IT’S one of Scotland’s finest glens, the gateway to some of the best hills in the Central Highlands and a place that was close to the heart of a Celtic princess.
Glen Etive is forever the storied land of Deirdre of the Sorrows, a first century Pictish princess who was betrothed to the High King of Ulster before fleeing to Scotland and Etive-side with her lover, Naoise, one of the Three Sons of Uisneach. Celtic tales tell of her love of these hills, and of her heartbreak at having to leave them behind to eventually return to Ulster and her fate.
It’s easy to understand Deirdre’s passion for Glen Etive. Steep-sided hills rise on either side of it, a single-track road runs from its high point on the Rannoch Moor for some 14 miles/23 k to the head of Loch Etive, a sea-loch that bites its way greedily into the jumbled landscape of Argyll, and its river is a cascading, tumbling watercourse that has been described as the finest canoeing river in Scotland. The River Etive commands cult status among Scotland’s paddlers.
Two hundred and sixty years ago the glen was considerably more inhabited than it is today, and a track made its way down the south side of Loch Etive as far as Taynuilt. From 1847 a steamer service from Oban sailed up Loch Etive to the now derelict pier where the modern road ends. It’s certainly a quieter place today but old jetty at the head of the loch is still a magnificent spot, a place to linger and consider the scene before you. Savagely steep slopes lead to the Munro of Ben Starav on one side and the Corbett of Beinn Trilleachean on the other while ahead of you rise the equally steep slopes of another Corbett, Stob Dubh. Further up the glen the classic view of the two Buachailles, the twin herdsmen of Etive, with the Lairig Gartain separating them, dominates everything else, while the big hills of the Blackmount Deer Forest spread out on your right. On the other side of the glen the Stob Coire Sgreamach edge of the Bidean nam Bian massif gives way to the long ridge of Beinn Maol Chalum and the Munros of Glen Creran, Beinn Sgulaird and Beinn Fhionnlaidh.
Few glens in Scotland offer such a phenomenal wealth of hillwalking opportunities in a hugely inspiring landscape. Deirdre’s passion is easy to understand, her love of a land that would have made her weep with longing.
While most hillwalking visitors to Glen Etive will head for the Munros of the Blackmount or Glen Coe this is one area where the lower Corbetts, Scotland’s hills between 2500ft and 2999ft are every bit as interesting, and challenging, as their higher counterparts. Stob Dubh is a good example.
This 883m hill rises from Glen Ceitlin in lower Etive and has been described as “steep, dark and intimidating” and you have to climb it virtually from sea-level. Its summit always seems to be an extraordinary long way above the glen, a phenomenon created by the steepness of its slopes, and to emphasise its reputation as a serious mountain its slopes become steeper the higher you climb.
Beinn Trilleachean, at the head of Loch Etive
Similarly, close to the head of Loch Etive lies Beinn Trilleachan, with its sweep of granite crags, known to rock climbers as the Etive Stabs. When seen head on from Ben Starav across the loch these boiler-plate slabs hang down from the mountain like a grey curtain, and they contain some of the most surreal climbs in Scotland. Etive slab climbing is friction climbing, tiptoeing upwards through a steep ocean of granite relying on the sandpaper roughness of the rock. Not climbing for the faint-hearted.
Another Etive Corbett, Beinn Mhic Chasgaig, is also protected by steep and craggy slopes but it’s not as isolated as Stob Dubh or Beinn Trilleachan. It has the advantage of being connected to the Creise/Clach Leathad ridge of the Blackmount Deer Forest by a high-level bealach and it is easy enough to tag the Corbett on to a round of those two Munros
Indeed, for many years peak-baggers were forced to take this route and all because of a fortified gate across a bridge over the River Etive near Alltchaorunn. In pre-Land Reform Act days the gate to the bridge was well barricaded with a padlock and barbed-wire but in these more emancipated times the barricades have been removed allowing access to what is a marvellous route to the hill
One word of warning though – a sign reminds walkers that under the Land Reform Act householders can expect “reasonable privacy”, so try and avoid walking immediately past the house at Alltchaorunn. Break off the track that runs to the house at the first gate you encounter and follow the line of a deer fence uphill until you reach a stile. Cross it, and you’ll soon pick up the Allt a’ Chaorainn path again.
On another previous visit to Beinn Mhic Chasgaig I had simply tackled the hill’s western nose head on, a steep and uncompromising climb that had me twisting through crags and rock barriers until I reached the summit plateau in a lather of sweat and frayed nerves. I’ve since found an easier and lovelier route that follows the Allt a’ Chaorainn to its junction with the Allt Coire Ghiubhasan where a single plank bridge crosses the latter stream to access a footpath on the other side, a path that runs through a narrow and magnificent gorge.
The glen of the Allt Coire Ghiubhasan is a narrow defile below the steep slopes of Aonach Mor and Mhic Chasgaig itself with the footpath contouring the slopes above a tumbling burn. A Scottish Mountaineering Club guidebook suggests it has the character, if not the scale, of the Himalayas, and with the distinct V-shape of the glen framing the pointed, snow-capped peaks of the Bidean nam Bian range, you realise such a suggestion isn’t in the least bit fanciful.
