Category Archives: Walking

CCCP 2019: Loch Eil

This year, the Crow Craigies Climbing Party stationed itself on the north shore of Loch Eil, a little west of Fort William. Poor weather was dominating England, dumping weeks worth of rain in a single day, and occluded fronts were pivoting continuously across central Scotland. But although our weather certainly wasn’t great in comparison to many previous years, we managed to fit in a fair bit of walking, as the chart below shows. Mainly, we were pushed westwards to stay below the cloud and out of the worst of the rain, and from our chosen hilltops we could often make out a wall of dark cloud sitting just east of Ben Nevis.

Fassfern routes overview
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Contains OS OpenData © Crown copyright and database right 2018

Gulvain (NN 002875, 987m)

23.4 kilometres
1300m of ascent

Gulvain route
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Contains OS OpenData © Crown copyright and database right 2018
Path data © OpenStreetMap contributors under the Open Database Licence

Gulvain is usually climbed via Gleann Fionnlighe, from which a steep path strikes straight up the south end of the hill to the south top. From there, it’s a ridge walk out to the summit, with the return route enforcing a reascent of the top to get back into the glen.

But we had our eye on a route that allowed us to walk straight to the hill from the front door of our house. We knew there was a track up Gleann Suileag which curved across the col between Meall Onfhaidh and Meall a’ Phubuill, and then let down into the boggy upper end of Glen Fionnlighe, directly below Gulvain’s summit. The reascent in the glen was roughly equivalent to that on the ridge walk of the conventional route, and it looked like it might be an interesting approach. So off we went.

An t-Suilaig in spate at Fassfern
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The river at Fassfern was in roaring spate from overnight rain, and our first view of Gulvain found it swathed in cloud. But we pressed on into Coire a’ Chaorainn, picking our way up towards the right to avoid the wet slabs at the upper rim, and then eventually teetered over a boulder field high on the shoulder of the hill to arrive at the summit cairn just as the cloud lifted. Result.

For our route down, we went a short distance northeast on the shoulder of the hill before choosing a descent line that avoided the worst of the boulders. Then we followed steep grass down the broad rim of the corrie and crossed a hundred metres of bog to get back to our outward track.

Gulvain and Coire a' Chaorainn seen across Gleann Fionnlighe
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Gulvain and Coire a’ Chaorainn seen across Gleann Fionnlighe
Clearing cloud on Gulvain summit
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Clearing cloud on Gulvain summit
Descending Coire a' Chaorainn, looking towards south top of Gulvain
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Descending Coire a’ Chaorainn, looking towards south top of Gulvain

Sgurr a’ Choire Riabhaich (NM 907871, 852m)
Sgurr nan Choireachan (NM 902880, 956m)
Meall an Tarmachain (NM 911882, 826m)
Beinn Gharbh (NM 922881, 825m)
Sgurr Thuilm (NM 939879, 963m)

23.9 kilometres
1500m of ascent

Coireachan-Thuilm route
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Contains OS OpenData © Crown copyright and database right 2018
Path data © OpenStreetMap contributors under the Open Database Licence

This one’s a classic circuit  around the head of Glen Finnan, with good stalkers’ paths for the ascent and descent (signposted stalkers’ paths, for a wonder), and a long undulating ridge walk between the two highest points.

On the way up the steep, zig-zagging path on to Sgurr a’ Choire Riabhaich, we met a descending group of young German men who had traversed the ridge from east to west the previous evening, and then camped very high on the shoulder overnight. As it turned out, they’d camped well above a source of running water, which speaks of a certain desperation, but they were cheerful and immaculately dressed in fresh autumnal tones, for all that. The ridge, they assured us, was “do-able in a day”, provided we “kept moving”. At which point they eyed our well-worn clothes and countenances in a way that suggested they doubted our ability to keep moving. Resisting the urge to slap our well-meaning foreign guests, we carried on up the hill, eventually getting to the summit of Sgurr nan Coireachan after a little very gentle scrambling. At which point we wilfully and defiantly stopped moving, and spent a while admiring the views westward to the Small Isles and eastward along the winding ridge to Sgurr Thuilm.

The traverse to Thuilm was a delight. The contorted Moinian geology hereabouts produces an endless succession of striated lumps and bumps and summit pools. Then, finally, a turn uphill to reach the summit of Thuilm, another pause to take in the views east down Loch Arkaig, and then a long and muddy descent down the Druim Coire a’ Bheithe to rejoin our outward route.

It was, as it turned out, our biggest day in terms of distance and ascent, so the walk back to our starting point just beyond the Glenfinnan viaduct (famed in Harry Potter films, I’m told) seemed to take a surprisingly long time.

Ascent to Sgurr a' Choire Riabhaich
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Ascent to Sgurr a’ Choire Riabhaich
Stratified rock on Sgurr a' Choire Riabhaich
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Stratified rock on Sgurr a’ Choire Riabhaich
Loch Arkaig and the ridge to Sgurr Thuilm
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Loch Arkaig and the ridge to Sgurr Thuilm
Rum from Sgurr nan Coireachan
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Rum from Sgurr nan Coireachan
Glenfinnan viaduct from the north
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Glenfinnan viaduct from the north

Sgurr a’ Bhuic (NN 203701, 963m)
Stob Choire Bhealach (NN 201709, 1101m)
Aonach Beag (NN 197794, 1234m)

15.6 kilometres
1440m of ascent

Aonach Beag route
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Contains OS OpenData © Crown copyright and database right 2018
Path data © OpenStreetMap contributors under the Open Database Licence

The bad weather had pulled back a little to the east, which gave us a chance to pay a welcome visit to Glen Nevis—possibly one of the finest camping spots in the world.

Steall waterfall, Glen Nevis
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After a diversion to visit the famous wire bridge (one cable to walk on, two as handrails) we walked up to the ruins at Steall.

