Wednesday 30 November 2011

Morven on the Last Autumn Day

Morven, a Corbett between the Dee and Don, provided an easy day's walk after big Ben Macdui. An Aberdonian in the Fife Arms in Braemar on Saturday night  recommended the southern approach: and so after meeting Miles in Ballater, we drove a couple of miles east to a ruined chapel and walked up through woods on a good path in late morning sunshine.

Morven is a far lusher hill than Macdui, covered in juniper, bilberry, cloudberry, with heather higher up. We saw grouse, mountain hare, buzzards and raven - more wildlife also than on Macdui.

Ascending Morven:

As we arrived at the top a group left, and we could see another arriving. This hill was busier than Macdui too! It sits on the edge of the Highlands with the Cairngorms west and the arable, archaeologically rich lands of Cromar east: a fairly good viewpoint as it is the first significant height reached when travelling up Deeside from Aberdeen.

Cromar from Morven:

In Climbing the Corbetts, Hamish Brown describes an unusual gorge-like feature on the lower eastern slopes of Morven called The Vat. I visited years ago, but confess to being underwhelmed - perhaps it paled in comparison to areas I was more used to like the Whangie.

At the top, the sun burst out from behind a cloud, forming dramatic light.

Proof, if proof were needed, that the big hills don't always provide the best views.

I drove home, the rain on shortly after dark, thick fog at the Cairnwell pass, well pleased with my autumn weekend north of the Mounth - as it turned out the last autumn weekend this year, as winter, with snow and hurricane force winds, has now arrived on the Cairngorms.

Wednesday 23 November 2011

Ben Macdui

In my youth I was always wary of the Cairngorms. Tragic tales in the media each winter of exposure and death, and the description of the 4,000ft high plateau as 'sub-arctic tundra' gave me and my early walking companions a healthy respect for the Cairngorms. It was not a place to mess around with in bad weather, as you were a long way from shelter should anything go wrong. Not an unhealthy attitude - but it probably meant that I spent less time in the Cairngorms than I should, preferring the sexier (and except for Knoydart or Fisherfield, more escapable) western peaks to the long walk-ins of the Gorms.

Glen Feshie from An Scarsgoch (note herd of deer in bottom left):

However this autumn has been unseasonably mild, and there was no snow at all on the Cairngorms last weekend, with none falling over the week. Under such conditions the Cairngorms are much less of a challenge. Perhaps Ben Macdui would make a good, hard, November walk?

At Derry Lodge:

I parked at Linn of Dee at 9am, and marched along the track to Derry Lodge, overtaken by a couple of mountain bikers. The sun came out briefly at Derry Lodge, then it was a tramp along a boggier route alongside the Lui. It had been a disappointingly cloudy start to the day, but the cloud seemed to be lifting, so I decided to forgo the bad weather option of a Corbett and press on for Ben Macdui, the highest and most central point on the Cairngorm plateau. A good prize for late November.

Heather gave way to pink granite, a type of rock I had not seen since our summer holiday in Brittany, as the cliffs ringing Lochan Uaine came into view. The summit plateau lay above, and cloud rolled over the edge, vast galleons blowing in against Derry Cairngorm, burst dams of cloud spilling over Carn a'Mhaim, the wind buffeting and chilling me as I climbed higher on Sron Riach towards the cliffs. However the sun had come out between the clouds, and these 40-50mph winds were gentle zephyrs compared to the typical winds that blast the plateau at this time of year. An exhilaring place to be.

Rock and cloud on Ben Macdhui:

Devil's Point:

Entering the cloud at the edge of the plateau:

By the top of the cliffs on Sron Riach the cloud cap was permanent, and despite waiting at the top the cloud did not clear. A recent TGO magazine has described a superb viewpoint a short distance west of the summit, but as you can see there was not much point in going there!

Summit viewpoint indicator:

With the exception of the mountain bikers, the only other walker of the day appeared at the top, drank a can of coke, and left. "I wasn't sure I would come this far today," I said. "It's not that far," he said. Hmphm. It felt like an achievement for me, more used to the Corbetts these days.

Compass work led off the top, all gravel and moss, a fragile landscape that looks like it could withstand a nuclear explosion, and down towards Loch Etchachan. I had come up this track on a previous visit to Ben Macdhui, and had thought perhaps this would be the best ascent route. In fact it was better in this direction - as described in Cameron McNeish's 100 Best Walks - Cairngorm visible across Loch Etchachan and the hidden trench of Glen Avon as I descended.

