Category Archives: Walking

The Tarmachan Ridge

Meall nan Tarmachan SE Top (NN 589385, 922m)
Meall nan Tarmachan (NN 585390, 1044m)
Meall Garbh (NN578383, 1027m)
Beinn nan Eachan (NN 570383, 1000m)
Creag na Caillich (NN 562377, 914m)

14.8 kilometres
850m of ascent

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

Some days even I give up on trying to come up with new ways to climb old hills, and just go out and walk a classic route. So this is one of those days—an anticlockwise circuit of the pleasantly lumpy Tarmachan Ridge above Loch Tay. The fact that I haven’t been this way for a while is well demonstrated by the route plan I left with the Boon Companion before departing, which claimed that I would be setting off from the Visitor Centre below Ben Lawers—which turns out to have been demolished (and the site restored to its natural state) a decade ago. But no-one told me.

So I started out from the new car park (sans Visitor Centre), a little to the south of the old site, and followed the signposts, which shepherded me out on to the hillside along a well-worn path. This gave me a glimpse of the dam on Lochan na Lairige as I climbed westwards:

Lochan na Lairige dam, above Loch Tay
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After passing an odd piece of industrial wreckage, in the form of a ruined metal tower and its wooden base, the path turns north to head up towards an unnamed south-easterly outlier of Meall nan Tarmachan.

Metal and wooden debris below Meall nan Tarmachan
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Path to Meall nan Tarmachan
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From the outlying summit, there’s a steep descent, then a stile to cross, and a steep pull up on to Tarmachan proper, with a fine view east towards Ben Lawers (in cloud, below), and westwards along the winding Tarmachan ridge.

Ben Lawers in cloud from Meall nan Tarmachan
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Tarmachan ridge from Meall nan Tarmachan
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(Tarmachan, by the way, is Gaelic for “ptarmigan”, though there were none of the birds in evidence. The mysterious p at the start of the English spelling of the bird’s name is a piece of pseudo-etymological fixer-uppery originally perpetrated by Robert Sibbald in has natural-history text Scotia Illustrata (1684). He seems to have imagined the name was Greek in origin.)

Meall Garbh was the next objective. Its name means “rough lump”, and it’s the craggy object in cloud-shadow at left of frame, above. The path continued along the ridge, leading me easily down to the lochans in the col, and then more steeply upwards. Ahead of me, I could see a couple apparently making rather heavy weather of the last rocky section below the summit. They were scrabbling around with walking poles that had been set to a convenient length for level walking, but which were actively counterproductive for anyone trying to ascend a 1:1 gradient consisting of chunky boulders. There’s some sort of corollary to the old wisdom about ice-axes, here. It’s commonly said that people often venture too far on to steep ground before thinking to get their ice-axes off their packs and into their hands. The inverse seems to be true of some walking-pole users, who get themselves into an awkward fankle on steep ground when they’d be better off stowing the poles on their packs and freeing up their hands.

I resisted sharing this wisdom with them, however. They stepped politely aside to let me overtake them, and I gave them a cheery greeting, to which they responded with gloomy silence. Oh well.

Beyond the tiny summit of Meall Garbh, the ridge becomes narrow and airy for a while.

Narrow section of Tarmachan ridge west of Meall Garbh
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Then it kind of disappears ahead, and you begin to wonder how on earth the path is going to get down to the next col, which now seems to be almost vertically below. There’s a turn, and a steep descent, and then a madly eroded section that descends through steep rocks with some disconcerting exposure to the left.

Here’s the view down to the path in the col from just above the awkward bit:

Short scramble descending to col west of Meall Garbh
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There is, reputedly, a path that circumvents all this unpleasantness to the right—I confess to not noticing where it branched off on the ridge, but spotted it when it rejoined the main path, just above the col.

Then up again towards Beinn nan Eachan, which is, incongruously, the “mountain of horses”. I stepped up off the path on to a little grassy knoll that provided a nice spot for lunch, as well as a fine viewpoint back towards Meall Garbh and the perils just survived:

Meall Garbh from east top of Beinn nan Eachan
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If you enlarge the picture, you should be able to make out how the main path seems to seek unerringly towards the nasty craggy stuff. I suspect this started out as quite an easy descent, preferable to the steep grassy slope to the north (left as you look at the picture), but decades of erosion have transformed it into a slightly awkward scramble. I waited with a mixture of interest and apprehension to see what would befall the pole-wielding pair on this route, but they never appeared.

I paused to take a picture of the distant peaks of Stob Binnein and Ben More, still sporting their last remnants of snow, before crossing my own little patch of snow on the ascent of Eachan.

Stob Binnein and Ben More from Tarmachan Ridge
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Snow on the path to Beinn nan Eachan
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The oddly eroded summit with its tiny cairn gave me a view of my final hill of the day, Creag na Caillich, “crag of the old woman”.

Creag na Caillich from Beinn nan Eachan
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It’s certainly craggy enough. Perhaps the old woman owned the horses. Poor Caillich is an innocent victim of the culture of hill tabulation, which I introduced in a previous post. My 1:50000 Ordnance Survey map gives its height as 916m, which is a tad over 3005 feet. That height earned it an entry in the last edition of Munro’s Tables (1997), as a “Munro Top”. But in 2015 it was resurveyed, establishing a new, more precise height of 914.3m—tragically four inches short of the magical 3000-foot criterion. The 2021 edition of the Scottish Mountaineering Club’s Munros guide therefore dismisses it with the phrase: “many people will now miss it out”.

Well, that says more about “many people” than it does about the hill, so I went and climbed it. On the way, I made note of a path descending southeast into Coire Fionn-Lairige from the lowest point in the col, which I designated as my return route.

The grassy summit of Creag na Caillich gave me a fine view down to the head of Loch Tay:

Loch Tay from Creag na Caillich
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It’s possible, apparently, to continue the traverse down the ridge that you can see at right of frame above, and to follow a path that sweeps west and then east again to circumvent the final crags and link up with the end of a long vehicle track that serves a succession of little dams on the streams of Coire Fionn-Lairige—the folks at OpenStreetMap have certainly plotted such a thing (their data are used in my map at the head of this post), but I can’t vouch for it, because I headed back to the col to pick up the path I’d noted previously.

Which I promptly lost after only a few hundred metres. For what it’s worth, OpenStreetMap suggests that I went right across boggy ground while the path went left. But no matter—Coire Fionn-Lairige was easy grassy walking, and I chose a line that directly descended the steeper upper reaches, and then traversed gently southeast across the lower slopes using the low mound of Meall Liath as my marker.

Crossing Coire Fionn-Lairige towards Meall Liath
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This brought me out on the aforementioned dams track. Then it was just a matter of marching a couple of miles in the afternoon sunshine, while enjoying the views of the ridge I’d just traversed.

Meall nan Tarmachan from the dams track
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Glen Prosen: Driesh From The East

Hill of Strone (NO 288729, 850m)
Driesh (NO 271735, 947m)

18.3 kilometres
890 metres of ascent

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

Driesh is usually climbed along with it neighbour to the west, Mayar. Most people seem to come in from Glen Doll in the north, a route I’ve previously described, but the longer approach from Glen Prosen in the south has its merits, which I’ve also written about. Having also approached Mayar across the plateau to its west, I thought I might restore some sort of cosmic balance by walking to Driesh along the ridge to its east.

Previous wandering in the area revealed upper Glen Prosen to have been hard hit by Storm Arwen earlier in the year, with many trees down, some damaging property and others obstructing tracks in the Glenclova Forest.

Storm damage in Glen Prosen
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Windfallen trees in Glenclova Forest, Glen Prosen
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The track from the road-end beyond Glenprosen Lodge, leading up by the Burn of Farchal and emerging at the Dead Water, has been cleared. But, at the time of this trip, my planned approach along the track running north from Cramie was blocked by windfall on a broad front just south of the stile and gate below Cairn Inks.

So Plan B was to head east from Cramie along the track to Craigiemeg, then turn north over the open moor immediately after emerging from the forest. Here, there’s a 4×4 track, just two parallel grooves in the heather and unmarked on any map I’ve seen, which runs parallel to the forest fence to serve the grouse butts on Mount Bouie.

There’s room for a couple of cars at the road-end, and also a flat bit of ground between road and river just short of Glenprosen Lodge, which has something of the aspect of a parking area (there’s a waste bin) but which also seems to fulfil a function as a turning area for large vehicles (the semicircular ruts of large tyres were evident). So I tucked my car well to the side and clear of the ruts.

(At this point, I’ll intrude a little premonitory and explanatory note on toponyms for non-Scots, to reduce the number of linguistic diversions in my walk report, which is already unusually crammed with interesting place-names. There are two Shanks and two Snecks coming up. A shank, in a topographic context, is a sloping ridge descending from a hill summit; and a sneck is a steep-sided col between two hills.)

My route began at the entrance to Cramie farm, where I was briefly distracted by a sign on the gate:

Approach to Cramie, Glen Prosen
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At first I parsed “Caution Walkers” as an instruction for walkers to be cautious of some unnamed peril, but then decided it was a directive aimed at drivers, warning them to be alert for walkers on the track. Or so I hoped.

