Monday, 1 July 2013

The long and windy road

Back from a long weekend in Scotland, the last until Christmas as the baby is due in September. It was a mixed bag, with an 8 hour round trip to Arnisdale on Saturday to climb Beinn Sgritheall followed on Sunday by a wonderful afternoon and early evening wander through the Ochils west of Glen Devon. The wind was the dominating feature of the weekend, closely followed by too much driving and an annoying cold I couldn't quite shake.

The purpose of the pilgrimage to Beinn Sgritheall was to meet a friend who was down to his last six Munros. I wouldn't be able to join him for the grand finale on Mull in September but wanted to be there for at least one of his final few, hence this rather crazy arrangement. Myopic Munro bagging results in these situations where the driving outweighs the walking. Beinn Sgritheall is remote and brutally steep. It eschews the small talk and gets straight down to business with a relentless climb from sea level at Arnisdale to the summit. On a day of low cloud with no views, such as today, it is the ultimate bonkers bagger's peak.

Arnisdale village feels - and is - a long way from anywhere. It faces Knoydart across Loch Hourn, and is walled in behind by the huge silent slopes of Beinn Sgritheall and Beinn na h-Eaglaise, screes toiling up into dry-ice clouds.

Boats moored off Arnisdale
Scree slopes towards the 907m east top proved to be a bit of a challenge - loose and, like everything else on Sgritheall, steep.

Putting the scree into Sgritheall
The ridge from this top to the summit was easy despite the wind. There's one narrow section with the tiniest bit of scrambling. Thankfully the forecast rain never quite arrived, at least not until we were well off the mountain. We got wet enough with the moisture in the clouds alone.

The descent was every bit as unrelenting as the climb up. Then after a coffee and a breather at the roadside it was back in the car for a four hour drive back to Fife.

Not nice for knees
Ah, Sunday afternoon in the Ochils. Footpaths and gentle grassy hills, only 20 minutes drive from my parents' house. The perfect antidote to the previous day's lunacy. Well, it seemed that way for about five minutes. I parked at Castlehill Reservoir in Glen Devon and set off for Glen Quey. It was still windy, and it wasn't long before that wind was driving rain at me with malicious intensity. I was soaked in a few minutes. It was mild though, so I wasn't too bothered. The wind moved things along briskly and the sun was soon out again.

I didn't have a particular route in mind, so this walk developed into an unplanned wander. If anything I wanted to avoid climbing hills for the sake of it! Large tracts of hillside above Muckhart, in Glen Quey and in neighbouring Glen Sherup have been planted with native woodland by the Woodland Trust. Across Glen Devon to the east, a less welcome plantation of wind turbines sprouted from the hilltops. I'll be walking through this one on the Tay watershed walk.

Green Knowes wind farm from Innerdownie
 I followed the Glendevon Reservoirs trail from Glen Quey over the north end of Innerdownie and down through commercial conifers to Glen Sherup. The hillside of Ben Shee across the glen was also planted up with native woodland several years ago. As the trees grow and the vegetation recovers from decades (if not centuries) of sheep grazing, upper Glen Sherup is becoming wild and verdant.

I followed a trail up the glen, then onto the ridge of Mailer's Knowe, where a black grouse scuttled then flew away low over the heath and saplings. At the boggy watershed between the head of Glen Sherup and the Glen of Sorrow grew an abundance of cottongrass, white heads bobbing and waving in the wind.

I jogged - yes jogged! - up the grassy slopes to Tarmangie Hill. To the west the highest part of the Ochils massif bigged up its modest credentials under a mantle of stormy cloud. Sadly, more of those pesky 'money spinners' were planted right where they shouldn't be.

Burnfoot wind farm from Tarmangie Hill
Cloud cropped the view of the lowlands to the south.

I pushed on over the wide grassy whaleback to Whitewisp Hill then down to the footpath at the highest point of the pass between Dollar and Glen Quey. At this point the pass is a steep-sided trench. Gloomy conifers reach down to the floor of the pass on one side; on the other side sheep crop the slopes. Only amongst a few out-of-reach crags do native deciduous trees hang on, a living reminder that once upon a time this pass was deep forest.

The return of the sun coincided with my emergence into upper Glen Quey. Some semblance of wildness is returning here thanks to the work of the Woodland Trust.

Two very different visions of forestry in Glen Quey
A lot is happening in the Ochils. They face threats like never before. But the restoration of these native woods is heartening. A noticeboard informed that the local place-name Muckhart derives from the Gaelic 'Muc Airde', heights of the pigs, a reference to the wild pigs that rooted through the original wildwood in these parts until several hundred years ago. They might yet be glimpsed again in the forest undergrowth of Glen Sherup and Glen Quey.

The birth of a new native forest in Glen Quey

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