#293 – Going wild in Scotland – Beasties, mythical and otherwise

Mythical beasts (and public art) – The Kelpies near Falkirk

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Regulars to this blog will know that I mostly photograph landscapes, but recently I’ve been trying my hand at photographing wildlife – with various degrees of success!   Our Scottish trip in September 2020, sandwiched between Covid-19 lockdowns, was the ideal opportunity to try for some wildlife, but my first ‘beasties’ were mythical ones – the Kelpies.

Impressive in the daylight

Even more impressive at night!

A few posts back (see post #285) I told the tale of the Kelpies near Falkirk.   In Scottish folklore, kelpies are mythical water spirits, with a habit of enticing young men to a watery grave.    The Falkirk Kelpies are a magnificent sight on the Scottish tourist scene, and they don’t do that watery grave enticement thing – they are also kind to photographers, as they don’t move around like most wildlife.

Swans in Helix Park – working up to take-off speed (note the poor duck!)

The day after we had admired the kelpies, we were looking for a decent length walk for Border Collie ‘Mist’, and the nearby Helix Park and Lake seemed to fit the bill.   Boating and similar human activity was out of the question due to Covid restrictions, but the water fowl were making good use of the peace and quiet.   I got some practice on my wildlife subjects by tracking a couple of swans in take-off mode.

Finally getting airborne

In flight, or swimming, swans are the epitome of grace and elegance, but the bit in between where they run across the surface of the water is usually not a good look!   It was only after I downloaded the series of images that I noticed the poor duck on the flight path (first swan image above).    As the swans took off, the duck was gallantly trying to outpace them – not a chance!

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The Braemar ‘golf-playing’ deer herd ….

…. looks like a boys day out

It wouldn’t be a complete trip to Scotland without a mountain or two, preferably more.    I described our hill day on Morrone in post #286 and the photos of the ‘boys on the golf course’ amused several readers.   They seem to be doing the greenkeeper a good turn by cropping the grass, but I bet those pointy hooves will add a few extra holes to the course.

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Red deer near Loch Assynt

There was a low ‘deer count’ on this trip, but we weren’t actively seeking them out.   The largest herd I ever saw was some years back – a huge stag with his harem of 20+ casually strolling across the road in Glencoe, just as I came round a blind bend at around 70mph on a motorcycle!    No damage to the deer or my pride on that occasion, thankfully.

They soon become aware of our presence

This small group of four was spotted in the early evening near Loch Assynt when the tourists were heading for their hotels.    Being in the camper often gives the opportunity to watch (and photograph) the local wildlife – the young male on the far right didn’t notice me at first, but it wasn’t long before his head went up, probably after smelling me or my Collie ‘Mist’.     Even then, they were not alarmed, and they just sauntered off quietly.

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 The Isle of Bute was a late addition to the trip.    We had planned to head for home in Wales at the beginning of October, but it was announced that from October 1st, Welsh residents would be restricted to their local area (county).   The four nations of the United Kingdom have failed to employ ‘joined-up thinking’ since the start of the pandemic, each one taking a different approach, but this time the situation was crazy.

On Bute, a big seal catching up on the sun ….

….with his mate, the oyster catcher, also getting some rays

Free movement was still permitted in England and Scotland, but if we returned home, we would have to drive straight to Denbighshire and stay there.   Now don’t get me wrong, Denbighshire is a lovely county, stretching from the sea to the Berwyn mountains, but we didn’t really fancy being trapped there.    The solution was simple – don’t go back!   Which is why we found ourselves on Bute.

Not too far away from the seals, a group of cormorants also enjoying the sun

The only thing I knew about Bute before this visit, was that the main town of Rothsay was the subject of a folk song about a drunken Hogmanay party (New Years Eve for those who don’t understand Scottish) – the fact that we were usually ‘well-oiled’ when we sang it usually added to the hilarity.   This trip was a much more sober affair, with a visit to Scalpsie Bay to see the seal colony being one of the highlights

There’s something in the water in front of this character

It looks like another seal

Then, all of a sudden, it’s time for a sharp exit ….

…. leaving the original seal with a bemused expression

Swimming seals are unbelievably graceful, but on land they are just big lumps!    They do enjoy sitting in the sun though, and why not.    We watched the antics of these two for a couple of minutes – at first it looked like just one seal soaking up the sun, then it became obvious that the one seal was watching another seal (second image above).   Then, the second seal decided enough was enough, and left in a big splash of water.  Yep, a busy day down on the beach!

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The pair of golden eagles we saw near Lochnagar ….

…. keeping their distance …

….but the shape is unmistakable

Several times on the trip we had hoped to spot (and photograph) eagles, but our first ‘hit had been a fluke.    We were on our way back from our hike out to Meikle Pap of Lochnagar (see post #287)  when I saw a pair of golden eagles flying above us.   Chris was unconvinced at first, but there was no mistaking the shape.   The camera lens wasn’t long enough to get more detailed pics, but being there in that moment was more than good enough.

