A long range revisited

Lochan nan Cat
Lochan nan Cat

There are a number of starting points for a day out on Ben Lawers and its neighbours. At the foot of Beinn Ghlas, the car park at the now defunct Visitor Centre, provides ample space for cars. There’s limited space at Camusvrachan, in Glen Lyon too. However, if you don’t mind buying a pint or two at the end of your walk, (Oh, trials and tribulations!), the proprietors of the hotel at Lawers Village are happy to let you park on their cinder.

Naturally this was the option we went for. A little further along the road the Lawers Burn trickles below the tarmac; on its east bank a track goes to buildings at Machuim. Under a line of pylons a path continues through scruffy land and this you can follow all the way to Lochan nan Cat. We left it soon however to make a bee line north on damp and uninspiring ground to the rather dull skyline that is one Munro of seven that can be linked on a long summer’s day. Meall Greigh, (hill of the horse studs), though bland, reaches the height of 1000 metres. We climbed the hill not so much to bag a Munro, as to get high quickly and in uncomplicated fashion. We arrived at the cairn in dense mist!

A much better hill is its neighbour due west, Meall Garbh, (rough hill). Slightly higher at 1116 metres, this fine hill is craggier, hence ‘rough’, particularly on its steep southern flank. To reach Meall Garbh we simply followed the path past a big erratic boulder, as it slavishly clove to an un-erring line of fence posts. After a slightly boggy bealach it was up again all the way to the summit cairn.

There were as yet no views of the panoramic type; what we did have though, as we dropped south of west, and as its waters peeped in and out of the ever shifting cloud, were splendid glimpses of Lochan nan Cat. Though there are many small bodies of water throughout the Highlands known as ‘Lochan nan Cat’; I have to say this particular one is probably the only one I’ve come across that actually resembles a cat when viewed from above.

Now on grass interspersed by slabs, the path dove down again.

The bealach below is a fantastic spot for a look at the rugged cliffs of An Stuc and Ben Lawers; in many an all but inaccessible nook and cranny or sheep free ledge, have been discovered rare alpine flowers; no wonder that The Natural Trust for Scotland guards the area jealously.

Ahead rose the sharp cone of An Stuc. The blessing of coming at the hill from today’s direction is that we didn’t have to descend the now hideously eroded slope; it can be bad enough going up from here!

But there are no real problems, just a bit of simple, if scruffy scrambling, on loose but steep ground; soon enough we were standing at the top.

The cloud was beginning to rise a little though still we had no decent long range views.

It didn’t really matter. We raced down the broad back of An Stuc’s south ridge on delicious sheep cropped grass. The hills in these airts are comprised of limestone; that not only gives rise to a rich and varied flora, you are also guaranteed wonderful grass for walking on. Where rock protrudes it is schisty and often glistens when damp.

We headed for the rocky little tump, a Top, called Creag an Fhithich, ‘the crag of the raven’. The tight little bealach between it and An Stuc, is probably the finest spot for a view of ‘the cat’. There, way below us and definitely ‘smug as a cat on a rug’, she sat, lazily watching the world going by.

Creag an Fhithich is a pimple soon passed. A shame really as, along with An Stuc, it was one of the few summits that day which remained below cloud level. Directly to our south Ben Lawers’ 1214 metre summit was invisible.

Well over a century ago one laird of the lands dominated by Ben Lawers, wasn’t satisfied with the fact that the mountain was the highest in the Southern Highlands. He wanted his hill to ‘stand tall’ amongst the mighty ‘four thousanders’. Thus he set his work force the task of erecting a cairn some eighteen feet high. Thank goodness that eyesore has long since disappeared! Mind you; said laird paid his workforce most generously for their toils…he gave them each a book of poems!

We sat by the trig point in an eerie world of gently shifting mist. Most weekdays Ben Lawers teems with walkers; so far today we hadn’t met a soul. Even as we ate and drank however, there came wafting up to us the sounds of heavy boots on rock and intermittent puffs and grunts. We were joined by a middle aged couple and their collie dog, on holiday from Cornwall.

Ben Lawers is one of the few hills from which I’ve witnessed a ‘Glory’, a phenomenon related to a Brocken Spectre. I’d climbed the hill from the then open Visitor Centre, with my son; it was his first ever mountain walk. Again there was cloud, though underfoot the rock was covered in verglas. Having reached the summit by 5 o’clock am, we decided to wander over to An Stuc before returning by the way we’d come. It was as we arrived back on Ben Lawers that the clouds began to lift a little. Yet not before treating us to shadowy images of ourselves, complete with rainbow coloured halos, waving back from one mile away Beinn Ghlas.

Today our intention was to drop off Ben Lawers via its sharp East Ridge. First though we wanted at least a bit of a view of the other hills that make this little range such a popular attraction. To that end we descended on the staircase path southwest, to the next bealach. To our west, beyond unseen Lochan na Lairig, (hidden from us by Meall Corranaich), rolled the magnificent roller coaster ridge of The Tarmachan, its main summits still furtive in the clouds.It was a wide bealach that we stood on; to the west was the scene just described, to our east the black waters of Loch Tay snaked away below us. From the bealach we could have walked easily down the mountain’s vast grassy flank due east and all the way to our starting point. But that would have been a waste.

Instead, and because the mountain stood so close, we climbed onto Beinn Ghlas and back into the mist, before retracing our steps to the reigning trig point. From there we located the stony top of the aforementioned East Ridge, in the mist more reminiscent of a place of slag heaps than the fine hill it really is.

With Loch Tay growing beside us we followed the narrow spine until we were able to tumble down steep grassy slopes to the lonely reed fringed waters of Lochan nan Cat.

The Lawers Burn has its birth here and with it a little fisherman’s path. Cuddled by soaring grassy slopes on either side, we wandered along peacefully. Anon we passed some incongruous concrete sluices which have stolen the burns main flow to leave, in places, an almost dry bed of water worn stones.

At last we passed beneath those pylons once again, then Machuim; and after that the road and the, at last, the pub!