Monday, 30 May 2022

Glen Lyon - The Praying Hands

Tucked away in a hidden corner of quiet Glen Lyon is a fabulous rock feature called The Praying Hands. I'd been desperate to visit since first becoming aware of it as the photos I saw online looked very atmospheric. A spring camping trip provided the opportunity to finally get there. 

It wasn't a long walk to The Praying Hands but it was a pretty walk through springtime woods alive with bird song and the call of the year's first cuckoo. The track crossed the River Lyon by a vehicle bridge then traveled west before heading into the hills at the idyllic cottages of Balmenoch. A short pull alongside gently tumbling waterfalls soon had us standing below The Praying Hands. 

I was mesmerised. It was such a beautiful spot with the rock perched precariously on a prominent plateau that gave a commanding view of this part of the glen. Their situation and their very appearance must have made The Praying Hands an auspicious place for the ancient people who lived close by. It was hard to drag ourselves away as they seemed to have some magical pull on us as well.

However the short walk to The Praying Hands was not enough to fill a weekend trip, so we continued further up the glen and pitched the tents at an inviting spot by the river. Freed from our heavier camping kit, we set out to climb the Corbett that rose above the head of the glen, Meall nam Maigheach. A shallow gully with craggy boundaries provided a pleasant pull onto the ridge and revealed a ring ouzel, also known as the Mountain Blackbird. It looks like a blackbird but has a necklace of white feathers and inhabits these higher, wilder places.

The walk along the ridge to the summit was long and rough with a pathless trudge through deep heather and peat hags. But the views were superb and from the top I could look back to a couple of key moments in my life. To the south the view was filled by the Tarmachan Ridge. It was the first hill walk that I ever did with my friend Graham 27 years ago and Graham was standing beside me now on the summit today. To the west I could look further back at the pointed top of Stuchd an Lochain, the first Munro that I did on my own. That must have been about 30 years ago! 

We sat a while on the top beside a little lochan that reflected the blue sky above before making a more direct descent to the glen. Eventually the faint outline of a path alongside the river guided us back to the tents. The short evening left enough time for cooking supper, sipping tea and watching the sun set behind Meall nam Maigheach.

A slow start the next morning allowed the rising sun to clear the ridge to the east and dry the dew from our tents. It was then a short amble back out though we couldn't resist their pull as we passed and made another visit to The Praying Hands.

Fact File
Start/finish: Camusvrachan, Glen Lyon
Public transport: None to the start. I took the train to Dunkeld where Graham met me with his car but I have previously accessed Glen Lyon using the bus to Aberfeldy with the folding bike and then cycling up the glen.
Route: Crossed the bridge over the River Lyon immediately south of Camusvrachan and turned right when it met another track. After a pretty pond, reached cottages at Balmenoch and opposite the cottages on the west side of the river a grassy track heads uphill. Further up it's easy to see The Praying Hands to the right above you. Continued up the west side of Gleann Da-Eig and gained the ridge of Meall nam Maigheach at its lowest point just south of Creag nan Eildeag. Straightforward walk southwest to the top. On the return, we skirted the crags then descended to the bottom of the glen. A faint path traveled back on the west side of the river and made a pleasant walk.

Monday, 2 May 2022

Borders - Dollar Law

Some trips are not about having the biggest adventure or covering the most miles in the hills. Some trips are just about finding a nice spot for the tent and enjoying the evening pottering around your temporary home. This was such a trip.

Dollar Law sits at the head of the Manor Valley to the south of Peebles, in an area of hills I have not managed to visit before now. But this sunny, spring day created the perfect opportunity to get acquainted with them. Our route climbed up through sheep farm country with curlews calling mournfully in the fields and skylarks providing an overture overhead. A steep pull put us up onto the heathery ridgeline but it was bone dry up here and we soon had to drop back down again to collect water, a slightly dispiriting diversion. 

