Friday, 26 August 2022

Ben Wyvis: Return to my Last Munro

May 1997. My hillwalking friends were doing their final exams. I was at the Aultguish Inn with three who weren't. It was a day of stair-rod rain and a cloud base two feet above sea level; but we were there, so might as well climb the thing.  

A boggy path led to an eroded zig-zig up a steep shoulder and the summit plateau, a revelation of beautifully soft moss. 

Ben Wyvis, 1997:

A quick-as-possible stop at the summit to sip celebratory whisky it was my last Munro, after all and we retraced our steps without lingering. We'd treated ourselves to indoor accomodation, and the Aultguish Inn bunkhouse had huge, steaming baths of peaty whisky-coloured water and a well-stocked bar. “What are you going to do now you’ve finished the Munros?” my friends asked. “Get a woman and a decent job!” I half-joked.
Twenty-five years, several jobs, a dog and a decent woman (who I married) later, I was back. This time we chose a nice day!
Ben Wyvis, 2022:

We foraged blaeberries in the forest and played in the burn before the steep climb up the shoulder of the hill.

The entire hill is free of sheep (it is a nature reserve) but the dog was on the lead again on the summit plateau in case she chased birds. 

 Unlike last time, we weren't the only people on the hill. There were several others with dogs, a couple of women together who our dog was very interested in, a couple eating sandwiches I had to distract our dog from bothering, a lovely local pair ("we're dog friendly" the man said as we approached) at the summit who climbed this hill all the time, or at least the woman did. I was unable to stop myself telling her this had been my last Munro many years ago. I recognised a politician coming up the hill, Kenny Macaskill, who released the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi. He also had a dog.

 The views from the top are vast, as you might expect from an isolated massif. An Teallach and Torridon, the hills of Sutherland and Caithness, oil rigs in Nigg bay, the Moray coast and Cairngorms. The two tops of Suilven just poked up above an intervening hill. Ben Wyvis makes a particularly good viewpoint as it stands right on the boundary between two very different landscapes, the arable fields and firths of Easter Ross and the jagged desolation of Wester Ross.

We put our blaeberries in a crumble that night. This time round, nobody asked me what I might do next. We were already doing it.


Tuesday, 28 June 2022

A Midsummer Munro

I never thought I would be using a headtorch on a hill on midsummer's day!

But that's what happens when you climb that hill for sunset.

Ben Lomond from Beinn Chabhair:

The walk started with an early finish from work. Lorry and tractor filled roads brought me to Inverarnan, and a rendezvous with the friends who had organised this. At 17:30 in the evening the heat and humidity were remarkable for Scotland, and we made a slow start.

The summit remained in cloud, and I took the shot below, thinking it would be the last we would see of any view!

That assumption seemed right when we got to the top. The mist wasn't thick, but views were obscured. Still, it had been nice enough - it would be a very different evening in the rain.

Then something magical happened as we waited...

Ben Vorlich and Stuc a'Chroin appeared, climbed last solstice. Ben Lomond reappeared.

It was the first brocken spectre for one of our group:

And the second Munro (of hopefully many) for this one:

Before we knew it it was 21:30, and time to head down - it would be sunset around 22:10! We were slow descending, torches out at 23:30, finally down for half past midnight. The day held a sting in its tail - Bein Glas farm had locked its gate! It's a big no entry affair over a deep river. There was another bridge a mile to the north, with a mile of unpleasant road walking back with a black dog. Being locked in works if you have a small family and were worried about them wandering off. But I like to climb hills both late and early, so staying somewhere like Bein Glas farm wouldn't work in summer if I planned some hills!

Friday, 24 June 2022

Lowland Hills and Highland Hills: the Highlands

Three summer evenings, three hills, three geological divisions of Scotland.

Across the Firth of Clyde from Tom na h-Airidh:

Twenty-five years ago I searched for the best viewpoint of the Firth of Clyde, visiting various points like The Saddle on the Ardgoil Peninsula, Lyle Hill above Gourock, Dunrod and Hill of Stake.  

A strong argument can be made for Haylie Brae above Largs, but my favourite was Tom na h-Airidh, an obscure but glorious spot above Helensburgh, defended by bogs and a disorietating conifer plantation.

Time to revisit!

In my last two posts I wrote about an atmospheric Friday sunset on Windlestraw Law in the Southern Uplands; and a windy, sun-flooded Saturady evening on Turnhouse Hill in the Central Belt. On the Sunday it would be a Highland hill. How would they compare?

