There cannot be many countries on the planet where one can leave its east coast, travel right over to its west coast and then back to the east coast, on the very same day. Add to that the ascent of a couple of rugged mountains and you might say that any such day would be a full one.
It was 4 am when, bleary eyed and heavy limbed, we left Montrose. The light was so stunning as we entered Glencoe we had to stop; we were way-laid by scenery so crystal clear and fiery as to beg for photography. Little wonder that we didn’t start walking until 9.30am.
We’d taken the Corran Ferry across Loch Loch Linnhe, to Ardgour and then driven along to Strontian and the woods around Ariundle, beautiful woods of beech, birch and oak and even a few straggling Scots pines.
These woods are attractive to tourists and are thus way marked, a good thing as it encourages many to come and savours these wonderful airts. Judging by the amazing variety of flora we noted as we passed, the bird song and the insect life, these woods alone are worth a visit, let alone the hills beyond them. And today these woods were our gateway to those very hills.
After 40 minutes of shady walking we burst into the open sunshine to find ourselves in the jaws of the green and fertile glen of the River strontian, its rocky tops as yet shrouded in morning hill fog. A rough river-side path drew us deep into the glen.
Our first hill, 761-metre Sgurr a’ Chaorainn, rose a couple of grassy miles ahead, its upper rocky ramparts disappearing into unpromising swirls of mist. Eventually we left the relative comfort of the path and headed upwards on wet grass; we were soon in a rippling world of glacier spawned hummocks, a series of little eminences that served to ready our thighs for the climb ahead.
The forecast had been for an afternoon with lots of blue sky and warm sunshine. So it started to rain! Thankfully it wasn’t heavy, in fact it was more refreshing than wetting, so muggy was the atmosphere about us.
After a few hundred feet of steady climbing we arrived at the first outcrops. Although there was no climbing involved it was good to ring the changes by putting hand to rock; even in the hills variety adds its spice.
At length the rain stopped and we levelled out; “we must be near the top,” I reasoned. Not so! Through the shifting clag I could see another rocky shoulder and, behind it, yet another; we still had climbing left to do.
We were in an eerie world of pale quartz now; mist wreathes drifting like spectres concealed the way ahead until, with no warning, the summit pile of stones sprang out of the gloom to greet us. At its modest 761 metres this hill just misses out on Corbett status; however it does have the distinction of being Scotland’s second highest Donald.
With this summit came a freshening breeze that tore at the mist and sent it scurrying skywards. The sun pierced all to shine fiercely on our heads, revealing the glorious mountain scene around us. To our north, just a jump of a narrow glen away, ‘Donald’s Peak’, alias Sgurr Dhomhuill, soared like a gnarled pyramid. Its long westerly ridge pointed at the sea and the floating shapes of the Inner Hebrides; at one point we saw, clearly framed in the Vee of nearer peaks, the jagged outline of Skye’s many pinnacled Ridge. And even farther out to sea, feint grey shapes revealed the not often seen islands of the Outer Hebrides.
Today’s chief summit was still a couple of undulating miles in the east. After lunch we dropped steeply in that direction and headed for the broad quartzy ridge of Beinn na h-Uamha. The going was pleasantly easy; quite wet in places, today it seemed to be a haven for frogs.
The summit stands one metre higher than that of our previous hill; but although this summit has the perhaps ignominious distinction of being Scotland’s lowest Corbett, the views were just as grand. We stared down the length of Glengour, out across a Loch Linnhe complete with tiny white sailing boats, to the hills of Glencoe. We saw the Mamores and, his head and shoulders above them all, so still in cloud, their King, Ben Nevis. We could even make out, across the wide watery wastes of Rannoch Moor, Schiehallion’s distinctive cone.
Across the glen of the Strontian, Beinn Bheag and Garbh Bheinn, thrust up their majestic bastions and turrets of virgin rock. Garbh means rough; you’ll see fewer rougher looking hills than these.
It had taken us over four hours to reach our Corbett’s summit, an extended time due, in part, to the constant photo opportunities which presented themselves in the variety of mountain flora, not to mention the sheer grandeur of the mountain scene itself. We turned for home reluctantly.
Retracing our steps to the summit of Sgurr na Chaorainn, was a delight. A sandwich and a final cup of tea set us up nicely for the long trek down. Initially, the rocks now gleaming in the afternoon sunshine, we stuck faithfully to our previous route of approach. Lower down however, for ease of passage as well as variety, we angled off on gentler slopes. Before long we were back at the river’s peaty bank, the same rough path now chewed to shreds by the hooves of grazing cattle.
The word ‘idyllic’, seems contrived, yet I can think of no bette to describe the sun drenched glen we walked in. In no mood to hurry we meandered with the river’s course, halting frequently to photograph the vistas around us or the wild life at our feet. Beneath embracing hills with names such as: Sgurr na h-Ighinn, Druim Leac a’ Sgiathain and sgurr a’ Bhuic, we ambled on. Below the ruins of old lead mines we headed for the beckoning woods of Ariundle and their welcome shade.
Even the walk back through those woods gave us plenty more to see. Beautiful purple-red Valerian, tall and slender, graced the verges as we went. Pink foxgloves, white stitchwort, yellow herb bennet and bog myrtle competed with the greens of ferns and grasses. Best of all, as though saved for the day’s finale, we spotted a little thing of sulphur yellow beauty. Stark against the freshness of the blade of grass it clung to, a brimstone moth reminded us that, whereas there’s a beauty sometimes savage in the hills we climb, there’s always a counter point in the little jewels we discover along the way...