Sidlaws: The Classic ABC Circuit

Auchterhouse Hill (NO 354397, 424m)
Balkello Hill (NO 361394, 397m)
Craigowl Hill (NO 377400, 455m)

7.8 kilometres
365m of ascent

Sidlaws ABC route
Click to enlarge
Contains OS OpenData © Crown copyright and database right 2018
Paths and additional data mapped by The Oikofuge

For complicated reasons that need not detain us here, The Oikofuge hasn’t been getting out much of late, to the extent that I had to miss this year’s rendezvous of the Crow Craigies Climbing Party.

But as I started thinking about creeping back into the hills, it occurred to me that I’ve never described the classic “ABC” circuit in the central Sidlaws. Auchterhouse Hill, Balkello Hill and Craigowl* are a very familiar trio on the northern horizon for Dundonians. I used them as the heading image for my Sidlaws Gazetteer:

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My previous Sidlaws posts have concentrated on reporting my various explorations and navigational difficulties getting access to and then following the ridge—but this one is a well-travelled route for me, and a very pleasant short outing, so I’m going to pitch this post as a guide for anyone wanting to take the same walk.

I parked in the gravel car-park in the Balkello Community Woodland, and headed through the gates in the northwest corner. My route through the woods followed a set of waymarked posts—at first purple and red, then plain purple. This eventually pops out of the trees under a row of electricity pylons, where I turned left to follow another path that passes through a gate and then rises slowly beside a stone wall:

Approach to Auchterhouse Hill 1
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At the top of the rise, next to a pleasing little stone stile built into the wall, there’s a sharp right turn to take another path that climbs more steeply between gorse bushes, which were flowering madly at the time of this visit:

Approach to Auchterhouse Hill 2
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The path eventually arrives at a little green gate and a signpost:

Approach to Auchterhouse Hill 3
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The route here turns left without passing through the gate, and then it’s plain sailing, sticking to the path as it takes an ascending zig-zag, and ignoring a branch that would take you down into the pass between Auchterhouse and Balkello (picturesquely named Windy Gates). When the tree-covered summit of Auchterhouse hill is in view, the path splits. The path to the right heads for a distantly visible gate, and then curves back towards the summit. My route goes left at this point, but will descend back to that gate in due course.

Approach to Auchterhouse Hill 4 annotated
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The open forest on the summit of Auchterhouse Hill is a feature that distinguishes it from the rocky baldness of Balkello, and the telecommunication jungle on top of Craigowl. But it seems that this pleasant little forest wasn’t always here. Back in 1848, in his Flora of Forfarshire, William Gardiner calls this hill the “White Hill of Auchterhouse”—and the word “white” was usually used to distinguish bare, grassy summits from dark, heather-clad summits. But if the name does indicate that Auchterhouse Hill was once grass-covered, it was perhaps already out of date when Gardiner used it—by the 1860s the Ordnance Survey shows the entire hill covered in trees, the small area today being a mere remnant. The ramparts of a prehistoric hill fort reputedly surround the little summit knoll, but I’ve never been convinced I can identify them.

To get to Balkello, you could retrace your steps to the short branch path that descends into Windy Gates, noted on the way up, but I think a more pleasant route stays inside the forest on the northern slopes of Auchterhouse Hill. When standing on the summit, the departure path lies to the left of the path on which you arrived. It takes you down to reach the gate noted on the way up—go through it and follow the path beyond.

Route to Balkello Hill (annotated)
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This takes a pleasantly winding route through the trees above the headwaters of the Haining Burn. The only navigational decision involves a T-junction at which you turn right, towards Balkello, rather than left (which would take you down to join the main track to the Denoon Glen).

T-junction on approach to Balkello (annotated)
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Just after this junction, you should be able to glimpse a dry-stone structure on a slight rise to your left, served by a narrow path. This proves to be a substantial two-room howff, now sadly lacking a roof.

Large roofless howff on Auchterhouse Hill
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Just downhill from this impressive structure, and overlooking the path, is a sort of dry-stone armchair. Here it is, with the howff in the background:

Stone "armchair" beside Auchterhouse Hill howff
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As you approach the little complex of fences and gates in the pass between Auchterhouse and Balkello, you can easily pick out two ascent routes for your next hill—one broad and eroded, and one narrow path sticking close to the fence:

Approach to Windy Gates (annotated)
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Pass through two gates, and follow whichever route you fancy—I went for the narrower one on this occasion, which stays close to the fence for a while and then makes an abrupt turn towards the summit.

Balkello Hill plays host to a view-indicator cairn honouring blind hill-man Syd Scroggie—I’ve written about him before. Here it is, looking back towards the wooded summit of Auchterhouse Hill:

Summit of Balkello Hill, looking towards Auchterhouse Hill
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Unfortunately, some madness induced the writer of the otherwise touching dedication to misname the location as Balluderon Hill:

Syd Scroggie memorial plaque, Balkello/Balluderon Hill
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The name “Balluduron” correctly applies to the western shoulder of Craigowl. As the Ordnance Survey Name Book for Forfarshire recorded in the mid-nineteenth century:

This name applies to a continuation of Craig Owl Hill and sloping gently southward. The term Brae would be more applicable to it than Hill.