A snow-free Cairngorm:

After Loch Etchachan's misty shores, all that was left was a descent to the Hutchison hut and a long tramp out via Glen Derry in gathering gloom, ravenous with hunger and delighted with getting one good hard day on the hill.

Hutchison shelter:

The next day I met a friend from Aberdeen for an easier walk and we climbed Morven, a Deeside Corbett at the edge of the Highlands, and the light was even better - but perhaps that should be another post?

Thursday 17 November 2011

Fife Lomonds and the Bonnet Stane

After a washout summer, autumn is serving up beautiful mild weekend days. At the risk of turning November into Little Hill Month, we went for a short jaunt out to the Lomonds of Fife.

The first time I came here, years ago, I was only interested in bagging, taking the most efficient (but dullest) route up the two Lomonds from the col car park, the most intriguing sight being the village of Falkland huddled hard to the northeast under the steep wee peak of East Lomond.

In Falkland:

This time we decided on a more considered route, up West Lomond via the Bonnet Stane and down via the Devil's Burdens, Glen Vale and John Knox's Cave, as recommended in Patrick Barker's Ochils, Campsies and Lomonds guide. I'd never seen the Bonnet Stane before, a curiously-weathered outcrop of sandstone, with a neatly chiselled cave cut out of the opposite face. What was this man-made cave for?

The Bonnet Stane:

The Stane is set amongst a checkerwork of rolling fields and little stands of trees, with the steep escarpment of West Lomond behind. As we ascended onto the escarpment the indistinct line of the Highlands became evident, Shiehallion recognisable above a gap, the line of the Ochils nearer, continuing east in lumpy ground all the way to Norman Law.

Rolling Fife countryside from West Lomond ascent:

The Lomonds are the fulcrum between the two sides of Fife, agricultural to the north and east with pretty fishing villages and the town of St Andrews, and post-industrial to the south and west with Mossmorran, Rosyth and various former mining villages. The Lomonds are - just - in the former but belong to both these Fifes, with sweeping views over the whole county.

Before the summit a chill had come on, the land gone grey and the warmth gone out the sun, wrapped in wintery cloud to the west. It was closer to sunset than I had anticipated and we decided to forego Glen Vale and descend the way we had come up. I love being on the hills at this time of day at this time of year, a feeling of making the most of a day, the lights of houses and cars twinkling below as we descended into the sunset, a fat orange moon rising as we reached the car.

Loch Leven from West Lomond:

As a curious aside, did you know that Loch Lomond used to be called Loch Leven? It is drained by the River Leven and overlooked by Ben Lomond.

All these little hills have made me want to do a big one even more. I'm going to do it. But where shall I go? Deeside? Speyside? Fort William? Glen Affric? Torridon? The Lakes? I may need to hire a car...

Saturday 12 November 2011

Allermuir Hill

Following on from my previous post about taking advantage of sunshine! One of my favourite walks in the area I now live is up Allermuir Hill. It is short enough to be done in almost any 4hr-free block of time, morning, afternoon or evening, yet just high and windy enough to feel like a proper hillwalk. This is where I come when I don't have time to go further afield. It was where I came to practice night navigation prior to last year's Island Peaks Race.

View south from Allermuir Hill:

It can be reached by Edinburgh city bus to the ski-centre, or for the connoisseur, by foot from Edinburgh, up the Water of Leith to Colinton then via the Pentlands foothills in the Bonaly Country Park. I live in Midlothian, so my most common starting point is Glencorse.

Heading up Allermuir Hill:

Looking across Midlothian:

I read years ago - in the Angry Corrie I think - about hardcore Edinburgh hillgoers being dismayed at the Pentlands being turned into a 'Regional Park' back in the 1980s. This resulted in carparks, signposts, and paths being put over the hills, turning them from wild tramping ground to somewhere the middle-aged could drive to in their Volvos and exercise their dogs. There is probably an element of truth in this, as improving access means more people on the hill. Not sure I mind too much about that myself. Plus there are still quiet areas where the curlew is king in the southern part of the massif. Coming up here, as I said in my book, should be part of every young Edinburgher's education.

Allermuir's dome with wide path:

The view from the top is extensive and, usually pretty windy. Behind, the rest of the Pentlands. East, the Lothians go all the way to Berwick Law and Bass Rock: Edinburgh is laid out below, Fife beyond, the Ochils beyond that, the Highlands beyond again. An abrupt pimple to the west is Loudon Hill.