Weighted down with enough water to get us through the night, we continued west along the ridge to a flat bealach just below the top of Dollar Law, a perfect spot for pitching the tents. This high place gave wide open views. When you think of hills in Scotland, you more often than not picture the Highlands but here in the Borders hills and ridge lines filled every compass point to the horizon. Culter Fell dominated the view to the west with Tinto just poking above. 

The sun dipped and cast a golden light over our tents. Later it set with quite a spectacle, appearing as a bright red ball that dropped behind Culter Fell. It was equally beautiful the next morning when it rose to the east and our camp spot was perfectly perched to enjoy both sunrise and sunset.

After breakfast it was an easy stroll to the top of Dollar Law but a knee-crunching, steep descent to the valley floor to walk back.

Fact File

Photos on Flickr click HERE
Start/finish: Manor Valley road at the start of the track to Old Kirkhope farm.
Public transport: None so we used my friend's car.
Route: Walked up the track to the old farm at Kirkhope and skirted to the left of the buildings to start climbing the grassy ridge above the river opposite Southey Hill. Followed the fenceline here for much of the way and gained the ridge at Newholm Hill. Picked up a path running southeast over the shoulder of Dollar Law and camped on the large flat area to the north of Fifescar Knowe. For the return, we dropped directly northeast of Dollar Law, coming down the side of plantation to rejoin the road to walk to the start.

Friday, 8 April 2022

Southern Highlands - Backpacking from Callander to Aberfeldy

I love a multi-day walk. It conveys the sense of a proper journey with a start and a destination. And using ancient paths on a walk provides a connection to the past, to a time before cars when people made long journeys by foot. I love the simplicity of it as well. Everything I need for a few days out is on my back and all I have to do is to walk, to put one foot in front of the other. I did have to map read as well though on this trip as I had not walked much of this route before and even where I had, it was many years ago. It looked fairly straightforward but that was deceiving as the tail end of winter created challenging underfoot conditions and some adverse weather to contend with. 

It was pleasant enough though when I set out from Callander in early afternoon. The track to the farm at Braeleny climbed into the hills and crossed to the south of the snow-dusted peaks of Ben Vorlich and Stuc a'Chroin. The inseparable pair provided the backdrop for the first night's camp spot above the river. It was a hard spot to find as the ground everywhere was saturated from the recent snow melt and I had scouted up and down for well over an hour.

Once I had left Callander, I hadn't seen another person and that was the case the next morning as well as I walked through to Comrie. The night had left a fine dusting of frost on the tent and I lingered late until it dried off. Once on the move, I really enjoyed the day's journey. The track dropped down to the farm at the head of Glen Artney then picked up an old, rough path that headed towards Comrie on the north side of the river. It was a delightful route that switched between woods and open pastures, sometimes beside the river but often high above it. 

At Comrie I picked up the beautiful woodland path to the Deil's Cauldron waterfall. The snow melt may have made the walking routes boggy but it also filled the waterfall which was a thunderous presence in the gorge. A short road walk then took me to Invergeldie and from here I was climbing into the hills again on another old path that connects Glen Lednock with Loch Tay.

I wasn't going that far but still had to cross a high pass that was clogged with melting snow and hard going underfoot. The hills here now were streaked with snow and though the scenery was bleak, there was a peace and wildness out here, and I enjoyed having this to myself. The descent from the pass put me at the head of Glen Almond and a river crossing took me to an old, drystane sheep fank that provided the second camp spot of the trip. 

I can't really say exactly what it was but this was a wonderful camp spot. It was relatively remote but the old walls gave it a sense of place. Snow-covered hills rose above the tent and there was no sound except the rush of the river. Temperatures plummeted in the evening and my damp socks turned as stiff as cardboard. But the clear, crisp night created an inky sky full with stars and I lay for ages with my tent door open gazing up at them.

