Ben Vuirich revisited


When we had one or two days of this year’s summer, I took the train to Blair Atholl with the intention of walking out to Ben Vuirich.

You might remember that on coming face to face with Beinn a’ Ghlo’s Carn Liath, I was completely side-tracked and wound up climbing it and Ben Vrackie, instead. And so now, with not a hint of sunshine above me, I was back to try for Ben Vuirich yet again.

As with many Corbetts, Ben Vuirich entails a substantial walk-in that is rewarded (weather permitting), by excellent views of the bigger hills that surround it. There are in fact a couple of good ways in, both long, and both with merits, but my chosen route from Blair Atholl, by comparison with that from Strath Ardle, goes by rougher ways once the tracks are left behind.

As I stood again beside the shed at Carn Liath’s feet, there was no desire on my part to go for that hill today. The weather was gloomier this time by far, the familiar quartzy trail up Carn Liath’s heathery slopes quickly disappeared into the smoky mists that shrouded the lady’s crown.

Even so, it was warm, clammily so and I could sense the sun, after days of persistent rain in the east, trying hard to make its presence felt. With Carn Liath’s face of boulder screed grey frowning down on me I set my feet in motion.

Along the familiar track I had bleating sheep for company. Pink louseworts, yellow tormentils and deep blue milkworts decorated the grass and heather verges. Pale purple fly guzzling butterworts, their sticky pastel leaves dotted with tiny struggling victims, competed with water loving sundews for their insect harvest. Beyond Loch Morag I’d left behind the peewitting calls of green plovers and the cawing of boisterous rooks and jackdaws, for the more plaintive piping of curlews; I was entering the realm of the raven and the golden plover.

Ben Vuirich still looked far away and dark as I forked right onto the track for Shinagag. A good wooden bridge crosses the virulent Allt Girnaig, just before the farm is reached; just beyond the bridge I took the track north-eastwards and headed for the open moors.

Rising gently now and with little Carn Breac a hardly noticed bump along the way, I contoured around the eastern flank of Meall Breach. The north top of Crochton (601 metres), provided a little high point from which I could survey the way ahead. To my north, less than half a mile below me, nestled in a cradle of black heather and not much grass, lay Loch Valigan, grey and sombre. My way lay east of north where, beyond a dreary looking expanse of peaty boglands, rose my hill.

Once before I came this way, a hot summer’s day as I recall. Cloudberry with its white snow like flowers pierced the dark ground with welcome points of light, and everywhere the white furry tufts of cotton grass seemed to wave on a cooling breeze. They were here again today but seemed unable to lift the gloom into which I strode.

Even so, this feeling of gloom is really only mind made. For on mid-week days like this, when few venture out this way, you can really savour the solitude.

It’s rough going across this peaty moor and often difficult to keep out of boggy ooze filled holes; and so I took my time. I headed for an obvious grassy rake that seemed to snake its way up most of Ben Vuirich’s western flank; as it turned out it carried a draining burn from off the hill to eventually feed Loch Valigan, a handy guide.

It was almost a relief to get away from the heather and peat to finally tackle the steeper slopes. Even these didn’t last long, before I knew it I was levelling out onto the hill’s spacious summit plateau like top.

There was virtually no more climbing left to do. Atop a short rise to my northwest, at 903 metres, I could see the big ring of shelter stones that protected the hill’s redundant trig point. That would do for lunch. First though, I turned in the opposite direction for the adjacent little top, Carn Dubh.

From here the hillside drops east somewhat craggily, into the gentler lands of Fearnach, its own white track leading all the way back to Stath Ardle and civilisation. If you follow the track in the opposite direction you’ll eventually arrive at the very opposite of civilisation, in fact Fealar Lodge, reputedly Scotland’s remotest habitation. Northward, rolling away in a gloom of grey mists, the Glen Shee hills and, beyond them farther still, the barely visible wall of the Cairngorms, for once looked uninviting.

I turned around and walked the short kilometre to Ben Vuirich’s summit cairn. Superb views of Beinn a’ Ghlo can be had from up here. Especially entrancing is the bird’s eye view of Loch Loch, itself very comfortable looking in its roofless tunnel of hills. To take the path along that water’s edge and then to stand awhile at the Loch’s far northern tip, is to see Ben Vuirich in an altogether different guise. From the south, the way I’d come today, you see the hill as a rather sprawling whaleback; from Loch Loch’s nether end she rises almost pyramidal. Today, alas, all these views were watery, grey and uninspiring.

I have often studied the Ordnance Survey map of these Atholl Braes and thought what a wonderful round trip could be had by joining the tracks and paths from Strath Ardle, through these hills and around to my own starting point at Loch Morag. It would be an exceedingly long day, but a day of many contrasts enlivened by grandiose views of the region’s superb hills. Perhaps one day I’ll do it.

Today I contented myself with barely the half. After refreshments I made my way down the heathery northern slopes to strike that very path in the crook of that very route. With Beinn A’ Ghlo rearing ahead and Loch Loch spread like a fat grey finger, pointing who knew where, the descent proved the most enthralling hour of the day so far.

Carn nan Gabhar’s, uniform scree slopes, and later, those of Airgiod Bheinn, glowered at me as I walked. The path rose a little at first, soon to skirt Sron na h-Inearach low down, thence to open up again smoky vistas south; The Atholl lands and the long welcome way back home.

As Beinn Bheag and Carn Liath took over from Airgiod Bheinn, the path dropped a little to a long leap across an intervening burn, and then the track back down to Morag.