Wire bridge, Glen Nevis
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Steall ruins, Glen Nevis
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Steall ruins

The abandonment of this picturesque spot is often attributed to the Highland Clearances (Scots tend automatically to lay the blame for any abandoned building in the Highlands on the machinations of evil eighteenth-century landowners), but the site’s occupation and abandonment post-date the Clearances. According to a report (340 KB pdf) from the John Muir Trust, which owns the area:

Steall (ruin) was a large house with mortared stones and a conjoined enclosure, presumably sheep handling pens with a small area of rig and furrow which was occupied by 1870 and still in use just before World War II.

Indeed, Steall was marked as a functioning building by the Ordnance Survey all the way through to its Sixth Series of maps (late 1940s), and isn’t marked as a ruin until the advent of the Seventh Series during the 1950s.

From Steall, we set off along a path that ascends the east side of the Allt Coire nan Laogh. Then, at NN 189693, we made a mistake. The path into Coire nan Laogh takes a dive into a little gully, crosses the burn, and continues inconspicuously uphill. A much more noticeable path climbs away to the right at this point, and we followed it for quite a while before realizing that it wasn’t taking us anywhere we particularly wanted to be. So we struck directly uphill, climbing 250 very steep metres through crags and heather to reach the shoulder of Sgurr a’ Bhuic. It wasn’t nice at all.

Sgurr a’ Bhuic itself is a lovely little pointed promontory towering over Glen Nevis below. From there, we descended a rocky path to the col, and then picked our way up on to Stob Coire Bhealaich in deteriorating visibility and a smirr of rain. There’s a contouring path here, and we got a little carried away following it across the grassy slopes of Aonach Beag, managing to miss our second diverging path of the day, although this time the poor visibility contributed. So we took a long return diagonal up the slope and arrived at the summit cairn just as the cloud cleared. Another weather window successfully seized! (Yes, luck was involved, too.)

So our descent was enlivened by all the great views for which Aonach Beag is famous—the Grey Corries to the east, the Mamores to the south, and a glimpse of Ben Nevis to the west. We dropped straight off the col below Sgurr a’ Bhuic into Coire nan Laogh, and trotted easily down to its outlet, where we picked up a path that descends beside the waterfalls of the Allt Coire nan Laogh to reach the spot where we’d gone astray on the way up. At which point we stood and gazed around and said, “Oooooh, I see what happened.” (Which is, of course, the next best thing to just doing it right in the first place.)

Sgurr a' Bhuic from Stob Coire Bhealaich
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Sgurr a’ Bhuic from Stob Coire Bhealaich
Snow cornice in the mist, Aonach Beag
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Snow cornice in the mist, Aonach Beag
Descending Aonach Beag, Mamores beyond
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Descending Aonach Beag, Mamores beyond
Grey Corries from Aonach Beag
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Grey Corries from Aonach Beag

Aodann Cleireig (NM 994825, 663m)
Meall Onfhaidh (NN 010840, 681m)

19.1 kilometres
1070m of ascent

Chleireig-Onfhaidh route
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Contains OS OpenData © Crown copyright and database right 2018
Path data © OpenStreetMap contributors under the Open Database Licence

A terrible weather forecast—cloud down to 2000 feet, and northerly winds gusting to sixty miles per hour on the summits. So it was a day for one or two small hills, at most. We walked up a forest track that started almost next to our house, and followed it into Coire Chur, enclosed by the horseshoe ridge of Aodann Chleireig. (The hill’s name means “Cleric’s Face” in Gaelic—I’d love to know the story behind that.) The track ended fifty metres from the forestry fence, but we pushed easily through the trees to discover (mirabile dictu) a stile crossing the deer fence and giving access to the open hillside. A couple of hundred metres of ascent over steep tussocky grass, and we were on Aodann Chleireig’s windswept ridge-line, with thick black cloud streaming overhead. It was windy—occasionally we’d just stop and laugh with the ferocity of it. But we pushed on, leaning sideways against the buffets, to reach Chleireig’s small cairn (there’s a larger one, on a better viewpoint, a little to the south).

A little crag gave us a sheltered lee for a bite to eat, and then we headed a short distance to the west to pick up a broad grassy rake that descends below Chleireig’s northern crags towards the col with Meall Onfhaidh. Onfhaidh offered us another lee as we ascended the south side of its western shoulder, and then we were staggering around in the wind again, trying to find the highest point amid a multiplicity of little crags on the rounded summit. (Hint—it’s not the one with the largest cairn.)

Off and down, then, seeking the lee of Meall a’ Phubuill and then making a diversion to the lovely little Glensulaig bothy. (Well it’s a typically grubby bothy in a lovely place, to be honest.) We sat inside with our ears ringing, just enjoying the sensation of being surrounded by stationary air.

I find I have no hill photographs worth showing you from that day—a combination of battery problems, poor light and a distinct disinclination to stand around on the hillside. So here’s my only photographic offering—an albino Coke can removed from the burn on the northern slopes of Onfhaidh, and taken home for recycling.

Bleached Coke can removed from the hill
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I mean, really. What kind of arse can carry a full can up a hill, but not an empty one down?


Fraoch-bheinn (NM 894837, 790m)
Sgurr an Utha (NM 885839, 796m)

11.3 kilometres
780m of ascent

Utha route
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Contains OS OpenData © Crown copyright and database right 2018
Path data © OpenStreetMap contributors under the Open Database Licence

The cloud lifted a little the next day, and the wind abated, but we were still trapped in the western fringes by the weather fronts farther inland.

We parked in a rough gravel layby just west of the Allt an Utha bridge, and walked back across the bridge to reach the start of a track that serves a little dam farther up the glen. Before we started up the hill, we paused to investigate an object the 1:50000 map marks as a “cairn”, and the 1:25000 as a “cross”. It proved to be a low cairn with a cement cross on the top, but with no hints as to its significance.

Cairn and cross beside Drochaid Allt an Utha
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Shortly before the dam, a vehicle track branches off right into the Coire an Utha, providing steep but well-graded access to the broad (and very lumpy) Druim na Brein-choille. From the end of the track, we picked our way along the ridge to the little top of Fraoch-bheinn, before crossing a 65m dip to reach Sgurr an Utha. Even by the standards of contorted Moinian landscapes, Utha deserves some sort of prize, so full of crags and pools and erratic boulders that the contour map looks like a child’s scribble in places.

