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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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