Written July 2013
By the start of 2013 I had just seven Munros remaining until completion and I'd climbed four of these in the far north Highlands in June 2013. This left a cluster of three Munros around Strathearn on the very southern edge of the Highlands for the final trip. The nearest settlement to these Munros is the charming village of Comrie. Six miles east, further down the River Earn, is the larger town of Crieff.
On first impressions this is an unlikely group to leave to last; due to their accessibility from the central belt of Scotland, most Scots are likely to have climbed these hills at the very beginning of their Munro-climbing excursions. On the other hand, for a Sassenach on public transport, Strathearn is not nearly so accessible. The nearest railway station is at Gleneagles, 15 miles from Comrie, and the most convenient bus link is a 40 minute Citylink journey from Perth.
The closest I'd been to these Munros on previous trips to Scotland had been in 2009 on my 'West Highlands South' trek (nearest hills: Ben More and Stob Binnein) and in 2010 on my east-west Breadalbane trek (nearest hills: Ben Lawers group). The Strathearn Munros stand far apart from their nearest neighbours, and there are no convenient walking routes that can be used to link them into a longer trek. Therefore to have included them in any previous trip would have meant a diversion by bus from Perth and back.
The majority of my previous trips had been solo treks, but for my final Munro I wanted to do something different and climb it with my family. My parents had started me hillwalking in Snowdonia when I was growing up, so it would be nice for them to join me on the last Munro to bring things full circle. I started planning for my last Munro at the end of 2011 when I had less than fifty Munros left to do. However most of these were a very long drive from my parent's house Bristol. From this list, the Strathearn group were the only ones that were within a reasonable day's drive from Bristol, so I earmarked these for last.
The Strathearn group comprises the twin peaks of Ben Vorlich and Stùc a' Chroin rising above Loch Earn, and the solitary peak of Ben Chonzie above Comrie. It made sense to tackle the pair above Loch Earn first, since Stùc a' Chroin requires a loose scramble, then a rough traverse around the side of Ben Vorlich to return to the start point; unsuitable terrain for a final Munro. I wanted to have an easy descent from my last one, and Ben Chonzie fit the bill, since it has a good track going nearly all the way to the top from Glen Lednock. My Mum had asked for an easy ascent on the last Munro, and with a high car park in Glen Lednock at 214m, this would be ideal. Incidentally Ben Chonzie is pronounced 'Ben Honzie', and is sometimes called 'Ben y Hone'.
Much is made of the choice of last Munro, and it is unlikely that many others have chosen Ben Chonzie as their last. It has a reputation of being one of the dullest Munros, however to counter this, Cameron Macneish observes that there is no such thing as dull hills, only dull people! Including Ben Vorlich and Stùc a' Chroin in the same trip would add variety, since these Munros have a more challenging rocky character. The village of Comrie offers a good range of accommodation and a high street with a good range of shops and places to eat. This would provide a much less austere environment for the trip than most Munros, which generally are far from large centres of habitation.
My parents needed to buy a new car before they felt comfortable driving all the way up to Scotland. I was intent on completing the Munros in 2013, so as a backup plan I outlined a trek over these final Munros. The proposed route was inspired by the Scottish National Trail - a brand new cross-Scotland trek from Kirk Yetholm at the end of the Pennine Way to Cape Wrath in the far North West, designed by Cameron Macneish and Richard Else. The route goes through the village of Callandar, from where I could climb Ben Vorlich and Stùc a' Chroin, then continues through Glen Artney to Comrie. The route then goes up Glen Lednock from where I could ascend Ben Chonzie, then descends to the Rob Roy Way though Glen Almond. The final section would go via the famous Birks of Aberfeldy to the village of the same name, then a short stretch along the River Tay and via a bealach to the railway station at Pitlochry.
As it turned out my parents got their new car, so the drive up from Bristol would be feasible. They are both retired now, but operate a ceilidh band (Jig Mad Wolf http://www.jigmadwolf.co.uk/) so I had to work around their existing bookings. After a booking on Saturday 6th July, they had several weeks free and the forecast looked good. So on Thursday 4th July I checked the forecast which predicted a period of fine weather, and decided to book accommodation for the following week. I had wanted my sister and niece to come along as well, but unfortunately being term time my niece had to be at school.
At short notice, I thought it might be hard to find somewhere to stay, but managed to get a room in the Farmhouse of the Comrie Croft (http://www.comriecroft.com/) for four nights, from Monday to Thursday. They only had a large room of four bunk beds (sleeping eight people), but they generously agreed to hire it as a private room for three nights (£20 per person), and as a shared room for one night (£18 per person). This came to a bargain total of £234 for the three of us.
