Written September 2012
After my first 2010 trip to Scotland in June (North West Highlands), I quickly planned a second trip in the remaining time before the stalking season commenced in August. The forecast was not great, but towards the end of July the rain stopped and I quickly arranged a return train ticket to Inverness (£147.90), with a sleeper berth booked on the way up (£38 supplement).
This was to be a very ambitious trip, constructed around the possibilities offered by East Highland Railway with the aim of sweeping up a collection of scattered Munros in a single trip. The first week would start in Pitlochry, getting a taxi to the foot of Schiehallion. I would then walk westwards, climbing 19 Munros including Ben Lawers and the group around Glen Lyon, ending up at Bridge of Orchy on the West Highland Railway.
After the first week, I then planned to get the train to Glasgow, restock food supplies, before heading back to the East Highland Railway for three distinct Munro circuits from convenient railway stations. The first was from Blair Atholl, climbing the three Munros of Beinn a' Ghlò, which I'd missed due to excessive snow in April 2006. The second was from Dalwhinnie, climbing the seven Munros on either side of the Drumochter Pass. The last was from Garve, climbing the solitary Munro Ben Wyvis. Over the course of two weeks this ambitious itinerary would visit 30 Munros.
On embarking the sleeper at London Euston at 9:15pm I arranged to get off at Pitlochry rather than Inverness, the destination on my ticket. The stewardess said that this was no problem and put me in a cabin on my own. They prefer to group people in cabins according to where they are disembarking, so that morning wake-up calls can be arranged more easily.
I'd booked a taxi from S R Taxis who are based on Station Road Pitlochry, and the taxi was waiting in the station car park when the sleeper arrived at 6:17am. The taxi driver was friendly and explained that there are two road routes to Schiehallion. The direct route twisting along the north shore of Loch Tummel can get congested with caravans travelling to and from Loch Rannoch. The longer route via Blair Atholl and Calvine can sometimes be quicker, but as it was very early in the day we decided on the shorter route. This was very picturesque, with the road winding along the wooded shore of Loch Tummel.
We passed a large truck coming the other way, and the driver explained that it was from a Baryte mine. This mineral is incredibly heavy, and the trucks become fully laden when filled to a fraction of their capacity. Around 77% of Baryte worldwide is used as a weighting agent for drilling fluids in oil and gas exploration to suppress high formation pressures and to prevent blowouts.
The driver said the area I would be walking through had fantastic wildlife, especially Glen Lyon which is renowned for golden eagles. I asked the driver what it was like in Pitlochry last winter, since even Southampton had experienced snow and ice. He explained that his car worked better when the temperature was consistently below zero (dry cold) and it was actually worse in milder winters when melting and refreezing causes problems.
Soon we arrived at the Forestry Commission car park at Braes of Foss, the starting point for most ascents of Schiehallion. The taxi meter was over £30, but the driver wouldn't take any more than the £30 he'd quoted me, and wished me good luck on my journey.
Schiehallion's isolated position and regular shape led it to be selected by Charles Mason for a ground-breaking experiment to estimate the mass of the Earth in 1774. The deflection of a pendulum by the mass of the mountain provided an estimate of the density of the Earth, from which its mass and a value for Newton's gravitational constant could be deduced. Mason turned down a commission to carry out the work and it was instead coordinated by Astronomer Royal, Nevil Maskelyne. He was assisted in the task by mathematician Charles Hutton, who as part of his work calculated the mass of Schiehallion by surveying concentric lines of equal height around the mountain, and in the process invented cartographic contours.
The name Schiehallion is an anglicised form of the Gaelic name Sìdh Chailleann, usually translated as the poetic "Fairy Hill of the Caledonians" (it can also be translated as "The Maiden's Pap" or "Constant Storm"). The mountain is a fine viewpoint and consequently is very popular. By 1999, when the John Muir Trust bought the estate, the main path had become severely eroded by the passage of many thousands of feet. The scar was visible from quite a distance. The organisation decided to construct a new path, following a different line, better able to handle the pressure of visitors.
The morning was quite cold and the sun had not yet burnt the morning mist from the upper reaches of Schiehallion. The mountain is formed of quartzite, so was a nice thematic continuation of my trip the previous month over the great quartzite mountain Beinn Eighe. Although it often appears as a perfect cone from a distance, Schiehallion is actually an elongated ridge, with the true summit at its far end. This last part along the ridge was covered in cloud and the rock was rather damp from condensation.
