolis of Corrour Station
The ridge of Tom an Eoin
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The ridge of Tom an Eoin, looking towards Stob Coire Sgriodain and Chno Dearg
Grey Corries and Easains from Leum Uilleim
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The Grey Corries and Easains from Leum Uilleim
Loch Ossian from Leum Uilleim
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Our whole week’s hills laid out around Loch Ossian, from Leum Uilleim

Sidlaws: Tealing Hill to Hayston Hill

Laidloon Hill (NO 393420, 312m)
Broom Hill (NO 383421, c290m)
Gallow Hill (NO 391413, 378m)
Tealing Hill (NO 407402, c260m)
Ironside Hill (NO 399411, 354m)
Finlarg Hill (NO 406419, 336m)
Kincaldrum Hill (NO 414436, 309m)
Hayston Hill (NO 408449, c235m)

17.7 kilometres
580m of ascent

Tealing Hill - Hayston Hill route
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It’s distinctly possible that no-one in the entire history of humanity has linked these two obscure little hills in a day’s walk before. (I do these things so you don’t have to.)

Each of them is a rather minor outlier from the main ridge, neither of them with what you’d actually call a summit. Tealing Hill is west of the road-crossing at Lumley Den, and Hayston is to the east. So this trip also addressed a minor agenda of mine, which has been to join up the obvious Sidlaw ridge walks (the sections bounded by the various road passes) with linking walks that traverse the passes. I’ve already done this for the slightly tricky links across Ballo Glack and Glack of Newtyle; the A923 crossing at Tullybaccart is straightforward, with a car park more or less on the ridge line and paths going off on to the hills in both directions; and the minor road crossing that separates Bandirran Hill from the rest of the ridge is rendered essentially impassable by the presence of Collace Quarry in the west side of Dunsinane Hill. So that leaves only the A928 crossing at Lumley Den—a steep-sided dell, stoutly fenced on both sides and distinctly unpromising-looking for a traverse.

But I had a plan. I parked at the layby just west of the Den, at NO 399418. There’s a metal gate in the fence at the east end of this layby, fastened with a rusty chain and hook, that gives access to the heathery slopes below Ironside Hill and Laidloon Hill. There’s rather a network of vehicle tracks in this marshy little depression, one of them prominently ascending the shoulder of Laidloon and then crossing the top of the hill just a few metres from the summit. (I briefly wondered if the little patch of marsh accounted for Laidloon’s name, supposedly from Gaelic leathad lunnd “slope of the marsh”—but there’s much more boggy ground on the other side of the hill, between Laidloon and Broom Hill, to judge from the network of drainage ditches marked on the map.)

The highest point is marked, not so much by a cairn, but by a sort of puddle of stones, which partially concealed a plastic clip-top box containing what seemed to be some sort of geocache. From here, there were fine views over the mouth of Glen Ogilvie and into Strathmore.

Broom Hill and the Ark Hill - Berry Hillock ridge from Laidloon Hill
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Broom Hill (middle distance) and the Ark Hill – Berry Hillock ridge (sky-line) from Laidloon Hill; Glen Ogilvie lies between

From there, I followed another track down and then up again to join the ridge between Gallow Hill and Broom Hill. A stout fence runs along the ridge line, broken by a single gate where the vehicle track crosses into Glen Ogilvie. Life is easier if you go through the gate to the southwest (Glen Ogilvie) side.

Craigowl and Auchterhouse Hill from below Gallow Hill
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The gate on the ridge, with Craigowl and Auchterhouse Hill in the background

The summit of Broom Hill is on this side of the fence, although you have to climb another fence that crosses the ridge to get to it. On this trip I actually managed to find a single broom plant (namesake of the hill) on the Broom Hill ridge line, mixed with the predominant heather and gorse.

Broom Hill ridge from Gallow Hill
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Broom Hill ridge from Gallow Hill, Glen Ogilvie and the Ark Hill – Berry Hillock ridge beyond

I retraced my steps and then went up Gallow Hill—a broad vehicle track on the Glen Ogilvie side of the fence makes the ascent much easier than the slog through trackless heather on the other side. At the summit, the cairn is just on the other side of the fence, but the wire is bent and slack at this point and very easy to get through.

Beyond Gallow Hill, I followed the fence down to the old stone wall above the telecom mast (there’s a little rusty iron gate in the fence here, hard against the wall), and gawped briefly at the fragile little inspection gondola, dangling from a wire, that allows access to the top of the mast.

The inspection gondola on Gallow Hill telecom mast
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The inspection gondola on Gallow Hill telecom mast, dangling in front of Craigowl
Gallow Hill telecom mast
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The telecom mast on Gallow Hill

Then I followed the wall east to an awkward three-way fence junction (at NO 398409). From here, I could see the gentle convexity of Tealing Hill—covered in grazing land, sheep and fine old dry-stone boundary walls.

Tealing Hill from the slopes of Gallow Hill
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The mighty summit of Tealing Hill, in the highest field

I needed to get down to the edge of the farmland, which involved shinning over this three-way junction. I got myself on to the west (grassy) side of the fence running downhill, rather than its east (heathery) side, and followed it down to the field walls—where there was another nice old iron gate. So I did a circumambulation of the field walls (crossing some pretty, open moorland on the way) with the intention of getting as close as I could to Tealing Hill without getting in amongst lambing sheep. As it turned out the relevant fields were empty, so I was able to walk right to the vertiginous summit of Tealing Hill. I then crept slowly through another couple of fields with sheep at their far ends, and back out on to the hillside.

Flushed with the success of that little adventure, I climbed back up to the triple junction I’d come down from, hopped over it again, and slogged up a short heathery slope to the top of Ironside Hill, my last hill on this side of the Den. The hill supposedly gets its name from iron oxide in the soil, but I didn’t glimpse a single patch of exposed soil from which I could judge that.

Lone tree on Ironside Hill
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Lone tree on Ironside Hill

Straight back to the car, then, and across the road and slightly downhill, to the bridge over the burn draining from the marsh below Laidloon. There’s a wooden fence on the bridge, which abuts the wire fence beside the road—with room for a person to slip through between the posts. There may be issues with lambing in this area, April to October, but when I was there (late March) the moor was devoid of sheep. There’s not much ascent to Finlarg Hill from this point, but what there is is heathery, and it brought me out at an electric fence I recalled from my last approach to Finlarg, from the opposite direction. As before, I was able to find a place to slide under the electric fence, and then slip through between the stands of the barbed-wire fence beyond it.

I had a bite of lunch on top of Finlarg, admiring the still-snowy tops of Ben More, Ben Lawers and Schiehallion, poking up over the horizon beyond the wind farm on Ark Hill, across Glen Ogilvie.

