Hillwalking - more than enough for a lifetime


There are some hills, climbed during earlier days in pursuit of the Munroist’s ‘Holy Grail’, that I have vowed never to climb again; rounded humps and lumps mostly with little to offer other than a number ticked off in a list.

Nowadays I prefer to spend my time on mountains with at least some character; there are more than enough of those to keep any Hillman happy for a lifetime.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been through Drumochter Pass. Every visit has me staring affectionately at A’ Mharconaich, Beinn Udlamain, Sgairneach Mhor, The Boar and The Sow, or Meall na Leitreach and The Fara. All these hills I’ve explored often and shall be happy to do so again.

Across the road from all these run the dull heathery slopes of A’ Bhuidheanach Bheag and Carn a’ Caim, hills I’ve visited twice in foul, viewless weather; the last time I’d promised myself: ‘never again!’

So what was I doing up there again just a few weekends ago? The answer, I suspect, lay in the lure of the wide open spaces, spaces I’d never properly explored. With the promise of continuing fine weather, I decided to revisit those ‘drab’ Munros.

There used to be a quartz mine close to the saddle between those two hills. Although there is little left to see, a good track still goes that way; it makes for a quick and easy ascent. (Sadly construction works due to the new Beauly-Denny power-line spoils the first few minutes of the day; the less said of that the better!)

I hadn’t climbed far before I was compelled to stop! It was the rising of sun! Pausing to look back over the ground I’d covered I saw as fine a mountain sunrise as I’ve ever seen. A’ Mharconaich is my favourite A9 hill; just now all I saw of her were her broad head and spacious shoulders, shoulders which curled themselves protectively around a fine high corrie. The sun had popped the horizon just enough to pierce the cloud and lick those summit slopes of A’ Mharconaich with a wash of pure honey, the mountain’s corrie was a pot of gold. The battle between the sun and clouds was on.

I arrived at the extensive plateau where my two hills meet. To enjoy a walk up here you need extensive views; and for sure I had them. The best was the panorama beyond the A9 hills, where Ben Alder, separated from its lofty neighbours by the deep cleft of the Bealach Dubh, threw up a dark wall against the rest of Western Scotland.

The way towards Carn A’ Caim’s summit lay gently in front of me, across a wilderness of boggy peat and grass. At a tiny lochan I surprised a greenshank, probably finishing its time up here before moving down to winter by the sea as waders do. A few moments later I startled a lone stag; one look at me and he was off, trotting over the uneven ground with that high kneed trot that gives the animal such grace.

A thin veil of mist annoyed me as far as the summit’s tiny cairn, (I had to bend to tap the crowning stone!) With nothing to keep me here I wandered over to the nearby corrie lip; this north facing corrie is probably the mountain’s finest feature. A grand heathery bowl, it led my eyes over similar terrain to nearby Meall Cuaich, bleak today save for the little blue lochan nestling at its toes.

Betraying autumnal showers, a rainbow arced across the farther Monaliath, a range of hills grey in today’s shifting light, living up to their name whilst, in the middle distance, sleepy Dalwhinnie’s distillery pagoda looked elegant though incongruous.

Not far below me, like a sentry on a plinth of rock, a golden eagle perched, scrutinising the corrie floor with the sharpest eyes in nature. It saw me! Huge wings flapped slowly; easily it rose a foot or two then floated ponderously on the corrie air. I’ve seen many eagles in the hills, but never from above. I gazed down on this one as it glided at mid corrie height to finally disappear around a corner in the outer bowl.

As I made my way back and on towards A’ Bhuidheanach Bheag, I saw, milling about the distant skyline, a sizeable herd of hinds. The wind in my face, they hadn’t scented me; they gazed my way though, curious, ears twitching, everything about them prickly and alert. Soon they disappeared over the horizon; I saw no other deer that day.

The most obvious features of these hills are the deep, ravine like gullies which bite into the hillside’s western flanks. I hunted for the top of one of these, and found what I wanted in the shape of a rapidly descending little glen. A little path led down to an obviously artificial collection of stones, a wall built by stalkers to protect them at their lunch. I was glad of the shelter; since leaving Caim’s summit the wind had steadily stsrengthened and was already at the buffeting stage.

On my first visit to these hills I’d had to resort to compass work, I’d floundered a little. Today the summit, at first obscured by the intervening hump of A’ Bhuidheanach Mor, was easier to locate. As with Carn a’ Caim, there was just a small rise to the summit. Track and path led me on easily, past the little pile of quartz stones that marks A’ Bhuidheanach’s little rise and up onto A’ Bhuidheanach Bheag’s own stony summit.

Plenty of cloud had rolled in to dull things down; Loch Garry, stretched out below the flank of Meall na Leitreach, looked gloomy. As did my final Top, Glas Mheall Mor. Originally a Munro but later deleted, this hill is an almost entirely overlooked hillock.

I reached this grassy lump over featureless, mostly pathless wastes of peat and heather. My reason for coming to this Top was the view east I recalled from a previous visit. Those views were tantalizing, reviving memories of long summer days out to An Dun and the hills around Loch an Duin and beyond.

The sun had given up, at least for a while and a wicked wind kept me moving. Summit achieved I retraced my steps to the Munro, by-passing its summit cairn by a feint path through quartz rubble and a slightly more sheltered journey back as far as A’ Bhuidheanach Mor.

Now at last the wind began to lose its venom, the sun made ever deeper inroads into the clouds, always the case, it seems, near the end of a mountain day. I dropped down the west side of the hill on a broad ridge of short, wind clipped heather. Here and there vestiges of path, probably animal engineered, kept parallel with the nearby track; the going was good, much of the way I ran.

Two other walkers had been on the hill that day, I’d met them near the summit of our second Munro; they’d evidently come up from the south. They reached the roadside just before me. I didn’t envy them, their car was miles back.