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Over on Mull, hoping to spot a white-tailed eagle (sea eagle)….

…. but in the meantime, the gulls give some practice on photographing a moving target

Straight in for a fish supper

I had been given a recommendation for a good place to see white-tailed eagles on the Isle of Mull, and a happy afternoon was spent there, parked up by the lochside.   This was towards the end of the trip, and I think I was just starting to appreciate that patience is just as important as a good camera or a long lens.    So, as I watched and waited, I practiced panning the camera on gulls who were diving for an early dinner.

Out on the island in the sea loch, one sea eagle isn’t going very far just now ….

…. then the unmistakable shape flying overhead

The largest British bird, the white-tailed eagle, also known as ‘the flying barn door’

A passing photographer pointed out the ‘bump’ on a nearby island – apparently, it’s a favourite spot for one particular eagle to sit.    Then, finally, there was a flypast – yet again it was a bit far for a detailed shot, but no mistaking the shape or size of a sea eagle, also known as ‘the flying barn door ‘ because of its 2-metre wingspan.

But, having teased you all with tales of eagles, here’s a superb image of a sea eagle by photographer Christoph Müller – great inspiration for me on future trips – no pressure then!

The white-tailed eagle © Christoph Müller

Text and images © Paul Shorrock except the white-tailed eagle image shown above, which is © Christoph Müller and is reproduced here under a Creative Commons Licence.

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#292 – Meall nan Tarmachan 

Soon after the start – Chris looking back to the cloudy Tay Valley

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Our September 2020 trip to Scotland was destined to extend into October.   There was still no second Covid-19 lockdown in Scotland at the time, so we could move around freely, but back home in North Wales movement was restricted to the local area.  If we went back, we would be stuck in Denbighshire, lovely though it is, whereas staying in Scotland meant that we were still free.   It was a ‘no brainer’ as to what we should do!

The Tay Valley (centre) and the village of Killin

We had been on the West side of Scotland for a while, but I wanted to head for Glen Lyon for a photographic trip (more of that in a future post).   Somewhere to park up with a mountain dog-walk, seemed to be a good plan, so we headed for the Ben Lawers car park above the pretty village of Killin in the Tay Valley.

Loch Tay and the Meall nan Tarmachan route

The weather wasn’t what you might call bad, just a bit ‘iffy’!   It looked as though things could go either way, so instead of the main attraction of the area (Ben Lawers) I suggested that we might do Meall nan Tarmachan.    At an altitude of 1044 metres it wasn’t a tiddler, but our start point was at 420 metres, giving us a bit of a head start up one of the easiest of the Scottish Munros.

Closer view of the route – out and back

For those not familiar with the term, a ‘Munro’ is a mountain in the UK that is 3000 ft (915 metres) in height.   The list of peaks over 3000 ft was first drawn up by Sir Hugh Munro (1856–1919) for no other reason than they were higher than 3000 ft (Sir Hugh’s other claim to fame was possibly one of the earliest known examples of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder 😉).   At the time of writing, there are 282 Munros in Scotland, six in England and fifteen in Wales.   I say ‘at the time of writing’ because new surveys are constantly promoting or demoting Munros, a bit of a setback if you have just finished the list to find that a newbie has been upgraded.

Just after leaving the car park – pioneer tree species hanging on in there

I don’t claim to be a Munro-ist, and Chris certainly isn’t.    Although I have huge respect for those dedicated enough to hike over the highest of our British hills, I couldn’t bear to drive or walk past a superb mountain that just failed to reach 915 metres, in order to tick off a distant, but less interesting, Munro.   One thing is certain though – a hiker who has completed all the Munros can claim to have an excellent knowledge of the mountains and wilderness areas of Scotland.

The ‘unlovely’ visitor centre (now demolished) and the old car park (replaced) © Dr Richard Murray

The old National Trust of Scotland visitor centre closed in 2009, later demolished © Gordon Brown

The last time I had been here was about 25 years earlier, when a climbing buddy and I were heading back from a big mountain weekend in Glencoe – we wanted an easy-ish hill day for the Sunday and went slightly off route on the way home to walk up Ben Lawers.  The advantage of the high start point had been marred only by the unlovely National Trust of Scotland visitor centre and car park, so it was a pleasant surprise when Chris and I arrived to hike up Meall nan Tarmachan that the visitor centre and ugly car park were both gone.

Looking back again to the Tay Valley ….

…. and Meall nan Tarmachan poking through on the right

Looking down towards Killin – starting to brighten up?

The skies were leaden and the breeze chilly as Chris and I set out with Border Collie ‘Mist’ for our Munro dog-walk.   A combination of altitude and latitude means that only the hardy pioneer species of trees such as silver birch and rowan have much of a chance of surviving, and most of the ascent was over bleak moorland, made bleaker by the glowering clouds.

Border Collie ‘Mist’ below the small unnamed summit at 923 metres

The summit of Meall nan Tarmachan (1044 metres) on a good weather day © David Brown ….