It was the last of the clear weather though. The next day I started walking down Glen Almond under ominous, grey skies. In keeping with this, the glen had a quiet, empty feel in its upper reaches and there was nobody around. But further down farm buildings and cottages appeared with dogs barking outside and people working away in outbuildings. I left the glen via a wonderful route that climbed up through Glen Lochan. The cloud had lowered further, obscuring the hills, and the path wound its way through a tight pass where you could have imagined a pterodactyl swooping through out of the mist. Before I descended to Loch Freuchie on the other side, the rain came on and would accompany me for the rest of the way to Aberfeldy.

The route from Loch Freuchie used the single track, summer hill road to Kenmore to the top of the pass before picking up a track to Urlar and on to Aberfeldy. The road is closed in winter so I'd no need to worry about dodging traffic though I don't think it's ever busy. As the road climbed into the hills, the now torrential rain turned to snow and I found myself grinning. I do love a tussle with the weather. Having said that, I was still glad when the turn off appeared out of the blizzard and I started the descent to Aberfeldy. It was late in the day though and the light was fading, so I spent another night out in the tent.

By morning, it had rained all night and was still raining, so the final part of the journey down through the Birks of Aberfeldy was accompanied by the roar of the swollen river. But it was satisfying to complete my journey and to have covered the miles on foot.

Fact File
Start: Callander
Finish: Aberfeldy
Public transport: Train to Stirling and bus from Stirling to Callander. Bus from Aberfeldy to Dunkeld then train back to Edinburgh.
My route: Took the hill road to the north out of Callander which is signed for Bracklin Falls. It becomes track at Braeleny and passes over to Glen Artney. At the head of Glen Artney passed through the farm buildings and walked the rough route on the north side of the river which eventually meets a quiet road into Comrie. Took the path signed for the Deil's Cauldron and then joined the road in Glen Lednock above the falls. At Invergeldie took the track heading northeast which is the route up Ben Chonzie but left it where another track branches off to the northwest. Descended to the Glen Almond and crossed the river. The bridge marked on the OS map is no longer there and the bridge just downstream was not one that I would cross! Down Glen Almond then through the farm buildings at Auchnafree to pick up the path through Glen Lochan. Where it meets the road at Loch Freuchie, turned left and walked up and over the hill road to Kenmore until reaching a loch with a hut on the shore. Took the track on the south shore of the loch and it eventually reaches Aberfeldy via the farm at Urlar.

Saturday, 19 March 2022

Glen Finglas - Contrasting days

With hindsight, it was a terrible place to pitch the tents but the grassy knoll had been the only dry oasis in miles of bog and heather. Plus the forecast had said the winds would be light but instead they hammered through like a freight train, creating a vortex around the knoll and bending my tent inwards in an alarming fashion. It was 5am in the hills above Brig o'Turk and I was wondering if the tents would remain standing, never mind if I'd be able to cook breakfast in the blasts. But then something magical happened.

I'd been aware when I woke up during the night of there not being full darkness so guessed a decent moon must be up behind the clouds. Then a little before dawn, the winds eased off and I unzipped the tent door to poke my head outside. A stunning sight greeted me. The tents were facing west with an open view from the knoll to the shapely twin peaks of Ben More and Stob Binnein. Above the peaks was an incredibly bright full moon that shone gold rather than silver. Behind it was the thinnest veil of cloud that picked up the golden light of the moon and silhouetted the two peaks. Over the next half hour or so, the moon sank such that it looked like it was rolling down the side of Stob Binnein to set perfectly placed in the bealach between it and Ben More. It was a spectacular moment and the terrible camp spot became the perfect grandstand from which to watch it. 

Those overnight winds had cleared the cloud and dense drizzle of the day before when we'd walked in from Brig o'Turk. It hadn't been at all unpleasant as it created a secret, other-worldly atmosphere and we saw not another soul. The colours were monotone and there had been barely a breath of wind to shake the water droplets from the birch branches. 

But this second day was a real contrast with brash, bright colours in the cobalt sky, the straw-coloured hillsides and the hi-viz mountain-bikers. Our camp spot had been at the highest point on the Glen Finglas loop so while yesterday's walk was all climbing, today's was mostly downhill. 