A couple of paths leave the Balkello summit towards Craigowl, and they cross and separate after a short distance. You should keep left on a line that takes you towards the fence. The rightward trending path descends to a track that eventually curves back into the Balkello Woodland—follow that if you want to skip the ascent of Craigowl.

The descent from Balkello gives a good view across to the paths ascending the ridge of Balluderon Hill towards the telecom masts on Craigowl’s summit. The best ascent is along the obvious path close to the fence-line. The prominent grassy track running diagonally across the hillside serves a defunct quarry, and is unhelpful.

Craigowl from Balkello Hill (annotated)
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Go through a gate in the pass between Balkello and Craigowl, and head uphill. The long ridge here is covered with a confusing and apparently pointless network of minor paths, particular higher up, but the route is easy to follow—always keep close to the fence on your left.

Near the Craigowl summit, as the communication masts and their associated buildings and fences loom, a fence comes uphill from the right and forms a T-junction with the ridgeline fence you’ve been following. Each of the three fences is served by a little stile close to the junction. The obvious route to the summit carries on uphill ahead, but instead turn left across the first stile, and follow a slot through the heather that takes you between a couple of the fenced telecom buildings and on to the service road.

Approach to summit of Craigowl (annotated)
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Follow the road uphill, and then climb the little grassy mound that hosts the Craigowl triangulation pillar.

Summit of Craigowl
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As my quotation from the Ordnance Survey above shows, Craigowl used to be Craig Owl, from Gaelic creag gobhal, “forked hill”. I’ve puzzled over this name for years, since nothing is less forked than the long whaleback of this hill. The best explanation I’ve seen comes from David Dorward, who suggests that the “forked” refers not to the hill but to a road that used to cross the pass immediately to the east. The Old Glamis Road coming north from Dundee divided at the summit of the pass, allowing travellers to choose either a high or a low route into Glen Ogilvie. The former still exists, as a farm track; the latter is only just detectable as a diagonal groove across Craigowl’s northern slopes, which catches and retains the snow for longer than the rest of the hillside. Here’s the fork as shown on Bartholomew’s half-inch map of 1903:

Bartholomew's half-inch map, 1903, showing the Old Glamis Road between Craigowl and Gallow Hill
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The southern approach to the trig pillar has long been blocked by a dilapidated extension of the ridgeline fence, but in recent years this has acquired a tiny one-step stile. From the pillar itself, it’s blocked from view by the fence around a recent addition to the telecom clutter. But if you walk around the left side of this little enclosure, you’ll find it.

One-step stile on summit fence of Craigowl
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Cross this, and descend back to the fence junction and its three stiles, where you’ll see a narrow path heading off downhill to the southwest.

Descent route from Craigowl (annotated)
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This route, faint in places, takes you in a long diagonal across the south face of Craigowl, eventually arriving at a substantial farm track that serves a dumping/storage area in the abandoned Balluderon Quarry. This track can be horribly muddy after rain, and I prefer to peel off early and descend more steeply towards Linn of Balluderon.

Years ago, I built myself a little cairn to mark the turning point. My GPS places it at NO 3714639650.

Cairn marking downhill turn on descent from Craigowl (annotated)
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Instead of continuing along the diagonal path, I turn left down a grassy sward towards a noticeable eroded gap in the gorse bushes below. There’s a path of sorts beyond this, but in summer it tends to fade into a wildflower meadow, and the easiest way to maintain the correct line of descent is to head towards a distant, but prominent, electricity pylon rising from the northeast corner of Balkello Woodland below.

Eventually another apparently impenetrable barrier of gorse is encountered, but there’s another eroded gap in it, easily discoverable if you’ve kept to approximately the right line. (For those using GPS, I find it at NO 3701539311.) Beyond this, you look down towards the Linn of Balluderon, with the lower end of the farm track descending from Bulluderon Quarry crossing in front of you.

Linn of Balluderon
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Cross the farm track, and head directly towards the gorse bushes bordering the scattered trees ahead. (In season, you may need to thread your way through some bracken above the farm track.)

Walk downhill along the edge of the gorse, and you’ll eventually find a gap leading to a slight dip into a narrow burn, and beyond that a wooden gate. (Just before this gap, there’s another, narrower one containing a metal fence post and with no view of the gate.)

Access to Balkello Woodland from Linn of Balluderon
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This gate is the return route to the car park. It opens on to a broad track (in fact, the one descending from near the summit of Balkello Hill) which soon takes you down to the Balkello Woodland, and a signpost pointing the way to the car park. Follow the red and purple waymarked posts through the woodland, and you’ll emerge on your outward route at the picnic area just a couple of hundred metres from the car park.

* Although the Ordnance Survey calls this “Craigowl Hill”, the name is tautological (the craig already implies a hill), and it’s known locally as just plain Craigowl.
This diagonal rake also shows up well in aerial photographs, and was once marked as a path by the folk at OpenStreetMap—that’s since been corrected. In reality, it’s now no more than a linear mound and ditch, choked with vegetation.

2 thoughts on “Sidlaws: The Classic ABC Circuit”

  1. Thanks Grant. I have not been able to walk much lately, for a variety of reasons, but I’m getting back to it slowly and I’d love to do this one.

    1. Glad you’re getting back to a bit of walking.
      This is certainly a good one for a first hill venture, since it has multiple bale-out points—Windy Gates, summit of Balkello, or the pass between Balkello and Craigowl.

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