East Lothian tele:

Arthur's Seat from Allermuir Hill:

Back down, invigorated and satified, we collected leaves to take photos for my wife's new business, before heading home and a lunch outside in the garden.

Monday 7 November 2011

Taking Advantage of Sunshine

One of the things that years of hillwaking has primed me to do is, at the drop of the hat, take full advantage of good weather, especially in winter - wolf down breakfast, leave the house untidy, have the rucksack semi-permanently stocked, that kind of thing. It might cloud over and start raining by lunchtime. I may not be as cunning a fox as the blueskyscotland guys, but long experience of Highland weather has conditioned me to react to a crisp, sunny day with the urgency of a firefighter attending a blaze.

These days the people I like to spend most of my time with don't like hillwalking, but beautiful days like this weekend (and today) still give me a thrilling urgency to get out and about as quickly as possible. This Saturday, whilst helping out in the Borders, I was able to make a quick dash up Linton Hill. (I only know of this lovely wee viewpoint from the indispensible Relative Hills of Britain, my hillwalking bible.)

The Cheviots from Linton Hill:

A quick walk up a track, through a field full of cows, brought me to a small wood, turning gold for autumn, a transmitter mast above. I was soon on top, breathing deeply the clear, mild air, drinking in the views. What a tonic to be up there! I ran down the track back to my car, sheep chewing on the leaves of an unharvested root crop, glad to be alive.

Eildon Hills from Linton Hill:

It doesn't have to be a Great Hill to enjoy the sunshine and autumn crispness, although that does give me the most tremendous surge of happiness. I also visited this beautiful riverside on my way back.

Border river:

So that was Saturday. Today, a mellow autumn day just begging to be maximised, I got out my Edinburgh office for a quick lunchtime walk. High above I could see tiny figures approaching the top of Arthur's Seat.

Arthur's Seat from Holyrood Park:

My feet only wanted to go in one direction. Were it not that I was due in a meeting when I took this picture, I would have headed up there to be with them.

Friday 4 November 2011


According to Billy Connolly, the mark of an intellectual is someone who can listen to the William Tell Overture without thinking of the Lone Ranger. That cultural reference is before my time. I am of the vintage that hears of the Madonna of the Yarnwinder and finds the Madonna With the Big Boobies popping insistently to mind.

The Madonna of the Yarnwinder (Wikipedia):

The Madonna of the Yarnwinder is a Leonardo da Vinci painting, stolen in 2003 from the Duke of Buccleuch's art collection at Drumlanrig Castle, and recovered in strange circumstances from a Glasgow architect's office in 2007. It doesn't get much posher than having a da Vinci in your private collection, but then the Duke of Buccleuch & Queensberry (it was a different Queensberry who endorsed boxing's 'Queensberry Rules') is no ordinary art enthusiast. With 1/4 million acres under his control, he is the largest landowner in Britain, and his showpiece pile Drumlanrig Castle is no ordinary house. Constructed from a beautiful pink sandstone between 1679-1691 by William Douglas, the first Duke of Queensberry, its cost was so vast that the disgusted - and presumably after twelve years of construction, penniless - duke spent only one night in the castle once it was finished.

Drumlanrig frontage:

Drumlanrig is approached via miles of neatly maintained red tar road, all of course on the Buccleuch estate. I had been before, but not been inside, and was unaware of the art treasures it held. Rembrandt, Gainsborough, and of course all the other paraphernalia an extremely rich, cultured aristocratic family of the 18th and 19th centuries would acquire. Indoor photography is, of course, verboten.

The most famous Duke of Buccleuch was probably the second one. He was instrumental in bringing about the 1707 Union with England - his Edinburgh townhouse, attacked in 1706 by anti-union mobs, is now incorporated in the new devolved Scottish Parliament - and he was one of the lucky few Scots peers to enter the peerage of Great Britain. Should Scottish independence come to pass in the next few years, I wonder how the peerage will be affected? From the Duke of Queensberry down to former working-class boys done good like Michael Martin, there are quite a few Scottish members of the House of Lords.

Away from such esoteric questions, the grounds around Drumlanrig have matured magnificently. My favourite spot is a specially created viewpoint, where a gap has been created in the mature trees above the house, with views over to the hills of Moffatdale. It is a magnificent panorama, the best of Southern Scotland, bird song high in the treetops, a sharp scent of autumn, a scene that - whatever the political weather in this part of the world - is timeless.