Sheep abound on Highland hike

SONY DSC
SONY DSC

Long summer days have finally given way to autumn, with its tree-stripping gales and another year’s death, reflected already in the sallow hues creeping steadily over our hillsides.

Soon the first real frosts will arrest any stubborn growth and further sear any semblance of this year’s unexpectedly fine summer. And soon will come the first snows! That’s not a gloomy prognostication; each season has its merits, after all.

Think of the Highlands and sheep come to mind. Everywhere we go there are sheep. But that has only been the case for a few hundred years; before thesheep the most common animal on the slopes would have been those sturdy little highland cows, shaggy as befits the cold environment, and summermoveable. Many a hill had its summer shieling.

And yet there were not only cows. Judging by the frequency of horse related names and terms dotted over the ordinance sheets, horses must have figured prominently too. One such name is Mharconaich, the Gaelic word for horse place. Marc, mharc and mhairc, are each terms for horse; you’ll find the word associated with both hill and glen.

There are two such hills in Badenoch, for instance. Beyond the Munro, Carn a’ Caim, a few miles east of Dalwhinnie, 882-metre high A’ Mharconaich, commands fine views to the Cairngorms; its almost flat summit plateau seems an ideal place for roaming horses.

Seven miles to its southwest, across the Pass of Drumochter, another ‘Horse Place’ rises. It was this Munro, along with its three ‘West A9’ companions, that I recently visited.

Nestled below these big and bulky hills, Balsporran Cottage offers bed and breakfast to the weary traveller, its welcoming blue sign garishly lit like a neon flag. Close by, in the shadow of A’ Mharconaich, walkers can leave their cars.

It was barely light as I set off; although better had been promised, the heavy cloud that had only just ceased shedding rain, lingered stubbornly about the tops. Happily, even as I took my first steps forward, a shaft of eastern sunlight Lit the upper corrie and summit of A’ Mharconaich.

But that hill was still a morning’s walk away; first the long wet slopes of Geal Charn.

The cottage was quiet as I passed beneath the nearby railway arch; I followed the track until I could pick up the ATV inflicted scar that would become the path along Geal Charn’s long and tedious grass and heather clad east ridge.

For company, as I ascended, I had behind me the ever diminishing drone of A9 traffic, and below me, to my left, the ever friendlier shooshing of the Allt Coire Fhar. The only other sound was that of my heavy breathing and footfall.

There used to be a number of cairns on the ridge line, easily seen from the road and known affectionately as: ‘men’. Only one seems to have survived;the summit cairn lay a kilometre above it.

The views from here are well worth the halt. Below me stretched the length of Loch Ericht, undecided yet as to which colour it wanted to be today; the cloud was breaking freely now, its cloud greys and sky blue being reflected in the water willy nilly. Across Loch Ericht, Beinn Bheoil seemed a mirror image of Geal Charn; beyond, sporting Leacas’ Long and Short, Ben Alder rose supreme.

Geal Charn’s south ridge starts off stonily but soon becomes softer underfoot.

I dropped down quickly to the bealach at the foot of Coire Fhar. The grassy climb before me was a ‘head down’ plod.

It led up to an almost flat kilometre of grassland on a southwest-northeast axis. It’s here that I always imagine horses. The plateau gives a lovely walk, especially on a warm summer’s day; always it invokes visions of galloping mares and steeds, tails and manes flailing at the wind behind them.

I walked a few metres beyond the summit cairn to stand at the lip of A’ Mharconaich’s eastern corrie. High above The Pass of Drumochter, An Torc, or Boar of Badenoch, biting into the scene, the view back down was dark yet not gloomy; breathtaking in a sombre way!

I walked back toward Munro number three; Beinn Udlamain appeared as a grey green crescent beyond the knoll that barred the way. The path is always clear and there are bits and pieces of old fencing, a handy hand rail in thick weather; just now the weather was living up to the forecasters promise, the sky was shredding clouds as easily as cotton wool.

Directly south, a path dives off for the depths below the final Munro of the day; said path is easily missed, but that doesn’t really matter. The secret is to head down east, into the head of Coire Dhomhain, a rough and claustrophobic place, before striking east, uphill, on Sgairneach Mhor’s grassy western shoulder.

Once up high, and if you’re lucky, you’ll hit upon a path that will lead you all the way to ‘The Big Stony Hill’s’ summit cairn.

I’ve seldom hit the path first go, but usually the weather has been good enough to make it matter not at all.

On a previous trip I’d begun with Sow of Atholl; that Corbett loomed in front of me now, its very steep, heather clogged western slope most unappealing. I decided on an easier option.

Coire Creagach drops its rock and scree sharply to the north; bounded by easy ridges on either side, both are good ways down. The shortest route drops north and slightly west, steeply but in uncomplicated fashion, all the way to Coire Dhomhain.

Down by the corrie’s allt a good track comes up three miles from the A9. After all those pleasant hours up above it’s not the best of walking, but it does get you quickly along. In no time at all I was walking far below the tops of earlier on. The sun beat down on me now and for much of the time the glen was breezeless. A number of times I halted to slake my thirst and once I even took my boots off and paddled in the burn. Such bliss!

As I neared the A9, the roar of heavy traffic drumming ever louder in my ears, I began to dread the long three miles of road back to Balsporran. But in the event it turned out not so bad. Since my first visits to the area, a friendlier cycle track has been pushed alongside the tarmac, gentler on the feet by far.

It wasn’t too long before I was at the car and gazing back at A’ Mharconaich.