I turned right at Cramie (the left turn goes up the hill until it eventually encounters the swathe of windfallen trees previously mentioned), passed a telephone mast, went through a gate, and then turned uphill next to the deer-fence that protects the Glenclova forestry. (Why this patch of forest in Glen Prosen is named after the next glen to the north is a mystery I have yet to solve.)

After a steep pull up a grassy slope, I picked up the 4×4 track, and marched north along one of the slots in the heather left by the vehicle wheels. As I rounded the corner on Craigiemeg Hill, I was able to get a view into Glen Clova through the gap between Cairn Inks and Cairn of Barns—the distant crags, by my estimation, are the cliffs above Loch Brandy, along which I’ve previously walked.

Craigs of Loch Brandy visible between Cairn Inks and Cairn of Barns, Glen Prosen
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Cairn of Barns has nothing to do with farm buildings—in Scots, the barns in this context are large rocks. Cairn Inks is something of a puzzle, however, since the Scots word inks refers to water-meadows—shoreline pastures that are intermittently flooded by the spring tides. Watson hazards that the name might originally have been Carn Ing, invoking an old Gaelic word ing meaning (among other things) “neck of land”. And my view of the Craigs of Loch Brandy in the photograph above is indeed permitted by the low neck of land between Cairn Inks and Cairn of Barns. So it all hangs together.

There’s a natural law that, whenever one encounters a truly stout and well-maintained deer-fence in the Scottish Highlands, there will be deer inside it. And, sure enough, I soon scared up a couple of roe deer on the forest side of the fence. A couple of buzzards drifted over to see what I was up to, and then a pair of ravens came by, seeming to scold me with their flight calls.

 

Just before the ascent of Mount Bouie, I crossed a little lump with the intriguing name of West Mackermack; there’s an East Mackermack nearby. Mackermack is probably muc earranach, “area for pigs”, which gives a hint of what land-use must have been like in the days before the moorland became a managed duoculture of heather and grouse. And Mount Bouie gives another clue—it’s monadh buidhe, “yellow hill”, implying that it was once covered in grass, rather than the solid covering of heather it now sports for the benefit of the grouse and the people who shoot them.

After descending Bouie and crossing the unimpressive Sneck of Inks, I finally reached the northeast corner of the deer-fence, and a view of Hill of Strone in the distance.

Hill of Strone from top of Glenclova Forest deer fence, Glen Prosen
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Another, lower fence continues up the hill to the ridge-line, and I elected to slip westwards over the little wooden section in my picture, so that I could be on the same side of the fence as Hill of Strone. I needn’t have bothered, though, since I found a gate in the fence higher on the hill, of interesting construction.

Sliding gate on Cairn Inks, Glen Prosen
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I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a sliding wooden gate before. (In the photograph I’ve opened it slightly to check that it actually worked the way I thought it did, but I closed it again afterwards.)

From Cairn Inks, I was able to look down on the storm-induced carnage among the trees below. Here’s a view of the huge area of windfall that blocks the eastern track through the forestry:

Windfallen trees in Glenclova Forest, seen from Cairn Inks
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There’s a path along the ridge-line between Cairn Inks and Hill of Strone:

Approach to Hill of Strone from Cairn Inks
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This provides easy walking, with views back down into Prosen on the left, and the more dramatically steep-side Clova to the right. In the image below, you can see the grey bulk of Lochnagar on the skyline, with the cleft of upper Glen Clova in the centre, and the bulges of Craig Mellon and Cairn Broadlands peeping out from behind the foreground crags of Corlowie (coire loaigh, “corrie of the calves”) at left. I’ve visited both Mellon and Broadlands on a previous excursion, and have also written about my walk along the northern rim of upper Glen Clova.

Upper Glen Clova and Lochnagar from Cairn Inks ridge
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After a short pull uphill, I reached the rounded summit of Hill of Strone. (In topographic terms, Gaelic sron, “nose”, indicates the end of a promontory of land. I’m guessing the sron that gave Hill of Strone its name is the southward ridge now called the Shank of Strone.) This gave me a view across to Driesh, which retained a crescent of snow on the rim of an unnamed shallow corrie.

Driesh from Hill of Strone
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It looks like more easy strolling in the photograph, but tucked away between Strone and Driesh is the cleft of the Sneck of Farchal, above Corrie Farchal in Glen Clova:

Sneck of Farchal from Hill of Strone
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Watson translates Corrie Farchal as coire faireachail, “corrie of watching”, and certainly the upper reaches of the corrie, below the Sneck, would be a good vantage point, looking out over the junction of Glen Doll with Glen Clova.

The pull out of the Sneck on to Driesh was madly steep for a short distance, and then it lay back on to the long, easy-angled shoulder visible at left of my photograph, which took me to Driesh’s crowded cairn.

Driesh summit cairn
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In many visits, I’ve only ever had the summit to myself in the foulest of foul weather, or the poorest of visibility.

After lunch at the cairn, I walked a little east of south until I picked up a view of the Shank of Driesh below, my route back down into Prosen:

Shank of Driesh and Glen Prosen
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You can see the prominent vehicle track that runs along the Shank. My old OS 1:25000 shows this trending around the west side of the shallow Corrie of Lick, whereas my aim was to keep to the east, heading towards Cairn Baddoch (the wooded summit in the middle distance above Prosen, in my photograph). I cast around for a path that appeared on my map, but was not evident on the ground, and then headed off cross-country, picking my way along fairly easy routes created by recent muir-burn, only to discover that the track I was aiming for, shown by the OS on the shoulder of Cairn Baddoch, didn’t exist either. So I descended through more muir-burn until I reached a decent track on the east side of the Burn of Lick. Looking uphill, I could see that it quite obviously linked to the track on the west side of Corrie of Lick—if I’d descended a little farther before striking off cross-country, I’d have found it. (If you check the map at the head of this post, you’ll see the current arrangement of tracks, as well as my pointless eastward excursion through the heather.)

Then it was just an easy descent in the sunshine, accompanied by the strange, burbling calls of curlews in the glen below:

Descending into Glen Prosen towards Glenclova Forest
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Scottish Hill Lists: The Classics

Cover of 1953 edition of Munro's Tables

If you’ve spent any time at all reading The Oikofuge, you’ll have gathered that I’m quite interested in hills—climbing them, looking at other hills from their summits, understanding their names and their place in history, landscape and land-use. What you won’t have seen me mention very often is the plethora of classifications that have been imposed on the Scottish hills over the years, starting with Sir Hugh Munro’s table of 3000-footers published in 1891, and culminating in the ongoing GPS-assisted activities of the good people over at the Database of British and Irish Hills.

It’s not that I’m uninterested in these tabulations, or the various parameters they’re based on. I have, after all, actually prepared a (long-obsolete) set of mountain tables all of my own. And the maps that accompany my various walk reports show the summits colour-coded according to their classification—you can find the key to the colours used in the FAQ section of the blog. And a glance at my annual CCCP reports will reveal a definite tendency to clamber up any 3000-footer that happens to be nearby, that being something of a raison d’être for the Crow Craigies Climbing Party.

But I don’t structure my walking activities around trying to “complete” any particular hill list—indeed, it’s only in the last few years I’ve attempted to reconstruct a list of all the summits I’ve visited in fifty years of hill-walking. And that process has led me to think a bit more about hill-lists in general, and how they came to exist. So I thought I’d write something about that. For this post, I’m going to start with the classics—the three Scottish hill-lists that dominated the mental landscape of hillwalkers back in the 1970s when I was first venturing out on to the summits.


Munros

Like the others in this trio, Munro’s list first appeared in the Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal, and has been curated by the Scottish Mountaineering Club ever since. His “Table Giving All The Scottish Mountains Exceeding 3,000 Feet In Height” [SMCJ 1(6): 276-313] lists 538 Scottish “tops” that exceed the height limit. Munro then innocently instigated a century-long argument by separately enumerating those peaks he felt could “fairly be reckoned distinct mountains”. These were the 283 summits that came to be designated “Munros” in his honour; the remaining 255 tops on his list would then become the “Munro Tops”.

Munro worked on revising his list in the light of new mapping, and the SMC planned to issue his Revised Tables as part of their new General Guide-Book. This eventually saw the light of day in 1921, issued in instalments after a delay necessitated by the First World War—and, unfortunately, after Munro’s death in 1919. This list, consisting of 276 Munros and 267 Munro Tops, is perhaps the closest we can get to the “historical” Munros—Munro’s list largely devoid of input from other hands.

Unfortunately, Munro left no guidance on how he had decided whether one of his “tops” counted as a “mountain”. He certainly seems to have considered that large jagged mountains, like Beinn Eighe or An Teallach, could consist of only one “mountain” summit (the highest point) together with several mere “tops”; while he tended to scatter the “mountain” designation rather more profligately on rolling plateau land, like the Monadlaiths. This apparently unequal distribution of “mountains” relative to the difficulty of ascent would be the source of many later arguments, and I’ll come back to that when I write about the occasionally vexed topic of table revisions, in a later post. (There will be charts.)


