Procrastination and the old year

PROCRASTINATION. That’s something I’ve always been good at. Putting off until tomorrow the things I should have done today.

Sometimes those delays are relatively unimportant. I suspect we all tend to put things on the back burner but eventually we get round to sorting them out but there are some issues that can’t be put off until another day without having a longer term negative effect.

Training and exercise are typical.

I mentioned in a previous blog that I’m trying to get as many miles in on the bike as I can, in preparation for some big cycling events next year. I know full well that this is the time to lay a foundation, the long slow runs that burn fat, reduce weight and give a training base to build on later, but sometimes it’s not so easy to get in those long runs. In this personal context I’m talking about bike rides in excess of three hours or so.

With events like the Loch Ness Etape, the Caledonian Etape and the Ride the North event on my radar for next year, not to mention the little jaunt between Mizen Head and Malin Head through Ireland that Hamish and I will be tackling, I started getting the miles in last October.

The Autumnal weather was good and it lasted right through November as well and things were going very well, until December arrived. December of the storms…

But it wasn’t only the weather. I developed a dose of man-flu at the start of the month and when that was sorted out I niggled an old injury in my right knee, an injury that has needed some fairly intensive physio.

Come the middle of the month I had lost lots of cycling days then came the series of wet and windy storms that has marked this final month of the year. And that’s when the procrastination really kicked in.

When you look out of the window to sunshine and still, dry weather it’s no problem putting on the cycling gear and heading out for 2 or 3 hours. But when it’s cold and the wind is rattling the windows it’s too easy to use the weather as an excuse not to bother.

But it’s procrastination that is the real problem, and I’m a champion procrastinator. It’s a problem in my everyday work. I sit down at my computer in the morning, decide my work for the day and then become absorbed in something on the internet.

It might be social media, it might be an online newspaper, but it’s enough to divert my attention from what I should be doing. Then I decide I probably need a little walk round the village to clear my head a bit, then I remember I should go to the post office and by the time I return it’s usually lunchtime.

After lunch I go through the same process and eventually settle down to write an article or whatever about 4 in the afternoon. I think that’s why I spend most evenings writing!

But training is different, because you can’t catch up. Days missed are days lost and miles lost. And I need all the training miles I can get.

I think that’s why I rounded off 2014 on a reasonably good note. For the past few days the weather has been foul. Wind and rain, rain and wind, snow and wind, wind and snow! Horrible.

But I’ve stuck with it. I’ve managed to kick procrastination into touch and while the bike rides haven’t exactly been delirious fun the after-ride sensations have been great.

There’s something about that blend of adrenaline and endorphin rush along with the knowledge that I’ve achieved something against the odds. And when that good-feel factor kicks in on Hogmanay it’s even better than usual, because I know that I’ve worked hard and can, for a few hours, indulge just a bit.

And that’s what I intend doing now, so for the moment can I wish everyone who reads this blog the very best wishes for a Happy Hogmanay and a prosperous 2014. It’s going to be a big and exciting year, especially for us Scots – I hope it’s a big and exciting one for you too, wherever you are!




On the Pilgrims’ Trail – Ben More of Mull


Ben More of Mull

IT was a curious celebration. Wet and miserably cold we huddled behind the wind-break on the summit of Mull’s Ben More, sipping champagne and pretending we were enjoying it. My wife just wanted to get down and into a dry set of clothes and another couple, who we had encouraged to come to the summit with us, were terrified we would leave them in the mist.

It was my party, my final Munro, and I was determined to live every moment of it, but a resolute wife usually has her way and I reluctantly agreed to put the celebrations on hold. A warm restaurant in Tobermory would help improve the champagne, and it did, but it had been an unholy quick raid to a holy island to climb a hill, and I knew deep inside that I hadn’t done Ben More justice.

