Turnhouse Hill (NT 212626, 506m) Carnethy Hill (NT 203619, 573m) Scald Law (NT 191611, 579m) East Kip (NT 182608, 534m) West Kip (NT 178606, 551m) Black Hill (NT 188631, 501m)
17.3 kilometres 960m of ascent
I’ve looked down on the improbably pointy Pentland Hills from aircraft approaching Edinburgh airport, and I’ve looked up at them from the Edinburgh bypass road, and I’ve always felt I should visit them—but I never have, until now.
This far south, the Gaelic influence on place-names is slight, and it feels like walking into a different landscape—a place that seems more connected to the Borders and northern England in its toponymy. In the Pentlands there are cleughs (ravines) and knowes (knolls), rigs (ridges) and of course kips (pointed hills).
I parked at the Flotterstone Information Centre (which was closed ) and followed the path markers that indicated the way to Scald Law. The path (in places broad and eroded) takes you up the shoulder of Turnhouse Hill, from the top of which you’re confronted with a typically pointy Pentland—Carnethy Hill.
From Carnethy to Scald Law, from Scald Law to East Kip, from East Kip to West Kip … it’s a motorway path and a switchback ride along the old volcanic spine of the hills, with the town of Penicuik to the left, and the lovely steep-sided glen of the Logan Burn, with its two reservoirs, to the right.
I met plenty of people (including a young German couple high-fiving each other and doing a little jig on top of Scald Law, for some obscure reason) but encountered no wildlife— unless you count the world’s most phlegmatic herd of cattle, lounging around and chewing the cud in the dip between Carnethy and Scald Law.
It felt like I’d been too much on the beaten track. So I hunkered out of the wind just below the top of West Kip, and dug out the map. My plan had been to let down to the head of Loganlea reservoir at The Howe, and then to follow the road back down to Flotterstone. But with a bit of time to spare I thought I’d make a bit of a circuit of it, and go up and over Black Hill, too.
The Harvey’s 1:25000 map showed a path hooking around below West Kip and heading back in the direction I was looking for. I found it at NT 175604, a grassy vehicle track branching off to the right just before the main path reaches the gravel track that crosses through the pass between West Kip and Cap Law. This took me easily across curlew-haunted sheep pasture, and then deposited me at a bridge over the Logan Burn.
Parties of people were tramping down the path from Green Cleugh towards the reservoir, and they looked a little alarmed when I crossed the bridge and then started straight up the steep heathery slope on the south shoulder of Black Hill (disconcertingly named The Pinnacle). I’d decided on the dirrettissima approach as I walked towards Black Hill, since the map showed no paths, and I couldn’t pick out any less steep lines on the side facing me, apart from a couple of bracken-stuffed gullies.
It wasn’t so bad—a hundred metres of ascent at forty-five degrees, across heather and rock. But, just after I started, a couple of sparrowhawks showed up, circling above me and emitting a continuous stream of alarm calls. I couldn’t for the life of me work out what I was doing to disturb a couple of tree-nesting birds on this treeless slope, but they kept at it until I was not only at the top of the steep stuff, but a few hundred metres on to the flat ground beyond. Stressed by their evident agitation, I suspect I made a much faster ascent than I might otherwise have done.
Black Hill itself produced some splendid views out over the Forth estuary towards the railway bridge and the two road bridges, new and old. Then I descended eastwards (steep heather again) to pick up a vehicle track in the col below Gask Hill. This took me down to the farmland at Logan House. Although the maps show this track terminating at the field boundary, it continues as a farm track down through the fields, and eventually gives access to the road via a rickety gate at NT 207632. (The fields were full of sheep, so this probably isn’t a good line of descent in lambing season.)
Then it was just a matter of following the road around Glencorse reservoir. Shortly after passing the dam, I turned off to follow a woodland path signposted to Flotterstone. Before linking up with my outward route, this took me past the site of some old settling ponds, and a rather intriguing circular building that I haven’t been able to find out anything about, so far.
Druim Mor (NO 190771, 961m) Cairn of Claise (NO 185789, 1064m) Glas Maol (NO 166765, 1068m) Little Glas Maol (NO 175759, 973m) Monega Hill (NO 186756, 908m)
25 kilometres 1060m of ascent
Embarrassing to admit that, after more than forty years wandering the Angus hills, I’d never walked up to the head of Glen Isla before.
I parked at the road-end, by Auchavan. The left fork here is marked with warning notices about the privacy of the track up to Tulchan Lodge; the right takes you down to a little parking area by the river, just before the track crosses the bridge to the cottages at Linns.
From there, I walked up the side of the woodland to join the main road to Tulchan. (A footbridge is marked a little farther up the river, connecting a path from Linns back to the road—but it had seen better days when I walked past it.)
At Tulchan, I encountered an interesting sign. The old Monega drove road (of which, more later) descends into Glen Isla about a kilometre north of Tulchan. On the map, there’s a branching path that splits off south from the traditional route near Little Glas Maol, coming down over Shanovan Hill and into Glen Brighty, before emerging into Glen Isla at the back of Tulchan Lodge.
The owners of the lodge seem understandably reluctant to have walkers traipsing back and forth through their grounds to access that path … but it’s difficult to know who would be the keeper of the “official” route; and the spelling mistake in the simple traditional name of the path doesn’t help elicit sympathy.
A little farther up the glen, at a point where a pipe carried a burn under the road, a flicker of movement caught my eye, as a chubby little mammal plopped into the water—and for a long three seconds I watched its dark furry back swim down the narrow watercourse, before rounding a corner between high banks. A water vole! These lovely animals have been almost exterminated hereabouts by the predations of the introduced American mink, so I gave a mad little jump and shouted (very quietly), “Water vole! Yay!”
Farther on again, I came to Bessie’s Cairn—a well-appointed object on a square base, with a seat built into each side, reputedly built in 1852 to shelter Lady Elizabeth Londonderry from the wind while her husband was stalking deer. Colin Gibson’s drawing of it, reproduced in David Dorward’s The Glens of Angus, shows a prominent inscription on the south-facing side—as my photo shows, it seems to have since disappeared.
From Bessie’s Cairn, the track continues to the pretty flatlands at the head of the glen, and a ruined shieling and enclosure. There’s a triple junction here, with Glen Isla sloping away to the south, the Canness Glen coming in from the northeast, and Caenlochan Glen from the northwest. (Despite the spelling, the first syllable of Caenlochan is pronounced “can”, not “cane”.) Both the upper glens are rimmed around with crags, and at first it seems like there is no easy way onwards out of the glen and on to the plateau at this point.
Ordnance Survey maps show a path heading uphill behind the ruined croft, and then zig-zagging up the high slopes to emerge on to the plateau between the rocky outcrops of Caderg and Sron Reidhe. The Harvey’s 1:25000 Superwalker map is (as usual, when it comes to paths) more accurate, showing only the upper zigzags starting at 675m. So it was a bit of free-style ascent across tussocky grass and occasional rocks, seeking towards the bottom end of the grassy zigzag path, which became easily visible as I climbed.
On to the plateau, then, and a slightly circuitous approach over rough ground to the first hill of the day, Druim Mor (“big ridge”) with clifftop views down into Caenlochan and across to my planned route back to Glen Isla, along the Monega ridge.
