Category Archives: Walking

Nan Shepherd: The Living Mountain

Cover of The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nan Shepherd portrait on Royal Bank of Scotland £5 note

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then there’s this:

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

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

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

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

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


Tinto (NS 953343, 711m)

8.3 kilometres
510 metres of ascent

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

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

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

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

Tinto from Fallburn car park
Click to enlarge

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

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

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

Ramparts of fort, Tinto track beyond
Click to enlarge

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

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

Track up Tinto from Totherin Hill
Click to enlarge

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

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

Tinto view indicator, Dungavel Hill beyond
Click to enlarge

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

Trig point, Tinto
Click to enlarge

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

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

Totherin Hill from Tinto
Click to enlarge

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

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

Track on Totherin Hill, Tinto
Click to enlarge

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

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

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

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

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

20 kilometres
790 metres of ascent

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

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

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

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

Link to Ben Shee from Frandy Farm road
Click to enlarge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andrew Gannel Hill and Skythorn Hill from Cairnmorris Hill
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These two hills had me reaching for Angus Watson’s toponymic guide, The Ochils.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Low water in Upper Glendevon Reservoir, Burnfoot Hill Wind Farm beyond
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Farther down the glen, the Lower Glendevon Reservoir was looking a bit thirsty, too.

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

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

Buff Ermine caterpillar on Glendevon reservoir road
Click to enlarge
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Glen Doll: White Water Circuit

Tom Buidhe (NO 214787, 957m)
Tolmount (NO 210800, 958m)
Crow Craigies (NO 221798, 920m)

21 kilometres
910 metres of ascent

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

These three rounded summits form a horseshoe around the headwaters of the White Water, which flows down Glen Doll to join the South Esk in Glen Clova. I’ve visited them all before, but never linked them up into a logical circuit. I’ve climbed Tolmount from the north and the west, but never from the south. For a year or two during the 1980s I believed I’d climbed Tom Buidhe, in deep snow and worsening weather, only to realize later that a combination of poor navigation and a desire to nip up and down quickly had sent me up the steep face of Meikle Kilrannoch instead. This realization of an embarrassing error meant that I had to immediately return to Glen Doll and climb the thing properly, the very next weekend. And Crow Craigies is, of course, the legendary summit that gave its name to the annual expeditions of the Crow Craigies Climbing Party, which I’ve been detailing in these pages for six years now. I conquered its gentle whaleback summit more or less by accident as the culmination of an aimless walk up Jock’s Road one spring afternoon.

But this time I was going to traverse them all, exploring the interlinking watersheds that divide this area of high plateau between Glenshee, Glen Isla, Glen Doll and Glen Clova. I briefly entertained the notion of including Mayar in my circuit, which would have included a visit to the watershed between Glen Doll and Glen Prosen, too; but on the day the prospect of the long crossing of the peat hags between Mayar and Tom Buidhe began to significantly undermine the undoubted joy to be had from a four-watershed day.

So I set off up Glen Doll along Jock’s Road, as far as Davy’s Bourach. I’ve written before about the stories of John ‘Jock’ Winter and David ‘Davy’ Glen, so I won’t repeat them here. A little beyond Davy’s Bourach a small plaque is fixed to a boulder, commemorating the lives lost in the winter tragedy of 1959 which led Davy Glen to build his bourach on this spot, as an emergency mountain shelter.

Memorial plaque, Glen Doll
Click to enlarge

The Ordnance Survey marks a path branching off Jock’s Road to the left at around this point, and descending to the White Water, but it’s not evident on the ground. I found my own way, contouring around to gain sight of the river, and then walking upstream along its high heathery bank until the river bed rose up to meet me, with the dome of Tom Buidhe ahead.

Crossing the White Water, Tom Buidhe ahead
Click to enlarge

Then it was just a long rising traverse, picking my way up across trackless ground, to reach the dome of Tom Buidhe. There are a lot of Tom Buidhes in Scotland—the name means “yellow hillock”, and that is indeed the appearance of this Tom Buidhe, rising only a little above the surrounding plateau and clad, for most of the year, in yellow grass. From the summit, I had a view north to my next hill, Tolmount.

Tolmount from Tom Buidhe
Click to enlarge

But first I had to turn west, descending along a fairly substantial track that points straight towards Cairn of Claise. At this point, all the water to my left drained into the Canness Burn and Glen Isla, and all the water to my right into the White Water and Glen Doll.

Descending Tom Buidhe towards Cairn of Claise
Click to enlarge

I turned right on a branching track just before the curiously named little lump of Ca Whims, which you can make out in the middle ground of the photo above. The original Ordnance Survey Name Book entry for this feature records that, “The derivation of this name cannot be obtained”. Dorward hazards that it comes from cadha fuaim, which he translates as “pass of ?echoes”, while Watson renders the Gaelic as cadha fuaime, and opts for “hill of echo”. Watson seems to have the right of it with his Gaelic grammar, fuaime being the genitive form of fuaim, meaning “noise” or “echo”, but seems to go astray with cadha, which generally denotes a narrow or rocky ravine. It seems like a very odd name for a gently rounded lump in the middle of a wide plateau, however, and I’m tempted to believe the Ordnance Survey’s original report that the derivation “cannot be obtained”.