On Sunday, the day before we set off, there was an historic moment in British sporting history when Andy Murray won the men's final at Wimbledon. He became the first British man to win the men's title at Wimbledon since Fred Perry, 77 years previously. This felt like an auspicious start to the trip, particularly since we'd be staying less than fifteen miles from Murray's hometown of Dunblane.
Monday 8th July 2013
We set off before 7:30am with the aim of beating the traffic, and the journey went smoothly apart from a congested section just before and through Birmingham. Beyond Manchester the roads quietened down, and we made good progress northwards. We skirted Glasgow to the east, and then followed the motorway to its terminus at Stirling. Beyond here we turned off at Greenloaning and followed a quiet B Road direct to Comrie. We'd chosen this route over a longer but perhaps faster route on A Roads via Crieff, but the views were fantastic and we were glad to have chosen the scenic route.
Comrie Croft is located midway between Comrie and Crieff up a dusty uphill track on the north side of the road. It had taken us 7½ hours to reach here from Bristol. In addition to the hostel accommodation, Comrie Croft also has a campsite, tearoom and mountain bike hire. This was the third week of the school holidays and given the fine weather, the Croft was very busy. We received a warm welcome at reception and were shown to our room upstairs in the Farmhouse. The larger L-shaped Steading building across the courtyard was fully occupied for the week. We hurriedly unloaded the car, prioritising the food which needed to into the fridge before it overheated.
Since there was still plenty of daylight, we decided to go for an afternoon stroll - it would be good to stretch legs after a long car journey. On the approach to Comrie my Dad had spotted the Melville Monument, perched on a small hill above Comrie, and was keen to climb it. The five mile circular walk to the Deil's Cauldron waterfall and the Melville Monument around the River Lednock is the most popular short walk in the area. It is predominantly wooded, and the shade would be greatly appreciated on this hot afternoon. The starting point is the centre of Comrie, so we drove back to the village and parked in the free car park there.
The path to the Deil's Cauldron is well-signposted; indeed all the paths of today's route would follow "Core Paths". These routes are a new innovation under the Scottish access legislation. Each access authority (local authorities and national parks) has a duty to draw up a plan of Core Paths in their area sufficient for giving the public reasonable access. The routes are agreed after consultation with local communities, land managers and path users. The paths are signposted and also can be viewed via online web mapping portals (eg. http://www.pkc.gov.uk/article/5266/Core-Paths-Plan-interactive-map). In preparation for this trip I had pencilled in the core path routes around Comrie onto my Explorer map by hand.
Prior to the Core Paths legislation, rights of way already existed through mountain and moorland areas in Scotland. These are A to B routes, following existing tracks and paths, normally with signposts at the start and end erected by the Scottish Rights of Way Society. The Core Paths are more focused in rural/agricultural areas, and are an attempt to create a field path network similar to that which exists in England & Wales. This has greatly helped clarify access around habitation and through the bewildering array of tracks and paths shown on Explorer maps around farmland in Scotland. It has also created a number of new connecting links, allowing satisfying circular routes to be made.
Our path skirted the perimeter of native woodland, before meeting the edge of the steep wooded gorge though which the River Lednock tumbles. We took a short diversion on a side path to reach a viewing platform for the Wee Cauldron waterfalls, before re-joining the main path. A little further on the gorge steepened, and our route followed a wooden causeway, then a steep flight of wooden steps (both constructed by the army) downwards to reach the Deil's Cauldron viewing platform. The roar of the water in this amphitheatre was really quite impressive, and must be even more remarkable after heavy rainfall or in the winter when there's less vegetation in the gorge.
We followed the path up to the minor road, where a very vague path disappeared into the plantation on the far side. This didn't look very likely, so we continued up the road for a short distance to find a more distinct path up Dùn Mòr to the Melville Monument. Dad raced on up the zigzags, keen to reach the summit, while I stayed behind with Mum, who was suffering from a chest infection that slowed her down on this steep uphill section. At the summit, the panorama southwards was remarkable, perched here on the very edge of the Highlands. To the south across Strathearn are the Ochils whilst to the southwest Ben Vorlich and Stùc a' Chroin, our destination for the following day were clearly visible. There is a view indicator to help identify the features in the grand panorama, although the tall obelisk and plantation restrict views to the north.
The monument was erected to commemorate Henry Dundas, the 1st Viscount Melville (1742 to 1811) and a minister in Pitt the Younger's government. He had a rather chequered career, delaying the abolition of slavery by fifteen years, then mismanaging the Flanders campaign and bungling the siege of Dunkirk as war minister during the Napoleonic wars. In 1806, he became the last person to be impeached in the UK, for misappropriation of public money. Although acquitted, he never held public office again. Dundas maintained almost total control of Scottish politics during a long period when no monarch visited the country, and at the time he was nicknamed King Harry the Ninth. An even larger monument commemorates him in Edinburgh.