Lawers range and Schiehallion across Ark Hill from Finlarg Hill
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Lawers range and Schiehallion across Ark Hill from Finlarg Hill

Then on along the ridge to Kincaldrum Hill. From my last time here, I knew to stay on the east side of the fence that runs along the ridge line—avoiding the complications of heather and electric fences to the west. There’s one cross-fence (the first after leaving Finlarg) that needs to be slid through, but the others were all easily traversed at gates or stepped over at sagging points.It was a fine stroll, enlivened by a little group of deer that eyed me reproachfully from the field below as I passed.

A tongue of forestry that abuts the fence at NO 411434 is easily circumvented—there are gates in the ridge fence on either side of it, so I was able to hop over on to the west side, nip past the thick trees, and then hop back to the east side again.

The name associated with the 309m trig. point that marks the highest point on the north end of the ridge is a little uncertain. The Ordnance Survey applies the name Kincaldrum Hill to the far north end of the ridge, where it terminates in a 291m summit above Kincaldrum House (Gaelic ceann caled druim means “at the head of the hard ridge”). The name Hayston Hill is applied to the northwest slope that leads down to a short ridge overlooking the farm of Upper Hayston. So the highest point, marked by the triangulation pillar, is left without a name, but with two nearby possibilities. It seems to me that the name Hayston should properly refer to the ridge above Upper Hayston (hills commonly being named after farms, hereabouts), leaving Kincaldrum as the best name to associate with the summit of the main hill, which lies just above the farm of East Cotton of Kincaldrum. So that’s the usage I’ve adopted here.

Summit of Kincaldrum Hill, Fothringham Hill in the distance
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Summit of Kincaldrum Hill, Fothringham Hill in the distance

From the meadowy top of Kincaldrum, I wandered down to my last hill of the day, although it doesn’t have much of an independent summit.

The ridge of Hayston Hill
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The ridge of Hayston Hill

I descended the slope the OS marks as Hayston Hill, and then walked out on to the flat moorland ridge beyond. The area is chopped up by little disused quarries, and ornamented by a copse of windblown Scots Pines.

Scots Pines on Hayston Hill
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Beyond the pines, there’s a prehistoric cairn marked on the map. The Sidlaws have a number of these summit cairns, but most are covered in turf and undergrowth, rendering them invisible to the untrained naked eye. This one, though, is indicated on the map by a little circle of outward-pointing arrowheads, suggesting that some sort of noticeable convexity should still be visible. And so it is—not just a high bushy knoll, but a definite trace of a circumferential rampart, too. I sat and ate an apple next to it, and spent a moment wondering who had once come up here to build such a thing, and why.

Overgrown prehistoric cairn on Haston Hill
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Overgrown prehistoric cairn on Hayston Hill – you can just make out that there’s a central platform (with gorse bushes) and a low rampart in the foreground

The return to Lumley Den was eased by a vehicle track that services the rather pretty dry-stone grouse butts on the ridge. (The hill itself was hotching with young pheasants, all resplendent in the sunshine with their fresh adult plumage—perhaps some of them were even the same stupid birds I met as juveniles last year, when I came this way from Arniefoul.)

Dry-stone grouse butt on Hayston Hill
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Dry-stone grouse butt on Hayston Hill

The track takes a long diagonal through the heather above Ironharrow Well, and eventually emerges on the ridge at the little tongue of woodland (NO 411434) I mentioned above.

Vehicle track on Hayston Hill
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Vehicle track on Hayston Hill, Finlarg Hill on the sky-line

The days was cloudless blue by this time, and seemed to be entirely without wind—but some zephyr was certainly still present, blowing a cloud of spider-silk caught in the wire fence into sparkling horizontal threads.

Spider silk on Hayston Hill
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Spider silk on Hayston Hill

At Finlarg, I decided I’d walk down through the pasture rather than crawling back through Electric Avenue—maybe I could eventually find a route on to this hill that didn’t involve dicing with electricity.

I discovered that the barbed wire fence continued straight downhill, descending extremely steep ground into Lumley Den, while the electric fence that runs parallel to it along the ridge diverges westwards, following the edge of the dip into the Den. Just as the ground began to get excessively steep, I found a sagging point in the wire fence that let me step over it, and follow the electric fence across the heather. This got me to a rather striking vantage point looking down into the Den from on high.

Lumley Den
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Lumley Den

And as I approached the road, I found that the electric fence sagged to the ground, making it easy to step over, right where it joined the roadside fence at NO 400417—at which point, someone had wrapped the barbed wire of the roadside fence in plastic tubing, making it safe to climb over. It looks like a deliberate but informal access point—over the roadside fence, over the electric fence, up the shoulder of the Den and then over the sagging fence there and out on to the open hillside. But how long it will last is anyone’s guess.

Sidlaws: Blacklaw Hill & White Hill from Little Ballo

Unnamed Point 273 (NO 276349, 273m)
Blacklaw Hill (NO 288344, 284m)
White Hill (NO 274338, 233m)

10.5 kilometres
240 metres of ascent

Blacklaw & White Hill route
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You’ll perhaps recall my previous expedition to Blacklaw Hill—I went in from the north, which turned out to be a minor assault course, and went out to the east, which took me into the unnerving neatness of Piperdam. I wasn’t that taken with either approach, so I thought I would explore access from the west.

I parked at the gate to Little Ballo woodland (NO 269348), which has enough room for three or four cars without obstructing access. Down the forest track, turn left at an unpromising pile of gravel, and a path takes you to a gate, a broken fence, the Blacklaw Burn, and the south side of Blacklaw ridge.

Valley of Blacklaw Burn
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From there, a track sweeps around the west end of the hill and then up on to the shoulder. The main navigational difficulty here is chosing which track to take to the summit of the unnamed 273m western top of Blacklaw Hill—like Blacklaw itself, the summit area is dissected by multiple quad-bike tracks. From the top, the view east makes it clear why this is the “Black Law”—law is a Scots word for “hill” (especially an isolated, conical hill), and the thick heather makes it look almost black on an overcast day. The “isolated, conical” aspect is best appreciated from the east—from Dundee it appears as a distinctive dark triangle.

Piperdam Loch and Blacklaw Hill
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So it’s an easy, if muddy and unsightly, stroll along the ridge to Blacklaw (the “Hill” is, we now know, tautological). On the way along, I happened on a rather grim-looking trio of quad bikers, creeping slowly along the ridge. Given that all the muddy track up here is presumably for their entertainment, they didn’t seem to be having much fun.

Quad bikers on Blacklaw Hill
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Dundee & Tay estuary from Blacklaw Hill
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I’d previously crossed a tangle of tracks between Ledyatt Wood and Blacklaw (which now make sense to me as an abandoned section of quad-bike trail), and thought I’d see if I could make a link along the north side of the hill, between those tracks and the track that had taken me on to the west end of the ridge. No luck on that one—there was no path to be found. The bottom-land is fairly boggy, but it was easy enough going as I contoured along the hillside. After a while, I arrived at a track descended from the col between Blacklaw and its western top, which linked me back to the way I’d come.

