Thursday, June 25, 2009


I'm having a short blogging holiday, the pause button has been pressed. The reasons are many and varied, and include the busyness of the 'end of term' stuff, the kids being off school next week and needing more of my time, a huge list of books I want to read and the long overdue application of the maxim, "when you ain't got nothing worth saying, just shut up!"


Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Beinn Liath Mhor & Sgorr Ruadh

(photos c/o That Rogers Character and Dr K.)
The long, undulating, three-topped summit ridge of Beinn Liath Mhor.

Liathach across Torridon

Can you spot me?

The big-round of the hills of the Coulin forest, high up between Loch's Torridon and Carron is a stunning, exhilarating and overwhelming experience; the kind of hill-day that stretches the superlatives to breaking point. Beginning at the roadside below Achnashellach station, a forestry track crosses the rails and climbs through the woods before a walkers path takes a sharp left prior to some deer fencing - this excellent stalkers path leads high into the corrie and has side paths which lead up to all the major ridges.

High in the corrie the path splits, on track to the left heads for the ridge between Sgorr Ruadh and Fuar Tholl (this was to be our descent path), while the right hand path lead to a seemingly impossible climb through the rocks and terraces of Beinn Laith Mhor's southern ridge. In practice a path weaves its way (albeit steeply) in and out of all the hazards and along the stunning ridge. This is one of the best ridge walks I have done - and were it not situated in the shadow of Torridon's mighty Alligin-Liathach-Eighe threesome, would have a reputation for being an absolute classic high-level round.

The views from the summit of Beinn Liath Mhor are more than words or camera can capture, but they live on, indelibly inscribed upon my memory. Now back at home I have spent several days clearing up after a child with a particularly florid tummy-bug. Happily, by simply closing my eyes and calling on my memory, within seconds I can be once again gazing from on high down the length of Upper Loch Torridon with the blazing sun glinting off Beinn Eighe's quartzite sides......... And that was only the view in one direction, Glen Shiel, Affric, Slioch were in sight, Fisherfield and of course countless hills to the south and east were all there, while to the North the distinctive spines of An Teallach sat on the skyline. Glorious days.

The trickiest part of this walk is the traverse of the ridge at the head of the corrie, punctuated as it is by a steep sided rocky knoll. A 'false path' misleadingly guides walkers descending Beinn Liath Mhor towards it, whereas a better descent comes by keeping to the northern edge of the ridge and looking for an eroded descent path. Once on the knoll, don't climb to its summit but look for a traverse path on it southern side - which again leads to a steep descent route down to the lochan and the main path to the bealach from Achnashellach station. From here it is an energetic but straightforward pull up and round to Sgorr Ruadh's airy summit cairn. My little camera was full-up, so I am relying on pictures from the other guys for this walk! They haven't sent me any from Sgorr Ruadh, but that is a tremendous peak, perched high on the ridge with especially good view of Maol Chean Dearg. Time prevented us from scampering up Fuar Tholl the stunning corbett that dominates the view from the A-road, so we picked our way through the hummocky terrain to the descent path - a fast and easy descent and wonderful conclusion to one of the best days I have ever had in the hills, a wonderful conclusion to our hillwalking holiday.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Moruisg & Sgurr nan Ceannaichean

In Dr K's absence, That Rogers Character and myself found the right layby on the A890, crossed the river by the footbridge and found the cattle creep under the railway line and began the long gruelling ascent of Moruisg. This hill is hardly the grandest or most shapely of the high ground in this area - but it does throw a challenge into any walker who wishes to climb it. The walking books speak of the gullies running down the side of the hill, but fail to mention how steep the ground gets between them. Its one of those climbs where the car is visible for the first hour or so appearing smaller and smaller down at the roadside. The climb does reward the walker with a broad ridge to stride up to the summit cairn however - opening the way to an increasingly interesting, narrowing ridge around to Sgurr nan Ceannaichean.

The photo above (taken just after we had come down from the hill) shows the cloud crowning the summit ridge like a distinguished head of hair. The reality of climbing up into this cloud (picture below) is that when we sat down at the cairn to enjoy the view we could just about see each other and the three other foolish souls who had chosen such a day to satisfy the peculiar need to stand on top of mountains in the fog.
In poor visibility the twisting ridge tested our map reading abilities, and I was glad that That Rogers Character was there to confer with. Such times on my own always add an element of intense concentration that can detract from the sheer fun of hillwalking. When I'm on my own I am excessively cautious and don't have the courage of my convictions, obsessively reading the map, and checking with the compass and GPS all the time. Having two of us checking the route and independently coming to identical conclusions about our location and direction is somewhat reassuring!