Druim Mor took me easily northwards to Cairn of Claise (pronounced “Cairn of Clash”), and I had sight of a golden plover and a patch of snow to cross, keeping me entertained along the way.
At the summit of Cairn of Claise there’s one of those mad high-altitude walls that improbably bedeck Scottish Highland estates.
I descended to join a linking track to Glas Maol (scaring up a couple of ptarmigan along the way), and joined the old Monega road as it comes up from Sron na Gaoithe. Monega (emphasis on the middle syllable) was a tricky high-altitude drove road linking Glen Clunie with Glen Isla, presumably only attempted in good weather. Its story is well described in Neil Ramsay and Nate Pedersen’s The Mounth Passes, which I reviewed in an earlier post. In the dip where the tracks join, I encountered a couple of bird-watchers, who bemoaned the absence of dotterel on the plateau.
The Monega route keeps below the summits, so I had to strike off uphill, along the line of the old boundary fence, to reach the top of Glas Maol. At the cairn, I met another couple of bird-watchers, who told me they’d encountered three dotterel on the way up the hill. They then obligingly pointed out another one for me, scuttering about a stone’s throw from where we were sitting. (I have only ever seen dotterel that someone else has pointed out to me—I seem to have a peculiar bird-blindness for these lovely little creatures.)
From Glas Maol I headed to the low rise of Little Glas Maol, and then on to the long ridge of Monega Hill. From Monega, the zig-zag path on the other side of the glen looks like a completely mental, near-vertical endeavour. I was rather glad I hadn’t planned to follow my route in the opposite direction, because I might have found the prospect of descending that way a little alarming.
Monega is a splendid viewpoint, with views into all three glens.
The long descent along the Monega track was a joy, with Glen Isla spread out below and Monamenach and Mount Blair in the distance. And then there was a bit of a slog back to the car. But any day with a water vole and a dotterel in it is an above-average day.
Right, this is a little odd. I’m not actually going to review this one. It comes up purely in the context of something I found on my hard drive that I’d completely forgotten about.
First, a bit of background. Muriel Gray had been around as a TV presenter and columnist for quite a while when this book was published. The First Fifty: Munro-Bagging Without A Beardappeared in 1991, effectively as a companion volume to her popular series on Scottish Television, The Munro Show, about hill-walking in general and climbing Munros in particular.
Despite its immense popularity among British hill-walkers, I never got into The Munro Show. Gray cultivated a full-on TV persona that was equal parts chirpy and stroppy, which certainly served as an antidote to the ponderous, middle-aged male ambience of a typical Scottish Mountaineering Club guidebook—and that was no doubt entirely the point. But it all made me feel … well … really tired after the first few minutes. (And, before you ask, I’m only a year older than she is.) It’s just that I go to the hills for peace and quiet and serenity, and The Munro Show seemed to undermine my whole motivation. Take a look at the opening sequence and see if it induces a sense of serene contemplation:
So, anyway, about four years later I was given a copy of the book, by a friend who had received it as a Christmas gift three years in succession. (In her introduction to the book, Gray had actually predicted that this sort of thing would happen to hill-walkers.) And of course the book turned out to be very much in the style of the TV programme—which meant it, too, was hugely popular but wasn’t really my thing. (This happens to me a lot, though. Looking at you, Game of Thrones.)
What I did notice when I was reading it was that it hadn’t been very well proof-read. This is depressingly common nowadays, but was still a little unusual back in the early ’90s. Mainly, there were two recurring spelling choices that struck me then (and still strike me today) as being … um … well, striking, in a book aimed at a hill-walking readership.
So I sat down and wrote a little piece about it for The Angry Corrie (Scotland’s First and Finest Hillwalking Fanzine), which appeared in March 1996. I think it’s a great testament to the popularity of The First Fifty that, almost five years after its publication, I didn’t actually have to mention the title—from a very brief description, every one of my hill-going readers was going to know exactly which book I was talking about.
So here’s the piece, recently recovered from the depths of my hard drive. Some of my Lachlan stories had been appearing in The Angry Corrie round about that time, so it features Lachlan and his long-suffering narrator (albeit weirdly channelling Mycroft and Sherlock Holmes) in their favourite Dundee pub.
A SOCRATIC DIALOGUE
I arrived at our usual table in the Peh and Pint to find Lachlan flicking angrily through a paperback book, his lips set in a pale, wrathful line. At my arrival, he set aside his book, passed a weary hand across his face, and then fixed me with a steady gaze. “Might I ask you a few questions?”
I nodded my assent.
“Thank you. Imprimis: do you know why the fabric Gore-Tex is so called?”
I raised an eyebrow. “But of course. The name derives from that of the manufacturer, WL Gore.”
Lachlan nodded solemnly. “So you would, perhaps, feel that the central letter ‘e’ is an essential part of the name?”
“Indeed. While I have seen the hyphen and the capitals dropped in casual writing, to omit the ‘e’ is to insult the Gore family and their genius.”
“Quite so. Secundus: would you say that the French language has much use for the letter ‘k’?”
I considered this carefully. “Well. One must allow that the placenames of Brittany show some predilection for that letter …”
Lachlan raised an admonitory hand. “A region in which the purity of the French tongue has been much diluted by Celtic influences. We speak now only of French of the true Latinate descent, the language of Voltaire and Descartes.”
“Why, with that proviso, I would state that the letter ‘k’ is notably absent from the French.”
Lachlan nodded gravely. “Tertius: do you believe that the word ‘cagoule’ is of French origin?”
“With all my heart. It is no more than the French word for ‘hood’. One must only recall that the French equivalent of the Ku Klux Klan was named LesCagoulards to …”
Again Lachlan raised an admonitory hand. “Doubtless a fascinating tale, but one that is at best tangential to my present theme. May I take it for now that, as a necessary consequence of my second and third points, you would accept that the word ‘cagoule’ should not, in all conscience, be spelt with an initial ‘k’?”
“I recoil at the very thought.”
“As I knew you would. Now. Quartus: given the climatic zone in which the Scottish mountains are located, and the exertions to which those who climb among these mountains are prone, perhaps you may agree with me that the Gore-Tex cagoule is the natural, nay the defining, item of apparel for the Scottish mountaineer?”
“Certainly. The garment’s ability to shed water whilst allowing the microscopic moisture of perspiration to escape unhindered commends it above all things.”
Lachlan sighed and sat back. “I have finished. We are in complete agreement.”
His hand trembling with strong emotion, he raised his book so that I might examine it. I need not give the title here: suffice it to say that the cover bears an image of a thin, spiky-haired, blonde woman, possessed of a certain perkiness of character that some find wearisome. “Is it not then a strange, terrible and above all ironic thing that this book, a bestseller in the annals of Scottish hill-walking publication, should consistently misspell the words ‘Gore-Tex’ and ‘cagoule’ in just the manner we have discussed?” he asked, in the tones of one mortally wounded.
And we fell into a disconsolate silence that lasted for some time.