….and what it looked like for us

Chris (and ‘Mist’) officially claim the summit!

A small false summit at 923 metres gave a vantage point of the final steep and rocky ascent of Meall nan Tarmachan – well, it would have done if the cloud base hadn’t dropped to obscure the last 100 metres of ascent.   Apparently, the views down to the Tay Valley more than justify the ascent, but not today and not for us.    The question was, where next?

Map 1 – Our out and back route in blue, with the continuation to Meall Garbh shown in red

Map 2 – From Meall Garbh, the first alternative could have been the Tarmachan Ridge circuit

Map 3 – The second alternative could have been the south Ridge of Meall Garbh

One option would have been to continue southwest from the summit to Meall Garbh (see the maps above) to continue on the first alternative, which was a traverse of the Tarmachan Ridge.    There didn’t seem to be much point in that in the poor visibility, and I didn’t know at the time that there is another descent route down the South Ridge of Meall Garbh.  That left one final option, to return the way we had come.

On the way back – our ‘stalker’ (type unknown) flying just left of centre

The poor visibility also prevented us from identifying the large bird that decided to check us out – I tried for a photograph, but by the time I had the camera ready, our ‘stalker’ was moving out of range.    I claimed yet another eagle sighting, though Chris wasn’t convinced.  We did agree though that the weather was starting to brighten up, at least for the good folks in Killin.   Things were brightening up even more for Collie ‘Mist’ – heading down meant it was getting on towards dinner time.

On the direct descent from Meall nan Tarmachan with the weather definitely brightening ….

…. and it’s time to head for home

Text and images © Paul Shorrock except images tagged Dr Richard Murray, Gordon Brown and David Brown, which are taken from the Geograph Project and are reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence

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#291 – Scottish Sunsets

The sun starts to set over Sgurr nan Gillean in the Black Cuillins, just above Sligachan (May 2019)

Same sunset, same location, same time, but looking towards the Red Cuillins (May 2019)

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Map of the sunset locations mentioned in this post

You can’t beat the spectacle of a good sunset!   I once read that you should look at each sunset as if it’s your last, but someone else said that’s rubbish – what you should be doing is trying to see more sunsets!   That was one of our aims on our autumn 2020 trip to Scotland, with another aim to try and come away with some good photos.   The trouble is, sunsets can be awkward little beggars to capture.

An Teallach seen from Fain near Dundonnell (May 2019)

Obvious as it is, one of the main ingredients of a good sunset is the light, combined with the clouds and a good background, and those elements don’t always line up – literally!   In 2019, we had a great display over An Teallach from Fain near Dundonnell, but 1½ years later the scene was quite different.

The same view from the same location in September 2020

The light starts to get a bit moody and stormy ….

…. and before long, the ‘weather’ arrives on the mountain

A bit of cloud works wonders in a sunset, giving the light something to play with – however, on the 2020 trip, there was more than enough cloud over An Teallach, and it wasn’t taking any prisoners.    It was certainly a good night for viewing the mountains from a distance rather than close up.

A warm, light sky seen from Altandhu in Assynt ….

…. and a cool, dark sky seen from Staffin on Skye

The slightest possibility of catching a good sunset in a photograph occupies many an hour on our trips, especially when there is a good bit of coast or mountain as a background.  What’s more, it’s another chance for Border Collie ‘Mist’ to check out all the local scents whilst I’m busy checking f-stops and exposure times (don’t worry, just some of the arcane practices that photographers get up to).

Camas nan Geall at Ardnamurchan ….

…. where the day slowly slips away ….

…. without being in any great hurry

Sometimes is nice just to be able to witness the end of another day as it slowly slips away.  We had gone to Camas nan Geall at Ardnamurchan in search of sea eagles – ten years earlier, we had watched one patrolling over the bay for about half an hour but didn’t have a camera.    This time, I was ready for an eagle pic, but it was a no-show by the big bird – the changing light as the day disappeared was good compensation though.

Lochbuie on Mull ….

…. where the cloud starts to slip away to sea ….

…. and the strange cloud formation starts to change ….

…. as it catches the last rays of the sun

Lochbuie on Mull is another location we returned to in 2020.    The cloud out to sea raised hopes for a dramatic light show, but as the sun dipped over the horizon, the cloud decided to follow in the same direction.   Then suddenly, the focus of the action shifted to the strange cloud formation to the east, which was catching the colour from the disappearing sun.  (Hint – if you’re watching a sunset, keep watching the rest of the sky as well!)

Near Ettrick on Bute, and a last view of the sun as it disappears ….

…. but the light show isn’t finished yet ….

…. and continues for some time

At Ettrick on the Isle of Bute, we had most of the ingredients for a good show – it’s a bonus when there’s a last sighting of the sun as it disappears, but a few moody-looking clouds made a great projection screen for the changing colours.    But my all-time favourite for sunsets was the one we saw in 2017 at Elgol – what’s more, those colours are genuine!  As the man said, ‘see more sunsets’.