The route off this one isn't too bad, the North ridge of the second hill providing plenty of steep grassy slopes with which to pick routes around its rocky bluffs - leading to a path down towards the river and rail crossing back to the day's starting point. Here, waiting for us was Dr K himself, who had spotted us on our descent and greeted us with good news, - and he had been to the supermarket and stocked us with good food and fine ale for our final evening at Gerry's Hostel.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The boys are back in......... Am Ploc

The Hillwalking Boys - enjoying the Plockton Sunshine!

That great writer on the British countryside, Alfred Wainwright wrote lovingly of "Dear Plockton", to which he "arrived in eager anticipation and left in reluctance". He adds, "By common consent, it is the prettiest of Scotland's west coast villages",..."It really deserves a more romantic name, Plockton meaning the town on the headland. But what's in a name? Plockton is a little paradise." We'd like to add that in addition to all these charms, it makes a great place to have a rest day from hill-walking and has a fabulous little fish and chip take away too. Wainwright describes the village as "unspoilt and unsophisticated" and his "priority holiday venue...throughout the 1970s". Plockton is full of happy memories for me too, having been here a couple of times with my family (and my sister), on both occasions in weather more suited to the villages famous palm trees than to its situation in the Northwest Highlands. I remember watching some of the Live8 gig here with Lord Provan of Mearns after a particularly memorable ascent of the Forcan Ridge - and now I have another sunny Plockton memory to add to the collection.

Knowing that we were out of food, and that in the still relatively Sabbattarian Highlands we would have trouble finding an early morning shop - hillwalking was out of the question. So, after much time-wasting at Gerry's Hostel, Dr K. became decisive - and announced that we were going to Plockton - a suggestion with which we were happy to concur! The day before had been a leg-aching, energy sapping long day in the hills. The air was cold, the walks long and the experience invigorating. Nothing could be more contrasting - within sight of the same mountains - than a Plockton day. While twenty miles inland, dark clouds menaced the high peaks of the Coulin Forest, the sun blazed on "Dear Plockton!". While the day before our rucksacks had been filled with ropey sandwiches and high energy snacks, Plockton has fresh succulent fish 'n' chips, and ice-cream. On Sgurr a Chaorachain we had clambered into Goretex, but at Plockton at least one of our number shed almost all his attire and lept into the sea (the vigour with which he did so almost causing him to shed the little he was still wearing). Sgurr Choinnich had treated us to an arduous but rewarding climb up a narrowing ridge, but Plockton invited us to enjoy the widening views of the bay - where I fell asleep in the sun.

The hillwalking boys have a lot in common with the Stooges, about whom I have previously posted. This is not least because two thirds of the personnel are identical, having lost one stooge to the delights of Oklahoma (the place - not the musical), and gained a hillwalker in Nairn. A day with nothing to do but to slow one's breathing down to a rate appropriate to the surroundings may sound dull to some - but dull moments are thankfully few and far between with the hillwalking boys. I like to think that when it comes to choosing friends I am quite discerning; and here I have them with wit, honesty, faith, wisdom, and who exemplify what it means to face adversity with integrity. They (we!) also have the worst, ham Australian accents in the world, Bruce! Exactly why conversation repeatedly lapsed in this direction was never entirely clear - but may have been related to the fact that a few days away from our wives was initially billed as the "no Sheila's!" event.

Plockton remains a place of overwhelming happy memories for me, a charming place around which I have wandered with my wife, my children, my sister and a handful of good friends. Ah! it would be great to be back in Plockton again.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Sgurr Choinnich & Sgurr a Chaorachain

The reason that we ended up striding out into the Coulin Forest, from the infamous Gerry's Hostel, this week was simple. Looking at a map of Scotland I noticed a vast swathe of countryside into which I had never ventured, despite the number of days I have spent traversing the paths, wading the bogs, scrambling the rocks and walking the hills of this fine country.

These hills are accessed from Craig, where a level crossing breaches the railway line and gives access to a forestry track which curves its way deep into the mountains. Several miles into the walk, and after a river crossing over Scotland's most precarious wire bridge (optional when the river is low - compulsory when it's in spate), a footpath forks off from the track and winds its way up to the Bealach Bhearnais. This bealach is the meeting-point of several fine glens, and a route to a whole cluster of mountains, and a place for ultra-keen Munro-baggers to pitch their tents as a staging post to legendarily remote peaks such as Lurg Mhor. Being only moderately keen baggers, we were not there with tents contemplating 'completing' the whole region in a weekend, but were happy instead to climb the long eastern ridge of Sgurr Choinnich to its lofty viewpoint, before crossing the delightful ridge linking it to Sgurr a Chaorachain. Sadly time prevented us from progressing out to the hills' fine south easterly top to enjoy its wide views - but forced us to turn Northwards and back to the path homeward. We turned westwards too early, and endured a grim descent towards the path, had we persisted northwards for longer we would have been spared some underfoot unpleasantness.