Donalds

Munro’s 3000-footers are restricted entirely to the Scottish Highlands, and that may have been the inspiration for Percy Donald’s publication in 1935 of “Tables Giving All Hills In The Scottish Lowlands 2,000 Feet And Above” [SMCJ 20(120): 415-38]. This was a list of the highest summits in the Lowlands and Southern Uplands, thereby complementing Munro’s Highland-centric list.

After the pattern of Munro, Donald provided a list of 133 “tops”, and further classified 86 of these tops as “hills”. Unlike Munro, he attempted to provide some formal reasoning for his selection. But, again after the pattern of Munro, a degree of personal choice was permitted to creep in. His list of “tops” comprised:

All elevations [over 2000 feet] with a drop of 100 feet on all sides and elevations of sufficient topographical merit with a drop of between 100 feet and 50 feet on all sides.

Donald here introduces the idea of “drop”—the vertical distance between a hill’s summit and the highest connecting col. This is nowadays frequently called “topographic prominence”, and has become a key concept in modern hill lists. It can be formally defined as the summit’s height above the lowest contour which encircles the summit without enclosing any higher summit. But Donald then muddies the waters by making a subjective judgement with regard to the “topographical merit” of those 2000-foot eminences with drops in the 50-to-100-foot range.

In order to decide which of his “tops” were also “hills”, Donald gathered his tops together into groups, and nominated the highest of each group to be the “hill”, and the remainder to be “subsidiary tops” of that hill. His method of defining a group of tops is generally referred to by the SMC and other commentators as a “complicated formula”, but regular readers of The Oikofuge will no doubt recognize it as being a really simple formula. Donald measured the horizontal distance between adjacent tops along their connecting ridge, and measured the drop of the lower top by counting 50-foot contours between its col and summit. Each twelfth of a mile horizontally, and each 50-foot interval vertically, constituted one “unit”, and a “hill” could lay claim only to such subsidiary tops as fell within 17 units of its summit. As far as I can tell, Donald didn’t offer a justification for this particular formula, but it’s evident that his 17 units translate to about half-an-hour’s walking for someone setting a slightly more leisurely pace than the one stipulated by Naismith’s Rule. His “hills” are now called “Donalds” in his honour, and the subsidiary tops are “Donald Tops”. (In an appendix to his main tables, Donald also listed fifteen summits enclosed by isolated loops of 2000-foot contour, which are sometimes referred to as Minor Tops, but are of largely historical interest for reasons I’ll mention when I write about the revision history of these tables.)


Corbetts

The final member of the classic table trio (or triptych, as the SMC would no doubt style it) arrived in 1952, with the publication of J. Rooke Corbett’s awkwardly entitled “List Of Scottish Mountains 2,500 Feet And Under 3,000 Feet In Height” [SMCJ 25(143): 45-52]. Sadly, Corbett had died in 1949, and his tables were passed on to the SMC by his sister. The SMC appears to have been initially somewhat bemused, to judge from the foreword written by John Dow, who describes Corbett’s list of 219 summits as “incomplete”, stating that:

[…] reference to the maps—e.g., 1-in. Ordnance Sheets 42, 43, 49, etc.—makes it clear that numerous heights of equal “merit” to those listed have not been shown.

However, it soon became clear to the SMC that Corbett had in fact completed his tables—the apparent omissions were because he had, like Donald, applied a “drop threshold” below which summits failed to qualify for inclusion. Unlike Donald, he had not then applied any further, subjective judgements. When Corbett’s tables were republished in 1953, Dow’s revised foreword stated:

There was no indication in Corbett’s papers as to the criterion he adopted in listing the heights [ie, summits] included, but it seems clear that his only test was a re-ascent of 500 feet on all sides to every point admitted, no account being taken of distance or difficulty. No detailed check has been made, but the 500 feet qualification has obviously been exhaustively applied and rigidly adhered to […]

It is left as an exercise for the interested reader to figure out how this criterion could be deemed to have been “rigidly adhered to” in the absence of a “detailed check”, but a topographic prominence of 500 feet has been a stipulated qualification for Corbett-hood ever since.


These three tables were brought to together in a single publication in 1953: Munro’s Tables And Other Tables Of Lesser Heights on the cover, but more grandly styled Munro’s Tables Of The 3000-Feet Mountains Of Scotland, And Other Tables Of Lesser Heights on the title page. Its cover features at the head of this post.* It went through numerous editions and revisions over the course of the next four decades, until the most recent edition, in 1997, changed the title to the less judgemental Munro’s Tables And Other Tables Of Lower Hills. No matter: almost everyone refers to the publications as just “Munro’s Tables”.

A plot of the Munros, Corbetts and Donalds (according to the current lists) reveals some interesting features of their distribution:

Geographical distribution of Munros, Corbetts and Donalds
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The Munros (in red) are confined by the nature of Scottish topography to the region north of the Highland Boundary Fault. Most are on the mainland, but two of the Inner Hebrides (Skye and Mull) host Munros. And we can see how Donald’s decision to confine his own tables to the Lowlands and Southern Uplands creates a complementary distribution of Donalds (in orange). Corbetts (in yellow) are spread all across Scotland—fringing the Munros in the north, reaching into several more islands, and mingling with the Donalds in the south. And because Donald set no upper limit to the height of his hills, there is in fact an overlap between the Corbetts and the Donalds—seven Donalds reach above 2500 feet with sufficient prominence to also qualify as Corbetts.

It’s informative, too, to plot the same hills on two axes according to their height and prominence:

Height-prominence chart of Munros, Corbetts and Donalds
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In the absence of large areas of ground below sea level in Scotland, no hill can have a prominence greater than its summit’s height above sea level; and the only summits with prominence equal to their height are the highest points of islands. So I’ve plotted the Island Line on my chart, and labelled the three Munros and four Corbetts that lie on it.

The Corbetts cluster neatly, bounded by the 3000-foot contour above, the 2500-foot contour below, the Island Line to the right, and 500-foot prominence to the left. The Donalds sprawl a bit more—bounded by the 2000-foot contour below, but spilling into Corbett territory above, with seven orange triangles superimposed on the corresponding yellow Corbett plots. The Donalds all lie to the right of Donald’s 100-foot prominence cut-off; the Donald Tops (all bar one) lie to the right of his 50-foot lower limit. The reason for that anomalous Donald Top of negligible prominence will be explained (or at least, elucidated) when I write about later revisions to the tables.

Finally, the modern Munros list appears fairly well-behaved, too, with all the Munro Tops having prominences less than 500 feet, while the Munros themselves have prominences greater than 100 feet. This was not always so—it’s a product of later table revisions. And there’s another anomaly on the chart, in the form of a single Munro with negligible prominence. That something else I’ll explain in my next post on this topic.


* It’s easy to be misled by the colophon that appears at the start of every edition of “Munro’s Tables” claiming a first edition in 1891, and two subsequent editions in 1921 and 1933. These dates refer to the first three publications of Hugh Munro’s tables, initially in the SMCJ and then in the two editions of the SMC’s General Guide-Book. The single publication commonly referred to as “Munro’s Tables”, containing the tables prepared by Munro, Corbett and Donald, didn’t (indeed couldn’t) come into existence until 1953, and I’m not sure why the SMC tries to push its publication history back into a time before the works of Donald and Corbett even existed.

This can lead to curious behaviour from walkers intent on “bagging” both Corbetts and Donalds. I once met a man on White Coomb who told me, in solemn tones, that he had been “forced” to climb the hill twice, because it was “once for the Donald and once for the Corbett”.

Sydney Scroggie: The Cairngorms Scene & Unseen

Cover of "The Cairngorms Scene & Unseen" By Syd Scroggie

The Cairngorms lay beneath what was now a local bonnet of cloud. Everything else was in sunshine and dazzling with colours, cobalts and browns and bright greens, all the peaks around glowing with the pristine pigments of an illuminated manuscript, as far as distant Lochnagar and Beinn a’ Ghlo. Then even the interior gloom began to change, and a violet light stole over the nearby scene, so that my hands and my clothes reflected it, and behind me the Lurcher’s Crag turned as mauve as the most voluptuous ling heather. This was not so with Angel Peak, Cairn Toul and the Devil’s Point, which rose on the other side of Glen Dee, for these turned an emerald green, so that they stood there like vast jewels, soft and glowing, against that brilliant distant palette of incredible colour.
It lasted only a minute or two, long enough for a ptarmigan to croak, a golden plover to whistle and a discarded fag pack to stir in the breeze; then down came the cloud again and shut everything out.

That’s a young Syd Scroggie, standing on the summit of Ben Macdui one day in 1942. I chose this particular quote because it’s a companion of sorts to the quote with which I opened my review of Nan Shepherd’s Cairngorm memoir, The Living Mountain (1977). Both quotations mark the start of a long love affair with the Cairngorm massif; both describe striking visual experiences. But Scroggie’s lines are made particularly poignant by the knowledge that, when the lines were first published, in 1989, Scroggie had been blind for more than forty years.