Probably my all-time favourite – the Black Cuillins seen from Elgol on Skye (April 2017)

Text and images © Paul Shorrock – images all from the September/October 2020 trip except where another date is given.

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#290 – Neist Point on the Duirinish Peninsula, Western Skye

Neist Point, the most westerly point on Skye

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Neist Point location (red flag) in relation to Northern Scotland

Neist Point is one of the most photographed locations on Skye, mostly because of the spectacular sunsets to the west, over the islands of the Outer Hebrides and the Little Minch, the sea strait that lies between Skye and the Outer Isles.    ‘Most photographed’ means one thing in particular though – lots of people!

Neist Point with Skye and the Outer Hebrides

Over the past decade, the Skye tourist industry has done a remarkable job of ‘selling’ the island to visitors travelling from the rest of the UK, Europe and beyond, but has failed spectacularly in providing simple facilities such as car parking space or toilets.    The result is often overcrowding, especially in the summer months.

Neist Point and part of the Duirinish Peninsula

The answer is simple,  go off-season before the rush, but that concept is becoming steadily more challenging.   I guessed that late September should be a reasonably quiet time to visit, but that depends on your idea of quiet!    It was bearable, but I wouldn’t like to see it in high summer – come to think of it, in high summer it’s unlikely that you would even be able to get down the road to Neist Point.

Early evening sun on the cliffs of Moonen Bay

A popular spot! It looks like others have had the same idea

We arrived at Neist just as the light was turning golden, and it looked as though a spectacular sunset was going to be on the menu.    We found a level spot to park the van, so that was us set up for the night – travelling by camper has many advantages, including our own on-board facilities, so after our evening meal and a couple of scoops of ‘red’, we were ready for the light show.

Sunset approaching over the small hill of An t-Aigeach

Closer view of An t-Aigeach – note the tiny figures watching the sunset from the summit

More sunset watchers near the car park

An t-Aigeach still popular as the light fades

Ah yes, the light show – whilst we were eating, a thin layer of cloud had crept across the sky, so it looked as though a spectacular sunset was off for tonight.  No problem really, especially for photographs – the light was still interesting, as was the people-watching potential.

The sun setting over the Outer Hebrides ….

…. as the moon rises over Moonen Bay

A sole observer of the moonrise

The sun finally sets ….

…. but the moon gets brighter (The tiny light on the horizon to the right of the photo is a ship)

The crowds were spread out along the cliff tops near the car park, along with another sizable group on the small summit of An t-Aigeach, all 95 metres (312 ft) of it.   In the meantime, a second light show was starting up, as the moon rose over Moonen Bay to the south.   All in all, it had been worth the trip, and I’ll be back – apparently, the wildlife spotting potential is huge, and includes dolphins, whales and sea birds.

An t-Aigeach and Neist Point the next day on a dull morning

The path leading down to the lighthouse

Neist Point Lighthouse ….

…. with The Little Minch and the Outer Hebrides beyond

The skies were still on the dull side next morning, but that’s no problem to a Border Collie who is ready for a good walk, so ‘Mist’ took Chris and me on a stroll along the sea cliffs to the north.   It turned out to be a muddy excursion, so we turned back after a couple of kilometres and went down to take a look at the lighthouse at the tip of Neist Point.

Closer view of the lighthouse

The lighthouse was built in 1909 and was fully automated in 1990.   In recent times it was also used as holiday accommodation but is now abandoned and slowly becoming more derelict in appearance.   A more recent addition to the Point is a ‘stone balancing’ collection – it’s easy to see why people feel compelled to add another stone pile, but I sometimes wonder who started the first one.    It won’t be the locals – apparently, they are not at all keen on the little rock towers.

The inevitable collection of balanced stones

Text and images © Paul Shorrock

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#289 – Cùl Mòr – A bit more Assynt

Cùl Mòr above the small lake of Lochan an Ais at Knockan Crag

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Assynt in North-West Scotland

The mountains of Assynt

It was a bit of a wrench to leave Assynt after several days stravaiging (a Scots word meaning ‘wandering’) but we hadn’t quite finished yet.   I fancied a longer mountain day, so it was time to visit new ground, and to grab a new peak – Cùl Mòr would do nicely, thank you!

The Cùl Mòr route – clockwise round the two summits

I usually go solo for the bigger, higher days, so Chris decided to take a wander around the nature reserve at Knockan Crag while I set off with Border Collie ‘Mist’ to Cùl Mòr – on the solo days I aim to go for ‘Further, Faster’, to pinch the Montane motto and, as usual, ‘Mist’ also seemed up for it.

Cùl Mòr seen from the A835 – proof that the sun does shine occasionally in Scotland! © C Mackay

Not quite as sunny on my trip – soon after setting out from Knockan Crag

The stalkers path

First view of Suilven from the stalkers path ….

