Category Archives: Walking

Hill Lists: “On Top Of The World”

Map of Scotland's 20 "On Top Of The World" hills
Click to enlarge

I haven’t written about hill lists for a while, and after writing about the classic Scottish hill lists, and dealing in separate posts with the Corbetts and the Donalds, I’m overdue to write about the third (and original) classic, the Munros. But instead, I’m veering off into the long grass with this one, which deals with a list covering the whole world, featuring 6464 separate peaks, all of which place a summit observer “on top of the world”, by strict geometric criteria.

The list is an offshoot of the work of Kai Xu, at Yale University, which he described in a paper entitled Beyond Elevation: New Metrics to Quantify the Relief of Mountains and Surfaces of Any Terrestrial Body. The paper offers four new descriptors for the way in which mountain peaks relate to the surrounding terrain: dominance, jut, submission, and rut, which together sound like a firm of sadomasochistic lawyers. You can find details of jut on Xu’s website devoted to the topic, but the On Top Of The World (hereafter, OTOTW) list is derived from the measure Xu calls submission.

Submission is defined in Xu’s paper as follows:

The submission of point p is the maximum height of any point on the planetary surface above the horizontal plane of p:
Submission measures how high the surroundings of a point rise above the point itself, yielding a value greater than or equal to 0 for any point on the planetary surface. As with dominance, submission only considers points within a local vicinity, as points very far away from p correspond to negative height values irrelevant to the calculation of submission.
A point with a submission equal to (or less than) 0 is known as a dominant point. A person standing at a dominant point is “on top of the world,” as no point rises above their horizontal plane.

The OTOTW list includes all those summits that are also dominant points, under Xu’s definition. Time for a diagram:

Diagram of "On Top Of The World" definition
Click to enlarge

The summit in the middle of my diagram above (the one with the little observer perched on its top), is associated with a local horizontal plane that I’ve sketched in blue. Nearby hills fail to pierce this horizontal plane because they are too low. A higher peak at left is sufficiently far away that the curvature of the Earth prevents its summit piercing the horizontal plane. My little observer is therefore “on top of the world”.

Coming up with an exhaustive list of such summits requires the processing of a shed-load of topographic data, and also factoring in the lumpy shape of the geoid, the true shape of the Earth at sea level. You can find a nice map of Xu’s entire collection of OTOTW summits here.

It’s a fine thing to contemplate, but I thought I’d simplify the contemplation a little by honing down, very parochially, on the hills I know well—the twenty OTOTW summits in Scotland, shown on my map at the head of this post.

The first thing to notice is that the big hills drive out the small—the northern mainland of Scotland is dominated by eleven high summits, all of them of Munro status—that is, higher than 3000 feet (914 metres). Two of these Munros lie offshore, the highest points on the islands of Skye and Mull, but they’re near enough to the mainland to suppress the OTOTW aspirations of many west-coast hills.

The Southern Uplands, meanwhile, are dominated by the two highest hills in that region—Merrick in the west and Broad Law in the east.

The outlying islands are far enough from the Highland giants to generate their own OTOTW summits—Goatfell on Arran, Beinn an Oir in the Paps of Jura, An Cliseam on Harris, and Ward Hill on the island of Hoy, in the Orkneys. Even farther out, we get our final three summits—all low, but far enough from everything else to still reach OTOTW status—Ronas Hill in Shetland, Conachair on St Kilda, and Da Sneug on Foula.

On the mainland, some summits seem oddly close together—the Ben More / Ben Lawers pair; the trio of Ben Hope, Ben Klibreck and Ben More Assynt. These groupings are made possible by the fact that the hills involved have roughly similar heights. Lawers is just 40 metres higher than Ben More, and the 26-kilometre separation between the two is enough to drop Lawers (by my rough calculation) about 15 metres below the local horizontal plane drawn from Ben More’s summit. Ben Klibreck is 35 metres higher than Ben Hope, but 23 kilometres away, dropping it about six metres below Hope’s local horizontal.

And for those familiar with the Scottish hills and outlying islands, there are some surprising omissions. Ben Wyvis (1046m) stands in notable isolation, but doesn’t make OTOTW status—the summit of Sgurr Mor (1109m) is just high enough to break through Wyvis’s local horizontal. The little island of North Rona, 70 kilometres northwest of Cape Wrath, is low (just 108 metres), but also a long way from any high ground—surely it should qualify? But a distant glimpse of Foinaven (911m) on the mainland is enough to pierce Rona’s horizontal plane. (And Foinaven, in turn, falls victim to Ben More Assynt, farther to the south.) And the whole chain of islands of the Outer Hebrides is denied OTOTW status by sight of Sgurr Alasdair (and the other Skye Cuillins), until the terrain gets high enough, and far enough north, for An Cliseam to triumph.

Finally, there’s actually a twenty-first Scottish OTOTW summit that isn’t listed by Xu—the Atlantic islet of Rockall, which since 1972 has been officially (in the UK at least) part of Scotland. Over 300 kilometres from the nearest land, and just 17 metres high, absolutely nothing is visible above its sea horizon, making it an obvious shoo-in for On Top Of The World status. I suspect the omission from Xu’s list is because the topographic databases he processed in order to generate his data just don’t contain this tiny bit of remote real estate.

Rockall image © Copyright Andy Strangeway, used under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic licence

Note: CCCP stalwarts Steve and Rod contributed significantly to the discussion of hills that have surprisingly failed OTOTW status, and it was Steve who spotted Rockall as a missing qualifier.

Ochils: Daiglen Circuit

Ben Ever (NN 983001, 622m)
Ben Cleuch (NN 903006, 721m)
The Law (NN 910996, 638m)

11.2 kilometres
810 metres of ascent

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

Another in my series of Ochils circuits, in which I trace a new outward route, but return by reversing the outward route of a previous walk. This one retraces my route over The Law, which was the start of my Tillicoultry-Dollar circuit. And it also reverses a short segment on the eastern shoulder of Ben Cleuch, walked some considerable time ago when I approached Ben Cleuch from the north.

The new section this time was to be the approach to Ben Cleuch over Ben Ever, and I’d had in mind to start by walking up the Silver Glen, but my route was substantially transformed by the fact that I turned up in the car park of the Ochil Hills Woodland Park just as my friend Dave was locking his car before setting out on his own walk. Dave is the “Old Ochils Hand” I referred to when I encountered him on Tarmangie Hill during my Glen of Sorrow circuit, and he immediately (and kindly) offered to be my local guide for this outing.

We set off through the pleasingly named Wood Hill Wood, along the route I would have taken to Silver Glen. Following this path, we’d eventually have ended up in the vicinity of the abandoned mine-workings that gave the glen its name. But instead we turned hard right on to the slopes of Wood Hill. Once out of the trees, the path follows the line of an old consumption dyke:

There’s a fine confusion of names, here. The original Ordnance Survey Name Book gives Wood Hill the following entry:

An elevated district thickly covered with mixed wood, the east side of which runs parallel to the stream forming the boundary between the [parishes] of Alva and Tillicoultry. Its western extremity reaches Silver Glen…

So the Ordnance Survey’s informants, in the mid-nineteenth century, seemed to view Wood Hill as being the wooded hillside we’d just ascended, rather than an actual summit. They offered a different name for the summit:

Rough Knowes is a prominent portion of Wood Hill. It forms a very conspicuous feature in the Ochil Hills. The name appears to be very applicable from the summit – being craggy and precipitous.

So my impression was that I was climbing Wood Hill in order to stand on Rough Knowes (or “Rough Knowles”, as the OS misprints it in their current 1:25000 mapping).

But Dave assured me that the summit itself is now known locally as Wood Hill (and he has an interest, because he’s very slowly expanding the existing cairn there), so that’s how I’ve marked it on my map, above.

Summit of Wood Hill, looking west
Click to enlarge

From Wood Hill, the approach to Ben Cleuch rises in a series of gentle grassy steps. First comes the ascent on to the long ridge of Millar Hill, after circumventing a rather dramatic cleft locally (and mysteriously) known as the Canal. The greyish patch in the image below is the crag above the Canal, with the end of Millar Hill in cloud shadow beyond, and sunlit Ben Cleuch and The Law on the sky-line:

Millar Hill seen across the Canal, Ben Cleuch and The Law beyond
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Then there’s a grassy stroll along Millar Hill towards the next rise, at Ben Ever.

Ben Ever seen along Millar Hill ridge
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I have slightly odd history with the padlocked gate in the middle distance above. On my previous visit to this location, back in the ’90s, I realized that I was going to arrive at the gate simultaneously with a small group coming in the opposite direction. So I put on a bit of speed and hastened to climb the gate so that I’d be out of their way when they arrived. In my haste, and in a way that I cannot now reconstruct or account for, I found myself standing on the top bar of the gate, looking down on the surprised faces of the approaching group. The only thing to do was to give them a brisk nod and jump to the ground, which I managed to do without breaking my ankle. So that was all good.

There’s now a little stile to the left of the gate, and I find myself wondering if my elaborate performance back then was made even more inexplicable for the onlookers because I’d failed to notice the stile. Oh well.

From Ever, we looked across to Ben Cleuch:

Ben Cleuch from Ben Ever
Click to enlarge

And soon we’d wandered up to the summit (and highest point of our circuit), distracted along the way by a serious discussion concerning the naming of pet cats. This summit photo takes in much of our route, with The Law on the left and Millar Hill on the right:

Summit of Ben Cleuch, The Law left and Ben Ever right
Click to enlarge

We stopped at the cairn for a bit of lunch, where we were entertained by the aerobatics of a small flock of swifts swooping overhead, feeding in the still air.

Then we descended towards the col between Andrew Gannel Hill and Ben Cleuch, where we picked up the outward route of my Tillicoulty-Dollar circuit. Here’s the view across to Andrew Gannel and King’s Seat, on a better day than my previous visit:

Andrew Gannel Hill and King's Seat from shoulder of Ben Cleuch
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But we turned right, towards The Law:

The Law from shoulder of Ben Cleuch
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There’s a nice grassy stroll as far as the summit, but then the gradient starts to steepen as Mill Glen and Tillicoultry come into sight below:

Descent of The Law towards Mill Glen
Click to enlarge

After a long spell of dry weather, the eroded path was treacherous underfoot, and we suspected that the last very steep section above the glen was going to be a bit leg-breaky. But Dave had an alternative route off in mind, involving a steep grassy descent in the Daiglen on our right, where a little bridge nestles in an area called Daiglen Green:

Daiglen bridge
Click to enlarge

This took us across the Daiglen Burn, and connected to a long rising path visible to the right below, above the deepening cleft of Mill Glen:

Lower Daiglen leading into Mill Glen
Click to enlarge

The path took us above the disused Tillicoultry quarry … and then Dave worked a bit of Old Ochils Hand magic, involving another steep and trackless descent above Tillicoultry golf course, a climb over a fence, a bit of woodland walking, and an eventual connection to the main path-system of Wood Hill Wood.

