Monday, 17 July 2017

Monar - Cheesecake

Not being a car owner, I often have fun and a bit of a challenge getting to some Munros by bus and train. But the railway line between Inverness and Kyle of Lochalsh offers some rich pickings with good access to the hills on the south side of Glen Torridon and to the Monar Munros. It was to Monar I headed in May (yes, I'm a bit behind on trip reports) to bag several Munros, one with a beguiling but totally unpronounceable name. It's Bidein a' Choire Sheasgaich and it's more commonly known as Cheesecake.

Achnashellach is the train station that's closest. It's a request stop so you have to be sure to tell the guard that you want off here or, if you're joining the train here, you have to wave madly at the driver as he approaches to get him to stop the train. 

From Achnashellach, a walk up the road and then a trudge along the track of the Pollan Buidhe put me by the banks of the Allt a'Chonais. There were good camp spots here that made a perfect basecamp for tackling the first few hills - Moruisg above the lonely cottage at Glenuaig and the cosy pair of Sgurr Choinnich and Sgurr a' Chaorachain on the opposite side of the glen.  

If you should get caught out in bad weather in this area, the owners of Glenuiag Lodge have converted a shed beside the lodge into a shelter for hillwalkers complete with bunk beds, lighting and an electric heater. Mind you, the mattresses looked like they could tell a story or two.

But it's Cheesecake that draws the eye and dominates the view in these parts. As I gazed south at its shapely lines, the afternoon sun illuminated the folds of its lower slopes while the pointed top was backed by gunmetal grey clouds.

A long walk over the remote Bealach Bhearnais put me on an ancient stalkers' path, its route marked out by cairns of stones, so old that they were now covered with moss and expertly camouflaged, contrary to their original purpose.

The quiet shores of Loch Calavie provided an easy ascent of Cheescake and its near neighbour, Lurg Mhor. This is the softer side of the hill and the ascent was straightforward, though the top was tight and pointed such that you wouldn't step back for that summit selfie for fear of falling off.

I walked out from Cheesecake to Attadale, another request stop on the Inverness to Kyle line that has a pretty little station right at the beach. I made a hot coffee in the shelter while I waited until it was time to wave madly at the driver to get him to stop the train.

Fact File
Start: Achashellach train station. Trains from Inverness.
Finish: Attadale train station. Trains from Kyle and Inverness.
My route: From Achnashellach I walked up the A890 (quiet out of season) to Craig and crossed the railway following a track that continues to Pollan Buidhe. Lots of camp spots further up the river and worth a wee detour to the Allt a' Chonais pinewood which is signposted. For Moruisg, I continued along the track to the cottage at Glenuiag and followed a stalkers' path above the cottage that zig-zagged up onto the plateau. The start was tricky to find but head up the left of the rockfall behind the cottage and there is a single rowan roughly where the path starts. Once on the plateau, it's a straightforward walk to Moruisg though you might take a bearing as the top itself is not visible at this point. The top is marked by a large, arty cairn.  For Sgurr Choinnich and Sgurr a' Chaorachain, I set out up the footpath to the Bealach Bhearnais which starts at the wire bridge at grid ref NH074466. It's a good path to the bealach. From the bealach the east ridge of Sgurr Choinnich is easily climbed - a path starts to the left of a strange stretch of drystone wall. The continuation to Sgurr a' Chaorachain is straightforward on an obvious path. I returned the bealach to descend as I'd left heavier kit there. I continued southwest over the bealach - the middle section is rough, boggy and pathless - then picked up an excellent old path that heads towards Loch an Laoigh and Bendronaig Lodge. Just before the lodge a path  branches to the left to Loch Calavie. An easy ascent can be made to the bealach between Lurg Mhor and Bidein a' Choire Sheasgaich from the track here and likewise easy acsents of both peaks can be made from the bealach. To walk out to Attadale I continued passed Bendronaig Lodge and kept on the track ignoring branches to the left in the forestry. This area is currently undergoing hydro work and the devastation was horrific. It will take years to recover so, to be honest, I wouldn't recommend this route until then.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Northwest - The Lochalsh Trail

I always said that I would never walk waymarked trails until I was too old and crusty for dragging myself up hills. Well, never say never. With a couple of spare days on holiday, I was looking for a wee wander in a quiet corner on the west coast and came up with the idea of the Lochalsh Trail, a 30-mile circuit from my starting point at Shiel Bridge.

