ITS name has the cut and thrust of a battle-cry and it could very well be the most mysterious mountain in Scotland. It was once used to help calculate the weight of the earth and since the earliest recorded times people have lived and died on its flanks.
Schiehallion, 1083m/3553ft, translates into something much less macho than a battle-cry – Sidh Chailleann, the fairy hill of the Caledonians, but others have suggested it might mean ‘the maiden’s pap’ or ‘constant storm’. The latter interpretation certainly fits with the legend of the Cailleach Bheur, the blue hag who according to Rannoch legend rides the wings of the storms to deal out her icy death to the unfortunate traveller.
According to AD Cunningham’s excellent book Tales of Rannoch this old witch was once a familiar sight on Schiehallion: “Her face was blue with cold, her hair white with frost and the plaid that wrapped her bony shoulders was grey as the winter fields.”
I suspect she still exists.
The old hag’s presence was clearly evident as I climbed the mountain’s long whaleback ridge. The air was still, the rock’s frosted and frozen and ice crystals decorated every boulder. The mist that shrouded the mountain’s upper slopes could well have been the Cailleach Bheur’s frozen breath and by the time I reached the summit there was little temptation to linger in her cold grasp. You don’t have to believe in fairies to experience the chilling fingers of winter reach out to you…
Rather than descend the same way I wanted to traverse the mountain and drop down the boulder covered flanks to the west of the summit, a route that would bring me to the head of Gleann Mor, the wide valley that separates the isolated Schiehallion from the Can Mairg group of hills in the south.
Like the mountain, Gleann Mor is rich in superstition and legend and it’s at Uamh Tom a’Mhor-fhir, a cave in the upper reaches of the glen, that Schiehallion’s fairies are supposed to dwell. I didn’t come across much evidence of fairies as I wandered down the length of the glen but I did find some ancient cup-and-saucer ring markings, evidence of old hut circles and the remains of shielings, reminders of an earlier way of life when glens like this were used for grazing cattle.
There are no cattle today but you might well see, and indeed smell, Schiehallion’s wild goats. Look out for the Ghobhar Bacach, the lame goat, who still limps about Schiehallion, always in milk, with a yield enough to supply the Fingalians, the fair-haired warrior giants under the command of Fionn MacCumhail, when they return from Ireland to conquer Scotland.
Gleann Mor begins to narrow quite appreciably the further east you go and at one point the path clings precariously to a steep and crumbling embankment high above the river. It’s best to leave the river before this point and climb the heathery slopes out of the glen towards Aonach Ban, the low point on Schiehallion’s eastern ridge. Before you leave Gleann Mor though look back and remember AD Cunningham’s words from his Tales of Rannoch.
“The adventurer who lingers in the secret places of the mountains senses that the cailleach and the spirit life are still there, and he is aware that enchantment has not vanished from the world.”
Enchantment, together with mystery and superstition, has certainly not vanished from Schiehallion’s slopes. Climb her slopes on a sunny summer’s evening and you will most certainly be enchanted by views across the rolling hills of Highland Perthshire to where Loch Rannoch stretches out towards the flat mattress of the Rannoch Moor. Descend the hill at nightfall and hear the curious summer sounds of drumming snipe and roding woodcock or listen to the roars of rutting stags during the chilled days of late autumn. But Schiehallion has an allure that is not always comfortable. Shrouded in the snows of winter her cold charm is compelling, as she tempts you like a harlot, or a blue hag…
The spirit of the Cailleach Bheur was certainly in evidence on one particularly memorable ascent of this wonderful Perthshire Munro. Her presence was made even more credible because my companion was infinitely more in tune with these curios than I was. Lawrence Main was in the second week of a length-of-Britain pilgrimage visiting ancient, sacred sites. He had started his mammoth walk at the Callanish Standing Stones on Lewis and had worked his way south via Culloden’s Clava Cairns and Aberdeenshire’s Bennachie. I had collected him from his lonely camp at the head of Glen Lyon where he had been visiting the old yew tree at Fortingall (Pontius Pilate is said to have born in the area) and the Praying Hands of Mary, a curious set of split standing stones in the upper reaches of the glen.
Lawrence writes walking guides for a living, and lectures on Earth Mysteries. He is a druid and the purpose of his long walk was to raise publicity for the Vegan Society. “If we were all vegans we would only need 10 million acres of agricultural land to supply our needs,“ he told me, “That’s a quarter of all the agricultural land in England and Wales alone.”