Steep descent towards Tillicoultry Golf Course
Click to enlarge

And that was it—a pleasant deviation off the beaten track, in good company, and all because of a remarkable car-park coincidence at the start of the day.

Sidlaws: The Classic ABC Circuit

Auchterhouse Hill (NO 354397, 424m)
Balkello Hill (NO 361394, 397m)
Craigowl Hill (NO 377400, 455m)

7.8 kilometres
365m of ascent

Sidlaws ABC route
Click to enlarge
Contains OS OpenData © Crown copyright and database right 2018
Paths and additional data mapped by The Oikofuge

For complicated reasons that need not detain us here, The Oikofuge hasn’t been getting out much of late, to the extent that I had to miss this year’s rendezvous of the Crow Craigies Climbing Party.

But as I started thinking about creeping back into the hills, it occurred to me that I’ve never described the classic “ABC” circuit in the central Sidlaws. Auchterhouse Hill, Balkello Hill and Craigowl* are a very familiar trio on the northern horizon for Dundonians. I used them as the heading image for my Sidlaws Gazetteer:

Blank title strip

My previous Sidlaws posts have concentrated on reporting my various explorations and navigational difficulties getting access to and then following the ridge—but this one is a well-travelled route for me, and a very pleasant short outing, so I’m going to pitch this post as a guide for anyone wanting to take the same walk.

I parked in the gravel car-park in the Balkello Community Woodland, and headed through the gates in the northwest corner. My route through the woods followed a set of waymarked posts—at first purple and red, then plain purple. This eventually pops out of the trees under a row of electricity pylons, where I turned left to follow another path that passes through a gate and then rises slowly beside a stone wall:

Approach to Auchterhouse Hill 1
Click to enlarge

At the top of the rise, next to a pleasing little stone stile built into the wall, there’s a sharp right turn to take another path that climbs more steeply between gorse bushes, which were flowering madly at the time of this visit:

Approach to Auchterhouse Hill 2
Click to enlarge

The path eventually arrives at a little green gate and a signpost:

Approach to Auchterhouse Hill 3
Click to enlarge

The route here turns left without passing through the gate, and then it’s plain sailing, sticking to the path as it takes an ascending zig-zag, and ignoring a branch that would take you down into the pass between Auchterhouse and Balkello (picturesquely named Windy Gates). When the tree-covered summit of Auchterhouse hill is in view, the path splits. The path to the right heads for a distantly visible gate, and then curves back towards the summit. My route goes left at this point, but will descend back to that gate in due course.

Approach to Auchterhouse Hill 4 annotated
Click to enlarge (without annotations)

The open forest on the summit of Auchterhouse Hill is a feature that distinguishes it from the rocky baldness of Balkello, and the telecommunication jungle on top of Craigowl. But it seems that this pleasant little forest wasn’t always here. Back in 1848, in his Flora of Forfarshire, William Gardiner calls this hill the “White Hill of Auchterhouse”—and the word “white” was usually used to distinguish bare, grassy summits from dark, heather-clad summits. But if the name does indicate that Auchterhouse Hill was once grass-covered, it was perhaps already out of date when Gardiner used it—by the 1860s the Ordnance Survey shows the entire hill covered in trees, the small area today being a mere remnant. The ramparts of a prehistoric hill fort reputedly surround the little summit knoll, but I’ve never been convinced I can identify them.

To get to Balkello, you could retrace your steps to the short branch path that descends into Windy Gates, noted on the way up, but I think a more pleasant route stays inside the forest on the northern slopes of Auchterhouse Hill. When standing on the summit, the departure path lies to the left of the path on which you arrived. It takes you down to reach the gate noted on the way up—go through it and follow the path beyond.

Route to Balkello Hill (annotated)
Click to enlarge (without annotations)

This takes a pleasantly winding route through the trees above the headwaters of the Haining Burn. The only navigational decision involves a T-junction at which you turn right, towards Balkello, rather than left (which would take you down to join the main track to the Denoon Glen).

T-junction on approach to Balkello (annotated)
Click to enlarge (without annotations)

Just after this junction, you should be able to glimpse a dry-stone structure on a slight rise to your left, served by a narrow path. This proves to be a substantial two-room howff, now sadly lacking a roof.

Large roofless howff on Auchterhouse Hill
Click to enlarge

Just downhill from this impressive structure, and overlooking the path, is a sort of dry-stone armchair. Here it is, with the howff in the background:

Stone "armchair" beside Auchterhouse Hill howff
Click to enlarge

As you approach the little complex of fences and gates in the pass between Auchterhouse and Balkello, you can easily pick out two ascent routes for your next hill—one broad and eroded, and one narrow path sticking close to the fence:

Approach to Windy Gates (annotated)
Click to enlarge (without annotations)

Pass through two gates, and follow whichever route you fancy—I went for the narrower one on this occasion, which stays close to the fence for a while and then makes an abrupt turn towards the summit.

Balkello Hill plays host to a view-indicator cairn honouring blind hill-man Syd Scroggie—I’ve written about him before. Here it is, looking back towards the wooded summit of Auchterhouse Hill:

Summit of Balkello Hill, looking towards Auchterhouse Hill
Click to enlarge

Unfortunately, some madness induced the writer of the otherwise touching dedication to misname the location as Balluderon Hill:

Syd Scroggie memorial plaque, Balkello/Balluderon Hill
Click to enlarge

The name “Balluduron” correctly applies to the western shoulder of Craigowl. As the Ordnance Survey Name Book for Forfarshire recorded in the mid-nineteenth century:

This name applies to a continuation of Craig Owl Hill and sloping gently southward. The term Brae would be more applicable to it than Hill.

A couple of paths leave the Balkello summit towards Craigowl, and they cross and separate after a short distance. You should keep left on a line that takes you towards the fence. The rightward trending path descends to a track that eventually curves back into the Balkello Woodland—follow that if you want to skip the ascent of Craigowl.

The descent from Balkello gives a good view across to the paths ascending the ridge of Balluderon Hill towards the telecom masts on Craigowl’s summit. The best ascent is along the obvious path close to the fence-line. The prominent grassy track running diagonally across the hillside serves a defunct quarry, and is unhelpful.

Craigowl from Balkello Hill (annotated)
Click to enlarge (without annotations)

Go through a gate in the pass between Balkello and Craigowl, and head uphill. The long ridge here is covered with a confusing and apparently pointless network of minor paths, particular higher up, but the route is easy to follow—always keep close to the fence on your left.

Near the Craigowl summit, as the communication masts and their associated buildings and fences loom, a fence comes uphill from the right and forms a T-junction with the ridgeline fence you’ve been following. Each of the three fences is served by a little stile close to the junction. The obvious route to the summit carries on uphill ahead, but instead turn left across the first stile, and follow a slot through the heather that takes you between a couple of the fenced telecom buildings and on to the service road.

Approach to summit of Craigowl (annotated)
Click to enlarge (without annotations)

Follow the road uphill, and then climb the little grassy mound that hosts the Craigowl triangulation pillar.

Summit of Craigowl
Click to enlarge

As my quotation from the Ordnance Survey above shows, Craigowl used to be Craig Owl, from Gaelic creag gobhal, “forked hill”. I’ve puzzled over this name for years, since nothing is less forked than the long whaleback of this hill. The best explanation I’ve seen comes from David Dorward, who suggests that the “forked” refers not to the hill but to a road that used to cross the pass immediately to the east. The Old Glamis Road coming north from Dundee divided at the summit of the pass, allowing travellers to choose either a high or a low route into Glen Ogilvie. The former still exists, as a farm track; the latter is only just detectable as a diagonal groove across Craigowl’s northern slopes, which catches and retains the snow for longer than the rest of the hillside. Here’s the fork as shown on Bartholomew’s half-inch map of 1903:

Bartholomew's half-inch map, 1903, showing the Old Glamis Road between Craigowl and Gallow Hill
Click to enlarge

The southern approach to the trig pillar has long been blocked by a dilapidated extension of the ridgeline fence, but in recent years this has acquired a tiny one-step stile. From the pillar itself, it’s blocked from view by the fence around a recent addition to the telecom clutter. But if you walk around the left side of this little enclosure, you’ll find it.

One-step stile on summit fence of Craigowl
Click to enlarge

Cross this, and descend back to the fence junction and its three stiles, where you’ll see a narrow path heading off downhill to the southwest.

Descent route from Craigowl (annotated)
Click to enlarge (without annotations)

This route, faint in places, takes you in a long diagonal across the south face of Craigowl, eventually arriving at a substantial farm track that serves a dumping/storage area in the abandoned Balluderon Quarry. This track can be horribly muddy after rain, and I prefer to peel off early and descend more steeply towards Linn of Balluderon.

Years ago, I built myself a little cairn to mark the turning point. My GPS places it at NO 3714639650.

Cairn marking downhill turn on descent from Craigowl (annotated)
Click to enlarge (without annotations)

Instead of continuing along the diagonal path, I turn left down a grassy sward towards a noticeable eroded gap in the gorse bushes below. There’s a path of sorts beyond this, but in summer it tends to fade into a wildflower meadow, and the easiest way to maintain the correct line of descent is to head towards a distant, but prominent, electricity pylon rising from the northeast corner of Balkello Woodland below.

Eventually another apparently impenetrable barrier of gorse is encountered, but there’s another eroded gap in it, easily discoverable if you’ve kept to approximately the right line. (For those using GPS, I find it at NO 3701539311.) Beyond this, you look down towards the Linn of Balluderon, with the lower end of the farm track descending from Bulluderon Quarry crossing in front of you.

Linn of Balluderon
Click to enlarge

Cross the farm track, and head directly towards the gorse bushes bordering the scattered trees ahead. (In season, you may need to thread your way through some bracken above the farm track.)

Walk downhill along the edge of the gorse, and you’ll eventually find a gap leading to a slight dip into a narrow burn, and beyond that a wooden gate. (Just before this gap, there’s another, narrower one containing a metal fence post and with no view of the gate.)

Access to Balkello Woodland from Linn of Balluderon
Click to enlarge

This gate is the return route to the car park. It opens on to a broad track (in fact, the one descending from near the summit of Balkello Hill) which soon takes you down to the Balkello Woodland, and a signpost pointing the way to the car park. Follow the red and purple waymarked posts through the woodland, and you’ll emerge on your outward route at the picnic area just a couple of hundred metres from the car park.