First published in The Angry Corrie No.26, Feb/Mar 1996
Unnamed Point 328 (NO 360408, 328m) Unnamed Point 377 (NO 349408, 377m) Unnamed Point 315 (NO 329419, c315m)
14 kilometres 550 metres of ascent
Many of the Sidlaw Hills get their names from the farms that work their slopes—with the result that some hills, surrounded by farmland, have several names attached to their various aspects, and some significant eminences, remote from farmland, have no names at all.
Most notably, a 328m heather-clad viewpoint between the heads of Glen Ogilvie and Denoon Glen has no name attached to it on Ordnance Survey maps; and just across the Denoon Glen there’s another tree-covered ridge, 377m high, set back north of Scotston Hill, which also remains anonymous. Not too far away, in the complicated ground between Kinpurney Hill, Henderston Hill and Back Drum, there’s a low whaleback ridge about 315m high, covered by a strip of open forest. When seen from the north it’s an obvious subsidiary rise between Kinpurney and Back Drum, but it too lacks a name.
So my self-appointed task for this walk was to visit all three of these summits, in a trip that stitched together segments of several previous walks.
I started at the Balkello Woodlands car-park, and walked up to the (on this occasion) aptly named Windy Gates between Auchterhouse Hill and Balkello Hill. At the three gates, instead of going left up Auchterhouse or right up Balkello, I carried straight on, descending a clear path alongside the Haining Burn. Where this emerged on to a tussocky flatland, I got a clear sight of two of the day’s objectives—the 377m hill to my left, and the 328m hill straight ahead.
A vehicle track coming over from Piper Den passes very close to the 328m top—just a little heather-surfing is required to get there, and it opens up views into Denoon Glen and Glen Ogilvie, as well as along the length of the eastern Sidlaws to Hayston Hill.
Back, then, to the gate in the fence at NO 359405, and a track that lets down to a pretty little bridge at the head of Denoon Glen, which I’ve visited before. From there, I followed the track up the other side of the glen until it joined the north-south track that comes through from Auchterhouse to link to Denoon Glen. From that junction I struck straight uphill along the grassy stripe you can see left of centre in the photo of the 377m hill, above. There’s a fence corner at NO 353408 which is easily climbed, and then it was just an amble through the open woodland to find the top.
A faint and overgrown vehicle track comes up from the south, flirts with the summit and then descends again, linking with the main east-west track that runs through here. This track isn’t marked on the map (of course), but it’s a key link along the Sidlaws—it starts in the east from the Auchterhouse-Denoon track (previously mentioned) at NO 352404; takes a line south of the trees covering the 377m top, and north of the marshland below Scotston Hill; dives through a gate in the wall at NO 345409; crosses above Scotston Quarries, and then pops out on the forestry loop road at NO 342411, just next to the giant new wind turbine. From its western end, there are long views down the length of the western Sidlaws, and I paused for a while to eat a bit of chocolate and pick out the routes of previous expeditions.
From the forestry road, I’ve described how to get to the top of Henderston Hill in a previous post. This time, I just marched around the loop until I got to the firebreak path starting at NO 332416, which strikes due north to bring you out at a stile over the electric fence at NO 332419. This is the access point for Kinpurney Hill, which I’ve again previously described. It’s a pleasant little dip hidden away behind Henderston, with the tower of Kinpurney visible at one end, and the complexities of Back Drum in the other direction. Bordering it to the north is my third unnamed hill of the day—a low ridge with a Mohican of trees along its crest, which the Ordnance Survey doesn’t even have the grace to grant a spot-height. Judging from the last contour loop, it’s a little over 315m high. From its shoulder there’s a pretty view down into Strathmore, but (like the 377m summit) not much to see at the top except trees.
To vary the return journey, I dipped around the south side of Henderston Hill, leaving the forestry road on a branch path at NO 334415, then following a double row of fencing downhill to St Anthony’s Well, and a drystone wall back uphill to rejoin the road at NO 343412. The site of St Anthony’s Well on the map is a little unconvincing on the ground—it’s admittedly marked by a heap of stones, but they don’t look as if they’ve ever formed part of a structure. However, just over the wall there’s a nice little earth dam, a bullrushed pool, and (during my visit, at least) a very annoyed mallard duck.
And so back along the way I’d come, except now all the way to the Auchterhouse-Denoon track. I followed this south until it forked below Auchterhouse Hill, and then took the east branch. On the map, this is shown petering out in the middle of nowhere, but it actually continues right around the hill and drops down to Windy Gates, completing my loop.
Apart from a few buzzards and a glimpse of deer’s ears silhouetted on the horizon, this was a pretty poor walk for wildlife. But I did meet a pair of women who were stringing together Auchterhouse, Henderston and Kinpurney, the first time I’ve ever run into anyone in that section of the Sidlaws. I knew someone had to be walking all these unmarked paths, though!
I introduced the Crow Craigies Climbing Party last year, when I described our trip to Bonar Bridge. This year took us to a cottage at Corrour, at the east end of Loch Ossian—a ten-mile drive down a rough track from the bridge over the Spean at Luiblea, through Strath Ossian. (There’s a locked gate halfway down the track, so don’t be thinking you can pop in for the day.)
Loch Ossian has a certain glamour to it—a remote and pretty loch that takes some effort to get to. Most people arrive by train, at Corrour Station, which sits in splendid isolation in the middle of a bog about a mile from the west end of the loch, and they either stay in the station’s limited accommodation, use the Youth Hostel on the loch shore, or camp.
Our aim was to climb the higher hills surrounding Ossian. In a week dogged by rain, we nevertheless managed to make a pretty thorough job of it, as a map of our various routes shows:
We walked up the Uisge Labhair, where a winding boggy path follows the north side of the river all the way to the Bealach Dubh. But a couple of kilometres before the bealach, we climbed northeast up the slopes of Sgor Iutharn, crossed the summit and peered down the rocky crest of Lancet Edge. From there, we went west to the dip below the massive bulk of Geal-Charn, and then north along a traverse that brought us out at the path between Geal-Charn and Carn Dearg. There’s an obvious line initially, which weaves pleasantly enough across rocky shelves dotted with tiny lochans, but the last hundred metres before the path involves traversing a steep grass slope a long way above Loch an Sgoir—tussocky enough to provide secure footholds, but distinctly unpleasant if you have any sensitivity to that sort of exposure.
Once on the path we ambled out to Carn Dearg, which gave spectacular views of a cloudy Ben Alder, and a glimpse of the legendary (but sadly closed) Culra Bothy in the valley below. Sleety rain blew through on a cold wind while we were on the summit, and we walked into the teeth of it to recross Diollaid a’Chairn, before the sun came out again for the slog up Geal-Charn.
After the slog, the stroll—Geal-Charn’s big grassy plateau was a welcome relief after the steep ascent. From there we wove our way across to Aonach Beag, then the long, curved ridge of Beinn Eibhinn, with its twin summits a couple of hundred metres apart.
A grassy ridge, a short but steep pull up Meall Glas Choire, then a long descent through heather and bog (easily managed by staying as high as possible for as long as possible), and we were at the little dam on the Uisge Labhair, with just a kilometre-and-a-half of service road to walk down to our cottage.