Our path now headed northwards, exiting the plantation to join an old hill track known as the Maam Road. We followed the track zigzags down the hillside amongst bracken to re-join the minor road through Glen Lednock. On the way, the track passes the Kinkhoast Well, a small spring equipped with a pewter tankard, which reputedly has healing power over whooping cough (the Dutch word for whooping cough is Kinkhoest). Mum should have perhaps taken some of the water for her chest infection. Local legend also reputes the spring can cure various other problems, from poor performance in school to dull sermons in church!
After a brief stint along the minor road, we took a short track down to the River Lednock and crossed a well-built bridge, passing between a "V" in a sycamore trunk on the far side. Until this was rebuilt by the Royal Engineers it was known as "shaky bridge" and a so-called "shoogle on the brig" was reputed to cure any complaints not covered by the Kinkhoast Well!
The path now turned right and ran alongside the river, passing through lovely deciduous woodland, before climbing a bracken-clad hillside with dramatic views across to the Melville Monument and Dùn Mòr. The path now entered Laggan Wood and after a short distance we came to a bench overlooking the Lednock Gorge and stopped for rest. We had really been spoilt for choice of benches on the walk today - perhaps more benches than any other walk in Scotland, and testimony to the popularity of the route. Continuing through Laggan Wood we took a steep flight of wooden steps down to the River Lednock. Here we joined the Lednock Millennium Footpath, a wide gravelled all abilities path, that follows the riverbank back to Comrie. The final section crosses back over the river and follows the trackbed of an old railway line back to the car park.
We were now getting quite hungry so headed to the Royal Hotel bar in Comrie. I ordered mussels & chips, Mum ordered gammon & chips and Dad ordered haggis, neeps and tatties. They didn't have any real ale (a common problem in Scotland), but did have some passable bitter. The food took some time to arrive, and was something of a disappointment when it came - Dad's meal consisted of three small dollops: one of haggis, one of neeps and one of tatties, presented in the shape of windmill sails, quite unsubstantial for £12. Mum's gammon was rather tough and overcooked. I'd hit the jackpot with an enormous bowl of mussels, and donated some of my chips to bolster Dad's food.
Back at the hostel we met the only other resident at the three-room Farmhouse this evening. He'd brought his two young children here for a few days to do some cycling. He worked at the Scottish Parliament, so was currently on summer recess, while his wife remained in Edinburgh to work. The following day he was planning to take the children on a cycle route along the shore of Loch Katrine.
Tuesday 9th July 2013
Today Dad and I were heading for Ben Vorlich and Stùc a' Chroin, while Mum had decided to rest at Comrie Croft, since she didn't want to overdo it before Ben Chonzie. Normally in Scotland on a mountain walk the metrological concern is around rain, low cloud and high winds. Today the forecast was hot sunshine and clear skies, and the worry was more around how we'd cope in the heat! We got up at 6am and set off around 7am. The drive took a little longer than expected, due to the narrow road twisting along the south shore of Loch Earn for the last four miles of the drive. We passed many people camping on the shingle shore, pushing the limits of the right to wild camp in Scotland as this is not far from habitation.
At the east gate of Ardvorlich House we parked in an informal roadside car park, and set off around 7:30am. The track gently climbed the hillside, following the Ardvorlich Burn for the first mile. There were trees all around, but few of them shaded the track making the climb hot work, even at this early hour. The slightest breeze was like manna from heaven. Dad was quite concerned at how well he'd cope if it was this hot higher up the mountain. The track gradually peeled away from the Ardvorlich Burn, then crossed the Allt a' Choire Buidhe tributary at a weir higher up.
Beyond the bridge, the track became a path, and crossed an open area of moorland. Here a light breeze began to pick up and we decided to stop for a break. Looking back, the surface of Loch Earn was like a sheet of glass, and beyond the dramatic peaks of Meall nan Tarmachan and the Ben Lawers group dominated the horizon.
As we ascended, the path became more rocky and eroded, with loose stones requiring care. Up ahead we could see another walker carefully descending from the summit. We stopped to chat with him - he'd driven up for the day and had made an early start. I asked if he'd visited Stùc a' Chroin, and he said no, because he'd had a long hiatus from hillwalking whilst his daughter was pregnant. The last time he'd been on a hill was Ben Wyvis on a cold windswept day in February. He said that he'd taken great care, since Martin Moran and his wife Joy had been avalanched just 200m from the Wyvis summit cairn during Martin's record-breaking first winter round of the Munros. They had strayed onto a cornice, triggering a full-depth slab avalanche, carrying them approximately 100m downhill.