Our descent westwards into the Feith a’ Chatha required care, since there are crags below Sithean Mor on the direct line of descent. A group of little lochans and then a southward deflection in the line of fence posts provided useful landmarks—we made a northward turn and dropped into the headwaters of the Allt Glac a’ Bhodaich, following it downhill along an easy grassy descent that circumvented the crags.

Sgurr Thuilm from Fraoch-bheinn
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Sgurr Thuilm from Fraoch-bheinn
Erratic block, Sgurr an Utha and Eigg beyond
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Erratic block, Sgurr an Utha and Eigg beyond
Approaching Sgurr an Utha from Fraoch-bheinn
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Approaching Sgurr an Utha from Fraoch-bheinn
Summit pool on Sgurr an Utha
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Summit pool on Sgurr an Utha
Loch Beoraid from Sgurr an Utha
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Loch Beoraid from Sgurr an Utha

Peanmeanach abandoned village (NM 712804, 10m)

11.5 kilometres
460m of ascent

Peanmeanach route
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Contains OS OpenData © Crown copyright and database right 2018
Path data © OpenStreetMap contributors under the Open Database Licence

On our final day the forecast was still poor, and we’d developed a certain weariness of dodging wind and rain and poor visibility. So we took a half-day stroll across the Ardnish peninsula to visit the abandoned village of Peanmeanach on its beautiful little bay. The path descends from a roadside parking area, crosses a railway bridge, and then weaves across the landscape with beautiful views of Loch Beag to the north, the Small Isles to the west, and the spiky summits of Rois-Bheinn to the east. It rained all the way out, and the sun shone all the way back.

Railway bridge on route to Peanmeanach
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The Railway bridge on the way to Peanmeanach (the villagers used to drive a tractor across it, in better days)

Peanmeanach itself is a slightly melancholy spot—the overgrown ruins of a row of black houses, with one neatly roofed bothy in the middle. The bothy was the last building to be abandoned, as recently as 1942—in earlier days it had been the home of the schoolteacher for Ardnish’s thinly scattered population. Today, it sports an array of whale vertebrae above the fireplace.

Whale bones in Peanmeanach bothy
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Again, you won’t need to look far on-line to find the Highland Clearances being blamed for the abandonment of Peanmeanach, but the reasons were more complex and more recent than that—potato blight, changes in the economics of farming, and the arrival of the railway (reducing the movement of goods by small coastal vessels) all had a part to play. Take a look at Peter Stewart-Sandeman’s excellent Potted History of Ardinish (2.6 MB pdf) for much more information about the history of this area.

Peanmeanach ruins
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Ruined cottage, Peanmeanach
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Woodland above Peanmeanach
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Woodland above Peanmeanach
Loch Beag from Peanmeanach track
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Loch Beag from Peanmeanach track

And that was that. Unsatisfactory weather, but more satisfactory than almost any place else in the country at the time, and we still managed to get in a hundred kilometres of walking and a view from every summit, which can’t be bad.

Boots drying at Fassfern
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Glen Shee: Carn a’ Gheoidh From The South

Carn Mor (NO 110750, 876m)
Carn a’ Gheoidh (NO 106766, 975m)
Carn Bhinnein (NO 091762, 917m)

16.7 kilometres
840m of ascent

Carn a' Gheiodh route
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Contains OS OpenData © Crown copyright and database right 2018
Path data © OpenStreetMap contributors under the Open Database Licence

I’ve crossed Carn a’ Gheoidh in long traverses from west to east and from east to west, but never approached it from the south. The hill sends out a couple of ridges in that direction, which curve around to enclose Coire Shith. They’re both now threaded with a complex of vehicle tracks, serving the grouse butts on the high moorland.

The way in to this track system is through a gate on the west side of the A93, about a mile north of Spittal of Glenshee. There are two places where you can pull a car off the road close to the gate—the more northerly is right next to the gate itself, and the southern one looks promising, but links to the gate via a silly little section of path that goes up and down over the top of a short embankment at the side of the road. (I, of course, parked in that one.)

The track initially climbs steadily along the eastern flank of Ben Gulabin, affording increasingly long views up Gleann Beag.

Looking up Glen Beag
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Looking up Gleann Beag

Then it turns west across the col between Gulabin and Creagan Bheithe, before climbing northwards above Coire Shith to reach the ridgeline below Carn Mor. There’s a little ruined shieling by the track, which presumably served shepherds grazing their flock in the shelter of Coire Shith below.

The grouse butts here are elaborate dry-stone blocks, and I imagine they’ll be busy in the shooting season—the surrounding moorland was full of the clattering and cooing of red grouse. And I was seldom out of sight of a mountain hare or two—only just beginning to lose their white winter coats, and standing out like sore thumbs against the dark heather.

Mountain Hare on Carn Mor
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The track passes within a few metres of the summit of Carn Mor, from which the view really opens out, from Glas Tulaichean in the west to Creag Leacach in the east, with the grey lump of Carn a’ Gheoidh ahead to the north.

Summit of Carn Mor
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Summit of Carn Mor, looking towards The Cairnwell

There’s a fine new hut tucked under the west side of the ridge between Carn Mor and Carn a’ Gheoidh—locked and shuttered tight when I passed, but I presume it sees traffic (literally, there’s space for a couple of 4x4s outside) once the shooting starts.

Hut on Carn Mor
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Hut on Carn Mor, Glas Tulaichean and Carn Bhinnein beyond

On, then, to Carn a’ Gheoidh. The track runs high on the mountainside, and then a little intermittent path picks its way to the summit.

Carn a' Gheoidh from Carn Mor
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Carn a’ Gheoidh from Carn Mor

Just as I reached the final little patch of snow, I ran into an old set of footprints—I’m clearly not the only person who fancied a change from the guidebook approaches.