I took a super path that starts beside the campsite at Shiel Bridge and climbs into the hills, zig-zagging over a wee pass before heading out to the pretty little bothy at Suardalan. It’s an aptly named spot, originating from the old Norse, Swarddale, combining sward (an expanse of grass) and dal (dale). It’s an open place with big views and winds that send waves of movement through the grasses.

Heading on from Suardalan, I followed a green, leafy track down into Gleann Beag. What might have been a wearisome few miles on tarmac was livened by the swathes of bluebells beside the road and the fascinating brochs, dotted through the glen. Brochs are stone roundhouses dating from approximately  2000 years ago. They are double-skinned and at Dun Troddan you can still climb the internal staircase.

At the bottom of Gleann Beag I popped out into the lovely wee seaside village of Glenelg and wandered round the coast to the Glenelg Ferry that crosses the narrows at Kyle Rhea to Skye. I wasn’t taking the ferry but I knew there was coffee and tablet at the honesty box at the slipway.

The Lochalsh Trail now enters one of the loveliest corners of the country as it follows the coast round to Totaig. A narrow path meandered through bluebell woods above the sea and above the woods I was excited to see my first sea eagle.

The trail dropped to the beach and crossed the shoreline at Camas nan Gall where the view opened up to the flat-topped peak of Dun Caan on Raasay to the north. I pitched the tent here, on a sward of green grass between the woods and the beach, and watched the sun sink, casting its peachy glow over the hills.

Next day the trail rounded Ardintoul Point and then climbed up briefly in deep forestry before emerging above Totaig where a grassy knoll opened up views from Skye to Kintail and the backside of Eilean Donan Castle. From the pretty little cottage at the road end at Totaig, it was a long plod along the road back to Shiel Bridge. Thank heavens again for the millions of bluebells that  lined the way and livened the walk.

Fact File
All the photos on Flickr: click HERE.
Start/finish: Shiel Bridge
Transport: Citylink Glasgow to Skye bus
My route: I took the path that heads south from the campsite following the Allt Undalainn and crossed the pass to the ruin at Bealachasan. Crossed the dear fence and then followed the edge of the fence to the south to join a forest track that goes to the bridge at NG889173. Immediately after the bridge on the right a small path heads to Suardalan. An obvious path continues south from Suardalan and then swings west into Gleann Beag (ignoring the path east to Kinloch Hourn). Walk down Gleann Beag and turn right at the bottom for Glenelg. Continue through the village and opposite the village hall a footpath heads to the left – follow this to the far side of the bay and continue along the road towards the Glenelg ferry. At the back of the car park above the ferry a gorgeous footpath starts and heads round the north coast of the peninsula to Totaig – where it enters dense forestry the route is marked by red and white tape. At Ardintoul Bay I followed the OS map which showed the route heading round to the last cottage and continuing as a footpath. I didn’t find that continuation but scrambled up through bushes and joined a path coming in from the right so I’m guessing the footpath actually starts from the main track that heads back over to Bernera. At Totaig it’s a walk along the road back to Shiel Bridge but it’s quite nice and there’s almost no traffic.
Tips: Campsite and wee shop at Shiel Bridge; wee shop and hotel at Glenelg; showers for a donation at the village hall in Glenelg. There is a local bus that goes up the Totaig road to Letterfearn on request which you could use to cut out the road walk at the end – run by Macrae Kintail.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Knoydart - Paradise

A May time meander across Knoydart, one of my favourite areas of Scotland. And an overdue visit to my favourite spot in Knoydart - Sourlies. All of this in one of the best spells of weather for years.

Sourlies is a distant place on a remote peninsula. There's only a small bothy there now but nearby ruins and a hidden graveyard hint at a time when there were more people here. I trekked into Knoydart from the train station at Glenfinnan, the arches of its famous viaduct providing a doorway to six days of paradise. 

My calling points, if you can call them that, were Sourlies, A'Chuill Bothy, Barrisdale Bay, Kinlochourn and another lovely wee bothy, Suardalan. The approach from Glenfinnan uses the tight pass of Mam na Cloiche Airde, a rough rocky place softened by the sparkling waters of its twin lochans. 

The first view of Sourlies from here is way down below. The bothy nestles on a shelf of green grass between the lower slopes of Sgurr na Ciche and the pebble beach at the limit of the sea loch, Loch Nevis. It sends a long finger of sea deep into the hills here and when the tide is high and the sun is out, it fills the contours of the land with water that's a dazzling Mediterranean blue. 

