#308 – Remote Loch A’an in the Cairngorms

Remote Loch A’an (Loch Avon) in the Cairngorms

For the best viewing experience, left-click the images and maps to zoom in to a new window, then exit that window to go back – go on, it really does work!

The northern Cairngorms with the Loch A’an route in the centre

Our first Cairngorm hill-day of August 2021 (see post #307) had included Cairngorm summit and the Northern Corries, a great introduction to the Cairngorm Plateau for Chris – it had also been a great day out in the sun for Chris, me and Border Collie ‘Mist’.  Our next trip covered a bit of the same ground, but also ventured into more remote territory – we were heading for Loch A’an (Loch Avon).

The Loch A’an route – blue, anti-clockwise.  (Post #307 route shown in red for comparison)

Loch A’an is a fair-sized loch that the tourists never see, as it’s one that you have to work for.  Both routes (shown in blue and red in the map above) were the same distance to walk at about 12 kms, but the Northern Corries route had a total height gain of 810 metres (2656 ft) against 970 metres (3182 ft) for Loch A’ an.  This is due to a significant height loss to reach the loch, height that has to be regained to get back again!

Closer view of the Loch A’an route

Looking at the map beforehand, the descent of Ciste Mhearad to the loch seemed steady enough but the return via Corrie Raibeirt looked as if it might be ‘interesting’, with an initial 230 metre height gain over 560 metres of horizontal travel.  That’s an average gradient of 1-in-3 – now that’s steep!   Beyond the initial steep section, the upper section of the path looked to be at a much easier gradient, and we had been able to see most of that on our Northern Corries trip, a few days earlier.

Setting out from Coire Cas with a cloud inversion over Aviemore in the distance
Literally off the beaten track now – dropping down into Ciste Mhearad
The path above Ciste Mhearad

We set out on another sunny Cairngorm day – this was getting to be a habit!  The Windy Ridge path up to the Ptarmigan lift station seemed to go a bit more quickly this time.  Beyond the Ptarmigan, there was a path marked on the map, but nothing materialised, even using GPS for more accurate location.  The tried and tested method of ‘just head in the general direction’ brought us to the hollow of Ciste Mhearad, which apparently translates as ‘Margaret’s coffin’.  Once there, a path of sorts did turn up.

August snow patches in Ciste Mhearad ….
…. feeding the small stream ….
…. that runs down to join the Garbh Allt (Rough Stream) and the River Nethy

There were a couple of snow patches right at the head of the corrie, remnants of the previous winter.  Not too long ago, patches of snow would survive here all year round, but this has been almost unheard of over recent years.   The now visible path ran next to the small stream, fed by the snow patches and soggy marshy ground above, but the map indicated the path turning away from the stream after about 300 metres, to take a less steep line down to the valley bottom.  Once again, locating the path wasn’t easy.

A faint path heads away towards Loch A’an – but soon disappears!
Back on track again – on the path heading for ‘The Saddle’ above Loch A’an

Once found, the faint path towards ‘The Saddle’ wasn’t easy to follow, and we soon found ourselves in lumpy, bumpy ground.  We had drifted off the path by about 20 metres, but we were below it by now, not a good place to recognise the error. We finally picked up the correct line when we spotted a solo hiker just above us, going the opposite way, and we were soon back on the correct course.  ‘The Saddle’ gives the only realistic exit to safety from Loch A’an in blizzard conditions, when the Plateau might be too hazardous, but it’s a long trudge of over 12 kms round to Ryvoan Pass and Glenmore Lodge to the north.

Heading southwest above the loch with Carn Etchachan in the distance
The cliffs of Stac an Fharaidh below Cairngorm – no exit that way!
The entrance to Coire Raibeirt and our route back (Chris just visible in the centre if you zoom in!)

We weren’t going to Ryvoan though – instead, we turned southwest to follow the lochside round to Coire Raibeirt.  The original plan had been to visit the Shelter Stone, a bivouac site famous in Scottish mountaineering history, but that would have added an extra 2 kms to the trip, and the day was starting to slip away, so we headed straight for Coire Raibeirt instead.   I had never been in this corrie before, but the contours on the map told a tale. The ground ahead told the same tale – it was going to be steep.

Looking back to the loch – the tiny white speck just left of centre is shown enlarged in the next image
A rare sight in the UK – a floatplane, just taking off from the loch
Further up Coire Raibeirt on a rocky scramble section, right next to the stream

We had barely started when we heard the unexpected sound of an aircraft – below us!  I had just enough time to get the camera out to catch the shot of a floatplane that had just taken off from the loch – someone would be home before we would.  That excitement being over, we turned our attention back to getting up Corrie Raibeirt.  The route followed the stream running down to the loch, and in the lower sections, the two ran together.  It would be rather more than exciting if the stream was in spate, but conditions for us were good.

Noticeably gaining height now in Coire Raibeirt, with Loch A’an below
Border Collie ‘Mist’ on a long tether with Chris just ahead
Off the steep section at last with just a gradual climb ahead

The route was a mixture of engineered path (thank you those who built it) and natural rock steps, some of which required a bit of a scramble in places.  No obstacle to the humans but ‘Mist’ is getting older now and starting to show it – she sometimes needs a bit of help on steps she would have leapt up as a young dog, but I had fitted her ‘Ruffwear Web Master’ harness and a long tether, and gave the collie a tug from above on a couple of sections.  It also helped me to slow her down from behind on the easier sections, to stop her pushing on into difficult ground.

The view back down the Allt Coire Raibeirt ….
…. now shallower on the uphill side
‘Mist’ back out in front again ….
…. closely followed by Chris

Progress wasn’t exactly swift, justifying the decision to drop the Shelter Stone option, but ‘steady away’ eventually brought us on to less steep ground.  The deep cleft of the Allt Coire Raibeirt became shallower and the path became an easy stroll, despite still heading uphill,  and before long ‘Mist’ was back in her preferred position of being out front.