After a short climb we were standing on the conical summit of Ben Vorlich (or Ben Horlicks as Dad christened it). The summit is crowned by a white trig pillar and a less attractive metal fence post. The panorama from here was remarkable, the massive cones of Ben More and Stob Binnein could be clearly seen, while to the west the silhouette of Ben Lomond dominated, and to the south views were expansive across the lowlands.
The only blot on the landscape was a windfarm to the south. The view from Ben Chonzie to the east is also tainted by a nearby windfarm. The planners really need to be more considerate of aesthetics when siting windfarms; how long before windfarms are visible from every Munro? People seem to think it is acceptable to put windfarms right up to the boundaries of national parks and national scenic areas, in my opinion the line of sight from protected land should also be taken into account when planning decisions are made.
The next Munro, Stùc a' Chroin, was now in full view, looking somewhat daunting with an impressive rocky face. Dad couldn't believe that the drop and re-ascent was less than 200m, the foreshortened view giving an illusion of steepness and height.
We had a short break before doing a brief out-and-back-again Ben Vorlich's lower east top, then followed a line of metal fence posts steeply down to the bealach. There were a number of springs hereabouts, which would make this place an excellent wild campsite. There was now a direct view of the rocky prow through which our ascent path would take a cunning route. Over to the right, away from the crag, a separate path was clearly visible, which looked to have developed from people avoiding the steep scrambling.
Our path vanished into a pile of large lichen-encrusted boulders at the foot of the crag. I cast around beyond the boulders and found the continuation slanting rightwards. The ascent route up the crag is braided with various choices offering different levels of scrambling difficulty. We kept to the easier ground on the right, and there was only one real difficulty - a short steep gully with a lack of assuring handholds. About halfway up we disturbed a herd of mountain goats, and after peering down on us, they ambled off to the left.
Dad had assumed that the top of the prow was the summit of Stùc a' Chroin, and was a bit disheartened to see that the true summit lay 400m further on across a plateau. We stopped to read a granite plaque commemorating Donald Stuart, founder of the Falkirk Mountaineering club, who'd died in 1954. I have a dislike for memorials on mountains, it spoils the feeling of wildness, it is a presumption of importance, and if everyone did it, the mountains would soon become littered with memorials.
We walked on towards the true summit, marked by twin cairns. The Cicerone guide claims the right-hand cairn is higher, but this was a clear mistake, so we aimed for the left-hand cairn and stopped here for a well-earned lunch break. It was strange to think that I now had just one Munro left until completion. A straight stick had been inserted into the summit cairn, with a face carved into the tip, like a totem pole. The view back to Ben Vorlich was dramatic over rocky crags, again the foreshortened view making the slopes appear dramatic.
Before leaving we visited the right-hand cairn, just to check it was lower! From this point it was possible to look down onto Lochan a' Chroin, sparkling in the sun. We now took an easier path, circumventing the rocky prow in favour of an eroded gully. This was fine apart from a steep dusty section, where we had to crouch down and edge carefully over the steep compacted soil. Once down in Coire Fhuadaraich the going became easier, and we stopped for a rest on a large boulder. I refilled my bottle with cool water from a sparkling burn emerging from the back of the corrie.
We then followed a boggy path, contouring around the side of Ben Vorlich in the upper reaches of Coire Fhuadaraich. There were many horseflies (clegs) hereabouts, and they were tormenting Dad, a sitting duck in shorts and T-shirt with plenty of exposed flesh. My preference is always to wear light trousers and a cotton shirt to keep off the insects and protect my skin from the sun. There were many wildflowers growing on these middle slopes of the mountain, evidence of the fertile mica schist geology around Strathearn.
From the bealach between Ben Vorlich and Ben Our, most guidebooks recommend descending deep into Coire Buidhe then cutting across to re-join the ascent path. At Ardvorlich House we'd seen a sign requesting walkers to use a new path higher up in Coire Buidhe, since the heather was becoming eroded lower down in the corrie. The sign said that a line of posts had been placed to mark the new route. I didn't buy the erosion argument; a more likely reason is to avoid walkers clashing with grouse shooting in corrie, but nevertheless the path followed a good route. There was no sign of the posts, which have presumably been removed now the new path is established.
Once back on the ascent path we stopped for a break, chatting to several groups of walkers who had been following close behind us. The descent was now straightforward, and we made our way back down the track to Ardvorlich House. On the way down we passed a large group padding in a steam, we guessed that they were Dutch when we saw several minibuses with Netherlands number plates in the car park.
