The far north, June 2017.
Looking towards Seanna Bhraigh from the northern approach track
The gravel crunched under the whirling wheels of my bike as I careened down hill on the stoney track, the wind was a roar in my ears, deadened only as I lost speed but replaced with the squeal of the disc brakes as I hit them hard to avoid losing it on a fast approaching corner. A short incline slowed me down and the sounds of my speed were replaced by my breath and the hammering of my heart in my ears as I laboured at the pedals trying desperately not to lose my forward momentum through the grapefruit sized stones, the top was breached and then it was off again, splashing through deep puddles and crashing through the occasional river. The track was some 18K from the road to the bottom of Seanna Bhraigh with approximately 300m of overall ascent, the initial section was on a good access road to the estate lodge but after that it deteriorated to a rough four wheel drive track.
It was only 0730 and it was already hot, the night had been too warm to get into my sleeping bag, the midge too many to leave the window of the van open, it had not been a comfortable experience. I stopped for a drink and the sounds of the open moor overwhelmed me. A curlew called, a jacksnipe drummed and the river that the track followed babbled in delight at the prospect of a splendid sunny day ahead. I drank the isolation in let my breathing settle and pushed off with the mindset to take things a bit easier and not damage myself before I reached the hill.
The N/East ridge rose steeper and steeper until it towered above me from where I dumped my trusty two wheels steed at the outfall of the loch which nestled underneath its lofty heights. I paddled across the shallow river and set off directly upwards.
This is not the shortest route to the hill or the easiest line of ascent but it is described as one of the most aesthetically pleasing as it allows you to complete a horseshoe circuit around the wonderful north facing choire.
The ground rose steeply ahead, there was no path, little sign at all of people having been up this way before, an occasional crampon scratch on a slabby piece of rock or a worn bit in the grass where a rock band channelled any other climber through the same point. A walking pole kept me on my feet, otherwise I would probably have been on three points of contact most of the way. The rock bands steepened and I was scrambling with views under my feet of the loch some 1000ft below, I stopped to take a picture and the enormity of the landscape overwhelmed me, looking north, for the view south was hidden by the hill behind me the world just disappeared into endless moorland and hill, the only sign of mans influence the track I had so recently laboured along winding its way along the glen and disappearing into the hazy distance.
A whole lot of nothing
All too soon I crested the ridge and met a thank god breeze that cooled me down as I trundled my way around the lip of the choire towards the summit which sits on the far S/East side, diametrically opposed to my point of access. There was a small summit howf in which, much to my absolute amazement I found two lads enjoying their sandwiches. I had seen neither hide nor hair of anyone else since I set out some four and a half hours previously, it was a weekday and this is described as one of the most remote Munros there is in Scotland. I had not expected to see anyone else but stopped to pass the time nonetheless, exclaimed as we always do about the day being such a cracker, established that they had walked in from the south and rather quickly left them to it. I had intended to eat my lunch in that very spot but finding it already taken felt more than a bit cheated, it was not at all what I was expecting, I dropped down the rather more easily angled north east ridge to find a comfortable spot to munch on my own supplies. My lunch almost complete my newly acquired sovereignty on the hill was further eroded by the appearance of another four walkers heading up my intended route of descent. They had clearly come in the same way I had but it is fair to say that they did not look like they had cycled, there was no way they had walked it or I would have passed them on the access road, they looked like they had been parachuted in, certainly not runners who had made better time up the access track than me. A mystery it will have to remain, I did not ask, perhaps the lack of sleep and the heat of the day induced hallucinations, again I was glad to put them behind me and get back to my splendid isolation.
Looking across the choire to the summit, Beinn Dearg with a lingering snow patch in the distance
I regained the bike and this time had the prospect of 18K with a more or less steady drop all the way back to the road. Oh how I enjoyed that, I crashed through the rivers that crossed the path, I had enough momentum to generally flow over the rocky sections, the wind cooled me down and my speed was sufficient for me to forget the burning in my calves from standing in the pedals and shoulders from the constant jarring and bouncing. Taking the time for a dook in the river I was still back at the road in just under an hour. Another Munro, another most excellent day out.
Broken Paths are for Broken Men ?
Diary of a Munro Bagger, Jan 2017, Cona Mheall.