So after that fascinating toponymic diversion, I crossed boggy ground in the col to reach the shoulder of Tolmount. The path at this point briefly turned into one of those paths that is slight worse than no path at all—not quite visible enough to follow reliably, but just visible enough to tempt you to spend time looking for it once you’ve lost it. But it sorted itself out higher on the hill.

Now, having rounded the most westerly source of the White Water, I was on to a new watershed, with the White Water draining to my right, and water to my left draining north into the steep gully of Glen Callater.

The path took me up past the rectangular ruins of a substantial shieling just short of the summit.

Ruined shieling, Tolmount
Click to enlarge

It appears as a tiny rectangle on the six-inch Ordnance Survey map of Aberdeenshire, Sheet CVII, but otherwise I can’t find out anything about it.

Detail from Aberdeenshire Six-Inch Sheet CVII (1902)
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The summit itself is set just too far back to afford a view down Glen Callater, but a very short walk brings it into view, with Loch Callater gleaming in the distance.

Glen Callater from Tolmount
Click to enlarge

Then downhill to step across the northern source of the White Water, and a brief ascent on to Crow Craigies, and a new watershed—water to my right was still going into the White Water, but water to my left was now descending into Glen Clova and the South Esk. From the summit, I had a good view towards the distant head of Glen Clova at Bachnagairn, and the little pool of Loch Esk.

Loch Esk and distant Glen Clova from Crow Craigies
Click to enlarge

I last looked down on these from a different angle, when I made my traverse between Glen Doll and Glen Clova.

I dropped southeast off Crow Craigies, and then turned around to admire the little line of crags on its northern side that give it its name.

Crow Craigies
Click to enlarge

At this point I rejoined Jock’s Road, but almost immediately stepped off it again to make one final ascent, of an unnamed 874m summit which the good people over at the Database of British and Irish Hills have tagged as “Crow Craigies South Top”. I figured that this might be a good location for a retrospective panorama of my route, and so it proved to be.

Panorama from summit of Crow Craigies South Top, Tom Buidhe to Broad Cairn
Click to enlarge

Then it was just a matter of winding my way back down into the Glen, rejoining my upward route.

Jock's Road descending into Glen Doll
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As I passed Davy’s Bourach, I trotted up to the cairn on the little viewpoint that looks down the glen. But it’s also a nice spot from which to look back towards the plateau and judge the loneliness of the bourach, nestled below the crags of Cairn Lunkard.

Davy's Bourach below Cairn Lunkard, Glen Doll
Click to enlarge

And then the long walk back down through the forest to the car park. I think I’ve walked it too many times this year, and it seems to get longer every time. So my next outing will take me elsewhere.

Toadstools, Glen Doll
Click to enlarge

Ben Vrackie From The West

Ben Vrackie (NN 950632, 841m)
Meall na h-Aodainn Moire (NN 941622, 633m)

14 kilometres
900 metres of ascent

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

This one is much less eccentric than most of my “familiar hills from an unusual direction” reports—the route to Vrackie from the west is well-documented, but considerably less-travelled than the tourist route from the south. There’s even the potential to link the western approach with a southerly exit (or vice versa), because both approach routes now form part of what’s called the Bealach Path, linking Pitlochry and Killicrankie over the moorland, with a return link through the Tay Forest Park on the Killiecrankie Path. You can find out more about these (and other) routes from a pretty booklet about the Pitlochry Path Network, available as a pdf file here. But I’m afraid I didn’t know anything about the woodland Killicrankie Path when I set out, so this is a straightforward there-and-back-again walk rather than what would have been an interesting circular hike.

I have weird history with Ben Vrackie. I climbed it back in the 1990s, on a damp, still day when the cloud base came down to 600 metres, and as I approach the summit through thick mist, I suddenly realized that I could hear a child weeping. With the hair standing up on the back of my neck I jogged uphill towards the sound, to discover a family group sitting at the summit, the father comforting a little girl. He turned to me and said, in outraged tones, “A goat just stole her sandwich!”

Now, that’s not a phrase you hear every day, but it was probably uttered on an almost daily basis on the summit of Ben Vrackie during the ’90s, when walkers were plagued by a couple of near-feral goats. They were quite prepared to climb on top of people and to stick their heads into rucksacks in search of food, and were sufficiently infamous to generate a detailed report in The Angry Corrie (Scotland’s First & Finest Hillwalker’s Fanzine). You can find an excessively flattering portrait of the offending animals here.

Secure in the knowledge that the goats have long since departed for the Great Sandwich Bar In The Sky, I parked at the Killiecrankie Visitor Centre and walked a short way north along the old A9 (now humiliatingly demoted to the B8079) before turning right through the tunnel under the new(ish) A9 and heading up the road past Old Faskally House. I soon encountered a poem affixed to a gate that bypasses a cattle grid on the road.

Gate sign at Old Faskally
Click to enlarge

The tarmac ends at a three-way branching which is confusingly signposted, for me at least:

Western end of Bealach Path
Click to enlarge

The sign to the Bealach Path appears to point steadfastly towards a large padlocked gate (here decorated by a recently sheared sheep). What wasn’t immediately evident is that there’s a fourth way, to the left of the sheep and behind the grassy mound, which at the time I arrived was little more than a pair of faint tyre tracks crossing a field. This unpromising looking line turned out to be the correct route, gradually become clearer as it ascends the hillside, and eventually turning into a well-worn track that has suffered some catastrophic water erosion along part of its length.

