Category Archives: Walking

Glen Clova: Allan’s Hut To The Capel Mounth

Sandy Hillock (NO 266804, 768m)
Dog Hillock (NO 286793, 732m)
Ferrowie (NO 303794, 801m)

20.4 kilometres
1020 metres of ascent

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

I’ve had it in mind to take this obscure little jaunt for some time—a trip along the crags on the north side of upper Glen Clova, linking the two main routes across the hills between Glen Clova and Loch Muick—the crossing via Allan’s Hut in the west, and the old Capel Mounth drove-road in the east.

I started from the car park at Acharn. Mindful of the fact that the bridge north of Moulzie had been washed away by winter floods the last time I was here, I set off up the west side of the river, expecting that the faint path which had been starting to appear soon after the bridge was lost would have evolved into something more substantial. But it hadn’t. In fact, it had largely disappeared. So I wasn’t entirely surprised to discover a new footbridge had been put in place.

New bridge above Moulzie, Glen Clova
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If I’d thought to check on this before setting off, I could have saved myself a bit of trackless wandering across damp flatlands, and used the regular track on the east side of the river.

Beyond the bridge the glen turns west, and I walked into the teeth of the wind that was funnelling through the head of the glen. When I reached the little larch forest at Bachnagairn there was some shelter among the trees, but their upper branches were being buffeted strongly enough to shake down a continuous gentle snow of yellowing larch needles.

Then I crossed the Roy Tait Memorial Bridge, and started up the well-engineered zig-zag path towards the high plateau and Allan’s Hut. The modern corrugated-iron hut (actually a stable for stalker’s ponies) replaces a dilapidated wooden structure that stood here back in the ’70s. (I’ve written previously about pitching a tent inside the old Allan’s Hut.)

Allan's Hut, above Glen Clova
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The ascending path was marked by fresh hoof-prints, showing that ponies were still being used to carry dead deer off the hill at the end of a day’s stalking.

Hoofprints on path above Bachnagairn, Glen Clova
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Then on to my first summit of the day, Sandy Hillock.  A glance at the ground, where the path has eroded a slot in the peat, was sufficient to explain the name.

Sandy path on Sandy Hillock, Glen Clova
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The summit hosts four poles (one fallen) and a small cairn with a metal shelf inside. Almost all the paraphernalia is now gone, but it seems there were once two radio aerials up here, serving some purpose I’ve been unable to discover.

Summit of Sandy Hillock, looking towards Lochnagar
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Next, I headed south, into a little triangle of boggy moorland that seems to levitate 300 metres about the river below. This is the top of the improbably named crag of Juanjorge, an obvious viewpoint that I’ve long wanted to visit. Contrary to appearances, the cliff is not named after two misplaced Spaniards. The local pronunciation sounds something like Gin-George, and on the basis of that pronunciation, Adam Watson* speculates that the original Gaelic was  Dionn Deorid, which he translates as “hill or fortress of melancholy creature”. I don’t really know what to make of this, and both Gaelic words seem to be rather obscure. Anyway, it gives (as I suspected) splendid views both up the glen towards Bachnagairn and down towards the new bridge.

Bachnagairn from above Juanjorge crag
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Glen Clova from above Juanjorge crag
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From there, I worked my way along the rim of Moulnie Craig, glancing back to take in the view of Juanjorge.

Juanjorge crag from above Moulzie Craig
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And then on to Broom Hill (no broom plants in evidence) and around the deep cleft of The Gourock, with its lovely little lochan.

The Gourock, above Glen Clova
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The name, oddly, derives from an guireag, “the pimple”, hinting that the Ordnance Survey may have attached it to the wrong geographical feature.

Next, Dog Hillock, on which no dogs were evident. The name was probably given in conscious contrast with Sandy Hillock—in Scots, for some impenetrable reason, a “dog hillock” is a small hill covered in grass. Here, I took a seat and enjoyed the view south down the glen towards my starting point, and also north to the crags of Lochnagar. I noted that the Falls of the Glasallt (above the Queen’s lodge at Glas-allt-Shiel) were broad and white with run-off from recent rain (an observation that would become relevant later in the day).

Lochnagar from Broom Hill, Glen Clova
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And I could enjoy the classic sound of the Scottish Highlands in October—the bellowing of red deer stags in rut. Here’s what one of those sounds like:

This noise had been echoing around me from all directions since I’d reached Bachnagairn, though I’d glimpsed nothing but a little bachelor herd trotting across the peat hags in the distance.

To reach my final hill of the day, I had an awkward little descent in the headwaters of the Moulzie Burn, and then an awkward little ascent to reach the Capel Mounth track. I walked up to the high point of the track to reach Gallow Hillock, an unassuming heathery lump, visible on the sky-line to the right of the track, below:

Capel Mounth track at Gallows Hillock
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Dorward writes:

There are over a hundred place-names in northeast Scotland containing the term ‘gallows’ […] While there is seldom evidence of their having been used as places of execution, they appear to have been important meeting-places or even the site of a court in Pictish times.

There’s a similar juxtaposition in the Sidlaws, where Gallow Hill sits next to the high point of the old route between Dundee and Glamis. Both locations seem too chilly and exposed for a meeting place, but ideal for a gibbet displaying the corpse of a highway robber. Or so it struck me at the time.

On, then, up the slopes of Ferrowie, which Dorward links to Gaelic feith ruadh “red mire”, though it didn’t seem particularly red or mirey. From the summit, I could look back at a panorama of Broad Cairn and Lochnagar, and notice that the Allt an Dubh-loch was so full that it showed up as a white ribbon between the two hills. Hmmm. There did seem to be a lot of water in the burns.

Broad Cairn and Lochnagar from Ferrowie
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To get back into the glen, I followed a rough vehicle track past some decaying grouse butts on Ferrowie’s boggy southwest shoulder, The Winnochs. Dorward links this name, rather implausibly, to Scots winnocks, “windows”.  Watson goes with the more believable Gaelic bhuidheanach, “yellow place”, which is pronounced something like “VOO-yen-och”. Here’s a view at the point where I rejoined the Capel Mounth track (Bachnagairn,  Juanjorge and Broad Cairn in the background), demonstrating why I find “yellow place” compelling:

Capel Mounth track descending from The Winnoch
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The route descends in steep zig-zags, eventually reaching a patch of forestry that turned out to have been recently clear-felled.

Capel Mounth track descending into Glen Clova
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Glen Clova from clear-felled area beside Capel Mounth track
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I was a bit disgruntled about this blot on the landscape, until I reached the ford where the path crossed the Capel Burn. Which was in spate. Predictably enough, given what I’d been seeing of the burns around Lochnagar earlier. Rather than taking off my boots and socks and wading across, clinging to the boulders, I realized I had another option—the clear-felling had opened up a rough route down the north side of the burn, by which I could easily reach the bridge on the Moulzie track below me. And then it was just a straightforward march back to the car, along the route I should have taken when I set out that morning.

Fly Agaric, Glen Clova
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* Adam Watson, Place Names In Much Of North-east Scotland (2013)
David Dorward, The Glens Of Angus (2001)

Lomond Hills

West Lomond (NO 197066, 522m)
East Lomond (NO 243061, 434m)

12.7 kilometres
480 metres of ascent

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

This was a lunch-time impulse, on a day that suddenly seemed too good to waste.