I descended the west side of Schiehallion on pathless and sometimes steep terrain. I aimed for a small bothy, which would make a good stop for breakfast. This bothy is no longer marked on the map - the only indication is the termination of a footpath at Blar na Feadaig. The bothy is built into a hillside in a small cleft hollowed out by a stream. A lot of the hillside must have been excavated during the construction, since the top of the rear wall is at ground level, and a sign asks people not to walk on the roof. Inside the bothy a sarcastic note warned that the place is haunted by the ghost of a man who died of dust inhalation because someone burnt the bothy broom!
After breakfast I ascended cross country for a short distance to pick up a path to another bothy (also no longer marked on the map). This bothy sits below Geal Chàrn and is of drystone construction, built from quartzite blocks. It was much larger that the first bothy, and probably much less cosy in the winter.
The remainder of the day was spend travelling cross-country, traversing at pretty much at constant height to end up in Corie Dubh a' Chluarain. Camping high in this corrie would put me in a great position to tackle four Munros the following day.
Climbing up onto the ridge, I hid my pack behind a wall at the foot of Càrn Mairg, so that I could do a rapid there-and-back-again to Meall nan Aighean. This Munro was not named as such on historic maps, where it was called Craig Mhòr (a name that is used on modern maps to refer to a subsidiary summit above the woods at Coille Dhubh). Returning to my pack, I soon was over Càrn Mairg, and following the ridge along the line of an old fence. Three miles further along, I arrived at Meall Garbh, who's summit cairn is a bonfire-shaped pile of metal fence posts. Not a place to be in a lightening storm! From here it was a short distance over the subsidiary Top of An Sgorr to reach the final Munro of the day Càrn Gorm.
I now needed to cross to the far side of Glen Lyon towards Ben Lawers. The name "Lyon" is considered to be a corruption of Lugdunum, after Lugh, the Celtic sun god. Therefore "Glen Lyon" can be translated as "the Valley of the Sun God". Often described as the most beautiful Scottish glen, Glen Lyon runs for 55 km making it the longest enclosed valley in Scotland. The area is renowned for its mountain scenery and, although lying in central Scotland, it is actually one of the remotest parts of the country, with a population of little more than 100 people, mostly absent during the winter months.
In the lower glen the River Lyon flows deep and wide, so my options for crossing to the far side were limited by the location of bridges. A direct descent to Camusvrachan looked feasible, but the bridge was on a private track, and I was unsure if the bridge still existed. A better option would be to use the public road at Bridge of Balgie, although I would have to walk three miles back down the glen to access the Lawers group of Munros.
I opted for the second choice, and decided to defer the descent to Bridge of Balgie until the following day. To reach a good descending track, from Càrn Gorm I continued westwards, traversing rough ground around the side of Beinn Dearg and over Meall Glas to the edge of a forest plantation. There was a funnel trap next to the plantation, designed to trap crows. A set of stringent conditions must be followed for the use of these traps to stay within the law. The trap was close to the Lairig Ghallabhaich, a well-used track, crossing to Loch Rannoch, so I assumed that the public location meant that the trap was OK.
Apart from passing a few walkers and cyclists coming in the opposite direction, the descent of the forest track was uneventful. I then had a mile walk along the public road to the small village at Bridge of Balgie. This tiny village is the focus of tourism in Glen Lyon, having a post office, tearoom and art gallery. I was tempted to stop at the tearoom, but still had far to go.
I crossed the bridge, then turned off along a track heading downstream along the River Lyon. At the start of this track I passed by the Meggemie Outdoor Activity Centre, where a scout camp was currently in residence. The track serves several farmsteads on the south side of Glen Lyon, and had recently been improved, with new hardcore on some previous boggy sections, and a rebuilt section where the track passed between the riverbank and a steep hillside. Further along the track below Dubh Chnocan I saw several clumps of chanterelles growing around the fringes of oak woodland. I wished that I'd brought some garlic and olive oil, since these delicious wild fungi would have made a nice addition to my evening meal.
I turned off the main track to follow a subsidiary track up into the mountains. There were old shielings along this track that were cordoned off with tape, as if in preparation for an archaeological dig. This is no surprise as Glen Lyon contains one of the richest concentrations of prehistoric archaeological sites in Scotland. The remoteness and enclosed nature of this deep glen is thought to have preserved the Celtic culture from outside influence.
After a few miles up the track, I turned left to follow a fence steeply up the side of the glen, to reach a ridge which I followed to the second Meall Garbh of this trip. The Lawers ridge is comprised of seven Munros, and I'd joined it one Munro from the end of the ridge. I decided to climb Meall Greigh at the far end of the ridge, then descend to Lochan nan Cat on the opposite side to camp, then tackle the remaining five Munros the following day. This would omit a short section of scrambling between Meall Garbh and An Stùc, of which the guidebook warns "don't become unstuck on An Stùc"!