I’ve been back to Mull several times since, including a nostalgic ascent during my walk across Scotland on the Pilgrims’ Trail. It is after all the highest of our hebridean mountains outside Skye and Britain’s last volcano! I took the opportunity of climbing the hill during the PT simply to try and get a view from the summit. In all the times I’ve climbed this hill I’ve never had a good view.   Would the PT ascent be any different?

Scientists say that about thirty-five million years the Hebridean archipelago was dotted with active volcanoes pouring out masses of molten lava. What is now Ben More was the last of these volcanoes and its great western lava flows created the wonderful cliffs of the Ardmeanach peninsula, the cliffs of Gribun, the island of Ulva and the amazing columnar rock architecture of the island of Staffa.

More hill walkers save Ben More as their final Munro than any other, but their reasons have little to do with the mountain’s volcanic past. Because of access difficulties you have to make a weekend of Mull’s Ben More and if you’re going to make a weekend of it you might as well make it a celebratory one. It can be costly too… Come to think of it if you’re going to make a weekend of it you may as well make it a week – there’s plenty of other mountain games to play on Mull besides climbing its only Munro!

Positioned near the west of the island Ben More is a fair distance from the ferry at Craignure. You can either take a car on the ferry from Oban, and drive to the starting point, or take a local bus to Salen from where you still have a seven mile walk to the foot of the hill at Loch na Keal. A bike would be useful, and cheaper to transport on the Oban/Craignure ferry!


On the ridge between A’Chioch and the summit

As its name suggests, Ben More lords it over the island. This ‘big hill’ can be seen from all points of the Mull compass and radiates ridges in a number of directions from its summit cone, the best of which is that which connects with neighbouring A’Chioch, a superb rocky highway that involves a steep descent to a rock-girt bealach then an even steeper, rocky scramble that leads directly to Ben More’s summit.

As one of our Wilderness Walks television programmes about 15 years ago, the then Culture Secretary and Munro-bagger Chris Smith and I approached from Glen Clachaig in the north-west after starting on Beinn Talaidh. We were linking A’Chioch and Ben More with a long walk to the tip of the Ardmeanach peninsula from where we could see Iona, the burial place of Chris’s great friend, the late John Smith MP.

Most walkers tackle Ben More from the B8035, on the south eastern shores of Loch na Keal. The lovely Abhainn na h-Uamha, complete with tantalising pools and waterfalls, ambles up the length of Gleann na Beinne Fada to the obvious saddle in the ridge between Beinn Fhada and A’Chioch. From the saddle steep and rocky slopes lead to the summit of A’Chioch.

The route to Ben More continues to the south west as a superb rocky ridge, involving a steep descent to the rocky bealach. Crags fall away steeply to the north-west and there are a couple of big gaps in the slabby wall which can be easily avoided. A steeper, rocky scramble leads directly to the summit of Ben More at 966m. This final climb to Ben More looks steep and difficult from the bealach but don’t be discouraged, it’s easier than it looks.

We folmed the whole ascent of the hill for the Pilgrims; Trail programme. I hope you enjoy it tonight.

The Pilgrims’ Trail BBC2 Scotland Sky & Channel 970 6.15pm tonight and 6.30pm tomorrow


Edward Abbey – a brief appreciation and a Christmas thought

I’VE been a fan of Edward Abbey for years. He was an American writer and wilderness enthusiast who will forever be associated with the American South-West. He was a poet, a conservationist, a novelist, and an inspiration to tens of thousands of outdoor geeks. He even studied at Edinburgh University for a while.

I have a collection of his quotes and there is none I like more than this one. A good thought for Christmas, or any time of the year actually.

Read it slowly, savour it, feel it, and if you agree with it then, let out a great whoop of joy and run outside and hug a tree, or the first person you bump into to. I personally would prefer a tree…

“One final paragraph of advice: Do not burn yourself out. Be as I am-a reluctant enthusiast… a part time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it is still there. So get out there and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, encounter the grizz, climb the mountains. Run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, that lovely, mysterious and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to your body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much: I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those deskbound people with their hearts in a safe deposit box and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this: you will outlive the bastards.”

