Category Archives: Walking

Sidlaws: Lundie Craigs to Newtyle Hill

Lundie Craigs (NO 281378, 353m)
Keillor Hill (NO 281385, 334m)
Donald’s Brae (NO 293396, c280m)
Auchtertyre Hill (NO 293398,  278m)
Newtyle Hill (NO 296399, 270m)
Ardgarth Hill (NO 277372, 320m)
Smithton Hill (NO 276366, 324m)

15 kilometres
460 metres ascent

Tullybaccart-Newtyle route
Click to enlarge
Contains OS OpenData © Crown copyright and database right 2018

In my continuing campaign of Sidlaw-bagging, this walk fills in a missing chunk of the main ridge between two previously explored sections.

I parked again at Tullybaccart on the A923, but this time headed northwards past the farm and into Pitcur Wood, which seemed to be hosting some sort of dog-walking frenzy at 10:00 am. The path takes anglers to Ledcrieff Loch, but I turned left just short of the loch, to take a sweep westwards and then northeast through lovely open woodland haunted by buzzards and kestrels, along a track that eventually services the radio mast on Lundie Craigs.

Lundie Craigs above Ledcrieff Loch
Lundie Craigs from Ledcrieff Loch
If you can see this view, you’ve come too far and missed the left turn

The 353m trig point at the east end of Lundie Craigs may or may not be called Westerkeith Hill—the OS 1:25,000 map labels the shoulder rather than the summit. A grassy path leads northeast from the summit, looping around the shoulder of the hill and then descending safely below the crags to come out near Ardgarth, if you want to make a short loop that connects the outgoing and return legs of this walk.

But I struck off along the path that heads northeast along the edge of the steep ground, which soon produces a fine view out over Long Loch towards the tower on distant Kinpurney Hill.Newtyle Hill and Kinpurney Hill over Long Loch from Westerkeith HillThen there was a bit of bundu-bashing northwards to get to the heathery summit of Keillor Hill, which is crossed by a fence. Following this fence downhill gets you to a handy gate at NO 281386, which allows you to switch to the west side of the fence, for easy access to the unlikely pleasures of the Mackenzie Meridian. The Meridian, at NO 285391, is marked as a monument by the Ordnance Survey, but it isn’t really.Mackenzie MeridianIt resembles a factory chimney, but has an interesting finial on the top. There’s no memorial plate or explanatory text. It’s another effort from James Stuart-Mackenzie, the amateur astronomer we last met in connection with the building of the observatory tower on the summit of Kinpurney Hill.

The Meridian tower is on the same line of longitude as Mackenzie’s residence at Belmont Castle, just outside Meigle, so it would have marked a precise southerly direction for any observations he made from home—a sort of elaborate, expensive and not very satisfactory sundial. In reference to his role as Keeper of the Privy Seal of Scotland, the tower is also called Privy’s Prap. I was pretty sure this would turn out to be an obscene reference, but my Scots dictionary tells me that a prap is “an object or objects set up as a marker”. So that all makes sense.

The track descends the long curve of the ridge to arrive at the undistinguished hump of Donald’s Brae. From there, I crossed a short distance north to Auchtertyre Hill and then walked on through the heather to Newtyle Hill. Both afford nice views down on to Newtyle village and across to Kinpurney Hill and Mackenzie’s other tower. (These might have been eventful hills, though. A sign on a gate warns “Beware of the Bull”. But, like the similar sign on Dunsinane Hill, no bull was in evidence. Your experience may differ.)Kinpurney Hill and Henderston Hill seen over Newtyle Hill from Auchtertyre HillThen back the way I came, until I reached Keillor Hill and descended down the side of a burn draining into Long Loch. There’s a nice path on the east side of the burn (it pretty much goes without saying that it’s not marked on the map), that gives good views of the loch and surrounding hills.Kinpurney Hill and Long Loch from the descending path along the burn below Westerkeith HillI walked down to the lochside to take a look at the Mute Swans and some very nervous ducks that took off before I had a chance to identify them. This got me into a sort of awkward corner with farmland between me and my route back, but I lucked my way through empty fields and unlocked gates. (Keeping higher on the hill would get you past the fenced areas if there are animals grazing.)

Eventually I was out on the open hillside again, but immediately amongst some long-horned Highland cattle. The apparently inexplicable jink in my route on the map at this point is me trudging up the hill to circumvent their rather baleful presence.

Ardgarth Hill next, crowned by a prominent little knob, with nice views of Lundie Craigs, and also of Dundee and the Tay estuary.

Lundie Craigs from Ardgarth Hill
Lundie Craigs from Ardgarth Hill

Across a little dip below the almost nonexistent Smith Loch to get to Smithton Hill. David Dorward’s book The Sidlaw Hills tells me that there was a settlement called Smithton in this dip, “deserted, abandoned and demolished within the past half-century”. I certainly saw no trace. [Note: I was wrong about the location of Smithon. See the Note at the foot of this post for a correction, and my post More About Smithton for a description of a visit to the real settlement site.]

Smithton Hill gives views westwards towards territory previously explored.