Ringed plovers nest on the beach, scraping a shallow nest among the pebbles, and cuckoos fill the air with the unmistakable sound of early summer.

I left Sourlies to the north, walking into the "wild interior" of Knoydart along the beautiful, rugged glen of the River Carnoch. When the tide is out you can leave Sourlies by walking along the beach and over the salt marsh which is covered with sea pinks in early summer. But if the tide is high you have to climb over the headland. The advantage is that up here you can look down on the water as floating clumps of seaweed cast their shadows through the see-through sea to the sandy bottom. 

There are otters and wildcats in Glen Carnoch - I've seen their prints in the wet sand. 

A stiff pull at the head of the glen puts you on the route to Barrisdale Bay and then the stunning path along the shores of Loch Hourn to the little hamlet at its end, Kinlochourn. It's 22 miles from the nearest A-road and the tarmac ends here, making it the longest dead end in the country.

A beautiful walk from Kinlochourn through bluebell woods and empty terrain takes you through to the pretty little bothy at Suardalan, sitting out on its own on a grassy knoll surrounded by fields and hills. It's a beautiful and peaceful place. 

A little pass then cuts through the western end of the ridge on the south side of Glen Shiel. I've always thought of it as being quite Alpine in character - a zig-zag narrow path, the mountains all around and cattle grazing on the green grass of early summer. 

The noise and bustle of Shiel Bridge were a sudden jolt out of the paradise of the last few days. But days like that stay with you forever.

Fact File
All the photos on my Flickr site.
Start: Glenfinnan railway station
Finish: Shiel Bridge for Citylink bus between Glasgow and Skye
My route: From the train station I walked north up Glen Finnan passed Corryhully Bothy and then through Gleann Cuirnean towards Strathan but turning west before the buildings to pass A'Chuill Bothy. Crossed the river and joined the path heading west through Glen Dessary and then through Mam na Cloiche Airde. There is a river crossing at the top which can be tricky after rain. The path then drops to Sourlies. From Sourlies I followed the path north up the River Carnoch and climbed out of the head of the glen to join an excellent stalker's path that crosses over the Mam Undalain and descends to Barrisdale Bay. There's a bothy here as well and informal camping. I took the path along the south shore of Loch Hourn to Kinlochourn which is a stunning walk. There is a wee tearoom at Kinlochourn. Just passed the hamlet heading east on the road there is a sign to the left marked for Corran. I took this path but continued through to Srath a Chomair on what's commonly called the pylon route as you are following the pylon line to Srath a Chomair. From there I took the route heading northeast to Suardalan Bothy (a lovely wee bothy) and then headed east to the bridge over the Glen More River. At the other side I took the track to the right and where it ended I continued up the side of the deer fence to reach a stile over the fence. This put me at the ruin at Bealachasan. From here I took the path that passes over a small pass south of Sgurr Mhic-Bharraich and then descends to Shiel Bridge.

Friday, 5 May 2017

Clackmannanshire - Teleporter

Concealed in the Clackmannanshire countryside is a secret little cycle path that connects Alloa with Dollar. Secret perhaps to you and me but not to the people who live close by for it's a well used route. It's called the Devon Way and runs for seven miles, mostly using the bed of an old railway line. 

The route is bounded by trees and hedgerows which in May are bursting with spring greens and birdsong. And when there's a breeze, there is a blizzard of blossom. Above the trees the steep Ochil Hills rise to the north. I agreed with my dad when he said the Ochils seemed very distant when we started in Alloa but over the few miles to Dollar, they had really closed in above us.

So flat and easy and pleasant was the route that we seemed to be magically whisked to our destination in no time at all, oblivious to the world beyond our tunnel of green. I'll therefore always think of the Devon Way as a kind of teleporter.

Fact File
Start/finish: Alloa train station.
Route: exit the train station and turn right. There is immediately a pedestrian bridge over the railway - this is the start of the Devon Way and is signed for NCN767/Tillicoultry although it goes all the way to Dollar. At the end of the route it's worth going into Dollar for a view or walk up Dollar Glen. We returned by the same route to Alloa. Except for one very small hill, the route is flat and easy and all off-road.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Borders - Minchmoor meander

The Minchmoor is an old drove road in the Borders hills that connects Traquair with Selkirk. Since cycling it last summer, it's a place that's stayed in my imagination for its quirkiness, its history and the open, airiness of its landscapes. So I was back there at Easter, walking its route with friends Graham and Andrew. 

