Saturday, 11 January 2014

Brighten the corners

Sometimes you have to read between the lines to get the point. The Scottish Highlands aren't just a collection of isolated big-name mountain groups, an impression you can get if you stick to guidebooks and Munros. They are in fact a stupendous continuum. Between the constellations of Cairngorms, Nevis, Torridon and the rest, there is much dark matter: the unseen stuff that gives it weight and form and holds it all together.

Imagine Dalwhinnie as the tip of a triangle. Follow the left-hand side down Loch Ericht to the bottom left corner around Rannoch Station. The base of the triangle follows lochs Rannoch and Tummel to the confluence of the Tummel and Garry rivers. Glen Garry and Drumochter form the right-hand side of the triangle.

The topmost angle hosts a few Munros - the Drumochter group, popular of course but relatively unloved. Beyond these, there is some of the roughest, wildest and least-visited country in the Highlands.

The forecast was for one good day - crisp, sunny, bright - followed by a return to mild and wet. Dalnaspidal was frosty, puddles and potholes crunchy with ice. The Inverness-London Kings Cross express thundered past as I did some final checks and tweaks. A friendly gamekeeper sporting a deerstalker asked where I was headed as we waited to cross the line.

Fast walking along an easy track by Loch Garry tempts you into the heart of things.

The track ends abruptly at the head of the loch, pitching you suddenly into the wild. I had the absurd illusion that I'd gained height.

My objective was the Shaggy Mountain, Beinn Mholach. A fitting name for a shapeless, lumpy, rocky heathery beast of a hill. The Millwall FC of Scottish mountains, perhaps: no-one likes it and it doesn't care. The reception was violent too as I was blattered by a prolonged snow shower as I toiled upwards. Underfoot the conditions were perfect - deep snow cover but frozen, stable and weight-bearing.

The mist-shrouded summit was inhospitable although the snow had ceased. Time for lunch though. I was starving.

Slowly, all was revealed...

The clouds were doing crazy things:

The latter three pictures above are looking vaguely south-west towards Loch Rannoch. Before Christmas when I was thinking about this trip I learned that an application had been made to site - guess what - a wind farm on these moors. Is this the best we can do? Haven't we got something unique and precious here? Later that night in the tent I was reading Hamish Brown's 'Travels', a collection of articles that reads like a sort of loose autobiography. He mentions how decades ago planners based their choice of route for pylons to Skye: "because there was nothing there":
Of course, "nothing there" means nothing of the material junk associated with man and his despoiling tactics. There is plenty of wildlife and an abundant beauty, a beauty that ranges from sweeping grandeur... to intimate, tiny, perfection.
Nowadays the same attitudes prevail (MAMBA) and the frittering continues.

Still, I left the summit with elated, happy thoughts, just glad to have been there for the show.

Winter in the hills means counting down the hours of daylight from sunrise onwards. Though it was barely mid-afternoon I hurried north and down over sparkling crunchy snowfields hoping for a snow-free campsite by the Allt Cro-cloich. This I found on the site of old summer shielings by the burn. My top tip for selecting a wild camp would be to head for somewhere where there used to be habitation. Almost always it'll be relatively dry, flat and grassy.

Tent up first. I opted for the Terra Nova Laser Photon I rather than the Trailstar as I'm still awaiting the bathtub groundsheet, and I figured the ground could be wet.

Then I made myself at home. This tent is a pleasure to use if it's not raining. I realise looking at these photos now that the pole is slightly squint. More pitching practice needed. Hard to achieve perfection when your fingers are slowly freezing!

It was nice to be all settled in, organised, coffee in hand, as twilight advanced.

Darkness was complete by 5pm and I felt the urge to go to bed and sleep. I read, dozed until 9, then read again until 11 before sleeping through until 8am when daylight started to filter in. It had been a night of wind and showers rattling the tent, but I managed a few decent hours of sleep.

The morning brought persistent rain and cloud-shrouded hills.

I set off for distant Stob an Aonaich Mhoir, as remote a hill as you could wish for, facing Ben Alder across Loch Ericht. Yesterday's fine snow conditions were gone though, I realised, as I lunged, plunged and floundered. Above about 600 metres the snow cover was complete. Miles of post-holing with a heavy pack across featureless moors with little visibility and limited daylight didn't appeal. I turned back. Negotiating the miles of rotting snowdrifts and bog back to Loch Garry was hard enough. Once I fell though a drift up to my waist. Below was wet, sucking peat... I was relieved to get out. This sort of country can take everything you've got, then swallow you up. Care and respect are required.

In almost every peat-hag were reminders of of more abundant past:

The return trek alongside Loch Garry was done in improving conditions.

This triangle of hill country is nameless, fittingly perhaps, unfairly maybe as it has its own definite character. It ain't pretty but it's vital.

Ever wondered why the River Garry is so often dry? The Tummel-Garry Hydro scheme abstracts most of its water from Loch Garry. Read more:


  1. Nice post Stefan. Like your observations about a 'continuum' :)

    1. Cheers David. I think one of the most important things about the SNH CAWL map is that it recognises the whole and challenges the honey-pot mentality of chuck 'em a few Munros/National Parks. No wonder the developers and friends are so scared of it.

  2. A great read, Stefan.
    I love this parcel of loveliness and the wind farm will destroy it.
    I've never understood the guidebooks' groupings of hills, as I've always walked across Scotland in continuous lines on Hamish's TGO Challenge. You get to appreciate a joined-up Highlands this way.

    1. Thanks Alan. This has got to be one the worst wind farm proposals yet and that's saying something. I've no doubt the developers will cite the Tummel-Garry hydro scheme as 'evidence' the area is already developed and no longer wild just like SSE did re. Stronelairg (Glen Doe hydro scheme).

      The guidebook groupings are weird - bureaucratic and colonial! Maybe it stems from Sir Hugh himself, perhaps a man of his time who liked divvying things up on a map!