Glen Isla: Mayar From The Southwest

Finalty Hill (NO 212750, 905m)
Mayar (NO 240737, 928m)

22 kilometres
820 metres of ascent

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

After more than a hundred days in Covid-19 lockdown, the Oikofuge was finally permitted to live up to his nom-de-blog again, and head for the hills.

I’d noted the accessibility of Mayar from Glen Isla last year, during a previously reported expedition along the east side of the glen. The obvious and most direct route from the road-head at Auchavan would be to head up over Mid Hill and Bawhelps, but I wanted to explore the complicated ridges of Finalty Hill, which sends out multiple fingers into the glen, with an interesting variety of names. From west to east, these are White Strone, Mid Strone, Black Rigging and Sron Meadhonach. The two “strones” derive their name from Gaelic sron, “nose”—a common name for the end of a ridge in the Scottish Highlands. “Rigging” is a Scots word for a level ridge (and also for the ridge of a roof). The “white” and black” are a common Scottish toponymic contrast, usually referring to pale grass and dark heather, though I didn’t see much difference during this trip. And “mid”, of course, is the middle ridge as viewed from Glen Isla near Tulchan Lodge. But (puzzlingly) Sron Meadhonach, the easternmost of the four, is Gaelic for “middle ridge”. I’m guessing it was named from the view up Glen Cally, where it sits between Black Rigging and Sron Deirg, the “red ridge” that extends from the high ground east of Finalty Hill.

So I set off from the rough little parking area beside the River Isla (turn right down the track where the road ends at Auchavan), and followed the private road up towards Tulchan Lodge.*

Tulchan Lodge track, Glen Isla
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At the lodge gates, I turned to the right and crossed the little bridge over the Isla, which gives access to Finalty Hill.

Bridge over the Isla at Tulchan Lodge
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After a short climb, the track starts to branch to ascend each of the western three of Finalty’s ridges. I turned to the left as soon as I could, following the edge of a fenced plantation, to reach the path that follows the ridge of White Strone, which I thought would give me the best view into the upper glen.

After three months spent knocking around the limited environs of Dundee, my legs and cardio-respiratory system briefly became hysterical when they realized I was planning on more than a hundred metres of continuous ascent. But I plodded on upwards, eventually reaching the more level ground the Ordnance Survey labels as Spying Hillock. There’s only one convincing hillock along the ridge, which I initially thought afforded enough of a view to qualify as “spying”; but a rounded eminence farther along, exactly where the OS places its label, gives the first view into the head of the glen.

Head of Glen Isla from Spying Hillock
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Then it was time to frighten the physiology a little more, with the pull up on to Finalty Hill proper. I rejoined the bulldozed track coming up from Mid Strone, and then made a diversion to the cairn that sits oddly far from the summit of Finalty Hill.

Cairn on Finalty Hill, Glen Isla beyond
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Beyond that, it’s an easy stroll along the broad track to the undistinguished summit, with airy view towards Glas Maol and Cairn of Claise.

Summit of Finalty Hill
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The summit plateau features an honest-to-god turning circle, presumably for the benefit of grouse shooters in giant four-by-fours. (There was once a substantial hut up here, marked on maps of the 1970s, but it was close to ruin by the late 1980s, and gone by the 2010s. I suspect the grassy mound in the middle of the turning circle, visible at the right of the photograph above, is all that remains.)

I followed the track a little farther, towards Dun Hillocks, and then went off-piste to make a direct line towards Mayar. I’m pretty sure a vehicle track of some sort runs all the way along the high ground to connect to Bawhelps, but I figured the straight line through the bog cotton and peat hags didn’t look too bad.

Bog cotton between Finalty Hill and Mayar
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And it wasn’t—perhaps not so pleasant in wet weather, but I was able to weave my way through dry-shod and without too much toing-and-froing.

And it gave me the opportunity to be mobbed by owls. (There’s a phrase you don’t encounter every day.) About halfway across, a group of five short-eared owls took a definite dislike to me, and started making low baleful passes overhead.