…. and the first view of Cùl Mòr since setting out across the moor

Cùl Mòr looks good seen from the A835 road, though the weather started dull at first, with the skies starting to clear as I went on.   From the parking at Knockan Crag, a great stalkers path gave rapid access – the guys who first trod these paths were not heading out for fun, they were working, and they didn’t waste effort wandering about.    Before long I was enjoying views of Suilven, before Cùl Mòr came back into view.

The stony ascent of Meallan Dìomhain with Suilven (left), Quinag (distant centre) and Canisp (Right)

My route from Meallan Dìomhain to the col between Creag nan Calman and Cùl Mòr  © Nigel Brown

The stony little lump of Meallan Dìomhain (609 metres/1998 ft) gave a good view of what was to come.   Another hiker caught me up there, and we had a chat about the route alternatives.    I was heading west into the broad corrie between Creag nan Calman and Cùl Mòr, whilst he was going around the north shoulder of Cùl Mòr, going the opposite way round to my route.

Border Collie ‘Mist’ next to the stream, heading up to the broad corrie

Up past the steeper stream section, entering the broad corrie with the col ahead

The col and the first view of Stac Pollaidh in the distance

The view from Creag nan Calman summit to Cùl Beag (left) and Stac Pollaidh (right)

An obvious line led me on a traverse of the hillside before heading up a steeper section next to a stream – it looked like this route isn’t used a great deal, but the way was always obvious.    The steeper stream section eventually opened out into a broad corrie, leading up to a col.   The lower summit of Creag nan Calman (828 metres/2716 ft) was a mere 45 metres higher than the col, so it made sense to collect it – my reward at the summit were great views across to Cùl Beag and Stac Pollaidh.

Heading for Cùl Mòr summit with Suilven (centre) with Quinag in the distance (right)

From Creag nan Calman I could also see a tiny figure on the summit of Cùl Mòr (849 metres/2785 ft)  and as I retraced my steps to the col and headed up to Cùl Mòr summit, it turned out to be the solo hiker I had chatted to earlier, heading in the opposite direction to me.    From the top of Cùl Mòr, he had also seen me and the dog on Creag nan Calman and asked if it was worth the detour – I assured him it was.

The boulder field descent

Closer view of Suilven on my descent, with Quinag in the distance

Before we parted, he added that there was a beast of a boulder field on the north side of Cùl Mòr – as the only way for me to avoid it would be to return the same way I had hiked in, I decided to give it a go.    It was an absolute monster, though as I was looking down the slope, I was better able to pick out a sensible route than the other guy would have been going up – I was glad to get clear of it though.

On the descent looking east towards Elphin

Once free from the boulders, it was an easy enough route back towards stony little Meallan Dìomhain, where for the last time that day I saw the solo hiker – apparently he also believes in the ‘Further, Faster’ motto, and the only view I had of him was the rear view, as he pulled away until he was finally out of sight.

Must be time to head for home

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


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#288 – Assynt assignations (and dog walks)

The mountains of Assynt – left to right Canisp, Suilven, Cul Mor, Cul Beag and Stac Pollaidh

(For the best viewing experience, left-click the images and maps to zoom in, then use your browser return arrow to go back – go on, it really does work!)

Assynt in the far North-West of the Scottish Highlands

If you ask me what my favourite part of the Scottish Highlands is, be prepared to hang around whilst I try to decide. In my early rock-climbing days, my favourite area was Skye (plus Glencoe because that was on the way to Skye). When I discovered Torridon and Wester Ross in the 1990’s I was completely bowled over, and in the past couple of years, I rediscovered the Cairngorms and wondered why I didn’t go there more often.

Closer view of the Assynt area

I first discovered Assynt about twenty years ago and started kicking myself for not doing so earlier. Our Autumn 2020 Highland trip in the camper took in most of the familiar places I know and love, plus some new ones besides, but Assynt grabbed us, so we stayed and mooched around for a while. It’s good to have a mountain day as an objective, but sometimes just mooching around on a long dog walk with ‘Mist’ is more than good enough.

Dolphin at Chanonry Point, the Black Isle – © Craig Wallace

After our East Cairngorm outings (see posts #286 and #287) I had tried my hand at wildlife photography at Chanonry Point on the East Coast, but it was a ‘no show’ by the dolphins on the two mornings I tried for a photo. ‘Mist’ had enjoyed the extended dog-walks on the beach, but the West Coast was calling, so it was time to take the A837 road through Strath Oykel to Assynt.

Ardvreck Castle location on Loch Assynt (the red flag marks the spot)

The coast road through Assynt is part of the now famous (or should that be infamous!) NC500 road trip. For years, the road around the west and north coasts of Scotland was known to just a few of us enthusiasts and had been ‘undiscovered’ by the masses. Well, they’ve been discovered now that’s for sure, and over the summer months the roads are rammed with campervans, many of them hire vans with inexperienced drivers, who don’t have a clue how to drive on narrow Highland roads.

Loch Assynt, with Ardvreck Castle in the middle ground and Quinag beyond

The ruins of Calda House ….