* Although the Ordnance Survey calls this “Craigowl Hill”, the name is tautological (the craig already implies a hill), and it’s known locally as just plain Craigowl.
This diagonal rake also shows up well in aerial photographs, and was once marked as a path by the folk at OpenStreetMap—that’s since been corrected. In reality, it’s now no more than a linear mound and ditch, choked with vegetation.

Isobel Wylie Hutchison: Peak Beyond Peak

Cover of Peak Beyond Peak by Isobel Wylie Hutchison

I am quite clear in my own mind that I’d set my face in the right direction, though I don’t pretend to know why I should be destined to visit Greenland any more than Timbuctoo. Maybe I’m not, and I shall be able to visit Timbuctoo another day, for one journey leads naturally to another. One thing I am sure of, I have never regretted any journey I have ever made, and I do not imagine any other traveller ever regrets having travelled. I wish every person in the world, as part of his or her education, could have at least one year of world travel.

Isobel Wyle Hutchison was born in 1889, at Carlowrie Castle in West Lothian, back in the day when that was a private family home rather than a wedding venue—so that wing of the Hutchison family were clearly not short of a bob or two. The fact that she had a trust-fund income allowed her to dodge the conventional domestic fate of young women in those days—she built a career on independent travel. Inspired by a trip to Iceland in 1927, she spent a decade botanizing her way around the Arctic, and documenting her journeys in a succession of books: On Greenland’s Closed Shore (1930), North To The Rime-Ringed Sun (1934) and Stepping Stones From Alaska To Asia (1937)*. She also published a semi-autobiographical novel (Original Companions, 1923) and several volumes of poetry. One of her earliest poetic works, How Joy Was Found (1917) is still available in several knock-off reproduction editions—you can find a scanned version freely available on the Internet Archive.

From an early age she was an enthusiastic walker, and quite soon seems to have decided that she preferred her own company. A lot of her travel-writing involved long-distance walks that she self-deprecatingly described as “strolls”—for her “Stroll To Venice” (which she narrated in a National Geographic article in 1951) she started in Innsbruck and walked across the Dolomites, for example.

Much of her botanizing ended up in Kew Gardens; many of her manuscripts ended up stacked in a box at the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, or on file with the National Library of Scotland. They were rediscovered in 2014 by Hazel Buchan Cameron, who set about transcribing and editing them for publication in Peak Beyond Peak (2022).

Twelve essays are assembled in this collection. Although it is subtitled The Unpublished Scottish Journeys Of Isobel Wylie Hutchison, three of the pieces collected have been previously published in National Geographic. Cameron explains in her preface that in these cases she amalgamated Hutchison’s original text with the edited and revised published version, while “trying to be as true to Isobel’s writing intentions as possible.” The earliest essay is dated 1909; the latest, 1956—so we have glimpses of Hutchison across four-and-a-half decades of her life, from an enthusiastic twenty-year-old clambering over the Corrieyairack Pass, to a knowledgeable woman in her late sixties, taking a National Geographic photographer on a motor tour of Scotland’s “literary shrines”.

Having descended the Corrieyairack fairly recently, I was interested to read Hutchison’s account of the old Wade Road zigzags, “disused since 1830” and “nearly washed away by the mountain torrents”. The thing is now a Scheduled Monument, and has been restored to its former glory. And her tour of literary shrines is a positive blizzard of information about Scotland’s writers. I was particularly struck by her story of Scott’s View over the Eildon Hills.

Driving out from his beloved home of Abbotsford, Sir Walter was wont to halt his carriage on the high road at Bemersyde and feast his eyes upon the hills he loved. On the day of his funeral one of the horses drawing the hearse stopped here of its own accord, bringing the mile-long cortege to a momentary halt.

The time between these two essays spans two world wars, and Hutchison gives us glimpses of life on the islands of Scotland during those times. During the First World War she is in the Outer Hebrides, and describes how the Atlantic beaches received a constant burden of the wreckage of ships and the bodies of seamen—and the occasional drifting mine, striking the rocks and exploding with “deep thundering reverberations” over the quiet landscape. She visits Orkney and Shetland at the end of the Second World War, and recounts the story of the German bomber pilot who made a low pass over Lerwick, waving the citizens back from the harbour area before returning to drop his bombs on the ships, and of the Norwegians who arrived on the islands in small boats, having escaped German-occupied Norway. And her later “Stroll to London” (from Edinburgh!), in 1948, is along roads largely untroubled by motor traffic, because petrol is still strictly rationed.

It’s also interesting to see Hutchison experimenting with different narrative styles. Her later works are often pell-mell data dumps, because a lifetime of reading has filled her head with so much information about the places she visits. But in her early work “A Pilgrimage to Ardchattan” (1926), she plays with a narrative style evocative of traditional Gaelic storytelling.

The day was hot and very glorious, fragrant with the honeysuckle that lay in great swathes upon the hedges, and the first thing I came to was a Gaelic well called Tober Donachadh. There was an iron cup hanging from a chain with a worn inscription in the Gaelic which I could not read, but I made no doubt that it told the tale of the finding of the well, and it is this: Thirty-five years ago there was a water-famine in the country and a man of Clan Donachadh found a spring that never ran dry and he sold the water to the people, and it’s the rich man I’m thinking he would be, for the spring never ran dry in all the time of drouth, and all the time he sold its water. But I can’t help thinking it’s the greedy man he was all the same.

And then there’s her tongue-in-cheek and wonderfully evocative account of “meeting a fairy” while sitting in the “haunted peace” of a sunny evening on the Isle of Skye in 1925:

Suddenly I heard a pattering noise. Two rams came running from behind the cliff at my back chased by a barelegged little girl of four or five in a faded blue-green frock. She had a celandine in her hand and came running straight towards me holding it out without the least fear or shyness. Climbing up on the seat beside me she handed it to me.
“Is this for me?” I asked. But she only smiled and nodded without speaking. It was then that I began to suspect that I had to do with a fairy. I put several questions to her, to all of which she smiled and nodded and whispered “Ay.”
“Are you a fairy?” I asked at last.
“Ay,” with a radiant smile.

I could go on quoting Hutchison at you for some time yet, but now is probably the time to stop. Better just to leave you with that image of the unselfconscious little girl and the serenely enchanted Isobel, sharing a bench in the cool sunlight of a long-ago Hebridean evening.

* This last volume was republished as The Aleutian Islands: America’s Back Door in 1942—presumably in response to the Japanese invasion of these islands at the start of the War in the Pacific.

Ochils: Tillicoultry-Dollar Circuit

The Law (NS 910996, 638m)
Andrew Gannel Hill (NN 918005, 670m)
King’s Seat Hill (NS 933999, 648m)

17.4 kilometres
910 metres of ascent

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

Another loop in the Ochils, this one taking advantage of the Devon Way cycle/pedestrian path to make a return from Dollar to Tillicoultry. And, again, it was designed so that the return limb of this clockwise loop passes over the outward limb of my previous loop—the Glen of Sorrow circuit. As well as providing a kind of neatness that’s gratifying in itself (to those of a particular turn of mind), this sort of design lets me revisit Matters Arising from the previous walk.

I started by walking up the Mill Glen from Tillicoultry—a deeply incised gorge featuring a path that clings precariously to its sides, zig-zagging back and forth across the river on an impressive seven bridges within a single tortuous kilometre:

Mill Glen, Tillicoultry
Click to enlarge

The last bridge deposits you at the foot of the steep southern face of The Law.

The Law above Mill Glen, Tillicoultry
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The exposed rock at the start of the path is a little awkward to negotiate, and I wouldn’t fancy coming down it in wet weather or snow, but above that first section it’s simply a matter of grinding upwards. And as I did that grinding, I met a man coming down who introduced himself by declaring “I see you’ve chosen the hardest way up!”

Now, in my experience, anyone who greets you with a sentence beginning, “I see you’ve chosen …” is under the impression that you’ve made a mistake, and that you need to have that explained to you. So I pointed out that he seemed to have chosen the hardest way down, and then we parted amicably on a score of 15-all.

The Law eventually levels out into a grassy ridge that takes you on to the shoulder of Ben Cleuch. Here’s the view back along the ridge:

Looking along The Law ridge, Ochils
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You can also see that it’s a bit misty, which wasn’t in the weather forecast. And a dense gloom to the west suggested that an anticipated weather front had decided to arrive half a day early. I’d originally intended to make the short excursion to the top of Ben Cleuch, but a sudden blatter of rain made me reassess my plans—it would be nice to get around my planned hills in decent visibility.

So I turned instead towards Andrew Gannel Hill:

Andrew Gannel Hill, King's Seat Hill beyond, from the head of The Law track
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At the stile in the foreground, I would start to retrace the short Andrew-Gannel-to-Cleuch section of my previously reported circuit, Ben Cleuch From The North.

I crossed the relatively slight intervening dip and was soon approaching the summit of Andrew Gannel.

Summit of Andrew Gannel Hill
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The lone figure, hood up and back turned to the damp wind, continued to contemplate the distant misty scenery during the time it took me to reach him and walk past him. I’m not sure what he was looking at, but he seemed sufficiently intent that it would have been churlish to interrupt his meditation.

I’ve written before about the question of who (if anyone) Andrew Gannel was—see my walk report Ben Cleuch From The North for that.

From Andrew Gannel, I headed towards my final summit of the day—King’s Seat Hill.

King's Seat Hill from the descent of Andrew Gannel Hill
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Now I was retracing the outward limb of my Glen Of Sorrow Circuit, though I was able to ascend more directly than I’d previously descended, because I could easily pick out the appropriate path as I stood in the marshy col between the two hills.

This time, I remembered to stop and take a picture of King’s Seat’s summit ridge:

Summit of King's Seat Hill, Ochils
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The little cairn in the foreground marks the true summit—the rocky outcrop in the distance, beyond the summit pool, hosts a lovely shelter cairn, but is slightly lower.

My descent took me past the Spitfire memorial, which I described in detail last time I came this way. Farther down, I paused to investigate a geological feature I’d marched past during my previous ascent:

The Kames, above Dollar Glen, Ochils
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These narrow, jagged, rocky ridges flanking a deep cleft are called the Kames. Or so it seems—the feature name on my 1:25000 Ordnance Survey map sits a bit farther south than the ridges, on an area of undistinguished undulating moorland, but the original Ordnance Survey Name Book had this to say about the toponym:

This name applies to a Rugged and Rocky Ridge, situated on the south east of the King’s Seat Hill. Property of Sir A. Orr. The Ground is being much broken in consequence of some parties boring, endeavouring to discover lead some years ago

There are actually several of these ridges, parallel to each other, and their name comes from the Scottish word kame, meaning “comb”—a reference to the shape of a cock’s comb. Scotland actually boasts a number of placenames incorporating kame or kaime. And, because this sort of landscape feature is often formed from gravel deposited by a glacier, the word kame has become a technical term in geology. I’ve spent a bit of time trying to find out if these Kames are also kames in the geological sense, but have come up empty.