Erosion on the Bealach Path, Killicrankie
Click to enlarge

(A new section of path has been created that bypasses the worst of this, forking off to the right as you ascend.)

The track slowly ascends towards Meall na h-Aodainn Moire (“mound of the big face”, of which more later), and eventually a signpost points off to the left, signalling the route towards Ben Vrackie. OpenStreetMap suggests there’s a branch farther back along the Bealach Path, bypassing the slight rise and fall incurred by the signposted route, but I didn’t notice it. It’s round about this point that Ben Vrackie starts to look quite challenging, as you get a view of its steep southern face and pointy summit:

Ben Vrackie from the western approach
Click to enlarge

The path descends to the head of Loch a’ Choire and then loops around its pretty northern shore to join the tourist route coming up from Pitlochry. I scared up a couple of irate mallards as I passed the reed beds.

Loch a' Choire, below Ben Vrackie
Click to enlarge

Then it’s just a matter of climbing what is in effect a three-hundred-metre staircase to the summit—the final steep section has been beautifully engineered against erosion with a set of irregular rocky steps.

Loch a' Choire and the Ben Vrackie path
Click to enlarge

At this point I began to run into various family groups clattering down the path in T-shirts and trainers, with scant regard for on-coming traffic. Each time, I’d stop and step courteously off the path to let them pass. This action seemed to trigger a strange solicitousness, or perhaps I’m just looking particularly old and weary these days. But three times during my ascent someone turned to me as they passed and asked gently “Are you all right?” in the sort of tones usually reserved for wild-haired, bare-footed and pyjama-clad people roaming the streets at midnight. Three times.

So I was feeling slightly put-upon by the time I reached the summit to enjoy the airy views that had been obscured by mist on my previous visit. Here’s the view north to the triple summit of Beinn a’ Ghlo:

Beinn a' Ghlo from Ben Vrackie
Click to enlarge

And then there was this:

Summit of Ben Vrackie
Click to enlarge

I’ve encountered the “photographing my dog sitting on the view indicator” thing before, when I climbed East Lomond, but I thought it was some sort of one-off eccentricity. Now I’m guessing there’s a social media meme driving this otherwise inexplicable behaviour.

After a bit of lunch, I headed off down to the loch again, where I encountered a pretty memorial bench in a fine location:

Loch a' Choire, below Ben Vrackie
Click to enlarge

And notice, if you will, the prominent hill at upper left. That’s Meall na h-Aodainn Moire, and I wonder if its distinctly cliffy appearance from this angle accounts for the name “mound of the big face”.

At this point I decided that I’d visit its summit rather than retrace my steps along the lochside. So I followed the path, visible above, that runs along the earth dam that pens in Loch a’ Choire, passed another nicely placed memorial bench, and then followed a slot in the heather that took me up to the broad shoulder between Meall na h-Aodainn Moire and Stac an Fheidh. I wandered out to the heathery top of Stac an Fheidh (“high rock of the deer”) to grab a photograph of Vrackie that shows the line of the path well:

Ben Vrackie from Stac an Fheidh
Click to enlarge

Then I followed another track that took me high on the shoulder of Meall na h-Aodainn Moire before dropping down to join the Bealach Path just north of its highest point in the Bealach na Searmoin. (This is “pass of the sermon”. I don’t know why, but wonder if it was a route by which outlying communities reached the old parish church at Moulin, long ago.)

A diversion to the summit of Meall na h-Aodainn Moire gave me a nice view across the bealach to Meall Uaine (“green mound”). No prizes for guessing how it got its name:

Meall Uaine from Meall na h-Aodainn Moire
Click to enlarge

Then it was just a matter of retracing my steps to the car. Along the way, I had my best wildlife encounters of the day, in the form of a succession of Peacock butterflies on the trackside vegetation:

Peacock Butterfly
Click to enlarge

And that was that. My surreal relationship with Ben Vrackie felt like it had been preserved by the weird solicitude of the descending family parties, and by the canine-portraiture episode on the summit. But there was one more bit of weirdness to follow. As I took off my boots in the Visitor Centre car park, I was abruptly approached by a young woman who was clutching the traditional mobile phone in one hand and a little bottle of mineral water in the other.

“Have you done the bungee jumping?” she asked, without preamble.
“No, I haven’t.”
“But have you ever done bungee jumping?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Well, what have you been doing?”
“Walking.” (I waved a newly doffed boot at her.)
“Where’ve you been walking?”
“Ben Vrackie.”
“And that’s a hill, is it?”
“But you haven’t done the bungee jumping?”

At which point she turned on her heel and left as abruptly as she came. A few seconds later, I heard her voice floating across the car park: “No, he was no use—he says he hasn’t done the bungee jumping.”

I’m glad we got that settled.

(Be the first)

Glen Doll – Glen Clova Circuit

Cairn Lunkard (NO 232781, 863m)
Craigs of Loch Esk (NO 237786, 851m)

17 kilometres
790 metres of ascent

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

This is a classic circular route over the plateau between Glen Doll and upper Glen Clova, but it’s been fifty years since I last walked it. I was put in mind of doing it again during my recent trip across the plateau from Cairn Broadlands to Cairn Damff.

Quite an obvious path links the glen heads, these days, but I aimed instead to pass over the low humps of Cairn Lunkard and the Craigs of Loch Esk.

