Craig of Gowal (NO 232809, 927m)
Cairn of Gowal (NO 226820, 991m)
Creag an Dubh-Loch (NO 233822, 983m)
Broad Cairn (NO 240815, 998m)
1100 metres of ascent
Glen Clova. I parked at Braedownie, paid the parking charge (one of many things that has changed in Clova since I started coming here), and set off up the glen towards the little woodland glade at Bachnagairn.
The footbridge above Moulzie, at NO 277788, was swept away in the December floods*, so the route to the head of the glen stays west of the river South Esk all the way at the moment—first up a waymarked forest path, then by a new (and correspondingly faint) trod in the riverside grasslands as far as the vehicular ford just north of Moulzie, and then by the usual old vehicle track.
At Bachnagairn, I struck off uphill through the forest to the southwest. The little patch of forest here was planted as a wind-break for a shooting lodge, now long dismantled. Bachnagairn is bac na gharain, “hollow of the crying one”, and the “crying one” is the wind. Despite the relatively high altitude and occasional wind damage, the larches seem to be thriving—the forest has visibly enlarged in the forty years I’ve been coming this way.
They’ve been doing a lot of maintenance work on the paths up here, so it felt slightly churlish to go off-piste. But I wanted to take a look at a feature marked on the map with the marvellous name of Glittering Skellies. A skellie is a ridge of rock. The rock here is mainly schist, which takes on a reflective sheen in the sunlight. And, sure enough, I encountered a couple of modest rock ridges and a few erratics as I plodded uphill, all of them entirely unglittering on a rather overcast day. There certainly were bright inclusions here and there, and occasional seeps of water that might create reflections.
Looking due east, I was evident that the Skellies are visible from only a pretty limited area on the glen floor, just at the bend below the rocky ridge of The Strone. Someone down there must have been regularly up and about in the early morning, to catch the occasional glitter from these rocks.
Then across the peaty outflow of Loch Esk. A stag posed on the skyline on the Craigs of Loch Esk, and a mountain hare darted away, its footfall generating a surprisingly loud, hollow drumbeat on the dry peat.
Next stop was the Fafernie Shiel. A shiel is a small building associated with summer pasturage. (The 1902 Ordnance Survey six-inch map also marks “Airlie’s Sheil” beside Loch Esk, but I saw no sign of it as I passed through.) The Fafernie Shiel is still visible, but as no more than the remains of four walls. It sits beside the Fafernie Burn (actually quite a healthy river), which takes its name from the Gaelic feith fearnach, “alder bog”—I saw plenty of bog, but no alders.
Then gently up on to Craig of Gowal, with an unhappy view down the glen towards a thickening roof of dark cloud. The wind was blowing up the glen towards me, and by the time I had reached Cairn of Gowal, it had brought the cloud to me—the summit of Broad Cairn disappeared, and Cairn Bannoch to the north-west kept fading in and out of view as cloud flowed across the col. The temperature dropped by five degrees, and I added an extra layer of clothing.
I climbed Creag an Dubh-Loch in poor visibility, pretty sure I was going to miss the hoped-for view down into the Dubh Loch, but I was lucky—I was able to exploit the occasional gap in the cloud to catch a glimpse of the dark depths. Dubh Loch is the “black loch”—Queen Victoria took a fancy to it, and dispatched James Giles to make a painting of it in 1849. (If you click on the link to the painting, you’ll no doubt be interested to know that I was peering down from the cliffs on the left-hand side.)
I also bemused a ptarmigan long enough to take its photograph.
Then across to the neat little summit tor of Broad Cairn, where I encountered a nice couple from Cumbria, sitting disconsolately in the mist. They asked me if I though the cloud would clear, and I assured them gloomily that I had seen black cloud roofing the whole glen to windward, so the current state of affairs was sure to persist for the next few hours at least. At which point the sun came out, the cloud blew away, and within a minute we were sitting in the middle of a sunlit panorama. So that was nice, although it rather undermined my pose as a wily old hill-sage.
We sat for a while, enjoying the sunshine, and then I clattered off down the awkward boulder-field on Broad Cairn’s east shoulder. The path below the boulders is now a huge scar on the mountainside, which took me down to Allan’s Hut—a high-altitude shelter for stalking ponies. It’s quite a complicated affair nowadays, with its own little paddock and a bench (labelled “Sandy’s Seat”) against its north wall. I remember its predecessor, a dilapidated wooden structure, missing multiple planks and apparently disused. In 1979, I arrived there at sunset with my friend Steve, and we pitched a tent inside it, the guy-ropes passing through gaps in the wall to be pegged down outside. So I was delighted to see that the tradition continues—in his Heights of Madness blog, Jonny Muir describes doing the same thing in 2009, with a modern tent inside the new building.
From there, a re-engineered path took me back to the bridge at Bachnagairn. The path looked like something the Incas would have been proud of. And big bags of stone littered the opposite hillside, around the connecting path to Jock’s Road. There’s obviously a lot of very welcome work being done to repair path erosion around here, and some of that work presumably comes from the £2 I feed into the parking meter at Braedownie from time to time.
I wonder what they’ll do about the washed-out bridge?
* Note added in 2020: The washed-out bridge has now been replaced with a nice new one, and the nascent path on the west side of the river is returning to nature.