I decided to make a small detour to walk through one of the deep gullies between the ridges. It was a pleasant enough diversion, albeit a bit leg-breaky in places where larger rocks had accumulated.

Descent through the Kames, above Dollar Glen, Ochils
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After I’d found my way out on to the moorland again, I followed a fence-line for a while until a gate let me reconnect with the path system.

As I approached the final descent into the head of Dollar Glen, I paused to look across the Burn of Sorrow, to see if I could figure out how my descent route from Saddle Hill had gone astray in its last few hundred metres. From this vantage point, my error was obvious.

the final section of the descent from Saddle Hill to Dollar Glen
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When the Saddle Hill path had appeared to terminate at the head of a gully, I tried to descend to the burn that way—which quickly becomes overgrown and very steep. Instead I should have turned sharp right, and picked up a descending path through the bracken which would have taken me to the bridge over the Sorrow. Easy once you know.

Down, then, passing into the glen below the ramparts of Castle Campbell.

Castle Campbell, Dollar Glen
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Dollar Glen is like a replay of Mill Glen, albeit slightly muddier. I took some photographs, but low light and lots of trees make them pointless. Eventually I popped out in a little area of parkland on the edge of the village of Dollar, and followed the Dollar Burn as it descended, in rigidly canalized form, through the town. I was aiming to reach the Devon Way, a mixed-used cycle/pedestrian path that would take me back to Tillicoultry along the north bank of the River Devon. I ended up with a choice between following the east bank of the Dollar Burn through what seemed to be the grounds of a primary school, or crossing the burn on a bridge and walking down its west side. I chose the latter, walking through a residential area and then down a narrow path sandwiched between the river and people’s garden fences. Eventually I had to squeeze out through a narrow gap between a bridge railing and a tree, which you can see to the left of the picture below:

Stepped weir on the Dollar Burn
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It wasn’t ideal, and the walk down past the primary school looks luxurious by comparison.

The Devon Way (like many other modern cycle routes) follows the line of a now-defunct railway line—in this case, one that used to connect Kinross and Alloa. And the platform of the old Dollar railway station is still visible, though the station buildings are all gone and replaced by modern housing.

Remains of old railway platform on the Devon Way cycle path
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Like many of these old railway routes, it can make for quite tedious walking—long straightways between embankments aren’t my favourite.

Devon Way cycle path
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But later there were views of the River Devon on the left, and across the fields to the steep southern face of the Ochils on the right. I photographed this odd enclosure without being sure what it was at the time:

Tait's Tomb, seen from the Devon Way
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I wondered if it was an old walled garden that had grown seriously out of hand, but couldn’t see a house that might be connected to it. Later, a bit of research with old maps told me that it was a private burial ground belonging to the old Harviestoun Estate, owned by the Tait family—which accounts for its local name, Tait’s Tomb.

Eventually I popped out in Tillicoultry next to the monstrous Sterling Furniture shop, just as the rain started in earnest. Then it was just a short traipse along the high street to get back to my car.

Hillwalkers’ Gaelic: “Doing The Dubhs”

"Doing The Dubhs" illustration

[The letter] h is one of the most common letters on any page of Gaelic, and as a result has become the victim of its own popularity. In pseudo- or pidgin Gaelic it is used by many who do not know the language well and feel that the liberal insertion of a few examples of h will give a more authentic flavour to their Gaelic.

George McLennan A Gaelic Alphabet (2009)

I recently wrote about the linguistic phenomenon of “Hillwalkers’ Gaelic”, using a puzzle poem by Lionel Hinxman (from the Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal of 1897) as my jumping-off point. You can find that poem, and discussion, here.

Reading that poem brought to mind another piece of poetry, about “Doing the Dubhs”, also published by the Scottish Mountaineering Club, in which Gaelic hill names were pressed into use as substitutes for English words. Eventually I discovered I had four copies of this poem on my bookshelves, in two different versions—and it was one of these versions that brought to mind McLennan’s words, quoted at the head of this post.

I’ll let you read the poem in a minute, but first a couple of examples of what McLennan is talking about.

The one I’m reminded of most often comes from an organization based not too far from where I live: the Cairn O’ Mohr winery. (“Care No More.” Geddit?) There’s obviously a reference to a famous Scottish road in there, the Cairn o’ Mount, but there’s really no apparent justification for that ectopic “h”, other than as an attempt to “Gaelic up” the company’s name in the way McLennan describes. But anyone who knows any Gaelic will recognize that the “h” is in the wrong place to form any plausible Gaelic word. Then there’s the island of Rum, off the west coast of Scotland. In Gaelic this is Rùm, though the meaning is unclear. What it certainly isn’t is “Rhum”, a name concocted by its one-time owner, Sir George Bullough, reportedly because he didn’t like to be associated with the apparent reference to an alcoholic beverage. Again, the “h” just looks Gaelic, provided you don’t know any Gaelic, and the Nature Conservancy Council (who acquired the island from the Bullough family), eventually reverted the spelling to “Rum” in 1991.

Another common example is the “h” in skean dhu, the common English version of Gaelic sgian-dubh, “black knife”—which is the (now) decorative short knife worn in the stocking-top of a person wearing formal Highland dress. The “h” in “dhu” serves no useful purpose in conveying the sound of the original dubh, “black” (which is close to “doo”)—again, it’s just there to make the English look a bit Gaelic. The Oxford English Dictionary‘s first citation for this spelling comes from Sir Walter Scott (he wrote “skene-dhu”), so we know who to blame. And in this case it’s actively counterproductive, because in Gaelic the “h” would alter the sound of the “d”, making “dhu” sound like “ghoo”.

Which brings me, seamlessly, to the two versions of the famous “Doing the Dubhs” poem. The most commonly quoted version appears in my copy of the Scottish Mountaineering Club’s regional guide, Island of Skye (2nd ed., 1948), and their Climber’s Guide to the Cullin of Skye (1958), as well as in Hamish MacInnes’s mountain-rescue memoir, Call-Out (1973). It goes as follows:

Said Maylard to Solly, one day in Glen Brittle,
“All serious climbing, I vote, is a bore;
Just for once I Dubh Beag you’ll agree to do little,
And, as less we can’t do, let’s go straight to Dubh Mor.”

So now, when they seek but a day’s relaxation,
With no thought in the world but of viewing the views,
And regarding the mountains in mute adoration,
They call it not “climbing” but “doing the Dubhs.”

Gaelic “Dubh Mor” is doing duty for English “do more”, while “Dubh Beag” is filling in for “do beg”. The former makes a reasonable fit between the Gaelic and English, but the latter relies on a common pronunciation in Hillwalkers’ Gaelic—in Scottish Gaelic dubh beag sound more like “do bake”.

So that’s the bilingual wordplay dealt with. But unless you know your way around the Skye Cuillin, there’s a bit of background required before I go on to discuss the other version of the poem. “The Dubhs” to which the poem refers are three summits along a ridge that extends eastwards from the main Cuillin ridge towards Loch Coruisk—the summits are, from west to east: Sgùrr Dubh an Dà Bheinn (“Black Peak of the Two Mountains”); Sgùrr Dubh Mòr (“Big Black Peak”) which is the highest point; and Sgùrr Dubh Beag (“Little Black Peak”). Here they are on the Ordnance Survey six-inch sheet of 1903:

Sgurr Dubh ridge, OS 6-inch 1903
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(Notice, in passing, that the cartographer has mistakenly placed the diacritical mark intended for the “u” in “Sgùrr Dubh Mòr” over the “g”.)

“Doing the Dubhs” generally means making a traverse of this ridge, which is by no means an easy undertaking. But my link also reports that:

Doing the Dubhs’ is a paraphrase born from the Isle of Skye that translates roughly as ‘having one of the best days possible in UK hills’.

This seems to refer back to the “day’s relaxation” of the poem.

For a full explanation we need to move on to the second version of the poem, which appears in The Munroist’s Companion (1999) by Robin N. Campbell.

Campbell provides a publication history for the poem, tracing its origin to the reverse of the menu card for the Scottish Mountaineer Club’s annual dinner in 1905, and deduces that the poem, though unattributed on publication, is perhaps the work of William Douglas, a pillar of the SMC in its early days. He also reproduces the cartoon that graces the head of this post, presumably from the same source. And he gives us a title, which takes the form of a quotation attributed to A. Ernest Maylard, one of the founders of the Scottish Mountaineering Club:

“We Had Always Wanted To Do The Dubhs” – A.E. Maylard

Maylard, of course, features in the first line of the poem. His companion, “Solly”, is no doubt Godfrey A. Solly, a notable climber of the day. And the inspiration for the poem is, Campbell tells us, an article Maylard wrote for the Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal of 1905, entitled “Only a Beautiful Day on the Hills”. This was something notable in the SMCJ of the time, which dealt largely with new routes and daring adventures—Maylard chose to write about a day:

[…] with no further objective than to enjoy ourselves, and with just that charming sense of inertia that is felt when nothing special has to be accomplished.

It’s by no means lacking in physical activity—it involves a snowy ascent of Sgùrr Dubh an Dà Bheinn and Sgùrr Dubh Mòr. But it also involves quite a bit of strolling and sitting and enjoying the scenery—the essence of “doing the Dubhs”, according to the poem.

But now (finally), I can get to the aspect of Campbell’s version that brought to mind McLennan’s observation about the intrusive, pseudo-Gaelic “h”—because the version of the poem reproduced by Campbell talks about “Dubh Bheag” and “Dubh Mhor”. Now, Campbell is a careful editor, who elsewhere in his book comments in negative terms about the Ordnance Survey’s distortion of Gaelic hill names; so I assume he has faithfully transcribed the spelling in the original version. In support of that assumption, we can note that Maylard, in his original article, also writes of “Sgurr Dubh Mhor”. (The Ordnance Survey seems to be blameless on this occasion, as my image taken from their contemporary mapping shows, above.) And, lest you imagine that this is merely a century-old variant, you can still find “Sgurr Dubh Mhor” on the Scottish Mountaineering Club’s own website, as well as scattered around the internet in walk reports and photo captions.

But that variant spelling is a tragedy for the poem. While “Dubh Mor” and “Dubh Beag” are reasonable stand-ins for “do more” and “do beg”, “Dubh Mhor” and “Dubh Bheag” are most definitely not—the intruded “h” shifts their Gaelic pronunciation to “do vore” and “do vake”.