The last bit of ascent to Point 1141 ….
…. with Coire an t’ Sneachda on our left (see previous post #307)

Our last bit of ascent was to a location known to the Cairngorm Mountain Rescue Team as ‘Point 1141’ for the simple reason it is marked on the map as a spot height at 1141 metres.   From there it was downhill all the way into Coire Cas, in winter the main ski area for Cairngorm.  The day had been a long one and humans and dog were getting that dinnertime feeling – it was time to head for home.

2Just below Pt 1141 looking down to Coire cas – it’s time to head for home

Text and images © Paul Shorrock

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#307 – Cairngorm and the Northern Corries

The rim of the Northern Corries of the Cairngorm Mountains

For the best viewing experience, left-click the images and maps to zoom in to a new window, then exit that window to go back – go on, it really does work!

“Rules are for the obedience of fools and the guidance of wise men”.

I’ve got a rule (of sorts) that I avoid the Scottish Highlands from the beginning of June to early September.   The reason?  Culicoides impunctatus, otherwise known as the Highland Midge.  It’s a flying insect with a bite that can make summer in the Highlands miserable.  If that sounds a bit OTT, it’s worth pointing out that the Scottish timber industry can lose 20% of productivity over the summer, and lumberjacks are not usually regarded as big softies. 

The Central Highlands of Scotland with the Cairngorms in the centre

It’s not as if we are talking about huge creatures here – midges are tiny, but they swarm in their thousands in the summer months, and in a bad year they can ruin a trip.   Hence the rule that I avoid the highlands in July and August.  Except in 2021. We had a lot going on over the summer, and a planned six week trip from September into October was looking less likely.  It was a case of go in August or miss out on three weeks.  However, like Baldrick, I had ‘a cunning plan’.

The Cairngorms and surrounding area

The cunning plan was simple – head for the Southern Highlands and the Cairngorms, as these are the areas that are usually the least affected by the flying pests.  The online Midge Forecast would also assist with day-to-day planning.  Sure enough, our first hill day on Ben Ledi (see post #306) had been midge free, but I was keen on visiting bigger hills, so the Cairngorms seemed like a good plan.

The route – clockwise starting at the red flag

The Cairngorms National Park is home to some of the highest mountains in the UK.  Although seemingly tame by alpine standards, these are challenging hills, especially in winter, when the weather is arctic.  In fact, the main summit plateau, including Cairngorm summit, is as near to arctic tundra as you will find outside of Scandinavia.   Chris had walked some of the corries and valleys but had never visited the plateau – that would make a good start then, especially with an unexpected hot spell.

Setting out from the Coire Cas ski centre ….
…. with Loch Morlich in the middle distance
Helicopter working on the repair of the ill-fated Cairngorm funicular railway

It’s not often you would walk these wild mountains in just a t-shirt top, but the weather gods were smiling.  Chris and I, plus Border Collie ‘Mist’ of course, set out from the Coire Cas ski centre on as warm a day as you could wish for.  Most hikers seemed happy enough to stay near to the car park, and our path up to the Ptarmigan upper ski station was quiet, apart from the helicopter shuttling concrete as part of the project to repair the ill-fated Cairngorm funicular railway. Out of action since September 2018 due to structural problems, the final bill for Scottish taxpayers is likely to be around £50Million.

The view from the Windy Ridge ascent path across to the Northern Corries
Granite tor, looking a bit like Dartmoor!
The path rising to the Ptarmigan ski lift station

The Windy Ridge path wasn’t on this trip (windy that is).  The tundra-like landscape can appear bleak being treeless and stony, though outcropping granite tors had more of a look of Dartmoor about them.  We had great views across to the Northern Corries of the Cairngorm Plateau, which was where we were heading after Cairngorm summit, but before that we had to pass the Ptarmigan ski lift station.

Past the ski lifts and buildings at last and heading for the summit of Cairngorm (1245 metres) ….
…. passing more granite tors along the way
The summit weather station coming into view
Chris and Border Collie ‘Mist’ at the summit cairn ….
…. with a rare view of the author who usually avoids being photographed

A ski lift station without snow can be a sorry sight, but the development is small and we soon left the ski lifts and buildings behind.  Passing by more granite tors, the summit soon came into view, first of all with the weather station that sits near the top then the summit itself.  At an altitude of 1245 metres (4084 ft), Cairn Gorm is the sixth-highest mountain in the British Isles with a summit cairn worthy of the mountain.  And when you get such a good cairn, everyone just has to get in the photo – even I was persuaded.

Heading west from the summit towards the first corrie, Coire an t’ Sneachda
The view back to Cairngorm Summit
Coire an t’ Sneachda getting closer
On the way up to the next summit, Stob Coire an t’ Sneachda
Looking down into the Corrie
The cliffs of Coire an t’ Sneachda

The photos of the plateau on this trip show a benign but impressive mountain panorama, and it’s hard to convey how wild and dangerous this place can be in bad weather.  Suffice it to say that this area was the scene of the worse mountain disaster in the UK in November 1971, when a party of children with two young instructors were benighted in a blizzard and forced to bivouac in the open (see post #253).  Six of the group of eight died before help arrived.

Looking back to the summit of Stob Coire an t’ Sneachda, from the slopes of Cairn Lochan
The cliffs of Cairn Lochan
Walking group taking a break on the summit of Cairn Lochan
Looking back to Cairn Lochan on the descent
View down into Coire an Lochain (May 2019)

Our second summit of the day after Cairngorm itself was Stob Coire an t’ Sneachda, and in quick time we were over on to the third and final summit of Cairn Lochan.  Both corries are venues for serious snow and ice climbing in winter, but on this trip, everyone was enjoying the warm summer conditions.  On the descent from Cairn Lochan I employed a bit more cunning by swinging southwest instead of following the rough stony path by the corrie rim, taking us down easily to the return route to Coire Cas – it was time to head for home.