It’s possible to follow this narrow path all the way up to the head of the glen from where steep slopes climb to the Mhic Chasgaig/Creise bealach but it’s better to vary the route and cross the burn and take to the grassy slopes that climb steeply beside a wide and imposing gully. Here lies the hard work of the day – an hour or so of hard effort will give you enough height to start enjoying the views across the tops of the Blackmount hills and back down the length of Glen Etive towards Ben Starav. It won’t be long before the angle of the slope eases back onto the wide upper slopes and the rock strewn summit plateau.
The summit cairn, at 2835ft/864m, lies at the east end of this plateau and the views from this high tableland are breathtaking. Away beyond the blunt nose of Creise, the watery mattress of the Rannoch Moor spreads out towards the east, while closer at hand the squat, rocky form of the Buachaille Etive Mor looks so different from its archetypal, pyramidal shape as normally seen from the main A82 Glencoe road.
To the west and south of Glen Etive the big hills predominate – the Bidean hills, Beinn Starav, the Blackmount tops, Clach Leathad and Stob Ghabhar, all big, bright and brash. After the climb the descent, to the high bealach that links with Creise then down steep slopes to the head of the Allt Coire Ghiubhasan, is pure magic and the temptation to linger by the clear pools and falls of the upper burn are too much to resist. Deep in the cusp of the hills this is as perfect a spot as you’ll find anywhere, even in the Himalaya.
While there are definable subtleties attached to the ascent of Beinn Mhic Chasgaig there is nothing subtle about the ascent of Glen Etive’s best known Munro. The climb to the summit of Beinn Starav from the head of Loch Etive is brutal – you have to earn every inch!
There’s a definite inequality about some of our Munros. You can wander up the Cairnwell, for example, from the Cairnwell Pass at 2199ft, which doesn’t leave much of the mountain to actually climb. The Drumochter hills start from the roadside at 1500ft and even the two Buachailles of Glen Coe rise from the loftiest part of the Rannoch Moor. But wander through the Lairig Gartain between these two hills and the ground soon falls away at your feet, all the way to sea level where the tidal floods of Loch Etive lap the skirts of Ben Starav.
And from those damp skirts it’s a full 1078m/3,541 feet of climbing to the hills square-cut summit ridge. It’s a long climb, but that severity is the mountain’s saving grace. The steep slog makes you stop, at frequent intervals, and when you do the views simply take your breath away – if you’ve any breath left!
From Coiletir in the lower reaches of the glen a waterlogged track takes you to the bridge over the Allt Mheuran. Once across the stream you start climbing, and there’s very little respite on this rather relentless ridgee. It’s steep too, as it rises in grassy steps from the headwaters of Loch Etive to the upper reaches of the rocky Coire da Choimhid. On my last ascent of this hill water from the overnight storms still poured from the higher slopes like a thousand wriggling snakes as curtains of clouds sporadically hid the higher reaches of the mountain.
At the top of the corrie I had my first glimpse of the loch. By now the wind had rent great holes in the cloud cover and sunshine lit up the views. Away up Glen Etive stood the twin herdsmen of Etive, the two shepherds, Buachaille Etive Beag and Buachaille Etive Mor. To their left the Bidean nam Bian massif appeared as a steep, jagged swell of hills. Across the fjord-like sliver of Loch Etive lay Beinn Trilleachan, with its sweep of granite crags.
High above the corrie now and, even after at least half a dozen ascents of this mountain, I’m always taken aback by how far there is still to go. The angle of the slope certainly relents for a short distance, then the ridge narrows and becomes an easy scramble along the edge of a line of broken crags before the summit slopes rise in a confusion of boulders.
Mercifully the small summit cairn is reached suddenly, with some relief it has to be said. Cloud swirled around me but I could just discern the silver slit of Loch Etive below me. It didn’t take much imagination to see the war galleys of the Sons of Uisnach sailing down the loch, sails unfurled, into the sun below Beinn Cruachan.
From the summit a narrow crest billows out towards the east and down to a high bealachl from where you can drop down to a lower saddle that gives access to another Munro – the outlying Beinn nan Aighenan, the peak of the hinds. This is one of those peaks that is destined to be left for another day – it looks far out on its rocky limb and the temptation is to ignore it and bash on to Glas Bheinn Mhor. So many Munro-baggers build up a list of such solitary, isolated hills, all left for another day – don’t make Beinn nan Aighenan another.
From the outlying summit retrace your steps to the high col which gives access to the south-west ridge of a third Munro, Glas Bheinn Mhor. Follow the ridge over a grassy subsidiary top and climb the rocky ridge to the summit. It’s from here that Ben Starav really shows its classic form, with no fewer than five narrow ridges culminating in its blunted peak. Under snow cover it looks positively Alpine when its sweeping cornices reflect the low-lying sun.
Take care on the descent from Glas Bheinn Mhor. It’s best to drop down eastwards from the summit to a col from where you can descend fairly easily to the head of the Allt Mheuran and a footpath that takes you back to Coileitir. Tired you may be, but I have no doubt that like Deirdre your heart will have been well and truly captured by Glen Etive and it won’t be long before you are planning a return visit.
Stob Dubh, Glen Etive