Glen Isla: Caenlochan Circuit

Druim Mor (NO 190771, 961m)
Cairn of Claise (NO 185789, 1064m)
Glas Maol (NO 166765, 1068m)
Little Glas Maol (NO 175759, 973m)
Monega Hill (NO 186756, 908m)

25 kilometres
1060m of ascent

Caenlochan route
Click to enlarge

Embarrassing to admit that, after more than forty years wandering the Angus hills, I’d never walked up to the head of Glen Isla before.

I parked at the road-end, by Auchavan. The left fork here is marked with warning notices about the privacy of the track up to Tulchan Lodge; the right takes you down to a little parking area by the river, just before the track crosses the bridge to the cottages at Linns.

From there, I walked up the side of the woodland to join the main road to Tulchan. (A footbridge is marked a little farther up the river, connecting a path from Linns back to the road—but it had seen better days when I walked past it.)

Fallen bridge, near Linns, Glen Isla
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At Tulchan, I encountered an interesting sign. The old Monega drove road (of which, more later) descends into Glen Isla about a kilometre north of Tulchan. On the map, there’s a branching path that splits off south from the traditional route near Little Glas Maol, coming down over Shanovan Hill and into Glen Brighty, before emerging into Glen Isla at the back of Tulchan Lodge.

Sign at Tulchan, Glen Isla
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The owners of the lodge seem understandably reluctant to have walkers traipsing back and forth through their grounds to access that path … but it’s difficult to know who would be the keeper of the “official” route; and the spelling mistake in the simple traditional name of the path doesn’t help elicit sympathy.

A little farther up the glen, at a point where a pipe carried a burn under the road, a flicker of movement caught my eye, as a chubby little mammal plopped into the water—and for a long three seconds I watched its dark furry back swim down the narrow watercourse, before rounding a corner between high banks. A water vole! These lovely animals have been almost exterminated hereabouts by the predations of the introduced American mink, so I gave a mad little jump and shouted (very quietly), “Water vole! Yay!”

Farther on again, I came to Bessie’s Cairn—a well-appointed object on a square base, with a seat built into each side, reputedly built in 1852 to shelter Lady Elizabeth Londonderry from the wind while her husband was stalking deer. Colin Gibson’s drawing of it, reproduced in David Dorward’s The Glens of Angus, shows a prominent inscription on the south-facing side—as my photo shows, it seems to have since disappeared.

Bessie's Cairn, Glen Isla
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From Bessie’s Cairn, the track continues to the pretty flatlands at the head of the glen, and a ruined shieling and enclosure. There’s a triple junction here, with Glen Isla sloping away to the south, the Canness Glen coming in from the northeast, and Caenlochan Glen from the northwest. (Despite the spelling, the first syllable of Caenlochan is pronounced “can”, not “cane”.) Both the upper glens are rimmed around with crags, and at first it seems like there is no easy way onwards out of the glen and on to the plateau at this point.

Ordnance Survey maps show a path heading uphill behind the ruined croft, and then zig-zagging up the high slopes to emerge on to the plateau between the rocky outcrops of Caderg and Sron Reidhe. The Harvey’s 1:25000 Superwalker map is (as usual, when it comes to paths) more accurate, showing only the upper zigzags starting at 675m. So it was a bit of free-style ascent across tussocky grass and occasional rocks, seeking towards the bottom end of the grassy zigzag path, which became easily visible as I climbed.

On to the plateau, then, and a slightly circuitous approach over rough ground to the first hill of the day, Druim Mor (“big ridge”) with clifftop views down into Caenlochan and across to my planned route back to Glen Isla, along the Monega ridge.

Glas Maol from Druim Mor
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Glas Maol from Druim Mor
Glen Isla and Monega Hill from Druim Mor
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Glen Isla and Monega Hill from Druim Mor

Druim Mor took me easily northwards to Cairn of Claise (pronounced “Cairn of Clash”), and I had sight of a golden plover and a patch of snow to cross, keeping me entertained along the way.

At the summit of Cairn of Claise there’s one of those mad high-altitude walls that improbably bedeck Scottish Highland estates.

Glas Maol from Cairn of Claise
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I descended to join a linking track to Glas Maol (scaring up a couple of ptarmigan along the way), and joined the old Monega road as it comes up from Sron na Gaoithe. Monega (emphasis on the middle syllable) was a tricky high-altitude drove road linking Glen Clunie with Glen Isla, presumably only attempted in good weather. Its story is well described in Neil Ramsay and Nate Pedersen’s The Mounth Passes, which I reviewed in an earlier post. In the dip where the tracks join, I encountered a couple of bird-watchers, who bemoaned the absence of dotterel on the plateau.

The Monega route keeps below the summits, so I had to strike off uphill, along the line of the old boundary fence, to reach the top of Glas Maol. At the cairn, I met another couple of bird-watchers, who told me they’d encountered three dotterel on the way up the hill. They then obligingly pointed out another one for me, scuttering about a stone’s throw from where we were sitting. (I have only ever seen dotterel that someone else has pointed out to me—I seem to have a peculiar bird-blindness for these lovely little creatures.)

From Glas Maol I headed to the low rise of Little Glas Maol, and then on to the long ridge of Monega Hill. From Monega, the zig-zag path on the other side of the glen looks like a completely mental, near-vertical endeavour. I was rather glad I hadn’t planned to follow my route in the opposite direction, because I might have found the prospect of descending that way a little alarming.

Caderg across Caenlochan Glen from Monega Hill
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The zig-zag path is just visible in the middle of this view from Monega Hill

Monega is a splendid viewpoint, with views into all three glens.

Canness Glen from Monega Hill
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Canness Glen from Monega Hill
Caenlochan Glen from Monega Hill
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Caenlochan Glen from Monega Hill
Glen Isla from the Monega track
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Glen Isla from the Monega track

The long descent along the Monega track was a joy, with Glen Isla spread out below and Monamenach and Mount Blair in the distance. And then there was a bit of a slog back to the car. But any day with a water vole and a dotterel in it is an above-average day.

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