…. near to the ruins of Ardvreck Castle

I was ready for the possibility that Assynt could be busy, and as I’ve no more right to be there than anyone else, I was prepared and ready to have to share the joy with the hordes. Luckily, the tourist season seems to correspond loosely with the midge season, and by the time we arrived at Loch Assynt, the number of vans in the area was nearer to the way things used to be twenty years ago.

Calda House with Beinn an Fhurain (left) and Conival (right) rising behind

Ardvreck Castle with Calda House behind

The ruins of the castle

We spent a short half-day around the ruins of Ardvreck Castle and Calda House, places we had previously driven past, but never had a close look at. The castle was built in 1590 by the MacLeods of Assynt, but the Mackenzie clan took the castle in 1672, later taking control of the whole of Assynt. In 1726 they decided to go ‘upmarket’ and built a modern manor house at Calda, but this was burned down in 1737 and both now stand in ruins.

The route out to the Anson crash site near Loch nan Cuaran

Setting out near Inchnadamph

Heading up the narrow stalkers path

Loch Assynt was also a convenient base for a walk out from Inchnadamph. The stars of the show in this part of Assynt are Conival and Ben More Assynt (so named to distinguish it from other Ben Mores), but our objective was to take a trip out to an aircraft crash site dating back to 1941. We took the stalkers path out from Inchnadamph and set off for Loch nan Cuaran, which made a good place to take a break.

Loch nan Cuaran – as far as we went (route shown in blue on the map above)

Various sections of the walk had been quite wet, and the next bit looked like being even worse. Time was also moving on, and the cloud base was coming down to meet us, so a decision was made to bale out and return to the valley, leaving the visit to the crash site for another day – we made it down before the rain started.

* * * * *

Avro Anson training aircraft © Oren Rozen

The Avro Anson was used as a training aircraft all through WW2 and beyond. Because of its use as a trainer, the aircraft type is frequently found at crash sites in the hills and mountains of the UK, not because it was an unsafe aircraft but because there were a lot of them flying in the war years. On 13th April 1941, Anson N9857 set out from RAF Kinloss on a long training flight out to the Isle of Lewis. On the return leg, the aircraft was forced to climb to avoid bad weather, and a message was received by a ground station, saying that the aircraft was losing power due to icing.

The crash site and grave (route there shown in red on the map) © Jim Barton

The Anson was posted as overdue later that day, but searches failed to locate the aircraft, which was eventually found by a shepherd over a month later. Of the crew of six, at least three appeared to have survived the initial impact and the body of a fourth was found near to the wreck, possibly after trying to go for help – they all appear to have died from hypothermia, during what had been the most severe blizzard in the area in 100 years. The task of recovering the bodies was beyond the resources of the time and they were buried at the crash site, at what is now the highest grave in the UK.

* * * * *

Assynt with Stoer Head and the Old Man of Stoer at the top left

The lighthouse at Stoer Head

A couple of days later found us out at Stoer Head at the northwest corner of Assynt, after a drive along some of the narrowest roads in Scotland – it must be chaos in the height of the tourist season, as this is part of the aforementioned NC500. The lighthouse at Stoer Head is the most obvious attraction on arrival, but the reason most tourists come here is for the walk out to the Old Man of Stoer.

A muddy walk over the moor

The Old Man of Stoer comes into view

Closer view of the sea stack

The Old Man is a 60 metres (nearly 200 ft) high sea stack, which appears to defy gravity as well as the West Coast storms. As well as being a good dog walk (well, ‘Mist’ seemed happy enough) it is also a popular rock climb, with the first ascent in 1966 by Brian Henderson, Paul Nunn, Tom Patey and Brian Robertson. Getting to the foot of the stack can be a bit of an epic apparently, requiring either a swim or a rope traverse. No, we didn’t bother.

The route out to Suileag Bothy

Setting out towards Glencanisp Lodge with Canisp (centre) and Suilven rising in the distance

Canisp (left) and Suilven (right) – plus a certain Border Collie!

The track to the bothy with Canisp behind

Suilven rising above, looking very impressive

Our Scottish trips wouldn’t be complete without at least one bothy visit, with Suileag Bothy in Assynt being a contender (for those who don’t know about bothies in the UK, follow this link). Suileag is ideally placed for trips up Suilven and Canisp, and many hikers use the bothy overnight to make the ascent day shorter – both summits are about three miles from the bothy.

The approach to Suileag bothy, seen in the shadows just left of centre

“Welcome” (After the end of lockdown that is!)

Entrance room with sleeping platform

Border Collie ‘Mist’ checking out the fireplace

Suileag is a popular bothy with hikers, cyclists and mountaineers, but during the Covid-19 emergency, all bothies maintained by the Mountain Bothies Association have been placed off-limits. So, after a quick peek inside for a couple of photos, we turned round for the return to the car park near Glencanisp Lodge. Suilven was just as impressive on the way back as it had been on the way out to the bothy, but ‘Mist’ was much more impressed by the sound of her dinner dish being topped up when we arrived back at the van.