Beinn na Lap (NN 376695, 935m)
6.5 kilometres 540m of ascent
Morning rain cleared in the afternoon, and we nipped up Beinn na Lap by the tourist route. Usually this is a smash-and-grab hill, climbed between trains from Corrour Station, but we lazily drove along the lochside and parked at the foot of the muddy path. It’s just a matter of walking directly uphill for a while, and then along the ridge for a while, to get to the summit.
At the cairn, we found some plastic shot glasses stuffed into the cairn, which we tidied away and carried down with us. A later check of social media revealed that, two days previously, there had been no less than three parties on the summit celebrating the completion of a Munro round. It appears that for some people it’s too much effort to carry down a tiny plastic object weighing a few grams, once they’ve finished using it.
Three simultaneous completions on Beinn na Lap seemed remarkable, so I contacted Dave Hewitt, who maintains a database of Munro completion dates and final hills. In Dave’s dataset, Beinn na Lap is the third most popular final hill, after Ben More (Mull) and Ben Lomond. He has records of ten days when their were double completions, and one amazing day when five separate parties were celebrating a final Munro on the hill. (Gad, I’m glad we didn’t run into any of that.)
We had 24 hours of continuous heavy rain the next day, and despondently watched the rivers filling. Our plan to visit Ben Alder went on hold, since it involved a double crossing of the broad Uisge Labhair. So when we ventured out the following day, our next trip was designed to avoid river crossings.
We headed south, along the track to the dam on the Allt a’ Choire Chreagaich. The Harvey’s 1:25000 map shows a couple of handy ATV tracks branching off from this, and we used one of these to get ourselves high on the slopes of Carn Dearg (yes, another Carn Dearg). We had a sunny day, but a strong westerly wind blew us over Dearg and on to Sgor Gaibhre. From there we descended into the Bealach nan Sgor, below Sgor Choinnich. There’s a lovely shelf of rock at the east side of the bealach, creating complete shelter from westerly winds, and we were able to tuck ourselves in there and have a bite to eat without the wind blowing our crisps out over Loch Ericht.
Then over Sgor Choinnich and down to join another of the ATV tracks shown by Harvey’s. This took us down to the dam again, and what turned out to be an easy ford in the narrow river. (Plan B had involved pushing through the forest and/or climbing a deer fence to avoid the river crossing, so we were pleased to get back to our starting point so easily.)
Ben Alder (NN 496718, 1148m) Sron Coire na h-Iolaire (NN 513704, 955m) Beinn Bheoil (NN 516717, 1019m)
33.2 kilometres 1580m of ascent
The next day, the forecast predicted light showers at three, and rain setting in at seven in the evening. With a day of dry weather and an easy river crossing under our belts, this was our chosen day for Ben Alder. It was just a pity that the weather forecast was completely wrong, over the whole of Scotland, on that day.
We went back up the path beside the Uisge Labhair until we drew level with the Bealach Cubhann and the broad western shoulder of Ben Alder. The river crossing was easy, exploiting one of the many shallow gravel banks at this point. On the south side of the river, there was a short stretch of bog-trotting before we were able to strike off uphill and then along the easy angle of the ridge towards Alder’s huge summit plateau. A ring ouzel flirted with us for a while, until we were safely off his territory.
We climbed into thin cloud, which seemed on the verge of clearing by the time we reached Alder’s huge cairn and lightning-struck trig point. But after twenty minutes, we were still sitting in cloud—so we pushed south along the crags above the Garbh Choire, finding an intermittent path and running into a couple of young folk on a Duke of Edinburgh Award expedition, coming up from Benalder Cottage. At that point, the rain started, about seven hours early.
The path vanished into the confused ground of the Sron Bealach Beithe, and there was a little tricky navigation in poor visibility to keep ourselves safely away from the crags on the north side.
Visibility returned in the Bealach Breabag, and we could see Loch Ericht and Loch a’ Bhealaich Bheithe on either side of us, apparently enjoying thin sunshine—we seemed to be trapped in a little local weather caused by a cap of orographic cloud on Ben Alder and neighbouring Beinn Bheoil. On the ridge of Beinn Bheoil, we could see the rest of the Duke of Edinburgh crew, trudging upwards.
So, in a half-witted triumph of hope over experience, we climbed Beinn Bheoil. The rain got heavier; visibility closed in further. It was miserable.
Back to the bealach then, and the prospect of a long walk home around Ben Alder. We squelched down the path to Benalder Cottage (an idyllic location, and a haven that allowed us to duck out of the rain for a few minutes). Then we squelched up the long, beautifully engineered stalkers’ path that links Benalder Cottage to the Bealach Cumhann. It was nice not to have to watch our feet for a while, and pleasant to know that the navigation was easy from here on. But persisting rain and the swollen rivers coming down off Ben Alder to our right reminded us that we still had a broad river crossing between us and home.
But the ford turned out to be still easy, and we churned wearily back to the cottage in boggy conditions. All in all, it was a criminal insult to two gorgeous hills to climb them in such foul conditions.
Our last day involved another morning of rain, followed by a quick circuit of the Leum Uilleim horseshoe. Leum Uilleim is “William’s Leap”, but no-one seems very sure who William was, or where and why he leapt. This is another hill that’s usually climbed between trains at Corrour Station, and it’s probably most famous for its guest appearance in the filmTrainspotting:
We parked the car next to the station, crossed the railway line, and then followed a track that runs alongside the rails for a while before turning uphill on to the ridge of Tom an Eoin. From there we walked across to the rocky little summit of Beinn a’ Bhric, and then on to the cairn of Leum Uilleim. Both these hills are simply jaw-dropping viewpoints—the Ossian hills to the east, the Treig hills and Grey Corries to the north, a complex cavalcade of the the Nevis range, the Mamores, Glen Coe and the Black Mount to the west, and a long jumble of hills stretching from Bridge of Orchy through the Lawers range to Schiehallion in the south.
We gawped, we chortled, we spun on our heels and argued about what we were seeing—and then we dropped steeply off the Sron an Lagain Ghairbh, crossed the bog, and drank some beer (at an eye-wateringly marked up price) at the railway station.
Laidloon Hill (NO 393420, 312m) Broom Hill (NO 383421, c290m) Gallow Hill (NO 391413, 378m) Tealing Hill (NO 407402, c260m) Ironside Hill (NO 399411, 354m) Finlarg Hill (NO 406419, 336m) Unnamed Point 315 (NO 411431, c350m) Kincaldrum Hill (NO 414436, 309m) Hayston Hill (NO 408449, c235m)
17.7 kilometres 580m of ascent
It’s distinctly possible that no-one in the entire history of humanity has linked these two obscure little hills in a day’s walk before. (I do these things so you don’t have to.)
Each of them is a rather minor outlier from the main ridge, neither of them with what you’d actually call a summit. Tealing Hill is west of the road-crossing at Lumley Den, and Hayston is to the east. So this trip also addressed a minor agenda of mine, which has been to join up the obvious Sidlaw ridge walks (the sections bounded by the various road passes) with linking walks that traverse the passes. I’ve already done this for the slightly tricky links across Ballo Glack and Glack of Newtyle; the A923 crossing at Tullybaccart is straightforward, with a car park more or less on the ridge line and paths going off on to the hills in both directions; and the minor road crossing that separates Bandirran Hill from the rest of the ridge is rendered essentially impassable by the presence of Collace Quarry in the west side of Dunsinane Hill. So that leaves only the A928 crossing at Lumley Den—a steep-sided dell, stoutly fenced on both sides and distinctly unpromising-looking for a traverse.