The low winter sun cast a gentle golden light over the day in the same way the moon had over the night. It encouraged us to linger at the river and brew a second morning coffee before completing the walk out.

Fact File

Start/finish: Brig o'Turk
Public transport: No regular buses to the start but you can use Stirling Council's Demand Responsive Transport service. Alternatively, if you have time, you could take the regular bus from Stirling to Callander and use the Great Trossachs Path to walk to Brig o'Turk.
My route: Took the quiet road that passes through Brig o'Turk and heads uphill. It eventually becomes a dirt track where the public road ends. Passed farm buildings and took the track to the right signed for Balquhidder. Stayed on the track to make a big loop behind Meall Cala and return alongside the Finglas Water which is now bridged where the track crosses it.   

Monday, 31 January 2022

Dunkeld - Everything has changed

"Nothing has changed, except the thing that changes everything".    Adam Nicholson, The Sea Room

I love that quote. He is talking about the wild geese on the Shiant Islands off the west coast of Scotland and how their seasonal presence, or absence, transforms the whole character and atmosphere of the place. The quote was in my mind a few weeks back when I was in the hills beyond Dunkeld. My walk took me out passed Mill Dam, a pretty, tree-fringed loch that I must have visited a hundred times. But this time one thing had changed and that thing changed everything else. 

I was en route to a favourite wild camp spot which occupies a lonely place far beyond Mill Dam and the popular trails around Dunkeld. It's a long walk and on this occasion it was an arduous walk with a surface that varied between bog, water, hard snow, melting snow and ice. Also thrown in were some wind-felled trees that needed to be negotiated and a mid winter day that barely seemed to get light.

I was happy to reach my spot in the last of the light and throw up the tent. It's a perfect place with a patch of flat grass nestled among a small cluster of larch trees.  The landscape all around was snow-streaked and monochrome, and the frozen loch below my tent glowed ghostly pale in the fading light. When you are camping beside frozen lochs you often hear the creak and groan of the ice as the wind shifts it around but tonight there was barely a breeze and all was quiet. 

Lying in the tent, my mind drifted back to Mill Dam. With no wind it had been flat calm with a thin crust of ice further out. Autumn's colours had faded but there was still a purple haze of bare, winter birch trees and splashes of green in the rampant mosses and lichens. The woods climbed above the loch, cloaking the slopes of Deuchary Hill whose top disappeared into the low cloud. I sat on the usual bench on the shore and admired this usual scene. 

But then my eye was drawn to a number of felled birch trees lying half in the water, stripped of bark and with teeth marks down the length of the trunk. Then just beside my bench a small tree had gnawing marks a foot up its trunk. As I looked around I saw these signs everywhere. I felt a rising sense of excitement but also couldn't quite believe what I was seeing. This was the work of beavers! At that moment, their presence after hundreds of years of absence immediately changed the atmosphere of this place to something wilder, something more primal.

Beavers are native to Scotland but were hunted to extinction in the 16th century. In 2009, a trial reintroduction took place in Knapdale on the west coast. Around about the same time, beavers appeared on the River Tay on the east coast from an unofficial reintroduction. These Tay beavers are now obviously spreading and if they are in Mill Dam, they must have come up the Tay to Dunkeld and accessed the loch by a tributary. 

It's wonderful news because beavers really do change everything. They are known as nature's engineers. The dams that they build create new wetlands, increasing biodiversity by providing habitats for all sorts of insects, amphibians and fish which in turn support the birds and mammals that feed on them such as otters. These new wetlands also act as a natural filtration system, store water and mitigate downriver flooding because they slow the flow of water. As well as these practical benefits, beavers hark us back to a time when Scotland's wildlife was much more rich than today and their reintroduction is an important step in returning our nature to a more healthy state.

As they are nocturnal, I didn't actually see any beavers that day or the next day when I passed by Mill Dam again. But that didn't matter. It was enough just knowing they were out there, changing everything around them.

