Irvine Butterfield called Meall Ghaordaidh quite the dullest hill in the Southern Highlands, and a backpacker famous for gear reviews and exploits in North America was down-right rude about the Drumochter Puddings in one of his books. Surprisingly, these very hills provided the highlights of a fortnight spent wandering from Glen Lyon to Glen Doll whereas the area’s most celebrated summit failed utterly to live up to its reputation.
Wednesday 28 May
After a packless ascent to the splendid viewpoint of Meall Buidhe and a long lunch, I left two friends, Graham and Phil, by the Loch an Daimh dam and headed for the Allt Laoghain. This burn descends between the two massive buttresses which dominate views along Glen Lyon. A couple in wellies and jeans walked down on the other side of the burn as I climbed up between the buttresses. The lovely afternoon turned cold and drizzle greeted me to Meall Ghaordaidh’s summit pyramid. I could see many familiar tops, one with a quartz intrusion to match Ghaordaidh’s. The extensive views included showers coming down glen’s Lyon and Lochay so I didn’t linger.
Irvine’s recommended ascent is from Tullich, which may account for his negative comment as Meall Ghaordaidh’s southern slope is a tilted heather moor. The moor gave an easy descent to a field of heifers. These bravely galloped over to check me out only after I’d left their pasture and reached the road. Once the showers had passed on, the evening sun warmed my back as I plodded down Glen Lochay to Killin Youth Hostel. This lovely glen has old woods, interesting hydro works and cup-marked rocks. For me, the highlight was a snack-stop by a craggy bend in the river where the still water, stained oil-dark by peat, reflected lichenous rocks and birch trees. A wonderful reward for my long effort. After a rushed supper in the hostel, I joined Graham and Phil for last orders. They were subdued. For the second time they had been rescued by a tractor after sticking their car in mud.
Sunday 1 June
Four days later, following a disappointing ascent of Schiehallion, I left Duinish bothy for Sgairneach Mhor. Clouds were hanging low over a boggy tableland formed by the intersection of three fault lines. No risk of sunburn today. The bridge across the Allt Shallainn uses natural abutments which reminded me of the Gates of Kinder. I turned up beside the Allt Coire na Garidha, staying on the well drained strip of short grass beside the stream. Meanders forced numerous crossings, but the lawns cut through by the burn were still far more convenient than ploughing through the heather on either side of the pleasant green corridor.
At one point a delicate snow bridge spanned the stream. I tried to climb round it but just touched the edge with my right foot. Cracks spread across the snow and then the bridge crumpled into the stream, the central section falling first. The noisy demolition set off a small herd of deer, which soon reduced themselves to beige backsides bouncing away into the murk. I was saddened by my unintended act of vandalism.
Staying beside the stream simplified navigation as the weather deteriorated, and then the next four miles across the tops gave the drubbing promised by Iain MacAskill. I dropped off A’Mharconaich past the biggest patch of liverworts I have ever seen and traversed Geal-Charn before pitching on one of the few small lawns in the heather above Balsporran Cottages. Grouse go-backed all evening long.
Monday 2 June
Next day summer arrived. I celebrated by doing some laundry. Clothes drying slowly on the heather gave plenty of time for a classic brew session and mild caffeine poisoning. A late start was guaranteed but the hours of daylight were so numerous that a long day was still on the cards, and what a day it was to be! The allegedly boring hills to the east of the Drumochter Pass were the scene of genuinely exciting events as local gamekeepers hunted an egg thief. Guess who blundered into the middle of the chase!
Homework had not been done. Was Glas Mheall Mor a tickable summit or not? Tearing myself away from the views of snow-filled corries near Lancet Edge, I wandered out and back without my rucksack. Then I headed north along the regional boundary towards Carn na Caim. A red pick-up with a white back was parked above a small quarry and the pick-up’s occupants were clearly not prepared to let me pass without having a word. After establishing my harmlessness, the head keeper agreed that it was the best day of the year. A little further on four Londoners swept the broad ridge in extended line. Their camera gear explained their scowls. They had little chance of finding birds to film with so many people on the hills. An elderly couple’s bright clothing and Jack Russell can’t have pleased the film crew, but at least these two were as delighted as me with the weather change. The final meeting on the slopes of Carn na Caim was with a man in camouflage gear. He was lying on the ground near a small cairn and gave an aggressive glare in response to my cheerful hello. I had sandwiches on the summit and then descended via Allt Coire Uilleum to a Wade Bridge.
My map failed to show a new plantation beside the road and that meant two unexpected fences to cross – with the pick-up’s occupants watching. It seemed they intended intercepting me again. A water-gate through the second fence made it more convenient to walk under the A9 and clamber up on to the A889. The watchers must have interpreted this as an attempt to avoid them. They shot round from the trunk road, leapt out of the pick-up and began interrogating me. It was some time before they realised we had already met. Their aggression was a result of losing track of the camouflaged man. They said he was an egg thief and found it hard to accept that I had not seen where he had gone. My own drab clothing might not have helped this discussion. Eventually they allowed me to head along the road for Dalwhinnie.
The day’s final encounter was with a LEJOG cyclist who was suffering from hunger knock. He kept pace with me till the garage, where he was able to buy a chocolate bar. The chocolate put life into him and off he went, with the intention of reaching Inverness. My destination was the Cuaich bothy. Tackling the track HM Brown-style, with a book, eased the last few miles of a long and eventful day. Perhaps tiredness was the reason for my failure to remove the compass from my trouser pocket. The trousers made a good pillow but next morning the compass had a crack and a large air bubble, which could be used to make the needle point in any desired direction, including north. The entertainment level was destined to remain high as I worked my way to Blair Atholl, via Gaick and Tarf.
Various people have claimed that there is no such thing as a boring hill. They reckon that any fault lies with the walker’s inadequate attitude and not with the hill’s morphology, geology, panorama, flora, fauna and history. However, I cannot criticise Chris and Irvine for their negative comments about hills which gave me so much fun. The criticism would be hypocritical because Schiehallion, from the south, in thick fog and drizzle, was just a boring slog. In my opinion, it is a thoroughly over-rated hill. Who cares if it gave us contours and an accurate estimation of the Earth’s mass? I didn’t enjoy climbing it and have no desire to return. Sgairneach Mhor! Now, that’s the ticket.
Anyone who has battled this far will realise that this is an old piece. My only excuse for posting it is that I like it. You could use cal in a terminal window to work out when I hiked these hills. Alternatively, I could admit that it was 1986.