Piperdam Burn lowlands from Blacklaw Hill
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The route back above the Piperdam Burn wetlands

A little cloud of bramblings blew through at that point. I find these little birds hugely frustrating—I never seem to get close to one, only ever identifying them by their little social calls and the flash of white rumps as they shoot away from me.

Back at the gravel pile near my starting point, I turned left instead of heading back to the car. This took me down a broad forestry track that slowly turned into a narrow, muddy slot between whin bushes, flanked on the right by a barbed wire fence. To judge by the footprints, it’s well travelled. I wonder what takes people back and forth between Little Ballo and Dron so frequently, along a path that isn’t entirely pleasant to walk.

Little Ballo - Dron path
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I turned off to the right at a metal gate in the fence, at NO 282338, on to a track marked on the 1:25,000 map. For a while this seemed gloomily unpromising, until it burst out into the open ground around Redmyre Loch.

Forest track to Redmyre Loch
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Something very strange was happening out on the loch, to judge from the intermittent blasts of sound, vaguely reminiscent of a hunting horn, wafting over from that direction. I strolled down to the water’s edge, to see nothing but a pair of mute swans, who certainly seemed an unlikely source for the racket. But after I’d peered at them suspiciously for a while, the true source of the noise swam into view—a little flotilla of wintering whooper swans, vocalizing at each other madly for some obscure cygnean reason.

Whooper swan, Redmyre Loch
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Here’s what they sounded like:

(Recording by Matthias Hemprich, XC301063. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/301063. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 licence.)

Boathouse, Redmyre Loch
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I paid a visit to Redmyre’s fine mock-Tudor boathouse, and then followed another track marked on the 1:25,000 towards White Hill. I had thought there might be a little difficulty getting to the top of the hill through the forestry, but it proved to be a doddle. I turned left into a firebreak at NO 277339, right up another firebreak at NO 277338 (both marked on the 1:25,000), and found myself on the open summit of White Hill. The pale grass here suggests how White Hill got its name—in the days before the current forestry plantation, bare White Hill would have been a notable contrast with heathery Blacklaw.

Summit of White Hill
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There’s a track marked on the 1:25,000 that takes you off the north side of the hill and then loops around westwards. It’s probably the best route. I followed the firebreak due west, along the remnant of an ancient boundary wall, but it proved to be a little overgrown, and brought me out against the edge of the forest fence, which I had to follow north until I found a broken section I could step over. Then I was able to descend to join the aforementioned track that comes down off the summit of the hill.

From there, it was just a walk out to the road at Littleton and then up to my car. But there was one last curiosity—another seat-in-a-tree like the one I encountered on Bandirran Hill. This one has absolutely no potential role in fire-watching that I can detect, but seems instead to be there to give a view over the little loch nearby. Maybe someone uses it to shoot waterfowl.

Chair in a tree, Bogle Den
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Lochan, Bogle Den
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The view from the chair

Sidlaws: Dunsinane to King’s Seat

Dunsinane Hill (NO 214316, 310m)
Black Hill (NO 219319, 360m)
Little Dunsinane (NO 224325, 295m)
King’s Seat (NO 230330, 377m)

8.5 kilometres
360 metres of ascent

Dunsinane - King's Seat route
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Do you think I may be becoming obsessed with King’s Seat? I think it’s possible. But I wanted to get some photos on this part of the ridge for another project, and I also wanted to take a look at another point of access to this area—from the west, via Fairygreen.

So I parked in the little patch of ground at the roadside gate which gives direct access to Dunsinane from near Collace, at NO 207321. Dunsinane is dʌnˈsɪnən—emphasis on the second syllable, short final vowel, and the nearby estate of the same name is spelled Dunsinnan. It’s easy enough to remember: “Don’t be inane.” And, given the association with Macbeth: “Emphasis on the sin.”

Shakespeare seems to have been in two minds about the pronunciation when he wrote the play Macbeth:

Macbeth shall never vanquished be until
Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill
Shall come against him.

Macbeth Act 4, Scene 1

The scansion in that goes awry if you try to use the “inane” pronunciation. But there’s no doubt of the rhyme in this one:

I will not be afraid of death and bane,
Till Birnam Forest come to Dunsinane.

Macbeth Act 5, Scene 3

The hill fort (actually two, nested one inside the other) on the summit gives the hill its name—in Gaelic, a hill fort is a dun. But the origin of the fort’s name is uncertain. Dorward gives it as dun na sine or dun na sinean, “hill fort of the little breast”, which matches the hill’s appearance from the Collace side. But it may involve a proper name instead—”fort of Cinead” or “fort of Senan” are possibilities.

The Statistical Account of Scotland, Vol. XX (1798) suggested the name was “… ‘The hill of ants,‘ implying the great labour and industry so essentially requisite for collecting the materials of so vast a building.” Wikipedia still seems to think that flight of fancy is a reasonable suggestion, but George Chalmers had this to say about the idea, shortly after it first appeared:

Gaelic scholars, who delight to fetch from afar what may be found at home, approve of this etymon, as very apt. Yet it is Dun-seangain, in the Irish, which would signify the hill of ants. Dun-sinin signifies, in the Scoto-Irish, a hill, resembling a nipple; and, in fact, this famous hill does appear, at some distance, to resemble what the Scoto-Irish word describes, with the usual attention of the Gaelic people to picturesque propriety, in their local names.

Caledonia (1807)

I tend to agree.

Anway, whatever it was called, the fort is in a bit of a mess nowadays, having been enthusiastically but (by modern standards) ineptly excavated in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—although the whole thing is overgrown with turf, you can still see the marks of the excavation trench and spoil heaps on the south-east side.

Black Hill from Dunsinane Hill
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Black Hill from Dunsinane Hill

From Dunsinane, you have to head initially south-east to get to Black Hill, to avoid the craggy stuff on Dunsinane’s east side. Black Hill, like Blacklaw, is “black” because of its dense covering of heather.

Black Hill and Dunsinane Hill from north
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Black Hill and Dunsinane Hill from the north, showing “picturesque propriety” in their names

There’s an easy enough path (several, in fact) to the summit, but as usual I managed to lose the path while descending the eastern shoulder of the hill—one minute there’s a well-trodden slot in the heather, the next there’s a maze of deer tracks heading in random directions.

King's Seat from Black Hill
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King’s Seat from Black Hill

Another assortment of paths takes off from the boggy ground around the little lochan at the source of the Den Burn, giving access to King’s Seat. At the summit I encountered an amateur radio enthusiast (call-sign MM0GLM, for those in the know) erecting a couple of aerials. He was about to “activate” King’s Seat for the amateur radio community worldwide, on behalf of a project called Summits on the Air (SOTA). It turns out that King’s Seat is GM/SS-235 in radio-speak.