Scroggie began his explorations of his beloved Cairngorm Mountains before the Second World War, and was able to fit in the occasional visit during his army training, which took place near Aviemore. He latterly served in the Lovat Scouts, a Highland regiment that fought in the Allied invasion of Italy. Two weeks before the end of the war, he trod on a “shoe mine” (the German Schützenmine-42), losing a lower leg and the sight in both eyes. After rehabilitating under the care of St Dunstan’s (now Blind Veterans UK), Scroggie went on to study at Oxford, learning Greek and Latin in Braille, before returning to his native Dundee to take up a job as a switchboard operator at one of the city’s major employers of the time, N.C.R. Works.

Then, in 1955, came the fateful moment when his friend Les Bowman proposed a trip to a remote bothy in the heart of the Cairngorms: “Young Scrog, let’s do a trip to Corrour.”

The idea was staggering, of my setting out and returning as a disabled person to the locality which more than any other for me is symbolic of the hills.

Scroggie’s response was, “You bet.”

And so he walked the eight miles in along the rough track by Derry Lodge and the boggy path beyond, his hand upon Bowman’s shoulder. His feelings can well be imagined—here’s how he recorded them in a moving piece of poetry:

The gods thus spoke, the gods of hill and glen:
This is our man, we know his face of old,
He has but slept, behold he comes again.

Scroggie lived about a mile north of my childhood home, and his place of work was a mile to the southwest, so he was a familiar sight for me in those days, striding along with his stick and his one white eye. And I met him once, during the seventies, in the hills above Glen Clova where he airily described the view to me from memory. He had a very characteristic pattern of speech—deprived of visual feedback from the facial expression and posture of the person he addressed, he delivered his thoughts in long, rattling paragraphs, punctuated by pauses to permit responses. You can observe him in conversation with Tom Weir in this classic episode of Weir’s Way, broadcast in 1987:

And I offered you that video because I was going to write that, in The Cairngorms: Scene & Unseen (1989), Scroggie wrote exactly how he spoke. But it occurs to me that this is perhaps no surprise—while the ever-undaunted Scroggie may well have mastered the art of longhand writing or typing while blind, it’s perhaps more likely that he dictated his memoir. But however the words got to the paper, the experience of reading them is exactly like sitting on a rock by a loch and hearing Scroggie speak—funny, clever and discursive, suffused with a deep love of the hills and the people who go there, anecdote heaped dizzyingly on anecdote until all chronology is lost, and the reader no longer remembers or cares whether Scroggie was sighted or unsighted at the time of the events he describes.

Recently republished by the Scottish Mountaineering Press, this is unfortunately the only piece of Scroggie’s writing currently in print. A number of slim booklets are documented by the University of Dundee, and Amazon seems to know of something entitled The Modern Ferla More (1963)*. His poetry collection Give Me The Hills (1978) is now vanishingly rare and I’ve yet to lay my hands on a copy, but there’s a decent sampling of his verse stirred into this memoir.

Scroggie ranges widely through his memories. There are stories here of wartime service, and of his son’s supernatural imaginings in Lower Geldie Lodge, and he’s not above gleefully relaying a good story borrowed from a friend. But in the main this is a narrative of “bothy culture” in the Cairngorms spanning (roughly) the decades between 1940 and 1980—of nights spent chatting and drinking whisky by the light of a bog-wood fire. Some of Scroggie’s bothies are gone now, like the Sinclair Hut; some are now inaccessible, like Derry Lodge; and some have a new lease of life, like Corrour, though Scroggie did not approve of its post-war restoration:

Then the bothy had been friendly and hospitable, and somehow mysterious in its ruin and dilapidation, pregnant with a sense of impending romance and adventure. […] Now [it] had a more clinical air, as if the planners had moved in, and though it was obviously wind and weather tight, and would remain so for decades, it had lost much of its character in the process.

And there are many stories here of the legendary Bob Scott and his bothy at Luibeg. (There’s still a bothy with Scott’s name on it, though it stands farther downstream than the original, below the confluence of the Luibeg and Derry Burns.)

As well as evocations of the Cairngorm scenery, and character sketches of people encountered among the hills, Scroggie also offers some laugh-out-loud anecdotes, beautifully told. One of my favourites is one he relays from his friend Les Bowman, who served with the Royal Engineers in North Africa during the war. One night, an unfounded rumour swept through his unit, that the German army was about to descend on their desert camp, intent on “slaughtering them to the last sapper.” As Scroggie and Bowman tell the story, panic immediately reigned, while the Commanding Officer was reduced to “darting about to and fro” and “gibbering with fear”. When pressed for a plan, the CO instructed his men to “Make for Algiers.”

It was a case of omne ignotum pro magnifico if ever there was one. ‘How’ll we get there, sir?’ The response to the CO’s suggestion—for it was a suggestion rather than a command—took the form less of a lusty shout than a concerted wail from the sappers who could see their chance of ever getting home diminishing in a kind of geometrical progression as minute succeeded minute in the confusion of affairs. There are moments of inspiration which come to every man, based on memories long buried under piles of succeeding experience, and something new stirred in the CO’s mind, paralysed though it was by conflicting emotions, which seemed to have in it the solvent of all their terrors—the perfect answer to the unparalleled exigencies of their situation.
Pale, distraught and pyjama-clad […] the CO made a dramatic gesture vaguely in the direction of Timbuktu, where Jupiter was a conspicuous object in the sky, gazing down with planetary indifference at a warring world below. […] ‘Follow the North Star,’ he cried.

Scroggie was in his sixties when writing this memoir, and like many hillgoers of a Certain Age (ahem) rather wished that things would just stay as they were—he preferred the comfort of a Primus stove to the newfangled gas, and would apparently rather crouch in a leaking hovel rather than countenance any rebuilding work on his remote bothies. He wasn’t that keen on tourists clogging up his favourite glens, and I think would probably have been reduced to tears of frustration if he’d lived to witness the mess now created in Glen Brittle by too many visitors encountering too little infrastructure. He reserves his particular ire, however, for the Scottish National Outdoor Training Centre at Glenmore Lodge, and the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme.

Here he is, in full polemical flow, on the former establishment:

… this is a place dedicated to teaching people everything about the hills except what really counts. It is a kind of fascist training establishment from which intakes emerge to conquer the hills and in so doing, according to the theory, conquer themselves. Absent is the poetry, the philosophy, the metaphysics, the dreamy dwam, if you like, which are proper to the wooing of the hills. A cowering Macdhui, an alarmed Braeriach and a scandalised Cairn Lochain find themselves subject instead to a kind of criminal assault. Glenmore Lodge, in short, represents a machination of the Devil by which he seeks to corrupt the last refuge of sanity with notions proper only to the general lunacy which surrounds it.

(Come on Scroggie, stop beating about the bush and say what you really think … )

I believe it’s evident that here, and in other places, Scroggie is caught up with creating a dramatic effect. Elsewhere, for instance, shortly after an impassioned plea to rebuild Hadrian’s Wall in order to exclude tourists, he undermines his own position by commending two English visitors who were, he felt, clear exceptions to his own black-and-white rule. But there’s also a deep and heartfelt cry in there—he fears that the hills are becoming arenas for feats of mental or physical endurance, for “challenges”, rather than places to love and contemplate. Scroggie would, I think, agree wholeheartedly with Nan Shepherd’s observation (in The Living Mountain):

Yet often the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination, when I reach nowhere in particular, but have gone out merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend with no intention but to be with him.

Shepherd and Scroggie are then, I think, unlikely soulmates—the one alarmingly delicate in many ways, the other tough as old boots; one full of lyrical mysticism, the other pragmatic and forthright to a fault; but both possessed by a deep need to be in the mountains, as a source of calm and solace.

I’ll leave you with another snippet of Scroggie’s poetry, which will resonate, I’m sure, with any hill-lover conscious of advancing years:

I will attempt the Capel Track,
Old, stiff and retrograde,
And get some pal to push me on
Should resolution fade.
For I must see black Meikle Pap
Against a starry sky,
And watch the dawn from Lochnagar
Once more before I die.


* “Ferla More” is undoubtedly a reference to the legendary Fear Liath Mor (“Big Grey Man”) of Ben Macdui—a supernatural creature said to haunt the slopes of that mountain. In Scene & Unseen Scroggie rather revels in the concept of “spookiness”, and evinces a keen interested in the Big Grey Man.
Your Reviewer confesses to a certain sympathy with Scroggie’s viewpoint on this. The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme is nowadays one of the tick boxes completed by many applicants to Medical School, and I once made a point, during a day of interviews, of asking each award-bearing applicant what they’d taken away from the scheme. I heard a lot about resourcefulness and self-belief, of developing character, of rising to challenges and overcoming adversity; one even talked about “pushing on through misery”. Not one of them mentioned developing a love of the outdoor environment; several quite obviously now hated it with a passion.

Lomond Reservoirs Circuit

East Lomond (NO 243061, 434m)
West Lomond (NO 197066, 522m)
Bishop Hill (NO 185043,461m)

20 kilometres
710 metres of ascent

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

Having previously climbed West Lomond and East Lomond from the Craigmead car park, and having made a more recent traverse of Bishop Hill from the Holl Reservoir car park, I decided it was time to chain all three summits together into a circuit that would take me right around the three large reservoirs that nestle below these hills. The tracks on all three hills can be annoyingly muddy in places, so I chose a day that fell about a week into a period of static high pressure over Scotland. The dry spell reduced the amount of mud considerably, but unfortunately generated a lot of haze that obscured some of the longer sightlines.