There’s also the problem that, while mhòr and bheag are perfectly good Gaelic adjectives (they’re the lenited forms of mòr and beag), they do violence to Gaelic grammar when applied to the noun sgùrr.

Gaelic uses lenition (the “weakening” of an initial consonant, usually by adding an “h”) as a grammatical marker. In particular, with relevance to the naming of hills, adjectives are lenited after nouns with female gender, but not after those with male gender—and sgùrr is a masculine noun. So Sgùrr Dubh Mòr is the correct form. To see appropriate lenition, we must look for hill names that use feminine nouns like beinn and creag. We can, for instance, see both dubh and mòr being appropriately lenited in the name of Creag Dhubh Mhòr.

So it should be easy enough to figure out when the adjectives in a hill name can be appropriately lenited with an “h”, and when it’s just pseudo-Gaelic. If the hill is a beinn or a creag or a stùc (all female), then lenite away; but if it’s a sgùrr, a tom, a càrn, a meall or a stob (all male), then don’t.

Unfortunately, while this can serve as a useful rule of thumb, it’s far from infallible. Look, for instance, at Beinn Dearg (“red mountain”). It’s a common name—I’ve linked to just one of the many hills in Scotland called Beinn Dearg. But a modern Gael, asked to translate “red mountain” into Scottish Gaelic, would probably offer the lenited form: beinn dhearg. And yet I search in vain for a Beinn Dhearg in the Ordnance Survey database that comes with my Anquet Outdoor Map Navigator software.

What’s going on? It turns out that Scottish Gaelic used to have a fairly wide-ranging pronunciation rule, the “homo-organic rule”, which blocked lenition under some circumstances. This has largely faded from modern Gaelic, the last survivor of the rule being that a noun ending in “n” blocks lenition of a following adjective beginning with “d” or “t”. This is still stated in modern Gaelic grammar books, like my copy of Olaf Klöcker’s Concise Grammar: Scottish Gaelic (2015), but there’s evidence that many modern Gaelic speakers aren’t actually following the rule. However, Gaelic placenames, which are centuries old, generally abide by it. In this case, because the terminal “n” in “Beinn” and the initial “d” in “Dearg” are both pronounced with the tip of the tongue against the back of teeth, the one sound slides into the other easily, and lenition was consistently blocked in Gaelic at the time when these landscape features were being assigned names by the Gaels.*

There’s a fine example of blocked and unblocked lenition quite close to the Dubhs, in the form of Beinn Dearg Mhòr. There you can see how the homo-organic rule blocks the lenition of “d” after “n”, but not of “m” after “g”.

So is that it all sorted, then? Are lenition and the homo-organic rule all we need to know, to decide whether we should insert that pesky “h”? Sadly, no. There are many departures from these rules. For instance, there’s a fully unlenited Beinn Dearg Mòr out there, sitting incongruously right next to a half-lenited Beinn Dearg Bheag. I’ve no idea what that’s about—perhaps it reflects some peculiarity of local pronunciation, or is just one of the Ordnance Survey’s notorious errors of transcription. And sgòrr, a variant of sgùrr that is listed as a masculine noun in modern Gaelic dictionaries, frequently turn up accompanied by lenited adjectives, as if it were feminine—for instance Sgòrr Dhearg and its neighbour Sgòrr Bhan.

I’d love to hear from anyone who has explanations for these.

* The sgian-dubh I mentioned at the start of this post is another example of blocked lenition preserved into modern usage—a so-called “frozen form”. Sgian is a feminine noun, so if you took a knife and painted it black, a modern Gael would call it sgian dhubh. The old, lenition-blocked name sgian-dubh now applies solely to the decorative stocking-top item. (Which, so the story goes, was named dubh in a figurative sense, because it was originally a concealed weapon. The Gaels are said to have used dubh, “black”, in the same metaphorical way that English sometimes uses “dark”—the Victorians labelled the regions of Africa that were yet to be seen by Europeans “Darkest Africa”, for instance; and the “dark side of the moon” was so named because it is hidden from view, not because of any imagined lack of sunlight.)

Loch Faskally Circuit

19 kilometres
410 metres of ascent

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

Ever since I made my ascent of Ben Vrackie from the west, I’ve been hankering to use the Pitlochry Path Network to make a circuit of the waterways between Pitlochry and Killiecrankie. So this one is devoid of hills but replete with rivers and bridges.

I parked at the car park below the visitor centre at the Pitlochry hydroelectric dam, and walked across the dam to reach the south shore of Loch Faskally. Here’s the view looking back along the dam to the visitor centre:

Faskally dam, looking towards Visitor Centre
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And looking east below the dam, to the “salmon ladder” that lets migrating fish make their way upstream into the upper Tummel and Garry rivers:

Fish ladder, Faskally dam
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My father used to also migrate regularly to the Pitlochry Dam—it was a feature of autumn in our house that we’d make a pilgrimage to the dam to watch the salmon leaping their way up through the “steps” of the ladder.

At the far end of the dam, I turned west and started to make my way along the narrow, muddy trail that wends along the shore of Loch Faskally.

South Loch Faskally path
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Faskally didn’t exist until the 1950s, when the dam was built across the River Tummel, flooding an area of low-lying fields and woodland on either side of the Tummel. As far as I can see, looking at the old pre-dam maps, the only building lost was a fairly substantial property called Dallreach, on low ground west of Fonab Castle.

The lochside path continues for six or seven hundred metres, and then pops out at the roadside at Balmore. Beyond that point I had a bit of road-walking to do, on a narrow ribbon of tarmac that, potentially, could take me almost all the way to Tummel Bridge.

The road soon makes a right-angle bend to the west, and passes under the south end of the modern bridge that carries the A9 across the loch. I made a brief diversion to take a look at the Clunie Bridge, a footbridge that accompanies the road bridge, at a lower level:

Clunie Bridge, Loch Faskally
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It provides the potential for a fine short walking loop around lower Loch Faskally. I walked out into the middle of the span for a view into the middle reach of Faskally:

Loch Faskally from the Clunie Bridge
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And then I headed back to the road again. I’d be getting a better view of the Clunie Bridge when I came back down the far side of the loch.

It’s a very quiet road—I encountered only two vehicles. One was a Highway Maintenance lorry, and the other an honest-to-god chauffeur-driven Range Rover. (Either that, or the driver, resplendent in peaked cap, white shirt and black tie, was on his way to some sort of nautical-themed funeral.) As it turns north and rises, it opens up views into the upper part of Faskally.

The Faskally-Tummel minor road
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Upper loch Faskally from the Faskally-Tummel road
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Eventually I arrived at the entrance to the Clunie Power Station, a vaguely Soviet-looking monumental arch:

Clunie power station entry, River Tummel
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That horseshoe-shaped archway is actually a section of the long tunnel that brings water down from Loch Tummel and into the power station.

From here, I followed the road west again, along the south side of the River Tummel, though the view of the river itself was largely obscured by trees. My Tummel crossing point was the very slightly wobbly Coronation Bridge:

Coronation Bridge, River Tummel
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The coronation in question is that of George V, making the bridge a good 110 years old, so I wasn’t tempted to bounce up and down in the centre.

Walking back along the north side of the Tummel, I made a small diversion to take in another royal memorial:

Victoria obelisk, River Tummel
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It’s a rather dull little obelisk, erected to memorialize a visit to this spot by Queen Victoria in 1844. She’d come, I presume, to take a look at the Linn of Tummel*, a waterfall just upstream from the obelisk:

Linn of Tummel
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On, then, along a path that turned north along the west side of the River Garry, and soon passed under the Garry Bridge, which carries the B8019, from Rannoch Station, across the river to join the A9.

Bungee jump platform below Garry Bridge
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The curious structure on the underside of the span is the jumping-off point for a bungee jump into the gorge.

(Attentive readers of the blog will recall the conversation that concluded my ascent of Ben Vrackie, with the young woman who was keen to know if I’d “done the bungee jump”. Yep, this is that bungee jump.)

A little way north of the Garry Bridge is yet another footbridge, which again would have let me cross the river and make a shorter loop if I’d wanted to.

Footbridge over River Garry, Pass of Killiecrankie
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OpenStreetMap shows a path continuing up the west side of the river at this point, but I instead walked up to the car park next to the Garry Bridge, and turned on to the little ribbon of tarmac that passes over the shoulder of Craig Fonvuick and then descends towards Killiecrankie.

I thought this might give me some longer views than would be available deep in the gorge, and that proved to be the case. I was able to admire the complicated summits of Beinn a’ Ghlo, still shrouded in snow:

Beinn a' Ghlo from Tenandry-Fonvuick road
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The road passes through the little settlement of Tenandry, which sounds to me like it should be a thing, rather than a place—an obscure mediaeval law of inheritance, perhaps; or one of the apparently infinite number of subdivisions of sexuality so cherished by Generation Z.

But it’s a place, and pretty one, consisting of a church, the church manse, a church cottage, and one other house. I forgot to take a photograph of it, so here it is in Google Maps street view:

The road eventually led me steeply down to the bridge at Killiecrankie, where I crossed the Garry and began my return down the east side of the loch. A signpost to Pitlochry next to the village hall took me on to a muddy little footpath that at first ran along the north side of the road, and then crossed it to descend into the steep-sided Pass of Killiecrankie. Here, I made another little diversion to visit another water feature—the Soldier’s Leap.

Soldier's Leap, Pass of Killiecrankie
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A government soldier, fleeing the Battle of Killiecrankie (1689) with a Jacobite Highlander hot on his heels, later claimed to have leapt 18 feet across the river—allegedly from the boulder in the low middle of my photograph above.

When I got home after my walk, I discovered that I’d apparently leapt the gap myself, too. With its view of the GPS constellation limited by the steep sides of the gorge, my GPS receiver briefly lost track of where I was, just as I stopped to view the Soldier’s Leap. You can see the artefactual jump across the river in my recorded track (the magenta line) below:

GPS track error at the Soldier's Leap, Killiecrankie
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Then I pressed on southwards, beside the lovely arches of the railway viaduct, and then through mixed forest beside the river bank.

Railway viaduct, Pass of Killiecrankie
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Pass of Killiecrankie
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Just as I drew level with the eastern end of the footbridge across the Garry, I happened on this object beside the path:

Milestone, Pass of Killiecrankie
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It’s an old milestone, signposting (now illegible) distances to Tummel Bridge and Blair Atholl. I puzzled for a long time why there was a milestone beside a muddy footpath in the depths of the Pass of Killiecrankie, but eventually realized that, before the opening of the modern Garry bridge, soaring across the gorge above my head, the old road from Tummel Bridge used to descend into the gorge, cross the river more or less where the footbridge is now, and then ascend under the railway line to join the old A9. For about fifty metres between its descent and ascent, it ran along the east bank of the river—which is why the milestone is there, as a reminder of a long-vanished road.