From Meall Greigh there were fine views of the vast Loch Tay. On descent from Meall Greigh there was a short heavy shower, which soaked the rich, thick, vegetation on this side of the ridge and soon soaked my boots. This area, known as the Breadalbane Mountains, stretches from Ben Lawers westwards to Ben Lui, and is one of the most important botanical regions in Scotland. The geology of calcareous mica schists has created a fertile breeding ground for a large number of rare alpine plants.
Overgrazing by sheep, and to a lesser extent deer, has led to the extinction of many species in the area and has put others under threat. The National Trust purchased the south side of the Lawers range in 1950 and extended this in 1996 with the neighbouring Tarmachan range. The Trust is working on restoring and the ecology in this area. Unfortunately there are legal sheep grazing rights in the Lawers range, but many rare plants do survive on ledges and in high gullies.
I wanted to get out of the rain, so I stopped and put my tent up by Loch nan Uan, which is connected to Loch nan Cat by a narrow neck of water.
I walked along the north shore of Loch nan Cat, then followed a stream up onto the Lawers ridge. This looked a little steep on the map, but it was possible to find a way through the crags. I then left my pack at the bealach, and did a short "there-and-back-again" to climb the south ridge of An Stùc.
Back at my pack, it was then a straightforward climb to the summit of Ben Lawers, the highest of the group and one of the highest peaks in the Southern Highlands. Ben Lawers was long thought to be over 4000ft in height, but accurate measurements in the 1870s showed it to be 17ft short of this figure. In 1878, a group of twenty men spent a day building a large cairn aiming to bring the summit above the "magic" figure. The cairn is no longer there; in any case Ordnance Survey ignored it as an artificial structure that was not truly part of the mountain.
I continued over Beinn Ghlas then descended to a high bealach to stop for lunch. This is the point where the main tourist path joins the ridge from the south side. The path ascends from the former site of the National Trust Visitor Centre which unfortunately has now closed and was demolished in 2010.
It had been windy all day (a sign of changing weather), and the strong wind continued as I headed over the last two Munros of the day, Meall Corranaich, Meall a' Choire Lèith. I descended to camp in a sheltered spot amongst some old shielings in Gleann Da-Eig.
Clouds had come in overnight and by the morning my next Munro, Meall nan Tarmachan was hidden from view. I crossed the public road (which climbs from Loch Tay over to Glen Lyon) at Lairig an Lochain, and continued up the pathless north ridge of Meall nan Tarmachan, following a new fence. There are no grazing rights on the south side of the Tarmachan ridge, so the National Trust have been able to completely enclose it, keeping out grazing animals and encouraging regeneration of the mountain ecology.
Soon the rain began and I put on waterproofs. The conditions were unfortunate as Meall nan Tarmachan is considered one of the finest mountains in the Southern Highlands. From the main summit a little path winds its way around rock outcrops and little lochans passing over four subsidiary Tops. At least the close-up views of the rock were interesting. At one point the ground has become quite eroded and there is a scramble down polished rock, which must be taken carefully.
Before the final Top, I diverted off down Meall Ton Eich and into a desolate valley. I was heading for my second Munro of the day, Meall Ghaordaidh. Blocking the way was Carn Shionnach, which I avoided by traversing around its southern slopes to a bealach below Meall Ghaordaidh. There were many bilberries growing around here, and I enjoyed eating them as I walked along.
By now the rain had stopped, and there was just a few wisps of cloud clinging to the mountain tops. I climbed the ridge and crossed Cam-Chreag to reach another bealach. From this point I planned to descend to camp in Coire Loaghain, but first I left my pack by a prominent boulder and went up to climb the final 150m to Meall Ghaordaidh's trig pillar.
On the way down I ticked off minor landmarks I'd noted on the way up, then collected my pack and began dropping into Coire Loaghain. Suddenly a golden eagle flew across the corrie, directly in front of me. I watched transfixed as it circled around, then flew off down Glen Lyon. After coming to Scotland for five years, this was the first time I'd seen an eagle, and it was an emotional moment. On previous trips I'd seen birds of prey in the distance, but it is often said that there is never any doubt when you see an eagle, their wingspan is that much larger than any other British bird.
A little further down the corrie, I could hear the eagle's chicks calling for food, nested high up in the crags on the west side of the corrie. This would be a perfect spot to spend the night, with a front row view of Scotland's most elusive bird.
Eagles are extremely wary of humans, having nearly been wiped out by farmers and ghillies in an effort to protect their livestock. With the low human population in Glen Lyon, it is no surprise that eagles have made it their home. I hoped that my presence would not disturb them, and happily I was able to watch the eagles hunting in the corrie, from the seclusion of my tent, so they must have felt comfortable with my presence. At one point an eagle dived and caught what looked to be a rabbit. Just a few hundred metres away from me, I watched the eagle feasting on the ground. It was a remarkable height perched on the ground, on the scale of a large dog! The other eagle was clearly visible on the cliffs above, perched near the nest. The male and female appeared to be taking it in turns to go out hunting.