Glen Fruin from the top:

Tom na h-Airidh is only just in the Highlands, the first hill after Ben Bouie on the Highland Boundary fault. It's the lowest hill of the three, yet I knew not to underestimate it thanks to the difficult approach. But things have changed since I last visited. In summer the bogs have largely dried out, and some of the conifers have been felled, making it easier to see where you are going. 

The other change is that today I was using the Strava app on my phone. I am an old school navigator who prefers a map and compass, but I've never been comfortable in forests. They can be so easy to get lost in! Strava shows you a map overlaid wih the ways others have gone. It feels like an unfair advantage, a window into the secret local routes, and I went a shorter and less boggy way than if I had relied on my own initiative. I would have missed at least one turning without Strava.

Coming out the trees:

As we approached the edge of the trees near the summit I prepared to get my dog on her lead. (One advantage of forest walks: no sheep.) But coming down from the top were three healthly, happy women and their three dogs. No sheep about, they said, so my own dog stayed off her lead.

The views from the top were as good as I remembered.

Tom na h-Araidh summit outlook:


But something had changed. In quarter of a century the trees have grown, obscuring the bottom of the view. One day this lot will be felled, and I fancy returning. 

View from near the top of Tom na h-Airidh, late 1990s:

We headed back down via some obvious mountain bike trails. It was heartening to see the local kids had turned this forest into their resource. Lower down, we met a couple of boys pushing their bikes up the hill. 

So how did these three hills compare?

The Highland hill had the best views. The Central Belt hill was the most convenient. And the Southern Upland hill had the most atmosphere.

 But there's one thing they all share: there isn't a corner of Scotland where you can't find a great short walk.

Wednesday, 22 June 2022

Lowland Hills and Highland Hills: the Central Belt

Three summer evenings, three hills, three geological divisions of Scotland.

Sunset from Turnhouse Hill:


In my last post, I described a Friday evening trip up the Moorfoots in the Southern Uplands. Less than half an hour's drive from my house, but a world away in terms of atmosphere.

For Saturday evening I decided to go even closer to home: just quarter of an hour's drive gets me to the Pentlands.

There were sheep everywhere, so the dog had to stay on her lead, poor thing!

It was incredibly buffety on top, so we didn't hang around!

Last week I marshalled the Turnhouse Hill Race. It follows a line I've never taken, NE down from the top to the inner bend in the Glencorse Reservoir, before heading back to the standard path. I've looked at this deserted slope manys a time from the other side of the reservoir. But I've never been here, so naturally had to explore.

Heading towards the 'biscuit van':

It's a beautiful spot in late evening sunshine, easy to reach on a decent path. These Lowland hills are a well-trod lung for the people of Edinburgh and Midlothian, increasingly familiar to me, yet there are so many unmarked paths in the Pentlands I still haven't been on.

What a great place to have fifteen minutes from your doorstep!

Monday, 20 June 2022

Lowland Hills and Highland Hills: the Southern Uplands

Three summer evenings, three hills, three geological divisions of Scotland.

Homeward bound:

Everyone knows Scotland is split in two: the Highlands and the Lowlands. The geological fault line runs between Helensburgh and Stonehaven. Everything north and west is the Highlands: south and east, the Lowlands. 

But the Lowlands also have two faces. To the south and east of the Lowland boundary line, the deserted sheep country of the Southern Uplands: north and west the Central Belt, all firths, farmland, coalfields and cities, where the vast majority of the population live. 

There are hills in the Southern Uplands, proper hills, but they are lower and less glamorous than the Highland hills. They are tight and steep and a mystery to most Scots, who live in the Central Belt and turn their eyes north to the Highlands whenever they want a proper walk.

Bowbeat Hill from Windlestraw Law:

All this is a preamble to Windlestraw Law, which I had previously disparaged as the high point of the most boring hills in Scotland. Yet of the three evening hills it was the wildest, and easily the least visited. Only half an hour from my house in the Central Belt and completely deserted, at least by recreational walkers.

Yet it is home to golden eagles and merlins and mountain hares, as the shepherd told me. He came over on his quad bike on account of the sheer novelty of seeing a hillwalker. He recommended a local fellow who trains tracker dogs, and while we were on the subject, asked if I would continue keeping my own dog on the lead on behalf of the sheep and ground nesting birds? One day, I tell myself, my dog will be so well trained she won't need a lead. Until then, happy to oblige.