Time to head for home – Coire Cas ski centre just visible, right of centre

Text and images © Paul Shorrock

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#306 – Ben Ledi

Ben Ledi – the first mountain seen on the A84 road to the West Highlands © Gordon Hatton

For the best viewing experience, left-click the images and maps to zoom in to a new window, then exit that window to go back – go on, it really does work!

Ben Ledi was the first ‘proper’ Scottish mountain I ever saw.  In 1970, I set off with a mate on what was then a mammoth drive from Lancashire to the Scottish Highlands – back then, the M6 motorway finished just north of Lancaster, and beyond the motorway we followed the old A6 road north through Kendal, over Shap summit then through Carlisle.

Central Scotland, showing The Trossachs (Ben Ledi route with the red flag)

Over the border into Scotland, the route improved for a while, with the then dual-carriageway A74 pointing us north, avoiding Glasgow by the towns of Coatbridge and Airdrie.  It took blinking ages!  Eventually we passed through Stirling, and leaving the town headed northwest on the A84.  Then I saw it, our first real mountain after the moors of the Southern Uplands.  That was Ben Ledi, and I spent the next 50 years of visiting Scotland driving past it!

Our Ben Ledi route
Closer view of the route, clockwise from the red flag

Regular readers will know that I avoid the Highlands over the summer, choosing May or earlier or September or later, in an attempt to avoid the midge (and tourist) season. With several ‘things to do’ already in the diary in 2021, we decided on two trips to Scotland, with the first in August. As the Trossachs area doesn’t get as ‘midged’ as the West Coast, it seemed a good place to get our boots on the ground.  It was also a good opportunity to finally get to grips with Ben Ledi.

Ben Ledi seen from Callander, © unknown

At 879 metres altitude, Ben Ledi is far from a high-mountain challenge, though it almost achieves Munro status (a Scottish mountain over 3000 ft/ 915 metres).  A look at the map suggested that there would be great views across the Southern Highlands, and I’m pretty sure that they are there – unfortunately, we started our Ben Ledi day with a traditional background of good old Scots mist.

Starting out from the car park
A misty looking day over Loch Lubnaig ….
…. and a misty looking day looking ahead!
Out of the trees, looking bach to Loch Lubnaig ….
…. with the mist showing little sign of lifting

Ben Ledi is a popular mountain with folk who don’t walk or hike in the mountains all that often, and rightly so with easy access and a non-technical ascent.  It’s thought that in days long gone, the locals celebrated the Celtic pagan festival of Beltane on the summit and in the 18th Century the name of the mountain was incorrectly translated as ‘Hill of God’.  This might have suited the Christian clergy of the day, but it’s now accepted that Ben Ledi is a corruption of Beinn Leitir, which translates as ‘the Hill of the Slope’, which is the long Southeast Ridge leading to the summit. 

Out on the broad Southeast Ridge ….
…. and a different loch in the background – Loch Venachar
Approaching the summit at last
Border Collie ‘Mist’ with the Harry Lawrie memorial behind

After a rising traverse of the craggy east side of the hill, the popular route to the top takes a sharp right turn to head more easily up the broad Southeast Ridge.  With a change of direction comes a change of scenery (hill mist permitting) with the view down to Loch Lubnaig being replaced by the view to Loch Venachar.  Just before the summit, a metal cross comes into view – nothing to do with the ‘Hill of God’, this is a memorial to Sgt Harry Lawrie BEM.

The Harry Lawrie memorial
Closer view of the plaque

Harry Lawrie was a sergeant in what was then the Central Scottish Police, based at Callander, and also a member of the Killin Mountain Rescue Team.  On 1st February 1987, Sgt Lawrie and the Killin MRT were involved in a search for an injured climber on Ben More.  A Wessex helicopter assisting with the search picked up Sgt Lawrie and another police officer to ferry them up the mountain, but whilst landing, a rotor blade struck the ground, causing the helicopter to crash into the hillside – Sgt Lawrie was fatally injured.

Looking back to the memorial ….
…. with the summit just ahead
The view to the north, with a slight break through the clouds

After standing a while at the memorial, we walked the short distance to the summit for a lunch break.  Whilst being mugged for our sandwiches by Border Collie ‘Mist’, we noticed that the other mist on the hills was starting to clear a bit, giving a view of the alternative descent to the north of Ben Ledi which would make the route circular rather than ‘there and back’.  It didn’t take long to decide on the circular option.

Decision made – we’re going back by the circular route
Looking back to the summit of Ben Ledi
The view down the descent route
The narrow path heading down Stank Glen

The broad ridge heading north was a pleasant start to the descent, before we turned right at a bealach (pass) to head west down Stank Glen.  After a boggy start, a narrow path materialised, taking us down to the edge of the forest we had started out from.  The forest trails marked on the map turned out to be stumbly, stony footpaths, but for ‘Mist’ it was the way home.  After all, it was getting very close to Collie dinner time.

It’s time to head for home

Text and images © Paul Shorrock unless indicated otherwise. 

The image tagged Gordon Hatton is taken from the Geograph Project and reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence

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#305 – Wet Sleddale – something in the air?

Geese in flight at Wet Sleddale

For the best viewing experience, left-click the images and maps to zoom in to a new window, then exit that window to go back – go on, it really does work!

On the track out to Mosedale with Sleddale Hall and Wet Sleddale reservoir behind

During our trips to and from Scotland, one location pops up in virtually all our routes – Wet Sleddale near Shap, on the eastern edge of the Lake District National Park.  It’s in just the right place to break the journey from Wales to Scotland, there are dog walking possibilities to suit Border Collie ‘Mist’, and almost always something of interest for the humans.