I continued down the pathless corrie, aiming for a bridge over the River Lyon, just below Stronuich Reservoir. There is a dam across the reservoir and on the opposite bank is Cashlie Hydroelectric Power Station. Higher up the glen there is another much larger Hydroelectric dam at Loch Lyon. I was now heading up Stùc an Lochain a prominent ridge that splits upper Glen Lyon in two, the southern branch holding Loch Lyon and the northern branch holding another reservoir with a dam, Loch an Daimh.
I walked a short distance up the road to join a track zigzagging up the hillside. This would very conveniently take me through the worst of the bracken. As I was ascending I heard shouts coming from above. I was confused as to what was going on, then realised that a deer stalk was in progress, and the deer were being chased out of a corrie above and to the right of me. I quickly changed direction leftwards and climbed uphill of the stalk. Soon the steep slope relented, and I crossed easy ground, leaving my pack at the last minute to scramble up the pointed summit of Stùc an Lochain.
It was now a straightforward descent, along the main path down to the dam at the head of Loch an Daimh. This car park is at 400m so makes an excellent starting point to tackle the two Munros on either side of this huge reservoir. On the way down I met a retired secondary school teacher and his wife. He left his wife at the car park and continued with me up the next Munro, Meall Buidhe. He was surprised to learn that I was carrying everything on my back and kindly gave me a bottle of drink and some cereal bars to supplement my supplies.
On the summit I said goodbye, since I would be continuing on the high ground westwards. I recall seeing some kind of building due west of Meall Buidhe reflecting in the sun, perhaps a bothy. A rain squall came in and I hastily put my tent up on a little island surrounded by peat bogs.
By the morning the rain had stopped, but the vegetated ground was very damp. Today's walk would be over a high plateau. The map showed a line of cairns marking a line across this rather featureless plateau. In parts there were traces of paths linking these cairns. The cairns themselves were covered in moss and heather, some were close to being swallowed up completely by the landscape. It was a fun game trying to spot the next cairn from a distance. This must be an ancient route, and people possibly used it because they could make faster progress higher up than in the boggy thickly-vegetated and wooded glens.
These connecting sections are one of the best features of doing a multi-day Munro trek. The routes are unscarred by the feet of thousands of walkers, they cross some very remote ground, where help is often far away. Arguably the sense of wilderness and isolation is more keenly felt here than on the summits of Munros.
The last part of this exacting route was around the side of Meall na Feith Faide, then a cunning route through the crags of Creag na Gualainn. I was now at a 431m bealach. It was tempting to stop here, but that would make the following day much harder. So late in the day I started the 600m climb, with just enough energy to get up Beinn a' Chreachain. The first part was up a steep slope with rocky outcrops, then a gentle climb up to the tiny lochan in Coire Dubh Beag. To reach the summit I ascended the north ridge of Beinn a' Chreachain.
There was no suitable spot to camp on the far side of Beinn a' Chreachain, so I used the last of my energy climbing the Top Meall Buidhe, to reach Bealach an Aoghlain. Here on the south side of the bealach was water, and sufficient shelter from the wind.
Deep in the upper reaches of Glen Lyon, directly below where I was camped, is Glen Cailleach, a valley devoted to the Cailleach, a Celtic goddess. In Scotland she is often depicted as a hag or wizened old woman. The Cailleach is a creator: she can harness the wild powers of nature, make mountains, move boulders around, and raise sea and storms. She can use her powers both to create or destroy. In Glen Cailleach there is an ancient shrine to the goddess, located at Tigh nam Bodach. This is the site of the oldest uninterrupted pagan ritual in Britain, possibly in all of Europe, which continues to this day.
On first appearances Tigh nam Bodach is a simple shieling, a modest stone hut with a turf roof. However the building is home to a remarkable "family" of water-worn sandstones roughly shaped in human forms. The largest stone, 45cm high, represents the Cailleach, while other two stones represent her husband Bodach -"the old man"- and their daughter Nighean, who is only 7.6cm tall. There are also a number of unnamed, smaller stones, which are believed to be smaller children.
The Cailleach and her family live outside the shieling from Beltane (Mayday) to Samhain (Halloween), the two Celtic festivals that mark the beginning and end of summer. Traditionally, local people walked up the glen to take the Cailleach and her stone family out of their house on Beltane, and on Samhain they were carefully shut back up inside their house, where they sheltered through the winter. This ritual once coincided with the annual migrations of the Highland cattle to and from the summer shielings.
