Saturday, 24 August 2013

Review: Highland Perthshire, and Birnam Hill

River Tay:

Recently, Cicerone Press were kind enough to send me a couple of guidebooks to review. The first one I want to discuss is Walking Highland Perthshire by Ronald Turnbull. Ronald's is a familiar name from articles in The Angry Corrie and TGO, articles of long hill runs and high bivvys that I have enjoyed reading. He has also written a fair number of outdoor books and guides, though I have only read one before, Not the West Highland Way, a book whose premise is to take the start and end points of the West Highland Way, but link them by a completely different route, mainly involving the summits alongside the official route. Walking Highland Perthshire has some similar takes on popular routes, such as the west instead of east ridge of Shiehallion, or Meall Bhuide (normally climbed from Glen Lyon in the south and combined with Stuchd an Lochain) from Loch Rannoch in the north. Grant Hutchison's The Complete Lachlan describes Lachlan's approach to guidebooks as 'characteristically subtle':
one uses the guide to select the route not to be followed, thus avoiding ninety percent of the mountain traffic.
Ronald's guide however often avoids the popular and clichéd routes, and appears to be one that the seasoned walker would want to follow. But, before testing the book on the ground, a couple of points of criticism. The initial website blurb (which in my experience, despite being the first and most important thing any potential purchaser reads, is usually the last and most hurriedly written part of the whole book) damns Perthshire with faint praise:
The nature of the landscape here results in heather and pebble-strewn plateaus and rounded ridges, with a break from the scrambling other Scottish ranges require. However, the lumpy tussocks and high heather can make walking strenuous even at lower levels.
I am not sure I want lumpy tussocks and a break from the scrambling! There is no doubt the Perthshire hills make up for their lack of ruggedness it in terms of wildlife, but there is no need to remind potential purchasers that Perthshire is not Torridon.

The other criticism concerns the book's maps. Often several routes are combined on one map. You flick back and forward trying to remember if the map for the route is ten pages later or ten pages before - one map per route would be preferable, though of course this would reduce space for more routes. And as several routes are combined on a map - often, as described before, unconventional routes - they merge into each other, which makes them hard to follow.

So what is the book like to use in the field? I've often admired Craig a Barns above Dunkeld from the A9 but never stopped, so decided to try out a route I'd not done before that might give good views of it - a circuit combining several local marked trails over the viewpoint of Birnam Hill, through the pretty villages of Birnam and Dunkeld, past the waterfall at the Hermitage and the banks of the Tay. This is right on the edge of the Highlands, an area of mixed landscapes, and one my Munro-bagging earlier self had no interest in. Ronald recommends starting from the quarry car park above Birnam and so we arrived in scorching midday heat, ready for a sweat up Birnam Hill's steep forest track.

The trees were flourishing in the heat, and above on a hot, dusty track - just as I mentioned that this looked like perfect adder country - we saw an adder!


We were fortunate to see it slither back out from the trackside undergrowth and up the banking, in and out of its holes. A one-legged cricket landed on the path. Had it had a lucky escape, its other back leg removed by a frog or adder? On the top a sizeable cairn can be sat on, Shiehallion sharp above a horizon-filling windfarm, the Lowlands and Lomonds shimmering in a southerly haze and trees blocking much of the view north. However further down the path, a rock provides a view onto Dunkeld, Birnam, Loch of the Lowes, and distant Beinn a Ghlo, with Craig a Barns less conspicuous here than from the A9.

Dunkeld and Birnam:

Navigation was slightly complicated along forest trails to the Hermitage (one reason for doing this route - it tested the route description). Somewhere after the Inchewan Burn the directions went awry, but not seriously, and it was obvious which route to take. We ended up at the Hermitage, full of holidaymakers, swimmers in river pools and not much water in the River Braan. How much finer this place is in autumn spate! There was also an amplified voice echoing round the hillsides, as an international mountain bike championship was taking place. We headed on through this throng, and up to the well-signposted Pinecone Point, before reaching the Tay at the A9 roadbridge. One of the unexpected features of this walk was the traffic noise on the A9, so it might be better done out of season or during a weekday. It was a relief to cross under the A9 to the banks of the Tay and leave the traffic behind.

Pinecone Point:

The Tay was the nicest part of the walk since Birnam Hill. Salmon parr could be seen in the shallows, warm stones in the shallows dipping into dark, deep water. The price for a day's fishing appeared on a notice near the Dunkeld House Hotel - it seemed quite reasonable! Even if you caught nothing all day, a day on the river would be compensation enough.


By Dunkeld it was getting late, but we only realised how late when we saw the cathedral and most of the shops were shut. (The walk took us eight hours rather than the suggested six.) I'd like to look round Dunkeld cathedral - I don't know how much there is to see but it is one of the most historic sites in Scotland, home of the Stone of Destiny and St Columba's relics when the Scot Kenneth MacAlpin took over Pictland in 843. However that will have to be the subject of another post...

Dunkeld Cathedral:

The area is also renowned for its trees. The oldest is the Birnam oak, seen after crossing the Tay bridge, home to hundreds of species of insect and other wildlife.

If I were writing the guidebook, at this point, I would suggest the hot and weary walker follow the road out of Birnam for the A9, wait several minutes for a safe opportunity to cross, then a final anti-climax of a half kilometre of road tramping back to the car. What I would not recommend, though Ronald does, is to follow the Tay downstream to the Newtyle beat then head in a crazy shortcut up through nettles and trackless jungly undergrowth (we were in shorts and sandals), to find yourself on a steep banking above the busy A9, wondering how you are going to get down to the roadside.  I don't know if Ronald did this route in winter, but if you read this blog post and then do this walk in summer, please ignore the final direction in the guidebook!

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