Trail Magazine
March 2015
Sleddale Hall, the location of the cult 1987 film ‘Withnail and I’

Chris and I have been coming here for years now.  There’s a cracking walk over the local hills that links the three valleys of Wet Sleddale, Swindale and Mosedale (see post #51).  This route was one of my early contributions to the Walking World website, and later recycled as a Trail Magazine route (see above).   A well known feature on the walk is Sleddale Hall, which provided the outdoor location shots for the cult 1987 film ‘Withnail and I’.

The fine old bridge leading to Sleddale Hall
Sleddale Hall, now standing empty

Sadly, the hall is deserted and unoccupied at present.  In recent years, a ‘pop up’ event ran themed weekends at the hall to view the ‘Withnail and I’ film, though the current covid problem has put an end to that for now.   Other than that, not a lot happens round here, though there is often ‘something in the air’.

Flight of three greylag geese at Wet Sleddale

I always carry a camera on the usual 5km dog-walk circuit, mostly in the hope of getting a photo of one of the red squirrels who live in a small stand of trees on the way out to Sleddale Hall, but they are shy and secretive and so far I’ve been out of luck.  Shy and secretive doesn’t describe the greylag geese who make their home on the Wet Sleddale reservoir – in May 2021 I was in the right place at the right time and managed to photograph a flight of three as they made their noisy progress up the valley. 

In August I had something far noisier than the geese to try to capture.

Something far noisier than the geese!  McDonnell Douglas F-15E strike aircraft
Quite close to the trees!
Birds flying near to the F15’s indicated by the small circles

Low flying military aircraft are not uncommon in this part of Cumbria, though it isn’t every day I get the chance to get a close photograph.   The first McDonnell-Douglas F-15E was almost past before I managed to get the camera into action – I expected a second aircraft to pass and sure enough it came close behind, quite near to the trees and very near to several birds (circled in the photo above) startled by the first aircraft.

Still close to those trees

Instead of the usual flight of two aircraft, we were treated to a fly past of a second pair, still flying close to those trees!  The F15’s would have been USAF aircraft on a training flight, probably from the US base at RAF Lakenheath in Suffolk – some might object to the peace being disturbed by noisy warplanes, but training flights help preserve the peace in the greater sense. The mini air show added a bit of drama to our dog walk, though I think ‘Mist’ was happier for Wet Sleddale to return to being a quiet, deserted valley again.

Wet Sleddale on a quieter day

Text and images © Paul Shorrock

p.s. My aircraft recognition is probably better than my bird identification – I’m pretty sure those geese in the photos are greylags, but if I’m wrong I’m sure my old mate John Bamber will be along soon to put me right!

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#304 – Grey Mare’s Tail – The Grey Mare’s Tail and White Coomb in the Moffat Hills

The Grey Mare’s Tail in the Moffat Hills

For the best viewing experience, left-click the images and maps to zoom in to a new window, then exit that window to go back – go on, it really does work!

Lounging in the sun near the summit of White Coomb, highest of the Moffat Hills at 821 metres

Our May 2021 trip to Scotland was drawing to a close, but instead of home and North Wales, we were heading to Northumbria on a family visit.  This trip had been about filling in gaps by visiting hills and mountains that we usually drive past on the way to somewhere else – what better end to the trip then than to go and taker a look at the Grey Mare’s Tail, near Moffat.

The Moffat Hills, including the route

The Grey Mare’s Tail is a 60 metre hanging waterfall in the Moffat Hills in the Scottish Borders area, and the surrounding area is a popular Nature Reserve in the care of the National Trust for Scotland.  Most visitors go no further than to the bottom of the falls, though a hardy few climb the narrow path clinging to the hillside to reach the top of the falls.

Closer view of the route by the Grey Mare’s Tail to Loch Skeen and White Coomb

Others go even further to the lovely lake of Loch Skeen, but only a hardy few go beyond there into the hills.  Well, we were definitely booked into the ‘Hardy Few’ club, as our target was the summit of White Coomb at 821 metres height (2694 ft) and the highest summit in the Moffat Hills. 

Even closer view showing the direction of travel (return route as outward route after they meet up)

Even by UK standards, these aren’t massive mountains, but they are rough, tough hills that have a big feel.  The Moffat hills could well be compared with the Berwyn range on North Wales, being of similar height and mass – they are also the kind of hills that could well ‘bite yer bum’ in bad visibility or poor weather conditions.

Looking towards the path to the falls from the car park
Border Collie ‘Mist’ weighing up the waterfal
Not so much a continuous single-drop waterfall ….
…. more a collection of cascades
On the narrow part of the path, heading towards Loch Skeen
Looking back down the path from the previous viewpoint
The view from the path back to the car park below

As we set, out the weather wasn’t very inspiring, with clouds hiding the sun from view.  The path to the top of the falls leaves the car park to traverse a path that gets increasingly narrow as it clings to the side of the hill.  It soon becomes apparent that the Grey Mare’s Tail isn’t a single-drop waterfall, but is a collection of cascades instead.  And none the worse for that.

The cascades continue, even after leaving the steep section behind
First view of White Coomb on the left – our route took Mid Craig on the right
Nearly at Loch Skeen, with Mid Craig just left of centre
The first view of Loch Skeen, a little jewel hidden away from the road
Loch Skeen with Mid Craig on the left

The next section of path above the falls is interesting enough, with early view of White Coomb, our objective for the day.  There are various ways to tackle the hill, but I knew we had made the best choice of route when we arrived at Loch Skeen, a little jewel of a lake that the day trippers never get to see.

Start of the height gain on Mid Craig
Leaving Loch Skeen behind
The view across the Midlaw Burn valley to White Coomb
Mid Craig behind as we contour round the top of Midlaw Linn

The loch was a pleasant a place for a brew of coffee as you could find, so we spent a while there.  Then it was time to get to grips with the hills beyond.  A short, stiff climb up the ridge of Mid Craig brought us to the high ground beyond, all of it around the 750-metre contour of higher.  Those wanting a more demanding trip would easily find something to test the legs, but we were only going as far as White Coomb.