I parked at Holl, and then headed down the short stretch of road that dips below the grassy slopes of the Holl Reservoir dam. Beyond the road end, the route crosses a bridge over the reservoir’s spill-way, and then follows a track that crosses the ridge of higher ground separating Holl Reservoir from Ballo Reservoir. In the plantation beside the path I could hear a wren singing, with its characteristic “soft machine-gun” trills, like this:

I cast about for sight of the bird—to be rewarded with no more than a momentary glimpse of a whirring, chocolate-brown blur as it dived for cover.

The path descends towards the buildings of Balgothrie, but then follows a tortuous and many-gated route circumventing the buildings and eventually pops out along the grassy shoreline of Ballo Reservoir, with a view of the cone of West Lomond in the distance.

Ballo Reservoir
Click to enlarge

The path eventually reaches the buildings of the Ballo Trout Fishery (visible in the distance above), then turns uphill after crossing the track that connects the fishery to Wester Glassie, and eventually emerges on the narrow ribbon of tarmac that serves the Craigmead car park from the south.

Route to East Lomond crosses the Craigmead road
Click to enlarge

Here, I crossed over and passed through a field gate on the opposite side of the road, at left of frame in my photo above. There’s a fairly evident track that takes you through open pasture towards East Lomond here, but I made a bit of a dog-leg around the margin of the first field to avoid disturbing a flock of sheep before getting out on to empty grassland.

Track to East Lomond from south
Click to enlarge

After a while, a rather impressive building appeared, surrounded by interpretive boards:

Lime kiln, East Lomond
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This is an old lime kiln—now pretty much in the middle of nowhere, but once it was a bustle of activity, roasting limestone to produce quicklime (calcium oxide) for fertilizer and building mortar. Why here? Because the central cone of East Lomond is surrounded by layers of Carboniferous coal and limestone, among other things. So back in the day the kiln could be supplied with raw material that was dug out of the ground in the immediate vicinity.

Onwards and upwards, then, joining the main drag from Craigmead to East Lomond and striking steeply up the final cone.

West Lomond from East Lomond
Click to enlarge

On a previous visit, I encountered a dog perched on the summit view indicator, but I had the place to myself this time. West Lomond stood out against a bank of distant haze, and Bishop Hill looked distinctly murky.

I descended to the main westerward track, following it almost as far as Craigmead before hanging a right turn on to a subsidiary track that joins the road a little north of the car park, almost opposite the entrance to the broad track that serves West Lomond.

After a couple of miles, I had to decide between going straight up the eastern side of West Lomond, or following the spiralling tourist route that branches off to the right.

Approach to West Lomond from Craigmead
Click to enlarge

Last time, I’d gone for the direttissima, so this time I took the spiral, just for a bit of variety. This cranks through a good 180 degrees before eventually climbing steeply towards West Lomond’s oddly eroded trig point.

Summit of West Lomond
Click to enlarge

The way in which the concrete base of the pillar now stands proud of the surrounding terrain makes it a fine place to sit down. So I was enjoying a Mars bar and the hazy view of Bishop Hill when I heard the sound of a phone ringing somewhere out of sight on the approach to the summit. Oh dear. I braced for one of those long business conversations that seem to take place on top of hills with phone reception these days, only to hear the phone’s owner take the call and say: “Ah’m oan the hill, man. Ah’ll phone ye back. Aye, tonight.” End of call. That’s the spirit.

Then I headed southwards off the summit, on a knee-straining path that drops down to a stile and then continues its descent over eroded ground to the head of Glen Vale.

Bishop Hill from flank of West Lomond
Click to enlarge

I’ve been over this stile before, and reported it as being in poor repair, but I was pleased to find it had had some work done since I last saw it.

Having arrived at the lowest point, with a view down into Glen Vale, I started up the obvious track on to Bishop Hill, encountering about the only bit of serious mud on the whole expedition, in a little sump around the access gate. Here’s the view back to West Lomond:

West Lomond from head of Glen Vale
Click to enlarge

I climbed alongside the fence for a while, until another little metal gate appeared on my right, giving access to the slopes of Bishop Hill, along a path that eventually emerged on to the long summit ridge.

As I strolled south towards the highest point, I suddenly noticed that an aero engine of which I’d been only subliminally aware had changed its tone quite dramatically. I glance up, and glimpsed a small aircraft diving away, having just released the tow-rope of a glider. Presumably it was one of the Eurofox tugs from the nearby Scottish Gliding Centre, delivering a glider to the region of ridge lift where the light westerly wind was striking the steep face of Bishop Hill, just to my right.

It wasn’t long before I arrived at the little summit cairn I’d previously encountered in thick cloud, but which now enjoyed a hazy view over Loch Leven.

Loch Leven from Bishop Hill
Click to enlarge

I pressed on, then, towards Munduff Hill and the weather-radar station I described in my previous report from Bishop Hill.

Track to Munduff Hill
Click to enlarge

Having navigated flawlessly to that summit in zero visibility during my last visit, I found myself wandering on to the wrong path now that I could see where I was going and was thinking about other things—so I had to take a short line cross-country, weaving through the abandoned quarry on the ridge, before I got back on track.

Then it was just a matter of picking up the service road for the radar station (also described in my previous report), and descending through the forest to join the long track through West Feal, which took me back to the car.

Bishop Hill track at West Feal
Click to enlarge

Bishop Hill Circuit

Bishop Hill (NO 185043, 461m)

13.5 kilometres
370 metres of ascent

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

Bishop Hill is a prominent ridge on the far side of Loch Leven for anyone driving on the M90. Together with West and East Lomond, it encloses an area of tilted terrain, dotted with reservoirs, northwest of Glenrothes.

I parked at the Holl Reservoir car park and set off to the northwest, picking my way along the branching network of tracks that provide access to the reservoirs and farmland. I was walking in cool February sunshine, but Bishop Hill to my west was shrouded in dense orographic cloud.

Bishop Hill in cloud from near Drumain Reservoir
Click to enlarge

It was possible I was going to end up climbing into cloud; but as I watched a similar cap of cloud clear from the summit of East Lomond, I wondered if I might get lucky as the day grew warmer.

East Lomond across Ballo Reservoir
Click to enlarge

The tracks took me past the big grassy dam of Harperleas Reservoir and through the trees on its southern shore, before turning into a narrow path. By the time I reached the little footbridge over the Lothrie Burn, I was out on open moorland. And the cloud was still low on West Lomond (in the background of my photo below).

Footbridge on Lothrie Burn below West Lomond
Click to enlarge

Things got boggy for a while, after which I encountered this modern marker stone:

Modern boundary marker: Strathmiglo, Falkland, Portmoak
Click to enlarge

It’s dated 2006, and the engraving reads:

Three
ancient parishes
come together
at this point

Strathmiglo
Falkland
Portmoak

It’s obviously a companion to the modern commonty marker stone I encountered when climbing West and East Lomond. I suspect these are the work of the Living Lomonds Landscape Partnership, but at time of writing their website has become inaccessible, so I can’t check.

The path then carries on in well-maintained condition, across the moorland to the head of Glen Vale.

Path to Glen Vale from the east
Click to enlarge

Above Glen Vale, there’s a sudden choice of routes. One strikes off along the north side of the glen, guarded by a fairly fierce warning notice (of which more later); a more substantial path follows the south side of the glen; and one heads off uphill, eventually reaching the ridge of Bishop Hill.

Warning sign at the head of Glen Vale
Click to enlarge

I took the middle way—in part because I wanted a better view of the glen, and in part because making a more circuitous approach to the hill would give the persistent overhead clag more time to clear.

Glen Vale is a pretty glen, but it wasn’t looking its best, with its winter crop of dead bracken looking drab under the overcast.

Glen Vale and the crags of John Knox's Pulpit
Click to enlarge

The crag in the middle, above, used to house an overhanging outcrop of rock called John Knox’s Pulpit, though there’s no evidence that John Knox (the founder of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland) ever preached from it. It was, unfortunately, blown up by Fife Council in 2004, because it was deemed dangerous—certainly, as the warning sign suggests, the crags are prone to rockfalls.

Geograph offers a “before and after” pair of images taken by Ian Bruce, which I’m allowed to reproduce here:

The upper photograph dates from 2003, the lower from 2006. You can follow the links in my copyright notices to see them in their original context.

I walked on a little beyond the crags, and then followed a path that strikes steeply uphill on the north ridge of Bishop Hill. This took me into cloud at about 350m, but just before the view vanished I walked a short distance to the west to obtain a dim view of Loch Leven below.

Loch Leven from north ridge of Bishop Hill
Click to enlarge

As I was lining up the photograph, a low, thrumming swoosh-swoosh-swoosh sound started up behind me, for all the world like a nearby wind turbine. And then it started to get closer. I flinched and turned, to discover a raven flying past at shoulder height, cocking its head to eye me suspiciously. I’ve never been close enough to a raven to hear its wingbeats, and it was the best wildlife encounter of the day; indeed, of the year so far.