Amateur radio on King's Seat
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I’d run into the concept of activating remote locations before, courtesy of the American Radio Relay League’s entity list (30KB pdf) of worldwide locations. Some of the best sources of information about remote, uninhabited islands are the reports of amateur radio enthusiasts who have mounted some quite serious expeditions, just to activate an entity by broadcasting from that location for a few hours or days. But this was the first time I’d heard of SOTA.

After tripping unhelpfully over the antenna wires, I headed off westwards through the heather to visit the hump of Little Dunsinane, and then the broch below it at NO 223325.

Source of the Den Burn from Little Dunsinane
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Source of the Den Burn from Little Dunsinane

Although the Canmore archaeology site has much to say about this object, I’m hard-pressed to find any of the evidence of walls and an entrance that they describe. To me, it still looks like no more than an improbably regular mound. Which is probably why I’m not an archaeologist.

Remains of the broch below Little Dunsinane
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The remains of the broch below Little Dunsinane

A muddy tractor track runs between Little Dunsinane and the broch, and that was my chosen route down today. It takes you down to a field fence, where you have a choice of a stile or a gate to climb over before reaching the little reservoir at Fairygreen (yes, this was once, supposedly, an area of grass where fairies danced). From there, the service road takes you through Fairygreen farm and back to the road to Collace. (There’s a baffling profusion of Scottish Water hydrant and sluice valve markers at the road junction, which have been a bit of a mystery to me up until now.) From there, it was an easy tarmac walk on a quiet road back to the car.

Descent to Fairgreen from Little Dunsinane
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The descent to Fairgreen from Little Dunsinane

Having also checked the approaches via Ledgertlaw, Glen Bran and Stockmuir, I can confirm that the Fairygreen route is definitely the easiest access to King’s Seat. Car parking might be awkward though—you’ll probably need to use one of the rather muddy pull-offs scattered along the verge of the main road.

Gear Review: Bolt-On™ Virtua-Trekker

HeadsetFor the last few months I’ve been cutting a dash on the hills wearing the wrap-round headset pictured above. It’s the core component of the new Virtua-Trekker—the first application of Virtual Reality for the hill-walker or fell-runner—and the nice people at Bolt-On™ Cybernetics have been kind enough to give me an early prototype to review. I’ve been under a press embargo until today (April 1st), and I’m also obliged to let Bolt-On™’s lawyers review my proposed text before it goes live—hopefully they won’t find too many commercially sensitive details to object to.

Bolt-On™ have a long history as developers of hi-tech outdoors equipment. In the mid-90s, trading as the Bolt-On™ Corporation, they hit the market with a succession of emergency “surgical management” devices for hill-goers, most famously their Leg Repair Kit—a simple external fixator designed to be applied to a broken leg by either the casualty or a companion, stabilizing the fracture so as to allow the injured person to walk off the hill unaided. These were surprisingly cheap and initially sold well, but a number of high-profile adverse outcomes dogged the company into the early 2000s, culminating in a civil lawsuit brought on behalf of [REDACTED] which was eventually settled for [REDACTED]. Bolt-On™ effectively went dark for a decade thereafter, rumoured to be [REDACTED], before re-emerging as Bolt-On™ Cybernetics a couple of years ago, with a new mission statement to supply Augmented Reality products for outdoors activities.

The Virtua-Trekker is their flagship device, consisting of the goggles illustrated above with a visual field of [REDACTED] degrees containing [REDACTED] pixels in each lens, a GPS receiver/processor unit about the size of a small [REDACTED] and weighing [REDACTED] which can be carried in any reasonably sized rucksack, an optional microphone for the voice-recognition interface, and an accelerometer-glove (right hand only) for the gestural interface. The whole assembly is designed to lay what Bolt-On™ call Annotated Reality on to the user’s view of the outdoors—navigational information, weather updates, data tagging of landscape features, and so on. The various components can be connected to each other by cable or Bluetooth, and the processor unit can be linked to a home network for updates, data backup, and the transfer of waypoints and route files in several standard formats.

EASE OF USE

The processor connected readily to my wireless network. I was able to download the North Britain dataset from the Bolt-On™ website without difficulty—I understand access to a range of datasets, including [REDACTED], will be a subscription service when the device is released commercially. I was also able to transfer route files in *.gpx format from my PC’s mapping software to the device.

GPS reception seems to be generally stable, though I did encounter a certain amount of what Bolt-On™ refer to as “intermittent route lurch” while passing through dense forest, and one episode of “secular route drift” on steep ground.

The rechargeable batteries for the unit seem to have a lifetime of about four hours, so spares will need to be carried for all but the shortest trips.

The goggles are comfortable to wear in cool weather, but can become a little claustrophobic when it’s warm. My unit displayed a tendency to internal fogging when I exerted myself, but the Bolt-On™ technicians assure me this is unlikely to happen for someone who is “reasonably fit”. Rain on the lenses is an issue, and the hydrophobic wipes provided were only a partial solution. The bulky headgear certainly attracted attention—most people I encountered expressed interest, some were sympathetic, and a small number were verbally abusive.

I was unable to test the real-time weather update feature, which reportedly adds a graphical representation of approaching weather fronts to the virtual environment. This feature requires 3G network coverage, which was of course completely absent in the Scottish Highlands.

The voice-recognition interface functioned poorly in all but light winds, and I soon abandoned its use. The gestural interface is intuitive, allowing the user to tap through various function menus (presented at a virtual distance of about a metre). However, it can send unintended signals during normal hand movements. For example, while unscrewing the cap of my flask I inadvertently and unexpectedly accessed an “Easter Egg” routine—a game mode called Zombie Apocalypse that was quite distressing at the time. The programmers tell me that its presence will be properly flagged in the instruction manual of the commercial product, though they did seem a little disappointed that I hadn’t enjoyed the experience more.

NAVIGATION MODE

Basic navigation mode includes a direction indicator in the upper field of view, a route trace, annotated waypoints, and a set of “data packets” attached to various landscape features. I found the route trace (which laid my intended route on to the landscape as a red line) invaluable, especially in poor visibility.

Virtua-Trekker 1
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Virtual-Trekker 2
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The data packets available in my unit opened what appeared to be copies of Wikipedia pages, which were of neither use nor interest, occasionally fatuous and often misplaced.

VIEW MODE

View mode provides the names of landscape features visible on the horizon—which should finally put a stop to those endless “Can you see Schiehallion from here?” arguments.

Virtua-Trekker 5
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Switching to “mist mode” also provides an overlay sketch of the horizon itself, allowing the user to “enjoy the view” even when real-world visibility is restricted to a few metres. While the Bolt-On™ technicians seemed proud of the amount of processing required to produce this feature in real time, I found it tantalizing and annoying rather than useful.