The sky beginning to clear on the final ascent towards White Coomb
The top! Blue sky as well
One man and his dog – yet another rare photo of the author
The view to the southwest and (eventually) England
The view to the northwest and the Moffat Hills

As we took the final ridge to the top, the sky began to clear, giving us good light for summit photos, and long, ‘Big Sky’ views towards England in one direction and equally good views towards the Southern Uplands in the other direction.  The area deserves a longer visit, and we will probably be back, but in the meantime it was getting on for dinner time for Border Collie ‘Mist’ and time to head for home.

Time to head for home

Text and images © Paul Shorrock

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#303 – Ben A’an – Little hill, big attitude!

Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park – Ben A’an comes into view
Not very big – but with big views

For the best viewing experience, left-click the images and maps to zoom in to a new window, then exit that window to go back – go on, it really does work!

The Southern Highlands, with Ben A’an in the centre (red flag)

The Scottish Highlands are well known for the grandeur of the scenery and for their magnificent mountains, but UK outdoor folk frequently use British understatement when describing our highest mountains (e.g. Ben Nevis), often just referring to them as ‘hills’.  In the case of Ben A’an in the Trossachs, the word ‘hill’ is quite accurate, with a height of a mere 454 metres, but get to the top and you can certainly see the mountains.

Some of the popular mountains in the Loch Lomond/Trossachs National Park (Ben A’an in the centre)

In fact, Ben A’an is a well-liked little hill.  From the summit, the views towards the Arrochar Alps and Loch Lomond are outstanding, but Ben A’an has another great advantage – it’s a short and easy walk.   Because of these factors, and the close proximity of Glasgow and the densely populated Central Lowlands of Scotland, the popularity of Ben A’an is guaranteed.

The route (in the centre) starting at Loch Achray

On our Scottish trip of May 2021, Chris and I were back in the Trossachs, filling in the gaps of places we had never been to, as well as looking for a short hill day to give Border Collie ‘Mist’ her daily walk – Ben A’an fitted the bill exactly.  Mind you, it is just a little hill, so this is a shorter blog post than usual – hopefully the views in the photos make up for that.

Dawn breaking over nearby Loch Venachar
Starting out for Ben A’an on the Loch Achray path ….
…. with Loch Achray behind
Border Collie ‘Mist’ out front as usual ….
…. with the humans just managing to keep up

Unfortunately, the promise of the clear dawn over nearby Loch Venachar wasn’t to continue, and before long a blanket of cloud covered the sky.  However, the clouds did occasionally lend a bit of texture to the sky as dog and humans set out.  The Loch Achray path was surprisingly steep in places for such a lowly hill, but the views compensated as we gained height.

1Our objective, Ben A’an – after the forest has had a severe haircut!
Looking back to the forestry workings
Ben A’an getting closer

According to Wikipedia, “The name “Ben A’an” is an erroneous Anglicization by Sir Walter Scott. Its original name is uncertain, but it has been suggested that it may have been ‘Am Binnean’ which means “the Pinnacle”, although some sites cite its meaning as “the Small Pointed Peak”.  Recent tree harvesting in the forest at the halfway point wasn’t a good look, but the views of the ‘Small Pointed Peak’ ahead of us more than made up for that.

Approaching the summit from the col to the north
The view from the summit, down to Loch Katrine
The Arrochar Alps, 25 kms away in the far distance ….
…. with the unmistakable shape of The Cobbler in the centre
The Cobbler (from post #301)

Sure enough, the views improved as we reached the col to the north of the summit, before heading on to the top.  Loch Katrine drew the eye at first but then looking at the monitor screen of the camera on full zoom, I could recognise the distinctive top of The Cobbler, 25 kms to the west, where we had been just eight days earlier (see blog post #301).

One of the two lumps of rock on the summit ….
…. with the other one nearby
A popular spot for a selfie (but don’t step back!!)

With the summit being so popular, I had to wait my turn for pics or run the risk of being ‘photo bombed’.  Ben A’an might be a small hill but it has big views and a big heart, and is as good a way as any to spend half a day surrounded by mountains.  A lunch break at the summit filled in another half hour before it was time to head for home (and the next hill!)

Time to head for home

Text and images © Paul Shorrock

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#302 – The Isle of Raasay – small hills and big eagles!

Heading towards Dùn Caan, highest point on the Isle of Raasay at 443 metres (1,453 feet)

For the best viewing experience, left-click the images and maps to zoom in to a new window, then exit that window to go back – go on, it really does work!

White tailed eagle (sea eagle) flying over Raasay

May 2021, and our meandering Scottish trip took us from Arrochar to Skye.  This hadn’t been part of the original plan, but a bad-weather day was forecast, so my view was that if the weather was going to be rubbish, we might as well spend the day travelling to somewhere nice.  As it happened, the worst of the storm was overnight, with one VW camper at Glenbrittle campsite losing its ‘pop-top’ roof!  The next day blew fair, and on a sudden whim I suggested a short diversion to Raasay.

Skye and the Hebrides – Raasay indicated by the red arrow
The short ferry crossing from Sconser on Skye to Raasay (red dashes)
The old ferry terminal at Sconser, as work started on the upgraded facility in 2012 (© John Allan)

My first trip to Skye was in the 1970’s and I had been back many times since.  By the time the main road reaches Sconser, the Cuillin Mountains are starting to look more interesting by the minute, and I had never given a thought to turn off to check out what used to be a fairly ramshackle looking ferry pier.  I didn’t even have a clue where the ferry sailed to, or how often it sailed.

Entrance to the new terminal (© Richard Dorrell)
The Raasay ferry, ‘MV Hallaig’ (© M J Richardson)

If I had checked the map back in those days, I would have seen that the opposite side of the sea loch was, in fact, an island – the Isle of Raasay.  A major upgrade to the ferry slipway in 2012-13 resulted in a modern, tidy looking terminal, with 25-minute crossings almost every hour – Raasay was starting to look more interesting as a destination.