Footprints in snow, Carn a' Gheoidh
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Carn a’ Gheoidh’s big summit cairn and shelter opened up the view north to the snowy plateau of the Cairngorms.

Summit of Carn a' Gheoidh, looking north
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Summit of Carn a’ Gheoidh, looking north

From there, I was off westwards, towards the lovely top of Carn Bhinnein. The name means “summit of the little hill”, and you can see why it’s so-called:

Carn Bhinnein from Carn Mor
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Carn Bhinnein

The hill has a little hill on top of it. And on top of that little hill is a tiny shelter cairn, with just enough room inside for two or three good friends.

Summit of Carn Bhinnein
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Summit of Carn Bhinnein, looking toward Glas Tulaichean

I think the little entrance is a recent development—my memory of this shelter in the ’70s is that it formed a complete ring, and you had to climb over the wall to hunker down inside. It’s a lovely viewpoint, with a precipitous sightline down Gleann Taitneach to the south, and across to the shapely corries of Glas Tulaichean to the west.

To return to the outward track without going back over Carn a’ Gheoidh, I planned to contour around the headwaters of the Allt Aulich. And that turned out to work well, with some good deer tracks traversing the slope, and easy routes across the rockfields. There were grouse-butts here, too—but fashioned from simple piles of peat and turf, and with no vehicle tracks in sight. (Presumably these are the Ryanair butts, in contrast to the Emirates butts on Carn Mor.)

Grouse butt below Carn a' Gheoidh
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Back on the track, I skirted Carn Mor, and then went off-piste to walk along the length of Creagan Bheithe. In part, that was just for a bit of variety, but I also wanted to take a look at a curious goal-post structure I’d spotted on the brow of the ridge as I walked up.

Abandoned framework on Creagan Bheithe
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There was the fallen wreck of a substantial wooden hut nearby, and an even larger ruined structure on the flatlands below (visible through the “goal posts” in the photo above). At the bottom of the hill, next to this ruined building, was an old pulley that had obviously once linked to the structure on the brow of the hill.

Winch system on Creagan Bheithe
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This is all that’s left of the old Creagan Bheithe “ski resort”—the lower hut was built in 1948 by the Dundee Ski Club, and a single rope tow was added in the 1950s. The two huts and their ski-tow are marked on my 1964 edition of the Ordnance Survey’s inch-to-the-mile tourist map of the Cairngorms, and are still there on the 1974 edition. But the expanding ski facilities farther up Gleann Beag, at what’s now the Glenshee Winter Sports Area, meant that this little bit of Scottish skiing history was eventually abandoned.

Gulabin ski huts and tow, OS Tourist Map 1964

Glen Clova: Brandy And Wharral Circuit

The Snub (NO 335757, 837m)
Green Hill (NO 348756, 870m)
The Goet / Ben Tirran (NO 373746, 896m)

16 kilometres
820m of ascent

Brandy-Wharral route
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Contains OS OpenData © Crown copyright and database right 2018
Path data © OpenStreetMap contributors under the Open Database Licence

The U-shaped valley of Glen Clova is decorated on either side by rows of corries, like some sort of sampler of post-glacial topography. This was a trip around two of them, neither of which I’d visited before. This is remarkable, given that I’ve been walking around in Glen Clova for a good half-century. And Loch Brandy, in particular, was a place of magical legend during my childhood—my father would point up behind the old Ogilvie Arms Hotel as we drove past, and would intone: “Loch Brandy’s up there. Lovely loch.” And then we’d go somewhere else. Every. Single. Time.

So it was past time for a visit. I parked in the public car park at Milton of Clova, and walked up through the car park of the Glen Clova Hotel, the Ogilvie Arms’s much-extended present-day incarnation. There seems to be something called the Loch Brandy Trail nowadays—a nicely engineered path that weaves pleasantly upwards across the moorland to the mouth of the classic corrie that contains Loch Brandy. Paths diverge here, and it’s possible to make a high-level circuit around a loop above Brandy’s impressive crags.

The Snub from Loch Brandy trail
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The Snub from the Loch Brandy Trail

I pressed on up the steep face of The Snub, west of the corrie, and soon arrived at the ridiculously large cairn which testifies to how often this insignificant summit is visited.

Summit of The Snub
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The Snub’s cairn, with Mount Keen in the background

Insignificant apart from the view, that is—it’s a great vantage point for views up and down the glen, across the plateau to Lochnagar and Mount Keen, and vertiginously down over the lingering snow cornices into the depths of Loch Brandy itself.

From there, I walked around the rim of the corrie, heading for Green Hill on its far side. Below, the sun gleamed on a thin coating of ice that had formed on parts of the loch overnight. Brandy is from Gaelic bran dubh, “black raven”. Since a black raven is hardly worth commenting on, I’m disposed to accept David Dorward’s suggestion (in The Glens Of Angus) that the translation should be “raven-black loch”—deep within its corrie, the loch spends a lot of time in the shade.

Loch Brandy
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Perched on the rim of the corrie is a sad cairn—a memorial to Royal Marine Engineer Luke Ireland, who died up here in foul weather, in November 2014.

Luke Ireland memorial, Loch Brandy
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And from a little farther around the corrie rim, I got a view down on to The Causeway, an odd little moraine that lies shallowly submerged at the south end of the loch.

The Causeway, Loch Brandy
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Ordnance Survey OpenData, from which I prepared the map at the head of this post, erroneously depicts it as a parallel-sided feature above the water line; the OS 1:25000 map plots it as if it were some sort of submerged trackway. That, and the name, seems to have led a lot of people to believe it is an artificial feature—but the Ordnance Survey Name Book entry from the mid-nineteenth century is pretty clear that the local people understood it to be a natural feature:

A well known name applying to a natural ridge of stones, about 60 links wide, forming the Arc of a Circle & having the appearance of a road or causeway. It is situated in the southern extremity of Loch Brandy & is only visible on a clear day when the water is perfectly calm.

The recent thaw had left the peat hags strangely stippled, presumably with the marks of water seeping from the underside of the snowpack.