I climbed over the six bar ( metal tube ) gate at the side of the A835, the traffic swished by behind me, the sound muted in the heavy mist which was sublimating before my very eyes into the hoar frost that had stuck to my gloves. The ice cracked and I went through into three or four inches of water, the muck fountaining up through the puncture onto my gaiters. My hands screamed with the hot aches just from putting on my boots and gaiters, it was -5 and I had an ice cream head from sleeping without a hat on in the van with the windows open.
The track went north for 100m then paralleled the road for a Kilometer or so, it made no difference that the road was close, the fog hid the sounds and the sights of any human presence, my watch told me I had found the track that turned north towards Loch a Gharbhrain and the crossing of the Allt a’ Gharbhrain, my timing was spot on.
A herd of red deer hinds bounced out of the fog and were gone as quickly as they had appeared, their bovine smell lingering in my nostrils long after my eyes had lost them to the gloom. I climbed out of the shifting mist and saw my intended hill glowing red in the rising sun through the veils that clung to the lower slopes, it looked quite far away.
Cona Mheall in the far distance
I was heading for Cona Mheall, one of the Dearg outliers. I should have done it with the others in the group but had elected not to push it the day I came up from the other side as the weather had been challenging ( blizzards and low viz ) and the day had been short as it was. Instead I had elected to climb this hill on a route that is advised as “rough and wild” in my rather elderly SMC Munros book. Hey, that’s what we wanted, away from the hoards, a challenge, the first of which is described as “notoriously difficult” or even “impossible when in spate”, the crossing of the Allt a’Gharbhrain. I need not have spent the time fretting about being turned around by this, splish, splash and I was over it. I could not use the boulders as they were all ice covered so I just walked through the river, the water was all locked up in the ice above me on the hill and my feet stayed dry.
I elected rather than to follow the ground described as trackless peat and heather towards Loch Coire Lair to take a rising traverse across the side of the hill into Choire Ghranda, this was a mistake, as the slope I was traversing steepened the heather thickened and grew deeper, the boulders underneath it were covered in water ice from yesterdays melt and the nights freeze. Progress slowed to 1KPH if I was lucky, I heard onto the heather and cursed and sweated my way forward trying to keep the height I had gained and not give into the temptation of heading down hill. The heather eased and I breathed a sigh of relief until I came to a big slab of rock which barred my way for at least 100 above and below me, it was also covered in water ice and was a risk not even worth contemplating without ice axe or crampons. I elected to drop down and skirt the rock on the bottom, as I could see no natural breaks in the feature above.
I eventually made the outflow of Loch a Choire Ghranda hot, sweaty and rather bad tempered, my “mistake” had cost me at least an hour and given my already tired legs a kicking I had not anticipated. However the situation was worth it. The Loch in the Choire was covered in ice, to the west the huge cliffs of Beinn Dearg rose sheer from its edges, to the north, the south east ridge, my intended route, of Cona Mheall rose in my face just a tad steeply. To the South the Fannichs climbed out of the still mist covered glen from which I had come.
Beinn Dearg rises out of the frozen loch, a view largely unchanged for 11000 years.
The still early sun threw my shadow into the Choire where it lay across the melting rime covered deer grass, I sat down in its wintery warmth and caught my breath and replenished my energy levels. This is not a place that is regularly visited, there was no path, none whatsoever and I reveled in my splendid isolation, however I still had a long way to go so reluctantly got up and started climbing the ridge ahead. It was steep and a bit loose but grassy ledges in between the rock bands made it quite pleasant and relatively safe, its southerly aspect had cleaned it of snow in the previous days sunshine and the icy patches were easily avoided, I was on the top all too soon, the level rocky ridge curving northwards towards the summit of my intended.
Looking towards my intended.
This was a joy, the cold northerly breeze making jkt gloves and hat prerequisites but cooling me down from my exertions in the sun. The views from the top were superb, the winter temperatures pulling any haze out of the atmosphere giving clarity to the hills many miles distant, however I had no time to tarry, it was well after 1300hrs and I had a long way back, it had taken me 5 hours so far and I was tired from my two previous days of walking.
