Mountains Of Scotland: First Impressions Sunday June 20, 2010

The places in which any significant even occurred become embedded with some of that emotion, and so to recover the memory of the place is to recover the emotion, and sometimes to revisit the place uncovers the emotion. Every love has its landscape. thus place, which is always spoken of as though it only counts when you’re present, possesses you in its absence, takes on another life as a sense of place, a summoning in the imagination…In the way places stay with you and that you long for them they become deities ~ Rebecca Solnit, Field Guide to Getting Lost

In different places, different thoughts emerge ~ Rebecca Solnit, Migrations

A walking buddy once said a principle reason why he loved the Lakes is, he said, “they’re mine”. What he meant was, they felt accessible and comprehensible because of their relatively small scale. It’s not commonly known that Lake District lover Alfred Wainwright visited Scotland every year – and yet never penned anything like the intimate walking relationship described in his Lake District books. How can you possibly account for all your impressions of the mountains of Scotland? – you can’t. The hills there are too many, the area too large. And yet moments inevitably get impressed on the psyche, not so much for their magnitude as the individualised response they represent: the meaning, like a personal photograph collection; snapshots, if not literally then psychologically.

Driving up from the south takes you through the Howgills, tempting you with their soft, rounded, though rather bland hills. Then you hit a lesser area approaching and then after Carlisle, followed by the beginning of more quintessential Scotland with the forested hills of Dumfries and Galloway. Shortly after that follows the urban complexity of Glasgow and, finally, you reach Loch Lomond and feel the hills are really beginning: from then on, your journey up to the Highlands gets increasingly dramatic. Arguably, the adventure really begins at Bridge of Orchy with an apparent offer of fine places to walk. But I suspect for most people when you pass across Rannoch Moor (impressive in itself) and reach the iconic heights around Glencoe, you feel you’ve arrived at the Scottish highlands.

That’s certainly true for me. Rannoch Moor was unnerving but fascinating; until you’ve seen the place you can’t imagine its vast empty wilderness. It goes on for a long time but you eventually see the famous pyramid shape of Buchaille Etive at the far side, followed by other sights familiar not from walking (in my case here) but from iconic photography: the white house at the foot of the latter, and then the looming crags guarding Glencoe. As I drove into that area for the first time I was met with a theatrical glowing sunset beaming at me directly, piercing the brooding dark skies with promise. Scotland.

Scotland is a big hill walking place. You can walk across the Lake District in one day, you wouldn’t want to do that with the more scattered interest of Snowdonia – but it’s roughly comparable in terms of magnitude. The Lake District has one mountain above three thousand feet, Scotland has its 284. I suspect actually, as with the ‘Wainwright hills’ people like to bag in the Lake District, some if not many Munros are not very interesting. Cameron McNeish, writer and editor of TGO magazine (The Great Outdoors) says as much in one of his books, and he probably knows the Scottish hills as much as anyone. And yet alongside all those Munros, there are a great many promising hills. And, after basing myself firstly at Glen Nevis and then at Glencoe my impression is, so far, Scotland is scenically similar to the Lakes (a compliment) but on a much larger scale. This can’t be said of Wales, which is of roughly the same smaller scale but with a distinctly different character.

I didn’t have any great desire to climb Ben Nevis because of its famous stature as the highest British mountain; and yet on an unusually sunny day it was a very good plan. Ben Nevis is notorious for attracting a great deal of bad weather thus statistically, clear days on its heights are quite rare. At the Glen Nevis camp site, one of the staff said he knew someone who’d been up it “hundreds” of times (albeit probably exaggerated) and had never seen from it clearly for 360 degrees. A few hours later a couple told me they’d attempted it four times, and never even got to the top: bad weather driving them back.

Sunshine at seven o’clock in the evening, highest hill in Britain:

My day started fine, clouded and hazed over in the afternoon, and finished with the lovely scene above. Cameron McNeish advises that climbing Ben Nevis without seeing its north face is like going to the beach and not seeing the sea. I’m not sure I entirely agree, because the easy tourist track is actually very scenic. But, it’s a bit of a plod going up, disheartening when you do it with hundreds of others. Going round the back, and along the knife edge of Carn Mor Dearg Arete then up the bouldery shoulder of the giant, is certainly more varied and interesting. But if you just want the honey, and you want it easily, the tourist path is very worthwhile; particularly so with the likelihood of disappointing or challenging weather.

Here’s the arete – a narrow track snaking along this fine, curving wall of rock. When you get to the end of it you have to scramble up a steep boulder field:

The other main walk I undertook is commonly called the Ring of Steall. It’s a fine excursion into the Mamore range on the other side of Glen Nevis, temptingly visible from The Ben. My impression is, it’s a notably fine walk within Scotland as a whole. I split it into three, because climbing Ben Nevis the long way took me ten hours and I was quite tired. Thus (though it wasn’t pre-planned) I camped one night at the lovely meadow below the Steall Waterfall then a second night just below Lochan Leac An Lubhair, after climbing and returning from the final two peaks of the circular route.

Here’s the meadow, and that’s the summit of Ben Nevis on the right of the skyline. Idyllic, although for a while the midges were driving me crazy:

The plan was to continue walking the next day onto Stob Bhan though actually, if you walk the Ring of Steall, you’ve already tasted the honey and there’s not much more to gain in doing so. Additionally, the next morning was very misty with little to see and once again I was rather tired: happy to walk the easy path from Lochan Leac An Lubhair back down to the valley.

The other low level walk I undertook was around the pretty Lochan Urr; I did this as part of a driving exploration of Glen Etive, which I enjoyed. I like to break up my activities a little, so I’m not only doing high level walking for consecutive days; when I do this a trip feels like a lovely holiday rather than a walking itinerary even though the latter is its main purpose. I first discovered this some years ago when I spent eight days in the Lake District’s Eskdale. You can feel a pressure to be up in the hills doing big walks all the time, more so if you’ve invested time and money to get somewhere but a big walk is like a good meal, best enjoyed when followed with a cessation rather than moving onto more food. There is an exception to this when you undertake a trek across a very large area like the Pyrenees where greater exertion is both required and beneficial; but a week in Scotland, Wales or the Lakes is another matter.

You could camp almost anywhere in Glen Etive and be ignored and undisturbed, even if visible: as one person was. Characteristic of Scotland, the simultaneous scale and quietness of the place allows this.

I liked Glen Etive. There are many fine hills on both sides, and a pleasant waterfall area. I saw my first Scottish deer, startled and running away to hide, then when I was driving back along the road a small herd of them were unconcerned, munching on nearby grass. Their lack of fear was apparently because I was in a car, a shape they seemingly didn’t recognise as a threat.

Scotland Photographs