But I had a plan. I parked at the layby just west of the Den, at NO 399418. There’s a metal gate in the fence at the east end of this layby, fastened with a rusty chain and hook, that gives access to the heathery slopes below Ironside Hill and Laidloon Hill. There’s rather a network of vehicle tracks in this marshy little depression, one of them prominently ascending the shoulder of Laidloon and then crossing the top of the hill just a few metres from the summit. (I briefly wondered if the little patch of marsh accounted for Laidloon’s name, supposedly from Gaelic leathad lunnd “slope of the marsh”—but there’s much more boggy ground on the other side of the hill, between Laidloon and Broom Hill, to judge from the network of drainage ditches marked on the map.)
The highest point is marked, not so much by a cairn, but by a sort of puddle of stones, which partially concealed a plastic clip-top box containing what seemed to be some sort of geocache. From here, there were fine views over the mouth of Glen Ogilvie and into Strathmore.
From there, I followed another track down and then up again to join the ridge between Gallow Hill and Broom Hill. A stout fence runs along the ridge line, broken by a single gate where the vehicle track crosses into Glen Ogilvie. Life is easier if you go through the gate to the southwest (Glen Ogilvie) side.
The summit of Broom Hill is on this side of the fence, although you have to climb another fence that crosses the ridge to get to it. On this trip I actually managed to find a single broom plant (namesake of the hill) on the Broom Hill ridge line, mixed with the predominant heather and gorse.
I retraced my steps and then went up Gallow Hill—a broad vehicle track on the Glen Ogilvie side of the fence makes the ascent much easier than the slog through trackless heather on the other side. At the summit, the cairn is just on the other side of the fence, but the wire is bent and slack at this point and very easy to get through.
Beyond Gallow Hill, I followed the fence down to the old stone wall above the telecom mast (there’s a little rusty iron gate in the fence here, hard against the wall), and gawped briefly at the fragile little inspection gondola, dangling from a wire, that allows access to the top of the mast.
Then I followed the wall east to an awkward three-way fence junction (at NO 398409). From here, I could see the gentle convexity of Tealing Hill—covered in grazing land, sheep and fine old dry-stone boundary walls.
I needed to get down to the edge of the farmland, which involved shinning over this three-way junction. I got myself on to the west (grassy) side of the fence running downhill, rather than its east (heathery) side, and followed it down to the field walls—where there was another nice old iron gate. So I did a circumambulation of the field walls (crossing some pretty, open moorland on the way) with the intention of getting as close as I could to Tealing Hill without getting in amongst lambing sheep. As it turned out the relevant fields were empty, so I was able to walk right to the vertiginous summit of Tealing Hill. I then crept slowly through another couple of fields with sheep at their far ends, and back out on to the hillside.
Flushed with the success of that little adventure, I climbed back up to the triple junction I’d come down from, hopped over it again, and slogged up a short heathery slope to the top of Ironside Hill, my last hill on this side of the Den. The hill supposedly gets its name from iron oxide in the soil, but I didn’t glimpse a single patch of exposed soil from which I could judge that.
Straight back to the car, then, and across the road and slightly downhill, to the bridge over the burn draining from the marsh below Laidloon. There’s a wooden fence on the bridge, which abuts the wire fence beside the road—with room for a person to slip through between the posts. There may be issues with lambing in this area, April to October, but when I was there (late March) the moor was devoid of sheep. There’s not much ascent to Finlarg Hill from this point, but what there is is heathery, and it brought me out at an electric fence I recalled from my last approach to Finlarg, from the opposite direction. As before, I was able to find a place to slide under the electric fence, and then slip through between the stands of the barbed-wire fence beyond it.
I had a bite of lunch on top of Finlarg, admiring the still-snowy tops of Ben More, Ben Lawers and Schiehallion, poking up over the horizon beyond the wind farm on Ark Hill, across Glen Ogilvie.
Then on along the ridge to Kincaldrum Hill. From my last time here, I knew to stay on the east side of the fence that runs along the ridge line—avoiding the complications of heather and electric fences to the west. There’s one cross-fence (the first after leaving Finlarg) that needs to be slid through, but the others were all easily traversed at gates or stepped over at sagging points.It was a fine stroll, enlivened by a little group of deer that eyed me reproachfully from the field below as I passed.
About halfway between Finlarg and Kincaldrum, there’s a corner in the fence at the top of a gentle rise that peaks at about 315m. This would be hardly worth commenting on, were it not just a little higher than the Kincaldrum trig. point. This means that, according to the good people who maintain the Database of British and Irish Hills, this unmarked lump trumps Kincaldrum. Since every point in their database needs to have a name, they’ve confusingly appropriated the name “Hayston Hill” for it. Although the Ordnance Survey are a little vague in positioning this label on their maps, it seems pretty clear it best applies to the ridge farther north, above Upper Hayston farm, just as the name Kincaldrum Hill applies to the hill above East Cotton of Kincaldrum and Kincaldrum House. So that’s how I’ve been using the names, which leaves me referring to this little summit as just Unnamed Point 315.
That’s probably more of a digression than the hill itself deserves, so I’ll move right along. A tongue of forestry that abuts the fence at NO 411434, in the dip between the unnamed point and Kincaldrum Hill, is easily circumvented—there are gates in the ridge fence on either side of it, so I was able to hop over on to the west side, nip past the thick trees, and then hop back to the east side again.
Strictly, the Ordnance Survey applies the name Kincaldrum Hill to the far north end of the ridge, where it terminates in a 291m summit above Kincaldrum House (Gaelic ceann caled druim means “at the head of the hard ridge”). The 309m trig. point a few hundred metres away is left without a name, but Kincaldrum seems the most suitable label for it.
From the meadowy top of Kincaldrum, I wandered down to my last hill of the day, although it doesn’t have much of an independent summit.
I descended the slope the OS marks as Hayston Hill, and then walked out on to the flat moorland ridge beyond. The area is chopped up by little disused quarries, and ornamented by a copse of windblown Scots Pines.
Beyond the pines, there’s a prehistoric cairn marked on the map. The Sidlaws have a number of these summit cairns, but most are covered in turf and undergrowth, rendering them invisible to the untrained naked eye. This one, though, is indicated on the map by a little circle of outward-pointing arrowheads, suggesting that some sort of noticeable convexity should still be visible. And so it is—not just a high bushy knoll, but a definite trace of a circumferential rampart, too. I sat and ate an apple next to it, and spent a moment wondering who had once come up here to build such a thing, and why.
The return to Lumley Den was eased by a vehicle track that services the rather pretty dry-stone grouse butts on the ridge. (The hill itself was hotching with young pheasants, all resplendent in the sunshine with their fresh adult plumage—perhaps some of them were even the same stupid birds I met as juveniles last year, when I came this way from Arniefoul.)
The track takes a long diagonal through the heather above Ironharrow Well, and eventually emerges on the ridge at the little tongue of woodland (NO 411434) I mentioned above.