Then it was just a matter of following an obvious path running alongside the remnants of a once-substantial boundary wall, until I arrived at Bishop Hill’s little summit cairn. Here’s the view:

Bishop Hill cairn
Click to enlarge

Pushing south through the mist towards the little outlying summit of Munduff Hill, the navigation got a little harder—the path became fainter and developed a tendency to divide and reconnect for no obvious reason. I then arrived at a busy little crossroads in the middle of nowhere, with a group of young people suddenly appearing out of the mist to my left, chattering merrily, before disappearing into the mist to my right, apparently oblivious to my presence. After which a solitary mountain-biker popped up from the left, gave me brisk nod, and then disappeared off behind me.

More braided faint paths ensued, until I got to the summit of Munduff, which is marked by a flat rock bearing a curious incised pattern:

Incised stone on summit of Munduff Hill
Click to enlarge

I’ve no idea of the significance of this. It looks for all the world as if a passing Nazi suffering from constructional apraxia had attempted to engrave a swastika. (But I presume that’s not what actually happened.)

Having never visited Munduff Hill before, I was in some doubt about my route down. I anticipated following the line of the forestry fence for half a kilometre to the northeast, to pick up the main track descending to West Feal and my route back to the car. But the map also showed a track branching off the West Feal track and coming up through the trees to terminate at some sort of building just inside the forest fence, right next to the Munduff summit. Whether or not I could get to it was another matter, since I’d no great desire to climb a deer fence and push through dense conifers, should that be required. But I thought I’d take a look at the potential access before heading down to my default exit.

My first surprise came when the “building” loomed out of the mist ahead:

Met Office weather radar, Munduff Hill
Click to enlarge

This proved to be a Met Office weather-radar installation. And next to it was a gate in the fence, with a short path leading down past the tower to the service track beyond. There was only one hitch, in the form of a tree that had been downed by the recent series of storms:

Fallen tree blocks path at radar station on Munduff Hill
Click to enlarge

It was, however, easy enough to just walk around through the grass on the other side of the tower.

Then it was just matter of descending through the forest (which was, rather spookily, still retaining some ground mist here and there) and then following the broad track to West Feal, and then beyond to the road and the car park.

Track descending Munduff Hill
Click to enlarge

Prosen-Clova: Airlie Memorial To Hill Of Couternach

The Goal (NO 361639, 459m)
Hill of Couternach (NO 356659, 512m)

13.7 kilometres
470 metres of ascent

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

The Airlie Memorial stands on the shoulder of Tulloch Hill, which is the prow of a long ridge separating Glen Prosen to the west from Glen Clova in the east. It’s another of those places conjured into legendary status in my childhood, because my father would often point it out and extol its virtues as we drove past on our way to somewhere else entirely. Every now and then in adult life I would remember that I still hadn’t got around to visiting it. So a few days short of the winter solstice, with limited time on my hands, I decided that Airlie Memorial Day had finally arrived, after half a century of anticipation and prevarication.

But as I drove up the road between Kirriemuir and Dykehead, I began to feel a few misgivings. Chainsaws had been at work on either side of the road, clearing fallen trees and branches. A mere fortnight after the destructive winds of Storm Arwen was perhaps not the best time to embark on a walk that began with a climb through forest. Oh well, I thought. We’ll soon see.

I parked in the rough and muddy little car-park at the corner of the Glen Prosen road (NO 371606), where a post-Arwen notice from the Airlie Estate advised me that I should not attempt to clear fallen trees myself, as this could result in injury. That didn’t sound promising, but I set off up the steep track to see what progress I could make. And things went swimmingly at first, until I got high on the exposed southern shoulder of the hill, where all retrospective hell let loose. The path disappeared under the branches of a fallen tree, and beyond that was a blasted landscape of sheared-off stumps, root-systems tilted to the vertical, and heaped branches. Oh dear.

Windfallen trees block track to Airlie Monument
Click to enlarge

So I picked my way upwards, occasionally encountering little segments of the track barricaded by fallen timber at either end, but mainly just improvising a line that trended uphill. At which point, I climbed into low cloud. Turning back seemed like it might involve even more effort than just pressing on to the tree-line, and eventually I eased my way through a final tangle of branches to see the silhouette of the Airlie Memorial looming at me through the mist, like the opening paragraph of a Gothic novel.

Airlie Monument in the mist, Tulloch Hill
Click to enlarge

It’s a stonking great pile, twenty metres high, raised in memory of David Ogilvy, 11th Earl of Airlie, who died at the Battle of Diamond Hill during the Boer War.

For a fly-round on a clear day, take a look at this drone footage, which also shows my onward route along the ridge, as well as the surrounding forest in happier days:

I skirted the impressive bank of cotoneaster that surrounds the base of the tower, and headed north along the ridge-line track. Ahead, sunlight began to glimmer, and I eventually walked out into clear air, with a view of my next hill, intriguingly named The Goal.

The Goal from Tulloch HIll
Click to enlarge

On the near skyline at right, you can see my next problem. Before rising on to the rounded moorland summits ahead, my track traverses one more little patch of woodland. And it was blocked by another tangle of windfall. Stymied, I looked around for alternative routes, and immediately spotted a track coming purposefully up the hillside from Glen Prosen.

The Goal, new track and new planting at Cotgibbon Plantation
Click to enlarge

It wasn’t marked on my map, but I figured it would either represent another route into the forestry, or circumvent the little patch of trees entirely. So I dropped down a short distance over rough ground, scrambled over a ludicrously deep ditch … and discovered that the new track terminated at a turning circle and what looked like a chemical toilet, a few metres short of a new deer-fence bounding the forestry.

So I found myself obliged to make a long descent through a previously forested area that had been cleared and replanted. I was aiming for the track that starts from a layby on the Glen Prosen road near the old farm of Dalchip and rises on to the western shoulder of The Goal—you can see it in the distance in the photograph below.

New planting at Cotgibbon Plantation, track to The Goal beyond
Click to enlarge

I’ve always thought that, if I ever break my leg on the hill, it will be on this sort of reused forestry ground—full of hidden holes and old tangled branches. So I took my time and eventually arrived at the track, and the gate through which it accesses the open hillside. Freedom! From there, it was easy enough to regain my lost height and arrive at the round summit of The Goal.

I’d been seriously contemplating baling straight back down into the glen, given the tiresome clambering that had been involved in getting this far. But the weather was clearing, and the play of low sunlight and mist across the autumnal grass of the ridge was inviting.

Craigs of Lethnot from The Goal
Click to enlarge

So I followed the track and the fence in straight-line segments, across the whaleback above the Craigs of Lethnot, and on to Hill of Couternach. In clear weather this would be a fine viewpoint into upper Glen Prosen to the west and the elbow of lower Glen Clova to the north. As it was, I had only tantalizing misty glimpses beneath the clouds.

Glen Prosen from Hill of Couternach
Click to enlarge
Glen Clova from Hill of Couternach
Click to enlarge

Then it was back to the Craigs of Lethnot, where I diverted to the little cairn above the crags, for a view of the mist billowing through Glen Clova.

Glen Clova, The Goal and Tulloch Hill from Craigs of Lethnot
Click to enlarge

Back at The Goal, I picked up the track down to Dalchip and the road. Ahead, the Airlie Memorial, clear of mist at last, was silhouetted on the sky-line.

Tulloch Hill and Airlie Monument from Cotgibbon Plantation track
Click to enlarge

Once on the tarmac, I had just a mile to walk to get back to the car. But I marched on past the car park for a short distance to take in one last sight. My own photographs suffered from the poor lighting conditions, so I’m offering the one below instead, taken by the Boon Companion on a brighter day:

Scott-Wilson Monument, Glen Prosen
Click to enlarge
© 2021, The Boon Companion

This is the Scott-Wilson Monument, raised in memory of Antarctic explorers Robert Falcon Scott and Edward Wilson. It’s admittedly an odd place to find an Antarctic memorial—it’s here because Wilson stayed at nearby Burnside Cottage in 1907 and 1908, during breaks from his work on the Grouse Disease Inquiry, and was visited there by Scott. Much of what would become the British Antarctic Expedition was therefore planned within a mile of this out-of-the-way corner in the road.

You can find out more about the monument on the website of the sculptor, Bruce Walker.

Nan Shepherd: The Living Mountain

Cover of The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd

[…] I toiled up the last slope and came out above Glen Einich. Then I gulped the frosty air—I could not contain myself, I jumped up and down, I laughed and shouted. There was the whole plateau, glittering white, within reach of my fingers, an immaculate vision, sun-struck, lifting against a sky of dazzling blue. I drank and drank. I have not yet done drinking that draught. From that hour I belonged to the Cairngorms […]

That’s Nan Shepherd describing her first view of the Cairngorm plateau, on a perfect winter day, in fairly typical style. Shepherd lived in the same house in Aberdeenshire for almost her whole life, and developed an emotional bond with the Cairngorms during decades of exploration. She taught English Literature at the Aberdeen College of Education for forty years, during which time she published three Scottish Modernist novels—The Quarry Wood (1928), The Weatherhouse (1930), and A Pass In The Grampians (1933)—which I confess I have not read. She also produced a slim volume of poetry, In The Cairngorms (1934). It had an initial very limited print run and then fell into obscurity, but has recently been republished. The poems are full of striking imagery, but tend to veer off impenetrably—I experienced the recurring impression that some key emotional element was present in Shepherd’s head at the time of writing, but didn’t quite make it out into the printed word. I’m apparently not the only person to be left disorientated; Robert Macfarlane, in his introduction to the republished collection, reports that:

‘Very few people understand them’, said Shepherd of the poems late in her life, ‘which makes me feel better’

(Which, again, of course, suggests a hidden emotional context.)