Yuletide Yomps

CHRISTMAS week and your mind might just be more focussed on festivities other than fresh-air, but come Boxing Day you might well be looking for somewhere to stretch your legs and work off the annual gut-bash. I’ve chosen a handful of comparatively easy walks – you might find time to drag the family out with you before the Hogmanay bacchanalia begins… 

Oh, and lest I forget – once you’ve stretched your legs and cleared your head on Boxing Day and on the 27th why not sit down with a dram in front of the telly and watch our Christmas offerings from the Adventure Show. This year it’s a long 250-mile route from Iona to the Tarbat Peninsula near Tain. We’ve called it The Pilgrims’ Trail, and I’ll be following in the footsteps of Columcille, soldiers, drovers, poets and vagabonds across the highlands. I’ll also be using to walk to try and challenge my own perceptions about wild land. What is it, and are our empty lands truly wild?

The programmes are on BBC2 Scotland and Sky Channel 970 (Virgin too) at 6.15pm on Boxing Day and 6.30pm on the 27th. Both are hour-long shows.

Hope you enjoy them but for now, here are the Christmas walk suggestions…

 1) The Campsie Fells

The high moorlands of the Campsie Fells have introduced generations of folk to the delights of hill walking. The plug of Dumgoyne, at the western end of the Campsie Fells, is a prominent landmark and Earl’s Seat, at 578m, is the highest of the Campsie hills. This walk, taking in both these landmarks, gives a fairly straightforward hill walk with wide views to the south over the urban skyline of the city and contrasting views to the north towards Ben Lomond and the jumble of hills that mark the highlands.

The Campsies are made up of layers of lava flow and Dumgoyne, the fort of the arrows, is an ancient volcanic plug whose name suggests that it was once a defensive site. Neighbouring Dumfoyn could be the “hill fort of the wart”, which probably best describes its appearance. Earl’s Seat is probably named after the Earl of Lennox whose lands once extended on the south side of the Campsie Fells.

Map: OS Sheet 64

Distance: About 7 miles

Time: 4-5 hours

Start/Finish: The  A81 Blanefield to Killearn road in Strath Blane about a mile and a half west of Blanefield near Craigbrock Farm.

Route: Take the private road past the farm and follow it towards the cottage called Cantywheery. Just before you reach the cottage cross over a bridge, go through a gate and take a grassy track which runs up the hill towards an obvious black crag which sits clearly above Craigbrock Wood. Pass to the NW of this crag and find a stream which runs downhill on the left. Cross over it, cross a drystone wall and follow rough tracks in a WNW direction, contouring round the slopes of Dumfoyn. Another stream is crossed and it’s now a steady climb up a sheep track which runs across the S slopes of Dumgoyne to reach its broad SW ridge. Easy grass slopes lead to the summit. From the top, descend in a NE direction to a shallow col and continue over the broad grassy ridge just north of Drumiekill Knowes. Continue along the ridge in a NE direction to the grassy bumps of Clachertyfarlie Knowes. Descend gently, cross some wet and boggy ground and climb the final grassy slopes directly to the summit and trig point of Earl’s Seat.

Descend in a SW direction across the groughs and bogs of the infant Ballagan Burn, climb gentle slopes and cross a fence just before Graham’s Cairn. Follow the burn in the Cauldhame Glen on its S side and eventually you’ll rejoin your earlier uphill route just above Cantywheery cottage. Follow the private road back to the A81.

2) Callander’s Woods

There are a number of fine walks to be enjoyed in the vicinity of Callander, ranging from long hill routes to shorter riverside walks. This route lies mainly in the south west of the town, making the most of the wonderful natural woodlands that surround the town.