The days was cloudless blue by this time, and seemed to be entirely without wind—but some zephyr was certainly still present, blowing a cloud of spider-silk caught in the wire fence into sparkling horizontal threads.
At Finlarg, I decided I’d walk down through the pasture rather than crawling back through Electric Avenue—maybe I could eventually find a route on to this hill that didn’t involve dicing with electricity.
I discovered that the barbed wire fence continued straight downhill, descending extremely steep ground into Lumley Den, while the electric fence that runs parallel to it along the ridge diverges westwards, following the edge of the dip into the Den. Just as the ground began to get excessively steep, I found a sagging point in the wire fence that let me step over it, and follow the electric fence across the heather. This got me to a rather striking vantage point looking down into the Den from on high.
And as I approached the road, I found that the electric fence sagged to the ground, making it easy to step over, right where it joined the roadside fence at NO 400417—at which point, someone had wrapped the barbed wire of the roadside fence in plastic tubing, making it safe to climb over. It looks like a deliberate but informal access point—over the roadside fence, over the electric fence, up the shoulder of the Den and then over the sagging fence there and out on to the open hillside. But how long it will last is anyone’s guess.
Unnamed Point 273 (NO 276349, 273m) Blacklaw Hill (NO 288344, 284m) White Hill (NO 274338, 233m)
10.5 kilometres 240 metres of ascent
You’ll perhaps recall my previous expedition to Blacklaw Hill—I went in from the north, which turned out to be a minor assault course, and went out to the east, which took me into the unnerving neatness of Piperdam. I wasn’t that taken with either approach, so I thought I would explore access from the west.
I parked at the gate to Little Ballo woodland (NO 269348), which has enough room for three or four cars without obstructing access. Down the forest track, turn left at an unpromising pile of gravel, and a path takes you to a gate, a broken fence, the Blacklaw Burn, and the south side of Blacklaw ridge.
From there, a track sweeps around the west end of the hill and then up on to the shoulder. The main navigational difficulty here is choosing which track to take to the summit of the unnamed 273m western top* of Blacklaw Hill—like Blacklaw itself, the summit area is dissected by multiple quad-bike tracks. From the top, the view east makes it clear why this is the “Black Law”—law is a Scots word for “hill” (especially an isolated, conical hill), and the thick heather makes it look almost black on an overcast day. The “isolated, conical” aspect is best appreciated from the east—from Dundee it appears as a distinctive dark triangle.
So it’s an easy, if muddy and unsightly, stroll along the ridge to Blacklaw (the “Hill” is, we now know, tautological). On the way along, I happened on a rather grim-looking trio of quad bikers, creeping slowly along the ridge. Given that all the muddy track up here is presumably for their entertainment, they didn’t seem to be having much fun.
I’d previously crossed a tangle of tracks between Ledyatt Wood and Blacklaw (which now make sense to me as an abandoned section of quad-bike trail), and thought I’d see if I could make a link along the north side of the hill, between those tracks and the track that had taken me on to the west end of the ridge. No luck on that one—there was no path to be found. The bottom-land is fairly boggy, but it was easy enough going as I contoured along the hillside. After a while, I arrived at a track descended from the col between Blacklaw and its western top, which linked me back to the way I’d come.
A little cloud of bramblings blew through at that point. I find these little birds hugely frustrating—I never seem to get close to one, only ever identifying them by their little social calls and the flash of white rumps as they shoot away from me.
Back at the gravel pile near my starting point, I turned left instead of heading back to the car. This took me down a broad forestry track that slowly turned into a narrow, muddy slot between whin bushes, flanked on the right by a barbed wire fence. To judge by the footprints, it’s well travelled. I wonder what takes people back and forth between Little Ballo and Dron so frequently, along a path that isn’t entirely pleasant to walk.
I turned off to the right at a metal gate in the fence, at NO 282338, on to a track marked on the 1:25,000 map. For a while this seemed gloomily unpromising, until it burst out into the open ground around Redmyre Loch.
Something very strange was happening out on the loch, to judge from the intermittent blasts of sound, vaguely reminiscent of a hunting horn, wafting over from that direction. I strolled down to the water’s edge, to see nothing but a pair of mute swans, who certainly seemed an unlikely source for the racket. But after I’d peered at them suspiciously for a while, the true source of the noise swam into view—a little flotilla of wintering whooper swans, vocalizing at each other madly for some obscure cygnean reason.
I paid a visit to Redmyre’s fine mock-Tudor boathouse, and then followed another track marked on the 1:25,000 towards White Hill. I had thought there might be a little difficulty getting to the top of the hill through the forestry, but it proved to be a doddle. I turned left into a firebreak at NO 277339, right up another firebreak at NO 277338 (both marked on the 1:25,000), and found myself on the open summit of White Hill. The pale grass here suggests how White Hill got its name—in the days before the current forestry plantation, bare White Hill would have been a notable contrast with heathery Blacklaw.
There’s a track marked on the 1:25,000 that takes you off the north side of the hill and then loops around westwards. It’s probably the best route. I followed the firebreak due west, along the remnant of an ancient boundary wall, but it proved to be a little overgrown, and brought me out against the edge of the forest fence, which I had to follow north until I found a broken section I could step over. Then I was able to descend to join the aforementioned track that comes down off the summit of the hill.
From there, it was just a walk out to the road at Littleton and then up to my car. But there was one last curiosity—another seat-in-a-tree like the one I encountered on Bandirran Hill. This one has absolutely no potential role in fire-watching that I can detect, but seems instead to be there to give a view over the little loch nearby. Maybe someone uses it to shoot waterfowl.
* The good people who maintain the Database of British and Irish Hills call this unnamed summit “Blacklaw Hill West Top”, which makes sense, but it doesn’t appear on any map I’ve seen.
Dunsinane Hill (NO 214316, 310m) Black Hill (NO 219319, 360m) Little Dunsinane (NO 224325, 295m) King’s Seat (NO 230330, 377m)
8.5 kilometres 360 metres of ascent
Do you think I may be becoming obsessed with King’s Seat? I think it’s possible. But I wanted to get some photos on this part of the ridge for another project, and I also wanted to take a look at another point of access to this area—from the west, via Fairygreen.
So I parked in the little patch of ground at the roadside gate which gives direct access to Dunsinane from near Collace, at NO 207321. Dunsinane is dʌnˈsɪnən—emphasis on the second syllable, short final vowel, and the nearby estate of the same name is spelled Dunsinnan. It’s easy enough to remember: “Don’t be inane.” And, given the association with Macbeth: “Emphasis on the sin.”
Shakespeare seems to have been in two minds about the pronunciation when he wrote the play Macbeth:
Macbeth shall never vanquished be until Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill Shall come against him.
Macbeth Act 4, Scene 1
The scansion in that goes awry if you try to use the “inane” pronunciation. But there’s no doubt of the rhyme in this one:
I will not be afraid of death and bane, Till Birnam Forest come to Dunsinane.