Raasay, seen from the stony beach at Sconser ….
…. with a closer view of the 443 metre Dùn Caan
The ferry, ‘Hallaig’, returning to Sconser, seen from our overnight stop-over
Fine afternoon on Raasay, looking back to the Cuillin Mountains on Skye

The biggest attraction for Chris and I (plus Border Collie ‘Mist’ of course) was a wee hill no more than 443 metres (1,453 feet) in altitude.  They say that size isn’t everything, and we were almost certain to get the hill all to ourselves.  With a fine afternoon in hand, we found a place to park up for the night, before treating ‘Mist’ to her second walk of the day.  Before long, we realised that we were not alone.

White tailed eagle (sea eagle) being ‘mobbed’ by smaller raptors (or ravens)
White tailed eagle

Above us, a small drama was being played out.  The white tailed eagle is the largest bird native to the UK, but once again size isn’t everything, and above us two smaller raptors (or ravens possibly?) were harassing and mobbing an apparently unconcerned white tail.   Minutes later, it was time for the eagle to check out what two humans and a dog were up to in his domain, and at one point it was about 25 metres away, the closest I have ever been to a wild eagle.  The signs were that a trip to Raasay had been a good idea.

The next morning – not as fine a day as the previous afternoon
The route to Dùn Caan – anti-clockwise from the start point (blue flag)
1Closer view of the route

Raasay isn’t what you would call a mountainous island, but the small peak of Dùn Caan was an obvious attraction that was worth a visit.  The morning wasn’t quite as fair as the previous afternoon had been, but sometimes a cloudy day can be more interesting than wall-to-wall sunshine – perhaps just as well, because there wasn’t to be much sun on this outing.

On the way out, looking back towards Skye ….
…. with the clouds coming down over the Cuillins
First sighting of Dùn Caan
Loch na Mna with Dùn Caan rising above and Border Collie ‘Mist’ waiting patiently
The final steep bit of the path to the summit
Looking back down the ascent path
Skye panorama from Dùn Caan

The walk out to Dùn Caan was over moorland that was not hugely interesting in itself, but the views out to Skye more than made up for that.  In fact, it was the views from Raasay towards the Cuillins of Skye on one side and the mainland on the other, that made the hike all the more interesting.  Having said that, Dùn Caan was also an interesting looking hill, both from a distance and in close up.

Chris on the summit
Panorama of the mainland, looking towards Applecross and beyond
Rare photo of the author, checking out the summit of Dùn Caan with the Cuillins behind

The summit was a good place for a sandwich and a brew of coffee, once the photographic duties were complete, with more great views out to Applecross and beyond.   With a cool breeze kicking in, and the looming clouds suggesting a chance of rain, we didn’t linger on the top.  The return route was longer, but we made good speed on the narrow road back, and over a distance of 4 kms we saw just two cars – I don’t think they ‘do’ rush-hour on Raasay.

A final view of Dùn Caan, all 443 metres of it ….
…. then it’s time to head for home

Text and images © Paul Shorrock except were indicated otherwise, which are taken from the Geograph Project and are reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence.

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#301 – Ben Arthur (The Cobbler)

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In April 2021, the governments of England, Scotland and Wales were finally united in relaxing Covid-19 regulations to allow cross-border travel between the nations – about time too, as we wanted to travel in Scotland and would have to cross out of Wales to pass through England to get there!  First on our list of places to visit was Bute and the Argyll Coast, an area not really noted for its mountains. 

Loch Lomond and The Cobbler (indicated by the red flag)

This was probably our least planned trip to date, with decisions on destinations being made whilst still travelling.  A water-service stop for the campervan found us near to Arrochar, a place I had only driven through in the past (also a place that does have a mountain or two!).   Scottish Forestry had opened up a couple of venues nearby for overnighting in campers, one of them just round the corner from Ben Arthur, a mountain we had never visited.  So, that was the next day’s fun sorted.

The route (there and back) from Succoth near Arrochar

Ben Arthur (Beinn Artair in gaelic) is much better known as ‘The Cobbler’, so called because the summit rocks are supposed to look like a cobbler bending over his last.  At 884 metres (2900 ft), The Cobbler misses out on achieving the status of being a ‘Munro’ by just 30 metres (100 ft), but the unusual summit features and easy access make it one of the most popular mountains in Scotland – that would do nicely, thank you.

Setting out after leaving the forest behind
‘The Cobbler’ comes into view
The view across Loch Lomond to Ben Lomond

The day started cloudy, with the possibility of rain always there – mind you, that means nothing in Scotland, where you can easily experience all four seasons in one day.   The trick is to ‘travel hopefully’ and as we emerged from the forest on to higher ground, we had patches of blue sky to go with our first view of The Cobbler. Behind us was the impressive profile of Ben Lomond, last visited just seven months earlier (see post #295) and yet another popular mountain in the Southern Highlands at 974 metres (3195 ft).

The Narnain Boulders ….
…. giving some shelter for a coffee break

Our route for the day was a simple ‘there and back’ version.  The area is steeped in mountaineering and rock-climbing history and is known as the Arrochar Alps.  Although this was my first visit, I already knew the history of the two large boulders known as the Narnain Boulders – they were once a popular climbers bivi site, especially in the late 1800’s and the 1920-30’s, when rock climbing exploration was at its peak, but they also provided us with shelter for a coffee break.