The Lomonds are a pair of ancient volcanic plugs, pushing up through layers of sedimentary rock that form an intricate escarpment around three sides of West Lomond (of which, more later). I left the car at the big Craigmead car park, which is reached by the narrow ribbon of potholed tarmac that crosses the moorland between Falkland and Leslie.

Down the road a short distance, and then a left turn took me on to the broad track that crosses the moor towards West Lomond.

Approach to West Lomond
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Close to the start of this track, there’s a little puzzle:

Reproduction commonty division marker, Lomond Hills
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A neat and obviously fairly recent block of stone bears this inscription:

Division of the
Commonty of the
Lomond Hills
of Falkland

Sir William Ray

Alexander Martin

The upper surface is marked with the initials WR (one assumes William Rae) and the date 1818. And yet it’s very much not two centuries old. It seems to be a reproduction of one of the many boundary stones that mark the nineteenth-century divisions of the old common land of the Lomonds. An original can be found a little farther up the track:

Commonty division marker, Lomond Hills
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And there are more than a hundred scattered around the area. For more on that topic, see the 2015 Fieldwork Report by David Munro and Oliver O’Grady.

The tourist route up West Lomond curves around its north side and reaches the top from the west, but I chose the masochist’s direttissima that goes straight up the steep north-east side. So I was soon at the summit, looking back the way I’d come, and to East Lomond beyond:

East Lomond from summit of West Lomond
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The triangulation pillar of West Lomond seems to have eroded out of the surrounding terrain quite dramatically, leaving it poised on its curved concrete foundation like some sort of giant Subbuteo footballer:

Loch Leven from summit of West Lomond
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In the distance, above, you can see Loch Leven. The larger wooded island is the location of Loch Leven Castle, where Mary, Queen of Scots, was imprisoned in 1567-8.

Instead of returning the way I’d come, I decided to pay a visit to the West Lomond escarpment. Its long curve offers a fine collection of evocative toponyms—there’s John Knox’s Pulpit (blown up by Fife Council in 2004 because considered unsafe), the improbably poised Bunnet Stane (presumably next on Fife Council’s list), the sheltered meadow of Hoglayers, and the little summit of Wind and Weather. But I dropped off down a knee-strainingly steep path to the south-west, aiming for the Devil’s Burdens—a scattering of stones supposedly dropped by the Devil himself, under circumstances described in my link; but why His Satanic Majesty was doing anything so menial as lugging some rocks around Fife is not clear to me.

The steep path took me to a stile, which had enough missing parts on its downhill side to make it a significant challenge for anyone with shorter legs than mine.

Broken stile, West Lomond
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And then down to the Burdens themselves—a much-eroded stone rampart, which I prudently looped around and approached from below.

Devil's Burden stones, West Lomond
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Up close, this is a fairly impressive barricade, in some places a good four metres high.

Devil's Burden stones, West Lomond
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Then I climbed back up to the stile, and picked up a narrow slot of a path on its uphill side, which took me around to West Lomond’s east side. Here, I decided to strike off across the moorland rather than follow the path all the way around to the north-east side again.

East Lomond from moor below West Lomond
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I avoided marching straight towards East Lomond, but took a line that erred a little to the north, avoiding the boggy ground promised by Balharvie Moss, which lay due east. It was easy enough going, the heather fairly short and the marshy areas fairly dry, but it was also rather unsatisfactory—these little off-piste excursions usually turn up something of interest, but this one afforded nothing but a pair of panicky grouse. Eventually, I joined my outward track, and headed back to the road past a busy row of beehives.

Beehives, Lomond Hills
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The route to East Lomond was pretty much a mirror image of West Lomond, except on a smaller scale. First of all, a short track:

Approach to East Lomond from the west
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Then a choice of routes up (I took the steeper one again):

East Lomond from the west
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The bare summit of East Lothian is crowned by a rather nice view indicator on a low pillar, but I wasn’t able to access it immediately because it was being used for other purposes:

Summit of East Lomond
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That’s not something you see every day.

So I sat and admired the view of West Lomond for a while, and then retraced my steps to the car.

West Lomond from summit of East Lomond
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Threestane Hill (NO 631873, 431m)
Mount Shade (NO 626870, 507m)
Clachnaben (NO 615865, 589m)
Hill of Edendocher (NO 603859, 577m)
Sandy Hill (NO 593858, 592m)

20 kilometres
790 metres of ascent

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

Clachnaben is Clach na Beinne, “stone of the hill”, a name that correctly applies to the granite tor that forms its summit, and which is the most striking feature of the hill when first glimpsed from the Cairn o’ Mount road heading north. The emphasis is on the last syllable, Clach-na-BEN.

It’s been on my “to climb” list for a while, and I fitted it in just before the start of the grouse season on August 12th. This is prime grouse shooting territory, and I’ve no interest in getting into conflict with people carrying guns.

I parked in the little car park at NO 648868, and set off along the woodland path. There’s a fairly direct route to Clachnaben, but I wanted to take in a couple of other hills first. In particular, I wanted a look at Threestane Hill—stane means “stone” in Scots, and I wondered if I might find three tors on the summit, to account for the name. So I turned right along the fence-line when I exited the forest, and then wound my way along the forest track that contours around Greystane Hill. The Ordnance Survey shows this branching right on to the open hillside just before it ends, so I followed the rather overgrown-looking branch when I reached it—only to discover that what had been a gate in the deer-fence has now been closed off.

Blocked access to Threestane Hill
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Looking downhill along the fence-line I could see a stile crossing the fence farther down. The main track, rather than ending blindly as the OS indicates, seems to open into a broad firebreak, giving access to that stile. Or so it would appear from Google Earth, which I’ve just checked. But at the time, I simply shinned over the fence, because the ground on the other side looked like it would give easy access on to the hill, which it did.

Also noticeable in the photograph above is the little row of three stones visible along the crest of the hill. It’s difficult to tell now, because of the modern forestry in the glen below, but their position on the crest of the hill would probably have made them easily visible on the skyline from the valley of the Mill Burn in its reaches above Glendye Lodge. They turned out to be merely the highest three boulders in a complicated little clutter, but I didn’t see anything else to account for the hill’s name. There are indeed summit tors, but only two of them.

Prominent boulders on Threestane Hill
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On, then, to Mount Shade, by an easy little path through the heather that the Ordnance Survey is unaware of.

Mount Shade from Threestane Hill
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Mount Shade, a distinctly un-Scottish name apparently imported from Lord of the Rings, is actually Monadh Seid, “hill of blowing”—its isolated conical shape reputedly makes it a fairly windy location. From its summit there are wide views in all directions, including across to Clachnaben and its slightly daunting tor.

Clacknaben from Mount Shade
Click to enlarge

Getting across to Clachnaben involves a bit of descent, circumventing the steep little cleft of Slack of Dye. “Slack”, as I’ve mentioned before, derives from Gaelic sloc, meaning “pit” or “hollow”, and in Aberdeenshire it seems to be often applied to rocky clefts between hills. Like this one:

Slack of Dye, between Mount Shade and Clachnaben
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From here, there’s an easy slot of a path up Clachnaben, which joins the main tourist route just a few metres below the tor itself, and then skirts around the north side to reach the OS triangulation pillar, with its little not-very-sheltering shelter cairn. From the west, the tor looks less worrisome.

