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Munroes and Midges: Scotland Part I

30 August, 2010

Scotland!  So near and yet so far; all the while we have been in the UK we have constantly intended, but never quite managed, to spend time exploring its mountains and glens.  Finally, we realised that time is slipping away and it is now or never (or at least, not in the near future).  To be sure, August is not the best time: it has a reputation for rain, and for hills filled with tourists, midges and deer stalkers.  But we can’t be picky.  Looking at some maps, I spotted a largish patch of road-free territory accessible by rail at either end, and plotted a route from Dalwhinnie, in central Scotland, to Fort William, on the west coast.

The adventure began with transport options.  Timing and price were against planes and trains and we eventually settled on the overnight coach which, while not sounding especially appealing, at least had the advantage of low price and early morning arrival time.  As it turned out, it wasn’t too uncomfortable, and we both got quite a bit of sleep (though would have got more with eyemask and earplugs).  To say that our fellow travellers represented an interesting cross-section of society would be an understatement.

Day 1: Dalwhinnie to Ben Alder

Glasgow was just waking up for a sunny workday as we arrived, grabbed a light breakfast, and switched from coach to train.  The scenic journey saw blue skies replaced by rain, and we were the only people to disembark at Dalwhinnie, a quiet village with a few cottages, a hotel, a distillery and a primary school (currently on break).  Crossing the rail line, we began the long walk in towards Ben Alder Lodge.

Our first ten or so kilometres walk was along the estate road into Ben Alder Lodge. Easy going, but a tad dull once the novelty of dense pine forests had worn off.

Despite the fact that Scotland has incredibly progressive attitudes towards access (you can pretty much walk and camp anywhere), the fact remains that every inch of land is owned by somebody.  One of the uses to which this land is put is deer stalking, which serves the twin purposes of earning the estates some income, as well as keeping the deer populations at sustainable levels.  Hypothetically, walkers and stalkers can co-exist, but as we were walking at the beginning of the peak stalking season, I was a bit concerned about making sure that we co-existed at a safe distance.  The Hillphones service provides information on stalking activities for some regions, but unfortunately not those of primary concern to us.  I managed to track down phone numbers for a couple of the estates and had called up Ben Alder while in Glasgow that morning.  The friendly woman on the phone reassured me that no stalking was currently occurring, but that everything was wet and midgey.   Oh well, you can’t have everything.

Anyway, the first ten or so kilometres of our walk were along the road to Ben Alder Lodge.  This ran alongside Loch Ericht, backed by smooth green hillside and surrounded by dense pine forest.  We passed a couple of grand, turreted mansions on our way in (one possibly the original gatehouse) and noted that the mountains ahead of us were periodically covered and uncovered by drifting clouds.  While initially dramatic, the charm of pine forests soon palled, and we were glad to climb away from the loch and leave the estate road behind us.  Switching to a well maintained stalking path, we could see herds of deer in the distance, and the landscape began to feel much more remote.

Allt a’ Chaoil-reidhe (the river) with the flanks of Carn Dearg (the hill) in the background. Ah! Back in Gaelic lands again!

The ground around us was wet and boggy, but the path itself was quite dry, being protected by trenches dug on either side.  Also, despite the occasional showers that passed overhead, the river levels seemed to be quite low.  This was encouraging, as we weren’t anticipating too many bridges out here (there are a large number of river crossing on the OS map marked “Ford”).

We passed by Culra Bothy on the far side of the river at about 4pm but, with plenty of daylight left, decided to push on up to a small valley containing a loch that we spotted on the map between the mountains Ben Alder and Beinn Bheoil.  The valley sits at about 700 metres above sea level, and I had an idea that there would be more breeze, and so hopefully fewer midges, at higher altitudes.

As we climbed, the rain intensified, and the bothy began to seem like a more attractive option.  Although I know that we are well equipped and prepared for all sorts of circumstances, I’m always a bit apprehensive when walking in a new area whose topography and weather patterns I don’t really know that well.  I figure that this potentially excessive concern is why we do so rarely end up in any sort of serious trouble.

The rain cleared again as we reached the valley (Bealach Beithe) and we spotted another herd of deer moving slowly across the flank of Ben Alder opposite us.  From this angle, the ridge up to the summit looked eminently achievable, but the top was still covered in cloud, and it was too late to consider it today.  The previously firm path turned much wetter where it ran alongside the loch.  The ground surrounding us was not suited for pitching a tent upon.

First sight of Loch a’ Bealach Beithe, by which we were hoping to camp.

Otherwise, the valley was beautiful: still, peaceful, with the smooth and concave side of Beinn Bheoil to the south and the rocky cliffs of Ben Alder to the north.  The loch’s surface was ruffled by a gentle breeze and gaps in the cloud granted occasional glimpses of blue skies and sunshine.