We were parked two-thirds of the way along Loch Earn, and had considered driving the remaining third, then taking the faster A Road back to Comrie on the north side of the loch. However the first walker we'd met on Ben Vorlich had said that there was no advantage in doing so, so we drove back along the four miles on the south shore, with a number of awkward places passing cars coming in the opposite direction. One vehicle was a national park ranger's van, and we were wondering if he was going to clamp down on the sprawling shanty town that had developed with people wild camping on the Loch Earn shore. In Comrie we stopped for a refreshing ice lolly and decided to get fish & chips to take back to Comrie Croft.
Back at the hostel, we caught up with Mum who'd spent a relaxing day reading and taking a bath. She'd bought a custom-made map of the grounds of the croft, and had gone for a short walk during the day. Incidentally the owner of the Comrie Croft works in digital mapping and has worked on some large projects creating atlases for national parks in Africa and some projects working with Harvey Maps.
The chap from Edinburgh was back from his Loch Katrine bike ride, and was busy getting his kids to eat some food before they went to bed. Dad and I went outside to play some music - I had brought a guitar and Dad had brought several whistles. A French family were also staying at the Farmhouse and they were very appreciative of the music, videoing it from the kitchen window.
After the music, Dad got out his laptop so that we could check the weather forecast. We had just two more full days in Scotland, and needed to decide on which day to climb Ben Chonzie. Unfortunately the forecast described a weak front coming in from the east overnight, bringing in low cloud which would take most of the day to burn off. The forecast was expected to be much improved on Thursday, so we decided to go for a lower-level route on Wednesday.
There was supposed to be someone sharing our room this evening, but either they didn't turn up or another room was found for them, and we were amazed that we continued to have exclusive use of the room.
Wednesday 10th July 2013
Since today's walk was easy and the morning would be misty, we had a bit of a lie in. Dad had proposed an eight mile walk following some Core Paths around Comrie. This walk would start and finish at our usual car park in the centre of Comrie. We started by following the south bank of the River Earn downstream. The banks had been colonised by the invasive Japanese Knotweed, with dense foliage restricting views of the river.
As we got further away from Comrie, the path became increasingly overgrown. At a misleading sign we took a wrong turn, continuing around the perimeter of woodland, rather than sticking to the riverbank. Eventually we came to an impasse at a burn that was too deep and wide to cross in boots. I crossed over by edging along a rickety barbed wire fence, but observing my struggle, Mum and Dad opted to remove their boots and wade across.
Once back at the riverbank, the next obstacle was a herd of Highland cattle (hairy coos) blocking the path. One of the cows was stood scenically in the middle of the river! I made a beeline for a gate, and the cows gently ambled out of our way, allowing us to exit, reaching a style onto the main road. We hoped that the difficulties would now be over. The route followed the road for a short distance, before turning off onto a track up to Drummondernoch Farm. The track continued back in the direction of Comrie, then joined a path through a wildflower meadow around the picturesque Cowden Loch. Again the clegs were up to their old tricks, targeting any exposed flesh.
The route now followed a short section of road near Auchingarrich Wildlife Centre, before turning north towards Comrie. The cloud level had risen, the views of the surrounding mountains were dramatic, and there were even some patches of blue sky. Just before Comrie we halted at a bench for lunch. An old lady with a golden retriever stopped to chat, and we had a relaxing 20 minutes chatting in the shade of trees.
Our route now headed southwest away from Comrie, passing a number of historic settlements. The first was the site of a Roman camp and fort of which there is no visible evidence on the ground. This is one of the seven Glenblocker forts, built along the Highland Line in Scotland. These forts all share the common characteristic in that they are close to the mouth of a glen or a strath and can thus supervise traffic. It is been thought that these forts were intended to prevent invasions out of the Scottish Highland into Roman-held territory. When we crossed the road we passed a standing stone - there are also many Neolithic and Pictish stones surrounding Comrie, indicating that the fertile valley of Strathearn has long been settled.
Further on we followed an embankment with views of Cultybraggan Camp. This was first used as a POW camp during World War II, and then became an Army training area. The military closed the site in 2004, and it now belongs to the Comrie Development Trust, who purchased it for £350,000 in 2007. The Comrie Development Trust are converting nine Nissen huts to units for local businesses and are developing renewable energy sources for the site and village. Sports and recreation facilities, footpaths and cycle ways, a museum and areas of biodiversity woodland will also be provided. The site also includes a once secret nuclear bunker, which was purchased in 2012 by a tele-communications firm for use as a "digital safe house".
Our route now joined the Water of Ruchill tributary, following the banks downstream to the River Earn. This section is very picturesque, with native woodland and large shingle beaches on the riverbank. Even just before Comrie, the landscape is surprisingly undeveloped, and many children were out sunbathing on the shingle-banks and swimming in the river. We decided to eat at Comrie Croft in the evening, so stopped in the village to pick up some ingredients from the well-stocked grocers.