Chlachnaben tor from trig point
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And it’s easy enough to climb, though the steep drop to the east of the narrow bouldery ridge might put some people off.

Looking south from top of Clachnaben tor
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Then I headed off farther westwards, past Clachnaben’s other, smaller, tor.

Summit of Clachnaben, looking west to Mount Battock
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With more time, there’s a nice traverse to make all the way to Mount Battock, which is the distant cone sticking up at left of frame above. I contented myself with following the broad vehicle track over Hill of Edendocher as far as Sandy Hill. This proved to be a mass of peat hags, and by climbing on to the highest of these I was able to look back along the ridge to Clachnaben.

Clachnaben and Hill of Edendocher from Sandy Hill
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In the other direction, the route to Mount Battock was clear.

Mount Battock from Sandy Hill
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But I headed south, to start my return along Glen Dye. The Ordnance Survey shows the vehicle track petering out high on the south ridge of Sandy Hill, but I was confident there would be some sort of path down. I had been passing through the densest concentration of grouse butts I had ever seen, between Edendocher and Sandy Hill, like some sort of museum of grouse butt technology. They ranged from simple pegs (just numbered posts), through turf and wood constructions, to positively luxurious dry-stone assemblies.

Grouse butt, Sandy Hill
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I was sure the south ridge of Sandy Hill would feature more of the same, and so it proved. A clear 4×4 track extended quite a long way down the hill, and then I was able to pick up a fainter track through the grass, that serviced a row of turf butts lower on the hill.

Row of turf grouse butts on descent from Sandy Hill
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Just before I reached the estate track beside the Water of Dye, I found myself approaching a large netted enclosure, clearly intended for the rearing of game birds. These proved to be red-legged partridges—safe for now, but the partridge season starts just a couple of weeks after the grouse season, on the first day of September.

Red-legged partridges, breeding enclosure, Glen Dye
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Then it was just a matter of yomping four miles back down the glen to my starting point. As I passed the Charr bothy, I was scolded by a succession of stonechats, reminding me that I hadn’t seen much wildlife so far (not counting a hundred captive partridges).

Charr bothy, Glen Dye
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Then, as I was toiling up the long slope where the track crosses between Hill of Duclash and Gauns Hill, I spotted an angular silhouette sweeping along the hillside towards me—a red kite. Once extinct (read, exterminated) in Scotland, they were reintroduced during the ’90s, and are on the UK’s list of protected species, but they’re still being illegally persecuted and poisoned, often in areas where game-bird shooting is economically important. (As habitual scavengers, they’re not even that much of a danger to young birds—but that diet makes them extremely easy to poison.) So there was a special pleasure in seeing one alive and flapping amid the grouse butts of Glen Dye.

Red kite, Glen Dye
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CCCP 2020: Mona Gowan & Morven

Scraulac (NJ 314056, 741m)
Cairnagour Hill (NJ 325056, 743m)
Mona Gowan (NJ 335058, 749m)
Mullachdubh (NJ 354057, 681m)
Morven (NJ 376039, 872m)

17.9 kilometres
800 metres of ascent

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

The Crow Craigies Climbing Party’s meeting for 2020 was cancelled during the Current Unpleasantness. But the three founding members, now into our fifth decade of chuckling and bickering our way around the Scottish hills (hi Steve, hi Rod) were recently able to get together as lockdown eased, for a day out at the eastern edge of the Cairngorms.

We planned to walk the ridge of Mona Gowan—Moine a’ Ghobhainn, “peat-moss of the blacksmith”. Now, any topographic feature with a name involving the word moine will inevitably involve a bit more up-and-down and to-and-fro than the map suggests, as you weave your way around the peat-hags, but Mona Gowan turned out to be surprisingly straightforward in that respect. Then from the end of the Mona Gowan ridge, we’d link across to Morven (Mor Bheinn, “big hill”), and then stroll back along estate tracks to reach the road and our starting point.

With the luxury of two cars and two handy roadside parking places, we cheated—leaving one car just south of the entrance to Glen Fenzie, and taking the other up to the crest of the pass between Carn a’ Bhacain and Scraulac.

Scraulac was our first objective. The name as spelled by the Ordnance Survey seems out of place, as if the hill had been imported from Brittany, but in Gaelic it’s actually Sgrathalach, which Adam Watson* translates as “rough place abounding in sods”—another bad omen for conditions underfoot which turned out to be misleading. It’s easily accessed by a neat little set of stone steps ascending the heathery bank at the roadside, presumably intended to give easy access to the shooting butts on the slope above. Thereafter, we cast about for a path, didn’t find much of use, and so picked our way up through the heather to reach Scraulac’s little cairn, and a boundary stone marking the border of the old Inverernan and Candacraig estates, which ran along the crest of the ridge.

Summit of Scraulac
Click to enlarge

From there, we passed gently over Cairnagour Hill, with views ahead to the big cairn on Mona Gowan, and Morven in the distance, peering over its southern shoulder.

Mona Gowan and Morven from Cairnagour Hill
Click to enlarge

Mona Gowan proved to host another boundary stone, as well as a monster cairn built in 1887 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. Presumably that made sense to someone at the time. (And it has to be said that it’s not a patch on the rather grand two-level Jubilee Cairn on Creagan a’ Chaise in the Hills of Cromdale.)

Summit of Mona Gowan
Click to enlarge

From Mona Gowan we descended steeply into an exotically named cleft, the Slacks of Glencarvie. There was no 1960s leisure-wear on display, however—sloc is Gaelic for “pit”.

Slacks of Glencarvie
Click to enlarge

On the west side of the gap there’s a little rocky pinnacle called Castle Wilson. It’s visible in my photograph, but only if you know where to look. There doesn’t seem to have been a Wilson after whom it was named—Adam Watson reckons it might be Caisteal Uillinn, “corner castle”.

We crossed the non-event flat summit of Mullachdubh, visited a little outlying cairn on a scenic promontory, skirted the Rocks of Gleneilpy and descended into the Glac of Bunzeach below Morven. (Got to love these Aberdeenshire toponyms. Gaelic glac means “hollow”; the “z” in Bunzeach is pronounced as a “y”, as in the Scottish surname Dalziel.)

Outlying cairn on Mullachdubh
Click to enlarge

There were a few awkward peat hags on the lower slopes of Morven, but then just a steady pull to the summit. The triangulation pillar is a little lower than the cairn, but has a fine view northwards along the edge of the Cairngorms.

Morven triangulation pillar
Click to enlarge

To the southwest, a tiny sliver of Loch Muick is visible below Lochnagar.

Lochnagar from Morven
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Then we descended southwest along a rough ATV track to pick up one of the vehicle tracks radiating out from the little cluster of buildings at Morven Lodge.

Morven Lodge
Click to enlarge

We made a little traverse across marshy ground between tracks to reach the track below Tom Liath, and then marched out past the old ruined farm-toun of Glenfenzie, to get back to the road just uphill from our second car.

