A’ Chailleach, in the Monadliath, is reputedly the bonniest of the bunch. Though she is a fine hill I’m not so sure that’s she’s the best; for instance, her near neighbour, Carn Dearg, certainly gives her a run for the money. It’s likely that A’ Chailleach earns her popularity more by her proximity to Newtonmore. She’s an easier hill to get to.
So, should you wish to avoid the inevitable hoards on A’ Chailleach, what must you do? Two things: first of all, don’t go on Saturday, (or Sunday, come to that), and second, have a chat with her husband first…
Let me introduce you. A’ Chailleach sometimes refers to: ‘the witch’. More often, though, the term means simply, ‘the old lady’. Am Bodach never refers to: ‘the warlock’, always: ‘the old man’. Often, as in the case of say, The Aonach Eagach, you’ll find the two of them together; the same is true of The Monadliath pair.
Most walkers will approach A’ Chailleach, from Glen Banchor, south and west of Newtonmore. A good way goes by a quieter, less frequented trail, to the north of the village.
Just past Newtonmore’s last and largest hotel, I took the country lane sign posted Strone. It being so late in the year I was surprised to see the bright mauves of spear thistle and black knapweed still colouring the dying verge; pink and white yarrow and yellow ragwort, not to mention hawkbit, looked as fresh as summer blooms. With broken cloud and early morning sunshine lighting the hills about me gold, all looked well for the day ahead. Two farm workers were already busy repairing a fence; they stopped to chat. Enthusiasm oozed from them both as they described their own walking in their ‘hills of home’; they spoke glowingly of long days out, of peace and glorious views over their much loved nook of Speyside. After a kilometre the lane became a track. My fencer friends had advised me to keep to the track until, after five kilometres, it became an indistinct path that would quickly give up the ghost.
“Climb Am Bodach, from thereabouts” they told me, “and you’ll not go wrong”.
After a kilometre the track fords the Allt na feithe buidhe then loops well away from the water, only to re-join it once it becomes the Allt na beinne, a pleasant burn which I was to follow till it disappeared, below my feet, into the earth from which it is born. And very pleasant terrain it waters too.
A curious cairn loomed up ahead, just off the main track. Who erected the cairn and to what purpose I have so far been unable to discover; today the only visitors other than myself, were sheep.
The track and its companion burn drew me into a shallow little glen. All about me golden bracken and autumn yellowed birch trees contrasted beautifully with the heather> A fine waterfall, a mini Mare’s Tail, cut into a narrow little rock gorge; idyllic!
As I’d walked I hadn’t noticed the cloud thickening and greying behind me. It began to rain. But it wasn’t heavy, and it lasted for less than an hour. It did bring with it enough mist to cover the tops about me. ‘The old lady’s’ head was wearing a shawl and ‘The old man’, a white woollen cap.
The breeze was freshening too, a cold wind developing that would keep me in my waterproofs for the remainder of the day. The track ended abruptly giving way to A.T.V. tracks which, in their turn, conceded to a path. The path needed care too; hereabouts the allt was spending most of its time just below the grassy surface. Easily mistaken for the path it would be all too easy to wind up in the water. I contoured high on the shoulder of Geal Charn, a hill who’s acquaintance I would make tomorrow; down here it was rough going.
I’d been aiming to pass Am Bodach’s rocky nose, the mirror reflection of A’ Chailleach’s, on the right. This left me a short but stiff grassy pull up onto the ridge. Decent height at last, though as yet no views. Am Bodach and A’ Chailleach, carry between them a basket: Carn Sgulain, alias: Hill of the basket or creel. This grassy hill, with its meagre cairn, is one of the dullest Munros; you climb it for the views.
From Am Bodach to its summit I followed a line of fence posts, a handy handrail in the fog. But that fog was shredding. By the time I’d reached the summit I was being treated to grand Monadhliath views. Big rolling grassy hills ranged about me; hazily the Cairngorm massif loomed blue in the east, Mullach Clach a’ Bhlair’s Coire Garbhlach, yawning like a great open mouth. In the southwest The Grey Corries hid smokier Nevis clustering mountains from me whilst Creag Meaghaidh turned her dull backside towards me.
I was hungry but Sgulain’s puny cairn offered little protection; I knew that A’ Chailleach’s pile was more substantial and boasted a wind break, so that would do for lunch.
It wouldn’t take long. I dropped down the Munro’s grassy southern flank and crossed a tract of hag ridden ground for a leap across the Allt Cuil a’ Chailleach; twenty minutes easy climbing saw me at the old crone’s summit.
For the remainder of the day the only steep ground left was mostly down the way. A two kilometre ridge walk, almost level and on mostly lovely grass, put me on Geal Charn, with particularly fine views over many lesser hills. With the sun now breaking through big blue holes in the sky, Strathspey, its many big green patches lit up and river and lochs sparkling silver, was beautiful.
South I descended, onto Creag na h-Iolare, ‘the eagle’s crag. I’d seen whitening mountain hares as I’d walked along Am Bodach’s ridge. Grouse had burst startlingly from the dark heather with monotonous frequency; hinds had spied on me from skylines. Ravens had cronked playfully above my head, one brave bird dropping down for a closer look. But today, not an eagle stirred.
From Creag na h-Iolare I dropped sharply east, down to the regular trade route, the bagger’s normal passageway. I was heading for the Allt a’ Chaorainn and its own muddy little path. There’s a little footbridge down there somewhere, easier spotted when going up than coming down this way. I didn’t bother to find it; the burn was narrow and shallow enough for a long dry leap.
Soon I reached the familiar track and at length the stand of trees I knew from past excursions. By the road, a curious knoll, flat topped and fort like, guarded the little public car park. Five cars I found there, yet not a soul had I met since the fencers at the day’s beginning.