King's Seat and Gask crags from Smithton Hill
King’s Seat and Gask Hill seen through a gap in the Ballo Hills

A decent track runs southwest from close to the top of Smithton Hill, and took me all the way to what seemed like a dead-end against the boundary fence above Tullybaccart. But the path turns hard right and runs alongside the fence, down towards a corner of the forestry, where there’s a gap in the barbed wire and an easy step-over. [Note added in 2020: there’s now a prominent stile over the fence.] Then down the hill, around the old quarry, and back to my starting point. All the dog-walkers cars were gone.

That’s the main ridge explored, from Dunsinane Hill to Craigowl. But there are still a lot of outliers that might be worth a visit.

Note: Ah-ha. The 1898 inch-to-the-mile of the area shows that the abandoned and demolished settlement of Smithton actually lay south of Smithton Knowe, so I was nowhere near it. It was at NO 281366, just where Horse Well is marked on the current 1:25,000 OS map.
Dorward wrote “There is no known smiddy that could have occasioned the name …” but there was a smithy on the track between Lundie and Smithton:

1898 OS inch-to-the-mile showing Smithton
Click to enlarge

Levison Wood: Walking The Himalayas

Walking The Himalayas cover“You come all this way to see the views and get out of breath? What a strange people you are.”

This is the successor volume to Levison Wood‘s Walking The Nile, which recorded his journey on foot from the source of the Nile to the Mediterranean. It’s a companion to his TV series of the same name on Channel 4.

Walking the Himalayas was always going to be a more nebulous undertaking than walking the Nile. There’s no definite start and end point to the Himalayan range, and no unique line of travel. Wood’s route takes him well south of the mountaineering traverse carried out by Graeme Dingle & Peter Hillary in 1981 (detailed in their book First Across The Roof Of The World, which I’ve reviewed here). Dingle & Hillary’s route linked Kanchenjunga in Sikkim to K2 in Pakistan. Wood covers more of the range, from the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan to Gankhar Puensum in Bhutan, but by travelling at a lower level he avoids much weaving to-and-fro, so he actually covers less distance than Dingle and Hillary—a “mere” 1,700 miles compared to their 3,200 miles.

The book makes a fine companion to the television series. It records much that didn’t make it past the editing process for television, as well as providing space for Wood to give us a little history of the region, as well as some personal reminiscences. If I have a grumble, it’s the way the narrative blithely edits out the intermittent presence of a film crew, and indeed proceeds as if there’s no TV documentary involved at all. For instance, it’s difficult to believe that the “spontaneous” decision to hire a helicopter and fly off to look at Mount Everest didn’t have something to do with the involvement of a film director and producer lurking in the background. But Wood isn’t alone in this sort of thing—Gus Casely-Hayford managed to get right through his book, The Lost Kingdoms Of Africa, without ever mentioning the documentary film crew who were travelling with him.

Wood’s book, in contrast to Dingle and Hillary’s, isn’t really about the mountains at all. Apart from a high col at the start of the journey, and a nameless ridge at the end, he doesn’t do much deliberate  mountain climbing; he walks on roads a lot of the time. Instead, he’s much more interested in the people he meets and the cultures he encounters along the way.

The book gives us all the major incidents that turned up on television—crossing wonky bridges and eroded paths, dealing with tense border guards, wading through crocodile-infested rivers, losing the route on rough ground at nightfall, trekking through the monsoon, evacuating a rapidly flooding camp at dead of night, and of course the near-fatal car crash that interrupted (and very nearly ended) the journey. But we also get to read about Wood’s anxious stay in Kabul before the journey started, holed up in a fortified safe-house under the care of a security consultant. Then there’s his audience with the Dalai Lama, in which the wily old sage quickly identified Wood’s journey as potentially good publicity for the Tibetan cause; and his meeting with the Hindu holy man Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji, whose PA reminded Wood, “Don’t forget to like us on Facebook.” We also get to hear a great deal more about Wood’s longstanding friendship with his Nepali walking companion and guide, Binod Pariyar.

Through it all, Wood comes across as the same cheerful, calm, reasonable person that he seems to be on television. There’s a suggestion in the book that he might have had enough of long-distance walking—but then, there was a suggestion at the start of the book that he’d had enough of long-distance walking. So watch this space, I think.

(Added March 2017: And so it turned out. I’ve now reviewed Wood’s next book, Walking the Americas. Here’s a link to the relevant post.)

Note: For interest, I’ve prepared the map below comparing the route taken by Wood with the earlier traverse by Dingle & Hillary. (Both routes were interrupted by problems with direct border crossings, necessitating detours to official crossing points, but Dingle & Hillary incurred a much bigger gap at the Kashmiri Line of Control.)

Comparison of Himalayan traverses
Comparison of Himalayan traverses by Wood (2015) and Dingle & Hillary (1981)
Click to enlarge
(Original base map)

Sidlaws: Ballo Hills

Ballo Hill (NO 263351, 301m)
Southballo Hill (NO 256348, 303m)
Northballo Hill (NO 251352, 319m)
Hill of Dores (NO 257360, 268m)

7 kilometres
270m ascent

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

A shorter excursion this time—four hills tucked into the space between the roads at Ballo Glack and Tullybaccart. Mainly chosen because it was the first outing for a new pair of boots:

New Boots
Nu Shooz!