Glenfenzie ruins
Click to enlarge

It was a fine day out, though a poor substitute for our usual week in the open air. The only wildlife encounters were a couple of distant deer, a lot of rabbits and hares … and a disconcertingly large number of bees, emanating (peacefully, thankfully) from a complex of hives among the trees of Glen Fenzie.

Glen Fenzie beehives
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* Adam Watson’s magisterial Place Names In Much Of North-East Scotland informs much of my toponymic discussion here.
These annoying Scottish z’s are a relic of an extinct letter—the yogh (ȝ) of Middle English and Old Scots. It had various pronunciations (detailed in my link above), but in Gaelic proper names it was a soft “gh” or “y” sound. Unfortunately, the advent of the printing press saw the yogh replaced with its nearest typographical equivalent in the Latin alphabet, “z”, much to everyone’s confusion ever since.

Glen Isla: Mayar From The Southwest

Finalty Hill (NO 212750, 905m)
Mayar (NO 240737, 928m)

22 kilometres
820 metres of ascent

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

After more than a hundred days in Covid-19 lockdown, the Oikofuge was finally permitted to live up to his nom-de-blog again, and head for the hills.

I’d noted the accessibility of Mayar from Glen Isla last year, during a previously reported expedition along the east side of the glen. The obvious and most direct route from the road-head at Auchavan would be to head up over Mid Hill and Bawhelps, but I wanted to explore the complicated ridges of Finalty Hill, which sends out multiple fingers into the glen, with an interesting variety of names. From west to east, these are White Strone, Mid Strone, Black Rigging and Sron Meadhonach. The two “strones” derive their name from Gaelic sron, “nose”—a common name for the end of a ridge in the Scottish Highlands. “Rigging” is a Scots word for a level ridge (and also for the ridge of a roof). The “white” and black” are a common Scottish toponymic contrast, usually referring to pale grass and dark heather, though I didn’t see much difference during this trip. And “mid”, of course, is the middle ridge as viewed from Glen Isla near Tulchan Lodge. But (puzzlingly) Sron Meadhonach, the easternmost of the four, is Gaelic for “middle ridge”. I’m guessing it was named from the view up Glen Cally, where it sits between Black Rigging and Sron Deirg, the “red ridge” that extends from the high ground east of Finalty Hill.

So I set off from the rough little parking area beside the River Isla (turn right down the track where the road ends at Auchavan), and followed the private road up towards Tulchan Lodge.*

Tulchan Lodge track, Glen Isla
Click to enlarge

At the lodge gates, I turned to the right and crossed the little bridge over the Isla, which gives access to Finalty Hill.

Bridge over the Isla at Tulchan Lodge
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After a short climb, the track starts to branch to ascend each of the western three of Finalty’s ridges. I turned to the left as soon as I could, following the edge of a fenced plantation, to reach the path that follows the ridge of White Strone, which I thought would give me the best view into the upper glen.

After three months spent knocking around the limited environs of Dundee, my legs and cardio-respiratory system briefly became hysterical when they realized I was planning on more than a hundred metres of continuous ascent. But I plodded on upwards, eventually reaching the more level ground the Ordnance Survey labels as Spying Hillock. There’s only one convincing hillock along the ridge, which I initially thought afforded enough of a view to qualify as “spying”; but a rounded eminence farther along, exactly where the OS places its label, gives the first view into the head of the glen.

Head of Glen Isla from Spying Hillock
Click to enlarge

Then it was time to frighten the physiology a little more, with the pull up on to Finalty Hill proper. I rejoined the bulldozed track coming up from Mid Strone, and then made a diversion to the cairn that sits oddly far from the summit of Finalty Hill.

Cairn on Finalty Hill, Glen Isla beyond
Click to enlarge

Beyond that, it’s an easy stroll along the broad track to the undistinguished summit, with airy view towards Glas Maol and Cairn of Claise.

Summit of Finalty Hill
Click to enlarge

The summit plateau features an honest-to-god turning circle, presumably for the benefit of grouse shooters in giant four-by-fours. (There was once a substantial hut up here, marked on maps of the 1970s, but it was close to ruin by the late 1980s, and gone by the 2010s. I suspect the grassy mound in the middle of the turning circle, visible at the right of the photograph above, is all that remains.)

I followed the track a little farther, towards Dun Hillocks, and then went off-piste to make a direct line towards Mayar. I’m pretty sure a vehicle track of some sort runs all the way along the high ground to connect to Bawhelps, but I figured the straight line through the bog cotton and peat hags didn’t look too bad.

Bog cotton between Finalty Hill and Mayar
Click to enlarge

And it wasn’t—perhaps not so pleasant in wet weather, but I was able to weave my way through dry-shod and without too much toing-and-froing.

And it gave me the opportunity to be mobbed by owls. (There’s a phrase you don’t encounter every day.) About halfway across, a group of five short-eared owls took a definite dislike to me, and started making low baleful passes overhead.

Short-eared owls, between Finalty Hill and Mayar
Click to enlarge

Unusually for owls, they’re daylight hunters and ground nesters, and typically inhabit open moorland. But I’ve crossed a lot of remote moorland in my time, and have never been the subject of daylight attack by massed owls. (I seem to recollect, at one point, that I shouted, “But you’re owls!” This didn’t put them off.)

The final ascent of Mayar was easy, along a faint path following the line of a broken fence. And then it was time to put my feet up and enjoy the view of Glen Prosen. (Which was my route of approach the last time I climbed this hill.)

Glen Prosen from Mayar
Click to enlarge

I had considered descending via Mid Hill, but decided to look at another of Finalty’s many ridges instead. So I dipped down into the headwaters of the Mayar Burn, and made the easy crossing to the rudimentary “shelter” (just a rough cross of overgrown walls) encountered on the previous visit to this area.

"Shelter" below Mayar
Click to enlarge

From there, I circumvented the headwaters of the Glencally Burn and went back over Finalty Hill. (My legs by this time had settled into a state of sullen incredulity.) But this detour was rewarded with the sight of a large herd of red deer pouring up out of the glen and crossing the ridge of Tom Dubh na Cabair ahead of me. (No, I don’t have a photograph. Weren’t you impressed enough by the owls?)

And then it was just a long rocky descent of the Sron Meadhonach track to regain the glen floor. All in all, I think the grassy line down Sron Deirg on the opposite side of the Glencally Burn is preferable. The subsequent route along the east side of the Isla has several frankly unnecessary and undesirable vertical undulations to it, but overall it was a fine day out, all the better for long anticipation.

Glen Cally from Sron Meadhonach
Click to enlarge

* The name Tulchan has some interesting associations. Gaelic tulach means “hillock”, and a tulachan is small hillock, which is probably the origin of the name of Tulchan Lodge. But a tulchan is, according to  Dieckhoff’s Pronouncing Dictionary of Scottish Gaelic, a “sham calf”. The idea here is that a cow with a dead calf could be tricked into continuing to provide milk by offering her a sham calf—usually the hide of her departed calf stuffed with straw. (I know, I know. But let’s press on.) David Dorward, in The Glens Of Angus, connects tulchan with tulachan by suggesting that the calf hide was once given shape by draping it over a small hillock. Whether or not that’s true, the sham calf then gave its name to the Tulchan bishops. These were bishops appointed by James Douglas, Fourth Earl of Morton, who served as regent during the minority of King James VI of Scotland. In exchange for their position, the bishops passed on much of the Church revenue to Morton and his baronial supporters. Straw men, in other words, milking the populace. Thereafter, the word tulchan was applied to any appointee put in place to siphon wealth to his backers, though it seems to have fallen out of use during the nineteenth century.

