A riot of colour all year round

Frank Brooks' hillwalking column image.
Frank Brooks' hillwalking column image.

Mheadhonach is a common name amongst the hills of Scotland, it means ‘middle’ and usually refers to the hill’s position relative to its nearest neighbours; not particularly prosaic but apt.

The Atholl Forest Hills have their own Beinn Mheadhonach; a Corbett, it passes the 900 metre height by a mere metre. To appreciate the significance of the hill’s name you really need to see her from across the A9, perhaps from Tullach Hill, just south of Blair Atholl. From this vantage point the mountain can be seen sitting plump between Munro Carn a’ Chlamain, to its immediate east, and the unclassified, though fine hill, Beinn a’ Chait, directly to the west; a fine triptych of hills they make when the sun is out and the clouds are scant. There’s a handy car park a few metres beyond Old Bridge of Tilt; across the road is the entrance to Glen Tilt and the start of many a ramble in the hills nearby.

If you are particularly interested in plant life then you will do well to start out early. For its first few miles the track passes through much woodland, mainly pine. The River Tilt is always close at hand and always noisy. But best of all are the flowers; from early spring though the dying days of Autumn, you can always be sure of a riot of colour and a list of species too long to be recounted here.

And that’s the story as far as Gilbert’s Bridge, where I left the track to cross the river. On the other side of the bridge a high wooden gate,(stile), bars the way to all but folk on foot. The fir plantings of Meall Chlaonain, kept me cool for a while, but I wasn’t sorry to leave these trees behind for the open grassland with its straggling birch, as the track finally turned green and led me on to the secluded bridge over the Allt Mhairc. There’s a tumbling waterfall here that squeezes the foaming waters through a rocky bottleneck; the atmosphere is dank and noisy.

Cuirn Mharanaich, one of Carn a’ Chlamain’s long, south pointing heathery ridges comes to die down here, though not in its heather garb; its socks are sheep clipped grass and make for pleasant walking.

As I strolled on I got the impression that I was walking into the jaws of something big. Dun Selg, above me to my right, across the little river the steep slopes of Meall Chlaorain, and up ahead, the southern foot of Beinn Mheadhonach itself, seemed to hem me in. The path led me to an old and suspicious looking bridge across the allt, always a good place to stop for a drink or to refill empty flasks.

Because this is were the climbing starts. But it’s never strenuous. Beinn Mheadhonach’s summit cairn lives at the far, northern, end of a two mile ridge that rises easily over ground dressed mainly in short heather and sphagnum mosses. Lower down the going can be a little wet underfoot, as height is steadily gained the ground firms up nicely; short wind combed heather gradually gives way to the grassier, stonier ground of the wide open summit plateau.

Beinn Mheadhonach would win no prizes in a ‘mountain beauty contest’, but beauty has never been the reason I have climbed her. It’s a lonely hill. I’ve been to the summit on numerous occasions, mostly on my own. Except on those few visits when I’ve been with friends, I’ve never met another soul up there; therein, for me at any rate, lies the hill’s attraction.

Solitude to enjoy the openness of the scene as it gradually unfolds about you. No big, craggy hills with pointy summits here. What you get instead is a vast open sky above an unending wilderness of rolling hills, a great patchwork of heather and grass, otherwise featureless, a lost land where it would be equally easy to become a lost wanderer. It has been said that, as far as human habitations are concerned, these rolling hills of the Atholl Forest comprise one of the most remote sectors in the whole of Europe.

Certainly you have the nearby hills of Beinn a’ Ghlo; a few miles in the north east rises Beinn Dearg, a munro which can easily be added to a longer day on Mheadhonach. Way to the north the Scree covered hulks of The Glen Shee Hills, and beyond again, the Cairngorms with the ominous gap of the Lairig Ghru, frame these ancient hunting lands. In the south, Ben Alder and his cohorts, the closer A9 Munros and ‘fairy hill’ Scheihallion, complete the circle.

But it’s a vast circle of empty moorland that you come to see up here. Peace and quiet.

When the sun shines up here and the winds are light, as it was on my recent visit, you can sit up by the little cairn, or as I have more than once, lie there with your eyes closed and just drift an easy hour away. When I’m in the mood I continue beyond the summit cairn, north another couple of easy going kilometres to the little eminence of Carn a’ Chiaraidh and its pink granite boulders, almost Cairngorm- like. And then back to the summit and a helter-skelter dive down into Gleann Mhairc, ‘the glen of the horses’ and a different way home.

A little care is needed on these steep slopes. Grass can be treacherous, wet or dry; there is rough ground to negotiate; I took my time. The Glen, with its occasional outcrops, is deep and green, the Allt Mhairc canters, rather than flows, giving good, joyful companionship on a hot day. Even here I took it slowly, it’s not the kind of place you wish to leave behind in a hurry. Many little camp sites suggest themselves along the way; Gleann Mhairc would be a grand place sleep at night, an even grander place to awake in at dawn.

Eventually I came back to the old stone bridge. There’s a finality about this spot. That wrecked old bridge marks for me the conclusion of a fine wild and secluded walk. Though there are still plenty of miles of tramping left, at least another hour and a half to go, the land from now on softens. It’s a return to the manicured estate, the serried pines, the nearby shooting range, (always noisy at the weekends), and finally the track back down to Old Blair.

That’s not to say it’s an anti climax. There’s still that peaceful walk along the river. True, from here on back many a cyclist will whizz by, momentarily breaking the magic spell. There might even be the occasional walker, heavily laden with camping gear, heading in the opposite direction, looking for his own little tranquil spot to pitch a tent.

And there’s always the flowers by the wayside, and the singing River Tilt, and the shady trees, to soothe the last miles home.