Close to the start of the walk is a prominent mound called Tom na Cheasaig. This commemorates St Cessoc and an old statistical account claims that this same spot was where: “the people upon Sabbath evenings, exercised themselves with their bows and arrows, according to an ancient Scotch law for that purpose.” Above the A821 road lies Bochastle Hill, once the site of an iron age fort, Dun Bochastle. Very little of it remains today although Bochastle Hill still boasts its Samson’s Putting Stone. This great round boulder is a glacial erratic, dumped here on the hillside by a glacier many, many thousands of years ago. Near Kilmahog, the walkway was formerly the route of the Callander to Lochearnhead railway, which was closed in 1964. It’s now part of a walkway and cycletrack that runs through the Pass of Leny to Strathyre. Soon after, as you approach Callander towards the end of the walk you’ll pass a field with some curious low ridges in it. This is the site of an old Roman camp.

Map: OS Sheet 56

Distance: About 5miles

Time: 3-4 hours

Start/Finish: The Meadows car park ppposite the Dreadnought Hotel

Route: Head E beside the River Teith, go through a children’s playground adjacent to the mound of Tom na Cheasaig and leave it onto the A81. Turn right, cross the bridge, and continue past some houses as the road swings to the left. Once round the bend look out for two stone pillars on the right. Pass the pillars into woodland and follow the path uphill, through a gate, and continue slightly uphill with the woodland in your sights on your left. Maintaining the edge of the woodland on your left look out for an old stone dyke running off to your right. Follow the path that runs alongside this wall, deep into the woods, until you reach another wall running at right angles to the original one. Go through a gap in the first wall and continue straight ahead for about 30m before turning left again on a very faint and often muddy path. Follow this path until it meets with a double rutted forest track that leads to a car park at Coilhallan Wood. Turn left out of the car park and follow the road past some cottages to the bridge over the Eas Gobhainn. Follow the minor road to the junction with the A821. Turn right onto the A821 and follow the footpath on the north side of the road. Just before reaching Kilmahog, you’ll come across a signpost indicating a picnic site. Adjacent to this site is the walkway that will take you back into Callander and The Meadows.


3) The Queen’s Drive, Braemar

This is a short circular walk below the slopes of Creag Choinnich, which stands above the lovely Deeside village of Braemar. The latter part of the route follows the old carriage road which Queen Victoria often enjoyed, often according to local legend, stopping to give money to any children she happened to encounter.

Braemar is probably best known as the venue of the Braemar Games, or the Braemar Royal Highland Gathering to give it its full name. This event is held annually on the first Saturday of September and dates back some 900 years to when Malcom Canmore summoned the clans to the Brae of Mar for contests in strength which would enable him to choose the best men as his soldiers. Invercauld House dates from the 15th century. This is the ancient seat of the Farquharsons and it was from here that the Earl of Mar called out the clans on behalf of the Old Pretender in 1715. The Mound, on which the Earl of Mar raised his standard of rebellion was flattened to make way for the Invercauld Arms Hotel. A plaque in the hotel marks the spot.

Map: OS Sheet 43

Distance:  3 miles

Time:  2 hours

Start/Finish: The east side of the A93 close to St Margaret’s Church.

Route: Behind the church a stile crosses into woodland with a track running through it. Follow this broad track until it becomes a footpath. Continue on this path climbing steadily upwards until it emerges from the woods at a signpost and meets another track. Turn left onto this track and follow it gently uphill for about a kilometre to a prominent cliff known locally as the Lion’s Face Crag. You really have to use your imagination to see any resemblance to a Lion’s Face and possibly the origin of the name comes from the shape of the crag when seen from Invercauld below. Indeed the view from this point down to Invercauld is its redeeming feature. Return to the earlier junction and continue on the wide track known as the Queen’s Drive. Follow it all the way down to the gate on the A93. Go through the gate and turn right onto the road, which is then followed back into Braemar passing the house where Robert Louis Stevenson stayed when he was writing Treasure Island in 1881. Follow the road through the village passing the remains of an old church and graveyard where the remains of Peter “Dubrach” Grant lie, the last of the Jacobite rebels. He died in 1824 aged 110. Continue back to your starting point at St Margaret’s Church.