Lock-down Walks: Three Ships, Two Bridges, And A Bad Poet

2.6 kilometres
25 metres of ascent

Riverside walk
Click to enlarge
Contains OS OpenData © Crown copyright and database right 2018

This one’s just a short, level stroll along one of the more interesting sections of Dundee’s waterfront on the Tay estuary. It also goes off-book a bit by being a one-way stroll—linking the two ends of the journey is left as an … ahem … exercise for the interested reader.  Even while the two-metre physical distancing rule is still a thing in these parts, it’s easy enough to navigate the route, though probably best avoided on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Every now and then, on a busy day, a perfect crowd-storm can brew up in the three-metre gap between the river and the new flood-defence wall—sea-anglers on the left, a couple sitting on a bench to the right, an inattentive family group coming from ahead, and cyclists arriving silently from behind.

So, I started at Victoria Dock. This was once a bustling harbour area, with a tannery and a sawmill, a small shipyard and even its own railway station. But it fell into disuses as ships got larger, and now the old buildings have been replaced by shops, restaurants, offices and blocks of flats. It contains precisely two ships: the well-preserved H.M.S. Unicorn, almost two hundred years old; and the much-decayed North Carr Lightship, less than half that age.

Frigate Unicorn, Dundee
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North Carr Lightship, Dundee
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The Unicorn, oddly enough, has always had its strange roof—it has never been under sail. By the time it was built, the Napoleonic Wars had ended, and it turned out to be surplus to naval requirements. So the hull was roofed over and laid up. It eventually found its way to Dundee as a training ship later in the nineteenth century, and has been here ever since—a rare surviving frigate from the days of sail.

Between Victoria Dock and the waterfront, amid all the modern construction, there’s a little cobbled street lined with original dockyard buildings, now converted to flats, and evocatively named Chandlers Lane.

Chandlers Lane, Dundee
Click to enlarge

The Lane brings you out on the Tay estuary, just east of the Tay Road Bridge, and close to an elegant viewing platform. To the west, all was sunshine:

Tay Road Bridge from near Chandlers Lane, Dundee
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But to the east, the North Sea haar was billowing coldly around the oil-rig decommissioning works at Port of Dundee.

Haar on the Tay, Dundee
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A little detour then took me to the strange perspective-defying artwork on the pillars of the bridge approach road:

Tay Road Bridge pillars, Dundee

For more about that, see my post on Perspective Tricks.

Then back to the shoreline to visit the Telford Beacon.

Telford Beacon, Dundee
Click to enlarge

This used to stand on the west side of the entrance to King William IV Dock, which disappeared under reclaimed land in the 1960s—which is why Dundee’s Dock Street is no longer next to a dock, and Shore Terrace no longer leads to a shore. The little lighthouse (named after Thomas Telford, who designed the docks), incongruously survived the infilling of the surrounding waterways and the clearance of the harbour buildings to make way for the Tay Road Bridge. It then stood forlornly for decades in a little corner of parkland, marooned a hundred metres from the sea, just to the left of the old western off-ramp of the bridge. But with the remodelling of the Dundee waterfront and the bridge approaches back in 2011 there was a problem—the new off-ramp was due to go right through the location of the beacon. So they moved it:

At least it now has a view of the sea again.

Tay Road Bridge monument, Dundee
Click to enlarge

From there, I strolled past the commemorative monument to the opening of the road bridge, which reproduces one of its support pillars and always reminds me of a giant incisor tooth, and then headed along towards the mad architecture of the new Victoria and Albert design museum.

V&A Museum, Dundee
Click to enlarge

Next to that is the R.R.S. Discovery, the Dundee-built ship that took Robert Falcon Scott’s British National Antarctic Expedition to the Antarctic. After many wanderings, and considerable neglect, she found her way back to Dundee in 1986, and now sits in the old Craig Harbour.

RRS Discovery, Dundee
Click to enlarge

Before the road bridge was built, the jetty of Craig Harbour, just to the right of the Discovery in the photograph above, was the departure point for the Dundee & Newport Ferry, universally known in Dundee as the “Fifie”—because it took you across the estuary to Fife:

And next to the Discovery is the Discovery Point museum, with its appealing penguin-dotted forecourt.

Discovery Point museum, Dundee
Click to enlarge

Heading back to the shore, I soon encountered the commemorative plaque for a record-breaking seaplane flight—6000 miles from the River Tay in Scotland to the Orange River in South Africa, in October 1938.

Maia/Mercury plaque, Dundee
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As you can see from the plaque, the aircraft involved were interesting—the Short Mayo Composite was a seaplane perched on the back of a flying  boat. This was an early solution to the problem of long-haul flight—the little Mercury seaplane was lifted into the air on the back of the Maia flying boat, and therefore didn’t need to carry fuel for take-off. The Maia could go on to carry passengers on local flights, while the Mercury set off on its long-haul journey with a full load of fuel. They were instrumental in the first non-stop trans-Atlantic commercial flight in 1938, but were overtaken by the Second World War and the improvements in aircraft design that came with it—only one Mayo Composite was ever built. Here it is in action during a test flight:

From this point, it’s a straight walk to the Tay Rail Bridge:

Riverside Esplanade and Tay Rail Bridge, Dundee
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If you enlarge the photograph, you can just make out the stubs of the support pillars of the Old Tay Bridge in the water below the current span—a remnant of the Tay Bridge disaster of 1879, when the old bridge collapsed in a storm while a train was crossing.

The original bridge had prompted a rhapsody by Dundee’s Embarrassment Laureate, William McGonagall:

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
With your numerous arches and pillars in so grand array
And your central girders, which seem to the eye
To be almost towering to the sky.
The greatest wonder of the day,
And a great beautification to the River Tay,
Most beautiful to be seen,
Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.

He then went on to add insult to injury with another alleged poem penned after the disaster:

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

For reasons lost in the records of some deranged town planning meeting, Dundee City Council decided to immortalize McGonagall’s earlier work in the form of McGonagall’s Walk, on the approach to the bridge:

McGonagall's Walk and Tay Rail Bridge, Dundee
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Lines from the poem are engraved in stone along the esplanade. And as if that’s not embarrassing enough for Dundee, spelling mistakes have been included, free of charge:

Misspelling on McGonagall's Walk, Dundee
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That’s really the end of the riverside walk. But since McGonagall mentioned Magadalen Green, I’ll just pop across the railway bridge to show you that this little area of parkland still exists, albeit unmown during the Current Unpleasantness. Dundee’s oldest public park is on the site of the mediæval chapel of St Mary Magdalene, and it boasts a rather spiffy bandstand, now well into its second century of existence.