Virtua-Trekker 6
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THE “NAISMITH WALKER”

This is one of the most innovative features of the kit. In default mode, it generates a virtual hiker who moves at a steady speed determined by Naismith’s Rule (a method of calculating the time required to complete a walk of given distance and ascent). The formula parameters are customizable (including an allowance for descent, which will be welcomed by those whose knees are of a certain age). Fell-runners are served by “Naismith Runners” of varying degrees of fitness, all suitably lean and lycra-clad.

Virtua-Trekker 3
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The Naismith Walker provides a ready estimate of how quickly (or slowly) you are progressing relative to your aspirational timings. It can be a little unsettling, however, to pause for a breather on a steep slope only to have the virtual Walker pass through you from behind and stride away uphill.  The interface provides a small selection of Walker avatars to choose from—male or female, young or old. I also discovered the option to have the Walker appear in the form of Death—a flying, black-hooded skeleton carrying a scythe. (I presume this was inserted by the same programmers who provided me with a Zombie Apocalypse halfway up the Stone Chute on Beinn Eighe.)

One disadvantage of the Walker’s steady pace is that the virtual figure falls well behind on flat ground, but quickly catches up during the ascent. After I turned around to see the figure of Death sweeping up the misty slopes of Ben Loyal towards me, I turned off the Naismith Walker.

Virtua-Trekker 4
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When I later remarked to the Bolt-On™ representatives that watching the approach of the Death avatar was a little reminiscent of the plot of the 2014 horror film It Follows, they became visibly excited. I understand they are now in licensing negotiations with the film’s production company.

VERDICT

A remarkable and innovative piece of kit that nevertheless has [REDACTED].

Sidlaws: More About Smithton

Route to Smithton Knowe
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I’ve been intrigued by the lost community of Smithton since I climbed Smithton Hill this time last year, and then read David Dorward’s description of its namesake—“Former farm-toun W of Lundie village, deserted, abandoned and demolished within the past half-century.”

This was living memory for Dorward, writing in 2004, because he used to visit Smithton with his father when he was a child. Dorward senior was a keen apiarist, and would move his hives to Smithton in the summer months so that his bees could exploit the heather bloom in the hills. Dorward wrote:

[I]t was almost completely obliterated shortly after its last inhabited cottage was vacated in the 1960s.
The Smithton was a crofting community at the top of a track leading west from what is now the village hall in Lundie […] The track was passable for a car when I was young, but is now not used even by tractors, since the upper gate is locked and fenced against rabbits; the alternative access, from Lochindores, once the main access and still marked by a line of trees along the hillside, is now equally impassible. […] I was told that the old croft at Smithton was bulldozed by order of the laird; the result is that a once pleasant spot is now derelict.

In Angus or Forfarshire: The Land And People, Descriptive And Historical (1880), Alex J. Warden rendered the name Smistoun, and claimed it was so-called “because mists lie long upon it”. (But one wonders why it wouldn’t have been called plain old Mistoun, in that case.)

More likely, then, is Dorward’s derivation, from Smith’s toun—referring to either the personal name or the trade of blacksmith. Although he writes “[t]here is no known smiddy that could have occasioned the name”, the Ordnance Survey one-inch map (revised 1895) shows a cluster of buildings beside the track between Lundie and Smithton, labelled “Smithy”. 1895 OS map of Lundie, showing smithyInterestingly, by the 1900 survey for the six-inch and twenty-five-inch maps, those buildings have disappeared, and the label “Smithy” is attached to what is now Lundie village hall.1900 OS Map of Lundie, showing smithy (The previous smithy site is now occupied by what may well be the muddiest farmyard in the Scottish Lowlands.) So it seems reasonably likely that Smithton was the blacksmith’s toun, and we don’t need to invoke any of the ubiquitous Smith family.

Smithton sat on top of a low rise called Smithton Knowe, above a pair of springs called Horse Well and Craig Well, and despite the lack of access along the old tracks, I wanted to take a look at the site. I started from Tullybaccart and walked up through Pitcur Wood, then along the eastern shore of Ledcrieff Loch.

Ledcrieff Loch and Lundie Craigs
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Looking along Ledcrieff Loch to the fishery building and Lundie Craigs

Behind the the fishery building at the head of the loch, a path strikes northeast to reach the edge of the forestry at a gate (NO 272372). From here, a path runs below Lundie Craigs, coming out at the place where I had a close encounter with a herd of Highland cattle during a previous walk. So I combined my trip to Smithton with reascents of Lundie Craigs, Ardgarth Hill and Smithton Hill, but I won’t bore you with the details.

It’s possible to get directly to the site of Smithton from the forestry gate, if you turn immediately right up the hillside, following a path that runs alongside the fence. At NO 274369, this brings you to a gate, which gives access to a tractor track that runs across the boggy ground below Smithton Loch, then skirts around the north side of Smithton Hill and descends directly towards Smithton Knowe. There’s a maze of new barbed wire lower down, which occasionally cuts across the original line of the track, but the way ahead is always obvious.

Smithton Knowe from the west
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The Knowe itself is a lumpy diamond of open woodland, 300 metres long by 100 metres wide, floating 50 metres above the lower farmland to the east. Very little evidence of the old buildings remains, but there is still a deep, rectangular, turf-covered depression at the site of the Old Mill Dam—once there must have been a pool here, providing a head of water for the buildings a short distance below.

Site of Old Mill Dam, Smithton Knowe
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I could see no sign of the original terrace of cottages, or the larger building beyond, but on the south side I came across the low remains of terraced walls, and a couple of gateposts mysteriously left standing.

Old gateposts, Smithton Knowe
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These gateposts cause me a little excitement, because I had seen them before—in Colin Gibson’s pen-and-ink drawing of Smithton in its heyday, reproduced in Dorward’s book. I won’t infringe Gibson’s copyright by reproducing the whole thing here, but I’ll just show you a relevant sliver:Colin Gibson's view of Smithton (detail)

You can see that the small trees Gibson recorded within the wall are now fully grown. Messing around with the National Library of Scotland’s georeferenced maps of the area, and adjusting the transparency to fade back and forth between the twenty-five-inch Ordnance Survey sheet and aerial photographs, I could also make out that the group of trees at the east end of the Knowe trace the original line of the walls of the larger building in that position. They seem too large to have sprung up from seedlings rooted in the ruined wall—I think, like the ones in Gibson’s drawing, they must have been planted as a windbreak within the walls when Smithton was still thriving.

Smithton Knowe, looking east
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Looking east on Smithton Knowe – there would have been a terrace of cottages running diagonally in the foreground, and a large, walled building in the area between the distant trees
25-inch OS map of Smithton, 1900
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Smithton in 1900, OS 25-inch map

Of Horse Well I could find no sign, but Craig Well is still there—a little brick structure isolated in the middle of a broad, muddy seepage from the hillside.

Craig Well, Smithton Hill
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And that’s it. As Dorward says, the old routes from Lundie and Lochindores are essentially impassable—overgrown slots between two boundary fences, showing occasional remnants of the old stone walling; a line of new electric fencing cuts across the south side of the Knowe.

