Backpacking Over Scaraben and Morven

Between Dunbeath and Kildonan lies a vast area of rough ground. The map’s lack of paths promises a fair helping of collarwork but the traverse is worth the effort. Geology, conglomerates and quartzite over sandstone, creates hills which rise above a low, boggy floor with nothing to block views. I could see from the Cairngorms to Assynt and from the Moray Firth to the North Atlantic. The views emphasised the remoteness of the hills I climbed. Morven’s summit is 10 taxing miles from the train home. You might see day walkers who have driven to Braemore. Descend the west flank of Morven, however, and you are on your own.

Public transport can be a bit iffy in the Northern Highlands. Stagecoach haven’t always run the buses their timetable says they will run and my journey home was entertaining. On the last day of April, the bus did what it was supposed to do, dropping me at Dunbeath for a gentle six mile stroll along the lane to Braemore. This is one road I was able to enjoy. Delightful weather and long, moorland views.

The bridge at 0862096 exists and could have shortened my route to Scaraben, with some fence crossing. I preferred to walk on to the end of the road for the stone bridge over the Berriedale Water. Braemore is pretty and there is a stile giving access to the open hillside, which was very wet till it steepened for the final push to the ridge.

Much of Scotland was visible from East Scaraben. I made the mistake of continuing with just a short sleeved base layer under my windproof for the walk to the main summit and was very cold because of the wind by the time I reached the shelter around Scaraben’s trig point. I continued after food and dressing properly.

During the descent from Scaraben’s third, 608 summit, weariness and a realization that the vegetation was unsuitable for camping set in. Scanning the slopes of Smean, I spotted two green patches in amongst the brown mix of heather and tussocky grass. One was clearly too sloping and the vivid green of the other, smaller patch could have meant wet Sphagnum. I investigated and found a water source and a pleasant lawn. Home for the night.

A heavy dew settled during the night and froze before dawn. The early sun dried my Duomid while I breakfasted but the day was dulled by overcast before I set out for Maiden Pap. Conglomerate buttresses make the hill look difficult from a distance. It isn’t.

Smean’s summit gave an easy scramble. Then it was time for the steep, 400 metre ascent of Morven. A path simplifies the ascent through heather and boulder scree.

My many mentions of long views might be getting tedious but the terrain creates them. St John’s Head on Orkney stood out. Foinaven and some hills, probably the Dearg group near Ullapool, we’re visible through the haze. To the south, things were murkier as the bad weather forecast by London-based weather people edged a little closer. As the cold wind was no longer being countered by sunshine, I decided to head over Cnoc an Eireannaich and down the Kildonan Burn to the train.

Looking back, Morven’s conglomerate, stood out from the rounder, quartzite hills I had climbed. The ridge from Small Mount westward gave the easiest walking surface since leaving the road the day before. The map gives Cnoc an Eireannaich a height of 517 (518). Arrival at the summit showed a cairn which was higher than the trig point.

The wind was so strong, the phone vibrated as I tried to photograph the map height’s explanation. I was amazed the shot came out and amazed again a minute later when I put up a bird of prey. “That’s big,” was my first thought. I spent the next 10 minutes persuading myself that I hadn’t got close to a golden eagle but a sighting of a buzzard, with white, wrist patches, later, when I was down in Kildonan gave a definitive answer. The buzzard was much more slender than the bird I disturbed. So, it was an eagle.

The Kildonan Burn was enjoyable initially but then palled as I passed several dead deer, quite a few in a sheepfold at 933254. Long streamers of algae made the water look non-potable, a shame as I was dehydrated. A side stream was cleaner so I stopped for a brew. Reinvigorated, I pressed on down to the Field of Gold. Just before the gold workings is a steep sided gorge, with gorse handily placed to catch anyone who tumbles from the airy sheep tracks.

At the station, lights came on shortly before the train was due, which seemed a promising sign. Nothing happened for several minutes. Then, an engineering train came from the wrong direction and stopped to tell me, the only passenger waiting, that the passenger train was running 50 minutes late. A motor had broken so the train had returned to Inverness for a replacement unit. Keeping me informed was a nice touch and the train did eventually get me home.

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