So there was the usual forest walk along the lower stretch of Jock’s Road, before coming out of the trees and getting a sudden view of upper Glen Doll, with the thin ribbon of the path ascending along its north side.

Glen Doll and Jock's Road above the forestry
Click to enlarge

I’ve described before how the old droving route of Jock’s Road supposedly got its name from a local shepherd in the nineteenth century. I’ve always thought that the prominent little knob at the head of Glen Doll, called The Lunkard, would be a good viewpoint from which to appreciate Glen Doll and the line of Jock’s Road, and so it proved to be.

Panorama of Glen Doll from The Lunkard
Click to enlarge

While I was taking the panoramic view above, I was receiving the continuous attention of a pair of irate kestrels, who must have had a nest nearby.

“Lunkard” is a Scots word meaning “temporary shelter”, and the drovers may have made camp in the sheltered cleft below The Lunkard, after descending from the exposed plateau. The successor to these camps is the mountain shelter of Davy’s Bourach, which lies a little farther up the glen.

Davy's Bourach above Glen Doll
Click to enlarge

I’ve written before about the Gaelic meaning of bourach—“a mess”. But it seems to have acquired quite a selection of meanings in Scots, of which “mound”, “heap” and “hovel” might all apply. Given the shelter’s construction, I think there’s also more than a passing connection to the verb bourach, which means “to burrow”. The “Davy” involved was David Glen, a local outdoorsman who was involved in the recovery of the bodies of five members of the Universal Hiking Club of Glasgow, who perished in foul weather on New Year’s Day 1959 while crossing the plateau. Glen set about constructing this emergency shelter soon after—three dry-stone walls and roof constructed of timber and corrugated iron brought laboriously up the glen, completed in 1966.

Beyond the bourach, I followed Jock’s Road a little farther, looping below the steep side of Cairn Lunkard and then walking to the summit along its short and easy-angled northwestern slope. I paused to take a photograph of the view of Cairn Damff and Craig Damff to the east—very much changed from the snowy conditions in which I recently visited them, then dropped off the hill into its northern lee for a bite of lunch.

Craig Damff and Cairn Damff from Cairn Lunkard
Click to enlarge

A stroll across the moorland took me to the Craigs of Loch Esk, with a view of Broad Cairn and Lochnagar.

Broad Cairn and Lochnagar from Craigs of Loch Esk
Click to enlarge

then a short descent to the north brought me in sight of the Craigs’ namesake, Loch Esk. I crossed the remote outflow of Loch Esk a few years ago, on my way from the Glittering Skellies to Fafernie Shiel—more on that trip here (including an explanation of what a skellie and a shiel might be).

Loch Esk, Craig of Gowal and Broad Cairn
Click to enlarge

A few metres farther down the hill, and I was on the well-worn plateau path, which quickly took me down to the larches and Scots pines of Bachnagairn, at the head of upper Glen Clova, and one of my favourite places in the world.

Bachnagairn and upper Glen Clova
Click to enlarge

From there, the path broadens into a track, which took me below the cliffs of Juanjorge. (I’ve written more about that odd name when I described a visit to the top of the cliffs last year.)

Juanjorge cliffs, Glen Clova
Click to enlarge

And I finally got a chance to walk across the new bridge across the South Esk, just above Moulzie farm, which replaces the old one swept away by winter floods a few years ago.

New bridge over the South Esk above Moulzie
Click to enlarge

It certainly beats the temporary bog-trotting route along the west side of the river which was the main route up the glen for a year or so, in the absence of a bridge.

Sidlaws: Long Loch Circuit

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)

8.5 kilometres
210 metres of ascent

Round Loch circuit route
Click to enlarge
Contains OS OpenData © Crown copyright and database right 2018
Additional paths and tracks marked have all been walked by The Oikofuge

It’s been a while since I’ve posted a new walk in the Sidlaws. This one accesses an old ridge-walk from a new direction. I’ve previous visited these hills either from Tullybaccart to the southwest, or Newtyle to the northeast. This time, I’ve followed a circular route that passes through the farmland around Long Loch. I left the car at NO 298379, where the tracks from Wester Keith and Sunnyhall join—there’s scope here to roll a couple of cars on to the rough verge beside the cattle-grid, out of the way of all farm traffic.

A short distance up the track to Wester Keith, I passed the big coded-entry gates that bar unauthorized vehicular access to the boat-houses on Long Loch.

Road entrance to Long Loch
Click to enlarge

But the track to the loch and adjoining Palmer Wood is accessible for pedestrians through a little gate opposite the Easter Keith farm buildings. I passed that, and carried on along to Wester Keith. Here, just beyond the farm buildings and cottage, a rather muddy patch of ground provides access to the fields beyond. My route from there went through a succession of farm gates to reach Westerkeith Hill.

Westerkeith Hill from West Keith Farm
Click to enlarge

The grazing land was entirely unoccupied when I passed through, but there was copious evidence underfoot that cattle had been here—so it’s not a route that will always be accessible. At the upper end of the field system, a broken wooden gate (easily stepped over) gives access to the hill slope beyond. I climbed steeply uphill for a short distance to join the broad grassy track that swings around the shoulder of Westerkeith Hill and on to the ridge. (This track is just visible in my photograph above, as a narrow line of darker green crossing the hill in a rising rake from left to right.)

Following the track around in a long ascending curve gave me a fine view down on to Long Loch.