One final view of Suilven, then it’s ….

…. time to head for home

Text and images © Paul Shorrock except where otherwise indicated. Images tagged Craig Wallace and Jim Barton are taken from the Geograph Project and are reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence.

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#287 – Loch Muick and ‘Dark Lochnagar’

The crags of ‘Dark Lochnagar’

(For the best viewing experience, left-click the images and maps to zoom in, then use your browser return arrow to go back – go on, it really does work!)

“Gasherbrum, Masherbrum, Distighil Sar,
All are good training for dark Lochnagar!”

Tom Patey

Loch Muick and Lochnagar in the Eastern Cairngorms (red flag marks the start point for both routes)

We were properly in the mountains now, and as it was mid-September (2020), we were not to be troubled by the dreaded midge, and the ones we had encountered the night before our day out on Morrone (see post #286) were the only ones we came across on our six-week Scottish trip.

The Eastern Cairngorms showing the Lochnagar area

Things were not entirely trouble-free though – on a couple of occasions on the trip, the starter battery for the van had let us down, and we had been saved by the solar panel topping up the battery while we went on an extended dog walk.   We would have to get it fixed, which is why one sunny morning we were driving to Aberdeen rather than the hills.

The routes – Red (clockwise) round Loch Muick and blue (there and back) to Meikle Pap, Lochnagar

By lunchtime we were sorted (thanks Kwik-Fit), with half a day still available.   ‘Plan A’ had been to drive to Ballater in the Dee Valley, then up Glen Muick to walk out to Lochnagar. Half a day wouldn’t give us enough time for ‘Plan A’, especially as we were still in Aberdeen, but it would be long enough for ‘Plan B’, which was to walk around Loch Muick. Which is exactly what we did. (Red route on the map above)

The Spittal of Glenmuick car park, full to bursting!

Over the summer, the road through Glen Muick (pronounced ‘Mick’) had been closed by the police on several occasions.   The lifting of the national Covid-19 lockdown had seen tourist attractions throughout the UK absolutely mobbed – people who had never shown the slightest interest in remote places and mountains suddenly swarmed there like lemmings, infected not with Covid but with the ‘Fear Of Missing Out’, and the Glen Muick road had been blocked by traffic more than once.

Loch Muick from Spittal – our route started by the track just visible on the far left

Reports of big crowds and anti-social behaviour was another reason why we had waited until September to take the trip, but kids were now back in school and parents were heading back to work.    So, we set out up the narrow Glen Muick road travelling hopefully. The road itself was quiet enough, but the car park at Spittal of Glen Muick was full to bursting, at a time of year when it could be expected to be less busy.   Fortunately, there were no buses making the trip and the coach car park had been made available for overspill parking.

The lodge and wood at Glas allt Shiel seen across Loch Muick

Having lost more than half a day having a new van battery fitted, we didn’t waste much time hitting the trail for a hike around Loch Muick.   Going clockwise, we initially had the advantage of a good Landrover track to speed things up – as time was limited, we left the track before it rises up towards Broad Cairn, and instead followed the narrow path that follows the edge of the loch to the broad delta at its head.

Glas allt Shiel viewed from the far (west) side of Loch Muick

From the path we had a view across the loch to the lodge at Glas allt Shiel.   The original lodge, built in 1851 for one of the estate gillies, was a simple two-room affair.   Soon after it was built, the estate was leased to Queen Victoria (yep, that one!) who fell in love with what she and Albert called their “little bothie”.   There was a room set aside for royal parties, and the queen so loved it that she arranged to re-home the gillie and family near to Balmoral Castle.   The “little bothie” she loved so much was then demolished to be replaced by the current fifteen-room building!

Looking from Spittal along the length of Loch Muick with afternoon turning to evening

The lodge is now part of the Balmoral estate, and is owned personally by Queen Elizabeth II.   As well as the usual estate facilities, it includes a building set aside as a free bothy for climbers and mountain walkers (out of use when we passed, due to Covid-19 restrictions). From Glas allt Shiel lodge we had a steady walk back to the car park at Spittal, just as the afternoon was turning to evening. Having rescued what could have been a wasted day, we decided to return a couple of days later for our original Plan A to walk up to Lochnagar.

* * * * *

This wouldn’t be the first time I had walked up to Lochnagar from Spittal.   In 1975 I was a member of 45 Commando Royal Marines, stationed at Arbroath on the East Coast of Scotland.  When the unit wasn’t deployed, weekends were free for recreational climbing and mountaineering, and as 45 was the premier British Mountain and Arctic Warfare unit at the time, this was actively encouraged.

The crags of Lochnnagar, Eagle Ridge in the centre © Unknown

In June 1975, four of us left Spittal in the early evening, to bivouac overnight on Meikle Pap.   The next day we crossed the corrie to climb Eagle Ridge, one of the finest rock climbs in Scotland.   The four smaller images above show (clockwise from top left) – The view of the crag from the bivi site (me in the centre with hair!), Brian climbing the snow slope (snow, in June!) to the foot of the climb, yours truly on the first pitch of the climb and Graham on the final pitch.   Happy days!