4) The Birks of Aberfeldy

These are the woods that inspired Robert Burns to pen his famous tribute, perhaps not his finest piece of work, but lines that go a long way to reflect the glory of this wooded, rocky chasm.

 “The braes ascend like lofty wa’s,

the foaming stream deep-roaring fa’s,

O’erhung wi’ fragrant spreading shaws,

The birks of Aberfeldy.”

This walk follows the outward route of the established nature trail, but is extended to offer a longer descent with wonderful views up and down the length of Strath Tay.

The Moness Den was planted with deciduous trees in the late 18th century, adding variety to the natural pine woodland that had survived on the steep sided crags, but there’s a lot more to these woods than just birch trees. On the lower stretches of the den you’ll find beech, rowan, wych elm, hazel and some willow, and higher up the dominant species are oak and the eponymous birch. Robert Burns visited the Den of Moness on the 30th August 1787 and the spot where he allegedly sat and wrote his poem is marked on the outward route. As a result of his words, the route up and down the length of the Moness Falls has been a popular maintained walk for over 200 years

Map: OS Sheet 52

Distance: About 4 miles

Time: 2 hours

Start/Finish: The car park just off the Crieff road in Aberfeldy

Route: Follow the footpath that leaves the top right hand corner of the car park. Almost immediately, turn left at signposts which indicate Moness Falls and Nature Trail. Cross the footbridge over the burn and begin a long and steady climb up the banks of the tumbling, cascading burn, eventually passing the small rocky nook where Burns sat and wrote his poem. Further on, a flight of steps leaves the path on the left, while the footpath continues straight ahead. Follow the steps as they climb higher towards the top of the steep-sided gorge, combining with wooden walkways and bridges to lift you above the very impressive sight of the Falls of Moness, now seen below you. Cross the bridge above the falls, and keep going left onto a wider footpath which soon takes you to a T-junction with the road that leads to Urlar. Turn right onto this road, follow it for about 100 yards and go through a gate on the left, to trace a fine grassy track gently downhill towards the derelict farm buildings at Dunskiag. From here follow the farm road to where it runs into a tarmac road running into Aberfeldy. Follow this road steeply downhill and turn right at the bottom, back onto the Crieff road and the Birks car park. 

5) Historic Allean Woods

A short walk with a superb reconstructed Clachan and an even older ring fort, thought to date from the 8th century. Forest Enterprise, along with Scottish Enterprise Tayside, have re-constructed the main clachan buildings and have provided some excellent interpretive facilities. Around you lie the remains of an 18th century shieling – the walls, buildings and small fields would have been used for agriculture and the people would have been largely self sufficient. It’s believed the tenants of this particular clachan were cleared in the mid-nineteenth century by the local landowners for activities which would bring in more money, like sheep pastures.

The circular wall of the ring fort are still in good condition. A great timber roof, like a tepee, would have been built over this circular wall and other, smaller buildings could well have existed inside. The ring is about 10m in diameter and the walls are about 4m thick. Close to the start of this walk is the Queen’s View Visitor Centre, popularly thought to be named after Queen Victoria who visited this spot in 1866 but in fact named after a much earlier queen – Isabella, queen of Robert the Bruce.

Map: OS Sheet 43

Distance: About 3 miles

Time: About 1.5 hours

Start/Finish: The Allean Forest car park about 800 m west of the Queen’s View visitor centre on the B8019 Pitlochry to Tummel Bridge road

Route: From the car park return to the main forest drive, turn right and walk uphill. This walk follows the red topped marker posts. Go through a gate and continue uphill. At the first junction continue straight ahead. The path coming in from the right is the path you’ll finish on later. Continue climbing uphill until you reach the Clachan and the short diversion to the viewpoint with views along the length of Loch Tummel to Schiehallion. Return to the main track, turn left and continue uphill until the path bends to the right. The path begins to descend now, and at the bottom of it yellow marker posts lead off to the right but the red marker posts indicate our route uphill once again. Come to a T-junction, turn right and onto a slightly more overgrown track, which then becomes a footpath running fairly steeply downhill to meet another track. Turn right here and after 200 m a short diversion takes you to the ring fort. Return to the track and continue downhill to meet the outward path of earlier. Turn left on to it and return to the car park. 