The walk back to Craig through the forest is long and gruelling after such a fine day spent on high tops and airy ridges, the little white house at the level crossing rises into view from several miles away... but never seems to get any closer, even as the feet get sorer! This would be a good track up which to push a mountain bike at the start of a day just to enjoy a long and speedy downhill freewheel at its conclusion.

Back at the hostel, having lost our heavy boots and gained a hot shower we reflected on this new range of hills we had tasted. We were all impressed with their size, graceful ridges, remoteness and huge views and began to make plans to return with bikes to try our hand at reaching some of the areas more remote peaks.

Friday, June 19, 2009

At Gerry's Hostel

The A835 winds it's way southwesterly from Achnasheen to Strathcarron, following the path of the Dingwall to Kyle of Lochalsh railway line. With the great peaks of Torridon to the North and a vast wilderness stretching all the way to Glen Affric on it's south side, it is a road ringed by great mountains, and very little else.

Very little else that is except Gerry's Hostel (Scotland's Oldest Independent Hostel) says the blurb, which is located at the hamlet of Craig at the start of one of the major footpaths penetrating the great upland ranges on the south side of the road (map here).

Gerry's is basic, comfortable and equipped with a reasonable kitchen, good beds, hot showers and a good drying room. It is also a little quaint, and rather eccentric - a characteristic it shares with its eponymous owner!

I spent four nights here with 2 great friends this week, during which time we managed to explore many of the surrounding hills and glens. We had Gerry's to ourselves for virtually the whole time which was an added bonus too. Gerry's own website is here. The unusual nature of this little hostel, (well actually of the owner) has led to a plethora of legends amongst hill-folk, most of which are undoubtedly untrue. Nevertheless, a Google search on "Gerry's Hostel" still produces a few tales today. My memories however are all good - of great hills, good friends, big meals in the common room, fine pints of ale and good books, wide-ranging conversation, maps and mountain guide-books being spread out across the table, and the infrequent trains rattling past on the adjacent Kyle line.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Return of the Three Stooges

Although flung to all corners of the world, Scotland, Birmingham and Oklahoma - my two oldest friends and I have stayed in touch since we studied together at Strode's College, sometime in the last century. Last weekend we all managed to get together for the first time in a decade, which was great, although tinged with regret that such times are so rare.

We reminisced about weird and wonderful events, in places as diverse as South Mimms service station and Coleraine. We talked about the ludicrous speeches we'd made at each other's weddings, and of the time when the police searched my car for drugs and seemed genuinely disappointed only to find a packet of chocolate digestives. We re-kindled very old jokes, which have lain dormant for so long and caught up on many intervening years of life that have slipped by and wondered how long it would be before we were all in the same place again.

In one of our parents homes (who were on holiday) we all realised how strange it was that once there were three of us; then we all gt married over the course of four years, and have all subsequently been breeding - and that there were fourteen people around the table! Happily all three of us found excellent wives who are good friends too. So while all six of us were chatting around the dinning table, the kids all bundled outside and seemed to get on really well (despite being relative strangers), and played with bikes, balls, ice-creams, nintendo's and the like. Two of that great number of children had never been to the UK before, to see where their Dad grew up - and I was particularly moved that along with the sightseeing tour they took of places like the London Eye; they also saw many more personal landmarks such as houses he had lived in as a boy and the place where he became a Christian as a child (here), and the place where their Mum had, as an exchange student in London (here).

Despite the long drive, the many hours on the road, the late nights and tired children, it was a great weekend. There's something joyful, encouraging, stimulating and right about enjoying real fellowship with old friends. We talked about families, children, work, politics, curry, music, America, faith, prayer, culture, worship, joys, struggles, hopes, pains, achievements, illnesses and Jesus himself; with a sense that all of these facets of life are lived before Him, and all the blessings in life come ultimately from Him.

The weekend was a rare treat, and I come away with a profound sense that life was intended to more like that was - and less like today is.

Monday, June 01, 2009

All Orange and Black

Just another Perth sunset, the breathtaking beauty of which the camera cannot do justice. This is taken looking North-westwards from the city-centre, in the foreground the Perth College area of the city at the top of Letham; in the background the Glen Almond hills.