Mountains become old friends...


As the years roll by you look back and realise that some hills, or even ranges, have drawn you more than others; often visited mountains become old friends.

The Beinn a’ Ghlomassif has become a dear old friend of mine, so many times have I gone to its slopes and corries. Yet even old friends can sometimes surprise you! The guide books will direct you to a couple of ‘standard routes’, long and satisfying, always worth the trip. But over the past 30 years or so I’ve teased out many different lines, some quicker than others, some more obscure. I’ve come to know these hills in their many varying moods, some sublimely peaceful, others wild and hostile. And still I haven’t seen everything ‘the hill of mist’ can offer.

For instance, the group, consisting of four main hills holds 19 corries; some of these I have yet to explore. There are ridges up and down I still haven’t trodden. Thus my brother and I set off for Loch Morag, one of the most popular starting points, a few miles north-east of Blair Atholl. With Ben Vrackie for a backdrop and its still waters rimmed with the beautiful frilly white flowers of bogbean, you could easily find yourself lingering here. But even though we had no intentions of traversing the entire massif today, we had a long enough walk ahead; we finally tore ourselves away and headed for the ‘sheds.’

From these sheds (of the two only one now stands) you can cut across boggy ground to the white scar of path that seems to cut Carn Liath clean in half; that’s the quick way up. Today I wanted to show my brother Beinn Bheag. If the four main hills of Beinn a’ Ghlo are the grown ups of the family, Beinn Bheag, at 737 metres, is surely the toddler. Perhaps owing to its lack of size the hill is seldom visited, a shame really, it’s such a fantastic viewpoint. We located the familiar path that comes down from Airgiod Bheinn and followed it in reverse.

The air was alive with little dun heath moths, there must have been an early hatch. Where the path crossed a prominent burn we struck up a steep grassy rake, soon we were scampering over the wind mown boulder strewn heather of the flat summit. Airgiod Bheinn, means ‘silver hill’; it gets its name from the grey boulder scree that drapes her flanks from head to toe.

From here she lived up to her name. In front of us four of those 19 corries carved deep hollows, bowls of heather and grass backed by the eastern ridges of Carn Liath and Braigh Coire Chruin Bhalgain. Down that way we headed. My brother wanted to climb Bhalgain by its south ridge, a new ascent for him; I wanted to go up into the col between that hill and Carn Liath, from where I would be able to drop into Bhalgain’s south corrie and make my way up from there.

We agreed a time to meet and went our separate ways. I watched my brother disappear along his skyline ridge. With a good path to lead me I quickly reached the col. But there were scant signs of any path into my corrie, not too many people venture this way. It didn’t take me long to reach the burn of the rough but peaceful trench. The wind that had plagued us, now baffled by the corrie walls, couldn’t reach me here; with only the sound of the trickling burn and the occasional peeping of a pipit or two, the only sign of the winds of the outside world were the scurrying clouds above. I climbed the corrie’s steep and stony headwall to meet my brother just making his own way down from nearby Bhalgain; he turned to accompany me to the summit of ‘the upland of the corrie of little round blisters’. Although the views north to the snow laced Cairngorms, and of course to the nearby Atholl hills and Glen Shee heights which surrounded us, were grand, the wind blew too strong and cold to let us stay for long. We charged down the standard worn highway, Carn Liath’s snaking ridge in front of us like a huge crooked finger, beckoning us on.

Some way down, among the camouflaging boulders, we met a ptarmigan. He burped at us as he scurried a few metres off; (these birds are not overly worried by human presence). We met another not far from Carn Liath’s cairn, this one seemed even boulder, allowing us to get close enough for decent photos. Another mountain bird, even less fazed by human proximity, is the dotterel. Just shy of Liath’s summit stones we came across a ‘trip’ of some five or six of these beautifully chestnut plumed birds; like ptarmigan, you’ll only find these breeding visitors on Scotland’s highest plateaux.

Today they let us walk among them! Down the mountain’s west flank, to visit the ruins of an old lodge at Creag-Choinnich, a nook I’d so far neglected in my stravaigs. Avoiding the extensive boulder screes that give ‘the grey hill’ its name, we dropped down and found a grassy suntrap at about the 800-metre contour. About a mile below us, backed by the hills of Carn a’ Chlamain and Beinn a’ Chat, snuggling in a little knot of larches, we could see the diminutive stone structure of the lodge. Although this side of the mountain is steep at the top, the descent soon becomes more gentle.

A bright green flush advertised a spring which, as it developed into a stream watering yellow starry saxifrage and white sorrel, we followed downwards. Here and there we encountered oddments of path, too direct to be animal engineered, which indicated that other walkers sometimes come this way.

We dropped into the glen of the Fender Burn, the old lodge now hidden from us by the folding of the hillside. Until suddenly we found ourselves looking down on the roof of Creag-Coinnich Lodge, a mere bothy of perhaps two rooms and completely derelict. Like the eyes of a ghost the glassless windows, dark and blind, stared at nothing. We popped our heads in through the black door-less portal to be greeted by an abominable stench; in a gloomy corner lay the rotting carcase of a hind. We didn’t hang around!

The map indicates a path all the way back to Loch Morag, by away of Monzie; in fact it’s a good track. This morning’s wind had died and the promised sunshine had finally materialised; we strolled back beneath Carn Liath’s brooding bulk, warm and carefree. After a mile or so the heather moor gave way to grassy pastures; sheep, a hare and rabbits replaced the hinds and stags; lapwings, oyster catches and curlews filled the air with mating song.

Just above the farm of Monzie we stopped to look again at Carn Liath. Having turned the day’s last corner, we saw once more the huge white quartzy scar of path, surely one of Atholl’s most familiar man made land marks. Another circle had been closed; a fresh set of memories forged to be taken home and cherished. How long, we wondered, would it be before we were back again to visit this old friend of ours again?