It’s still a pleasant spot, although it has a melancholy feel when you know its history. I wonder why anyone took the trouble to bulldoze the buildings?

 

Levison Wood: Walking The Americas

Cover of Walking the AmericasI’ve found on these long expeditions that there sometimes comes a point when you grow tired of walking.

Walking the Americas recounts the story of Levison Wood’s third epic walking journey—a successor to Walking the Nile and Walking the Himalayas, and a companion volume to the Channel 4 TV series of the same name. You can find my review of Walking The Himalayas here.

The Nile was a highly specific route—following the river from source to sea; the Himalayas were more diffuse, offering Wood a range of route options, so that he could string together a series of particularly interesting locations; the “Americas” starts with broad choice in the north, and narrows down to some severely limited options in the south.

Wood walks through the historical core of the Americas—Central America. For start and finish points that allow a complete traverse of this isthmus, he chooses two events from the Spanish conquest of the region—the landing of Hernán Cortés on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula in 1519, and Vasco Núñez de Balboa‘s  journey across the Isthmus of Panama at Darién in 1513, during which his party became the first Europeans to see the Pacific Ocean. As Wood points out, these two men are forever united by a historical inaccuracy in John Keats’s poem On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer, which ends:

Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Cortés never visited the Darién colony, and Keats clearly conflated his adventures with those of Balboa. (The story goes that, when informed of the error, he left it in so as to preserve the scansion of the poem. That’s poets for you, that is.) Despite the neatness of this poetic link to the geography of the region, it seems logistically more likely that Wood chose his starting point in Yucatán simply because that’s where his walking companion, the photographer Alberto Cáceres, lives. And his destination is clearly dictated by the shape of the isthmus, which has a definite southern endpoint where it joins the continent of South America just beyond the jungles of Darién. Between these two points, he walked 1,800 miles over the course of four months.

Walking the Americas route
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Levison Wood’s route through Central America (Public Domain base map)

In contrast to companions on Wood’s two previous journeys, Cáceres is able to stay with him throughout the trip, and it’s evident that he’s an invaluable asset—aimiable, upbeat and possessed of an apparently infallible ability to charm Spanish-speaking officialdom.

Wood also seems to be blessed with an easy sociability that stands him in good stead—chatting cheerfully to border guards, drug dealers, gang members, child refugees and pretty much anyone else he meets along the way. I think he describes his approach well when discussing photography, early in the book:

You need to speak to people and get them to relax. You need to spend an hour or so chatting about their life, their passions, their wants and needs, before you even get your camera out. They must trust you, and that cannot be forced. They must like you, and you can’t force that either.

Wood’s impulse to chat only betrays him once, when he and his companion are treated to lunch (in a manner that can’t be refused) by a group of men they believe to be drug dealers. He works very hard to make it clear he is simply a traveller and writer (not a police informant), and then has to work hard again to be sure they understand he is not a rich writer (so not worth kidnapping for ransom). Presumably exhausted by this gruelling process and beginning to relax slightly, he then asks brightly, “So, what do you do?”

After a tense silence that gives Wood ample time to regret his curiosity, he is told that they “grow beans and corn.”

As with previous volumes, the book is a useful companion to the television series. The memorable moments from the series are all here—diving in a cenote used for human sacrifice; walking to the rim of an active volcano; climbing Cerro Chirripó, the highest mountain in Costa Rica, to see the sunrise; walking edgily through gang territories in San Pedro Sula; and the final slog through the jungle of the Darién Gap. But there’s also much background information on the history of the area, and a lot of moments that never made it to the TV screen—a hilarous consultation with the elderly and  eccentric explorer John Blashford-Snell (during which Wood develops a sort of explorer envy because he won’t be able to take a gunboat with him into Darién); the apology he receives from the gang leaders through whose territory he passes, who say that they would have tidied up the graffiti if they’d had more warning of his arrival; the enthusiastic but seriously underequipped and ultimately ill-fated Belgian travellers who are planning to cross Darién before Wood gets there, and who have the potential to blight his carefully negotiated arrangements in that sensitive region; and a poignant visit to Puerto Escosés, the site of Scotland’s failed colony in the New World, and the focus of the seventeenth-century Darien Scheme, a financial venture that ultimately bankrupted Scotland and ended its existence as an independent nation.

And there are snakes, spiders, vampire bats, river crossings, unpleasant injuries, quicksand … and a moment when they get lost and turn up as unwelcome trespassers in someone’s garden.

What’s not to like?

Sidlaws: The Balshando Hill Expedition

Balshando Hill (NO 278355, 266m)

6.7 kilometres
140 metres of ascent

Exploration around Balshando Hill
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So, Balshando Hill was a bit of a puzzle to me. It’s a bald-topped mound surrounded by a ring of forestry with the charming name of Naiad Wood—a Greek mythological reference that’s unusual hereabouts. And around Naiad Wood there’s a ring of farmland. But the Ordnance Survey show a path marching in from the east and then zigzagging and looping its way through the trees to the summit.

Balshando Hill path
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So it looked like all I needed to do was park at the trout fishery at Ledyatt Loch, find the start of the marked path, and stroll up the hill. Well, the first problem was finding the start of the path, which involved pushing through a young grove of trees across boggy ground, with not much evidence that many people came that way. And when I got to the start of the path, I found out why not many people go that way—access to the open fields was blocked by a stonking great metal gate in a stonking great deer fence, padlocked from the Ledyatt Loch side (which seemed odd). So that was a non-starter.

A few weeks later, I was at Tullybaccart with the intention of taking a look at the various Lochindores lochs. Lochindores, according to David Dorward, is likely from Gaelic lochan dobhar, “little loch of the waters”—and that low triangle dotted with lochans is certainly a watery place. I hopped over a sagging bit of fence where the Kettins Burn leaves the boggy ground around the lochs and flows under the road towards the Glen of Pitcur. The two eastern lochans marked on the map showed no visible water at all—just walls of reeds surrounded by squelching tussocks.

Lochindores reed beds
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The two western lochs were open water, dotted with mute swans and mallards. The westernmost loch sported a row of wildfowling hides along its shore, and a genuine quaking bog to its south—the sensation was like walking across a large, springy mattress or a very soft trampoline. A couple of fences cut across the area, but they’re easily crossed at convenient gates.

Lochindores Loch
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So, there I was, looking up at Balshando Hill from the west. Could I get up it from this side? After climbing Whinny Knowe (not much whin, thank goodness), I arrived at the big imposing deer fence that surrounds Naiad Wood.

Balshando Hill from Whinny Knowe
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Balshando Hill from Whinny Knowe

Reasoning that there had to be a gate somewhere, and it was most likely to be on the east side where the alleged path marked on the map entered the forest, I followed the fence around to the north across empty grazing land, through a gate into another empty field, and duly arrived at a big metal gate, the twin of the padlocked one at Ledyatt Loch—but this one was simply closed with a loop of chain and a hook-and-eye fastening.