Peat marked by snow thaw, Green Hill
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And everywhere there were canted plates of ice, stranded by the drainage of the underlying pools.

Ice sheets in peat hag, Green Hill
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South of Green Hill I ran into a substantial boundary fence, not marked on the map, and sporting not just a strand of barbed wire but the paraphernalia of an electric fence, too. I couldn’t help but wonder what function such a thing served up here, on the moorland, but was at least relieved to find a gate and stile in a convenient place, at NO 352753. (For reference, there’s another gate and stile at NO 369750, near Stony Loch, and a stile just north of The Goet at NO 373746.)

The little tarn of Stony Loch looked more like Snowy Loch. But the name has nothing to do with stones, anyway. Dorward gives the Gaelic as lochan stanna, “tub-like pond”.

Stony Loch, Ben Tirran
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I kept scaring up mountain hares, but none would sit still for a picture—so here’s a photograph of some tracks below Ben Tirran, instead:

Hare tracks below Ben Tirran
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The highest point on Ben Tirran is called The Goet. Gote is a Scots word for a ditch or a watercourse, and there’s a Goet Burn nearby, draining into Lochanluie, so it may be the summit takes its name from the burn, rather than the other way around.

But I wasn’t heading into the Lochanluie corrie—I walked off to the west instead, descending to Loch Wharral alongside a burn running at the bottom of a surprisingly steep-sided cleft.

Loch Wharral
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A traversing path plotted by the Ordnance Survey failed to materialize, so I contoured around the shoulder of Tirran until (presto!) the damn thing appeared out of nowhere, apparently fully formed and looking (I felt) slightly smug.

Then there was a gentle descent to the vehicle track serving the boathouse at Loch Wharral, and down towards the west side of Adielinn Plantation. There was one last surprise from the map—a path and a footbridge seemed to have disappeared, to be replaced by a broad vehicle track and a ford that was running calf-deep with melt-water. Fortunately the burn was easily jumpable both above and below the ford, and then I found myself on a new path that wove its way down to the road through an extensive new plantation of trees.

Adielinn Plantation, Glen Clova
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New planting at Adielinn, and the view up Glen Clova

Then it was just a couple of winding miles back up the road to the car. About half-way along I passed a little roadside pool, festooned with signs warning that it was a private fishing loch. Its surface was heaving with rising fish, and right in the middle of it all was a fine male goosander, oblivious to any concept of “private fishing”. While I was trying to find a way to get the goosander and one of the signs into the same photograph, the goosander flew away. Sigh.

Sidlaws: Glen Ogilvie Circuit

Gallow Hill (NO 391413, 378m)
Craigowl (NO 376399, 455m)
Balkello Hill (NO 361394, 397m)
Unnamed Point 328 (NO 360408, 328m)

12.1 kilometres
400m of ascent

Ogilvie route
Click to enlarge
Contains OS OpenData © Crown copyright and database right 2018
Path data © OpenStreetMap contributors under the Open Database Licence

I had an equinoctial walk in the Sidlaws last week, to celebrate the supposed onset of Spring after a dump of snow earlier in the week had left the hills speckled with residual drifts.

I parked just beyond Tarbrax, where the road splits right to Nether Handwick and left (across a bridge) to Dryburn. Both those roads give access to the open moorland beyond their respective farms, and my plan was to walk out via Dryburn and return through Nether Handwick. Both farms have signs at the road-end warning about young farm animals on the hill from April to September, so late March seemed like a fine time to take a walk that had been in my mind for a while.

Warning sign, Dryburn
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It was blowing a chilly equinoctial gale when I got out of the car—the door blew shut behind me. But the forecast was for improvement, so I put my head down and trudged up towards Dryburn until the road took a sharp right turn and I carried on up a broad vehicle track signposted to Hillside of Prieston. This used to be a significant through-road, linking Glamis to Dundee, but nowadays the track peters out at a locked gate on the ridge-line between Craigowl and Gallow Hill.

Instead of following the track all the way to the ridge, I turned off when it arrived at the saddle linking Broom Hill to Gallow Hill, where there’s another sealed gate. From there I trekked up Gallow Hill along a faint vehicle track in the heather, which parallels the west side of the ridge-line fence. This fence used to be in poor repair on the summit, with a sagging wire that allowed the limber to duck under the barbed wire top strand—but not any more. The wires are tight again, and one needs to be not only limber but moderately slim to pass through. (Note added in April: within a fortnight of the visit described here, the fence had been damaged again—I presume deliberately.)

Summit of Gallow Hill
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The fence on Gallow Hill as it was …
Summit of Gallow Hill
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The fence in March 2019 …
Gallow Hill April 2019
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… and in April

The damage is presumably mainly to allow access to the cairn for those arriving from the west—but the cairn isn’t on the highest point of the hill. The Ordnance Survey 1:25000 map plots the summit on the fence-line, about 70m northwest of the cairn, and this can be borne out by observation on the ground.

From there, I headed down the heathery south-west shoulder towards Craigowl. Last time I was around this area I was walking in deep unseasonable snow in May, and I kept sinking thigh-deep at irregular but annoyingly frequent intervals. Now I found out why—the hill in this vicinity is dotted with some surprisingly deep holes, many of which were still filled with the remnants of the snow we’d had earlier in the week. One of the larger holes was even transected by a little segment of dry-stone wall, which looked like it might offer some good protection from the wind.

Drystone shelter in hollow, Gallow Hill
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Farther along the ridge, I came upon a sad little relic—a few scraps of aluminium and rusted steel are all that remains of an RAF Avro Anson, tail number N5064, which struck the hill on 23 June 1945, killing its pilot.

Avro Anson wreckage, Gallow Hill
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Then down to the saddle below Craigowl, where the cloud was still low enough to obscure the tops of the telecom masts. There’s a winding path marked on the Ordnance Survey 1:25000 map, which connects this saddle to the tarmac road near the top of Craigowl, and it’s easily visible as a slot in the heather at its lower end, where it’s a substantial tractor track, but it becomes difficult to follow farther up.