From Edinburgh we took the Borders railway to Galashiels and jumped onto a bus that was heading back to Edinburgh. We only stayed on it for a few stops of course and stepped off in Innerleithen. There was time for coffee and cake outside in the sun, enjoying the outdoorsy vibe of this mountain bike-mad wee town.

Just south of Innerleithen we picked up the Minchmoor as the line of its old road cut across the fields and started to climb into the blue above. The Southern Upland Way, a long distance walking route, joins the Minchmoor here and we would use it over two days to walk back to Galashiels. 

A steady climb put us on top of the ridge that we would follow eastwards. There were some undulations but mostly we were up and staying up. The top of the climb is called Resolution Point and its marked by a sculpture and arty circles created in the heather. It's an interesting spot, the area being part of a project to increase the black grouse population here.

Just beyond Resolution Point, we came to the Cheese Well where it was said that travellers in days gone by had to make offerings of cheese to the fairies here to ensure a safe passage. We didn't have cheese, at least not since we'd eaten our lunch at Resolution Point, but we did leave some coins which we placed on the marker stone. On a hot day, we were also glad to be able to fill our bottles here with the cool spring water.

This wonderful route meandered now along the top of the hills, making us feel like we were on the roof of the Borders. The sense of space and the expanse of the view was wonderful. It was such a quiet place as well, we hardly passed anybody all day and the busiest spot was the top of Minchmoor Hill where a few mountain bikers had escaped the lower, groomed trails of the biking centre below.

We walked on into the hot afternoon, stopping at one point to marvel at Wallace's Trench. We had read about it on the train journey down. It's an ancient defensive trench, protecting against attackers from the west, the way we had walked. Given how the old trench is, we were perhaps expecting to see some shallow markings in the heather that might indicate where it had been. We were impressed therefore to come across the trench pretty much intact and 5 or 6 feet deep, cutting right across our route and extending a little way down the hillside. 

We walked on and on, through woods and over the gentle undulations of the ridge. We knew we had gone a fair distance east when the Eildon Hills came into view far ahead of us. We'd enjoyed a walk there just a couple of weeks ago so it was interesting to see them from a new angle.

By late afternoon we were nearing the end of the ridge and the climax of the day's walk, the Three Brethren. These huge stone cairns date from the 16th century and mark the boundaries of the three estates that meet at this point - Buccleuch, Yair and Selkirk. They're a stunning feature on what's already a beautiful spot.

Weary wanderers now, we dropped off the ridge and followed a path down the Philiphaugh Long burn to find a camp spot. Before the sun dipped behind the ridge, we sat outside drinking tea and cooking a hot supper. I surprised the boys later with a hot pudding of chocolate brownie and custard. It was the final act of the evening as the sun sank and we wrapped ourselves up in our sleeping bags. I think we were all pretty much asleep by lights out.

The following day was another cracker and we climbed back up to the ridge to rejoin the Southern Upland Way into Galashiels. The route was lovely, initially dropping down to Yair through springtime woods full of birdsong and then crossing the Tweed to make a gentle climb over the next series of low, rolling hills.

The path struck out across fields which were criss-crossed with drystone dykes. I loved the crossing points for walkers which were not the traditional gate but a series of stepping stones laid into the walls themselves. We must have used a dozen of these on the short leg into Galashiels.

After a final pull up a wee grassy hill, we were suddenly looking down on Galashiels. We ended the trip as we started ... with coffee and cake before catching the train home.

Fact File
Start: Innerleithen. Train from Edinburgh to Galashiels. The bus interchange is right opposite the train station and the Edinburgh-bound bus stops at Innerleithen.
Route: We walked south out of Innerleithen on the B709 for about 2km. Just after Traquair there is a quaint three-way junction at the war memorial - turn left here to join the Minchmoor and the Southern Upland Way. The route is signed now all the way to Gala and stays high across the tops. It's worthwhile making the short detour to the Minchmoor viewpoint which is signed from the main route. This, Resolution Point, the Cheese Well and Wallace's Trench won't be missed as they are right on the route. The Minchmoor high level route ends at the Three Brethren. We dropped down to the right here to find water and a camp spot then retraced our steps next morning. From the Three Brethren we stayed on the Southern Upland Way through to Galashiels. It was a lovely walk through springtime woods down to Yair then over gentle open hills into Gala.
Tips: Nice coffee shop on the main street in Innerleithen opposite the junction for the B709. And nice coffee shop in Gala immediately behind the Interchange.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Dun Caan - Seasides

I love coastal mountains. There's something very northerly and rugged about peaks that plunge into the sea. And if they're covered with snow or if the sun is out, creating aquamarine pools in the shallows, then all the better. I also love hopping on and off the ferries on Scotland's west coast. A wee ferry ride adds something special to a destination. Perhaps it makes it seem more exotic because you can only get there by boat. How lucky then that the little peak of Dun Caan on Raasay combines both of these things.

