Hillwalking - Roaming during the ‘stag season’ (Ossian Hills)

The Ossian hills.
The Ossian hills.

Early morning light revealed the Blackmount under its first light dusting of snow, a little late in arriving this year; it was after all October. Two big hills, both of them Munros, lurked unseen in the north.

Loch Eigheach, by who’s sullen grey water we were parked, receives a fair amount of its waters from the vast corrie that these two hills encompass; today we would drink greedily of those waters.

A locked gate barred vehicular traffic to the ‘Road to the Isles’ and, although this ancient route is a guaranteed public right of way, we were surprised not to see a notice asking walkers to ‘keep to paths and ridges’; we were after all roaming at the height of the stag stalking season.

Around the grass and heather-clad western shoulder of Meall na Nathrach, the track took us an easy mile then turned north to ease us on another stony mile to a bridge across the river.

Now, for the next half hour or so, a sodden ATV track was to be our guide; we walked over acidic land where cotton and deer grass was enlivened here and there by the smoky green foliage of bog asphodel.

Somewhere on the western flank of Pharlagain’s Leachann nan Giomach, the track died to leave us on firmer ground.

It was heads down for the summit and thankfully stonier ground. There’s no path on this seldom walked hill and on such a zig-zag ascent the need would be for careful navigation in misty conditions.

No worries today; the highway of grass and mossy racomitrium and the big sign post boulders glacier strewn along the ridge top, gave the undulating switchbacks an air of simplicity despite the frequent shreds of mist that were beginning to find their way up there.

There was a wind on Meall na Meoig that made us glad to hunker down amid some rocks below the cairn.

With little Lochan Meoigach, its wind ruffled surface defying all reflections, to feed our souls upon, we replenished the physical man with sandwiches and tea.

The way down north was steep, rock strewn in places and, yet again, wet.

Ahead lay the day’s first Munro, the dun and dull looking hulk of Sgor Gaibhre, alias ‘the rough peak’.

From deep in the corries on either side came the occasional bellow of rutting stags, almost anguish laden cries for solace-we pitied their chivvied hinds!

And then came the gentle piping of a golden plover, a mournful, some say, haunting, single noted fluting. We spied one. Typical of its species it took up a stance on a nearby horizon and kept us in its sights.

In silhouette more like a dotterel or a knot, today, with its head hunched into its shoulders against the wind, only its plumage confirmed its undoubted plovericity.

Another surprise! Near the summit, where the boulders sprout like little grey dolls houses or some like garden sheds, we saw huge flocks of thrush like birds. Hundreds of them. Wave after wave, in little flocks they bounced their way across the slopes, landing after each series of three or four undulations, to feed among the last of this season’s blae and cowberries.

It was undoubtedly these, and others like them, that had been leaving little purple droppings all over the adjacent hillside. Fieldfares they were, recently arrived from Russia, to gorge on Scotland’s berries.

We stood in a fierce gale at the spacious summit. But only long enough to stare down into the depths of the desolate corrie that cradles the black little eye of Lochan Bhealaich.

A good path led us down the easy slopes of Gaibhre’s broad west ridge.

Dark clouds trailing gossamer sheets of sleety, smoky looking snow, hung over Loch Ossian; we ducked behind the shelter of a nearby rock for lunch.

The snow arrived, but not enough to wet us. We ate and drank as we watched yet more fieldfares foraging nearby, stragglers no doubt from the flocks we’d seen earlier.

The bellowing of a stag drew our attention to the peaty, rived bowl of Coire Eagheach. Half a mile or so away we saw him. Only he was restless, his little coterie of hinds seemed uninterested in him as they lay quietly chewing on their morning’s cud.

The sky out north was still black when we finally made our move.

The Cam Ban was as wet as I remembered it the last time we were here. Oozy ankle sucking goo had us tip toeing from any conveniently placed boulder or more solid tuft of sun burnished deer grass, to the next.

It was a relief to gain the firmer ground of Carn Dearg’s northeast ridge.

It was grass again with a peppering of boulders and then, towards the summit, stony ground. At the top we were greeted by a splendid cairn and, all around us, cloud designed views of great atmosphere.

We roamed around the dome, photographing all and sundry. Over Strath Ossian, black cloud let down the tail of a rainbow to light up the inviting gap like a pot of gold. The view back to Gaibhre was of a beautifully sunlit ridge, beyond which the sombre walls of Ben Alder, withits Bealach Dubh topped by menacing clouds, shining like a portal to the east.

Clearer skies and big cumulus clouds in the east gave Schiehallion a fairy tale like mien, whilst a little further to the south the Ben Lawers range and the Tarmachan ridge, looked inky black. Beneath towering clouds in the opposite direction, across the shimmering ribbon of the Blackwater reservoir, the mountains of Lochaber raised an ebony wall against the west. All the while in that direction curtains of sleet drifted like smoke, changing the mood of the scene constantly.

Ahead of us we had the long undulating south ridge of our mountain left to traverse. It gave us superb walking, probably the best of the day. Never dull of scene or footfall, we relished the grass and the heather and the occasional rock outcrop and lochan.