My path then took me in a long curve around the grounds of Faskally House, eventually bringing me out on the House’s long tarmac driveway. The drive also serves an extensive cluster of buildings, which signage identified as the Scottish Government’s Marine Scotland Directorate. At the time I felt they’d placed themselves at an inconvenient distance from the sea, but it turns out Marine Scotland is housed in several locations across Scotland, and I was looking at one of their Freshwater Laboratories.

The laboratories sit at the head of a wide, shallow embayment which, in the days before the reservoir filled, was a field attached to Faskally House. When I visited it, there was a slow circular current in the bay, presumably driven by the flow of water coming down from the confluence of the Tummel and Garry just upstream. You can see below how a disc of floating debris has been penned by the rotary flow, like a tiny Sargasso Sea:

Debris trapped in an eddy at Faskally House
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I walked down the driveway for a while, and then dived into the little network of paths around Loch Dunmore, aiming to emerge on the loch-shore somewhere near the east end of the Clunie footbridge. It all went swimmingly for a while, before my path seemed to simply terminate at a waymarker post. At first I thought I was going to be forced unpleasantly on to the hard shoulder of the A924, but I could actually see the loch from the point at which I’d lost the path, so instead I just descended steeply through the trees, climbed over a fence, and stumbled out at a little viewpoint from which I could admire the span of the Clunie Bridge.

Clunie Bridge, Loch Faskally
Click to enlarge

From there, a path took me under the road bridge to emerge at the Pitlochry Boating Station.

As I approached I’d been hearing the call of a moorhen (which always sounds to me like someone vigorously rubbing wet glass), but at the little dock I was greeted by no more than a rather lazy group of mallards, and a Mystery Duck I can’t identify.

Ducks at the boathouse, Loch Faskally
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From there, it was back on tarmac for a short distance, to circumvent the loch-shore grounds of the (extremely well situated) Green Park Hotel, before heading downhill on the pavements of a small residential area to eventually reach a loch-shore path that took me the last few hundred metres to my car. And, incidentally, to the Visitor Centre. Where I had a rather nice tuna and mayo sandwich.

Winter birch trees, Loch Faskally
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* You’ll find rather a lot of misinformation relating to the Linn of Tummel, both on local information boards and on-line.
First, there’s the story that the word linn refers to the pool below the falls, rather than to the falls themselves, because in Scottish Gaelic linne means “deep pool”. But this is just a common etymological fallacy—Scottish English is under no obligation to adhere to the Gaelic meaning, even if linn does indeed derive from linne. (The Oxford English Dictionary points out that Old English hlynn means “torrent”, and of course Scottish English derives much more of its vocabulary from archaic English than it does from Gaelic.) But whatever the etymology, the relevant entry in the Dictionaries of the Scots Language contains many illustrative quotations in which linn is obviously synonymous with “waterfall”.
Second, and building on this misconception that a linn is necessarily a pool, is the claim that the phrase “Linn of Tummel” is of recent origin, replacing “Falls of Tummel” only when the Faskally dam raised the local water level, reducing the height of the falls and creating the pool evident today. But this is demonstrably not so—for example, the Caledonian Mercury of 8 January 1827 advertised the sale of the estate of Fincastle, in Atholl, including the “right to a third of the salmon fishing in the Linn or Falls of Tummel.” Whatever the estate agents meant by “Linn”, it obviously wasn’t anything to do with the building of the Faskally dam, a century later.

Clipping from the Caledonian Mercury of 8 January 1827

Simon Ingram: The Black Ridge

Cover of The Black Ridge by Simon Ingram

I stood in the rain at the foot of the Inaccessible Pinnacle’s east edge, that ‘easy edge’, looking up at it, trembling a little. True, I was overawed by its history, its odd and discomfiting form, its dizzying position — but I think I was basically just very scared. In the part of your brain where your reflexive fear lives, self preservation — for no other reason than continued existence — is hard-wired into you. And everything about the Inaccessible Pinnacle was in those wires, and tinkering.

That’s the mood in which Simon Ingram embarked on a climb of Skye’s famous “In Pinn”—a fifty-metre high flake of basalt protruding from just below the summit of Sgurr Dearg, so that the highest point of the flake is slightly higher than the summit of the mountain itself. The roped rock climb on which he was about to embark is graded “Moderate”, and there’s nowadays no easier grade. But the two 30m pitches along the sloping edge of the pinnacle are wildly exposed, with plunging views down into steep-sided corries on either side. And most people who embark on this particular rock climb are not rock-climbers—they’re hill-walkers who are attempting to climb all the hills listed in Munro’s Tables of 3000-foot Scottish summits. And to complete that list they have to get up the In Pinn, because of the thoroughly inconvenient way it overtops the relatively easily accessible summit of Sgurr Dearg.

Here’s a view of what Ingram was taking on, with a couple of climbers visible on the “easy edge”. Ingram would be standing close to the point at which a small group is assembled at lower right:

Inaccessible Pinnacle, Skye
Click to enlarge

So lots of people are “very scared” when climbing the In Pinn—something I find bemusing and impressive in equal measure. Why on earth would you embark on a leisure-time project that frightened the willies out of you, particularly one requiring coordination and attention, both of which are notoriously degraded by fear? And yet people do it—and despite their fear most of them get to the top and also manage to coordinate well enough to abseil off the near-vertical western end, which features on the book’s cover at the head of this post. So I’m somewhat in awe of the grit and determination on show, while baffled at the motivation.*

Ingram’s motivation didn’t come from trying to gain a tick in a table, however. His climb was part of a long-term attempt to get to know the unique Cuillin range of mountains on Skye, which is what this book is about—hence the awkward subtitle, “Amongst The Cullin Of Skye”, which has the feel of a compromise reached by committee.

I’ve written about Ingram before, when I reviewed his previous book, Between The Sunset And The Sea (2015), in which Ingram described his experience of climbing sixteen classic British hills, using that experience as a narrative hook to usher in expositions on the history (and natural history) of his chosen hills. He has a great ear for intriguing and amusing anecdotes, and I enjoyed that part of the book immensely, while fretting a little about the sheer intensity of Ingram’s emotional response to some of his days out in the hills.

With The Black Ridge (2021) Ingram does the same thing, but with a tight focus on the various peaks of the Cuillin range. To some extent, then, it’s a counterpart to Patrick Baker’s The Cairngorms: A Secret History (2014), which I recently reviewed.

Ingram casts his net wide for subjects more-or-less linked to the Cuillin—in the early chapters there are dissertations on geology, the Ice Ages, Scottish history and prehistory, the saga of James Macpherson and the alleged poetry of Ossian, the Scottish travels and opinions of Samuel Johnson, the fragile botany of the high peaks, Scottish folklore, and the etymology of the name Cuillin. Depending on your existing knowledge and interests, you may find some passages less engaging than others, but there are always intriguing titbits—I didn’t know, for instance, that there may have been active glaciers in the Cairngorms as late as the eighteenth century. And Ingram often manages to tell you stuff that you do know already, but in a new, vivid and memorable way. For instance, here he is on the supercontinent cycle:

Like much of geological theory, the understanding of the processes involved in this is pretty recent; there are Beatles records that pre-date anything approaching a clear view of how this most colossal of geological events works.

And he’s funny. Here’s his take on reading climbing reports from old editions of the Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal:

They are typically great fun, not least because the writers seem to inhabit some kind of P.G. Wodehouse parallel universe, full of chipper old socks braving inadequate lodgings, sharing ropes, ruminating over whether things will ‘go’ or not, and watching Hastings—there’s always a Hastings—overcoming some kind of dangerous obstacle or being a good-enough sport to fall to their death without taking the pipe tobacco with them. (This last point is of course an exaggeration—none of these chaps would be silly enough to trust the entire supply of pipe tobacco to one person.)

(I find myself wondering who made the decision to use non-gendered pronouns in that passage. “His” and “him” would have precisely reflected the realities of the era Ingram is lampooning—women were finally admitted to the Scottish Mountaineering Club as recently as 1990.)

Later sections concentrate on the climbing history of the Cuillin—the range is remarkable in Britain for the fact that in many cases we know the names of the people who (probably!) made the first ascents of its various summits; some, like Sgurr Alasdair, are even named after the first recorded ascender. Prominent among the characters introduced are Norman Collie and the guide John MacKenzie, whose statues now stand near the Sligachan bridge, gazing towards their beloved Cuillin. There are plenty more characters in Ingram’s history, but this famous pairing lets him introduce the concept of the Cuillin guide—a person employed by ordinary hill-walkers to keep them safe in the complicated, demanding, and occasionally frightening terrain of the Cullin ridge.

Ingram’s chosen guide for his own Cuillin adventures is Matt Barratt of Skye Adventure, who comes out of Ingram’s stories very well, and presumably is now getting a little extra business as a result. He previously assisted in the making of Danny MacAskill’s jaw-dropping mountain-bike-along-the-Cullin film, The Ridge, which must also have boosted business. (Although it has nothing to do with Ingram’s book, if you haven’t seen The Ridge, please just click on my link, turn up the sound, and invest eight minutes in seeing something remarkable which will also give you a real sense of the vertiginous exposure the Cuillin offers, and why mere mortals might just need the assistance of a guide. I’ll wait here. Take your time.)

Ingram’s exploration of the Cuillin doesn’t go as planned. Unusually, he goes straight for an attempt at a full traverse (two days following the crest of the ridge), but is forced off by bad weather. He then decides to become more acquainted with individual peaks before attempting the traverse again. So he talks us through his ascent of the Inaccessible Pinnacle, and a walk up on to the ridge at Bruach na Frithe, one of the few approaches easily manageable by simple pedestrians. It’s all going swimmingly, and another attempt at the traverse is booked, only for Ingram to sustain a serious injury after a stumble while walking in Coire Lagan.

Ingram describes this event very well—the fall itself, the aftermath, the cheery practicality of the Mountain Rescue Service:

‘I’m supposed to be doing the ridge tomorrow,’ I say heavily.
I hear a chuckle, and someone else says, ‘Well, guess what. But you know, you’re not dead and you don’t have a broken neck. You’re lucky.’

Expectations are modified, at least temporarily, and Ingram finally returns after a long period of recovery to make a short but classic circuit of Sgurr nan Gillean with a watchful Matt Barratt.