Macbeth Act 5, Scene 3
The hill fort (actually two, nested one inside the other) on the summit gives the hill its name—in Gaelic, a hill fort is a dun. But the origin of the fort’s name is uncertain. Dorward gives it as dun na sine or dun na sinean, “hill fort of the little breast”, which matches the hill’s appearance from the Collace side. But it may involve a proper name instead—”fort of Cinead” or “fort of Senan” are possibilities.
The Statistical Account of Scotland,Vol. XX (1798) suggested the name was “… ‘The hill of ants,‘ implying the great labour and industry so essentially requisite for collecting the materials of so vast a building.” Wikipedia still seems to think that flight of fancy is a reasonable suggestion, but George Chalmers had this to say about the idea, shortly after it first appeared:
Gaelic scholars, who delight to fetch from afar what may be found at home, approve of this etymon, as very apt. Yet it is Dun-seangain, in the Irish, which would signify the hill of ants. Dun-sinin signifies, in the Scoto-Irish, a hill, resembling a nipple; and, in fact, this famous hill does appear, at some distance, to resemble what the Scoto-Irish word describes, with the usual attention of the Gaelic people to picturesque propriety, in their local names.
Anway, whatever it was called, the fort is in a bit of a mess nowadays, having been enthusiastically but (by modern standards) ineptly excavated in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—although the whole thing is overgrown with turf, you can still see the marks of the excavation trench and spoil heaps on the south-east side.
From Dunsinane, you have to head initially south-east to get to Black Hill, to avoid the craggy stuff on Dunsinane’s east side. Black Hill, like Blacklaw, is “black” because of its dense covering of heather.
There’s an easy enough path (several, in fact) to the summit, but as usual I managed to lose the path while descending the eastern shoulder of the hill—one minute there’s a well-trodden slot in the heather, the next there’s a maze of deer tracks heading in random directions.
Another assortment of paths takes off from the boggy ground around the little lochan at the source of the Den Burn, giving access to King’s Seat. At the summit I encountered an amateur radio enthusiast (call-sign MM0GLM, for those in the know) erecting a couple of aerials. He was about to “activate” King’s Seat for the amateur radio community worldwide, on behalf of a project called Summits on the Air (SOTA). It turns out that King’s Seat is GM/SS-235 in radio-speak.
I’d run into the concept of activating remote locations before, courtesy of the American Radio Relay League’s entity list (30KB pdf) of worldwide locations. Some of the best sources of information about remote, uninhabited islands are the reports of amateur radio enthusiasts who have mounted some quite serious expeditions, just to activate an entity by broadcasting from that location for a few hours or days. But this was the first time I’d heard of SOTA.
After tripping unhelpfully over the antenna wires, I headed off westwards through the heather to visit the hump of Little Dunsinane, and then the broch below it at NO 223325.
Although the Canmore archaeology site has much to say about this object, I’m hard-pressed to find any of the evidence of walls and an entrance that they describe. To me, it still looks like no more than an improbably regular mound. Which is probably why I’m not an archaeologist.
A muddy tractor track runs between Little Dunsinane and the broch, and that was my chosen route down today. It takes you down to a field fence, where you have a choice of a stile or a gate to climb over before reaching the little reservoir at Fairygreen (yes, this was once, supposedly, an area of grass where fairies danced). From there, the service road takes you through Fairygreen farm and back to the road to Collace. (There’s a baffling profusion of Scottish Water hydrant and sluice valve markers at the road junction, which have been a bit of a mystery to me up until now.) From there, it was an easy tarmac walk on a quiet road back to the car.
Having also checked the approaches via Ledgertlaw, Glen Bran and Stockmuir, I can confirm that the Fairygreen route is definitely the easiest access to King’s Seat. Car parking might be awkward though—you’ll probably need to use one of the rather muddy pull-offs scattered along the verge of the main road.
For the last few months I’ve been cutting a dash on the hills wearing the wrap-round headset pictured above. It’s the core component of the new Virtua-Trekker—the first application of Virtual Reality for the hill-walker or fell-runner—and the nice people at Bolt-On™ Cybernetics have been kind enough to give me an early prototype to review. I’ve been under a press embargo until today (April 1st), and I’m also obliged to let Bolt-On™’s lawyers review my proposed text before it goes live—hopefully they won’t find too many commercially sensitive details to object to.
Bolt-On™ have a long history as developers of hi-tech outdoors equipment. In the mid-90s, trading as the Bolt-On™ Corporation, they hit the market with a succession of emergency “surgical management” devices for hill-goers, most famously their Leg Repair Kit—a simple external fixator designed to be applied to a broken leg by either the casualty or a companion, stabilizing the fracture so as to allow the injured person to walk off the hill unaided. These were surprisingly cheap and initially sold well, but a number of high-profile adverse outcomes dogged the company into the early 2000s, culminating in a civil lawsuit brought on behalf of [REDACTED] which was eventually settled for [REDACTED]. Bolt-On™ effectively went dark for a decade thereafter, rumoured to be [REDACTED], before re-emerging as Bolt-On™ Cybernetics a couple of years ago, with a new mission statement to supply Augmented Reality products for outdoors activities.
The Virtua-Trekker is their flagship device, consisting of the goggles illustrated above with a visual field of [REDACTED] degrees containing [REDACTED] pixels in each lens, a GPS receiver/processor unit about the size of a small [REDACTED] and weighing [REDACTED] which can be carried in any reasonably sized rucksack, an optional microphone for the voice-recognition interface, and an accelerometer-glove (right hand only) for the gestural interface. The whole assembly is designed to lay what Bolt-On™ call Annotated Reality on to the user’s view of the outdoors—navigational information, weather updates, data tagging of landscape features, and so on. The various components can be connected to each other by cable or Bluetooth, and the processor unit can be linked to a home network for updates, data backup, and the transfer of waypoints and route files in several standard formats.
EASE OF USE
The processor connected readily to my wireless network. I was able to download the North Britain dataset from the Bolt-On™ website without difficulty—I understand access to a range of datasets, including [REDACTED], will be a subscription service when the device is released commercially. I was also able to transfer route files in *.gpx format from my PC’s mapping software to the device.
GPS reception seems to be generally stable, though I did encounter a certain amount of what Bolt-On™ refer to as “intermittent route lurch” while passing through dense forest, and one episode of “secular route drift” on steep ground.
The rechargeable batteries for the unit seem to have a lifetime of about four hours, so spares will need to be carried for all but the shortest trips.
The goggles are comfortable to wear in cool weather, but can become a little claustrophobic when it’s warm. My unit displayed a tendency to internal fogging when I exerted myself, but the Bolt-On™ technicians assure me this is unlikely to happen for someone who is “reasonably fit”. Rain on the lenses is an issue, and the hydrophobic wipes provided were only a partial solution. The bulky headgear certainly attracted attention—most people I encountered expressed interest, some were sympathetic, and a small number were verbally abusive.
I was unable to test the real-time weather update feature, which reportedly adds a graphical representation of approaching weather fronts to the virtual environment. This feature requires 3G network coverage, which was of course completely absent in the Scottish Highlands.