I dropped off down the east ridge towards the outfall of Loch Prille, the boulder covered ridge at first was difficult as the sun had not melted the rime and many of the rocks and steeper bits of ground were covered in thick water ice. I would be wary of taking this route in poor visability, the rock strata pushes you southwards towards the steep cliffs that fall into the Choire below, more than once I had to make an effort to change my direction due to finding myself on the edge of the cliffs. At the coll and the loch outflow I looked for a path back down into the Choire, I was wasting my time, there was none, the ground was steep and rough but fortunately ice and snow free due to its southerly aspect. I made the floor of the glen and set off southwards toward Loch Coire Lair. I am not sure why but I kept expecting to find a path, I was disappointed, the ground was rough, peat hags which just went on and on for at least 4K till I reached the end of the loch. I would not have liked to have covered that ground in anything other than the conditions I experienced, the hags were frozen, the ice held my weight but as it was I had to weave a tortuous route between the soft peaty walls.
At the loch I stopped to admire the perfect reflections of the surrounding hills in the uncannily calm water, a sublime moment., it was 1430, not a breath of wind, not a sound, I had seen no-one all day, not even a raven, the red deer in the morning the only other life form, it was surreal, awesome, my soul was filled by it and washed clean, energized, invigorated. I made my way crunchily down the loch walking along the area of stones the winter low had uncovered; they were still covered in ice making my route crazily paved. The river at the end of the loch had a slight depression in the grass running along its side, not really a path, something that might aspire to grow into a path in a few kilometers, a little further on it turned into an adolescent, disappearing for no reason and coming back in a twisted and difficult form only to disappear again. I got fed up of trying to follow it and just made my way directly towards the river crossing I had made first thing that morning, suddenly a foot print on the snow, a man Friday moment followed by relief, it was mine from the morning. I really felt relief, not sure why, but I did not want anyone else to be there just then, I needed the isolation, I would have been furious if I had met anyone else, this was mine, my day out. I needed other people around me like a hole in the head.
I crossed the river as easily as I had that morning, the sun was down and the mist was rising from the ground. It was full dark when I crossed the gate and road and returned to my frosting van.
Broken paths are for broken men ?, Unbroken ground breaks already tired men more like, however the rat was well fed and I would thoroughly recommend this route to anyone who wants to feel a bit of wilderness in an increasingly trodden country.
Shirtsleeves and Sunburn in Strathfarrar, January 2017 or
Who owns Scotland ? and, does it really matter.
I shut the five bar gate behind me and birilled the rollers on the combination padlock as I had been asked to do by the girl in the MCoS office, I was into Glen Strathfarrar at last.
Its not exactly hard to get access but this was my third attempt, the first time I had turned up unannounced and been turned away by the gate keeper, the second time I had been defeated by the snow, the remote road and the capabilities of my vehicle.
Glen Stratfarrar is in the area of Ardchuilk on the map above
Glen Strathfarrar is in the middle of Scotland’s most remote country, from the road entrance to the glen at Struy, just south west of Inverness, you have to go quite a long way west, south or north to meet another major thoroughfare. This road into Strathfarrar is private and the estates therein permit access for vehicles under a fairly strict code. In the winter months you have to get the combination for the lock from the MCoS and it is only given if you are a member or an associated club member. You cannot go in before 0800 and you cannot stay the night if you are driving, you have to advise which hills you are climbing and give your vehicle registration. In the summer months you can book your passage with the gate keeper but again you are limited to strict times and only 25 cars a day are given access, no access on a Tuesday, all this info can be found on the MCoS website.
If you walk or cycle in, and its quite a long way, you can go anytime and camp there under the Scottish access code rules. The glen also has hydro power stations and a nature reserve, which use the access road and, I am sure, contribute to the upkeep.
The route taken to tick all four munro’s
The 30,000-acre Braulen estate, which makes up the majority of the area and on which the Munros lie, is “owned” by a rather shadowy figure whose company is based (hidden) outside of the UK. It is run as a sporting business and the owner would seem to grace the estate with his presence only once a year, you will find some fairly negative criticism of him on the web relating to his court case with access to the SNH reserve.