Craigowl from Gallow Hill slope
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Path winds its way up Craigowl (telecom masts hidden in low cloud)

Craigowl is probably my least favourite Sidlaws summit, so I hung around the triangulation pillar just long enough to admire the fortitude of a couple of guys who were working high on one of the telecom masts, completely exposed to the still-biting wind. Then I took the eroded path westwards towards Balkello Hill.

Summit of Craigowl, workers on telecom mast
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(Note the orange-suited workers near the top of the mast)

Up and over Balkello, pausing at the Syd Scroggie view indicator (which is bizarrely labelled with the name of the wrong hill), and then down to the saddle at Windy Gates. (Still windy; three gates.)

Summit of Balkello Hill
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Summit of Balkello Hill, looking west along the Sidlaw ridge towards Black Hill and King’s Seat

From here it was time to turn north, following a path down the east side of the Haining Burn. The path has a tendency to dive into the burn, lower down, and the going is easier a little farther up the hillside, on a faint vehicle track that follows the line of a buried electricity cable. (This path is not marked by the OS, though several other paths are, all of which disappear into deep heather and which I’ve never been able to follow.)

Then I carried on straight up the unnamed 328m hill that separates the heads of Denoon Glen and Glen Ogilvie. At the top, the sun came out and the wind moderated, so I sat on the flat boulder that marks the summit, ate a sandwich, admired the busy whirling of the wind turbines on Ark Hill, and listened to the continuous stream of lark song that suddenly filled the air. Maybe Spring was here after all.

Down, then, on to the track to Nether Handwick—the Ordnance Survey marks this as a path, but these days it’s a substantial vehicle track. Beyond Nether Handwick I was on tarmac for the last mile back to the car. The sun shone. There was a positive cacophony of lark song in the air, and the March hares were bounding around in the fields on either side, rolling their eyes and getting ready for mischief.

Road from Nether Handwick to Tarbrax, Glen Ogilvie
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Yeah. Spring is here.

Braes Of The Carse: Pole Hill to Murrayshall Hill

Shien Hill (NO 174267, c.210m)
Pole Hill (NO 196261, 288m)
Law Hill (NO 170259, c.255m)
Murrayshall Hill (NO 165254, 279m)

12.1 kilometres
350m of ascent (including detours)

Pole Hill -Murrayshall Hill route
Click to enlarge
Contains OS OpenData © Crown copyright and database right 2018

The  original object of this jaunt was to see if I could find easy access to Pole Hill, which I’ve previously visited. On that trip, I came over from Beal Hill, visited the fort on Evelick Hill, and found myself a little stymied by a fearsome double fence that is marked on the map as running completely around the summit of Pole Hill. On that occasion I had to crawl under one section to gain access to the summit area from the Evelick side, but it seemed to me that there had to be a gap in the fence somewhere. So this was a reconnaissance trip, coming in from the west.

I found roadside parking next to the golf course at NO 163260, and walked back to a farm entrance at the crossroads which took me along a succession of muddy tracks to the flank of Shien Hill. The summit is surrounded by fenced forestry, but there are a couple of points along the track where it’s easy to step over. The Ordnance Survey marks the summit as bearing a prehistoric cairn. I’m used to these being completely invisible under the turf, so I was a little taken aback by the conical mound, a good five metres high, that appeared out of the trees, with a roe deer peering down at me anxiously before bounding away. Canmore describes the cairn as “apparently undisturbed”, but I was more than a little disturbed by the time I had pushed up through the nettles and thistles to reach the top.

Summit cairn of Shien Hill
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Summit cairn of Shien Hill

Shien Hill gets its name from the Gaelic sithean, “fairy”, and I’m not surprised that such a strikingly symmetrical mound was interpreted as the home of supernatural creatures.

The Sidlaw Hills coverFrom there, I retraced my steps to a wooden gate so that I could pick up something the OS marks as a path, but which looks more like an old wall line, leading up to a group of ruined buildings. The OS six-inch map of the 1843-1882 series calls this abandoned farm-steading Boglebee, and David Dorward suggests the name might come from Gaelic bog beith, “birch mire”. I dunno about that one—the proximity to a fairy hill makes me want to invoke bogles in the derivation.

Boglebee ruins in front of Shien Hill
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Boglebee ruins in front of Shien Hill

The old maps show a track linking Boglebee to the Evelick-Dalreichmoor road, and modern maps show a remnant of the same. That was my route to Pole Hill. I headed across the farmland, following my nose to the northeast corner of the field, where I found a double set of gates and the start of a farm track. This quite soon dived into dense gorse, but that was easily circumvented by veering uphill for a short distance.

Approaching Pole Hill from the east
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Approaching Pole Hill from the east

When I got to a point at which I could see Pole Hill’s protective fence, I walked up to explore it. Here, on the west of the hill, it was still a stout double-layered barrier. After casting about fruitlessly southwards, I used a corner post to help me hop over the first fence and headed east, walking between the fences.

Fence surrounding Pole Hill
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I was soon rewarded by the appearance of a gate and stile combination at NO 19222644. I climbed over the stile and marched triumphantly up to the summit of Pole Hill, scaring up a couple of snipe on the way.

View over Evelick fort to Tay Estuary from Pole Hill
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View over Evelick fort to Tay Estuary from Pole Hill

Then, in a completionist spirit, I walked off northwards to explore another section of the circumferential fence. I quickly came upon a pair of stiles at NO 19592629, which let me hop over into a field that slopes down to the Evelick-Dalreichmoor road. (I had actually come through this field when I came over from Beal Hill previously, but had headed over towards Evelick fort without exploring its upper boundary.)

So I walked out one gate on to the road, followed the road for a short distance to another gate, and linked up with the track to Boglebee. After that there was a bit more wandering around while I confirmed I could get back to the gate and stile without encountering any more obstacles. So that’s it for Pole Hill—two easy points of access from the Evelick-Dalreichmoor road, or a slightly longer approach from Boglebee.