The descriptions of the mountain scenery are excellent. Here’s Ingram on the seaward view from the south end of the ridge:

Climbing in a curve ahead, the ridge sliced the scene in two. To the left, the flank of the mountain fell in an unbroken slope precipitously to the sea. There were the [S]mall [I]sles, lined up in a trio along the horizon: Eigg an upturned rowboat, Canna distant and adrift, both flanking Rum, muscular and mountain-bristled, in shadowy anchor on a painfully bright sea. The whole was a tapestry of shadow, scaly silver and steel. Where the sun broke the cloud, it threw scalding puddles of light on the surface.

Anyone who has looked out to sea towards the Small Isles on a day of broken cloud will recognize that view.

There’s plenty more good stuff like that throughout the book, but I chose that passage in particular because it also illustrates a minor but prevalent niggle—the book could have done with some better proof-reading. I capitalized “Small Isles” for you, because that’s their name; the text calls them “the small isles”. And then there’s that out-of-place piece of American English, rowboat. (And elsewhere there are a couple of gottens.) Scottish readers will be vexed to see their third national drink dubbed Tennant’s lager—it’s Tennent’s. And convivial conversation in Scots is crack; it’s the Irish who enjoy craic.

And for pity’s sake, WHY IS THERE NO MAP?

But setting such carping aside, I very much enjoyed this book—for its striking evocations of landscapes with which I’m familiar, for its wealth of anecdote and information, and its dry humour.

* In case you’re wondering: No, I’m very much not a rock-climber. Yes, I have climbed the In Pinn. But I did it specifically because I wanted to climb the In Pinn. So I looked forward to it with cheerful anticipation, enjoyed myself while doing it, and would quite like to do it again.
Cullin is a singular noun, designating the whole seven-mile length of the Cuillin ridge. So “amongst the Cuillin” is a downright strange construction, like describing one’s travels “amongst Scotland” or “amongst London”. If he was intent on using “amongst”, Ingram would have been better to use the commonly heard plural form, Cuillins, which treats the singular ridge as being composed of multiple peaks. But Cuillin has become a shibboleth among Scottish hillwalkers, a way of advertising one’s membership of the in-group. The defence offered for this prescriptive usage is that, because the original Gaelic An Cuiltheann is singular, the English version should be rendered as singular, too. This is an etymological fallacy operating at the nonsensical level of the injunction against splitting infinitives, but if Ingram wants to sell his book to his target audience, he’s probably stuck with the singular Cullin.
However, should you ever happen to say “Cuillins”, and find yourself challenged on the usage, you should direct your challenger to the example of Sorley MacLean—a native Gaelic speaker, a resident of Skye, a hillwalker, and something of an expert on hill nomenclature. Here he is on The Munro Show (1991), discussing his love of the (plural) Cuillins:

MacLean knew very well that words adopted into English are under no obligation to follow the usage of their original language.
Middle English crack, “conversation”, persists in Scottish English. The OED tells us that the word was borrowed from Scottish English into Irish English, and thence into Irish Gaelic as craic.

Scottish Hill Lists: The Donald Revisions

Cover of 1953 edition of Munro's Tables

This is the second in my planned series of posts dealing with the revision history of the three “classic” tables of Scottish hills—the Munros, Donalds and Corbetts, which I introduced in an earlier post. I also introduced the idea of topographic prominence, and a way of charting these hill tables in two dimensions by plotting height against prominence. If any of this is strange to you, I refer you back to the original post via my link above, for a quick tutorial.

Last time, I dealt with the Corbetts (hills between 2500 and 3000 feet in height, with a prominence of at least 500 feet), and pointed out a number of ways in which new topographic data can lead to a hill either being deleted from, or added to, a set of tables.

This time, it’s the turn of the Donalds, lowland hills higher than 2000 feet. In contrast to Corbett’s tables, which have pretty simple and strictly numerical entry criteria, Donald’s tables feature a combination of rather more complicated topographic criteria with some value judgements, sorting the tabulated summits into two major categories—“Tops” and “Hills”:

“Tops”—All elevations with a drop of 100 feet on all sides and elevations of sufficient topographic merit with a drop of between 100 feet and 50 feet on all sides.
“Hills”—Groupings of “tops” into “hills” except where inapplicable on topographical grounds, is on the basis that “tops” are not more than 17 units from the main top of the “hill” to which they belong, where a unit is either 1/12 mile measured along the connecting ridge or one 50-feet contour between the lower “top” and its connecting col.

(Donald’s “drop on all sides” is the equivalent of modern “prominence”, the term I use in my charts below.) Donald’s rules seeks to reflect something about the shape of the landscape—allowing a single high summit, the “hill”, to dominate a fairly tight cluster of lower “tops”. The criteria given above mean that the summit of a “top” can’t be more than 1⅓ miles (2.15 km) from its parent “hill”.

In modern discussions of these tables, the “hills” have come to be referred to as “Donalds”, while the “tops” are called “Donald Tops”. The tables, as originally published, contained 86 Donalds and 47 Donald Tops. Donald also listed five English hills, close to the Scottish border, which fulfilled his criteria, but he did not assign them numerical entries in the tables. And, in an appendix, he added 15 summits:

[…] not meriting inclusion as tops, but all enclosed by an isolated 2,000-feet contour. These have been included in order that the table may be a complete record of every separate area of ground reaching the 2,000-feet level.

These locations have sometimes been referred to as “Minor Tops”, and that marginal category has actually been the main focus for such revisions as have been made, the remainder of Donald’s tabulation being surprisingly resistant to major change. Indeed, the Donalds remained entirely unrevised for 45 years, through multiple editions of Munro’s Tables.

Then, in the editions of 1981 and 1984, the availability of better mapping led to a considerable expansion to the list of Minor Tops, from 15 to 28—this despite the promotion of three Minor Tops (Keoch Rig, Conscleuch Head, and the south-west top of Windlestraw Law) to full Top status. These three were presumably selected on the basis of “sufficient topographic merit”, since they all have prominences between 50 and 100 feet.

The 1980s editions also ushered in a decade of confusion on the double-humped ridge of Black Law—creating a rather dubious Top on its north-east summit in 1981, to complement the existing Donald on the south-west summit; then switching the Donald and Top around in 1984, as the north-east summit proved to be higher than the south-west … only to have the Top deleted again in 1997, on the grounds (presumably) that its 36-foot prominence falls far short of Donald’s minimum criterion. So Black Law appears twice on my Donalds chart, with one summit marked as deleted and the other appearing as an addition. (A similar, later, migration of the Donald summit of Meikle Millyea is also marked. This was long anticipated, but not confirmed to the SMC’s satisfaction until 2015.)

Height-Prominence plot of original Donalds list, with revisions
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Height-Prominence plot of original Donald Tops list, with revisions
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The 1984 edition is also responsible for the only “promotion” of a Donald Top—Carlin’s Cairn.

Donald would have counted no less than seven fifty-foot contours on the ascent of Carlin’s Cairn, shown below on the one-inch mapping of 1926.

Ordnance Survey one-inch mapping of Corserine and Carlin's Cairn (1920s)
Click to enlarge

This whopping prominence, half again higher than any of the other Donald Tops in the original tables (see my plot of the Tops, above), means that Carlin’s Cairn meets Donald’s 17-unit criterion only because it’s less than a mile from nearby (and higher) Corserine. Donald was presumably swayed towards making it a Top rather than a Donald because it’s quite evidently part of the northern ridge of Corserine; but the 1984 Tables editor presumably felt that the comparatively large re-ascent from the col made the 17-unit rule “inapplicable on topographic grounds”, and so bumped Carlin’s Cairn to full Donald status.

Two significant revisions occurred in the 1997 Munro’s Tables. The first was the abandonment of the Minor Tops—they were either promoted to full Donald Top status, if merited, or deleted. Only one, Notman Law, survived the cull. (At the same time, Donald’s unnumbered list of five English summits was also dropped.)

The second revision was altogether more dramatic—the inclusion of a whole new and previously unsuspected group of Donalds and Tops. The discovery of these “Lost Donalds” on the south side of Glen Artney was first reported in The Angry Corrie, in 1994. Although Donald never clearly described what he meant by “the Scottish Lowlands” when he published his tables, it’s clear from the lists themselves that they document the 2000-footers of the Central Belt and Southern Uplands. The northern edge of this lowland area is commonly understood to be the Highland Boundary Fault (HBF). And this fault runs along Glen Artney, placing the 2000-foot hills on its southern side squarely in the Lowlands. You can check this for yourself on the Geological Survey of Great Britain (Scotland) Sheet 39W—Artney and the HBF lie in the top left corner and the new Donalds (Uamh Bheag and Beinn nan Eun) and associated Tops (Meall Clachach and Beinn Odhar) are visible in the Ordnance Survey mapping below the geological overlay. All are labelled on my charts.

Finally, there’s the vexatious (to me, at least) matter of Auchope Cairn and Cairn Hill West Top. The first of these two Tops was introduced by Donald, and discarded in 1997. The second appeared as a numbered Top in 1981 and is still with us. As my chart above shows, both fail to meet Donald’s 50-foot threshold prominence for inclusion, scoring 30 feet and a laughable 16 feet, respectively. Both are, also, much farther than the 17-unit threshold from the nearest Donald summit, at Windy Gyle; even The Cheviot, which featured as an unnumbered summit in Donald’s original tables, is not close enough to these two hills to play “Donald” to their “Top”. A map of the current Donalds and Tops makes their bizarre status in this regard clear:

Map of Donalds and Donald Tops
Click to enlarge

According to the 17-unit rule, the Donald Tops (open triangles) all lie within 1⅓ miles of their parent Donalds (filled triangles), forming dense clusters … except for Cairn Hill West Top, which sits in splendid isolation on the Scottish/English border. (Auchope Cairn is not marked, but lies only 700m north-west of CHWT, and would be superimposed upon it if plotted on my map.) Here’s the one-inch map of 1927, annotated with the position of Cairn Hill West Top (hereafter, CHWT):

Ordnance Survey one-inch mapping of The Cheviot border region (1920s)
Click to enlarge

So what’s going on? It appears that Donald was keen to include some indication of the highest point on the Scotland/England border, and Auchope Cairn was the closest named summit to that point. (There was a reluctance, in the early days of hill-tabulation, to include summits that were unnamed on Ordnance Survey maps.) The actual highest point was on the rounded shoulder of Cairn Hill, which has now been dubbed Cairn Hill West Top. This was marked by a 2422-foot spot-height on the Ordnance Survey six-inch map to which Donald would have referred; but that height had been inferred by sighting from a triangulation point about 800 feet to the south-west, with an altitude of 2419 feet.