Emerald and pewter, apparently. And there was me thinking they were green and grey.

I parked at Tullybaccart, at the entrance to the Hallyburton Community Woodlands, and then struck off along the track that the map shows climbing to the ridge connecting Ballo Hill and Southballo Hill. The map promises a vehicle track, but it turns out to be a footpath almost obliterated by gorse, so I was glad to find a ladder over the deer fence at NO 261354, which let me out of the jungle and on to the marshy hillside. This would have been pretty boggy going, if it hadn’t been frozen solid. Below, Strathmore was full of morning mist:

Strathmore full of mist, Schiehallion in the distance

Ballo Hill’s radio mast was besieged by cows with calves, who seemed quite keen to see me on my way, so I jogged once around the fence and then headed off towards Southballo.Ballo HillA robust wall crosses the ridge, but there’s a gap at NO 258349 that lets you slide under the barbed wire. Beyond that a track (not on the map) took me to a lock-up just below Southballo’s conical wee summit. There was a nice view of Dundee and the Tay Bridge, as well as a glimpse of previously climbed hills:

King's Seat & Gask Hill
King’s Seat and Gask Hill from Southballo Hill

Northballo Hill is heavily forested on the map, but Google Earth showed me a relatively clear area running east from close to its summit, down to the forest track that terminates in the dip between its two tops. From Southballo, I could now see a promising looking gap in the trees with a burn in the middle of it, which looked like it might take me up to join the track at just the right spot:

Northballo Hill
A handy gap in the trees on Northballo? I dunno, I didn’t go up it.

The burn creates a gap in the boundary wall at NO 254350, which got me easily into the network of forestry tracks on Northballo. After the gorse and the icy marshes, the broad, flat track seemed so inviting that, instead of bundu-bashing up the aforementioned gap in the hope of connecting to the track above, I decided to circumnavigate the hill, which would give me a chance to peer down into Ballo Glack and across to Gask Hill, on which I finished a previous Sidlaw traverse.

But on the west side of the hill I encountered a lovely path (as usual, unmarked on the map) coming up from the Glack, crossing the forestry track, and continuing on up the hill. Someone had recently hung a spade on a tree, apparently marking the uphill side of the path. It seemed a waste of a spade—I presume they were planning on coming back for it. Anyway, up I went.

It all went cheerily enough until close to the top, when the path vanished under a leg-breaking assault course of wind-toppled trees:top of northballoBy the time I’d circumvented that, I found myself in the original clear area on the east side of the hill that I’d been aiming for all along. And the fallen trees were all pointing downhill on this bit of the slope, so it was easy enough to work my way up to the deeply boring summit of Northballo. In the unlikely event you ever want to climb this hill (for a bet, perhaps), the forestry tracks and that eastern clearing are definitely the way to come at it.*

More forestry tracks down to the Ballo Glen, then east towards Laird’s Loch. From just west of the loch there’s a firebreak next to a fence that takes you straight up Hill of Dores. The summit has been clear-felled, so you can now walk around the embankment of the Iron Age fort. Two other firebreaks connect to the summit, from the north and the east, but they both looked choked with windfall and undergrowth, so I went back the way I came.

The Iron Age fort on Hill of Dores, with a misty Strathmore and the Grampians beyond

A brief diversion to look at Laird’s Loch turned up a disconsolate family of Mute Swans, paddling around in the only patch of clear water in the middle of an expanse of ice.lairdslochAnd from there, back to the car.

Next up, I think, is the ridge on the other side of the road, which reaches over as far as Newtyle, and so links me up with my previous excursion to Kinpurney Hill.

Oh, and the new boots were very well behaved.

* Note added, February 2020: I revisited Northballo Hill as part of a path-mapping project, and found that the summit tangle has been cleared, with windfallen trees removed and many standing trees felled, so it’s now quite an airy and open place. It’s also now reasonably accessible (admittedly over very uneven ground clogged with forestry debris), by following the deep ruts left by forestry machinery, which now ascend all the way to the summit on the north side.

Sidlaws: Kinpurney to Craigowl

Kinpurney Hill (NO 322417, 345m)
Henderston Hill (NO 338414, 369m)
Auchterhouse Hill (NO 354397, 424m)
Balkello Hill (NO 361394, 397m)
Craigowl (NO 376399, 455m)

19 kilometres
720 metres ascent

Kinpurney-Craigowl route
Click to enlarge
Contains OS OpenData © Crown copyright and database right 2018

Back in 1971, I walked this part of the Sidlaws with my late friend Brian. We got the bus to Newtyle, and hiked across to Charleston for the bus home. We were equipped with great optimism, a truly vast quantity of food, and a photocopy of a Bartholomew’s half-inch map. This was from that early generation of photocopies that were stiff and glossy, reeked of headachey chemicals, and tended to go smudgy and progressively darker with handling. But our non-map didn’t seem like a serious problem—we knew what Auchterhouse Hill looked like, and we knew what Craigowl looked like, and we knew there was a ridge west of Craigowl that pointed north and would take us to Charleston. We didn’t have a compass, but we could tell direction from the sun. I don’t remember any paths, but I do remember a lot of heather. Our parents seemed remarkably relaxed about their just-teenage sons disappearing off into the hills for a day. My father remarked to my mother that, “Only an idiot could get lost in the Sidlaws,” apparently having temporarily forgotten one of the defining characteristics of fourteen-year-old boys. And anyway, we were fine.

