Sunday, 27 January 2013

Dunkeld - 50 shades of grey

Sadomasochism: noun, the gaining of gratification by enduring pain. Yep, that pretty much describes backpacking in the Scottish winter. Lugging a heavy pack up a hill through deep snow and risking frostbite in your hands to open a packet of chocolate-coated raisins. Or dunking your head in a freezing river to rescue hair that’s gone as flat as fuzzy felt after several hours under a hat. All in the cause of soaking up the snow season. So I’m sorry if the title of this blog was in any way misleading and you were expecting some kinky, erotic fiction. The truth is that it’s only me in thermal long-johns and a sensible vest wandering the hills on a couple of grey days in January.

With a new job in the bag, I took advantage of my last days of freedom and jumped off a train at Dunkeld into a mid-week monochrome morning. As the guard will advise you in advance, there is a “very low platform” at Dunkeld which requires you to abseil from the train to alight safely. The village was plastered with fresh snow but low, heavy skies created an eerie twilight that stripped the landscape of any colour except shades of grey. I walked along the main street where the gloom was lifted a little by the warm glow emanating from the village shops - the delicatessen, the butcher, the little supermarket, the homewares store. A strand of grey wood smoke from the hearth of some cosy cottage hung in the still air.   

I keep coming back to Dunkeld, drawn there by the beauty of the surrounding landscapes. To the north you can amble endlessly through an idyllic mix of small pastures, woods and tree-fringed lochs before emerging in high, airy and rugged terrain. Up here it feels surprisingly remote, even though you’ve only walked a couple of hours from the village. In the bleak mid-winter there is a truly wild atmosphere and when I’m alone here, I feel like the only person in the world. This day I wandered for hours, snow crunching under my boots, then put my tent up in a copse of pines in the last of the useable light. In the grey January weather it was impossible to tell exactly when daylight ended and darkness began. I slept well despite the overhead rustle of birds restless in their roost.

The next day again dawned grey with a gripping cold that froze my fingers when I took my gloves off to spark up the stove. It’s always difficult to get going in the morning on cold, winter camps as the temptation is strong to stay snuggled in your sleeping bag where the inside climate is always cosy. But once I’d warmed up with coffee and porridge, I packed up and set out for the goal of my expedition, Deuchary Hill. It’s not a big mountain but today, with its pointy little top plastered in snow, it looked like a miniature Alpine peak.

I climbed up through a winter wonderland of fresh, powder snow that had settled in big dollops on the branches of the trees. The dark skies blocked out the sun except for a narrow band of peachy light on the southerly horizon. The only other colours in the landscape were those of nature’s subtle winter palette - the hints of purple in the bare birch and orange in the larch. In the cold, grey day not much life moved. A crow mobbed a buzzard. Two mute swans took off from the frozen waters of the loch. Three roe deer cleared snow with their hooves to munch meagre grazing. A lone walker lugged a big pack to the top of Deuchary Hill and ate a packet of chocolate –coated raisins.

Fact File
Start/finish: Dunkeld & Birnam Rail Station served by the Edinburgh/Glasgow to Inverness trains.
Map:OS Landranger 52
Route: From the train station head into Dunkeld, across the Tay, through the village on the main street then turn right on the Blairgowrie road. After 200m turn left onto the Right of Way signed for Kirkmichael and follow the track to Mill Dam. There are many possibilities for routes from here. To climb Deuchary Hill take the upper Loch Ordie path to the right immediately before Mill Dam. It’s a beautiful path especially in autumn that contours the hill. At Grid Ref NO 024 491 there is a path junction – turn right to climb the hill.
Tip: There is a great wee deli/coffee shop on the main street in Dunkeld styled like a traditional merchant, perfect for picking up nibbles for the train ride home.


  1. LOL - I guess abseiling down to the platform makes a change from having to cross a bergschrund to reach it! Nice writing and trip. I shall make a mental note of the deli/coffee shop. These things are important :)

  2. Thanks, Tony. Yes comestibles are so important ... I'm glad you're with me on that!