Owned and Owner are rather superficial terms in my book, his name, or the name of his company is on the deeds, locked in a vault and recorded on some register in the legal systems of Scotland. Its not as if you can put this “possession” in a suitcase and take it away, put in under lock and key so no one else can see it, destroy it if the whim takes you, it has been there long before you existed and will still be there long after you have gone. You do not own the water that falls on it from the sky or the minerals under the ground, you can claim to own the beasties on the hill or the fish in the river but they are not going to do as you ask. The concept of owning all this is rather a vague one.
Ownership means responsibility for it all, if the owner goes there once a year what is the point, I can go there more and I have no responsibility, I can probably enjoy it even more than he does.
It’s also of course a business and I have no issue with that, it provides employment in an area where it might otherwise be difficult to find and, from what I saw, they do a good job of looking after the estate, it is very well kept. It is home to a lovely stand of native Caledonian pine and the hills are free of bulldozed tracks and any real evidence of mans brutality to nature.
Early morning cloud in the hanging valley
The economics of an highland estate seem to be a bit vague as well, according to the literature I have read these estates do not really make any money for the owners other than appreciation over the years (unless they have a significant amount of good farming ground) They sometimes seem to be a whim to the “owners”, a playground.
Scotland is the only country in Europe never to have undergone land reform; there is no other country where the bulk of the land is owned by so few. I am not going to go into some of the inequities of this ownership, how the land was acquired and how the law of succession has kept it in “the family” for hundreds of years, how some of the tenant farmers are given such a bum deal by some owners etc etc. Andy Wightman in his book “Who owns Scotland and how they got it” does a much better job than I would and if you are interested I suggest you read it. It might make your blood boil a bit though.
To my mind, and living in a part of the country where every bit of small land is fenced off and guarded by private signs the large estates and the access code are something of a symbiotic relationship, I question if such ready access would be available by right if it were not for the size of the estates. The only time I have been unable to follow my path in the highlands of Scotland was where a small owner had built a house and put an 8 foot deer fence around it forcing me to detour across a foul piece of ground by the lack of a convenient stile, its mine and you are not coming in should have been written on banners all along the fence. There are of course some big estates that go out of their way to be difficult but the large majority honor and uphold the access code.
The National Trust, John Muir Trust etc own large tracts of ground where access is not only given but encouraged. This is where we come down to the nitty, some of these areas are really bearing the brunt of our population. The hills are stomped down, heavily constructed paths are the order of the day, visitor centers, car parks etc all make it just a tad too easy and a tad too sanitised.
The backlash has started, rightly or wrongly, the right to wild camp is being removed in some areas because of “issues”. As we become more focused on our spiritual and physical wellbeing these problems of overuse are only going to be exacerbated and no doubt more draconian, and perhaps ill thought through actions taken.
Looking along the Strathfarrar ridge East to West
However, I turned my back on the gate and drove my van down the access road, it was still quite dark, there are four Munro’s in the estate and I intended to do the lot in one day, not a mammoth undertaking but the 26K route with 1700m of ascent is quite a lot to squeeze into a short January day, I must also admit to feeling a certain thrill which satisfied my elitist nature, I was into a quiet, private world; there was no one else going in that day or so I had been told, I had the hills to myself and permission through my being “ a member of the club”.
It’s a bit like the first time to take the bin up the Midi, you get to the top station and there is a sign there that says “ Only Alpinists past this point” you stride forward leaving the sightseers behind, your ice axe firmly gripped in a sweaty hand hoping that you do not trip over you crampons in front of anyone, however it does feel good, until you get onto some death on a stick route and wish you were in the pub with the tourists who are now back down in the valley.
Personally I think there should be more areas like this, where mans impact is managed, the crowds are kept out, where nature is given more of a chance. If you want to make the effort and walk or cycle then its yours to enjoy but if you want to drive in, set up a car camp then its not for you, try Glen Etive instead where you can rub shoulders with the glampers who leave their mess all around or in bin bags at the side of the road in the hope that the rubbish faeries will remove them.
Tarf side in the Cairngorms is like this as is Shenival bothy in the Letterewe, both are serviced by rough roads which are closed to private vehicles but you never hear anyone complaining about this. Strathfarrar however is the bane of many an access campaigners wrath, why, because it’s a metaled road and numbers are restricted, somewhat spurious in my book, no I like it just the way it is. Neither do I care that the owner is a shadowy foreign national, what difference to me does it make, what difference to the stalker, the estate manager etc etc, if the owner was a Martian I could not really care less, the sun still shines and the rain still falls.