The Sidlaw Hills coverThis time I parked at Balkello Woodland (NO 365385), planning to go out and back from one location, rather than concoct a traverse.  On to Auchterhouse Hill, first, along a nicely graded path that seems to be invisible to the Ordnance Survey mappers. (I’ve never known a range of hills to be so full of unmapped paths as the Sidlaws are.) I’d always assumed that the straggling crown of larch and Scots pine on Auchterhouse’s summit was the remnant of some more extensive forest—but David Dorward, in his marvellous book about the Sidlaws, assures me that it was previously called “White Top”, suggesting a bare rock summit.

I baled off the north side of Auchterhouse Hill, heather-surfing alongside the fence down to a gate on the track that heads northwards to the Denoon Glen. There’s no trace of it on the map, but a nice path heads westward from the bend in this track at NO 352404. It takes you along the edge of the woodland, across the ominous blank of the Scotston Quarries (actually a mere rocky dip in the terrain), and eventually deposits you (at NO 342411) on the main forestry track that wraps around Henderston Hill. Although Henderston looks like trackless forestry on the 1:50,000 OS map, it’s actually shot through with convenient firebreaks, which are accurately portrayed on the 1:25,000. I peeled off the track through a gate on the left at NO 340414, and strolled up a broad gap in the trees, herding a couple of anxious deer ahead of me. At the top of the hill, there’s a large clearing with views to the south. If you’re up-to-date with your tetanus vaccinations, you might consider hopping over the vicious barbed-wire fence at NO 338413 in order to walk a couple of yards up a narrow firebreak to the summit marked by the OS. But the view isn’t great …

Craigowl and Auchterhouse Hill from Henderston Hill
The view of Craigowl and Auchterhouse Hill from (almost) the summit of Henderston Hill


Summit of Henderston Hill
The view of Craigowl and Auchterhouse Hill from the summit of Henderston Hill

Better instead to follow the main firebreak until it deposits you on the forestry track again, at NO 334415. Follow the track a bit farther, and then strike off down another firebreak, on the right, at NO 332416. There’s a narrow path, which brings you out at a nice stile (which is good, because there’s an electric fence). The route to Kinpurney Hill and its mental three-storey tower are pretty obvious from here.

Kinpurney Hill from Henderston Hill
Electric fence, stile and Kinpurney
(Head up to those trees on the right and you’ll find a track that links directly to Kinpurney)

The tower was actually intended to be an astronomical observatory, built in 1774 by James Stuart-Mackenzie and James Playfair, both keen amateur astronomers. Although somewhat restored, its nowadays just an imposing shell. Nearby is Kinpurney’s natty blue trig point, and a sort of high-security view indicator—once I’d struggled through the gate in the fence that pens it in, I found it unusable because of a thick rime of ice obscuring the surface. And beyond that is the single gnarled tree that used to give a sort of Zen-like ambience to Kinpurney’s summit; I was disappointed to see that some philistine has planted three more, completely buggering up the previous Japanese minimalism.

Trig point and view indicator, Kinpurney Hill
The blue trig and the highly secure view indicator
(Lawers hills, Glen Lyon hills and Schiehallion are on the horizon, covered in snow)


Summit of Kinpurney Hill
The tower, the Zen tree, and the philistine trees

So … back the way I came, with a little sidetrack to take in the wooded and apparently unnamed 377m summit north of the path. I hoped for a decent view northwards, but was thwarted by the trees.

I skirted around Auchterhouse (using another well-worn track that the OS missed), crossing Windy Gates (no wind, three gates), to the glorious viewpoint over the Tay Estuary on top of Balkello Hill. (Sometimes called Balluderon Hill—the Ordnance Survey are a little noncommittal.)

View Indicator, Balkello Hill
The lovely Syd Scroggie view indicator, Balkello Hill

Then on to Craigowl, by more bleedin’ obvious unmapped paths. Craigowl summit looks increasingly like the headquarters of a James Bond villain, dotted with masts and security fences. The poor trig point looks as if it’s in jail when you first approach, but it’s actually easily accessible from the roadhead on the north side.

Craigowl from Auchterhouse Hill
The Craigowl headquarters of SPECTRE, seen from Auchterhouse Hill

Then back to the dip between Craigowl and Balkello, down a path (west side of the fence) that had an actual burn flowing down the middle of it, and through a lot of mud and dog-walkers to the car.

This Sidlaws lark is good fun—I think I’ll see if I can concoct a succession of walks to take in all the major summits.

Graeme Dingle & Peter Hillary: First Across The Roof Of The World

Cover of First Across the Roof of the WorldWe’ve been watching Levison Wood‘s Channel 4 series Walking the Himalayas. (And I’ve now reviewed his book of the series here.) The Boon Companion and I had to fight down a wave of nostalgia during the second episode, having spent a happy couple of weeks in Kashmir back in the early 80s, albeit followed by a brief admission to an Infectious Diseases hospital for The Oikofuge.