Magdalen Green bandstand, Dundee
Click to enlarge

Lock-down Walks: Dundee Law

Dundee Law (NO 391313, 174m)

5.1 kilometres
183 metres of ascent

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

Another day, another park on the way to another Dundee hill. My starting point this time was the southwest corner of the steeply sloping Dudhope Park, on my way to the Dundee Law. Dudhope gets its name from the old word hope, meaning “valley”. Someone with a name like Dudda once owned the valley that separates Dundee Law from Balgay Hill, it would seem. And a law is an isolated conical hill, which is exactly what Dundee Law is. (Although, among Dundonians, it’s often known by the tautologous name “Law Hill”. Which is confusingly pronounced “La Hull”, just so you know.)

The Law is usually ascended from the town by any of several long flights of stairs, but these are narrow and run between high walls, and so are not ideal for maintaining two-metre separation from other walkers. So in the spirit of coronavirus lockdown, the route I’m about to describe follows paved roads and broad paths through parkland. It does contain a couple of very short sections that ascend narrow flights of stairs, but these are all easily negotiated by waiting for anyone coming in the opposite direction to get out of the way.

So I popped up some steps right next to the park entrance, and then headed upwards across the park, aiming for a northern exit that aligns neatly with the prominent memorial on top of the Law.

Dundee Law from Dudhope Park
Click to enlarge

Another little flight of steps took me out of the park, from where I wove my up through quiet residential streets, gaining height all the time and beginning to glimpse views out towards the Tay estuary.

From the appropriately named Lawside Avenue I reached a junction with the appropriately named Law Crescent, which makes a three-quarter loop around the hill. I was getting out of the residential area and on to the wooded slopes of the Law itself. A jay started chattering at me from the trees, and I spent a bit of time fruitlessly trying to photograph it before pressing on uphill.

The route passes between two of the allotment garden areas on the Law slopes. Only a few people seemed to be working on their vegetable patches as part of their government mandated outdoor exercise.

Dundee Law allotments
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Once I’d wound around on to the north side of the hill, I dived off-piste into the woodland for a short distance, so that I could show you something interesting:

Dundee Law pillbox
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It’s a Second World War pillbox (a Type 24, to be exact), embedded in the side of hill. (During the war, this was a bare hillside flanked by two quarries, so the firing slits would have had a considerably better view to the north.) Long abandoned and ignored, it has recently been “renovated” and turned into a bat roost (though I’m not sure that strictly counts as renovation).

Dundee Law pillbox bat roost
Click to enlarge

At the top end of Law Crescent there’s another interesting building.

"Water Tower", Law Road, Dundee
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This has the style of an old dovecote, but it isn’t one of those. It’s usually referred to as the Water Tower. Built in the 1920s, it received water from a covered reservoir and pumping station on the north side of the Law, and passed it through a coal-fired heating system in a (now demolished) building just down the road, from which the hot water flowed on to houses farther down the hill, as part of the innovative Stirling Avenue District Heating System, which is now long-since defunct.

A few metres up the road from the Water Tower (we’re now on the appropriately named Law Road), there’s a sign marking the location of the Law Tunnel, along which horses used to pull loaded wagons to connect to the Dundee-Newtyle railway.

Dundee Law Tunnel plaque
Click to enlarge

The south end of the tunnel is now bricked up, and the north end buried, but see here for a lovely history of the tunnel, including the adventures of some local lads who found their way in during the 1960s.

Law Road completed my first circumnavigation of the hill, and then gave me a second almost-complete turn as I spiralled towards the top, with its impressive war memorial and wide views across the Tay to the south, and towards the Sidlaw Hills in the north.

Summit of Dundee Law
Click to enlarge

The bronze finial of the memorial is a brazier, in which a fire is lit four times a year: on 25 September, for the beginning of the Battle of Loos, which was a disaster for the 4th (City of Dundee) Battalion of The Black Watch; on 24 October, for United Nations Day; on Remembrance Sunday in November; and on 11 November, for Armistice Day. (Those last two dates sometimes align with each other, so the brazier is lit only three times in those years.)

The summit also bears a triangulation pillar, a view indicator, and the inevitable communications tower. Someone has painted the building at the base of the tower with a pretty mural, so I got a photograph of a jay after all.

View north from Dundee Law
Click to enlarge

Rather than retrace my long, winding ascent route, I took a more direct route down. A flight of steps descends into parkland to the east of the Law summit, but it’s easy to look over the railing, check for any approaching traffic, and skip down the first section of the stairs when the coast is clear.

Steps on Dundee Law
Click to enlarge

A path through the park descends to Law Road, passing under a decorative iron archway in the shape of a whale’s jawbone. It’s a nod to Dundee’s whaling past, designed by Kevin Blackwell and erected in 2013 to replace a wooden version that was getting a little the worse for wear.

Whale bone arch, Dundee Law
Click to enlarge

I retraced my steps as far as the Water Tower, and then headed south, picking my way through residential areas that include Stirling Avenue (the beneficiary of the the District Heating System mentioned above). Eventually I emerged at the northeast corner of Dudhope Park.

From there I took a little diversion for old times’ sake, to visit the mad Tudor-style splendour of the old Dundee Royal Infirmary.

Dundee Royal Infirmary
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It opened in 1855 and closed in 1998, and I worked there, on and off, for close to twenty years, often dashing in and out through the oddly unprepossessing entrance to the Accident and Emergency department, with its motto Pro Ægris Et Læsis—“For the Sick and Injured”. Nowadays, the whole building has been remodelled into flats.

Dundee Royal Infirmary entrance
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Then back into Dudhope Park through its east entrance, from where I found my way down to Dudhope Castle, a rather splendid 16th Century edifice with a pretty garden in front, which nowadays houses city council offices.

Dudhope Castle, Dundee
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From Dudhope Castle, it was just a stroll down the access road to return to my starting point. But the whale-jaw arch had put me in mind to visit a similar piece of sculpture nearby—Alastair Smart’s Whale’s Teeth, on Polepark Road. They evoke gigantic scrimshaw work, engraved with scenes from Dundee’s history.

Whale's Teeth, Polepark Road, Dundee
Click to enlarge

Lock-down Walks: Balgay Hill

Balgay Hill (NO 377308, 146m)

2.8 kilometres
84 metres of ascent

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

Well, needs must when the Devil drives. The current UK coronavirus lockdown imposes paradoxical advice on the Oikofuge when it comes to walking outdoors—apparently I’m to “stay local”, but take my “normal exercise”, so long as it lasts “no more than an hour”. Given that my normal exercise involves hours wandering around in the hills, I’m a bit stuck.

But I have two small hills nearby, and they’re better than nothing. Both boast an extensive path network, but some of the narrower paths are a little challenging when it comes to maintaining physical distancing—run into someone at the wrong moment on a steep set of steps, and your two-metre separation rule goes out the window. So this is the first in a planned pair of posts about getting up and down these hills using only broad tracks, so that physical distance can be maintained at all times.

First up is Balgay Hill. Balgay is Gaelic, baile gaoithe, “windy place”, and there is still a Windy Glack separating Balgay Hill from the unnamed lump immediately to its west (a glack is a valley, as I’ve mentioned before when writing about a pair of glacks in the Sidlaws).