Before the Highland clearances and the changes in the pattern of farming, there used to be more people living in the glen. It is recorded that until the early 20th century the Cailleach's house was re-thatched every year by the locals. The cult of the Cailleach declined as people moved away from the area, but the tradition of bringing the stone family indoors for the winter and taking them outside in spring was continued by local shepherds or gamekeepers.
This ancient ritual is linked with farming prosperity, for the goddess Cailleach was believed to be watching over the cattle that once grazed on these mountains during the summer. According to local lore, the Cailleach and her family were once given shelter in the glen by the local people. So grateful was she for the hospitality given to her family that she left the stones with the promise that, as long as they were cared for, she would ensure the glen would continue to be fertile and prosperous.
There are other legends associated with the Cailleach at Tigh na Bodach. One tale has it that terrible things will happen to anyone who dares to disturb her lair. In 2011 the owners of the Auch Estate lodged plans a hydroelectric project in the area. History enthusiasts feared they would affect the setting, and they immediately began a campaign to raise the profile of Tigh Nam Bodach, which had previously been kept a closely-guarded secret. Later in 2011 it emerged that the landowner had withdrawn the planning application, shortly before his death aged just 51.
See: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-tayside-central-13278779 and http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-tayside-central-15496261
I started from over 800m, so soon gained the summit of Beinn Achaladair. Cloud covered the mountain, so there was no view from the top. I continued over the south ridge and down into the boulder-strewn Coire nan Clach, hollow of the stones. I picked up the line of an old fence, which led to the 638m bealach at Lon na Galliche. From here I had just one more Munro to do, Beinn Mhanach, before Bridge of Orchy. I continued along the fence, following it nearly all the way to the summit of Beinn Mhanach. I left my pack at a corner in the fence, to climb the short distance to the summit of this rather inaccessible Munro.
I retraced steps to Lon na Galliche. The SMC guide describes an old stalkers' path, unmarked on the map, which drops from the head of Corie Daingean and slants across the hillside to reach Lon na Galliche. This must have been the route that people used historically to reach this point from Achallder. From across the glen I picked out the line of the stalkers' path, and memorised some landmarks, since the path looked a little indistinct at the start. Happily I located the path, and it took me effortlessly in the right direction.
For the final section beyond Corie Daingean, no path existed and I had to gain quite a bit of height to outflank cliffs on the side of Beinn an Dòthaidh. After a while I picked up the main descent path from Beinn an Dòthaidh. I had been this way in 2006 when I climbed Beinn an Dòthaidh and its distinctive neighbour Beinn Dorain from Bridge of Orchy. The path down to the village from the bealach between the two hills is in a shockingly eroded state, due to the popularity and ease of access from the village.
I went to the Bridge of Orchy Hotel, which operates an excellent bunkhouse (£15 per night). There is a great drying room in a little shed besides the bunkhouse, and I immediately set to work getting my sodden boots dried out. In the pub I sat outside on the balcony at the back. A pleasant breeze was blowing so midges were not a problem. The real ale was excellent. A short time later I was surprised to see ex-MP Michael Portillo come out onto the balcony with a few friends. He was in a jubilant mood, possibly due to the Tories winning the general election. I discovered later that he was filming a TV series about classic railway lines in Britain, and he was covering the West Highland Line.
The hotel seems to be staffed more-or-less entirely by eastern Europeans - I was quite surprised that immigration had reached this remote corner of the Highlands. I bought some soap from the hotel reception, then went back to bunkhouse to have a shower. Back in my room I met a father and son, who were sharing the room with me. They were walking part of the West Highland Way before the son went to America. We went back to the pub, and spent a pleasant evening drinking and eating some excellent food.
I woke early as I had to catch the 9:02am train to Glasgow and wanted to have breakfast at the hotel first. Breakfast was delicious, the perfect antidote to my sore head, having consumed one too many beers the previous night. The station was a short walk from the hotel, and the train arrived on time, reaching Glasgow Queen Street by 11:30am (ticket £18.30). The train to Perth departed at 13:41, so I didn't have much time to find all food the supplies for the coming week. I headed to the Sainsburys at the top of Buchanan Street (near the bus station) with my shopping bill coming to £22.70.
I headed back to Queen Street and bought a ticket to Blair Atholl (£16.30). On the first leg of the journey to Perth, I organised my food supplies, removing cardboard packaging and bagging up breakfast cereal into daily rations. The lady sitting opposite me was curious and asked where I was heading. I explained my itinerary and she said she'd always wanted to climb Beinn a' Ghlò. I had some muesli left over and gave it to her rather than throw it away. She insisted on giving me a pack of mints in exchange. I said goodbye to the lady (who's name was Ruth), in Perth, where we arrived at 14:36. The connecting train was due at 14:54 arriving in Blair Atholl at 15:34, but was delayed by half an hour.