Comrie is really one of the best-kept villages in Scotland. It's a popular retirement village, with the largest proportion of over-65s in Scotland, and the residents work very hard to look after the village. Hanging baskets dangle from every lamppost, and are watered daily by volunteer teams. The village won the Royal Horticultural Society "Large Village Britain in Bloom Winner" in 2007 and 2010, and also "Best Village" in the 2009 Beautiful Scotland Campaign. An annual two-week festival, called Comrie Fortnight, is held here during July and August. This festival started in the late 1960s and has evolved over the years, now including competitions, outings, dances and a float parade. Profits from the festival are used to support events and groups in the local community.
Comrie also has a unique geographical position, sitting astride the Highland Boundary Fault. It has historically experienced frequent earthquakes, earning it the nickname 'Shaky Toon'. In the 1830s, around 7,300 tremors were recorded and today Comrie remains one of the most geologically active areas in the UK, recording earthquakes more often, and to a higher intensity, than anywhere else in the country. In 1840 one of the world's first seismometers was constructed here, on an outcrop of exposed bedrock. Today Earthquake House, located to the west of the village, houses both modern and antique seismometers. Due to sensitivity of the equipment it is not possible to go inside, but plate glass windows allow visitors to peer in.
Back at Comrie Croft Mum cooked us jacket potatoes. The only other group in the Farmhouse were an Australian family on a grand tour of Britain. Dad and I had another music session outside, and we included some appropriate tunes, such as 'Waltzing Matilda' and 'South Australia'. After this we checked the forecast and were pleased to see a prediction of morning mist, quickly burning off, giving way to bright sunshine and a 90% chance of cloud-free Munros.
Thursday 11th July 2013
Today was another early start, since we wanted to make the majority of Ben Chonzie ascent under the cover of mist, before the sun broke through. The mist was right down in the valley and it seemed unlikely that this would clear before lunchtime. Nevertheless this was our final day, so this was the last chance! We followed the familiar road back to Comrie, then turned off onto the minor road up Glen Lednock, passing between the Deil's Cauldron and the Melville Monument. Once above the gorge, the road levelled out and passed through agricultural fields on the floor of the glen. Just before the end of the road we stopped at a well-marked car park. Another car, containing three Welshmen, arrived just after us. We set off before them, but they were soon to overtake us on the ascent.
The track passed the buildings at Coishavachan, and then crossed the Invergeldie Burn, which it followed uphill for a mile to the intake of a hydroelectric scheme. Leaving the river, the track zigzagged up an open hillside. Mist was still swirling around, but it seemed to be lifting as we climbed, or perhaps was illusory, since the mist was quite thin and gave visibility several hundred metres ahead. The limited views shifted focus to the immediate vicinity of the track, which was rich in wildflowers: more evidence of the fertile mica schists around Strathearn. I identified alpine ladies mantle, thyme, butterwort, horsetail and cotton grass.
We passed the side-turning which leads to the bealach over to Glen Almond. Continuing on our track, we zigzagged uphill, following the bank of an unnamed burn. This was the steepest section, and I had to slow Dad down before he disappeared into the mist. Mum was still suffering from a lingering chest infection and needed to take regular breaks. Higher up the track we came to a small cairn and a narrow path leading off into the mist. This seemed unlikely to be the main path, so we continued on for a few more zigzags, where a more prominent eroded peat scar branched off towards Ben Chonzie.
As we climbed, the mist began to clear, revealing bright sunshine and the verdant upper slopes of Ben Chonzie. The timing had been perfect; the mist had screened out the sun for the majority of the ascent. On the horizon we spotted a mountain hare, which my parents said must be a lucky last Munro hare!
Soon we gained the ridge, where a line of old metal fence post marks the final mile to the summit. On the way we passed a series of short stunted walls, which we initially thought were cairns until I checked the map and realised that they are grouse butts. The track that we'd followed must have been constructed for hunting parties; presumably the grouse are chased uphill by gillies to where the marksmen are hiding along the ridge.
The fence posts initially go northwest then turn a right-angle and take a north-easterly line to the summit. Just before the top we stopped to chat to the three Welshmen who were now on the return. We were keen to get a group photo of me, Mum and Dad together, so we asked one of them to do the honours. They had been on holiday up near Fort William and were now on their way back to Llanberis, which they hoped to reach by the evening. One of the guys mentioned that he worked on the Snowdon mountain railway. We chatted for a while, and then continued on, bidding them a safe journey home.
After a few hundred metres I made the final steps up the summit cairn/rock shelter of Ben Chonzie, marking an end to my Munro odyssey. From the summit the finest views were to the north towards Ben Lawers and Schiehallion, and to the northeast to Beinn a' Ghlò and the Cairngorms in the distance, still with some visible snow patches. The views westwards were less clear due to swirling cloud, with occasional dramatic silhouettes of hills jutting upwards. To the south, immediately below us, Loch Turret was in view. We took the obligatory summit photos, and then sat down for a rest, hoping that someone else would arrive to take a group photo.