Long Loch from Westerkeith Hill
Click to enlarge

And then, shortly afterwards, got me to my first summit of the day, Lundie Craigs.

View towards Keillor Hill from Lundie Craigs
Click to enlarge

My onward route took me across to Keillor Hill, the heathery lump in the middle distance in the photograph above. Apart from a tiny bit of bundu-bashing through the heather to acquire the summit of Keillor Hill, the whole traverse follows fairly evident (if intermittently boggy) paths and tracks.

The Keillor Hill summit is traversed by an old 4×4 track, rapidly becoming overgrown, and I followed the remaining slot in the heather downhill for a short distance until it reached a gate in the ridge-line fence, and a fairly major track that runs the full length of the ridge.

After following this track for a while, I arrived at the Mackenzie Meridian, an isolated stone tower which I’ve written about in my report from a previous visit.

Mackenzie Meridian and Kinpurney Hill
Click to enlarge

Some distance beyond the Meridian, the track reaches a junction, with a left turn that takes you down into a confusion of paths from which you can eventually find your way into the Newtyle Path Network. Straight ahead it passes through a gate and runs farther along the ridge. I seem to remember a “Beware of the Bull” sign at this point, some years ago, but it was not evident on this visit. Also at this junction, there’s a little stile that gives access to the grazing land on the slope of Pittendreich Hill above Long Loch.

Gate and stile on Pittendreich Hill above Long Loch
Click to enlarge

I hopped over it to take a look at what sort of access it might provide, but very quickly found myself approaching a flock of sheep with young lambs, so retreated back to the ridge-line and the main track.

Track between Mackenzie Meridian and Newtyle Hill
Click to enlarge

This runs on over Donald’s Brae, and then passes a little south of the summits of Auchtertyre Hill and Newtyle Hill. So I made a short excursion to visit the two rounded summits, both clothed in spiky yellow gorse which was giving off a strong smell of coconut in the still air.

I missed my line slightly at this point, and ended up having to bear right a little (and then search for a gap in the gorse) to find my way back on to the track as it descended into the moorland below Newtyle Hill.

Track descending off Newtyle Hill
Click to enlarge

The scent of coconut from the gorse was now pretty overwhelming, as you might be able to realize from the picture.

On previous visits, I’ve encountered English Longhorn cattle grazing around here—I presume the same herd I photographed during a previous trip up the other side of Newtyle Hill. And I presume they account for the “Beware of the Bull” signs one encounters in this vicinity. I’m prepared to walk a long and circuitous way to avoid disturbing an English Longhorn bull, but on this occasion it wasn’t necessary. I could hear cattle lowing in the distance, but never saw one.

The track eventually makes a right turn to service some wildfowl hides at the oddly named little pond of Hunkrum Dubs. But my route took me along a narrower path that continues straight ahead, to the southeast. There’s a trick to getting off the moorland at this point, which is pretty much moated around with fences. An obscure little path branches southwards at NO 305393—it’s actually more visible if you look for it in the distance to the right, rather than trying to detect any sort of branch directly off the southeast path. After a short distance, this took me to a stile over a fence into a little corner of woodland. And after a short walk through the trees (scaring up a particularly astonished-looking roe deer in the process), I arrived at a decaying bridge over the Neuk Burn, with a gate on the far side that gives access to an open field otherwise surround by an electric fence.

Broken bridge over Neuk Burn near Thriepley
Click to enlarge

I don’t trust that bridge at all. The woody has the spongy consistency of expanded polystyrene, and I elected to step across the burn below instead.

Again, the field was empty of livestock, and I was able to head south along its eastern edge, where the forestry marked by the Ordnance Survey has now been cleared. At the end of the field I arrived at another gate, which took me out on to a farm track that continued southwards.

Keeping to the southerly line, this track eventually gives way to a path that runs along the length of a strip of newly planted trees, their green protective covers looking like some sort of odd art installation.

Farm track returning the Thriepley
Click to enlarge

Then there was another gate, and a track down the east side of the private grounds of Thriepley House took me to the road. Then it was just a matter of walking a short distance along the tarmac, past Thriepley’s mad mash-up of Scots Baronial and Italianate styles, and I was back at the car—wondering where I might be able to source a cherub finial for our garden shed.

Cherub finial, Thriepley
Click to enlarge

CCCP 2021: Beinn a’ Chuallaich

Beinn a’ Chuallaich (NN 684617, 892m)

13 kilometres
720 metres of ascent

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

The Crow Craigies Climbing Party was again prevented by Covid restrictions from assembling in full force this year, but the founding members managed to get together for a socially distanced day on the hill nevertheless. Our aim this year was to climb Beinn a’ Chuallaich above Kinloch Rannoch—one of those rare hill ascents that start in the middle of a village.

We parked in the village square, walked about fifty metres up the road, and then turned off on to a 4×4 track just below a little waterfall, which looked under-filled after a prolonged dry spell. This is the outflow of the Allt Mor (“big stream”), and we were planning to circumnavigate its catchment area, following high ground around the rim of the Coire Labhruinn.

Allt Mor above Kinloch Rannoch
Click to enlarge

The 4×4 track took us in a long, easy-angled zig-zag across the hill, and eventually deposited us next to a small bridge that crosses the Allt Mor. The 4×4 track carries on up the west bank of the river to service a little dam farther up, but we crossed the bridge to the east side.