Anyway, Wood’s Himalayan traverse has prompted me to reread an account of the first such expedition. In 1981, mountaineers Graeme Dingle and Peter Hillary followed a rather free-style 5000-kilometre route from Kanchenjunga to K2. They did this “Alpine style”—travelling light and fast, after the fashion of Alpine mountaineers, rather than using the major-expedition style of classic Himalayan mountaineering. It was extremely Alpine-style: they carried only a tent fly-sheet for shelter, bought their food along the way, and generally walked in Adidas trainers (including during many of their glacier ascents and high col crossings). They only dug out the mountaineering kit when they had to venture over 17,000 feet in eastern Nepal. They walked usually with just one companion, and only occasionally hired porters if they were setting off with a large load of newly purchased food. At widely spaced intervals, where there was road access to the route, friends would bring in additional supplies.

Sometimes they ran out of food. Occasionally their trainers fell apart at inconvenient moments. They didn’t have very good maps, and the directions they got from locals were sometimes of poor quality. They tried to stick as close as possible to the spine of the Himalayas without climbing any peaks, so the journey was an endless up-and-down trek across the southern spurs of the big summits, crossing cols between 16,000 and 20,000 feet high. In 300 days of walking, they racked up a jaw-dropping 1.5 million feet of ascent. Their journey was not quite continuous—they couldn’t make legal border crossings in the high mountains between Sikkim and Nepal, or cross the Line of Control in Kashmir, and so were obliged to make detours by bus to official crossing points, and then take up the journey again as close as possible to the other side of the border. (Levison Wood had the same problem.)

It’s pretty clear that they hated each other for most of the journey, often walking separately for long periods, which must have been immense fun for their single travelling companion, a Nepalese-Tibetan mountaineer called Chewang Tashi. They wrote alternate chapters of this book, each apparently making some effort to spare the other’s feelings, so it’s difficult to know quite why there was so much animosity from so early in the journey. At one point Dingle describes some sort of near-mutiny, in which the support team members demand that Hillary step down as overall leader in favour of Dingle, but Hillary makes no reference to this.

Neither is a great stylist, it has to be said—they both overuse the word “mighty” (mighty peaks, mighty rivers, mighty cliffs); some of the “amusing” anecdotes are simply impenetrable; and neither of them can make up his mind whether they are traversing “the Himalaya” or “the Himalayas”. Only one phrase stood out for me in the whole book, and that was Dingle describing the disappointment of being drunk when everyone else is sober: “Unfortunately, the whisky I drank did little to cheer up those that didn’t drink it”. Even more unfortunately, this led him to try cheering everyone up by pretending to be a blind man falling over a cliff. At which point he … um … actually fell over a cliff. The resulting dislocated shoulder and fractured collar-bone put a bit of crimp in his style for the next few weeks.

But it’s a steady narrative that gets you from A to B. There’s unfortunately only so much that can be said about yet another col, another valley, another river—so the story mainly comes alive during encounters with other people; some friendly, some hostile, some local, some foreign.

Hodder & Stoughton produced a lovely hardback for them—it’s well laid out, with plenty of photographs nicely reproduced. For me, Colin Maclaren’s sketch maps should have been printed a bit larger, by turning them sideways on the page, but that’s probably a side-effect of my worsening presbyopia and the low winter sun at this reading. I don’t remember having the slightest problem with the maps when I first read this book in 1982!

So my only real complaint is the alleged typeface on the cover. I know the 70s and 80s weren’t great decades for typography on book covers, but this one really takes the biscuit:

Typeface from First Across The Roof Of The World
A crime against typography

Doesn’t that look more like a ransom note than an effort to produce a “set of glyphs that share common design features”?

Note: For interest, I’ve prepared the map below comparing the route taken by Dingle & Hillary with the later traverse by Wood. (Both routes were interrupted by problems with direct border crossings, necessitating detours to official crossing points, but Dingle & Hillary incurred a much bigger gap at the Kashmiri Line of Control.)

Comparison of Himalayan traverses by Wood and Dingle & Hillary
Comparison of Himalayan traverses by Wood (2015) and Dingle & Hillary (1981)
Click to enlarge
(Original base map)

Sidlaws: Dunsinane to Gask

Dunsinane Hill (NO 214316, 310m)
Black Hill (NO 219319, 360m)
King’s Seat (NO 230330, 377m)
Buttergask Hill (NO 230340, 307m)
Lintrose Hill (NO 234343, 325m)
Gask Hill (NO 238344, 358m)

16 kilometres
610 metres ascent

Dunsinane-Gask route
Click to enlarge
Contains OS OpenData © Crown copyright and database right 2018

So, I found myself uncommitted this morning, and decided to have a wander through the Sidlaw Hills. I was undaunted by the forecast of morning fog—I figured it would burn off later, and I’d get nice views of a mist-filled Tay estuary and Strathmore.

Yeah, right.