I found it difficult for the achievement to sink in immediately. For me there is little difference in effort from climbing one Munro to another, and I'd felt the same sense of achievement climbing Ben Chonzie as I felt when I'd climbed all the others. It was hard to feel the sense of cumulative achievement of climbing 282 Munros, when today I'd just climbed one more, which just so happened to be the last one!
If anything I felt a sense of relief that Mum and Dad had made it up with me; the trip had gone to plan and we had been blessed with fine views. For this trip the challenge had been around finding suitable accommodation, a week when we were all available and coinciding with a period of dry, clear weather. This contrasted with previous backpacking trips, which had been more of a physical and logistical challenge.
The Munros have dominated my holiday plans for the past nine years, and I've accumulated a rather long wish-list of other places to visit, so it's very liberating finishing the Munros! In particular I'm keen to explore the Scottish islands, such as Orkney, Harris, Lewis, Rùm, Jura and Arran. Cycle touring and island-hopping using the excellent network of Cal Mac ferries would be a fine way to spend a couple of weeks holiday. Climbing the Munros has certainly taken me to parts of the country which I otherwise would not have visited, and I'd like to revisit some of these areas on long distance routes, keeping to the glens and bealachs. Having climbed all the 3000ft mountains in Britain, and I'm now keen to visit Ireland to climb the 3000ft mountains there.
Soon we were joined by a lone walker, with the same name as my Dad (Roger). He was a tall gangly fellow, of a similar appearance to the outdoor broadcaster Nicholas Crane. I brought out the whisky (Jura Superstition) and offered him a glass, which he took with some water. Dad elected to have a shot of whisky in his coffee (Gaelic coffee?). I drank the whisky neat from a glass that I'd picked up at Oban distillery on the way back from Mull.
Dad had brought a whistle to serenade my final Munro, and had selected a tune called 'Drummond Castle'. This castle is located just south of Crieff, and was the geographically closest tune that he could find to mark the occasion. Both Mum and I filmed this performance on our cameras. The wind blowing across the whistle holes made it hard for Dad to play and we did several takes to get the best performance. Mum plays bodhrán, and was looking for something to drum on when Roger pulled out an empty lunchbox. Mum found a rusty piece of fence wire, which she used to approximate the sound of a bodhrán using the lunchbox. For this performance Dad started with Salley Gardens Air, and Mum joined in when he segued into the faster Salley Gardens Reel. Roger was really quite impressed!
We saw another two walkers approaching along the ridge; a Scottish father and son pair who Roger had passed on the way up. Roger was amazed that they'd reached the top, since the son had been dragging his feet at the very start of the walk. The son was thirteen years old (soon to be 14), and this was his first Munro. It was a nice coincidence to meet someone at the start of their Munros when I'd just reached the end of mine. I hoped that he'd be inspired to climb more hills, and take advantage of living so close to the remarkable landscape of the Highlands.
The father said that they were fom Kirkcaldy. He mentioned that every year he met up with his mates to do a long distance walk; so far they'd done the West Highland Way and the Cateran Trail (http://www.caterantrail.org/) and were due this year to walk the Great Glen Way.
The son had brought some juggling balls with him and gave us a demonstration, adding to the ad hoc party atmosphere. Mum took some videos of this, and then a video of me when I asked to have a go on the juggling balls. It was another nice coincidence that we were both jugglers. I remarked that not all Munro summits are suitable places for juggling (the Cuillin spring to mind). A dropped juggling ball could easily end up half way down the mountain!
The father and son set off first, while Mum, Dad, Roger and I left soon after. In the distance Ben More and Stob Binnein were visible on the horizon. At the right-angle in the fence posts, Roger turned off to take a cross-country route down, while we retraced our ascent route. All the low cloud had cleared, so the views on descent would be completely different from the views on the way up.
I realised that the three Munros around Comrie represent the difference in character between the east and west Highland hills; the rounded and grassy in the east, the rough and rocky in the west. Ben Chonzie fits the east Highlands, while Ben Vorlich and Stùc a' Chroin represent the west Highlands. I can't say that I like one side more than the other; both sides are great in their own way, so it was nice that both sides were represented on my final Munro trip.
Down at the zigzags we passed the father and son cooling their feet in a burn. Dad was too far ahead to stop, and soon he met up with Roger, who'd re-joined the track earlier than he intended. They stopped and waited for Mum and me to catch up. By now the weather was sweltering, and there was little breeze down in the glen. Chatting to Roger it turned out that he was a hydrological engineer and had been involved in a number of hydroelectric projects throughout his career.