And then more wandering, as I diverged from my outward track to take a look at another ruined farm-stead—this one is just above modern Arnbathie Farm, and labelled Turfhills on the old OS maps. Dorward is silent on that name, but I imagine it means just what it says in English.

Ruins of Turfhills farm above Arnbathie
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Ruins of Turfhills farmstead

OS six-inch map of Boglebee and TurfhillsFrom there, I returned briefly to my outward route before striking southwards along the farm track network to reach Law Hill, which was to be my last hill of the day. The ramparts of its prehistoric fort are easily visible, though less impressive than those at nearby Evelick.

Murrayshall Hill from summit of Law Hill
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Murrayshall Hill from summit of Law Hill

As I stood on top, two things happened. Firstly, I noticed the thread of a path ascending the steep northeast end of Murrayshall Hill, just across the road. Secondly, I heard bagpipe music floating down from the vicinity of the Lyndoch Obelisk, on top of the hill. So I scooted down to the road, and then climbed a narrow slot of a path that strikes up the hillside from just north of the Easthill cottages.

Law Hill from Murrayshall Hill path
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Law Hill from Murrayshall Hill path

The path soon faded away, leaving me to churn up steep ground on to the shoulder of Murrayshall. At that point the music stopped, but I made it to the obelisk in time to surprise the musician, just as he was about to head downhill with his pipes slung over his shoulder in a cloth bag. His wife, he said, forbade the playing of bagpipes in the house (not unreasonably, since they’re essentially an outdoor instrument). So he was in the habit of trekking up Murrayshall Hill to “warm them up” from time to time, in a place where he could disturb no-one.

But, on this occasion, he’d unwittingly managed to lure a curious wanderer into climbing one more hill.

McDuff's Monument, Perth, Stuc a'Chroin, Ben Vorlich from Murrayshall Hill
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McDuff’s Monument above Perth, with Stuc a’Chroin and Ben Vorlich on the sky-line, from Murrayshall Hill

Borders: Eildon Hills

Eildon Mid Hill (NT 548323, 422m)
Eildon Wester Hill (NT 548316, 371m)
Eildon Hill North (NT 555328, 404m)

10.8 kilometres
530m of ascent

Eildon route
Click to enlarge
Contains OS OpenData © Crown copyright and database right 2018
Path data © OpenStreetMap contributors under the Open Database Licence

The Eildons, like the Pentlands, are hills I’ve glimpsed from the air, but never visited until now. The classic cluster of three peaks makes them unmistakable, and gave its name to the Roman settlement in their lee—Trimontium.

The Romans came and went several times at Trimontium, as their occupation of Scotland went through cycles of advance and retreat. As well as the remains of a significant fort nestled in a curve of the River Tweed at Newstead, there is evidence of multiple camp sites in the same location.

I parked the car in Melrose, walked through the town centre, and then followed a signpost that took me down an exceedingly unpromising-looking alleyway full of waste bins. This is the start of St Cuthbert’s Way, a long-distance footpath connecting Melrose to Lindisfarne, two places vaguely connected by the life of St Cuthbert.

Despite the unpromising beginning, the route took me up a long flight of wooden stairs and then out on to the open hillside. The Way passes between Eildon Mid Hill and Eildon Hill North, though the signposts took me around a little detour (evident on my map, above) compared to the direct line plotted by the Ordnance Survey—perhaps there’s a bit of erosion management going on.

The saddle between Mid and North is a maze of tracks and paths, skirting a large hole in the ground that looks like an abandoned quarry. I struck of southwest, up the steep flank of Eildon Mid Hill, the highest of my three hills for the day.

Eildon Wester Hill from Eildon Mid Hill
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Eildon Wester Hill from Eildon Mid Hill

The summit bore a triangulation pillar, and a view indicator that pointed out a whole lot of hills that were mostly blankly unfamiliar to me—I rarely venture this far south. With some relief I found the low mound of The Cheviot on the horizon, marking the English border. Running my eye south from that, I felt I should be able to pick out Woden Law, where Dere Street, the old Roman road, crossed into Scotland—but I was defeated by haze. Dere Street was the road that served the Roman fort at Trimontium, the site of which was currently concealed from me by the bulk of Eildon Hill North.

From Eildon Mid Hill, I clattered southwards down a steep and unpleasant path (not marked on the map) to reach the unprepossessing mound of Eildon Wester Hill. From there, I walked off eastwards, finding and losing paths repeatedly on my way down to the fringes of Broad Wood.

Eildon Mid Hill from Eildon Wester Hill
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Eildon Mid Hill from Eildon Wester Hill – the visible eroded path is horrible

I wanted to take a look at the Siller Stane, a feature the Ordnance Survey marks rather vaguely. Siller stane is Scots for “silver stone”, and I had initially anticipated something like the Glittering Skellies above Glen Clova—wet vertical rock that reflects the sunlight. But ScotlandsPlaces tells me that it is:

… a flat Stone Situated on the East Side of Eildon Mid Hill. It derives its name from the Supposition that money was hid below it.

Good hiding place—I’m darned if I could find it. The area labelled by the OS is traversed by a couple of quite decent paths, and I wandered back and forth for a while, searching for a likely object in the undergrowth. Looking for more information when I got home, I found that the Ancient Stones website places it a NT 55173234, so it was a little downhill of where I spent most of my time looking.

Eildon Hill North from the Siller Stane
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Looking towards Eildon Hill North from the alleged location of the Siller Stane

On, then, to Eildon Hill North, its summit surrounded by the sprawling ramparts of an ancient hillfort (the largest in Scotland), and surmounted by the site of a Roman signal station. I stood around for a while, trying to imagine what life might have been like for legionaries stationed up here, peering out across the night-time blackness of the Borders landscape. With the help of PeakFinder on my phone, I picked out the prominent shape of Rubers Law, the nearest Roman signal station to the Eildons, a mere 18km to the south. But the legionaries up here would have had line of sight to Brownhart Law, 33km away on the English border, and right above the Roman camps at Chew Green. I wondered what signals might have passed back and forth between these two lonely outposts on the chilly edge of the empire.