So I climbed up on to Dunsinane in thick mist, walked the ridge in thick mist, and came back along the road with the hills shrouded in thick mist. Sunlight appeared when I was approximately four steps from the car. But the hills were still covered in thick mist.

There’s a wee patch of roadside parking on the bend in the road just south of Collace (NO 207321). It’s only about 150 metres of ascent to get to the hill fort on the summit of Dunsinane, spuriously associated with Macbeth, and (according to one story) where the real Stone of Destiny was dug up in the nineteenth century.

Approach to Dunsinane Hill
Click to enlarge
Approach to Dunsinane Hill

There are crags on the direct line from Dunsinane to Black Hill, so you need to go a little SE, towards the plantation, and then zig back again into the rather steep-side cleft between the two hills. A path takes you up and over Black Hill, but then I always seem to mislay it on the way down to the little lochan where the Den Burn starts. There’s a broch marked on the map, below Little Dunsinane, but nothing to see on the ground apart from an oddly symmetrical hummock. I’ve never been able to find anything written about it, or about the other two brochs reported in the Sidlaws. They do seem a very long way from the usual territory for brochs:

Broch map
Distribution of brochs in Scotland by Anameofmyveryown
Used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence

On a good day, you can get a nice view down the Tay from the top of the scarp slope of King’s Seat. But not today.

Trig point, King's Seat
Click to enlarge
The view from King’s Seat

Then off the north slopes of King’s Seat—again, paths seem to come and go. I often scare up deer here, and today was no exception, with two white rumps disappearing into the mist at my approach.

There’s a lying path at the bottom of the cleft between King’s Seat and Buttergask Hill. A prominent 4×4 track runs through and looks like it’ll take you down to the farm access at Ledgertlaw, but it instead it disappears into a wilderness of gorse and fences. I’ve never been able to find a way down that didn’t involve barbed wire and skirting along the edge of someone’s fields.

Buttergask was new territory for me. I scaled a barbed wire fence between two posts that made a nice little stile, minimizing the damage to either myself or the fence. Buttergask seems to be enclosed by this fence (I found it again on the far side, below Lintrose), but covered in ATV tracks. There must be some gates somewhere …

ATV tracks took me almost to the top of both Buttergask and Lintrose. In the lumpy ground and rubbish visibility, I need to fish out the GPS receiver to make my way to the two “summits”, which in the mist bore a remarkable resemblance to that lethal patch of moorland in An American Werewolf in London.

The dip between Lintrose and Gask is seriously chewed up by large tyres going back and forth outside the plantation fence. There’s a padlocked gate in the fence at about NO 237342. I walked past it thinking I was going to find a fenced track through the trees a little further on, but that turned out to be no more than a double line of dilapidated fenceposts. Hopping over the gate is probably the best route through the trees, since the fence on the far side of the plantation is effectively non-existent.

A little sidetrack to the (surprisingly craggy on the south) summit of Gask Hill, and then along a vehicle track marked on the map which is at best a footpath on the ground. Then what I thought was going to be a bit of forest orienteering turned out to be a stroll through the wreckage of the plantation, which had been felled and (by the look of it) partially burned. New plantings farther down were just starting to peep up between the stumps of the old trees.

Felled forestry on Gask Hill
Click to enlarge
A blasted heath

Then back along the road to Collace. It’s a narrow road, but it’s quiet and straight and traffic isn’t a worry.

Some clear day I’ll go back for another wander around Buttergask and Lintrose. I suspect there are better ways on and off than the ones I found, and I’ve no ambition to go back through the felled wasteland at the NE end of Gask.

Simon Ingram: Between The Sunset And The Sea

Cover of "Between The Sunset And The Sea"

This one’s something I read earlier this year, posted now as a Christmas recommendation for anyone who knows a hillwalker. It’s the sort of book that has something for anyone who is even vaguely interested in British hills.

It is subtitled A View of 16 British Mountains. The sixteen mountains are: Beinn Dearg (the one round the back of Liathach), the Black Mountain, Cadair Idris, Crib Goch, Cnicht, Cross Fell, Shiehallion, Ben Loyal, An Teallach, a selection of Assynt hills, Askival, Ladhar Bheinn, Loughrigg Fell, Great Gable, Bein Macdui and Ben Nevis. So a fairly mixed and scattered sampling from across Britain.

Simon Ingram is editor of Trail magazine, so no stranger to outdoor writing.

Now, I have to confess I’ve never read Trail in my life. I pick it off the newsagent shelf occasionally, leaf blankly through its brightly coloured pages, sigh, and put it back again. I’m a member of that a silent majority of hillwalkers who don’t read outdoor magazines and don’t endlessly prowl gear shops. We wander the hills wearing the same old gear every year until it wears out, and then we venture grudgingly into a shop to try to buy something new that’s as close as possible in every way to the old stuff we had before.  We are suspicious of any hill activity that involves the words “challenge” or “adventure”, because we look on the hills as places that offer comfort, quiet and contemplation. If we find ourselves being “challenged” or “having an adventure”, then we’re pretty sure we ‘ve just done something wrong, and we try very hard to learn from the experience so that it doesn’t happen again.