Still heading upwards ….
….with the steep, rocky side of The Cobbler above us
Approaching the Bealach a’ Mhàim with Beinn Ime rising above on the right
Looking back to the bealach (pass) from the stepped path up The Cobbler
Beinn Ime (left) and Beinn Narnain seen from the steep steps

Then it was onwards.  The path climbs gradually to a meeting of the ways near to the mountain pass of the Bealach a’ Mhàim – from there, our route headed roughly south up a steep set of steps, but the best views were across to some of the other peaks of the Arrochar Alps, Beinn Ime (1011 metres) and Beinn Narnain (926 metres), both of them Munros.

The North Peak in the background
The Middle Peak (higher and right) with the South Peak (left) © Colin Park
The final section up to the Middle Peak © Peter S
Arthur’s Seat, the true summit of The Cobbler

It’s The Cobbler that commands attention though – there are three high points distinctive enough to be called peaks.  We passed under the North Peak on our way to the Middle Peak, the highest of the three.  The true summit of the Middle Peak, known as Arthur’s Seat, involves a ‘hands on’ scramble ascent of a rock pinnacle with a drop below, but the lower South Peak is accessible only by rock climbers.  We passed a few minutes chatting to a guy who had last been on the mountain thirty years previously, but then it was time to head down.

The view of Ben Lomond from the summit of the Cobbler
A pair of red deer seen on the way down

Returning by the outward route gave us the chance to take in the views from fresh angles, with the distant Ben Lomond competing with the Arrochar Alps for ‘view of the day’.  Near the Narnain Boulders we came across a pair of red deer who were clearly used to humans and Border Collies.  ‘Mist’ likewise showed no interest in them – it was nearly time for the dog’s dinner, and time to head for home.

It’s time to head for home ….
….with a final view of Arrochar and a distant Ben Lomond

Text and images © Paul Shorrock except those tagged Colin Park and Peter S, which are taken from the Geograph Project and are reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence

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#300 – Cadair Idris by the Minffordd Path

The lake of Llyn Cau with Craig Cwm Amarch (left) and Cadair Idris (right) standing above

For the best viewing experience, left-click the images and maps to zoom in to a new window, then exit that window to go back – go on, it really does work!

Cadair Idris, with the route marked in the centre

Long summer days have recently tempted Chris and I (plus Border Collie ‘Mist’ of course) away from our nearby hills of the Carneddau and Glyderau, with Maesglase (see post #298) and Dduallt (see post #299) getting visits.  The extra hours of daylight meant that the longish drives there and back didn’t need a start at ‘Stupid o’Clock’, so while we were both still in that frame of mind I suggested a return to an old friend – Cadair Idris, otherwise known as ‘The Chair of Idris’.

Closer view of the route ….
…. and an even closer view

The two classic routes to the summit are the Minffordd Path from the south (see post #65) and the Foxes Path/Pony Track combination from the north (see post #150).  We hadn’t been on the Minffordd route since 2012, mainly because the descent had been very loose and eroded, certainly enough for Chris to say at the time that she didn’t fancy repeating it – ever!  A bit of online research suggested that the descent route had been fixed – there was only one way to find out.

Looking back down the lower part of the route through the trees
Out of the trees at last
Llyn Cau with Craig Cwm Amarch above and left

The day was already hot as we set off from Minffordd carpark.  The route is popular but doesn’t get as busy as Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon) or Ogwen, at least not when I’ve been there.   The first section rises through woodland on a path that gains height quickly but is never steep.  The views improve once out of the trees, but you have to wait until the lake of Llyn Cau comes into view before things get really interesting.

Leaving the lake behind ….
…. and starting to gain height to the ridge that loops round above the lake
View of Llyn Cau on the early part of the ascent
Looking across from the ridge to Craig Cwm Amarch (left) and Cadair Idris (right)

After a short coffee break, we set off up a well-renovated path to join the broad ridge that loops round above the cwm of Llyn Cau.  The majority of the route to Cadair Idris can be seen from here – the summit of Craig Cwm Amarch sits astride the route and has to be crossed before an obvious drop of about 90 metres to a bwlch, before the final rise to the summit of Cadair Idris

View of Cadair Idris from Craig Cwm Amarch
Looking down to Llyn Cau, over 200 metres below
On the way down to the bwlch (pass) between Craig Cwm Amarch and Cadair Idris ….
…. and looking back across the bwlch to Craig Cwm Amarch

The summit of Craig Cwm Amarch is undistinguished as a peak but continued to give us great views, and the loss of height penalty wasn’t a deal breaker, especially with the sudden surprise view down to Llyn Cau, over 200 metres below us.   Then it was another dose of uphill, this time 180 metres or so to the summit of Cadair Idris.

The last bit of the ascent to the summit of Cadair Idris
Lumpy, bumpy and stony, but nearly there ….
…. as the summit appears above
The summit shelter …. (Image from 2012)
…. fairly big once inside

The top is lumpy, bumpy and stony, but has a small bonus in the form of a substantial stone shelter.  It’s not intended to be used as a bothy, but it would provide a degree of comfort for anyone who wanted to ‘overnight’ on the summit.  If tempted, remember legend has it that anyone who sleeps overnight on the mountain will wake up a poet or a madman!  We didn’t write any poetry, but instead had a second coffee break sitting in the sun, before it was time to set off down. 

Looking across to Mynydd Moel
Just about to cut the corner, heading down and right

Last time we came this way, we had avoided the crossing of Mynydd Moel – as time was getting on a bit after our ‘not too early’ start, we decided to by-pass it once again and headed down and right in a roughly westerly direction to cut the corner.  Our diversion eventually met up with the descent route from Mynydd Moel, where we found that the path was almost as eroded and loose as last time!  Chris reminded me why she hadn’t liked this bit on our previous visit – several times in fact!

The final steep (and rough) part of the descent – time to head for home

Text and images © Paul Shorrock

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#299 – Dduallt and the source of the Afon Dyfrdwy (River Dee)

Dduallt on the right, seen from the Cwm yr Allt Lwyd approach

For the best viewing experience, left-click the images and maps to zoom in to a new window, then close that window to go back – go on, it really does work!