Raasay is an island that drifts offshore of another island, Skye. My ferry journey there was a short hop but as the boat pulled away from Sconser stunning views opened up. Behind us Skye's snow-covered peaks rose above the shore and to the north, a long way up the waters of the Sound of Raasay, was the rocky outline of the Storr on the Trotternish peninsula. 

Once the ferry had deposited us on Raasay, we walked along the deserted island roads and then picked a trail that followed an old tramway serving mines, now disused, above the main village. The tent was pitched at the top of the trail with a view back to the hills on Skye. Then we set out for Dun Caan.

A thin, boggy trail wound its way up and over open moor before eventually pulling over the last rise and rewarding us with a view of the bizarrely-shaped Dun Caan. It slopes steeply on one side, does a flat plateau at the top and then drops sheer on the other side in rocky crags. Mind you, the arrangement of the landscape here is generally quite strange. We crossed a rocky escarpment as a brief blizzard struck. It was broad on one side with big flat rocks like paving stones that made for good walking but on the other it gave way suddenly to vertical cliffs.

We found a path that had itself found a chink in the cliffs and descended to a lochan with a beach of black pebbles. You could see the gradations in the pebbles - fine and small at the water's edge but larger and rounded near the shore. 

From the lochan a path zig-zagged up through snow-dusted rocks to the top of Dun Caan. What a place to be that day. The snow-covered mountains of Skye stretched out to the west and on every side of us was sea, glinting and shimmering in the moments of sun. We marvelled at the sheer drop to the sea on the east side. If you dropped your lunchtime orange here, it would likely roll all the way into the water. And we watched swathes of steely blue snow clouds engulf the hills in bizzards and then move out across the sea itself.

Eventually we turned tail and retraced our steps to the tent. At the end of March it wasn't too late before the sun began to sink, touching the hills of Skye with gold and pink. The next morning we meandered back down through the woods and caught our ferry back across the sea to Skye. 

Fact File
Start/finish: Sconser ferry terminal, Skye
Route: From the ferry terminal walk along the road and hang right. At the next split take the left fork in the road signed for Fearns. Shortly after there are signs for the Miners Trail walk to the right. Follow this trail until eventually you cross the road again. Continue straight over and passed the old mine buildings. Where the track makes a sharp U turn and there are two footbridges, there is a sign for the path up to Dun Caan. The path is obvious as it crosses the moor and then climbs up the side of a rocky escarpment. At the far end an obvious path drops down to the lochan and then a very clear path climbs up Dun Caan. We retraced our steps to the footbridges and then returned by following the continuation of the trail where it's now known as the Burma Road trail and it heads back down towards the ferry.
Tip: There is a great leaflet in the ferry terminal detailing all the walks on Raasay.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Laggan - Littlun

Binnein Shuas is a small mountain on the south shore of Loch Laggan. It's only 746m high but it's definitely a mountain. At least it was on the day we climbed it when squally snow showers driven on a gale force wind battered its knobbly, rocky upper parts, imparting a more challenging, edgy character to this little peak. 

Between squalls the view was sublime though. Sapphire-blue lochs and snow-streaked mountains below a sky that was blue then black then blue again. The only other streaks of white in the landscape were the whooper swans on the water, pondering, or perhaps reconsidering, their flight to Iceland.

Binnein Shuas proved to be easier to get up than down as we picked our way down a steep gully in thickening snow. A walk through a whiteout world put us back at the tent.

Fact File
Start/finish: Moy by Loch Laggan
Transport: Car on this occasion using a large layby on the A86 about 1km west of Moy Lodge. You could access the hill by bike from Dalwhinnie or Corrour train stations using off-road tracks.
Route: At the layby cross the bridge over the River Spean and hang left when the track splits. At the next track junction, turn left again towards the woods. We climbed the hill's northwest flank from our camp spot but it would less steep to use the southeast ridge. There's no path on this little visited hill but it's easy enough to pick your way through the rocky outcrops to the top. We dropped off the northeast side to walk back along the shores of Lochan na Hearba before picking up the track that heads back down to Moy and joins the outward route.