I now had a long slog uphill to camp some way up Beinn a' Ghlò. The initial part was along the banks of the River Tilt, then three miles along the minor road to Loch Moraig. I then followed a track for several miles, before diverting off on a tiny path through the heather, on a route recommended by the Cicerone guidebook. This path is unmarked on the map, and it is unlikely it ever will be, given how well it's hidden amongst the heather.
The bilberries were out again, and I feasted on this delicious fruit as I went along. A little further the path crossed the Allt Corrie na Saobhaidh, then contoured around the side of Beinn Bheag to reach the Allt na Beinne Bige. The ground was rather heathery and uneven, and I struggled to find a suitable camping spot. Finally at a confluence I found a patch of grass perched directly above the burn, at 580m.
After I'd eaten and was relaxing after a long hectic day, I began to hear faint music playing in the corrie. An enchanted sound of many voices, singing in unison in a strange tongue. If I concentrated too hard the sound would vanish, but as soon as I relaxed and didn't strain to hear, the music would fade back in. There are many folk tales of people hearing fairy music in remote corries in Scotland. Celtic fairies are said to live in little mounds, and I wondered if I was camping near the home of the aes sìdhe (the people of the mounds)! In Celtic culture, the otherworld is traditionally considered closer at dawn and dusk.
Another, more rational explanation, was the impact of the complex, unpredictable noise of the gurgling stream directly beside my tent. Certain sound frequencies (eg. isochronic tones) can put the brain in a relaxed state where it is more likely to experience auditory hallucinations, extrapolating sounds that aren't really there. Whatever the explanation, it was a magical sound.
Today would be another busy day, as I wanted to climb the three Munros of Beinn a' Ghlò and get down to Blair Atholl for a train at 15:34. I woke at 5:30am and set off by 7am. Mist was covering the mountain, and rain was forecast by late morning.
Beinn a' Ghlò is a beautiful, mysterious quartzite mountain with many remote peaks, ridges and corries. The name is translated variously as "hill of the veil", "hooded mountain" or "hill of the mist". Aside from Lochnagar, it is the finest mountain in the east Highlands south of the Cairngorms. I had planned to climb it in April 2006, but it was still plastered in snow and gave all the appearance of an alpine peak, rising from relentlessly steep slopes above Glen Tilt.
I followed the rough path up the heathery corrie, climbing up to Bealach an Fhiodha and into the mist. My first destination was Càrn nan Gabhar, the highest and most remote of the three Munros. I left my pack at the bealach, safe in the knowledge that no one would be around to disturb it at this hour. The true summit of Càrn nan Gabhar is a short distance further on from the trig pillar.
Back at the bealach I retrieved my pack and climbed up the other side to reach Bràigh Coire Chruinn-bhalgain. On the way down from here I met the first walkers of the day, coming in the opposite direction. It was now beginning to rain, so I put on waterproofs before beginning the climb up to the last Munro of the group, Càrn Liath. A well-worn path descends this Munro back down to the track that I'd used the previous day, and I passed by many walkers on their way up. The rain was now quite heavy and I made a beeline for a ruined shelter beside the track, which still had its roof intact. This made a perfect lunch stop. Swifts were nesting in the eaves of the collapsed roof, and some nearly flew directly into me as they returned to their nests.
After lunch I started off back down the road around 1pm, retracing my steps of the previous day. I'd not gone far when a car pulled over and the driver offered me a lift. He was John Cameron, resident of Monzie, the farmstead below Beinn a' Ghlò. I gratefully accepted the lift, since the prospect of plodding along in the rain was not enticing. He asked me if I ever went wild swimming, as he went for a daily wild swim in Loch Moraig, which he found very good for his health.
John was involved in the running of Atholl Country Life Museum (http://www.athollcountrylifemuseum.org/), and invited me to the museum. I politely declined, as I wanted to go to the Bothy Bar of the Atholl Arms Hotel for some food and drink, and there was not much time before my train. The museum claims to be the home of Scotland's only stuffed Highland cow! As an aside, the following year John was down in Southampton to visit his son who works on a cruise ship, and we met up for a drink in Southampton.
The Bothy Bar was crowded, but warm, and I was soon sat enjoying a good pint, and drying off. The walls of the bar were decorated with old farm machinery, which had apparently been donated by John's family. I ordered some soup and a basket of chips. The Atholl Arms is twinned with the Moulin Inn, located in the ancient village of Moulin, just north of Pitlochry. It is home to both Scotland's smallest brewery and not far from Scotland's smallest distillery, The Edradour.