The familiar humpback of the Ben rises above all other hills to the south
I parked the van and watched a plane come over the ridge to the south, its con trail like a belch of fiery flatulence as it was lit by the not yet risen sun. A group of six pointers gamboled ( I kid you not ) in the flattening upon which I was parked, the sky was clear and the hanging glen above was holding cloud, however it was quite warm and frost free, January, clear skies, no frost ? I set off up a good but steep access road which zigged and zagged and then deteriorated into a squelchy argo track at about 300m, the Allt Coire Mhuillidh chuckled its way down on my LHS as I sweated my way upwards. By the time I was on the SW ridge of Sgurr na Ruaidhe the cloud had cleared and I was in the sun and into my shirt sleeves. I made the summit in under two hours and was thankful of a cold breeze that cooled me down and forced me back into a fleece, hat and gloves. The ridge leading to the west and my next three hills looked inspiring, no major snow patches just easy and pleasant walking. I stormed along to Carn nan Gobhar, the still early sun silhouetting the distinctive whale hump of the Ben far to the south. The cold wind disappeared and I was back into my t-shirt, the views were stunning, all around me the wilderness was laid out in breath taking clarity. I stopped and looked around and at that point realized that virtually every peak above 3000ft that I could see I had already climbed ( I only have 15 to go now ) I reflected on the magnitude of this as I cast my eye in a 360 degree circle and felt really quite chuffed, I was having a good day. The ground I was walking on was soft with deep moss, not only had the mountain spirits given me warm weather, clear wintery light, peace and solitude but they had also seen fit to carpet my path with something to ease my old aching knees.
I made the midpoint of the ridge by 1230 and stopped for lunch, I sat in the sun and munched on a sandwich protected from the cold by a t-shirt, it was January the 20th, last year at this very time I had been fighting deep snow and bitter weather in Kintail !
There was not a breath of wind, not a sound, not a house or a road to be seen from my vantage point, nothing, I had the most perfect world to myself.
The final section, most precipitous part of the ridge and the last Munro came all too quickly, it was 1430, the shadows were starting to lengthen and the temp of the now slight breeze starting to drop by the time I got to the last top of Sgurr na Fearstaig.
Looking back along the ridge West to East
I dropped down into the choire below and out of the wind, the snow was banked out here but the sun was still strong enough to have me squinting and sweating as I ploughed my way down towards Loch Toll a Mhuic. The lazy river that issued from the loch guided the good stalkers path downwards and I was back in the glen before it was dark. I still however had six K to walk back to the van along the access road, my knees did not like that bit. The temperature was dropping and Venus was riding high and bright by the time I got back to my frost covered ride.
As I drove back along the access road past the closed up shooting lodges and the mothballed estate I reflected that all the bridges I had used, the road I had driven along, the lovely estate I had enjoyed spending my day in, none of it cost me anything, it was all kept so by a private individual and some folk who pay good money to blast some poor defenseless beastie, as my mum would have said, a fool and his money are easy parted.
However a lot of these estates have tax breaks and the current way the EU funds farms has been changed and the likes of Braulen estate may be able to claim approximately £545K p/a under subsidies till the law changes again in 2020 or Brexit actually happens and we change the way we subsidise our farmers.
One man and his hills
So maybe I am paying for it, if so fair enough, again it does not bother me in the slightest, I would far rather a small percentage of my taxes went there than into some smart bomb being dropped on some poor civilians somewhere in the name of someone’s idea of liberty and what politics are the right ones. Should I really be troubled that someone “owns” it and that I support the industry, what’s the difference in the govt supporting a rural economy through subsidies and supporting a borderline economic rural enterprise that happens to be owned by a wealthy businessman and that panders to wealthy clients. The end result is the same, good land stewardship and employment.
Or would the class issue be too obvious to mention here.
I also, as advised, love the fact that access is limited in a way that controls numbers and the activities that take place therein, I would also far rather that this was the order of the day than the estates being coerced into opening a visitor center or a campsite to cope with the numbers inflicted upon them.
As I closed the gate behind me I felt a real pang of sorrow to be leaving this little, and somewhat hidden world behind but I think that the world is a better place knowing that it exists whether I own it or not.