We pushed uphill towards the ruins of a substantial dry-stone wall that crosses the corrie outlet, linking Meall Dubh in the west to Ceann Caol na Creige in the east. To our right, the wall seemed to sport a rather odd feature, so we wandered along to take a look.

Cairn built from drystone wall on approach to Beinn a' Chuallaich
Click to enlarge

There’s no obvious purpose for this elegant little cairn, which appears to have been assembled from the smaller stones of the ruined wall.

We continued our walk alongside the wall, avoiding potentially boggy ground in the corrie, until we arrived below the slopes of Ceann Caol na Creige. Here we turned left, and worked our way up towards Meall Breac, eventually following the line of a set of stone-built grouse butts to reach its summit.

Here, we had a last view down into the glen below, and of the cloud-shrouded bulk of Schiehallion on the far side, before we pushed on upwards into cloud ourselves.

Dunalastair Reservoir and Schiehallion from Meall Breac
Click to enlarge

Climbing into mist and a thin drizzle, we aimed to strike the col just west of Beinn a’ Chuallaich. On the map this is crossed by a path, but we also stumbled upon a substantial vehicle track in the col, too. Then we threaded up steep ground between some small crags, to eventually find ourselves at the triangulation pillar that stands just short of the true summit.

Trig point of Beinn a' Chuallaich
Click to enlarge

The summit itself is marked by a substantial cairn, which gave us a little bit of a lee for a seat and a bite of lunch.

Then we headed downhill again, in what could best be described as rubbish visibility.

Descending Beinn a' Chuallaich in mist
Click to enlarge

Our plan, based on a rather luxurious weather forecast two days previously, had been to stroll along the high ridge enjoying wide views across Loch Rannoch. Instead, we picked our way along blindly, following a variety of faint tracks, until we dropped out of the cloud on the descent towards Carn Fiaclach. After a brief discussion about what the heck we were actually looking at, up ahead, we got the map straight in our heads and turned below Fiaclach to descend towards the Bealach a’ Mhaim, where the map told us we’d pick up a path to take us back to Kinloch Rannoch.

Descending towards the Bealach a' Mhaim, Meall Dubh and Loch Rannoch beyond
Click to enlarge

At this point, we were able to pick out the line of the ruined drystone wall as it descended Fiaclach, crossed the bealach below and then wound its way up on to Meall Dubh, looking for all the world like a miniature version of the Great Wall of China. I can’t imagine the number of man-hours a construction like that represents.

Sure enough, we eventually ran into our anticipated path. Then lost it again. Then found it again. Then found yet another 4×4 vehicle track, which proved to be the uphill extension of the track we’d used during our ascent. On the way down to the dam and the village below, we passed yet another cairn.

Alick Reynolds memorial cairn above Kinloch Rannoch
Click to enlarge

But this one bears an inscription, on a tiny plate glued to one of its stones:

Alick Reynolds
11th November 1935 – 28th April 2016

I’d take that as an epitaph.

Maybe next year our own little group of Men That Love Hills will be able to reconvene in full force. We’ll see.

Glen Doll: Craig Mellon to Cairn Damff

Craig Mellon (NO 262773, 866m)
Cairn Broadlands (NO 270777, 852m)
Craig Damff (NO 247777, 846m)

15.5 kilometres
800 metres of ascent

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

Craig Mellon and Cairn Broadlands dominate the view up Glen Clova as you approach the road-head—neatly paired humps with Glen Doll on the left and upper Glen Clova on the right. The broad slope between the two humps is called The Ought, which comes from Gaelic an-t’uchd, “the brow of the hill”.

Craig Mellon and Cairn Broadlands from Glen Clova
Click to enlarge

Behind the pair, an undulating and steep-sided plateau separates Doll and Clova, an outlier of the larger massif that extends as far as Glen Isla, the Cairnwell Pass, and Lochnagar above Glen Muick.

It’s a round forty-five years since I’ve visited these hills—in 1976 my father, brother and I walked from somewhere near the high point of Jock’s Road, above Glen Doll, and descended The Ought to get back to the car park. This time, I aimed to follow a similar route in reverse—up The Ought, and then west across the high ground to descend on to Jock’s Road for my return journey.

There’s a zig-zag path through the forest and up to the plateau marked on my 1:25000 Ordance Survey map. It starts from the driveway of Glen Doll Lodge, and strikes up pleasantly through the trees, crossing a broad forestry track that isn’t marked on my map. When it reaches the tree-line, it used to run westward along the inside of the forest deer-fence to a tall stile. It still takes the same route, but the old fence is gone. Instead, you can just walk around the weathered remains of the stile and out on to the open hillside.

Remains of old stile and deer fence below Cairn Broadlands
Click to enlarge

I followed the path for a while, but as I got higher it became hard to follow through the drifted snow, and I instead struck off on to my own route, which brought me out at the cairn of Craig Mellon, with an impressive view of Driesh, the Shank of Drumfollow and Corrie Kilbo across Glen Doll.

Driesh and Corrie Kilbo from Craig Mellon cairn
Click to enlarge

It’s a feature of all my planned hills for the day that they have an interesting promontory that extends outwards from a flat summit set back from the edge of the plateau. So after admiring the view from the cairn for a while, I strolled up to the featureless patch of tundra that is the true summit of Craig Mellon, and then made a ninety-degree turn towards Cairn Broadlands, which is the rounded lump in the middle distance in the view below, with the line of a path picked out be drifted snow.