On the inside of the gate, I could see a large interpretive noticeboard—but the gate itself was so overgrown with vegetation I had to throw my full weight against it a couple of times to tug it open.

Welcome to Naiad Wood
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So it turns out Naiad Wood is a “Trafalgar Wood”—planted on the bicentenary of the naval Battle of Trafalgar, and named after the frigate HMS Naiad, which was present at the battle. The thirty-three Trafalgar Woods planted in the UK in 2005 all feature trees that were used in shipbuilding in the days of sail. Isn’t that a lovely idea?

But beyond the sign there is a tangled wilderness that gives the impression that the gate was closed in 2006 and never opened again. The long spiral up the hill is choked with chest-high grass. At one point I found a little wooden bench protruding from the undergrowth.

Overgrown path, Naiad Wood
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The “path” through Naiad Wood
Bench in Naiad Wood
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The bench in Naiad Wood

There had obviously been some intention for this to be a public place of enjoyment, but the locked gate at Ledyatt seems to have put paid to any chance of that. Which is a shame, because the bare summit gives pleasant views over the main ridge of the Sidlaws.

Auchterhouse Hill and Craigowl from Balshando Hill
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So, apart from my bog-trotting approach from the west, is there a sensible way to get to Balshando Hill? I walked over to the Ledyatt Loch trout fishery and found the locked gate that had stymied me previously. From the outside, I could read the CCTV warning sign next to it—so I’m guessing the gate is locked to stop poachers getting in, rather than walkers getting out.

Locked gate between Ledyatt Loch and Balshando Hill
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Then I wandered around Ledyatt’s boundary fence, which is everywhere formidable, and blocks off a couple of gates and a stile that would at some time also have given access to the hill. Eventually I arrived at the gate of the field, which opens on to the access road to Ledyatt, just outside their gates at NO 283357. So that’s the only way in from the east, now—hop over the gate and walk around the high Ledyatt fences. But there isn’t a signpost anywhere suggesting that Naiad Wood even exists, let alone that it’s intended to be accessible.

The only access to Naiad Wood
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This way to Naiad Wood

On the way back, I went south around the woods, and took a couple of exploratory forays down to the fence that runs alongside Piperdam Burn—but it’s an unbroken barbed wire barrier, cutting off what might have been pleasant access from the woodlands at Little Ballo.

And so back to boggy Lochindores. To return to the car, I found a gate in the fence at the foot of the road embankment, at NO 268357. It’s invisible from the road, and allows you to pop up out of nowhere to startle motorists on the A923. Which is a bit of a mixed blessing, of course.

So that’s the story of Naiad Wood. Unlike my other Sidlaws explorations, this one makes me feel very slightly sad.

Sidlaws: Blacklaw Hill & West Mains Hill

Another two-parter. These two outliers sit either side of the A923 just east of the point where it passes through the main ridge of the Sidlaws at Tullybaccart.


Blacklaw Hill (NO 288344, 284m)

7.4 kilometres
200 metres of ascent

Route on Blacklaw Hill
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Well, this first one is a fine example of what happens if you just look at a map and choose what looks like the obvious route.

Ledyatt Loch
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Ledyatt Loch

I parked at the trout fishery at Ledyatt Loch (a recently constructed body of water, absent from twentieth-century maps), and set off south through the trees. From the map, it looked as if a track and a firebreak would get me down to the Piperdam Burn. Google Earth showed a swirl of strangely pointless-looking tracks on the Blacklaw hill side just beyond the south-east corner of the plantation, so I thought I’d pretty easily find my way out at that corner and on to the hill.

Didn’t happen. The track going south petered out at a little turning point surrounded by fairly dense undergrowth—I made a couple of little sallies into the trees but soon got turned back. The transverse firebreak on the map at that point didn’t seem to exist. So I walked back to the line of the electricity pylons and used the open ground beneath them to take me to the east side of the plantation. There’s a little gate into a farmer’s field there, which probably provides a better line down to the burn, but I went steeply down through tussocky stuff and long grass at the edge of the plantation to wind up at a fence beside the burn.

Blacklaw Hill from Ledyatt Wood
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The descent to Piperdam Burn, with Blacklaw Hill and its multiple vehicle tracks beyond

The fence was easily climbed at its corner post, and then I had to cast about for a way across the steep-sided cut of the burn. One of the swirls of grassy vehicle track took me up to the  face of the hill, and then I went direttissima through very steep heather to reach the ridge. Turning east to head for the trig point, I found myself crossing what amounted to a dual carriageway of well-graded but very muddy tracks coming up the hill from the direction of Piperdam Loch—in fact, the whole summit area was defaced by a branching trackway. There was even a turning circle beside the trig point. Although there were some big 4×4 tyre tracks here and there, much of this racecourse looks like it is being used by quad bikes.

Predictably, the Ordnance Survey map provided no hint of any of this stuff. There’s a trace of it on Google Earth, but someone has evidently been very busy up there since 2009, when the Google photos were taken.

Tay estuary from Blacklaw Hill
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Tay estuary from Blacklaw Hill
Dundee from Blacklaw Hill
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Silhouetted Dundee from Blacklaw Hill

From the summit, the views down to the Tay estuary and Dundee are beautiful, so I stood for a while admiring the view, and then decided I’d follow a grassy track that descended eastwards towards Piperdam Loch, to see where it came out.

Piperdam Loch from Blacklaw Hill
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Piperdam Loch from Blacklaw Hill
Track to Piperdam
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Track to Piperdam

After turning very muddy on its way through the trees at the foot of the hill, the path deposited me, disorientatingly, on a golf course. I wandered up the side of the deserted fairways, picked my way across a little patch of rough ground between two houses, and stepped out on to pavement. Suddenly I was on Osprey Road, in the Golf and Leisure Resort of Piperdam—curiously reminiscent of the community of Stepford, Connecticut, in the film The Stepford Wives. Slightly muddy and dishevelled as I was, I was surprised I managed to get down to the end of the road without someone calling the police.

Piperdam
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The spookily quiet, frighteningly neat and vaguely threatening Piperdam

Then it was just a matter of walking back up the verge of the A923 to get back to my car. As my map shows, what started out as a simple there-and-back jaunt evolved into a pretty stupid zig-zag route. So I’m thinking of it more as an exploratory mission than a proper walk.


West Mains Hill (NO 315376, 290m)
Bowhouse Hill (NO 306374, 265m)

4.8 kilometres
180 metres of ascent

Route on West Mains Hill
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For this one, I parked on the grass verge of the B945, on a little one-car flat patch at NO 321383, having spotted what I thought looked like a promising line on to a hill surrounded by farmland.

