Saturday 8 June 2024

Cairngorms - Ouzel Pass and Adder Alley

The month of May saw a couple of trips to the Cairngorms which ended up being notable for wildlife as well as the hills.

The first of these trips was a few days hillwalking in the eastern Cairngorms. It was that spell in May when it still felt like winter, before we had some brief summer weather ahead of it all turning back to winter again! I managed a couple of Corbetts at least. First up was Culardoch which was a real battle with the elements as I staggered to the top in dense mist that parted only briefly for a suggestion of a view. 

The second Corbett was a wonderful walk to Carn na Drochaide which although still cold and blustery, afforded great views of the snow-patched bigger hills all around. I'd started from a beautiful wild camp spot at the edge of the pine forests and after a short pull, had a glorious high level stroll to the top in spring sunshine.

I'd connected these two hills together by walking through a secretive place I'd been to once before many, many years ago. Like a miniature Lairig Ghru, it forms a deep, rocky cut through the hills and is a very distinctive landscape feature although it doesn't have a name on the Landranger map. On my first visit there, I was thrilled to see lots of ring ouzels as it was my first ever sighting of this bird. They are summer migrant birds that look like a blackbird but have a necklace of white feathers. They are quite beautiful and always exciting to see. On this return visit, I wasn't disappointed and their calls rebounded off the rock walls, adding to the eerie atmosphere created by the dense mist that had filled the pass. So I have given the place a name and will forever more call it Ouzel Pass. 

My next trip was a much anticipated route and I'm really not sure why it's taken me so long to walk this way. It was the Minigaig, the old drove route that crosses the Cairngorms between Blair Atholl and Kingussie. It was initially a straightforward walk north, leaving Blair Atholl via Glen Banvie and then passing over low hills to Glen Bruar. As I walked north, the hills started to close in with steeper slopes and eventually the track became a narrow path that ascended sharply out of the glen's dead end. It was here that I saw the first adder. A small one, about 30cm, that wriggled quickly away. I continued climbing and just a little way further on, I saw my second adder, stretched out onto the path. It was fully grown and incredibly beautiful showing that black zig-zag pattern that contrasted with the almost pale green of the rest of its body. A beady, red eye watched me as I gingerly stepped around it through the heather, wondering if its friends were lurking in the shrubbery!

The excellent little path continued over the hills. There was nothing for miles and miles all around (except adders it would seem), just endless emptiness. I loved it and really enjoyed the walking. Just before the final climb to the top of the pass, I pitched the tent. It was already well into evening and the weather was closing in. That night's entertainment in the tent, aside from a batch of Jim Crumley newspaper cuttings, was watching a dipper pass up and down the river in hurried flight. When I'm camping, I always leave my shoes in the porch of the tent, especially if they are muddy. Next morning, having seen two adders on the trip already, I did check them carefully before slipping them on in case anything had slithered in there during the night!

It was a clagged-in morning with the tops shrouded in swirling, dense mist but although there were no views from the top of the pass, I enjoyed the lost world atmosphere created by the elements. A small cairn of white, quarzite rocks marked the top of the pass ... and the end of a good path. Down the other side, the route became indistinct and before long I was bashing onwards through bog and heather, following roughly where the map indicated the route should be. Every now and then a good bit of path would reappear then quickly disappear again. The effort of the walk was lightened however by the rampant bog cotton and the joy of seeing the extensive woodland regeneration here with young pines and birch craning their necks above the heather.

It was good though to eventually pop out onto the firm track that I would follow down Glen Tromie. With warm sunshine starting to break through, I found my third adder of the trip basking on this track. What a beauty it was. The biggest of the three I'd seen both in length and girth. It didn't move at my approach so again I had to step round it, giving it plenty of space. I was so thrilled to have such a good view of this one as they really are beautiful animals. 

It was a very pleasant walk down Glen Tromie with blue skies above and all around the lush, green woods of early summer. Where the glen broadened to grassy meadows, I tried to imagine the drovers here with their cattle. They would be at the start of their journey to the markets in the south. I was finishing my journey by picking up the Speyside Way path for the final few miles into Kingussie. 

I was delighted to have finally walked the Minigaig, though I think I will be re-naming it, Adder Alley.  