So Donald provided Auchope Cairn with a rather gnomic footnote:

The highest point on the Union Boundary is (2,419) 2,422.

This footnote persisted until 1981, when the point was promoted to Top status under the newly minted name “Cairn Hill—West Top”. It was provided with a footnote that read:

The highest point on the Union Boundary. Not named on either O.S. or Bartholemew maps.

Auchope Cairn limped on in tandem to CHWT until it was finally deleted in 1997, presumably as surplus to requirements, leaving CHWT as an isolated anomaly—essentially a footnote with ideas above its station.

Note: My data source for this post is the Database of British and Irish Hills v17.2, combined with “The Donalds 1953-2021” dataset (version 3), both obtained from the DoBIH downloads page.

Ochils: Glen of Sorrow Circuit

King’s Seat Hill (NS 933999, 648m)
Andrew Gannel Hill (NN 918006, 670m)
Skythorn Hill (NN 926013, 601m)
Cairnmorris Hill (NN 933016, 606m)
Tarmangie Hill (NN 943013 645m)
Whitewisp Hill (NN 955013 643m)

14 kilometers
930 metres of ascent

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

I mentioned the Glen of Sorrow when I wrote about my circuit of Glen Sherup, and promised I’d write more about it on another occasion. So, this is the occasion.

The Glen Sherup circuit fired me with enthusiasm to continue a series of clockwise circuits in the Ochils, each one bordering a previous circuit, so that I can conclude my walk by crossing previously visited hills in the reverse direction. This one borders on both my Glen Sherup circuit and, at its northern end, some hills I traversed when I made my approach to Ben Cleuch from the north. The only “new” hill this time is King’s Seat Hill, but its traverse occupies the whole outward side of my loop.

So the idea this time was to follow the watersheds of the Burn of Sorrow, which flows through the green cleft of the Glen of Sorrow. Downstream, in the Dollar Glen, the Burn of Sorrow merges with the Burn of Care. And in The Ochils: Placenames, History, Tradition (1995) Angus Watson tells us that Castle Campbell, at the confluence of the Sorrow and Care, was once Castle Gloom (there’s still a Gloom Hill nearby). And there’s a folk-etymology linking the name Dollar to dolour, “pain”. This is all splendidly gothic, and is attached to a legend that the daughter of an early King of Scots was once immured at Castle Gloom after falling in love with an inappropriate suitor. Sadly, having intrigued us with all this, Watson immediately pours cold water on the whole thing. He offers Gaelic glom, “chasm”, as a suitable etymology for “Gloom”, given the steep sides of the Dollar Glen; he links “Dollar” itself to a Pictish word dol, “valley”; and he points out that the Sorrow and Care were often less glamorously known as the Wester and Easter Burn in the nineteenth century.

I parked in the Dollar Glen car park, a little short of Castle Campbell, and on the south side of Gloom Hill, and popped across the road to descend steeply into the leafy ravine of the Dollar Glen. This proved to be a tactical error—the path to the damaged Long Bridge was still blocked off on the east side of the glen, so I had to make a little detour south, to cross the Dollar Burn at a lower bridge.

Dollar Glen
Click to enlarge

As you can see above, the burn itself is not a challenge to cross—it’s the ridiculously steep and overgrown banks that are the problem.

Then I followed the path on the western side of the burn steeply upwards, and eventually out on to the open hillside, where a good path took me up on to the little knob of Bank Hill, which has an improbably large cairn.

Bank Hill cairn, King's Seat Hill beyond, Ochils
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Peeping into sight beyond the cairn, you can see my first objective of the day, King’s Seat Hill. (Like the King’s Seat in the Sidlaws, no-one seems to know which king, if any, was associated with it.)

The path weaves around a little through a succession of lumps and low ridges, and then it’s just a steady grind up the hill. We were having a heatwave—which is to say, the temperature was forecast to exceed the local heatwave threshold for three successive days. Those who live closer to the equator than Scotland (or far from moderating maritime climatic influences), will be amused to learn that the Scottish heatwave threshold is 25 degrees Celsius. But it’s not what this place is used to, and it’s potentially damaging in terms of drought and wildfire risk, as well as the risk to pale Scottish hillwalkers toiling upwards. So I was only mildly surprised to meet a man descending the hill towards me, clad only in a hat, boots and a pair of royal blue Y-fronts.

A small cairn eventually pops into view on the sky-line, giving the unwary a little lift of excitement, and a moment in which to imagine that they’ve got up the hill faster than expected … and then the real top comes into view beyond it, still some way off. But any surge of self-pity is soon obliterated on reading the memorial plaque affixed to the cairn:

Spitfire Memorial, King's Seat Hill, Ochils
Click to enlarge

On 16 January 1943, three Spitfires from the Operational Training Unit at Grangemouth were on a formation-flying exercise but were diverted to land at Perth because of bad weather. In poor visibility, all three flew into the ground near the summit of King’s Seat Hill. Two pilots, one American and one Canadian, were killed. The third, an Australian, broke both legs but managed to crawl down the hill in the snow to be rescued two days later by a local farmer. You can read a little more about the incident here. The cairn sits at an altitude of about 570m, close to the spot where the Spitfires crashed, just 80 metres below the summit of King’s Seat Hill.

I find it’s an odd feeling, making the last pull up from the cairn to the summit, reflecting on how close those pilots came to getting over the hill, which was probably the highest ground along their flight-path.

There’s a nice big shelter cairn at the top, which was playing host to three ravens when I arrived, all mucking around in the westerly wind, hovering and wheeling, apparently just for the sheer joy of it. The true summit is a little farther on, beyond a pretty little summit pool, and gave me a view of my next destination, Andrew Gannel Hill. In the photograph below its summit is bang in the centre of frame, with Ben Cleuch looming behind it to the left.

Andrew Gannel Hill and Ben Cleuch from King's Seat Hill, Ochils
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(I wrote about who, if anyone, Andrew Gannel might be when I made my previous visit to the hill.)

At the bottom of the dip below Andrew Gannel, I found I had to climb over a fence, which, so far in my exploration of the Ochils, is an unusual experience. Then it was a fairly easy ascent to reach the grassy summit.

Glen of Sorrow, flanked by Tarmangie Hill and King's Seat Hill, from Andrew Gannel Hill, Ochils
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The view above looks down the length of the Glen of Sorrow, with Tarmangie and Whitewisp on the left, and the bulk of King’s Seat Hill on the right.

From this point, I was skirting the headwaters of the Burn of Sorrow, the Maddy Moss, at first following a faint path downhill, then crossing to the north side of the boundary fence to traverse Skythorn Hill and reach Cairnmorris Hill. In the view below, the peak poking above the forestry is Innerdownie Hill, which I crossed during my Glen Sherup circuit, but wouldn’t be visiting this time.

Innerdownie from Cairnmorris Hill, Ochils
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From the top of Cairnmorris I headed straight downhill through trackless grass to reach the gate in the col below Tarmangie Hill, glancing south from time to time to admire the green whaleback of King’s Seat Hill.

King's Seat Hill from south side of Cairnmorris Hill, Ochils
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As I was approaching the summit of Tarmangie, I noticed a familiar figure climbing over the stile on the sky-line, and then descending towards me. It was an old friend from the days of The Angry Corrie, and something of an Ochils Old Hand. We stood and chatted for a while, exchange route plans, and then carried on with our respective days—but this chance meeting was going to mean that our lives would intersect again amusingly, quite soon.

From Tarmangie, I carried on across the high moor towards Whitewisp Hill. Last time I was here, during my Glen Sherup circuit, the air had been alive with skylarks, but now they seemed to be having a quiet day off—I had to content myself with the alarm calls of shy meadow pipits instead.

From Whitewisp, my plan was to drop down into the glen over Saddle Hill. The Ordnance Survey mapping shows no path here, but the Harvey’s Ochils map depicts an intermittent path, and OpenStreetMap (whose contributors, admittedly, tend towards an optimistic interpretation of the word “path”) showed a link all the way down from the summit of Whitewisp to the highest bridge over the Burn of Sorrow.

And it certainly started off well, with an obvious visible line along the spine of Saddle Hill:

Saddle Hill and Dollar from Whitewisp Hill, Ochils
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I trotted merrily down this, and then began the steep descent directly towards Castle Campbell, visible in the distance below. Actually, a very steep descent, in parts. I soon reached a point at which the path was going down so steeply, with an alarming boulder at the bottom to punish any loss of balance, that I had turned sideways and was about to step tentatively down on to my first stance … when the phone in the top pocket of my rucksack, just behind my head, made a loud bingle-ta-BING! noise as it received an incoming text. I briefly levitated (or so it seemed at the time), then recovered my balance and permitted myself a few harsh words at the phone’s expense before resuming my sidling descent towards more level ground below.

Once safely there, I paused to yank out the phone to check my messages. The chime had been to announce the arrival of a text from my friend, the Old Ochils Hand, telling me:

Meant to say, from Saddle Hill the path that jinks back L to sheepfold is better than one down nose. Head towards castle for 2 mins then L at junc.

Oh, that path.

But now, with the castle in sight at the bottom of a gentle slope with a clearly visible path, my troubles were over.

Dollar and Castle Campbell from Saddle Hill, Ochils
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Well, not. The path sort of disappeared at roughly the spot the good people at OpenStreetMap told me it was going to turn right and descend towards the burn and the bridge. There seemed to be an obvious grassy line descending between two banks of bracken, so I followed this for a while, only to find myself on steepening, densely overgrown ground. Note: On a later trip to the far side of the Burn of Sorrow, I was able to look across at my route here, and identify where I’d gone wrong. When I was deposited at the head of the gully, I should have turned hard right and sought out a line that traversed and descended towards the bridge. Here’s the annotated view from the far side:

the final section of the descent from Saddle Hill to Dollar Glen
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So I clambered back up the way I’d come, and then noticed a narrow slot disappearing into the shoulder-high bracken in approximately the right direction. The fact you can’t actually see it in the photograph below serves to illustrate what a marginal route it was.

Castle Campbell and Gloom Hill, Dollar beyond
Click to enlarge

Anyway, off I went. The “path” was a bit intermittent, and something fairly large was grunting and moving around in there at one point, but eventually I was spat out down a steep embankment, in a slightly dishevelled state, directly on to the tarmac of the narrow road serving the castle. And directly in front of an elderly pair of tourists, one of whom emitted a sort of croaking yelp as I leapt, Cato-like, from concealment.

From there, a short walk got me back to the car. During which, I passed the gate and sign directing walkers out on to the open hillside along a track that leads up to the sheepfold at Craiginnan—yes, the same sheepfold reached by the Saddle Hill path that “jinks back L towards sheepfold”. Just thought I’d mention that.