Friday, 31 December 2021

Speyside - Out of office

How wonderful it was to finish up for a week's holiday. With the rucsack packed and the train ticket booked, the final act of work was putting on the out of office reply. It was even better to be heading off in the shoulder season when the trails were quiet and the crowds of summer dissipated. So for my October week off, I chose to do a multi day walk from Carrbridge to Newtonmore. Much of the route I'd walked before but some of the trails would be new to me and either way, I had never walked the whole lot in one trip so I was looking forward to it.

Grey was the colour of much of the walk with a perpetual ceiling of low cloud and nights that were fair drawing in. But the weather was calm with no wind, no precipitation and only brief moments of sunshine. There was one such moment at the start of the walk at Carrbridge as a few rays penetrated the gloom hanging over the Cairngorms while I walked to Boat of Garten via the Carr Plantation. The dense commercial forestry added to the gloom as trees crowded in and so I was happy to leave it behind at Boat and continue through the native pine woods to Loch Garten. It was already dark as I skirted the loch shore looking for a flat spot for the tent.

From Loch Garten I followed the Speyside Way the following morning to Aviemore and was amazed how the open moor it once crossed was regenerating into dense forest. To my left the bulk of the northern Cairngorms rose into low cloud, a presence hinted at rather than seen. 

Popping out of the other side of Aviemore took me to the tree-fringed waters of Loch an Eilean and then onwards to a favourite camp spot deeper in the woods. A jay flew by, small birds twittered in the canpoy and two owls hooted in the evening darkness, one so loud that it must have been right above my tent.

The next day I continued walking along forest trails to Feshiebridge and then picked up a favourite path up the early part of the glen that follows the river through old birch trees. There was a quietness and stillness here far from human generated noise. The woods held some lingering autumn colour and a wild, boreal atmosphere. I wandered up the glen as far as the outflow of Coire Garbhlach, a giant gouge in the side of the hill sculpted by the river that drains the Moine Mhor, the vast plateau above. I pitched the tent close by in a small copse of pines whose canopy brought the darkness in even earlier. With not getting away last year at this time because of lockdown, I think I had forgotten how long the evenings are in the tent in early winter and that night I started the second reading of the small book I'd brought.

The next day was my favourite of the trip. I took a new trail (or new to me at least) from Glen Feshie over the hills towards Drumguish. This was a lovely walk, quiet and empty, and placed me in a good position for a climb up Croidh-la, a little hill rising above Gleann Chomraig. 

Here again were regenerating woods where miniature birch trees and pines grew free of the grasses. A thin path climbed the ridge of the hill and was really pleasing to walk. It gave lovely views down to Drumguish and the Spey Valley beyond. Then the sun broke through as I approached the top. It turned the early winter hills to shades of gold and burned off a little of the mist on the bigger tops to reveal a dusting of snow. As is often the way, this smaller, slightly detached hill afforded fantastic views of the bigger hills all around. 

Despite the sunshine, there was a bitter wind on top and I didn't linger long which proved to be lucky. The west face of Croidh-la drops almost sheer into Glen Tromie and as I descended a white-tailed eagle glided right by me on thermals pushed up by the steep hillside. I continued downwards as the sun began to dip and after a bit of hunting around found a nice camp spot beside the river with a view to the Feshie hills.

After a peaceful night, I packed up the tent for the last time on this trip and continued the walk to Drumguish then onto Kingussie via pleasant paths through more old birch forest. I left Kingussie out the back of town for a favourite walk to Netwonmore via Loch Gynack. I love the old woods here that fringe the loch and smother the path up Creag Bheag, the wee hill above town. I like the contrast of this walk too as it leaves the woods for a section of open moor before descending to Newtonmore and back into the woods.