But I think it’s fair to say that Shepherd is known nowadays largely because of her lyrical love-letter to the Cairngorms, The Living Mountain—written during the 1940s, but set aside after fellow author Neil Gunn expressed reservations about how publishable it was. It eventually saw the light of day in 1977, just a few years before Shepherd’s death.

It seems likely, though, that many Scots will recognize Shepherd’s face despite never having encountered her name or works, since her striking portrait (based on a youthful photograph) graces the current £5 note from the Royal Bank of Scotland—though the flapper-era headband conjures up Native-American connotations for the uninitiated.

Nan Shepherd portrait on Royal Bank of Scotland £5 note

Next to the portrait are a few lines from The Living Mountain, and Shepherd’s lovely epitaph: “It’s a grand thing to get leave to live.”

I first read The Living Mountain back in the early ’80s, when the original Aberdeen University Press paperback was thrust into my hands by a fellow hill-walker who told me, “You’ve got to read this!” So I did. I remember being deeply jealous of Shepherd’s easy familiarity with the hills, and impressed by her beautiful prose, but slightly concerned at how overwrought she could become at fairly slight provocation. And I didn’t read it again, until I was recently reminded of it in chance conversation. Forty years on, with forty more years of roaming the hills behind me, and now more of an age with Shepherd when she wrote the book, I wondered how I’d now feel about it. So I went out and bought the recent Canongate edition, which has a helpful foreword by Robert Macfarlane (and a supererogatory afterword by Jeanette Winterson).

I found much to enjoy, this time around. Shepherd’s summarizes her relationship with the hills in this passage:

Yet often the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination, when I reach nowhere in particular, but have gone out merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend with no intention but to be with him.

This is completely antithetical to the approach of those whom Ian Mitchell has called the “Tickers and Timers”—those who treat the hills as more of a venue for sporting achievement, rather than an end in themselves. And it’s this habit of stravaiging, in its original sense of “wandering aimlessly”, that allows Shepherd to pay so much attention to the hill environment. Probably most hill-walkers have noticed, for instance, the intricate patterns and structures created by the battle between flowing water and freezing conditions. But Shepherd doesn’t merely notice, she stops to observe and reflect, and sets down the results of her observations and reflections in lucid prose. And it’s the poet in her that allows her to say that the waters of Loch an Uaine are not merely green, but have the “green gleam of old copper roofs”, which is exactly right.

And here’s the flight of a golden eagle, as observed by Shepherd:

And when he has soared to the top of his bent, there comes the level flight as far as the eye can follow, straight, clean and effortless as breathing. The wings hardly move, now and then perhaps a lazy flap as though a cyclist, free-wheeling on a gentle slope, turned the crank a time or two. The bird seems to float, but to float with a direct and undeviating force.

Yes, says anyone who has observed an eagle in flight. That’s what it’s like.

On a more philosophical level, she captures two mental experiences that will be familiar to many who have spent long days in the hills. The first is this:

This is one of the reasons why the high plateau where these streams begin, the streams themselves, their cataracts and rocky beds, the corries, the whole wild enchantment, like a work of art is perpetually new when one returns to it. The mind cannot carry away all that it has to give, nor does it always believe possible what it has carried away.

For years now I’ve been standing in high places, thinking, I need to try to remember this better. And failing. It’s somehow comforting to see that someone else has had the same difficulty, particularly someone with Shepherd’s undoubted powers of single-minded attention.

And then there’s this:

These moments come unpredictably, yet governed, it would seem, by a law whose working is dimly understood. They come to me […] most of all after hours of steady walking, with the long rhythm of motion sustained until motion is felt, not merely known by the brain, as the ‘still centre’ of being. In some such way I suppose the controlled breathing of the Yogi must operate. Walking thus, hour after hour, the senses keyed, one walks the flesh transparent.

In modern parlance, Shepherd is I think describing the state of mindfulness, or perhaps the related flow state codified by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

I think these two linked phenomena, the serene experience of “walking the flesh transparent”, followed by an inability to perfectly recall the experience, are what keeps many of us returning to the hills, again and again, as Shepherd did.

So how have my feelings changed, on rereading The Living Mountain after a gap of forty years? I’m no longer jealous of her familiarity with the hills, but certainly even more impressed by her writing—my own familiarity with the places and conditions she describes means that almost every page contains a phrase or passage that seems perfectly descriptive*. But I still find myself slightly concerned at the intensity with which she seemed to experience life, on occasion becoming almost overwhelmed by simple sensory experiences. So I’m glad she was so frequently able to walk her flesh transparent—it must have been something of a relief.


* I’m not exaggerating, here. It’s my custom, when writing these reviews, to mark pages containing striking phrases or illustrative passages with a slip of paper, for later reference. When I finish this one, the thickness of the book had been all but doubled by my paper markers.

Tinto

Tinto (NS 953343, 711m)

8.3 kilometres
510 metres of ascent

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

I feel vaguely embarrassed to be writing about an ascent of a popular hill by a popular route, but sometimes ingenuity escapes me.

Tinto is the site of a great missed pun opportunity for me. Decades ago, I was invited to climb it along with an acquaintance who was finishing his round of Donalds. It’s customary for a whole bunch of people to accompany these “final” ascents, and on occasion drink is shared on the summit. My plan was to take along a bottle of Spanish red wine in my rucksack, so that we could all sip vino tinto on the summit of Tinto. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make the appointed date, so that idea languished unrealized, as a strange inverse of esprit d’escalier.

Tinto’s name probably comes from Gaelic teinnteach, “fiery”, which may refer to an ancient role as a beacon hill—it stands out in isolation from the rest of the Southern Uplands and has long sight-lines in all directions. But there’s another possibility, which is hinted at in the large car-park on the north side of Tinto at Fallburn.

Tinto from Fallburn car park
Click to enlarge

The car-park is surfaced, as you see, in strikingly pink gravel. This is an igneous rock called felsite, and it’s often used to produce the sort of gravel that people surface their garden paths with in the UK, but you don’t often see it in a car park. The reason it’s here, at Tinto, is because Tinto is basically a big lump of felsite. It originally formed when magma gathered and cooled in an underground dome called a laccolith. As the overlying strata wore away, eventually this lump of felsite ended up on the surface, and the rock has been quarried all along the southern face of Tinto.

.So the exposed rock of Tinto is pink, particularly strikingly so after rain, and so some people wonder if Gaelic teinnteach may refer to the fiery colour of the screes on Tinto’s southern side, gleaming in the setting sun.

About half a kilometre from the car-park, the path passes a low mound on the left. This is Fallburn Fort, the remains of one of many prehistoric fortifications that dot the landscape in these parts. It’s a moderately impressive double ring of ramparts on the ground, but remarkable difficult to photograph. Here’s a section of the outer rampart, with the broad path ascending Tinto in the background:

Ramparts of fort, Tinto track beyond
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The Tinto path is horribly eroded, with water damage in the central part driving people to walk along the edges, which merely extends the damage outwards:

Muddy scar on Tinto path
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I pressed on upwards to reach the little shoulder of Totherin Hill, and made a brief excursion to visit its neat little cairn and admire the view, which was too hazy to capture usefully with the camera. The path beyond Totherin was less eroded, but buffeted by a damp, chilly westerly wind, which was blowing rags of cloud across the summit above me.

Track up Tinto from Totherin Hill
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I paused to admire the strange pattern of muirburn on neighbouring Scaut Hill. I’ve never seen heather management done in so many tiny patches before:

Muirburn on Scaut Hill
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And shortly after that I was at the summit, which is essentially one big cairn—a broad conic frustum of pink stones piled several metres high, reputedly dating back to the Bronze Age. It’s difficult to appreciate it as a human-made structure, but once you know what it is you can begin to get a feeling for the prehistoric importance of this hill. Tinto Cairn is surmounted by a neat little view indicator, which promised me views as far as the English Lake District and Ireland, but haze and sweeping ranks of low cloud obscured much of the view.

Tinto view indicator, Dungavel Hill beyond
Click to enlarge

Tinto is one of those hills with a summit that sits higher than its Ordnance Survey triangulation pillar. I was going to say that the pillar itself sits alone and unloved several metres lower than the view indicator, but I see that someone has actually painted a heart on it. So maybe not unloved, after all:

Trig point, Tinto
Click to enlarge

To the south, I could glimpse the River Clyde gleaming silver beyond Dungavel Hill:

Dungavel Hill and the Clyde, from Tinto
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After a bite of lunch in the tiny lee of the view indicator, I headed back the way I had come for a while, but aiming to diverge from my route of ascent and follow a very noticeable track that descends along the southern flank of Totherin Hill.