The train arrived on time at 15:34, and it was a short ride to the next stop at Dalwhinnie, arriving at 16:01 (cost £8.80). Dalwhinnie sits at an altitude of 351m. It is one of the coldest villages in the UK, having an average annual temperature of 6.5 degrees C. I crossed the railway line, then picked up a track around the end of Loch Ericht. This loch is nearly 15 miles long, and extends to the foot of Ben Alder, which can be reached by cycling along the track on the north shore of the loch.
I left the track and began the pathless climb up the north side of Geal-chàrn. The vegetation was sodden, and to keep my boots dry, I covered each boot with a plastic bag. This worked rather well, until the bags began to disintegrate, scoured by the rough heather. I picked a sheltered spot on Meall a Bhuirich to camp, with views over Loch Ericht.
In the morning it was raining again, and I set off into the mist over Geal-chàrn then on to A' Mharconaich. From here there was a rather useful line of old rusty fence posts to follow, which made navigation straightforward. It was raining so heavily that the wind was blowing the rain inside my rucksack cover, which needed to be emptied at regular intervals.
On the next Munro, Beinn Udlamain, the sprawling cairn had rock shelters radiating from it in all directions, making it a perfect stop whichever way the wind was blowing. There was a brief lull in the rain, so I decided to rest here for lunch. To reach the last Munro on this side of the Drumochter Pass, I descended a stony ridge, then climbed up Sgairneach Mhòr. I descended steep pathless slopes into upper Coire Dhomhain. The camping spot beside the burn was carpeted in fragrant wild mountain thyme, which I used to season my evening pasta meal.
I headed down Coire Dhomhain as I needed to cross the A9 to access the Munros on the far side of the main road. On both sides of the corrie, new tracks were under construction up the hillsides, presumably to facilitate deer stalking or grouse shooting. There are two prominent hills at the entrance to the corrie, which mark the division between two historical districts of Scotland. The southern hill is called the Sow of Atholl and the northern hill is called the Boar of Badenoch.
I used an underpass (not marked on the map) to cross the railway line. Both road and rail signs announce that this is the Drumochter Pass. This is the main mountain pass between the northern and southern central Scottish Highlands. It is the high point on the A9, at 460m, and in winter can be subject to severe weather conditions. Routine winter patrols take place between November and March and the road is occasionally closed with snow gates near Dalwhinnie and Dalnacardoch. The summit of the railway line is 452m, making it the highest in the UK.
Thankfully the weather was dry today, as I set off up the heathery slopes to climb A' Bhuidheanach Bheag. There is a healthy population of mountain hares living on the plateau here. Many of the hares have been fitted with radio collars and their movements and life-cycles have been carefully monitored over the years. I saw several hares as I reached the summit of A' Bhuidheanach Bheag, scattered with quartz boulders.
I descended to a soggy peaty col, then joined a new track, which took me most of the way to the next Munro Càrn na Caim. The next section was pathless, but virtually level, across the heathery plateau. The last section of the plateau I followed a grassy meandering stream (looked nice for camping) to join an old stalkers' path along cliffs above Coire Chuaich.
Following this well-constructed but little-used path along the cliff tops, I was astounded to see another eagle. Two eagle sightings in one trip is unbelievable luck. Just before the stalkers' path descended, there was a nice sheltered grassy hollow, which looked to be a possible camping spot, but there was no water source. Instead I followed the zigzags down to the bealach, and set up camp there.
This was another early start, as I wanted to climb Meall Chuaich and go on a tour of Dalwhinnie distillery before my train at 12:21pm. Morning mist was covering Meall Chuaich as I left my pack at the bealach to quickly nip up and back to bag the summit. I memorised landmarks on the way up, to make it easier to find the way back through the mist.
Retrieving my pack, I started down the track, descending initially to the locked bothy at Allt Coire Chuaich. This bothy sits at the head of Loch Cuaich marking the start of an extensive hydro scheme which brings water all the way to Pitlochry by a series of aqueducts, pipes and lochs.
I continued down, following an aqueduct, then branched off to cross under the A9 at Cuaich. Rather than follow the busy A9 back to Dalwhinnie, I followed a track, which crossed the railway line at a level crossing. There were men working on the railway and I checked with them that it was safe to cross. The track passed over an old bridge before joining the B Road (General Wade's Military Road), leading into Dalwhinnie.
I arrived at the distillery just before 10:30am, and bought a ticket (£6) for the 11am tour. The tour lasted an hour, so it would be rather tight to catch my train. The tour visited all of the rooms in the various stages of fermentation, distillation and maturing of the whisky. It is traditional for distillery tours to end with a complementary shot of whisky, and this was no exception. We were given instructions to sip it slowly, and taste the subtle flavours. However I was in a hurry to catch the train, so gulped it down quickly, which raised a few eyebrows!