I'd timed my route today to get the late train home so that I would finish my walk in the dark. I like dusk with its change in sounds and atmosphere. And I like to see how far I can walk into the darkness before having to switch on the headtorch to illuminate the path or tree roots or the gushing river below. Newtonmore was  dark, quiet and deserted. With the summer tourists gone and not enough snow yet for the ski season, it must also have had on its out of office reply.

Fact File
Start: Carrbridge railway station
Finish: Newtonmore railway station
Public transport: Glasgow/Edinburgh - Inverness trains
My route: From the train walked to Carrbridge village centre and turned right on the main road then took the first road out of the village to the left. After the houses end, a trail is signed for Boat of Garten to the right. Continued to far side of Boat and opposite where the Boat road joins the B970 is the trail to Loch Garten. Returned to Boat then took the offroad cycle route to Aviemore signed opposite the wee shop. From Aviemore walked up the ski road to Inverdruie then took the path from Inverdruie behind the field to Loch an Eilean then onto Lochan Gamhna. A rough path leaves the east shore of Lochan Gamhna and crosses the Allt Coire Follais twice to pick up forest trails to Feshiebridge. At Feshiebridge took the right of way signed up the west side of the river which eventually joins the road up Glen Feshie. Took the right of way signed for Drumguish via Baileguish. Forest tracks connect to Gleann Chomraig and the path up Croid-la. From Drumguish a new trail on the other side of the bridge heads to Ruthven Barracks then it's road walking for the final section into Kingussie. Walked up the road up Glen Gynack then path to Newtonmore and Creag Bheag is signed to the left. This path eventually joins the Wildcat Trail which I followed into Newtonmore via the lower reaches of Glen Banchor.

Wednesday, 10 November 2021

Argyll - Wherever I lay my tent, that's my home

I have to admit that I have pitched my tent in some unusual places over the years but this is mostly when I'm abroad and get caught out late in the day in unfamiliar territory. However, a recent cycling trip here in Scotland ended up with a strange camp spot at the end of the first day!

We'd cycled up from Connel on the fabulous bike route to Ballachulish which is part of the Caledonia Way. Using mostly dedicated cycle paths on the disused railway line, it's always a real treat to ride it with no traffic and fabulous views. At this time of year the autumn colours were lovely too and the hawthorns heavy with red berries. 

Our favourite spot on the route is near Appin where we pass close to the stunning Castle Stalker. The castle was built around the mid 13th century for the Lord of Lorn but changed hands many times before being abandoned by the Campbells in 1800 after which it fell into disrepair. However it was restored in the 1960s so is now fully habitable and open to visitors. It's a beautiful sight, cut off by the sea at high tide and framed by the rugged Morvern hills.

Eventually our bike path arrived in Ballachulish at the platform of the old train station. We had tried to contact campsites in the area but without any luck and couldn't stay with a friend here as they were self-isolating. So the only thing for it was to pitch the tents in the old Ballachulish slate quarry! That might not sound very nice but the quarry has been out of use since 1955 and the area has grown up with a variety of trees and bushes. Some of the quarry has filled with water, so it's a real wildlife haven as well as a lovely walk. There was also a little shelter for cooking out of the rain and 24-hour toilets close by at the Co-op. We did wait until after dark before pitching the tents!

The quarry is actually a fascinating walk in day time. It opened in 1693 and the slate was shipped across the country for roofing and building. At its peak in 1845, it produced 26 million Ballachulish slates. Ballachulish slate had one drawback though compared to its competitors in that it contained iron pyrite crystals which caused rust spots and holes when exposed to the weather. So only the best slates could be used for roofing.

After our unusual night camping in the quarry, we cycled back down the bike route, staying out for a second night at a more conventional pitch in woods by the sea. 

Fact File

Start/finish: Connel train station
Public transport: Trains to Connel
Route: Out of the train station follow cycle route signs in the direction of Fort William. To visit the slate quarries, don't cross the Ballachulish bridge but continue on the cycle path adjacent to the road towards Glen Coe. The quarry is behind the Co-op in Ballachulish. 
Info: There is a nice walk around the old quarry with information signs.