Peat and heather and grouse butts form the top of Windlestraw Law, a little pool of peaty water shivering in the wind at the summit trig point. A wonderful sense of space and freedom. I waited at the top hoping to see eagles but the dog was getting bored, so we came down as the sun set.

Arthur's Seat from Windlestraw Law:

Hooray for summer evenings, still light after ten o'clock at night! What would next evening's walk in the Central Belt bring I wonder?

Friday, 28 January 2022

Camas Bostadh - Scotland's Finest Beach?

I always assumed the best beach in Scotland was Traigh Seilibost on Harris, because that is what the internet tells us. It is pretty photogenic.


But there is a difference between looking good on a screen, and the experience of a beach, as anyone who has been to the storm-tossed beaches of Cape Wrath can attest.

Sandwood Bay, Cape Wrath:

The appropriate place to discover otherwise is a summer evening gathered around a driftwood fire. One of those nights when it never really gets dark, the kind of night when you can still see the white caps of the waves rolling in at 1 a.m. The kind of night when you encounter a stranger on the beach and welcome him into your circle and in return, he reveals a secret: the finest beach he has ever seen.

Kervaig, Cape Wrath:

That would be the appropriate place. Where I actually made the discovery was round my mum's for afternoon tea. My sister had travelled the world, yet insisted that Camas Bostadh on Bernera was the best beach she had ever encountered. She has been all over the place, she has been to Fiji, so her opinion on the matter is pretty definitive. I would have to see it for myself some day.

And then another globe-trotting friend revealed his pick of the world's beaches - Camas Bostadh. This couldn't be a coincidence. It was time to check this out for myself!

The early signs are promising. On a gloomy day the beach appeared spotlit, the obligatory picturesque Outer Hebridean graveyard standing above.

We wound our way down to the beach, the weather improving, sea stacks appearing offshore. Nearer to hand an unusual building turns out to be the remains of an Iron Age house, exposed during a storm in 1993 and rebuilt by the local history society. This is as snug a spot as you will get in the Western Isles, as good a choice of home as the Sands of Uig for a seaborne people.

Once on the sands, blindingly bright now, we paddled in the gentle Atlantic waves.

There is a curious structure standing on rocks at the far end of the beach, exposed at low tide. We went to look at it. It is a tide-driven bell, created by artist Marcus Vergette. This seems an odd choice of location for this project: the beach at Arbroath would seem more appropriate. After all, it has the Bell Rock at the mouth of the Tay. 

So: is this the best beach in Scotland? I am not sure. It is certainly a lovely spot. But if I had to choose, I think I still prefer the corner where Colonsay meets Oronsay in the Inner Hebrides.

Friday, 31 December 2021

Longest Day, Shortest Day

The weekend before Christmas 2021 a temperature inversion blanketed the Highlands. I was careful to avoid Instagram, so that I couldn't be jealous of people's amazing pictures when I wasn't there. But a friend had plan: he wanted to climb a Munro on 21 December, the shortest day of the year. It would complement the walk we did on 21 June, the longest day of the year. Then, we set off from work after 4pm and drove a couple hours north to Loch Earn, to climb Ben Vorlich in lovely evening light.

We had talked to a man at the top who planned to bivvy out. He would get an amazing sunset! It seemed that he would be alone after we left him, but on our way down we met two women with a dog, a couple with backpacking rucksacks, a garishly-trousered group planning to paraglide off the summit, and a puffing group of mountain bikers. He would not be alone after all!

That had been a great day out on the hills, the nearest accesible Munro to Edinburgh. Six months later we set off again from Loch Earn for Ben Vorlich's neighbour, Stuc a'Chroin. It wasn't nearly as nice a day. Cloudbase around 200m and gloomy with it. We resigned ourselves to a difficult walk.

Ben Vorlich, 21 June 2021:

But as we climbed higher, something magical happened.

The temperature inversion had stuck around!

Up here was a completely different day to the dreich weather we'd been experiencing recenly, when it seemed the clouds would never end. They still hadn't: but today we were able to climb above them.

Ben Vorlich from Stuc a'Chroin, 21 December 2021:

The day before, my dad got out of hospital, having had a life-threatening scare. This may be the shortest day of the year, but it felt like a moment of renewal, of hope for the future.

Ben More and Stob Binnein from Stuc a'Chroin:

I'll be honest, it has been a tough year. In retrospect, midsummer 2021 seems like the last carefree moment for a long time. Perhaps now, after the shortest day of the year, things will start looking up?