Totherin Hill from Tinto
Click to enlarge

This would not only let me drop out of the wind for a while, but would also let me visit one more prehistoric location before finishing my walk.

It proved to be a pleasant track, flanked by the world’s most dilapidated and least functional electric fence.

Track on Totherin Hill, Tinto
Click to enlarge

It took me down to a little lochan flanked by wild-fowling hides, and an unexpectedly padlocked gate. But I walked a short distance north-west along the barbed-wire fence, and found a spot where I could slip through between the strands and then climb up on to the little lump of Park Knowe, where the Ordnance Survey had marked a circular antiquity they called an “enclosure”. The Canmore entry for this feature describes it as possibly of “funerary or ritual origin” and reports that its double row of low circular banks is unusual “in that many of the stones are angular slabs set on edge”.

These stones protrude a short distance above the soil, and my photograph gives an inadequate impression of this double rank of low stones sweeping around in a wide circle on the rounded summit of this little hill. It’s a remarkable place.

Enclosure on Park Knowe, Tinto
Click to enlarge

And then it was just a matter of finding a line of descent across rough ground to reach the car-park. Along the way, the sun came out behind me.

Rainbow from Park Knowe, Tinto
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Ochils: Ben Cleuch From The North

Ben Shee (NN 952039, 516m)
Cairnmorris Hill (NN 933016, 606m)
Skythorn Hill (NN 926013, 601m)
Andrew Gannel Hill (NN 918006, 670m)
Ben Cleuch (NN 902006, 721m)
Ben Buck (NN 896014, 679m)
Ben Buck NE Top (NN 904024, 583m)

20 kilometres
790 metres of ascent

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

Most of the foot traffic on Ben Cleuch, the highest point in the Ochil Hills, comes up the shorter routes from the south. So this probably falls into my recurring category of “much-visited hills from unusual directions”, though the Ochils are so well-trodden that my own route described here is unlikely to be a great rarity.

I drove to the head of Glen Devon, and parked in a layby on the A823, at NN 948052, just opposite the access road for the Glendevon reservoirs and Burnfoot Wind Farm. It turns out that there’s also a little car park a couple of hundred metres up this road, just beyond the “no unauthorized vehicles” sign. And people did seem to be blithely driving all the way up to the upper reservoir—there were three cars parked up there later in the day, with a little family group milling around with small children and push-chairs.

From the car I walked up to the impressive green embankment of the Lower Glendevon dam. The road takes an S-bend at this point, curving left after it crosses the outflow of the dam, and then curving right again. Peering over the bank below this second curve, I had a view of a picnic table and interpretive sign, tucked below the north side of a little rectangular plantation of conifers, on the far side of the Frandy Burn.

Link to Ben Shee from Frandy Farm road
Click to enlarge

The burn was an easy step across, and then I went through the gate and followed the rough grassy track that curves around behind the table before ascending the hill on the left side of the photograph above.

That was my link to the tracks that loop around Ben Shee, between Glen Devon and Glen Sherup. The Ordnance Survey doesn’t show all these tracks, but you can see them on my map at the head of this post, and find them on the map in the Woodland Trust’s little pdf booklet, here. The mixed woodland on this side of Ben Shee (Gaelic beinn sithean, “hill of the fairies”, for some reason) is very open—so, rather than make a zigzag approach along the forest tracks, I took a direttissima line between the trees to the summit.

This afforded a fine view over the Lower Glendevon Reservoir, with the unmistakeable silhouettes of Stuc a’ Chroin and Ben Vorlich on the horizon beyond:

Lower Glendevon Reservoir from Ben Shee, Stuc a'Chroin and Ben Vorlich on horizon
Click to enlarge

It also gave me a view over my planned route for the day, with the grassy ridge stretching out over Cairnmorris Hill, connecting to Andrew Gannel Hill and Ben Cleuch on the skyline, and then descending towards the Burnfoot Wind Farm at right of picture below:

Cairmorris Hill, Andrew Gannel Hill, Ben Cleuch, Burnfoot Hill Wind Warm, from Ben Shee
Click to enlarge

There’s a narrow path crossing the summit of Ben Shee, and I followed this down to join my onward track to Cairnmorris Hill. A flock of sheep on the summit of Cairnmorris managed to do a briefly convincing impression of a herd of deer as I approached.

Sheep on Cairnmorris Hill, approach from Scad Hill
Click to enlarge

It’s all rolling grassland up here, and the walk to Andrew Gannel Hill via Skythorn Hill was enlivened only by the need to cross a stile en route.

Andrew Gannel Hill and Skythorn Hill from Cairnmorris Hill
Click to enlarge

These two hills had me reaching for Angus Watson’s toponymic guide, The Ochils.

“Skythorn” sounds like something out of Middle-Earth, and seems an odd name for a low, rounded grassy lump. Watson was no help, however, recording only that “This name is obscure to me.”

And no-one seems to know if a person called Andrew Gannel ever existed. The original Ordnance Survey Name Book records that “It is said to have gotten this name from a person who lost his life close by in a storm.” There’s also a potential Gaelic derivation from an sruth gainmheil, “the sandy stream”, but Wilson is unconvinced by this, citing the rarity of Gaelic watercourse names of the form [article]+[noun]+[adjective], and the fact that the Gannel Burn, below the hill, was previously known as the Gloomingside Burn, which suggests it got its current name from the hill, rather than the other way around.

But whatever its story, the Gannel Burn runs along an impressively incised valley, one of several on the steep southern flank of the Ochils overlooking the Firth of Forth:

Valley of Gannel Burn from Andrew Gannel Hill, Forth Estuary beyond
Click to enlarge

From the summit of Andrew Gannel, I followed the path to Ben Cleuch.

Ben Cleuch from Andrew Gannel Hill
Click to enlarge

Here, I was joining the usual southerly approaches to Cleuch, and (having seen no-one all morning) I started to encounter other walkers in ones and twos along the ridge-line.

The summit of Ben Cleuch bears a handsome, if somewhat weather-worn, view indicator:

View indicator on Ben Cleuch, Forth Estuary beyond
Click to enlarge

Reassuringly, no-one had dumped their dog on top of it for a photograph, a phenomenon I’ve recently encountered on East Lomond and Ben Vrackie.

After a bite of lunch, I wandered down the grassy shoulder of Ben Buck, visited its flat summit and tiny cairn, and then hopped over the fence to make a straight descent towards the Burnfoot Wind Farm.

Descent to Burnfoot Hill Wind Farm from Ben Buck
Click to enlarge

There was a track marked on my OS 1:25,000 map, linking the turbine service road to the fence that surrounds the wind farm, and I anticipated finding a gate at that point. The wind farm turned out to be rather more extensive than my map indicated, but there was indeed a gate just where I’d expected it.

From there, I headed for my last hill of the day—an unnamed grassy lump, surrounded by turbines, which the good people over at the Database of British and Irish Hills have dubbed “Ben Buck NE Top”. Which is as good a name as any, I suppose. Here’s its summit:

Summit of Ben Buck NE Top, in the middle of Burnfoot Hill Wind Farm
Click to enlarge

From here, I dropped on to the service road and headed down towards the Upper Glendevon Reservoir and my return route via Backhills Farm. A chance alignment of road, turbine blades and sun meant that a short part of my route turned positively stroboscopic, as the shadows of successive turbine blades swept hypnotically over me from left to right.

Sweeping shadow of wind turbine blade, Burnfoot Hill Wind Farm
Click to enlarge

After crossing an impressively broad and robust wooden bridge below Backhills Farm (presumably a relic of the wind farm construction), the map shows the track turning north and running up the east side of an arm of the Upper Glendevon Reservoir. On the ground, however, the Broich Burn runs cheerily along between grassy banks, with only a stranded rowing boat and some suspicious horizontal markings high on the banks to reveal that there’s a bit of problem with the reservoir level.

Broich Burn course, usually submerged in Upper Glendevon Reservoir
Click to enlarge

A dry summer has seen water levels fall so low that the buildings of the old Backhills Farm, which used to lie on the banks of the River Devon, have emerged into the fresh air again.

Old Backhills farm buildings emerge from Upper Glendevon Reservoir during drought
Click to enlarge

When this happened previously, back in 2003, it tempted the headline-writers at the Daily Record to dub the ruins the “Village of the Dammed”. Boom, boom.

I walked out on to the dam to get an impression of how low the water really was. Below, you can see the U-shaped concrete wall of the shaft spillway, which limits the height of the water when the dam is full, stranded many feet above the current water level.

Low water in Upper Glendevon Reservoir, Burnfoot Hill Wind Farm beyond
Click to enlarge

Farther down the glen, the Lower Glendevon Reservoir was looking a bit thirsty, too.

Lower Glendevon Reservoir spillway
Click to enlarge

At which point, I rejoined my outward route and headed back to the car.

Here’s the most exciting wildlife encounter of the day, a Buff Ermine caterpillar making a dash across the road:

Buff Ermine caterpillar on Glendevon reservoir road
Click to enlarge
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