The Cairngorms 40 years on


Beinn Macdui from the summit of Braeriach

THE rain swept across the deep void of Coire Sputan Dearg like curtains being drawn and I knew that I only had seconds to get my waterproofs on.

Beyond the silvery veil the late afternoon sun was highlighting the rocky features of Cairn Toul, shining through a morass of thunderhead clouds that looked like some mass eruption of boiling vapour. Despite the incipient soaking, I was transfixed by the splendour of it all.

Showers had swept across the Cairngorms all day and in between the sun, shining through great rents in the cloud cover, had deepened the earth tones of late summer and picked out individual features with crystal clarity. Lochan Uaine, one of four green lochans in the Cairngorms, had suddenly changed in colour from quicksilver to translucent blue; patches of blue moss campion shone from the metallic greys of the scree covered slopes and away below me sunbeams swept across the pines of Glen Luibeg like a roving searchlight.

Despite the rain these are the best of days in the Cairngorms, when light and shade contrast sharply and the colours change constantly. I love the theatrical effect of it all. Such days are only challenged by the splendour of winter, when the entire landscape is covered in snow and the low winter sun casts shadows on its ermine surface. But winter brings another element into the Cairngorm experience, an element that heightens awareness and emotions – that of challenge and risk.

While I’ve always thrilled to that challenge I find it difficult to completely relax in winter conditions. An escapade with an avalanche over thirty years ago reminded me cruelly of my own mortality and I’ve rarely crossed an open snow slope since then without recalling that distant day and the slim and tenuous link that exists between life and death.

Indeed, my very first experience of the Cairngorms was cloaked in fear and apprehension, the first time I had been aware of such emotions on a mountain, a sensation that had been new, and unwelcome. I had served my hill apprenticeship on the jagged peaks of the west, albeit steep sided hills but rarely more than a couple of miles from a road. Work had taken me to Aberdeen and as soon as I could I packed a rucksack with overnight camping gear, drove to Linn of Dee and visited the Cairngorms for the very first time. I trekked up Glen Luibeg to Derry Lodge, and climbed the Sron Riach ridge of Beinn Macdui, the second highest mountain in the land.

My plan was to cross the high plateau to Cairngorm but no sooner had I passed the old Curran Bothy that once crouched close to Lochan Buidhe (it was demolished in 1975) than I became aware of the sheer enormity of this landscape. Cloud was coming and going in regular drifts and each time the landscape around me was newly revealed it seemed bigger and wider than the time before. Never before had I seen such massive, domed skies, never before had I felt so insignificant as I did that day and never before had I felt so incapable of dealing with it. I felt tired after my long walk-in and my confidence oozed like the stream running out of Lochan Buidhe. I became convinced I couldn’t reach Cairn Gorm that day. Instead, I turned tail and scurried down beside the March Burn to the comparative haven of the Lairig Ghru.


Bod an Deamhain (Devil’s Point) from Beinn Bhrotain

I’ve often pondered on the negative feelings that erupted in me that day, feelings that I’ve never experienced since. I knew little, if anything, of the legend of Fearlas Mor, the Grey Man of Beinn Macdui, an apparition that had apparently struck fear and alarm in the likes of such experienced individuals as mountaineer Professor Norman Collie and the Scots patriot Wendy Wood. But I was aware that not long before five Edinburgh schoolchildren and their teacher had perished close to the spot where I turned tail. Was there something of their fate still lingering on the bare shores of Lochan Buidhe, some spirit of place that had filtered into my own exploratory enthusiasm, dimming my nascent sense of discovery and wonder that had accompanied me all the way to Macdui’s summit and beyond? Or were the Cairngorms, and their reputation, just too much, just too demanding, for this tyro Cairngorm  hiker?