There was a teashop on the way to the station, and I stopped here briefly to pick up a few additional snacks. As it turned out the train was delayed, so I needn't have hurried. There was only a seven minute connection time (13:27 to 13:34) between this train and my onward train from Inverness to Garve. The next train to Garve was four hours later (arriving at 18:48), and it would probably be quicker to get a bus, rather than wait for this train.
When the conductor came around, I explained that I wanted to buy a ticket to Garve, but only if we could make the connection in Inverness. The conductor was very kind, and agreed to find out if there were others in the same predicament, and if so, he would arrange for the connecting train to wait for us in Inverness. He said we might regain some time on the downhill to Aviemore, but agreed to only sell me a ticket to Garve, once it was certain we would make the connection. He made an announcement on the tannoy, then came back and told me the train would wait, and sold me a ticket for Garve (£21.50).
At Inverness, staff were at hand to guide passengers onto the connection, so happily everyone made the train. This was very impressive customer service - it's unlikely that such good service would be offered on train services in England. I arrived in Garve at 14:24, in good time to climb a long way towards Ben Wyvis.
From the station I took a minor road over the river Black Water. On the far side the road continued along the edge of woodland, which I was delighted to see carpeted in chanterelles. I noted all the locations where these were growing, so I could harvest them on the return, and take them back to Southampton.
I turned off the road, and used a track to cut a corner off, to reach the main road again. Normally Ben Wyvis is accessed from further north, and I was unsure if my planned route would be feasible. I wanted to use a track that looked to have been constructed to serve a radio mast on a hilltop, then traverse around pathless terrain to reach the foot of Ben Wyvis.
The radio mast track was barred by a high locked gate (not exactly in the spirit of open access). Fortunately I was able to squeeze through the bars, and manoeuvre my pack over the top. There were a few houses, with barking dogs, and I felt rather uneasy, but soon I was above all the habitation, following the zigzagging track up the hillside. I passed three forks, each time taking the left-hand track.
For the last mile I had to leave the track a go cross-country, descending 100m, to reach the foot of Ben Wyvis. This was the thicket, craziest, moorland vegetation that I've ever come across in Scotland. The heather was waist deep, and chocked with moss and lichen. Plenty of moorland berries were growing including bilberry and cloudberry (which I only found out was edible when I got home!). I camped besides the Allt a Bhealaich Mhòir at 370m.
This was the final day of the trip, and yet another early start at 5:15am. I wanted to get back to Inverness early, and see if I could get a sleeper back this evening. Ben Wyvis was cloaked in damp mist as I climbed up the newly-restored footpath up An Cabar. From the top there was a mile and a half level ridge leading to the summit Munro Glas Leathad Mòr, marked by a trig pillar.
I returned by the same route to Garve. Halfway across the thick vegetation I rested on a large boulder, an island in a sea of heather. The mist had cleared an there were fine views over the northwest Highlands, including the Fannaichs, An Teallach and Beinn Dearg. It was nice to get some good views, particularly after some rather unsettled weather in the past week.
On the final section of road walking, I hurriedly collected as many chanterelles as I could carry, and got to the station with five minutes to spare. The train arrived at 13:39, bringing me to Inverness at 14:37 (£8.20). I had been prepared to spend the night in Inverness and had researched hostels, but luckily a sleeper train was available. I already had a return ticket, so just paid £38 for a berth supplement.
I spent the afternoon eating some good food and doing some shopping. I found a great independent music shop called Imperial Music (in the Victorian market), which had handwritten reviews stuck onto CDs. I bought quite a few titles on their recommendation. I also visited The Whisky Shop, and bought a selection pack of three miniature bottles of classic malts.
The sleeper train went smoothly, and the chanterelles survived the journey back to Southampton. I had so many that I gave some away to my friends.
I was very satisfying to complete this itinerary, exactly to plan, probably my most ambitious and logistically complex Munro trip to date. The continuous walk in the first week had been more relaxing, compared to the early starts and train connections in the second week. It was nice to visit Scotland around "harvest time" and eat bilberries, thyme and gather chanterelles. I would have to do some research on edible moorland berries.
The trip was definetly the most mystical trip I've every had in Scotland, visiting Schiehallion the Fairy Hill of the Caledonians, traversing Glen Lyon the Valley of the Sun God, passing above Glen Cailleach home of the goddess Cailleach, hearing fairy music on mysterious Beinn a' Ghlò, hill of the veil, and seeing majestic eagles twice along the way.