Eildon Mid Hill from Eildon Hill North
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Eildon Mid Hill from Eildon Hill North

And then I had a decision to make. I could either head back via an antiquity with the strangely un-Scottish name of Bourjo, to my west, or head eastwards for the Rhymer’s Stone. ScotlandsPlaces made Bourjo seem quite interesting:

It is said that this place was a grove, and, that the Druids offered their Sacrifices, and performed their superstitious rites to Jupiter here.

Canmore punctures that romantic vision with:

Two large, and one small, mounds remain of the spoil from this old quarry.

So I headed for the Rhymer’s Stone, which also had the advantage that it let me pretend to be a Roman legionary for a while longer—the eastward descent would be the route they took from the signal station on the way back to Trimontium.

Descent eastwards from Eildon Hill North
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Descent eastwards from Eildon Hill North

The Rhymer’s Stone marks the supposed site of the Eildon Tree, from which location, in the thirteenth century, Thomas the Rhymer was spirited away by the Queen of the Fairies, to return seven years later with the gift of prophecy. So that turned out all right.

I was intrigued to find a single rose lying at the base of the monument—presumably there’s a story to that.

The Rhymer's Stone
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The Rhymer’s Stone

Then I took an ankle-twisting gravel path, followed by a very pleasant tree-lined track, to the subway under the A6091 and the village of Newstead beyond. I didn’t have time to visit the Trimontium site itself, which is a little to the east, but I did turn up another stone instead.

Trimontium memorial milestone, Newstead
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Trimontium memorial milestone

This one was erected in 2000, and bears the inscription Trimontium: Caput Viae. Now that’s interesting. The caput viae was the “head of the road”—the point from which other milestones measured their distance. But Trimontium feels more like the end of the road, rather than the beginning. Presumably this relates to the second century, the time of the Antonine Wall, when the Romans had pushed their frontier beyond Trimontium and as far north as the Forth and Clyde estuaries. In an article in Britannia (1982), Lawrence Keppie describes a Roman milestone recovered at Ingliston, near Edinburgh:

The milestone gives Newstead (Trimontium) as the caput viae, which suggests that the road was being built from south to north to link that major site with the fort at Cramond or perhaps directly with the [Antonine] Wall itself.

Somewhat cheered by finding a replacement for my missing Siller Stane, I set off back along the road to Melrose, admiring the views of Eildon North Hill as I went.

Eildon Hill North from Newstead
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Eildon Hill North from Newstead

Pentlands: Kirk Burn Circuit

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

Pentlands North route
Click to enlarge
Contains OS OpenData © Crown copyright and database right 2018
Path data © OpenStreetMap contributors used under the Open Database Licence

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.

Glencorse Reservoir from Bell's Hill
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Glencorse Reservoir from Bell’s Hill

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.

Valley of the Kirk Burn from Bell's Hill
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Valley of the Kirk Burn from Bell’s Hill – my route goes left and then follows the sky line

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?)

Wheatear
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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.

Capelaw Hill, looking towards Allermuir Hill
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Capelaw Hill, looking towards Allermuir Hill

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.

Edinburgh and Arthur's Seat from Allermuir Hill
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Edinburgh and Arthur’s Seat from Allermuir Hill

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.

Caerketton Hill from Allermuir Hill
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Caerketton Hill from Allermuir Hill

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.

Warning flag on summit of Castlelaw Hill
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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.

Braes Of The Carse: Glen Carse Tour

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

Glencarse route
Click to enlarge
Contains OS OpenData © Crown copyright and database right 2018

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.

Pole Hill and Evelick Hill from Balthayock Hill
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Pole Hill and Evelick Hill from Balthayock Hill

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 hide in the trees, Balthayock Wood
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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.

Trig Point in Balthayock Wood
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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 Hill from the east
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Glencarse Hill from the east

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.

Summit of Glencarse Hill
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Summit of Glencarse Hill

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.

Woodland on Pawns Hill
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Woodland on Pawns Hill

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.

Broken bench on south drive of Balthayock House
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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.)

Summit of Goukton Hill
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Summit of Goukton Hill

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.

North Lodge, Balthayock
Click to enlarge

PeakFinder

Back in 1995, a little packet of laminated cardboard diagrams fell through my letterbox. Dave Hewitt, editor of The Angry Corrie, wanted me to write a review of these items. Which I did—it appeared in TAC25, Nov ’95-Jan ’96.

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:

View of Ben Loyal from Ben Hope
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Ben Loyal view from Ben Hope ViewFinder
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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.)

ViewFinder view of Blaven from Cairn Toul

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.

View of Ben Loyal from Ben Hope
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On-line PeakFinder view from Ben Hope
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Android PeakFinder view from Ben Hope
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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:

Windlestraw Law from Dundee Law, PeakFinder app
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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:

PeakFinder sunrise from Ben Hope
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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:

ViewFinder view of Blaven from Cairn Toul

Here’s the view from the web-based version of PeakFinder, with Bla Bheinn again occupying pretty much a single pixel:

Web-based PeakFinder view of Blaven from Cairn Toul
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And here’s the view on my phone, zoomed in to its maximum extent:

Phone based PeakFinder view of Blaven from Cairn Toul
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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.

Braes Of The Carse: Den Of Pitroddie Update

Pitroddie Burn draining into sinkhole, Pitroddie Den
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Pitroddie Burn disappears …

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.

Pitroddie Burn emerges from underground, Pitroddie Den
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Pitroddie Burn reemerges

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:

Pitroddie Burn disappears underground
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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.

When I got home, I checked the National Library of Scotland’s marvellous geo-referenced maps service.

Here’s the Ordnance Survey’s 6-inch sheet of the area from the 1843-1882 series:

Pitroddie Quarry OS 6-inch 1843-1882
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The burn is clearly shown to flow continuously down the Den.

But here’s the same area, on the 6-inch sheet from 1899:

Pitroddie Quarry OS 6-inch 1899
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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.

Green-Veined Whites, Den of Pitroddie
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