The voice-recognition interface functioned poorly in all but light winds, and I soon abandoned its use. The gestural interface is intuitive, allowing the user to tap through various function menus (presented at a virtual distance of about a metre). However, it can send unintended signals during normal hand movements. For example, while unscrewing the cap of my flask I inadvertently and unexpectedly accessed an “Easter Egg” routine—a game mode called Zombie Apocalypse that was quite distressing at the time. The programmers tell me that its presence will be properly flagged in the instruction manual of the commercial product, though they did seem a little disappointed that I hadn’t enjoyed the experience more.
Basic navigation mode includes a direction indicator in the upper field of view, a route trace, annotated waypoints, and a set of “data packets” attached to various landscape features. I found the route trace (which laid my intended route on to the landscape as a red line) invaluable, especially in poor visibility.
The data packets available in my unit opened what appeared to be copies of Wikipedia pages, which were of neither use nor interest, occasionally fatuous and often misplaced.
View mode provides the names of landscape features visible on the horizon—which should finally put a stop to those endless “Can you see Schiehallion from here?” arguments.
Switching to “mist mode” also provides an overlay sketch of the horizon itself, allowing the user to “enjoy the view” even when real-world visibility is restricted to a few metres. While the Bolt-On™ technicians seemed proud of the amount of processing required to produce this feature in real time, I found it tantalizing and annoying rather than useful.
THE “NAISMITH WALKER”
This is one of the most innovative features of the kit. In default mode, it generates a virtual hiker who moves at a steady speed determined by Naismith’s Rule (a method of calculating the time required to complete a walk of given distance and ascent). The formula parameters are customizable (including an allowance for descent, which will be welcomed by those whose knees are of a certain age). Fell-runners are served by “Naismith Runners” of varying degrees of fitness, all suitably lean and lycra-clad.
The Naismith Walker provides a ready estimate of how quickly (or slowly) you are progressing relative to your aspirational timings. It can be a little unsettling, however, to pause for a breather on a steep slope only to have the virtual Walker pass through you from behind and stride away uphill. The interface provides a small selection of Walker avatars to choose from—male or female, young or old. I also discovered the option to have the Walker appear in the form of Death—a flying, black-hooded skeleton carrying a scythe. (I presume this was inserted by the same programmers who provided me with a Zombie Apocalypse halfway up the Stone Chute on Beinn Eighe.)
One disadvantage of the Walker’s steady pace is that the virtual figure falls well behind on flat ground, but quickly catches up during the ascent. After I turned around to see the figure of Death sweeping up the misty slopes of Ben Loyal towards me, I turned off the Naismith Walker.
When I later remarked to the Bolt-On™ representatives that watching the approach of the Death avatar was a little reminiscent of the plot of the 2014 horror film It Follows, they became visibly excited. I understand they are now in licensing negotiations with the film’s production company.
A remarkable and innovative piece of kit that nevertheless has [REDACTED].
I’ve been intrigued by the lost community of Smithton since I climbed Smithton Hill this time last year, and then read David Dorward’s description of its namesake—“Former farm-toun W of Lundie village, deserted, abandoned and demolished within the past half-century.”
This was living memory for Dorward, writing in 2004, because he used to visit Smithton with his father when he was a child. Dorward senior was a keen apiarist, and would move his hives to Smithton in the summer months so that his bees could exploit the heather bloom in the hills. Dorward wrote:
[I]t was almost completely obliterated shortly after its last inhabited cottage was vacated in the 1960s. The Smithton was a crofting community at the top of a track leading west from what is now the village hall in Lundie […] The track was passable for a car when I was young, but is now not used even by tractors, since the upper gate is locked and fenced against rabbits; the alternative access, from Lochindores, once the main access and still marked by a line of trees along the hillside, is now equally impassible. […] I was told that the old croft at Smithton was bulldozed by order of the laird; the result is that a once pleasant spot is now derelict.
More likely, then, is Dorward’s derivation, from Smith’s toun—referring to either the personal name or the trade of blacksmith. Although he writes “[t]here is no known smiddy that could have occasioned the name”, the Ordnance Survey one-inch map (revised 1895) shows a cluster of buildings beside the track between Lundie and Smithton, labelled “Smithy”. Interestingly, by the 1900 survey for the six-inch and twenty-five-inch maps, those buildings have disappeared, and the label “Smithy” is attached to what is now Lundie village hall. (The previous smithy site is now occupied by what may well be the muddiest farmyard in the Scottish Lowlands.) So it seems reasonably likely that Smithton was the blacksmith’s toun, and we don’t need to invoke any of the ubiquitous Smith family.
Smithton sat on top of a low rise called Smithton Knowe, above a pair of springs called Horse Well and Craig Well, and despite the lack of access along the old tracks, I wanted to take a look at the site. I started from Tullybaccart and walked up through Pitcur Wood, then along the eastern shore of Ledcrieff Loch.
Behind the the fishery building at the head of the loch, a path strikes northeast to reach the edge of the forestry at a gate (NO 272372). From here, a path runs below Lundie Craigs, coming out at the place where I had a close encounter with a herd of Highland cattle during a previous walk. So I combined my trip to Smithton with reascents of Lundie Craigs, Ardgarth Hill and Smithton Hill, but I won’t bore you with the details.
It’s possible to get directly to the site of Smithton from the forestry gate, if you turn immediately right up the hillside, following a path that runs alongside the fence. At NO 274369, this brings you to a gate, which gives access to a tractor track that runs across the boggy ground below Smithton Loch, then skirts around the north side of Smithton Hill and descends directly towards Smithton Knowe. There’s a maze of new barbed wire lower down, which occasionally cuts across the original line of the track, but the way ahead is always obvious.
The Knowe itself is a lumpy diamond of open woodland, 300 metres long by 100 metres wide, floating 50 metres above the lower farmland to the east. Very little evidence of the old buildings remains, but there is still a deep, rectangular, turf-covered depression at the site of the Old Mill Dam—once there must have been a pool here, providing a head of water for the buildings a short distance below.
I could see no sign of the original terrace of cottages, or the larger building beyond, but on the south side I came across the low remains of terraced walls, and a couple of gateposts mysteriously left standing.
These gateposts cause me a little excitement, because I had seen them before—in Colin Gibson’s pen-and-ink drawing of Smithton in its heyday, reproduced in Dorward’s book. I won’t infringe Gibson’s copyright by reproducing the whole thing here, but I’ll just show you a relevant sliver:
You can see that the small trees Gibson recorded within the wall are now fully grown. Messing around with the National Library of Scotland’s georeferenced maps of the area, and adjusting the transparency to fade back and forth between the twenty-five-inch Ordnance Survey sheet and aerial photographs, I could also make out that the group of trees at the east end of the Knowe trace the original line of the walls of the larger building in that position. They seem too large to have sprung up from seedlings rooted in the ruined wall—I think, like the ones in Gibson’s drawing, they must have been planted as a windbreak within the walls when Smithton was still thriving.
Of Horse Well I could find no sign, but Craig Well is still there—a little brick structure isolated in the middle of a broad, muddy seepage from the hillside.
And that’s it. As Dorward says, the old routes from Lundie and Lochindores are essentially impassable—overgrown slots between two boundary fences, showing occasional remnants of the old stone walling; a line of new electric fencing cuts across the south side of the Knowe.
It’s still a pleasant spot, although it has a melancholy feel when you know its history. I wonder why anyone took the trouble to bulldoze the buildings?