The Tarmachan Ridge

Meall nan Tarmachan SE Top (NN 589385, 922m)
Meall nan Tarmachan (NN 585390, 1044m)
Meall Garbh (NN578383, 1027m)
Beinn nan Eachan (NN 570383, 1000m)
Creag na Caillich (NN 562377, 914m)

14.8 kilometres
850m of ascent

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

Some days even I give up on trying to come up with new ways to climb old hills, and just go out and walk a classic route. So this is one of those days—an anticlockwise circuit of the pleasantly lumpy Tarmachan Ridge above Loch Tay. The fact that I haven’t been this way for a while is well demonstrated by the route plan I left with the Boon Companion before departing, which claimed that I would be setting off from the Visitor Centre below Ben Lawers—which turns out to have been demolished (and the site restored to its natural state) a decade ago. But no-one told me.

So I started out from the new car park (sans Visitor Centre), a little to the south of the old site, and followed the signposts, which shepherded me out on to the hillside along a well-worn path. This gave me a glimpse of the dam on Lochan na Lairige as I climbed westwards:

Lochan na Lairige dam, above Loch Tay
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After passing an odd piece of industrial wreckage, in the form of a ruined metal tower and its wooden base, the path turns north to head up towards an unnamed south-easterly outlier of Meall nan Tarmachan.

Metal and wooden debris below Meall nan Tarmachan
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Path to Meall nan Tarmachan
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From the outlying summit, there’s a steep descent, then a stile to cross, and a steep pull up on to Tarmachan proper, with a fine view east towards Ben Lawers (in cloud, below), and westwards along the winding Tarmachan ridge.

Ben Lawers in cloud from Meall nan Tarmachan
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Tarmachan ridge from Meall nan Tarmachan
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(Tarmachan, by the way, is Gaelic for “ptarmigan”, though there were none of the birds in evidence. The mysterious p at the start of the English spelling of the bird’s name is a piece of pseudo-etymological fixer-uppery originally perpetrated by Robert Sibbald in has natural-history text Scotia Illustrata (1684). He seems to have imagined the name was Greek in origin.)

Meall Garbh was the next objective. Its name means “rough lump”, and it’s the craggy object in cloud-shadow at left of frame, above. The path continued along the ridge, leading me easily down to the lochans in the col, and then more steeply upwards. Ahead of me, I could see a couple apparently making rather heavy weather of the last rocky section below the summit. They were scrabbling around with walking poles that had been set to a convenient length for level walking, but which were actively counterproductive for anyone trying to ascend a 1:1 gradient consisting of chunky boulders. There’s some sort of corollary to the old wisdom about ice-axes, here. It’s commonly said that people often venture too far on to steep ground before thinking to get their ice-axes off their packs and into their hands. The inverse seems to be true of some walking-pole users, who get themselves into an awkward fankle on steep ground when they’d be better off stowing the poles on their packs and freeing up their hands.

I resisted sharing this wisdom with them, however. They stepped politely aside to let me overtake them, and I gave them a cheery greeting, to which they responded with gloomy silence. Oh well.

Beyond the tiny summit of Meall Garbh, the ridge becomes narrow and airy for a while.

Narrow section of Tarmachan ridge west of Meall Garbh
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Then it kind of disappears ahead, and you begin to wonder how on earth the path is going to get down to the next col, which now seems to be almost vertically below. There’s a turn, and a steep descent, and then a madly eroded section that descends through steep rocks with some disconcerting exposure to the left.

Here’s the view down to the path in the col from just above the awkward bit:

Short scramble descending to col west of Meall Garbh
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There is, reputedly, a path that circumvents all this unpleasantness to the right—I confess to not noticing where it branched off on the ridge, but spotted it when it rejoined the main path, just above the col.

Then up again towards Beinn nan Eachan, which is, incongruously, the “mountain of horses”. I stepped up off the path on to a little grassy knoll that provided a nice spot for lunch, as well as a fine viewpoint back towards Meall Garbh and the perils just survived:

Meall Garbh from east top of Beinn nan Eachan
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If you enlarge the picture, you should be able to make out how the main path seems to seek unerringly towards the nasty craggy stuff. I suspect this started out as quite an easy descent, preferable to the steep grassy slope to the north (left as you look at the picture), but decades of erosion have transformed it into a slightly awkward scramble. I waited with a mixture of interest and apprehension to see what would befall the pole-wielding pair on this route, but they never appeared.

I paused to take a picture of the distant peaks of Stob Binnein and Ben More, still sporting their last remnants of snow, before crossing my own little patch of snow on the ascent of Eachan.

Stob Binnein and Ben More from Tarmachan Ridge
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Snow on the path to Beinn nan Eachan
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The oddly eroded summit with its tiny cairn gave me a view of my final hill of the day, Creag na Caillich, “crag of the old woman”.

Creag na Caillich from Beinn nan Eachan
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It’s certainly craggy enough. Perhaps the old woman owned the horses. Poor Caillich is an innocent victim of the culture of hill tabulation, which I introduced in a previous post. My 1:50000 Ordnance Survey map gives its height as 916m, which is a tad over 3005 feet. That height earned it an entry in the last edition of Munro’s Tables (1997), as a “Munro Top”. But in 2015 it was resurveyed, establishing a new, more precise height of 914.3m—tragically four inches short of the magical 3000-foot criterion. The 2021 edition of the Scottish Mountaineering Club’s Munros guide therefore dismisses it with the phrase: “many people will now miss it out”.

Well, that says more about “many people” than it does about the hill, so I went and climbed it. On the way, I made note of a path descending southeast into Coire Fionn-Lairige from the lowest point in the col, which I designated as my return route.

The grassy summit of Creag na Caillich gave me a fine view down to the head of Loch Tay:

Loch Tay from Creag na Caillich
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It’s possible, apparently, to continue the traverse down the ridge that you can see at right of frame above, and to follow a path that sweeps west and then east again to circumvent the final crags and link up with the end of a long vehicle track that serves a succession of little dams on the streams of Coire Fionn-Lairige—the folks at OpenStreetMap have certainly plotted such a thing (their data are used in my map at the head of this post), but I can’t vouch for it, because I headed back to the col to pick up the path I’d noted previously.

Which I promptly lost after only a few hundred metres. For what it’s worth, OpenStreetMap suggests that I went right across boggy ground while the path went left. But no matter—Coire Fionn-Lairige was easy grassy walking, and I chose a line that directly descended the steeper upper reaches, and then traversed gently southeast across the lower slopes using the low mound of Meall Liath as my marker.

Crossing Coire Fionn-Lairige towards Meall Liath
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This brought me out on the aforementioned dams track. Then it was just a matter of marching a couple of miles in the afternoon sunshine, while enjoying the views of the ridge I’d just traversed.

Meall nan Tarmachan from the dams track
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