A classic round to savour


When I first began walking in the hills, other than the odd one or two I managed to find in the local library, I didn’t have a clue about guide books. I would normally pick a hill, or group of hills, and work out on my old O.S. maps a route that looked feasible. Usually, by following my nose and instincts, I would enjoy a cracking day out.

Once I finally started buying those popular guide books, I would often be pleasantly surprised by how often my previously chosen routes seemed to coincide with those in the books.

The years have rolled by and I suppose I can say that I’ve walked our mountains inside out, ironically latterly by the book(s). And so it was that I set out, once again, to walk the classic round of Beinn A’ Ghlo. I’ve ascended the massif every which way there is over the years; this time I decided to go by the Shinagag Road from Loch Morag, probably my favourite route.

Camping in Blair Atholl enabled me an early start; by the loch-side car park stood one lonely car. The still waters of the little loch reflected the deep blue of a cloudless sky; the emerging white flowers of water loving bogbean provided the only other colour.

As ever, sheep and lambs were noisy; oyster catchers and peewits piped their individual protests at my intrusion. I even heard the beautifully haunting bubbling of a curlew or two; and all before I’d walked a hundred yards.

Carn Liath stood unusually proud and ‘in my face’ as I walked the old road, her sad white scar of a footpath etched in the dark brown heather of the hillside only adding to her defiance.

Already summer yellow tormentils and pink louseworts pricked the verges with colour; certainly there was much evidence of the pastel green basal rosettes of insect digesting butterworts; here and there even they sported early bells of purple.

In all the years I’ve been this way two wooden sheds have stood sentinel by the pathway to Carn Liath, one locked, the other, for as long as I remember, dilapidated and open. Today there remained but one! The sad bare site of its former founds were still plain to see, as were one or two charred pieces of timber which spoke mutely of the old howf’s fiery end.

The climb up Carn Liath’s south flank starts gently once you reach the remains of the wall that marches down to the mountain’s toes. After an easy kilometre the quartz zig-zags begin to steepen up and inexorably steal the breath from your lungs as you toil upward. It pays to halt occasionally in order to both catch your second wind and, if you need an alternative reason, stare back over the pleasant Atholl lands stretching out below. Blue and hazy, Scheihallion, Carn Mairg and, proud above them all, Ben Lawers, already formed a wall against the rest of western Scotland.

I wonder how many walkers reach the welcome huge pile of stones that greets them on the summit plateau and think they’ve reached the top. The Trig Point, set amid its own ring of stones, stands a little farther on; just beyond it I reached the summit cairn.

The view from here of the rest of Beinn A ’Ghlo, on this cloud free day, was stunning. The other Atholl hills: Carn a’ Chlamain, Beinn Mheadhonach, Beinn a Chat and far away Beinn Dearg, all across Glen Tilt, looked warm today and inviting. Way out west, the A9 hills, chief among them Ben Alder, and in the north, The Cairngorms, all were laced with lingering wreaths of snow.

It was little Ben Vrackie though that stole my heart today. Not the classic Pitlochry view from here; instead the whole length of her two mile ridge, looked so inviting.

To pot with the guide book’s route to the rest of Beinn A’ Ghlo! I had lots of time and it was blazing hot; the time had come to forge a different route.

From Carn Liath’s cairn I followed the stony crescent of ridge onto Beinn Mhaol, a lovely spur offering superb views across the corrie voids to Airgiod Bheinn. Then down to the col and a final ‘make my mind up’ time. It’s a tight little col. The main path starts to climb immediately onto the flank of Braigh Coire Chruinn-bhalgain; to my right, hardly noticed I’m sure by the majority of walkers out this way, a little path dived off towards Beinn Bheag.

A lovely, quiet path this. Down into the corrie, disappearing intermittently among the shortest wind clipped heather, it led me beneath the huge scree shrouded flanks of Carn Liath. South, over often wet and rough ground, I let it chivvy me, until, a good hour later, I stood again upon the track for Shinagag. The only other life I saw out here was a solitary raven wind-dancing high above my head.

Next, a flat mile or more to the bridge over The Allt Girnaig, and old Shinagag ahead. Beyond the steading sheep and rabbits had been effective lawn mowers. Such turf as would do for bowling greens are not so common in the hill country; a wonderful spot to remove boots from rock heated feet and rest awhile.

There appear to be no paths this way. Past little dark plantations and sparkling lochans I wove a way around Creag Breac and on to Vrackie’s craggy end. Any crags are easily bypassed so, after a short sharp grassy climb, I was standing on Creag Spardain. Lovely undulating walking took me on to Meall Breac, the merest pimple on the developing ridge. Soon I was on familiar ground. Pitlochry, far below, appeared to have shed its inhabitants today, rows of walkers moving up and down the hill looked like a brightly coloured caterpillar!

Things quietened down again as I passed the summit view indicator and made my way to the path for Meall an Damph and its little rocky recess; shade and another cup of tea.

Less than four miles left to walk now, and more or less all down hill. If you’re going to see deer on Vrackie’s slopes this is where they’ll likely be. I’ve seen them in the hundreds hereabouts. But not today, the way off west of north was quiet and mercifully lonely.

I dropped down into a shallow grass trench through which ran the waters of The Allt a’ Mhagain. I must have been hidden from the world here, so much so that two squabbling ravens passed just above me, did a double take and dropped whatever it was they were arguing over. It turned out to be the remains of a pipit!

I made my way to The Allt Girnaig, that same burn I’d crossed up at Shinagag. Loch Morag and the car park beckoned. But not before a final short climb to Lycondlich, and the shallow col between Meall Mor and Creag Eallaich. Now, with Loch Morag lying peacefully below me, it really was all down hill from here.

Cattle grazed the meadows down to the water’s edge. Soon, with Carn Liath staring down at me once more, having come full circle, I was back on the road for Shinagag. You’ll not find this route in any guide book, but should you ever try it, I know you’ll love it just as much as I did.