I learned years ago that you don’t have to have fine weather to enjoy mountaineering. If we were to rely on good weather we’d rarely be up in the hills at all; this is, after all, Britain, and more to the point, Scotland!
Therefore, when my brother and I left Arran’s charming village of Corrie, the cloud base seemingly hovering just above the tree tops, we resolved to keep our eyes to the ground. Rather than go aloft looking for expansive views that we knew would likely not materialise, we determined to learn a little more about the mountain’s more intimate environment.
A few hundred metres of tarmac led us up and away from civilisation; at the end of the road a path ducked its head into the trees, we followed. Those trees were mostly young birch, the true pioneer of the Highlands. But there was plenty of scrub and heather hugged the path edge; it was among this ling that we searched for signs of life. And soon found it in the form of two beautiful green caterpillars. The first we discovered was the pupa of a moth called The Beautiful Yellow Under-wing. The caterpillar, less than an inch long and mottled yellow and white, was perfectly camouflaged in its heather breakfast; to discover such delights you have to take your time and look! Our second find, a little farther along the trail, was the Broom moth caterpillar. A little larger this one, a dark little fellow with bright yellow stripes the entire length of its body, he didn’t seem so well concealed as his neighbour.
You can imagine, with various fungi as well as invertebrates to look at, it took us a while to finally break free of the trees.When we did we found ourselves in a bleak world. Much rain had fallen during the past few days, and much of that rain was right now pouring off Goat Fell’s eastern flank in the form of a tempestuous foamy waterslide, aka Corrie Burn. We passed through a deer fence and followed the torrent up into the corrie. Here the path bifurcated, one branch disappearing into the smoke filled cauldron of the corrie, the other uphill and into a likewise cloud shrouded mystery. The latter was our chosen route for Goat Fell’s hidden summit. We boulder hopped across the burn and took a backward glance. Below us stretched the gloomy woodland we’d just passed through; beyond the trees a murky emptiness of sea stretched east and horizon-less. After two or three paces upwards even that dour vista disappeared, replaced by ever growing blocks of dripping granite and ever sparser clumps of ling. We were a mere 400 metres above the level of the sea; in shillings and pence that’s only 1300 feet; and yet we were in the clouds!
We walked close to the edge of the corrie precipice, but would never have known it had we not studied the map beforehand. All around us, in this weird Dante’s world, thick cloud swirled around us like the devil’s own breath. Our path merged with that which snakes its way up from Brodick, and had us clambering through and over bigger boulders still. Goat Fell’s summit is marked on the map as a ‘viewpoint’; we passed it by without a second glance. On we moved, through an alien landscape of tors and pinnacles, if ever Martians existed they might have felt at home up here.
We teetered over North Goat Fell’s more knobbly bits then took the steep and woefully eroded path down the North-West ridge. Here the fog didn’t help at all; with numerous detours etched into the mountainside, some of which we knew could lead to more difficult though today invisible ground, we were happy to use our hands as well as feet! Eventually we arrived at the sanctuary of ‘The Saddle’. One of my favourite sunny spots among the entire Arran range, this deep and narrow col separates rugged North Goat Fell from its neighbour Cir Mhor, in one direction, and wild Glen Sannox from picturesque Glen Rosa, in the other. I’ve sat here amid its gargantuan slabs and boulders, basking in the sun while listening to the music of the burns rising from either glen; listening to the calls of other walkers in their varying stages up or down the mountainsides; there’s an atmosphere about the place that seems to pin me to the ground.But not today. If we were not the only folk on the hill that morning it felt like it. Even the sound of the burns below seemed to struggle as they rose to meet our ears, so thick was the muffling cloud.
The easiest way down is via Glen Rosa and its tourist-friendly path of pitched granite blocks, for most of its length a gentle staircase. After a little over a mile we joined the Glen Rosa Water at a spot where another path heads up to the col separating Cir Mhor from the cock’s comb ridge of A’ Chir, a climber’s paradise of perpendicular granite and basalt dykes. We looked back briefly in that direction but saw nothing. We trained our eyes once again on the ground about us. Easily confused with that of the Northern Eggar Moth, we found the black, hirsute caterpillars of Fox Moths. A little later we found a Common Darter, a dragonfly in black and blue livery and all of 4 inches long. It lay resting by the side of the path, evidently spent of life now its brief work of procreation was done; for all its beauty it was a stark reminder of nature’s unemotional reality.
Ten minutes later my brother leapt into the air! I knew that that meant adder. Sure enough, curled atop a thickset spray of heather, a young reptile drew what warmth it could from the hiding sun.
Like a copper necklace embedded with jet black diamonds It slithered away with only enough energy to half hide itself in the nearby undergrowth. A few minutes later my brother was in the air again! This adder was even bigger; it didn’t hang around. A few moments later yet and Paul was fairly flying.“I do wish you wouldn’t do that”, I chided; though to be fair this one was a biggun. It appeared to be midway through sloughing off its skin, half covered as it was with a thin gossamer of its former outer self. That was the end of the day’s adders. In fact, apart from another couple of caterpillars, a few meadow pipits and a solitary black Dor beetle, that was the last of anything we saw in the glen at all.
As the river widened seawards the clouds above finally began to break, leaving small blue holes that allowed the sun’s warmth to draw sweat from our back-packed backs. Optimistically we turned to look back hill-wards; but to no avail. Cir Mhor made a valiant effort to tear aside its veil but just as soon gave up the fight.
And yet the day had been a good one. We’d met the mountain on its own terms. The mountain didn’t want to share its grandeur, not today. Instead it had allowed us to peer into its more intimate secrets, Secrets all too often overlooked when the weather’s at its best.