The hills stands in the middle of a broad expanse of parkland, and I started from the old park gates at its southeast corner. (Like most parks in the UK, Victoria Park lost its iron railings during the Second World War, so it’s easy enough to step into it at any point along the roadside; but the gate pillars remain.

My route took me along the Main Drive, and past an odd (and at this time of year, drab) little rockery.

Rose Window, Balgay Hill, Dundee
Click to enlarge

It’s actually a rose window, salvaged from the City Churches after they most recently caught fire in 1841. (Dundee’s City Churches have a long and complicated history, and they have burned down even more often than Glasgow School of Art. Though not in such quick succession.)

A bit farther along, there’s an oddly proportioned bandstand, with a lurid blue pergola.

Balgay Bandstand, Balgay Hill, Dundee
Click to enlarge

This used to be quite an imposing edifice, back when I lived about 100 metres to the left of this photo. You can see what it used to look like here. But it burned down in 1993 (bit of a theme developing here), and only part of the rear wall and wrought ironwork could be salvaged.

Turning right at this point, I walked through Windy Glack, and under the imposing Balgay Bridge, which connects the shoulder of Balgay Hill to an imposing little summit within neighbouring Balgay Cemetery. It has recently been painted in the same eye-wrenching signal-blue paint as the bandstand.

Balgay Bridge, Balgay Hill, Dundee
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The cemetery used to rejoice under the splendid title of “Western Necropolis”, and its upper and older parts are resplendent with imposing gothic memorials.

Western Necropolis, Dundee
Click to enlarge

Coming out of Windy Glack, I reached another gate on the northwestern side of the hill, and then followed the North Road in a long rising spiral that takes cars up to the summit. I cut the corner slightly, and used another broad surfaced path which took me to Balgay’s summit surprise:

Mills Observatory, Dundee
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This is Mills Observatory, Britain’s first (and now last remaining) astronomical observatory for public use and education. Back in the 1960s, I spent many a chilly evening here with my father, being given a guided tour of the heavens by the observatory’s enthusiastic curator.

Between the observatory and the little mound of Goat Hill to the east, there stretches a row of plaques mounted on roughly shaped stones, called the Planet Trail. The plaques represent the planets of the solar system, spaced according to the size of their orbits, with the Sun and inner planets on Goat Hill, and the outer planets set out with increasing spacing all the way to Pluto at the observatory itself. The fact that Pluto was included as a planet (it was reclassified as one of several dwarf planets back in 2006) tells you that the Planet Trail has been in place for a while, and all its plaques could now do with replacement.

Planet Trail, Balgay Hill, Dundee
Click to enlarge

For a bit of variety, I followed the road around the south side of Goat Hill, and then took Barons’ Drive down to rejoin my outward route. (No I don’t know who the Barons were who gave their name to the Drive.)

And that was that. I followed broad surfaced tracks or roads all the way (apart from a bit of off-piste strolling on the open summit of Goat Hill), with no problem maintaining a two-metre separation from other walkers.

Route junction, Balgay Hill, Dundee
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Sidlaws: The Mystery of Lundiecra Wood


OS 1:25000 Lundiecra WoodSo here’s a puzzle.

I was wandering around in the snow in the Sidlaw Hills, back in February when random wandering around was still a thing people did, when I noticed an odd placename on my 1:25000 Ordnance Survey map: “Lundiecra Wood”. I’ve been nigglingly half-aware of it before, but on this occasion its peculiarity really sank in. That ending -cra is not at all common in Scottish placenames. (In fact, a later search of the GEOnet Name Server turned up only one UK placename ending in -cra—Pencra Head in Cornwall, which is about as far as it’s possible to get from Scotland and still be in the UK.)

I did wonder if it might be a reference to the local dialect word pronounced cra, for “crow”.* But Lundiecra Wood is poised above the cliffs of Lundie Craigs. Shouldn’t it perhaps be called Lundiecraigs Wood?

Well, yes it should. The original entry in the Ordnance Survey Name Book: Forfar (Angus) Volume 52 lists exactly that name, right next to Hallyburton Hill and Drumsuldry Wood, which also appear on my little map excerpt above.

And here it is as “Lundiecraigs Wood” on the Ordnance Survey’s old 1:25000 Pathfinder mapping series in 1985:

OS 1:25000 Lundiecraigs WoodWhen I got home, I discovered that “Lundiecra Wood” appears on all my recent copies of OS 1:25000 Explorer-series mapping—the map on an SD card in my GPS receiver, the map that comes with my Anquet Maps subscription, and my paper OS Explorer Sheet 380. But it doesn’t appear in the Ordnance Survey’s free vector dataset from OpenData. That uses the name “Lundiecraigs Wood”:

OS OpenData Lundiecraigs Wood
Contains OS OpenData © Crown copyright and database right 2018
Additional path mapping by The Oikofuge

So what’s going on? The clue, I think, is in the comparison between the 1985 paper map, above, and the current appearance of the Explorer range of maps, shown at the head of this post. All the placenames in 1985 were neatly centre-justified, including “Lundiecraigs Wood”. In the modern maps that’s still true of every placename except “Lundiecra Wood”, which looks for all the world as if the “igs” at the end of “Lundiecraigs” has simply been amputated, while leaving the underlying word layout unchanged.

It looks to me as if, at some time during the preparation of recent 1:25000 maps, two raster sheets have been combined into one, with a degree of overlap that neatly amputated the “igs” of “Lundiecraigs”. So everything now appearing to the right of “Lundiecra” was at some time on a different map sheet. The amputation seems to have taken place along Easting 327500. Which is interesting, because the current OS Explorer Sheet 380 is a double-sided map, with the eastern half printed on the back of the western half. And the left edge of the eastern sheet finishes at Easting 327500. The area that would contain the “igs” of “Lundicraigs” is blank, because the OS remove partial names at the edges of their map sheets.

I’m guessing that the edge of the eastern sheet, with its missing “igs”, reflects the location of the original sheet margin that was overlapped on to the western sheet, amputating the “igs” of “Lundiecraigs”, some time in the relatively recent past.

So I emailed the Ordnance Survey about it. And within a day they had bounced back to say that they had logged this as an error to be fixed in their next map revision. So that was good.

I fear it may be too late, however. The artefactual “Lundiecra” has already escaped into the wild—it now appears in OpenStreetMap:

OSM Lundiecra Wood
Data © OpenStreetMap contributors under the Open Database Licence

And Mapcarta:

Mapcarta Lundiecra WoodAnd a little web-searching turns up a number of people posting photographs and walk reports from “Lundiecra Wood”.

It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out in future. Will “Lundiecra” die out after the OS map is revised, or will it have achieved enough traction to eventually overwhelm “Lundiecraigs”?