Fact File
Culardoch, Carn na Drochaide
Start: Keiloch using the bus from Ballater to Braemar
Finish: Braemar for a bus to Ballater then onto Aberdeen. 
Route: Walked west from Keilcoh, quickly picking up the track signed for Loch Builg. Culardoch is an easy ascent from the top of this track, albeit quite a long walk out there. Dropped down to River Gairn and followed path west to connect through to Gleann an t-Slugain. Climbed up to Carn na Croiche then south to Carn ne Drochaide. Retraced my steps and dropped down to Quoich Water and followed the track through the glen to Linn of Quoich. Cross over the minor road that the track eventually meets then opposite is a track that passes through Mar Lodge estate to Victoria Bridge. Walked east on minor road for short distance before picking up a forest track that connects to Braemar via Morrone birkwood.
Start: Blair Atholl by Edinburgh/Glasgow - Inverness train
Finish: Kingussie on the same train line
There are ample descriptions online of the route options. I headed north out of Old Blair up Glen Banvie then took the track that passes Allt Sheicheachan bothy to join Glen Bruar. I walked down Glen Tromie to Tromie Bridge where I joined the Speyside Way.

Monday 15 April 2024

Argyll - Two days on the Three Lochs Way

I'd watched it move in from the west. A wall of rain and black cloud that was so dark it turned late afternoon into twilight. It caught me of course on the most exposed part of my route, the Yankee Road above Garelochhead. Rain started, hammering against my waterproofs, then it turned to hail that hit my hood like bullets. At these moments, I always remind myself that if I wanted to be cosy and comfortable, I could just stay at home. But this is much better. This is being uncomfortable and feeling alive.

The day had started more quietly. Off the train at Arrochar and Tarbert for a two-day backpacking trip along the Three Lochs Way. The Way runs from Inveruglas to Balloch, taking in Loch Long, the Gare Loch and Loch Lomond. Having walked the initial section many times, I started on this occasion at Tarbert, picking up the trail outside the station. Here a chill wind blew through with remnants of winter but there was little snow left on Ben Lomond.

The trail undulated south high above Loch Long. The grey weather created a perfect atmosphere for the long views along the loch as layers of murky mountains sank into the water. It was a stunning walk. The railway line kept company with the trail, contouring round the hillside on its narrow ledge. The route became steeper and was dotted with crags and old birch woods while the rocky outline of the Cobbler drew the eye on the other side of the loch.

The trail eventually left the lochside and descended into Gleann Culanach tucked away behind the Luss Hills. Despite the extent of forestry, it was a pleasant walk here with pockets of sun that were warm enough to release the aroma of pine trees. The route then emerged above Garelochhead on the Yankee Road which was built by the US army in World War 2. Today it still functions as an army firing range. Once the storm had passed over, it left behind a beautiful evening of soft golden light as I continued the walk down Glen Fruin to find a spot for the tent. 

And what a spot it was. The next morning the low rays of the rising sun caught a sliver of Loch Lomond way off to my left and down to my right, the waters of the Clyde were a sapphire blue. Skylarks sang overhead as I packed up and walked down into Helensburgh through Highlandman's Wood where tree shadows cross-hatched the trail ahead. 

Onwards from Helensburgh, the Way connected up footpaths and forest trails to eventually join Stoneymollan Road. This is an old coffin road that was used by people in Balloch to transport the dead to consecrated ground in Cardross on the Clyde. There are two particularly nice sections on the old "road". The first is where it emerges from the forest high on the hill to reveal a stunning panorama of Loch Lomond peppered with wooded islands and framed by Ben Lomond. The second is where the road descends from here for the final walk into Balloch. It passes through a line of knarly old trees and I imagine they must be old enough to have watched the coffins pass. 

My walk ended at Balloch which was a bustling contrast to the peace and quiet of the last two days. 

Fact File
More photos on Flickr.
Start: Arrochar and Tarbert train station on the West Highland line.
Finish: Balloch with regular trains into Glasgow.
Route: Out of the station, turn left to join a footpath along the main road. This is now the Three Lochs Way route and soon a track is signed up to the right to leave the road. The rest of the route is well signed but as at April 2024 there is a diversion in place around Gouk Hill due to tree fall. There is also a well signed linking path down to Garelochhead for a shorter walk.  

Wednesday 24 January 2024

Atholl - Zoning out

This was my first trip of the season in wintry weather though the walk didn't start wintry. Instead it passed through several zones of different weather before topping out in winter itself.

I started in the woods of Glen Tilt which were winter bare but dappled by early morning sunshine. There was hair ice to see, always an exciting find, as I climbed higher through the woods. A clearing soon gave a view north over the giant cut of Glen Tilt as it meandered deeper into the hills below a snow-dusted Carn a Chlamain. 