Down at the intake (which Roger said was part of a "run of the river" scheme) we met a farmer looking for his cows. He told us that every summer he looked after them for a friend, but since there were no fences, he had to keep an eye on the cows to make sure they didn't go too far! Roger had encountered the cows on his cross-country descent and was able to give directions to their location on the hillside. He even showed the farmer some photos of the cows! The cows' instinct is apparently to climb to higher ground when the weather is warm.
Back at the car park Roger showed Dad a whistle that he'd inherited and was going to give to his grandchildren. Dad played a few tunes on the whistle and commented favourably on it, pretty much persuading Roger to keep it and learn how to play himself! Soon after the father and son caught us up, reuniting our summit group at the end of the walk. The father remarked that his son could tell his friends on Facebook that he'd been up a mountain today, rather than staying at home playing computer games!
We stopped for a drink in Comrie in the Royal Hotel and got rather sleepy in the beer garden. It was difficult to get up and return to the Comrie Croft for a wash before heading out for a celebratory meal later in the evening. We'd exhausted the food in Comrie so decided to explore Crieff. Checking online, most of the pubs in Crieff didn't look to have food, the only choice was the Meadow Inn (http://www.meadowinncrieff.co.uk/) or The Tower (http://www.thetowercrieff.com/). The latter was a gastro pub, which probably wouldn't appeal to my parents, and since it didn't have an online menu we opted for the Meadow Inn.
The drive to Crieff was pleasant and en-route we spotted another hilltop monument - this one commemorating Sir David Baird, a general in British army who had fought in India, Egypt, South Africa and Spain. Just before Crieff we had good views across the picturesque Loch Monzievaird, with the private Ochtertyre House above it. The scenery hereabouts inspired Robert Burns on a visit to Ochtertyre to write:
To reach Crieff requires crossing the Turret Burn. Upstream from here is the Glenturret Distilliary, home of the Famous Grouse. At this junction we turned downstream to follow a minor road, then crossed the burn by another bridge. We decided not to use the riverside car park and opted to continue to the Meadow Inn, finding a parking space nearer by.
The pub was initially disappointing; it appeared to be more of a locals' town pub, with fruit machines, TVs and loud music. Luckily it had a beer garden and we avoided the worst of the noise by sitting outside. The girl who served us was friendly and really made us feel welcome; giving me free tasters of beer to find one I liked (again no real ale) and bringing out extra condiments. The portions of food were generous - Mum and Dad had steak pie, which was more than Dad could eat, and I had a tasty fish & chips.
All the pleasures of the trip were now over and we headed back to the Comrie Croft, packing our bags so that we could get going early in the morning.
Friday 12th July 2013
We got going a little after 7am, and again there was morning mist clinging to the hills. We took the B Road from Comrie direct to Greenloaning, the same as on the way up, and were soon out of the country onto busier roads. Dad remarked that when driving back from Scotland the traffic gets busier as the driver is getting more tired; the drive north is much more pleasant, since roads get progressively quieter.
There were some sections where automated signs slowed us down to 40mph but we kept moving all the way. Just before Birmingham, Dad needed a rest and Mum took over the driving duties for the rest of the journey. This went smoothly apart from a collision with a pigeon between Gloucester and Bristol. A pair of pigeons flew across at an acute angle, the first one cleared us, but the second hit the roof with a loud boom. Mum was quite shaken and said it was lucky that it didn't hit the windscreen. Dad was concerned about any damage the pigeon might have caused, but all we could do was wait until we arrived in Bristol. Luckily the pigeon must have hit the roof bars, since there was no damage when we stopped to check.
It was a relief to get back safely to Bristol - the trip had gone exactly to plan, and we couldn't have hoped for better weather. It was nice to have done some additional easier walks around Comrie, which I wouldn't have included on a longer distance trek. I headed back to Southampton on Saturday morning, ready to start planning my next non-Munro trip!
To end this account, I'd first like to thank all the people who've helped me on my journey, from spontaneous donations of food (and drink!) supplementing my meagre rations, to lifts by car saving me hours of tedious road walking. I couldn't have done it without this generous help. It seems appropriate now to quote the closing paragraph of the Cicerone guide to the Munros:
"There is no prize for completing the round, no fame or fortune to be won, just the satisfaction of having done it. And yet the rewards are without price: you'll have built yourself an album of unforgettable memories. You have explored extraordinary places, admired incredible sights, encountered wonderful creatures. You have overcome difficulties along the way. And hopefully at the end of the day, no matter how much you struggled to climb the next hill, or were beaten by Highland storms, you will have emerged stronger in body, with heart and mind both greatly enlarged."