Short-eared owls, between Finalty Hill and Mayar
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Unusually for owls, they’re daylight hunters and ground nesters, and typically inhabit open moorland. But I’ve crossed a lot of remote moorland in my time, and have never been the subject of daylight attack by massed owls. (I seem to recollect, at one point, that I shouted, “But you’re owls!” This didn’t put them off.)

The final ascent of Mayar was easy, along a faint path following the line of a broken fence. And then it was time to put my feet up and enjoy the view of Glen Prosen. (Which was my route of approach the last time I climbed this hill.)

Glen Prosen from Mayar
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I had considered descending via Mid Hill, but decided to look at another of Finalty’s many ridges instead. So I dipped down into the headwaters of the Mayar Burn, and made the easy crossing to the rudimentary “shelter” (just a rough cross of overgrown walls) encountered on the previous visit to this area.

"Shelter" below Mayar
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From there, I circumvented the headwaters of the Glencally Burn and went back over Finalty Hill. (My legs by this time had settled into a state of sullen incredulity.) But this detour was rewarded with the sight of a large herd of red deer pouring up out of the glen and crossing the ridge of Tom Dubh na Cabair ahead of me. (No, I don’t have a photograph. Weren’t you impressed enough by the owls?)

And then it was just a long rocky descent of the Sron Meadhonach track to regain the glen floor. All in all, I think the grassy line down Sron Deirg on the opposite side of the Glencally Burn is preferable. The subsequent route along the east side of the Isla has several frankly unnecessary and undesirable vertical undulations to it, but overall it was a fine day out, all the better for long anticipation.

Glen Cally from Sron Meadhonach
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* The name Tulchan has some interesting associations. Gaelic tulach means “hillock”, and a tulachan is small hillock, which is probably the origin of the name of Tulchan Lodge. But a tulchan is, according to  Dieckhoff’s Pronouncing Dictionary of Scottish Gaelic, a “sham calf”. The idea here is that a cow with a dead calf could be tricked into continuing to provide milk by offering her a sham calf—usually the hide of her departed calf stuffed with straw. (I know, I know. But let’s press on.) David Dorward, in The Glens Of Angus, connects tulchan with tulachan by suggesting that the calf hide was once given shape by draping it over a small hillock. Whether or not that’s true, the sham calf then gave its name to the Tulchan bishops. These were bishops appointed by James Douglas, Fourth Earl of Morton, who served as regent during the minority of King James VI of Scotland. In exchange for their position, the bishops passed on much of the Church revenue to Morton and his baronial supporters. Straw men, in other words, milking the populace. Thereafter, the word tulchan was applied to any appointee put in place to siphon wealth to his backers, though it seems to have fallen out of use during the nineteenth century.

5 thoughts on “Glen Isla: Mayar From The Southwest”

  1. Glad you’re back on the hills . Seems your legs and CVS were not quite as glad initially.
    A good trek with the added enjoyment of your photos, esp. the owls –, but I would have loved to see deer !
    Restrictions gradually lifting here but people leery of travelling afar..

  2. I’ll try and get you some deer next time.
    The nice thing about hillwalking is that I was actually farther from any human contact for those five hours than I’ve been at any time I ventured out during lockdown.

  3. I was sure that we would soon see a new report about a long walk now that you can get back into the countryside.

    Would the lockdown have been long enough for those Owls to lose any fear of humans as what you have written indicates that they are not normally anywhere nearly so aggressive?

    1. Not so much the aggressive behaviour as the rarity of such an encounter. To have this sort of thing happen (daylight mobbing) you need to wander into a dense concentration of breeding small-eared owls–other Scottish owls being largely nocturnal/crepuscular and largely solitary/territorial.
      Small-eared are shy of human disturbance, so remote boggy moorland is the place to go to see them, but even then you’ll generally see one at a time, flapping by in the distance.
      So I’ve never found myself under a skyful of owls before. Nor have any of the hill-walking and bird-watching friends I’ve spoken to, many of whom have walked a great deal farther over remote moorland than I have.
      That said, all this stuff is well-documented. Suitable areas with large prey concentrations can gather together tens of breeding pairs, and they do band together to intimidate humans who get within a few hundred metres of their nests–apparently more so when the eggs have hatched, which would fit with the timing of my encounter.

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