A horseshoe of delights!

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In his famous little book, ‘Tramping the Scottish Highlands’, (1946), W. kersley Holmes wrote of the Corryhully Horseshoe: “..as near perfect as anything terrestrial can be”. I’ll drink to that!

Actually it’s been a good ten years since I drank to that; during a recent foray to Loch Shiel I was as pleased to be back on the trail for Sgurr Thuilm, and co. A visit to the area had long been overdue in fact; a short weekend break was going to put this little discrepancy to rights.

The visitor centre was silent, not one car sat in the car park. The figure atop the monument to ‘the raising of the clans’, gazed out over the waters of a still, grey Loch Shiel; all was calm and seemed well with the world.

We were off well before eight, passing beneath the old railway arches, almost expecting the Harry Potter train to come steaming out of the adjacent hills, shrieking and smoking like a banshee. Instead we heard only the crunching of our boots on the gravelly track and the sound of dogs barking at cottages up ahead.

Corryhully is a corruption of Coire Thollaidh, in English: Corrie of the Hole. A fine horseshoe of hills encompass this distant corrie; as we set off we knew that said corrie today would likely be a cold place. Sgurr Thuilm, (peak of the knoll), at 3159 feet, is the highest of a grand cirque of mountains that culminates in Sgurr nan Coireachan (3136 feet); the two are connected by a lovely roller coaster series of smaller tops each hardly less exciting as their parent hills.

As well as the monument, this area has numerous connections with Prince Charles Edward Stewart. Following his defeat at Culloden he found himself in the hills hereabouts on three occasions, each time evading his Hanoverian pursuers. With imagined echoes of the ‘45’ rebellion ringing in our ears we tramped northwards.

Beyond the viaduct the track led us along the banks of the River Finnan, soon to introduce us to the forestry plantations of the lower glen. Near Corryhully bothy we crossed the Allt a’ Chaol-ghlinne (bridge), to follow the Land Rover track, past the incongruous Lodge then on to the rising toe of Druim Coire a’ Bheithe, Sgurr Thuilm’s elongated south-west ridge. Now the day’s business could begin!

The snow line wasn’t very high above us, to begin with though, the grassy ground was wet and spongy. On a previous visit we’d been turned back by rock hard ice even at this low level, (we’d come without crampons) and had to do with an exploration of a snow choked Gleann Cuirnean. We’d gleaned only meagre solace from the sight of the steep snow bound slopes of Streap on the one side and Thuilm, on the other.

We wouldn’t be needing crampons today; when we met the snow we found it windswept shallow and soft throughout. The ridge coaxed us up over a minor hump and finally to the summit. When the hills are winter white and the cloud cover high and dark you’re in for spectacular views. That was certainly the case today! In every direction a monochrome wonderland lay spread beneath our feet. Glistening white mountains, alpine; slate grey Lochs and Lochans, sinuous ribbons of river and burn; all stark and bitingly sharp beneath a deep grey cloud base. All of this went to make a superb black and white panorama in no matter which quadrant we chose to gaze.

North in particular held my attention: down there Glen Pean, with its dark plantations, appeared only a jump away. Down there, in imagination’s eye, we saw the footprints of Charlie and his loyal guides. Down there we saw Loch Arkaig, our host of but a few short weeks ago. North-west our eyes were drawn to the wild and rugged peaks of Knoydart.

And we’d only really just begun! Prince Charles and his men spent a day up on this ridge, (historians believe, on Sgurr a’ Coireachan), hiding from the redcoats till darkness fell and allowed him to slip away unseen. Even though we wanted to linger with the views we couldn’t wait that long. We dropped down west and headed for the as yet unseen sea.

With grassy Coire Thollaidh to our left and craggy Coire Dhuibh, with its jet black burns falling steeply to our right, we traversed two minor tops en route to Beinn gharbh, the rough hill. It was a rough hill too, with its small rocky outcrops enlivening the way.

Following old and fallen fence posts we went up next onto Meall an Tarmachain. As we descended the top’s nether side we actually came upon a small bevy of the namesake birds, white cloaked and red eyed, burping as they scurried but a few safe yards from our clumsy feet.

Sgurr nan Coireachan was next, (956 metres). Steeper, rockier too, we almost felt the need for crampons here; with care we did without. To stand above and practically drink the waters of loch Monar, Loch Nevis and the wide Atlantic Ocean, way below. A wondrous scene of mountain, loch and sea, a Scottish winter landscape at its very best! It was cold up there, yet that could by no means deprive us of the urge to linger; up here our cameras worked on overtime.

Although to all intents and purposes, this grand hill marks the beginning of the end, there was more to savour as we prepared to go back down. Much rocky ground, along a narrowing ridge high above, on the Coire Thollaidh side, quite forbidding looking cliffs, led us to the outings final top, Sgurr a’ Choire Riabhaich. Today, this ‘peak of the brindled corrie’ was living up to its name. Snow thinned all the way down its long eastern flank, giving that striped appearance evoked by its Gaelic name. As we dropped into the corrie, ‘the hole’, that our ring of hills surrounded, took on the gloom of the fading afternoon light; certainly a cold place now, even the snow higher up turning blue.

Received wisdom dictates that the walker stay with the ridge until just before a final rise, the last little nail in the horseshoe, at which point it is usual to drop down east to locate a good stalkers path, one that will escort you back to the outbound land Rover track. It’s a good enough exit.

Today, however, we opted to stay with the horseshoe right to its dying splutter. There are minor crags to be avoided on the way, but nothing over daring. With the light now beginning to soften towards a gloomy evening, we set our sights on Glen Finnan’s black forestry, yet a mile distant, and weaved ourselves a way back down. As we joined the track for the peaceful walk down to our waiting car, we could reflect quietly on what a lovely day we’d had.