I left the woods behind and picked up a lonely track that struck out across the moor. It passed into a new zone of weather as the world around me became frosty and frozen. Icicles clung to the overhang of the riverbank and the water on the track had frozen solid. Soon the track would be dusted with snow as it climbed the hillside. Looking behind me, its route over the moor was picked out in white like tram lines.

A stiff pull eventually brought me up onto the hill and into full winter. I'd chosen this top, Beinn a Chait, because it's not on any list or in any guidebook. It's just a top that I hadn't visited before and where I was sure I would find solitude. But what a stunning place it was that day. Without a breath of wind, I could sit for ages enjoying the wintry, mountain panoramas around me. 

Immediately to the east, the successive ridges of Beinn Mheadhonach, Carn a Chlamain and Beinn a'Ghlo were an impressive sight. To the distant north, were the Cairngorms blanketed with snow and closer to was the bulk of Beinn Dearg where I could pick out a few, tiny  figures on the top. But to the west of Beinn a Chait the land fell away to high moorland and the view was unimpeded so that I could see a long line of snow-capped peaks stretching across the far horizon. These were the Western Highlands but somehow they reminded me that day of a much grander range like the Andes or the Rockies. It was beautiful to sit there in the glistening snow taking all this in. Not a sound. Not another person. 

In the short days of mid winter, the sun was already dipping as I made my way back down. I retraced my route part way along the track in golden evening light that bathed the flanks of Ben Vrackie to the south. A bend in the river was the night's camp spot and it was a cold night that followed. A full moon rose. My water bottle froze and my tent iced up but the river ran free and tinkled quietly all night.

Next morning, I descended back down through the zones of frosty moorland and damp, green woods. 

Fact File
Start/finish: Blair Atholl
Public transport: Edinburgh/Glasgow to Inverness train
My route: Picked up the path up Glen Tilt immediately before the bridge over the Tilt on the main road through the village. Stayed on the track on the west side of the river and eventually joined the track that leaves Glen Tilt to the northwest ascending beside the Allt Slanaidh. It climbed a good way up Beinn a Chait before I left it to get to the top. Repeated this route back out next day. 

Friday 8 December 2023

Closer to home - A sprinkle of winter

My favourite running route at Ormiston and Pencaitland has been dusted with a sprinkling of winter.

Tuesday 28 November 2023

Close to home - Autumn storms

With three weather warnings during my autumn holidays, I didn't travel very far afield but made the most of the rich colours closer to home. With the colder weather as well, I start to increase my running mileage and getting out running is a great way to enjoy autumn.

One of my favourite running routes is a loop through the woods and fields from Ormiston to Pencaitland then back via the Winton Estate. The trails here are always quiet and often muddy in winter which is perfect because I do think the muddier you are when you get home, the more you have enjoyed your run! 

Another favourite run close to home is from Aberlady Bay along the coast to Gullane then back via the John Muir Way and the Postman's Path through Luffness Estate. The coast path is quite rugged and exposed here but in autumn there are huge numbers of geese and waders to distract your attention. This run was early morning as the sun was rising over a frosty landscape.

Further afield, I love to run to family visits in Newport from the train station at Dundee as the route goes over the Tay Bridge which has expansive views up and down the river, then along the Newport Nature Trail. There's a particular point on the trail when the trees and low sunlight conspire to create a little bit of magic.

There were plenty of nice walks too in my autumn holidays including a wander round the Gosford Policies, always stunning at this time of year. Gosford House is the seat of the Earls of Wemyss and March, and dates from 1800. But it's the grounds that steal the show with pretty ponds and woodland.

A wander up at Dunkeld is also beautiful at this time of year with the surrounding woods creating a rich backdrop of colour. In late autumn it's the beech trees that steal the show here. Or maybe it's the red squirrel at the Loch of the Lowes visitor centre.

Autumn is giving way now to winter, my favourite season. While there will no doubt be more storms, let's hope there's plenty of running and nice walks too.

Sunday 22 October 2023

Fife - Late summer Lomonds

We had two wildly contrasting days for this late summer overnighter in the Lomond Hills. The first day provided an endlessly changing weatherscape as a sunny morning gave way to a wet afternoon and evening. The second day was as hot as high summer. 

Butterflies and wildflowers had abounded for the walk in from the train at Markinch. But by the time we were on the flanks of East Lomond, we watched wave after wave of dense, dark clouds move through the Forth Estuary in the distance. They cast heavy downpours over Edinburgh which appeared then disappeared in the gloom. The showers eventually caught us too in sudden, short, sharp bursts. We soon decided it was quicker to pull the bothy bag over us than wrestle in and out of waterproofs each time.