Intuition suggested that the far end of the loch, where it is fed by a small stream, might be drier, so we pushed on.  Sure enough there was a small raised hummock about a dozen metres square that was drier underfoot.  We settled in, pitched the tent and cooked up macaroni with tuna for dinner.  The breeze kept midges away without making us too cold.  Clearing skies intimated stars, but at this northern latitude, it seemed the sky wouldn’t get sufficiently dark.

Oanh stirring dinner.

Day 2: Ben Alder to Loch Ossian

The day began with a steep and rough descent towards Loch Ericht.  Following a gentle stream interrupted by numerous small waterfalls, we spotted more deer on the ridge line.  The weather was clearer, although the distant peaks were still cloudbound.

We had extensive views across Rannoch Forest — one of those “forests” with not too many trees, and rather a lot of plain.  What trees there were to be seen were clustered in small, hospitable looking groves along the shore of the loch.  Far below us, I spotted a couple of tiny figures making their way across the plain.

As our route swung around to the north before climbing back up to the next path, we decided to spare our knees some of the descent and veered off the path, hopped across the river, and made our way along the hillside.  It was pretty uneven underfoot, with many ankle-twisting holes hidden by waist-length grass.  One positive aspect of summer is that flowers were still in abundance: mauve heather, purple harebells, spiky red bog asphodel and silky bog cotton grass (note the emphasis on “bog” oriented species).  Fortunately, no ankle-twisting occurred, and we were soon back on another excellent stalkers’ path.

Odd, ground berry; currently unidentified.

Eyebright.

Harebell.

After a slow ascent up the valley, the path we were on turned back towards the bothy.  We left it once again to struggle over the next patch of rough, boggy ground down to the valley floor, where we picked up a new path towards Corrour Lodge (a new estate).

We encountered our biggest river crossing here, and spent a few minutes wandering up and down the banks looking for the easiest crossing point: about seven or eight metres across, but only ankle to calf deep.  I got across reasonably drily; Oanh (whose gaiters are a bit too big) less so.

Oanh wrings out socks after an ankle-deep crossing.

The river wound extensively down the valley, and while the surrounding hills and corries (steep-sided circular valleys) were pretty, we were a bit exhausted.  The path either followed the bends of the river, or climbed and descended over adjacent hills, making for slow progress.  We also started to notice the presence of midges, dissuading us from standing still for too long, as it didn’t take long before they tracked us down and swarmed about our face and ears in an infuriating fashion.  Fortunately, they can’t really keep up with walking pace.

Late in the afternoon we reached Corrour Lodge, at the eastern end of Loch Ossian.  Passing through a gate, we were instantly in another world: the various buildings of the estate constituted almost a small village, and we were back on well-graded dirt roads.  The sky cleared as the sun fell lower, transforming dull greens of the hillsides into bright emerald.

First views of Loch Ossian.

My equanimity was spoiled somewhat by a growing concern about where we would spend the night.  Much of the ground (apart from the road!) was either densely forested, incredibly steep, or very boggy.  The bothy beside which I had hoped to camp was still some distance away, further than we wanted to walk and we were clearly deep in midge territory.

Loch Ossian has a youth hostel at its western end, and we began to wonder about asking whether we could camp there.  I had actually attempted to book beds a week earlier, but found no availability.  We eventually decided upon a strategy: ask whether we could stay there (expecting a “no”) and then see if they will let us camp as an alternative (with appropriate abject looks).  When we arrived at the hostel, I wandered around taking photos in the evening light while Oanh enquired.  As it turned out, our bluff was called and they did have beds.  At this stage, despite lugging a tent around, the prospect of another midge-free evening persuaded us to happily part with our £16 each.

The YHA at Loch Ossian is rather unique, being accessible only via a mile-long hike in from Corrour train station, which itself is the most remote train station in the UK, being approximately twenty kilometres from the nearest road!  The hostel is entirely powered by wind and solar power, and very ecologically friendly in all respects.  We passed an enjoyable evening, chatting with a Spanish-Australian family from Barcelona on a holiday entirely planned by the 16 year old son, a Scottish woman who had walked in from Fort William along one of the paths we were considering, and a 71-year old ex-mountaineer turned munro-bagger.  Everyone was quite excited about the prospect of the meteor shower forecast for that evening, but unfortunately the clouds rolled back in and it was a no show.

see here for all the photos

Continue to Part II!

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. emilyjsun permalink
    1 September, 2010 6:01 pm

    do you cycle with your glasses on when it rains?

    • 9 September, 2010 9:30 am

      Emily
      Yes, we both do. Sometimes (but very rarely at the mo’) I wear contacts but actually, they’re worse, especially lately. (Scotland was a walking holiday, however!)

Trackbacks

  1. Munroes and Midges: Scotland Part II « N & O News
  2. Lerderderg Gorge « N & O News

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