I suspect it was the latter because that initial fear and alarm was quickly and effectively submerged by a deep and passionate love affair that has lasted almost as long as my marriage. The Cairngorms National Park is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year – I’m celebrating the 40th anniversary of my introduction to what I now refer to as my ‘hills of home’.

The night of that first memorable day was spent in a tiny tent on a tundra-like swathe just below the summit of Devils’s Point, or more correctly, Bod an Deamhain (try ‘pot-in-john’). I woke in the morning to a high and magnificent landscape that was flooded in early morning sunlight. From somewhere nearby a bird was pouring out a remarkable song and incredibly, about fifty metres away from my tent, stood three rather threadbare and quite ugly reindeers. At that early point in my outdoors career I was barely on acquaintance terms with red deer never mind reindeer and the sight of them was both exotic and bewildering. It was only later that I learned that Mr Utsi from Lapland and his colleague Dr Lindgren were trying to reintroduce reindeer into the Arctic-type landscape of the Cairngorms from their base in Glenmore.

The rest of that day passed in a dream. I climbed Cairn Toul before returning to the head of Coire Odhar where I followed the footpath back towards the little bothy that lay below the steep black slopes of Bod am Deamhaim. Another track followed the River Dee all the way back to Linn of Dee.


Cairn Toul and Sgur an Lochain Uaine from Braeriach

It was some years before I climbed Cairn Toul again, but this time from the comforting perspective of experience and familiarity with this high and spectacular mountain range. Some of our finest hills lie well beyond the convenience of roads or tracks and require considerable effort to reach their foot, never mind their summit. Cairn Toul is a good example. Rising in the middle of the Lairig Ghru, that geological slash that cuts through the heart of the central Cairngorms, its ascent requires a long walk-in from any direction, but, as with most isolated hills, the extra effort is worth it for that extra dimension of inaccessibility.

Cairn Toul, the ‘hill of the barn,’ is certainly one of the more shapely and elegant Cairngorms, despite its name. With its double-topped summit ridge thrown up by the apex of three well-sculpted corries its ascent is usually tacked on to the high level traverse of Braeriach and Sgor an Lochain Uaine (I refuse to call it Angel’s Peak as the OS suggests. Try ‘skoor an lochan oo-anya’ – what sounds better?) from the north, or from Coire Odhar in the south. Great routes as these are, Cairn Toul is worthy of a day dedicated to it alone.

It was, indeed, a long walk-in. Four hours to be exact from the Sugar Bowl car park on the Glenmore-Cairn Gorm road via the boulder-strewn Chalamain Gap and the Lairig Ghru. Four hours of hard walking and I was only at the foot of the An Garbh Choire, working out how to make my way up through an intricate maze of granite slabs and buttresses.

The plan was simple enough – to climb up into the mountain’s Coire Lochan Uaine, then continue to the summit by it’s north ridge, but as I stood at the foot of the hill and gazed up at the slopes that led to its upper corrie I couldn’t help feel both dwarfed and intimidated by the audacious scale of things. The An Garbh Choire is one of the biggest corries in Scotland and the sense of spaciousness, allied to the steepness of the ground before me, almost gave me second thoughts about attempting it.

It can be very disconcerting climbing a slope that lies only inches from your nose, but this kind of scrambling does heighten the senses, and makes you climb very carefully. A wriggling route led past rocky outcrops and all the time I was aware of a steep rock band looming down from the top of the slope. My salvation lay in the hope that there would be an easy ramp traversing below it onto the lip of the corrie. If there wasn’t I would probably have to reverse the route I’d come, and I wasn’t sure if I could do that.

The sense of relief and exhilaration when I pulled myself up between two outcrops to see a long easy- angled slab run below the black rock band was overwhelming. In no time at all I reached the corrie’s lip, rejoicing in the sheer mountain splendour of the place. A light breeze rippled the black waters of the corrie lochan, a steep ridge rose to the sharp peak of Sgor an Lochan Uaine and behind me the steep walls of the An Garbh Choire restrained this  elemental world of rock, water and air. To say I floated up the rest of the route might be poetic exaggeration, but by this time the endorphins were in full flow – I was on a natural high.