Lawrence Main – guidebook writer and druid
I felt slightly guilty munching my ham sandwiches and sipping coffee from my flask while Lawrence nibbled organic chocolate and drank water. He had asked me to accompany him on Schiehallion, and while I was happy to do that it was obvious Lawrence’s interests were in the supernatural aspects of the hill rather than her status as a Munro. At the time I was also more interested in having a look at the new footpath that runs up the hill from Braes of Foss.
Several years previously the mountain had been bought by the John Muir Trust. In a sense the charity had simply bought themselves a huge headache for the modern path to the summit ridge had become extremely overused and eroded and walkers often found themselves up to the knees in peat bog. It was one of the most curious mountain rescues ever to have taken place in Scotland. This wasn’t a case of a climber falling or a hillwalker becoming lost, this time it was a mountain itself that was being rescued, a case of ‘man bites dog’ – a mountain being rescued from those who were loving it to death. Schiehallion had become the victim of its own popularity. Thousands of people visited the mountain each year and the path to the summit has become a broad swathe of peat and mud, an ugly scar visible for miles around.
After an appeal for cash the JMT got to work and created a new path with a different alignment to the eroded path, cutting out a broad, wet area that had been creating much of the problem. At the time I was surprised the footpath restorers of the JMT had abandoned the modern hill-walkers path and restored a much older, albeit a much more sensible path-line that avoided the peaty sections of the hill. The re-constructed path now tackles the east ridge of the hill much more directly and well-constructed zig-zags lift you on to the ridge with a discernable saving on energy! At first it looked brash, new and utilitarian but it wasn’t long until the bracken and heather re-asserted their presence along the sides of the path and it now blends in naturally with its surroundings.
Beyond the path, as we reached the exposed summit ridge, I became a little concerned about Lawrence for he had insisted in climbing the hill in shorts. The middle of March may be mild in his home territory of mid-Wales but here the weather was Arctic. A strong and cold airstream was bringing in snow showers from the north-west and Lawrence’s non-leather vegan boots didn’t appear to be coping with the iced-up rocks. However, he struggled on manfully, and managed to gasp out the reasons why he had been so keen to climb Schiehallion.
“This is one of the world’s Holy hills,” he told me. “And it was visited by Jesus Christ himself. In between his presentation to the Temple as a child and taking up his ministry at the age of 30, Jesus travelled extensively in the company of Joseph of Arimathea, a trader and merchant.
“What we now know as Britain was once the tin-manufacturing centre of the world, so it’s not unreasonable to believe that Joseph came here. It’s entirely possible the young Jesus came with him. It’s also ironic that Pontius Pilate was possibly born just over the hill in Fortingall, the son of a Roman officer.”
It’s also thought that Robert the Bruce once took refuge in a small castle on the north slopes of Schiehallion and established the masonic ‘Sublime and Royal Chapter of Heredom,’ a chapter of the freemasons that had originally been constituted on the Holy top of Mount Moriah in the Kingdom of Judea. But why did the Bruce choose Schiehallion? Apparently because like Mount Moriah, Schiehallion was thought to be a Holy Mountain.
Lawrence and I originally planned to descend the rocky flanks to the west of the summit, a route that would take us to the head of Gleann Mor, the wide valley that separates the isolated Schiehallion from the Can Mairg group of hills in the south, but Lawrence looked half frozen. His long beard was tangled in ice and his knees were blue. He would have to forsake the delights of Gleann Mor, the cup-and-saucer ring markings, the old shielings and the fairy cave at Uamh Tom a’Mhor-fhir for a direct descent back to the warmth of the car. He would have to return and enjoy the spiritual aspects of Schiehallion when the Cailleach Bheur had departed for the summer…
“I love to view Schiehallion all aglow,
In blaze of beauty ‘gainst the eastern sky,
Like a huge pyramid exalted high
O’er woodland fringing round its base below;
…. The Bible tells of Hebrew mountains grand,
Where such great deeds were done in days of old,
As render them more precious far than gold in our conception of the Holy Land;
But every soul that seeks the heavenly road
May in Schiehallion, too, behold a Mount of God.
From Schiehallion by Rev. John Sinclair
Check out the video of Schiehallion