We skipped the top of the hill and instead walked the track that contours round its south side. I like this route. It's very pleasant to walk and it feels ancient and atmospheric. It leads to the old limekilns, a beautiful spot, where today the sun briefly popped out.

We walked westwards and pitched the tents in a place that was hunkered down near Harperleas instead of the planned pitch on the exposed ridge of the Bishop. The tents were battered by wind and rain through the night so it was a wise change of plan. But the next day was beautiful with wall to wall sunshine that brought out the best of the purple heather.

After packing up the camp spot, we climbed up to an intriguing rock feature called the Devil's Burdens. It's a band of sandstone and volcanic rock that has weathered over time into strange shapes. It was a wonderful place to scramble around and to watch the wheatears flitting from rock to rock. A last sight of them before they fly back to Africa for the winter. 

We picked our way back down through dense, purple heather and wandered through Glen Vale. The rock feature here known as John Knox's Pulpit presides over the glen. It's an outcrop of grey sandstone and its hidden valley is said to have hosted secret meetings of Covenanters in the 17th century. The valley was lush with colourful heather and rampant bracken.

Our onward route took us across fields and farm tracks to the shores of Loch Leven which was quiet and sleepy in late summer ahead of the noisy, busy arrival of thousands of geese in autumn.

From here the lochside trail took us into Kinross to catch a bus home.

Fact File
More photos on FLICKR
Start: Markinch train station
Finish: Kinross
My route: From the train station in Markinch followed the Fife Pilgrim Way signs west through Balbirnie Park then following the residential streets through Glenrothes to the Pitcairn Centre. From here, a lovely path climbs up to East Lomond. On this occasion took the track that contours round the south of the side of the hill to the old limekilns then joined the main track to the hill road at Craigmead. Turned left on the road then took the first track to the right, following it to Harperleas Reservoir, crossing along the dam and then walking along the forest track on its south shore. This path continues through to Glen Vale, passing below the Devil's Burdens. Further down Glen Vale a path to Glenlomond is signed though it's largely following field margins until a better, sandy farm track is reach. Took this track and turned left where it met a minor road then right at the busier road. A Loch Leven's Larder a path connects to the Loch Leven Heritage Trail which can be followed into Kinross. 

Sunday 24 September 2023

Monadhliath Mountains - A night on the eagle's perch

It's not often in Scotland that you get lucky with a good, high level camp because so often the tops of the hills are scoured by wind or drenched in mist. But this time, my friend and I did get lucky. A perfect, flat shelf of close-cropped turf and mosses sat at 700m on the ridge to Creag Dubh above Kingussie. The uninterrupted view swept south over the Cairngorms and only a gentle breeze rustled the nylon of the pitched tents. A beautiful, early summer evening made for a delightful walk from our tents across the top of the hill to the summit. Mountain hares abounded and the warm air was filled with the thin call of golden plovers.

We'd walked in that morning from the train at Newtonmore. Our walk took us across sheep pasture before following a lovely wooded stream-bed up the hillside and then striking out across the grassy hills. With the evening filled by bagging the peak then making supper, it wasn't until the next morning that I noticed all the jawbones.

A clagged-in morning with no views and an unhurried day ahead, made for a relaxed wander around the camp spot, examining the micro landscape close at hand. At first I just saw one but as soon as my eyes were trained in, I kept seeing more and more. Lots of little jawbones. Given the abundance of mountain hares that we had seen on our walk the previous evening, I guessed the jawbones must belong to them and if something had eaten them here, I guessed that something was a golden eagle. But these were old bones and the eagle's perch was long since abandoned.

Once we were packed up, we walked out a different way, descending eventually into Kingussie. The mist cleared lower down and warm sunshine broke through. The ancient birch woods of Creag Bheag provided welcome shade but wherever the path crossed a clearing, blue damselflies flitted around in the sun. Soon the tops cleared as well and we could look back up to where we'd spent a night on the eagle's perch.

Fact File

More photos on FLICKR
Finish: Kingussie
Public transport: Glasgow/Edinburgh to Inverness train
My route: From the main street in Newtonmore, took Strone Road then the track that heads north alongside the Allt na Beinne. Climbed the slopes of Beinn Buidhe then onto Creag Dubh via Carn Coire na h-Inghinn. Next day we followed the Allt Mor down to join the path along the shore of Loch Gynack then followed one of the woodland paths down into Kingussie.