Addendum: Dave Hewitt got in contact to point out the existence of Cacra Hill (NT317173, 471m) in the Scottish Borders. There’s also, I discover, a Cacrabank Hill (NY148919, 273m) in Dumfries and Galloway, suggesting that “cacra” has some small geographical significance in southern Scotland that I haven’t been able to root out yet. My curiosity piqued, I plunged into the Database of British and Irish Hills at the Hillbagging UK website, and turned up Meall nan Cra (NC378590, 490m), way up in the far north of Scotland. And a search of the Ordnance Survey Open Names dataset turns up one more -cra location in Scotland—a couple of houses near Achnashellach that form a hamlet named Balnacra, which I must have driven through many times without even noticing. Gaelic crà can mean either “enclosure”, “fish trap” or “blood”, and Balnacra is locally rendered in Gaelic as Beul-àth nan Crà, which I figure is most likely “Ford of the Fish Trap”, given its location on a broad reach of the River Carron. So Scotland is not as devoid of -cra toponyms as I had thought, but is still hardly teeming with them.

* A lot of terminal syllables converge confusingly on the “ah” sound in this little corner of eastern Scotland. “Crow” and “snow” are cra and sna; “wall” and “ball” are wa and ba, “jaw” is ja, and “two” is twa. Little wonder, then, that visitors display an expression of anxious incomprehension as they wander around town. My uncle’s German wife, who had learned her English with a posh RP accent at school in Germany, acquired all these dialectic variants after she arrived in Dundee shortly after World War II. The overall effect was, reportedly, quite surreal.


Scare Hill (NJ 683193, 280m)
Millstone Hill (NJ 676202, 409m)
Mither Tap (NJ 682223, 518m)
Oxen Craig (NJ 662226, 529m)
Watch Craig (NJ 653224, c490m)

17.4 kilometres
820 metres of ascent

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

Bennachie is the last eastward gasp of the Cairngorms—a low ridge of moorland dotted with granite tors,  beyond which the ground descends into the flat and domesticated farmland of the Aberdeenshire coast. The name is pronounced with the emphasis on the last syllable, and a slightly fricative “h” sound: bɛnəˈxiː (If you can’t manage the fricative, say “hee” instead.) The customary Gaelic etymology seems to be from Beinn na Cìche, “hill of the breast”, which seems an odd designation for a long ridge dotted with craggy lumps. I tend to find the alternative Beinn na Cuidhe, “hill of the cattle-fold”, more plausible—especially given the presence of Oxen Craig on the ridge line.

The Bennachie massif has that mixture of wildness and domesticity that I associate with the Lake District. It’s a favoured destination for walkers from Aberdeen and the surrounding area, and it’s ringed around with car parks and criss-crossed by manicured and waymarked trails. You could, nevertheless, get into a bit of bother if you were caught up on the moorland in bad weather.

I parked at Donview, in the south, and grabbed a Forestry Commission map from the dispenser—it gave a much better impression of the potential walking routes than my Ordnance Survey map. I planned a little traverse between Bennachie’s two major tops—Mither Tap and Oxen Craig. But no Oikofuge hill report is complete without a bit of random off-piste action, so I headed across to little Scare Hill first. I got as high as I could on the path that passes between Scare Hill and Millstone Hill, and then dived into the open forest to my left. After a short distance I found myself on the old, deep track left by a forestry vehicle, which I followed up to the edge of the forest, and then I teetered through some potentially ankle-breaking debris left from felling, to arrive at the heathery summit. Fifteen minutes after leaving the car. Possibly a record for the first ascent of a hill day.

Millstone Hill from Scare Hill
Click to enlarge
Millstone Hill from Scare Hill (no, I don’t know what the two posts are for)

Scare Hill isn’t particularly scary. There’s evidence it was once called Scar Hill, and Milne’s Celtic Place-Names In Aberdeenshire (1912) suggests that this comes from Gaelic sgor, “sharp hill”. But it’s not notably sharp, either, particularly when contrasted with nearby Mither Tap.

I chose a route back down that aimed to connect with a path ascending Millstone Hill, found another (or perhaps the same) forestry vehicle rut, and burst out on to the main forest track within a few metres of where I wanted to be. Result.

Up through the trees again, and then a long ascending curve to reach the northeast ridge of Millstone Hill, and a motorway track to the large cairn on its summit. Next to which a man was having some sort a conference call using the speaker on his mobile phone. Sigh.

Mither Tap from Millstone Hill
Click to enlarge
Summit of Millstone Hill

Back the way I came, for a short distance, and then down to the Heather Brig, a heathery watershed between the Birks Burn and the Clachie Burn. A watershed is, by definition, about the last place you’d find a brig (Scots, “bridge”). I’m assuming the “brig” in this case is the watershed itself, but I’m not sure.

Above the Brig, on the shoulder of Millstone Hill, sits a bench dedicated to the memory of one Duncan Fraser Reid. His relatives chose a lovely location for it, where it enjoys a fine view of my next hill of the day, Mither Tap.

Memorial bench looking towards Mither Tap
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Mither Tap (“mother top”) is a striking object, a granite tor, visible for miles around, and it’s the summit that most people associate with Bennachie, even though the highest point on the ridge is actually two kilometres to the west, at the much-less-impressive Oxen Craig.

I followed one of the ubiquitous trail-marked paths, which brought me right up under the western crags of the rocky summit. It’s pretty obvious that there’s no easy way up from that point, so I carried on around the north side until I came to a likely little path diverged to the right, heading up towards a promising cleft. This worked very well, until it deposited me at the foot of an awkward lumpy scramble just short of the top. I clambered my way up in big, awkward steps, thinking that Aberdeen hill-walkers must be a tough lot if this was their routine weekend stroll … and then I popped up on the rocky summit plateau to find myself surrounded by small children wearing hi-vis jackets. Clearly, there was a better route up than the one I’d found.

Signpost below Nether Maiden, Mither Tap
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Heading up Mither Tap from the north side

And so it proved to be—pretty much a staircase on the east side, which took me down to an astonishing paved path passing between two huge stone walls. This was the top end of the Maiden Causeway, passing through the tumbled dry-stone ramparts of a prehistoric fort that used to occupy the whole area around the summit.

Mither Tap hillfort ramparts
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Maiden Causeway arrives at Mither Tap hillfort
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A curve around the north side of the hill again, and I was on a motorway track heading for the lesser granite lump of Oxen Craig, where I settled into the commodious cairn for lunch.

Eroded granite on Oxen Craig
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Eroded granite on Oxen Craig
View indicator on Oxen Craig
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View indicator on Oxen Craig

Setting off for my last hill of the day, I made a navigational error—I headed north instead of south, assuming the path to Watch Craig would branch off from the network of tracks just north of Oxen Craig’s cairn. Actually, it comes off to the much-less-promising-looking south, somewhere near the view indicator. A little contouring through heather and across bouldery scree on the west side of Oxen Craig got me back on track.

Oxen Craig and Gordon Way from Watch Craig
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Mither Tap peeks over the shoulder of Oxen Craig, as seen from Watch Craig; the Gordon Way is visible at right

After the slabby and unmarked summit of Watch Craig, I retraced my steps for a short distance, then dropped south on to the Gordon Way. A short distance eastward, I then picked up my route back to the car—a zig-zagging forestry track that took me almost all the way to the car-park, before mysteriously dumping me (admittedly after a moment’s inattention) on a narrow slot of a path that wove uncertainly across the hillside before emerging on another forestry track. Which took me where I wanted to go. I have no idea what happened, there—I think I went straight on at a point where I should have turned right. But all’s well that ends well.

Forest track below Bennachie
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