Have the hills to yourself

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If you enjoy a long walk without too much climbing early on, this is the route for you. In fact the walk to An Dun will probably be a tad too boring for those who like their days out rugged and strenuous. If on the other hand, like me, you relish wide open spaces and, if like me again, you prefer them all to yourself, walk this way.

An Dun is purportedly Scotland’s steepest Corbett; expect a sting in the tail, therefore. No matter that; there’ll be plenty of time to catch your second wind, as you wander quietly along the peaceful Edendon Water, the views ahead gradually building to the climax that is: ‘The Fort’.

For that is the meaning of the name An Dun. Not that it ever served as such, merely that the steepness of the hill on virtually every side, makes the hill seem every bit as unassailable as a fortress.

Parking can sometimes pose a problem. There is a layby on the south bound carriageway of the A9, and since not many venture this way you’ll likely be fortunate enough to have it to yourself.

A private (gated) side road, leading off into the dark plantations of Dalnacardoch Woods, was my first objective. After running parallel with the noisy A9 for a few dozen yards, it turned mercifully into the north where gloominess reigned and hardly a bird song fell upon my ear. A red squirrel dashed across the road ahead and scampered up a tree, the last wild thing I was to see that day.

After a kilometre, by a rudely incongruous radio mast, I broke free of the trees and stepped into the autumn sunshine. Ahead and all around me spread the low hills of Darnacardoch Forest, itself just one small corner of the great and ancient Forest of Atholl. Down below me, pointing a long thin glistening finger northwards, Edendon water snaked. The rough track that was to be my guide for the next six or seven hours, kept company with the water, though for the first few miles, at a polite, respectful distance.

A couple of miles along the track stands Badnambiast, a woeful ruin now, open to all weathers and sheep; I didn’t stop! In another mile, below the heather lump of Leac nan Cliabhan, the track jumped the river on an ugly concrete bridge, giving me my first full view of An Dun, stark and distant still.

A couple of miles further north, snuggled in an artificial stand of trees, stands the derelict shooting lodge of Sronphadruig, which can humorously be translated as: The lodge of Patrick’s nose! Certainly the hills about me, in particular, An Dun and its mirror neighbour, Am Meadar, resemble huge noses!

Beyond the buildings and dead ahead, today’s hills, An Dun and A’ Chaoirnich (alias Creag an Loch), sat either side of the deep glacier Carved trench of Loch an Duin, its slate coloured water already visible.

And so to climb An Dun! Which looks far more formidable than it ever proves to be. As the track bends north-west to lose itself in what resembles a box canyon, replete with white thread waterfall, the path for Gaick Lodge appears. Step off that path and climb!

There are in fact bits and pieces of path through the frighteningly steep heather of An Dun’s broad south ridge, but I’ve always found it just as well to forge up through the heather direct. And so I did today.

In well under half an hour I was standing on the big flat, grassy plateau that tops the Corbett. The views up here are gob smacking!

It isn’t so much the wider scene that grabs you by the throat, though with The Cairngorms, The Atholl Hills, The Monadhliath and Ben Alder Hills, all on show, that aint half bad at all. More stunning still is the view below your feet!

There was Loch an Duin, far below, black and flecked white by a million white horses. Across the loch, climbing out of its mysterious water, glistening black crags rose to the opposite skyline. North-east, beyond wide flood plains of heather and autumn burnished grass, Loch Bhrodainn sat serenely in the clasp of its own hills.

The Corbett’s cairn, at 827 metres, sits at the northern end of the plateau, a pleasant warm half kilometre away. I lunched in total quietness.

An Dun offers no compromises; it’s steep getting up and just as steep the way back down. The way back down to the northern tip of the loch, however, is a grassier, perhaps potentially more slippery, proposition. I took my time.

The climb on the opposite side is even steeper; it’s the kind of steepness that has you looking down through your legs and all the way back down to a splashy landing if you lose your footing! Well, perhaps quite not that bad, it only looked horrendous!

Again it didn’t take long, soon I was making the last few hundred metres of easy ground to A’ Chaoirnich’s lonely little cairn. The land up here is predominantly peat and heather; pleasantly bleak on such a day of thin high cloud as this was.

Again there are paths of sorts up here, some the trods of deer, others the deliberate traces of walkers and stalkers; threading them together an easy way south, over mostly flat ground, and sometimes at the very brink of Creag an Loch’s plunging precipice, eventually had me high above Sron Phadruig Lodge once more.

Meall na Spianaig, my final little top, would quickly see me back down on the track for home, though home was still a very long walk away. But even this lowly hill was a place for last mesmeric views, a difficult spot to leave, such was the beauty of the afternoon vista in front of me.

Best of all right now, even though I stood little more than 600 metres high, was the view between An Dun and Am Meadar. With such steep sided hills sitting in such close proximity to each other, this view is typical of many another in the region; deep and dark chasms begging for exploration.

I came back down at the fag end of the day. Time to draw deeply to the end. The sun was finally breaking up the cloud cover that had been with me for most of the day; low in the west now, it lit An Dun like a golden lamp. In this photographer’s dream world I had no choice but to linger with my camera.

At last I tugged myself away. As I walked south along the track, the sound of the friendly Edendon only just loud enough to drown the intrusive sound of my crunching boots, the sun slipped quietly below the far horizon hills. Scheihallion, ‘the fairy hill’, stood proudly, blue-grey and dark against the clearing sky. A few feint stars pierced the deepening cloak draping itself around her shoulders; the tranquillity was sublime!

I approached the ruined Badnambiast, to find its sad old stonework silhouetted black against the sky. A remnant wisp of low cloud briefly aligned itself with the hovel’s crumbling chimney stack; it looked like smoke. As I passed I paused to listen; there was no one home, of course, and perhaps, for now at least, that’s just the way it should be.