Cairn Broadlands from Craig Mellon
Click to enlarge

Drifted snow proved to be an impediment to progress—some of these little white patches are an innocuous inch or two deep, but some of them conceal holes into which a leg can disappear thigh-deep. So I picked my way circuitously, trying to stick to areas where I could see at least a tuft of vegetation.

The north wind blasting across Broadlands was positively Arctic, so I tarried only long enough on the summit to take a photograph of the view of snowy Lochnagar.

Lochanagar from Cairn Broadlands
Click to enlarge

Then I dropped a short distance southwards on Broadlands’ own little promontory, where I sat for a bite of lunch out of the wind, admiring the view down lower Glen Clova.

Glen Clova from Cairn Broadlands
Click to enlarge

Then up into the wind again, and a contouring line across the plateau to reach my next summit. The going was unpleasant in places, with the low peat hags full of snow and melt-water, and easy lines difficult to find, but by circuitous routes punctuated by futile cursing, I eventually arrived at a little bulge in the plateau with a cairn on it, and a view across to Mayar and the line of impressive crags on the south side of Glen Doll.

Mayar from Craig Damff
Click to enlarge

This spot, justly ignored for centuries by all who passed it, has now been labelled Craig Damff, which is actually the name of a row of crags that form the north side of Glen Doll at this point. They fall away from the edge of the plateau in the middle distance of my photograph above, as partners to the crags on the south side. But this is a local high point, and in hill-bagging circles that means it requires a name, even if that is borrowed from some other part of the scenery. (Likewise, Craig Mellon correctly refers to the little craggy promontory that extends out over Glen Clova, not the undistinguished lump that has taken on that label in hillwalking circles.)

And so I descended a short distance to the interesting bit of this hill, Cairn Damff, which extends as a rocky promontory above Jock’s Road. (The view below looks back across Glen Doll towards Driesh.)

Driesh from Cairn Damff
Click to enlarge

My descent route then took me around three-quarters of a circle, starting north and then contouring around below the steep western face of Cairn Damff while trying to say above the deep snowdrifts covering the burns running below. In fact, I was so keen not to descend into the snow-stuffed terrain below me that I forgot my chosen line to reach Jock’s Road, which would have crossed the watercourses higher up and then allowed a gentle descent to join the track.

I realised my error when I caught my first sight of Jock’s Road, an improbable distance below me.

Jock's Road and Glen Doll from below Cairn Damff
Click to enlarge

Oops. No, not going down that way. So I turned around and made a descending traverse while the line of Jock’s Road rose to meet me, and I eventually came out on to the track some distance below the point at which I’d originally planned to emerge, at Davy’s Bourach. (I’ve written before about why this old droving route is called Jock’s Road, and about what a bourach is—see this previous post about the Mounth Roads for more information.)

Then it was just a matter of descending Jock’s Road below the real Craig Damff to reach the forest in the lower reaches of the glen.

Lower part of Jock's Road, Glen Doll
Click to enlarge

No matter how often I walk Jock’s Road, I’m always surprised at how long the final section through the forest takes. But eventually I got back to the car park.

Primroses, Glen Doll
Click to enlarge
(Be the first)

Lockdown Walks: Three Brochs

Hurley Hawkin (NO 332327)
Craig Hill (NO 431358)
Laws Hill (NO 491349)

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

Maintaining appropriate physical distance in the locked-down urban environment of Dundee has become increasingly difficult with Vaccine Optimism on the rise, and your correspondent has been getting tired of doing the bulk of the work in this regard, endlessly dodging those of his fellow citizens who are blithely distracted by conversations, pets, small children or mobile phones (and sometimes all four simultaneously).

The rules allow us to travel up to five miles beyond the boundaries of our Local Authority Area to “reach a safe non-crowded place” for exercise, and my general habit, pre-Covid, was always to take exercise in locations where I couldn’t even see another human being, which is about as safe and non-crowded as you can get. So that’s how I came up with a plan to visit some lowland broch sites.

Brochs are thick-walled Iron-Age towers of dry-stone construction, largely confined to northern Scotland and the Atlantic coast.

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

After two millennia, and extensive stone-robbing for later building, very few are in any sort of good repair. As the map shows, there are a tiny number of broch sites in lowland Scotland, and most of them are mere archaeological traces. Surprisingly, three of these sites are within spitting distance of the Dundee City Local Authority Area—you can see them in a neat little row just north of the Tay estuary on the map above.

One of my very earliest posts in this blog concerned (among other things), the possible broch site at Little Dunsinane in the Sidlaws. It’s so “possible” it doesn’t even merit a red dot on the broch map above, but I’ve plotted it on my own map at the head of this post. All that can be seen nowadays is a suspiciously symmetrical mound in the moorland.

Remains of the broch below Little Dunsinane
Click to enlarge

So I didn’t have any great hopes of seeing much at my three broch sites, but I did anticipate being able to spend some time in the open air without having to dodge other people.

Hurley Hawkin

Hurley Hawkins broch location
Click to enlarge
Contains OS OpenData © Crown copyright and database right 2018

One of the most interesting things about Hurley Hawkin is its name. Andrew Jervise, in his report of excavations at the site back in 1865, had this to say on the topic:

It is known as Hurley Hawkin, a name which suggests an affinity to that of the hill of “Hurly Hackit” at Stirling, which is popularly believed to have originated from it having been the scene of a childish diversion of that name […] It would appear that the sport of “hurlie-hakket” consisted in sliding down a slope or precipice; and as Hurley Hawkin slopes rapidly towards the south, and is otherwise well suited for such an amusement, possibly the name had originated from much the same cause as that ascribed to Hurly Hackit.