I wish it lasted the rest of the day, but the descent to the Lairig Ghru was laborious and the long walk back exhausting. I had used up my reserves and it was a weary hill-walker who eventually limped into the car park in the gloom of evening. Long walk-ins are great – long walk-outs less so…


In the Northern Corries of the Cairngorms

On the morning of that first wonderful camp in the Cairngorms I had been greeted by an audacious outpouring of song from a little bird that I couldn’t identify. It was to be some years before I learned it has been the spring song of the cock snow bunting, as wonderful a sound as you’ll hear anywhere.

Some years later my son and I had been making our way into Coire an t-Sneachda, the snowy corrie where three large pools reflected the Cyclopean masonry of the headwall beyond. From the largest of the pools, a slanting pathway climbs the rocky slopes to a notch in the headwall. It’s a rough, steep, loose, scree-girt trail, with some very mild scrambling thrown in for good measure.

It was near the top of the headwall that our little Arctic visitor made himself known. A comparatively rare breeder in Scotland, the snow bunting is a true lover of the high and lonely places, a black and white fleck of beauty to be seen against this wind-scoured landscape.

Rising from the screes the bird rapidly beats his white wings until twenty feet or so above the ground. Then, fluttering his outstretched wings like a skylark he glides earthwards again with an explosive and intense song. The music continues as he lands, wings upstretched, and as he closes his wings the outpouring of song becomes a cry, a moving and powerful anthem to these Arctic surroundings.

It’s the triumphant chord the snow bunting strikes that is both moving and encouraging and has the capacity for re-focusing the jaded eye. I’ve no idea how many times I’ve climbed up this Goat Track through Coire an t-Sneachda and made my way across the plateau towards Ben Macdhui. I’ve now lost count how often I’ve wandered in a desultory way over these high and lonely mountain tops, but something as naturally simple as the song of a snow bunting has the capacity to re-stimulate an element of awe at this, the highest tableland in the UK.

My son Gregor was keen to make the most of a visit home to photograph some of the classic views of the Cairngorms, so we tracked across the upper slopes of Coire Domhain to cross the chortling Feith Bhuidhe before it crashed down over the red granite slabs that form the headwalls of Glen Avon. Photographed, at a low angle, through the crashing waters, the view of Loch Avon in its mountain setting is for me, one of the finest scenes in Scotland.

Further round the headwall we dropped down into the bergschrund between the remains of the winter snowpack and the granite walls of the upper corrie. It was fun tracing a route along the line of the bergschrund, a wonderful form of ice caving where the deep, glistening blues of the ice contrast with the gnarly rough red of the granite slabs – a photographer’s delight.

A long but easy climb took us to Ben Macdui’s north summit where it was only a few minutes to the elevated trig point of Britain’s second highest mountain. I love this place. I love its spaciousness, I love its vast, open skies, I love how it drops abruptly into the deep chasm of the Lairig Ghru, I love its views that can be as widespread as Morven in Caithness to the Lammermuirs in Lothian.

We made our return by Creag an Leth-choin, to photograph the deep cleft of the Lairig Ghru, and wonder at the miscroscopic beauty of moss campion and dwarf cudweed, the wee brother of the edelweiss. In that wonder there was an instinctive recognition of the existence of order, a determined pattern behind the behaviour of things, a celebration of order and harmony. For those few hours we had felt part of it.

And in many ways I guess that’s the fundamental issue in my personal relationship with these marvelous hills. It’s a sense of belonging, mixed with the more tangible senses of familiarity and appreciation. In some years I may only tramp these high hills three or four times, in others three or four times a month, yet I never feel like a stranger. It’s a comforting thought…


Reindeer grazing on the Moine Mhor