The route (centre) also showing nearby Cadair Idris, the Aran Ridge and the Rhinogydd (Rhinogs)

Maesglase, which I featured in my previous blog post (see post #298), is not well known amongst hillwalkers and hikers, but 12 kms to the north lies the even more elusive Dduallt (Black Slopes or Black Hill).  I had been here just once before (see post #205), five years earlier, and if I’m honest I hadn’t been in a huge rush to revisit – Dduallt might not be high but it’s a gnarly little hill.  What tempted me back was a newspaper story I had read about the source of the Afon Dyfrdwy.

The course of the Afon Dyfrdwy (River Dee) from its source (blue flag) near Bala

The Afon Dyfrdwy, sometimes known as the ‘River of the Goddess’, rises at Dduallt then flows through Llyn Tegid at Bala, followed by Corwen and Llangollen on the A5, before becoming part of the English/Welsh border to the east of Wrexham.  It then enters England to flow round the city of Chester before returning to Wales at industrial Deeside, entering the sea at Liverpool bay after a journey of 113 kms (70 miles).  If the standard geographical information doesn’t tempt a visit, a newspaper story I had read by outdoor writer and mountaineer Jim Perrin might.

Closer view of the route from Cwm yr Allt Lwyd (Dduallt summit is the red flag, source of Dee the blue flag)

My previous tussle with Dduallt in 2016 after visiting Rhobell Fawr, meant that the southern approach was not on my list of routes to repeat, but the map suggested that coming in from the north could be a better option.  The plan was to drive to the remote valley of Cwm yr Allt Lwyd (Valley of the Grey Hillside) and to use tracks to cover most of the distance to and from the hill.  What could possibly go wrong?!

Setting out from Cwm yr Allt Lwyd
The grassy ramp crossing Allt Lwyd (‘Grey Slope’ or ‘Grey Hillside’)
Heading up the ramp ….
…. with the old house at Dol Cyn Afon in the valley below and Rhobell y Big rising above

In fact, the walk in started well, with a short walk along a track to the disused house of Dol Cyn Afon (Meadow before the River).  It was there that we met a local shepherd who was about to bring in part of the flock for shearing.  He was a member of the local Community Council and was interested in comparing different views on mapping and access.  Although he must know the area around Dduallt like the back of his hand, he surprised me when he said he had never been to the summit – then again, working in these hills doesn’t leave much time to walk them for fun.

Looking back down the grassy ramp to Cwm yr Allt Lwyd
Approaching the ford over the Afon Mawddach (centre)
Heading up towards Dduallt

We must have spent a pleasant half hour chatting away, whilst his (male) sheepdog took an interest in our Border Collie ‘Mist’ – it was unrequited lust on the part of the shepherd’s dog, who was given the brush off by our girl!  Leaving the shepherd and his young Romeo to their ‘gather’, we took a good track up a grassy ramp, which soon led us to an easy river crossing over the Afon Mawddach – beyond there, the track began to disappear on us.

Looking back to Waun y Griafolen (The Rowen Moorland) the source of the Afon Mawddach
The ‘going’ starts to get rough! – Arenig Fawr (right) and Moel Llyfnant (left) in the far distance
First view of the steep east side of Dduallt ….
…. but more rough stuff to get through on the way

The plan was to turn east off the north shoulder of Dduallt, and to contour round the east side of the hill.  The walking (and the views from the route) was over the rough moorland that forms the catchment area of another Welsh river, the Afon Mawddach, which flows into the sea at Barmouth. The walking was hard going, rough and tussocky, though thankfully the bogs were mostly dry following a dry spell.

the old sheepfold just before the Dyfrdwy/Mawddach watershed
The sound of running water – but where?

Just beyond an old sheepfold, our gradual ascent turned to downhill as we crossed the watershed that separates the rivers Dyfrdwy and Mawddach.  Ahead of us was a shallow depression, which was shown on the map as having several small streams heading to join the Afon Dyfrdwy. At the lowest point, near to the east slope of Dduallt, we could hear running water, but couldn’t see a stream – so where was the water?

The source of the Afon Dyfrdwy
Note the low stone wall
Another view of the low wall ….
…. and under one of the large stones, a pool – the source of the river

Whilst Chris had a break from walking, I looked around for signs of the source of the river.  It wasn’t long before I noticed a low stone wall and a closer look revealed exactly what Jim Perrin had described – “a tiny roofless building, perfectly concealed, east-west in orientation, the east wall a huge triangular boulder, the entire structure built over the first pool”.  The construction has the appearance of being a shrine, but there wasn’t a clue to suggest whether old or new, Christian or Pagan – a mystery, in fact!

Looking back to the slight depression that marks the river’s source ….
….and southeast to the forest where the Afon Dyfrdwy becomes a river
Heading upwards towards the summit of Dduallt
The view from the summit looking southeast to the infant Afon Dyfrdwy
The summit, looking north to Arenig Fawr and Moel Llyfnant

From there, we found a line of ascent to the summit of Dduallt, following the South shoulder of the hill.  There were few signs of paths, tracks or any human intrusion, other that a wire fence that takes the crest of the ridge.  Jim Perrin summed up the area nicely in his article – “It’s as wild a place as you’ll find in our Welsh hills – an arduous, two-hours-each-way stumble and splash across tussocky heather and mire”. Not wrong there Jim!

Then it’s time to set off down the North Ridge of Dduallt
Approaching the ford over the Afon Mawddach

We had a coffee break on the summit before returning by the north shoulder of the hill – it was all downhill, but the going remained rough until we finally re-joined our outward route, not far from the ford over the Afon Mawddach.  It had been a tough little outing, with even ‘Mist’ looking a bit tired by the end, but all was made worthwhile by the visit to the shrine at the source of the Afon Dyfrdwy – one of the truly mysterious places in Wales.

It’s time to head for home

Text and images © Paul Shorrock

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