So, to be honest, Ingram’s descriptions of his own hillwalking experiences seem a little overwrought to me. He seems constantly to be having adventures—setting off late, flirting with terrible weather, being forced to change plans late in the day, and fretting about gear and water and navigation and exposed ridges. I kept feeling that he could avoid all this if he just, well, sorted himself out a bit better. His description of An Teallach, in particular, is so full of episodes of awe and foreboding that it reads more like a trip to the Gate of Mordor than a day hike up a lovely big mountain.

Fortunately, the sixteen mountains aren’t actually what this book is about. They are just the narrative hooks from which Ingram hangs fascinating discursive essays on pretty much all things hill-related: mining and rock-climbing, natural history and weather, painting and poetry, history and geology. He has a great sense for a telling anecdote and a colourful character. We read (among many other things) about the Welsh potholers squeezing through into a new chamber, only to find themselves in a disused mine being used to store dynamite; the marvellously improbable nocturnal encounter between Bill Tilman and Jim Perrin in the summit shelter of Cadair Idris; Norman Collie‘s panic attack on Ben Macdui; the alligators on the Hebridean island of Rum; and the odd characters involved in running a weather station on Ben Nevis and a physics experiment on Schiehallion.

So, apart from intermittent twinges of worry about the sheer intensity of Ingram’s relationship with some of his chosen hills, I enjoyed every page.

Glen Affric from Mullach Fraoch-choire
Comfort, quiet and contemplation
Looking down Glen Affric from Mullach Fraoch-choire, Summer 1980

The Lost World of Loch Mullardoch

I awoke to the shrilling of greenshank and the loud piping of oyster-catchers. My holiday had indeed started. Not a breath of wind stirred and the green hills around me were overdrawn by a grey line of settled clouds. There was no knowing what the day would bring forth, so I had a leisurely breakfast, picking up my binoculars now and then to watch a sandpiper or redshank go about its business. From the wood came songs of blackbirds and thrushes, and the little chorus of wrens and willow warblers thrown in made a lovely little choir.

Tom Weir, Highland Days

Weir’s idyllic awakening is something that many of us who own a tent have shared. But none of us will ever again be able to share Weir’s specific experience. Here’s why:

Mullardoch dam
The car park below the Mullardoch dam (Click to enlarge)

The monstrous Mullardoch dam blocks off all but the most determined access to upper Glen Cannich. Behind it, Loch Mullardoch stretches westwards for 15 kilometres. Access to the surrounding hills is limited to one truly horrible path that stretches partway along the north side of the loch: muddy, undulating, and in places obliterated by landslides. The south side of the loch has no access paths at all.

A walker standing at the outlet of the Allt Coire a’ Mhaim, eight kilometres west of the dam on the north shore of the loch, has a certain sense of commitment—the way back to the car park is either up and along the An Riabhachan ridge or back along that horrible path. (Usually, as this realization sinks in, it starts raining.)

But it wasn’t always like this. Before the dam was built in 1951, Loch Mullardoch was a mere seven kilometres long. A single-track road ran along its north side. There were cottages by the roadside at Mullardoch, Cosag (or Cozac, or Cossock) and Coire na Cuilean. At the head of the loch, flatlands opened out. There were two lodges (Old and New Benula Lodge) and multiple estate buildings at the loch-head, and a bridge spanning the broad river that entered the loch at its western end. From the estate buildings, a path ran through Caledonian pine forest most of the way back along the southern shore.

Old Benula Lodge
Old Benula Lodge and outbuildings, looking across the river from above the road. The right of way continues up towards Loch Lungard in the distance. Beinn Fhionnlaidh looms in the background. Picture from Iain MacKay’s privately-published “The Last Highland Clearance”, uncredited in the original.
New Benula Lodge
New Benula Lodge from the road. The Old Lodge lies on lower ground  to the left. Coire Mhaim, below An Socach, is in the background. Picture from Iain MacKay’s privately-published “The Last Highland Clearance”, uncredited in the original.

The road continued westwards on the south side of the river, and then along the southern shore of lost Loch Lungard (now submerged and assimilated into Greater Loch Mullardoch). Eventually it reached the settlement of Lungard—a few cottages tucked under Meall Shuas. Beyond that,  a path went farther west, crossing the watershed and letting down into Glen Elchaig.

Mullardoch and Lungard
Ordnance Survey map of Lochs Mullardoch and Lungard, before the dam. (Click to enlarge)
Current shoreline
Shoreline after the dam, from OS Open Data. (Click to enlarge)

The whole system made a direct link between Kintail and Cannich. It was cycleable throughout its length—or at least, it was reputedly cycled on at least one occasion, by a Reverend Mackay, in 1910, in a blizzard.

The hydroelectric scheme submerged all these paths and buildings as far west as, and including, Lungard. Beyond that point there’s just a sad little stump of path, still making the connection to Glen Elchaig via Iron Lodge.