The on-line Scottish National Dictionary agrees with Jervise about the nature of hurlie-hacket, and adds the lovely detail that children in Edinburgh, at the end of the eighteenth century, were playing this game using a horse’s skull for a sledge. In Scots, a hurl is (among other things) a ride; a hacket is a particular kind of cow (or sometimes a horse). So hurlie-hacket is a ride on a cow or horse—perhaps a reference to the inverted skull of one of these creatures, which would make a reasonably sized sledge for one small person. And hawkney is one Scots version of the now-disused English word hackney, denoting an ordinary riding horse.* Which makes me wonder if Hawkin is a metathesized version of hawkney.

Anyway, none of that has brought us any closer to the broch site, which sits on a little promontory of land flanked on its west and east by deep clefts, carved by two streams which merge on its southern side in the Gray Den. In a well-ordered world it would be inside the Dundee Local Authority Area, but the boundary takes a bit of a diversion around it, presumably following an old property line, as you can see on my map. What you can’t see on my map is any indication of my route of approach, for reasons that will become painfully clear within the next couple of paragraphs.

There are houses to the north and west of the site, but I stepped from the road on to a low retaining wall and then walked through open woodland to get to the head of Gray Den below the promontory. The Canmore entry for this site describes how there were a succession of structures on top of the promontory, with the broch built on the site of an earlier fort. You can see that it’s a fabulous defensive position. It’s also an ideal location for hurlie-hacket—or would have been, in the days before it was completely overgrown with trees.

Hurley Hawkin broch site promontory from the south
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I scrambled up the steep face, and emerged on the flat surface of the promontory—and within a stone’s throw of the lawn of a house just north of the site, a great deal closer than I had expected. Apart from a raised suggestion of the fort rampart, there’s was no evidence of any structure among the trees. I paused to take a brief panoramic view with my phone—evidence of a lack of evidence, as it were—and then headed back the way I’d come.

Hurley Hawkin broch site
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As I was picking my way back towards the road, I was hailed by a lady standing on the high ground to the north, and we held a shouted conversation across a ten-metre gap, during which she explained to me, without every using the word “trespassing”, that I was, well, trespassing. The property line around her house encompassed not only the lawn, but the patch of forest I was walking through, as well as the broch site. Picture her surprise, then, when I’d popped up in my bright red jacket at the bottom of her lawn. Oh dear. I offered my apologies and departed, chastened. This was not a good start to the Three Brochs Expedition.

Craig Hill

Route to site of Craig Hill broch
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Contains OS OpenData © Crown copyright and database right 2018

Craig Hill, as you can see from my map, is another cracking defensive position, with steep ground on three sides overlooking the line of the Fithie Burn. And again, the Canmore entry for the site describes how the broch was built over the remains of an earlier fort.

There’s a lot of farmland around the site, and I decided to walk in along an avenue of old trees that starts on the road near Houletnook. (Another splendid placename, which can be translated as “Owl Corner”.)

A faint path connected to a farm track, which ended at a broken fence. I stepped over the sagging fence wire, and climbed on to the grassy promontory—to be faced with a wall of spiky gorse bushes.

Approach to Craig Hill from the east
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Ruined fence below Craig Hill
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Summit of Craig Hill
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Circumventing that to the north brought me to a wall of non-spiky broom bushes, which overlooked the western slope of the hill. And that was that—any remnants of the broch and fort are obscured under vegetation. (And the black-and-white aerial photographs at Canmore show there was nothing to see even before the broom and gorse took root.)

Strike two.

Laws Hill

Route to Laws Hill broch
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Contains OS OpenData © Crown copyright and database right 2018

Another craggy defensible hill, and another fort-and-broch combination, according to the Canmore entry for the site. The obvious approach on the map is from the east via Laws Farm, but that turns out to be a private driveway belonging to some houses among the farm buildings. So I made my approach from the northwest, following a dog-walkers’ track that begins on the Drumsturdy Road next to Laws Lodge. This eventually arrived at what my untutored eye interpreted as a silage pit. I popped over a metal gate just beyond this, which gave access to the steep open hillside. A bit of zigzagging up around crags and through trees brought me out on the bald summit—and an amazing conglomeration of ruined buildings, spanning millennia of occupation. Including, mirabile dictu, a few courses of stone remaining from the base of the broch:

Broch, Laws Hill
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Perched above the broch is an interesting little turret variously described by Canmore’s documentation as a “summer house” or “charnel house“, which is a combination you don’t often see.

Broch and "charnel house", Laws Hill
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I’m guessing the “charnel house” was at some time used to store bones removed from the prehistoric burial sites recorded on the hill.

The masonry of the fort has been excavated and is still visible in places:

Fort ramparts, Laws Hill
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And there are three ruinous structures of obscure function, described as “follies”:

Folly, Laws Hill
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So the third time was the charm.

You can take a (rather jerky) tour of the area in the YouTube video below.

* Yes, hence the idea of a hackneyed phrase—one that’s been ridden around the block a few too many times, like an old riding horse.