Approach to West Mains Hill from B954
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The route took me in through an open field gate and up the broad unploughed margin of the field. Above that, I stepped over a wooden fence and into some sort of main drag for cattle—they are presumably transferred back and forth between the hillside and lower grazing through this narrow slot between two patches of forestry. So the whole area was a churned mass of mud. Fortunately I was there after a frost that still hadn’t thawed in this shady spot, so I was able to levitate my way across what would have otherwise been a fairly slaistery experience.

Muddy section on approach to West Mains Hill
Cow Alley
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Above the forestry, I was able to cross on to the open hillside near the corner of the fence at NO 315380, at a section where the top strand of barbed wire had been stapled low to create an easy step-over. Another strand of barbed wire just beyond that  had a long slack run to it at this point—again, an easy step-over.

Up the hill over tussocky stuff, and the curious pointed cairn was soon in view. It’s quite eye-catching from the road below, and I’d always been curious about its construction. I turns out to be close to four metres tall, cemented together, and crowned with a sort of acorn finial that presumably started life on top of a more conventional building. The Canmore archaeological website tells me that the whole summit area consists of a Bronze Age burial cairn 20m across, and suggests that the current pointy cairn was constructed using spoil from the 1897 excavation of the Bronze Age burial. I’m prepared to bet that fancy finial isn’t Bronze Age, though.

Cairn of West Mains Hill
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The summit afforded fine views of the central Sidlaws, as well as southwards towards the Tay estuary.

From there, I crossed the dip to reach Bowhouse Hill (that’s bow as in “taking a bow”, not “bow and arrow”). There’s a gate in the fence at NO 309375—it doesn’t open, but you can climb over alongside it. Bowhouse’s empty summit provides a nice vantage point from which to appreciate the steepness of Lundie Craigs.

Lundie Craigs from Bowhouse Hill
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So, back the way I came, except for a detour to take in the little unnamed 279m hump southwest of West Mains. On the way across to West Mains Hill proper, I crossed a muddy vehicle track coming up from the south, marked with boot prints. So it seems I’d managed to come up with another off-the-beaten track route up another hill.

Cairn of West Mains Hill, Auchterhouse Hill & Craigowl beyond
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Auchterhouse Hill and Craigowl over the shoulder of West Mains Hill

Wildlife? The only wildlife of the whole day was the brown two-second blur of a wren, whizzing across my path as I dropped back down towards Cow Alley.

Sidlaws: King’s Seat and Buttergask via Round Law

Round Law (NO 232337, 257m)
King’s Seat (NO 230330, 377m)
Buttergask Hill (NO 230340, 307m)

9 kilometres
330 metres ascent

King's Seat and Buttergask route
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This was a couple of hours of exploration, looking for a route to King’s Seat and Buttergask Hill that doesn’t involve traversing this section of ridge from either the Dunsinane end or the Gask end (a route I’ve previously described in one of my first posts about the Sidlaws).

As I wrote then, there’s a prominent vehicle track crossing between these two hills, but it peters out in brambles and barbed wire to the west, making it rather … um … challenging to get down to Legertlaw. The map makes access from Glenbran to the east look easy, and David Dorward describes that route in The Sidlaw Hills (which I’m going to keep recommending to you until you buy it). It’s a fine walk, but it does take you up someone’s driveway and then over their back fence. Writing in 2004, Dorward described the house at Whirly Law as “empty”, but I can only report that earlier this year there was paraphernalia laid out on the front grass that suggested the presence of a child and a horse. So I thought I’d take a look at the road up by Stockmuir, instead, to see if that blurred the boundaries between “right to roam” and “trespass” a little less.

I parked in a little roadside nook opposite the “tower” marked on the map at NO 249323. I’ve driven past this thing umpteen times, but never looked at it properly. It’s constructed of concrete, slightly ruined, and has the appearance of an agricultural silo with a decorative crenellation around its domed roof. Very odd. Canmore, my usual source of information about the mysterious buildings I encounter, has nothing to say about it.

Disused silo
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Beyond the buildings at Stockmuir, the track marked on the map turns into an overgrown gap between fields—at one point I was pushing along a narrow trod through dead nettles and the tall woody stalks of some kind of umbilifer. It might not be the easiest walk in the spring and summer. The route can be circumvented a little by taking a parallel track along the edge of a field near the wind turbine.

Gask Hill
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The steep face of Gask Hill
Track to King's Seat
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A nicer bit of the track

Access to the open hillside comes at an electric rope fence. I’d never heard of electric rope until I did an internet search when I got home from this walk—I was a little bemused to encounter what looked exactly like a standard length of twine strung from electrical insulators. The line was dead as a doornail when I passed through, with a long stretch lying on the ground. But there’s a spring-and-hook gated section that makes it easily passable even if in good repair.

The track then transformed itself into a proper vehicle track again, running below King’s Seat, which took me up to a dilapidated gate at NO 231336. This is a good gate to know about, if you’re planning on linking King’s Seat with Buttergask, because it’s the only way between the two hills that doesn’t involve climbing over barbed wire.

I made a little side jaunt up Round Law, which gives nice views down Glenbran. On the east slope of the hill, beneath a lone tree, there’s an oddly shaped cast-iron memorial marker for one Iain Mallet of Glenbran. It’s a lovely spot—requiescat in pace, as Dorward wrote after visiting it.

Round Law
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The appropriately named Round Law

From Round Law, I picked my way up through the heather on King’s Seat, along stream beds and deer tracks. For a hallucinatory moment I crested a rise to be confronted by what looked like two yellow spheres bouncing gently up and down in the middle distance. A long moment of incredulous staring revealed that these were the rumps of two deer, retreating at my approach, and otherwise perfectly camouflaged against the autumnal heather.

View from King's Seat towards Black Hill
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The view of Black Hill and Bandirran Hill from King’s Seat

Back to the gate, then, and up an easy-angled track on to the round summit of Buttergask Hill. The name “Buttergask” always seems to have an English feel to it, to me, as if it has been imported from the Lakes or the Yorkshire Moors, but it’s Gaelic. Dorward derives  it from bothar, “road”, and gasg, “wedge of high ground”—a ridgeway, in other words, and if you follow the ridge beyond Buttergask you’ll eventually arrive fairly easily at Gask Hill.

Buttergask Hill
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The track ascending Buttergask Hill
Lintrose Hill from Buttergask Hill
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Lintrose Hill from Buttergask Hill

Back at the gate again, I noticed a rather purposeful-looking slot track heading off downhill on the Round Law side of the fence (that is, the other side from the vehicle track I’d followed up). I thought I’d follow it down to the forestry, to see if it offered an alternative route back to the car. But it was full of hoofprints and round animal droppings, and soon faded out on the open hill above the forest fence. Presumably deer habitually follow the same line through the  narrow gap between the slopes of Round Law and the boundary fence.

So it was back the way I came. Not a perfect direct route to these hills, but I think the best available.