Kinpurney Hill (NO 322417, 345m)
Henderston Hill (NO 338414, 369m)
Auchterhouse Hill (NO 354397, 424m)
Balkello Hill (NO 361394, 397m)
Craigowl (NO 376399, 455m)
720 metres ascent
Back in 1971, I walked this part of the Sidlaws with my late friend Brian. We got the bus to Newtyle, and hiked across to Charleston for the bus home. We were equipped with great optimism, a truly vast quantity of food, and a photocopy of a Bartholomew’s half-inch map. This was from that early generation of photocopies that were stiff and glossy, reeked of headachey chemicals, and tended to go smudgy and progressively darker with handling. But our non-map didn’t seem like a serious problem—we knew what Auchterhouse Hill looked like, and we knew what Craigowl looked like, and we knew there was a ridge west of Craigowl that pointed north and would take us to Charleston. We didn’t have a compass, but we could tell direction from the sun. I don’t remember any paths, but I do remember a lot of heather. Our parents seemed remarkably relaxed about their just-teenage sons disappearing off into the hills for a day. My father remarked to my mother that, “Only an idiot could get lost in the Sidlaws,” apparently having temporarily forgotten one of the defining characteristics of fourteen-year-old boys. And anyway, we were fine.
This time I parked at Balkello Woodland (NO 365385), planning to go out and back from one location, rather than concoct a traverse. On to Auchterhouse Hill, first, along a nicely graded path that seems to be invisible to the Ordnance Survey mappers. (I’ve never known a range of hills to be so full of unmapped paths as the Sidlaws are.) I’d always assumed that the straggling crown of larch and Scots pine on Auchterhouse’s summit was the remnant of some more extensive forest—but David Dorward, in his marvellous book about the Sidlaws, assures me that it was previously called “White Top”, suggesting a bare rock summit.
I baled off the north side of Auchterhouse Hill, heather-surfing alongside the fence down to a gate on the track that heads northwards to the Denoon Glen. There’s no trace of it on the map, but a nice path heads westward from the bend in this track at NO 352404. It takes you along the edge of the woodland, across the ominous blank of the Scotston Quarries (actually a mere rocky dip in the terrain), and eventually deposits you (at NO 342411) on the main forestry track that wraps around Henderston Hill. Although Henderston looks like trackless forestry on the 1:50,000 OS map, it’s actually shot through with convenient firebreaks, which are accurately portrayed on the 1:25,000. I peeled off the track through a gate on the left at NO 340414, and strolled up a broad gap in the trees, herding a couple of anxious deer ahead of me. At the top of the hill, there’s a large clearing with views to the south. If you’re up-to-date with your tetanus vaccinations, you might consider hopping over the vicious barbed-wire fence at NO 338413 in order to walk a couple of yards up a narrow firebreak to the summit marked by the OS. But the view isn’t great …
Better instead to follow the main firebreak until it deposits you on the forestry track again, at NO 334415. Follow the track a bit farther, and then strike off down another firebreak, on the right, at NO 332416. There’s a narrow path, which brings you out at a nice stile (which is good, because there’s an electric fence). The route to Kinpurney Hill and its mental three-storey tower are pretty obvious from here.
The tower was actually intended to be an astronomical observatory, built in 1774 by James Stuart-Mackenzie and James Playfair, both keen amateur astronomers. Although somewhat restored, its nowadays just an imposing shell. Nearby is Kinpurney’s natty blue trig point, and a sort of high-security view indicator—once I’d struggled through the gate in the fence that pens it in, I found it unusable because of a thick rime of ice obscuring the surface. And beyond that is the single gnarled tree that used to give a sort of Zen-like ambience to Kinpurney’s summit; I was disappointed to see that some philistine has planted three more, completely buggering up the previous Japanese minimalism.
So … back the way I came, with a little sidetrack to take in the wooded and apparently unnamed 377m summit north of the path. I hoped for a decent view northwards, but was thwarted by the trees.
I skirted around Auchterhouse (using another well-worn track that the OS missed), crossing Windy Gates (no wind, three gates), to the glorious viewpoint over the Tay Estuary on top of Balkello Hill. (Sometimes called Balluderon Hill—the Ordnance Survey are a little noncommittal.)
Then on to Craigowl, by more bleedin’ obvious unmapped paths. Craigowl summit looks increasingly like the headquarters of a James Bond villain, dotted with masts and security fences. The poor trig point looks as if it’s in jail when you first approach, but it’s actually easily accessible from the roadhead on the north side.
Then back to the dip between Craigowl and Balkello, down a path (west side of the fence) that had an actual burn flowing down the middle of it, and through a lot of mud and dog-walkers to the car.
This Sidlaws lark is good fun—I think I’ll see if I can concoct a succession of walks to take in all the major summits.