Old and new Mullardoch shorelines
Bartholomew’s 1912 “Survey Atlas of Scotland”, which best shows the buildings in the area. The current Ordnance Survey shoreline is marked in blue. (Click to enlarge)

A few traces remain: a couple of gable-ends and a chimney standing on the shore of the new loch at Am Mam (NH 123303); tumbled walls of two bulidings at Dorus a’ Choilich (NH 102288); and some ruins at the head of the loch, beautifully photographed by a pair of valiant canoeists in their blog here (the relevant photos start about halfway down the page). From the background in these photographs, I think they’re the remains of the buildings at Gobh-alltan (NH 088291).

The completeness of the inundation may well be the explanation for why the “Hydro Board” was not required to re-establish access to upper Glen Cannich, as it did in other cases—there was simply no functional community left in the upper glen to require that access.

The water level of the new loch is variable, and the effect of changes in level is most marked in its upper reaches, where the surrounding terrain slopes gently. The level seems to have been at its highest shortly after the dam was placed, notably in the OS seventh series mapping of 1961. It’s now lower than the shoreline marked on current OS maps. We can switch back and forth between a range of map coverage at the National Library of Scotland‘s wonderful selection of georeferenced maps and overlays. (All the maps I’m using here come from that source.)

Here’s the shoreline from the OS seventh series mapping of 1961, superimposed as a blue line on Bartholomew’s 1902 map, which dates from before even the Old Lodge was built:

1961 shoreline
(Click to enlarge)

And here’s a recent shoreline traced from the Bing satellite map at the NLS:

Current shoreline
(Click to enlarge)

With the fall in water levels, it seems that the ruins of Lungard should have emerged into the air again. And they have. Here’s the OS 1:10,000 map of the settlement during the 1900s:

Lungard map
(Click to enlarge)

And here’s the Bing satellite view of the current shoreline in the same area (NH 103300). The line of the river is pretty much the same, and gives you orientation:

Lungard ruins
(Click to enlarge)

Highland Days, Tom WeirIn Tom Weir’s Highland Days, he describes a five-day stay in Glen Cannich in the 1930s, from which I quoted at the head of this piece. He hitched a “bumpy ride” in someone’s car from the Glen Affric Hotel to Benula, and then set up camp close to the Lodge to explore the surrounding hills. Even in May, months before the stalking season, the keeper was forbidden to accommodate climbers in the Lodge, but that didn’t stop him leaving eggs, milk and scones beside Weir’s tent of a morning.

One day the rain went off at 3pm, so Weir nipped out to quickly bag An Socach—nowadays rather more difficult to access!

More Days from a Hill Diary, Adam WatsonIn More Days from a Hill Diary, 1951–80, Adam Watson describes driving up to the New Lodge in 1951 (he must have driven past the construction work on the dam), and taking the zig-zag path behind the lodge straight up on to Sgurr na Lapaich, before making a circuit on cross-country skis over An Riabhachan and then down the Allt Socrach to the lodge again.

If I make a rough plot of the routes taken by Weir and Watson (Weir gives little detail, especially of his return routes), it’s a fine indication of the outdoor possibilities that are now lost to us beneath the waters of Loch Mullardoch:

Approximate routes taken by Weir and Watson
(Click to enlarge)



Walking: Introduction

But any ground that is not quite flat is of some interest to a mountaineer and the humblest hill is not to be despised, least of all by a mountaineer long past his youth.

H.W. ‘Bill’ Tilman in Mischief Among the Penguins

I chose “Walking” as the label for this category after rejecting “Climbing” (which suggests a degree of rope-dangling I don’t aspire to) and “Hiking” (which would tend to exclude the occasional short opportunistic wander, of which I’m quite fond).

I’ve been walking in the Scottish Highlands for more than forty years. Sometimes I walk between the hills, sometimes I walk over the hills. For almost all of that time I’ve had no agenda whatsoever, which goes some way towards explaining how, in all that time, I’ve failed to complete any of the various lists of hills maintained by the Scottish Mountaineering Club and others.

I acquired an agenda last year. It’s because of this map, which used to hang on the wall of my office at work, and which now graces our study at home:

OS inch-to-the-mile Cairngorms
Possibly the best OS map, ever

This is the 1964 Ordnance Survey inch-to-the-mile, coloured, shaded-relief map of the Cairngorms Mountains—as the caption says, probably the most beautiful map the Ordnance Survey have ever produced. As a boy, I used it while I crept around the hills in the bottom right-hand corner. It was abandoned, but still loved, when the Ordnance Survey went metric. Eventually it acquired a frame, as you see it now.

It contains 46 Munros, 19 Corbetts, 5 Grahams and 6 Marilyns below the height of 2000 feet. And it occurred to me last year that I’d climbed pretty much all of them, over the years. So some time in the next few years I’m going to try to polish off the remaining four.

Apart from that, I’m going to carry on with my customary random progression around Scotland. I’ll report back here.

These photos should give an idea of why I do it:

Clen Coe from Am Bodach
Clen Coe from Am Bodach
Loch Quoich from Sgurr na Ciche
Loch Quoich from Sgurr na Ciche
Ben Alder from Loch Pattack
Ben Alder from Loch Pattack
An Ruadh-Stac from Maol Chean-dearg
An Ruadh-Stac from Maol Chean-dearg
Beinn Eighe from Coulin
Who needs TV?