* * * * *

Setting out from Spittal to Lochnagar, with the woods and buildings at Allt na Giubhsaich ahead

The track gets a bit rougher ….

…. before we left it to take the path up to the corrie

First view of Lochnagar from the col below Meikle Pap

The start of the track from Spittal of Muick car park was pretty much as I remembered it from 1975, passing the buildings and woods at Allt na Giubhsaich on the way.   From there the track became a bit rougher as we started gaining height, before reaching a col where the track started descending towards Balmoral, and we branched off on a narrower path after a brew stop.   From there, a steady 1½ km climb brought us to the col below Meikle Pap.

Leaving the Meikle Pap col behind ….

…. and heading for Meikle Pap summit

Border Collie ‘Mist’ out front as usual

Sheltering from a chilly breeze on the summit

Our mountain trips in 2020 had been limited by the Covid lockdown, so Chris and I had decided that on this trip we wouldn’t push things too far and would only go as far as the summit of Meikle Pap, where we would have a good view of Lochnagar across the corrie. As it was, we would have been fine going on to Lochnagar summit, but our route for the day was a respectable 12½ kms with over 600 meters height gain – a chilly breeze made sure we didn’t hang around too long on the summit.

Time to head for home ….

…. but we have company!

A pair of golden eagles ….

…. who stay with us for a few minutes

Then it was time to retrace our steps and head for home.   We had only just left the col when I saw that we had company – a pair of golden eagles.   I did my best to get some photos, but working with a focal length equivalent of 80mm, I was never going to get any pics with good detail unless the birds decided to land in front of us!   Still, the shots I did get shown the unmistakable silhouettes of these magnificent birds.  Even better are the memories of them soaring overhead – I think even Border Collie ‘Mist’ was impressed!

Then it really is time to head for home

Text and images © Paul Shorrock

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#286 – Morrone, Braemar and the Upper Dee Valley

The view from Morrone looking west towards Mar Lodge, with the Cairngorms beyond

(For the best viewing experience, left-click the images and maps to zoom in, then use your browser return arrow to go back – go on, it really does work!)

Braemar and the Upper Dee Valley is one of my favourite locations in the North East of Scotland – if only one reason had to be given, it would be the availability of a couple of spots where it’s possible to park a campervan overnight without annoying (or being annoyed by)  anyone else (see post #258).

Braemar in the Upper Dee Valley

When we arrived, our favourite spots had already been grabbed by a couple of vans, but I had another likely location up my sleeve, tucked away on the edge of a wood – it was the only place on our six-week autumn trip of 2020 where we encountered the dreaded Scottish midge, and these were few in number and docile by standards.  All we needed now was somewhere interesting for a hike the next day.

The route, anti-clockwise from Braemar

The obvious contender was the isolated mountain of Morrone, standing 859 metres in altitude.    The map shows a path from Braemar up the northeast shoulder of the hill, with what appeared to be a vehicle track descending southwest from the summit.   The Scots Gaelic name Morrone translates as ‘Big Nose’, which given its shape and location was fair enough.

Viewpoint on the route out of Braemar, with a cloudy looking sky

Looking down to Braemar

Glen Quoich, where it joins the Dee Valley

Part of the aim of our extended Scottish trip was to get around to a few locations recommended for their photographic potential – although Morrone isn’t the kind of hill to raise excitement levels unduly, it was said to have great views of the nearby mountains of the Cairngorms.

The view of the Cairngorms from the slopes of Morrone © Alan Findlay

Most of the best photographers, the ones who make a living out of it, will plan a shoot well in advance, researching where the sun will be at different times in order to get the best image.    I’m more of an opportunist – I’ll research some promising looking views, but then travel hopefully.    Sometimes this comes together, other times the light is disappointing or the cloud base intrusive.

The view of the Cairngorms that we had

This might appear a bit slap-dash, but it makes you look for opportunities which might otherwise be missed  – it’s also more fun, a bit like going hunting for the sake of the chase.  On this trip, the nearby Cairngorms were obscured by poor light and low cloud, but fortunately I don’t need to sell an image to pay for dinner.    However, the trip was a good recce for the future, and I’ll probably be back sometime when the light is more promising.

‘Mist’ and the ‘Five Cairns’

Four of the Five Cairns

The view looking back to the Five Cairns

In the meantime, Border Collie ‘Mist’ was having a great time doing her own hunting – there must have been a multitude of interesting scents and smells, going by the way she was ranging.   Then, at around the 740-metre contour, we came across a mysterious looking line of five cairns.    An internet search later provided the solution to the mystery – it’s probably nothing more complicated or mysterious than a load of stones dumped to repair the path!

Near the summit, approaching the communications mast

The summit is much more interesting, though purists might not like the addition of a communications mast and associated outbuildings.  The first structure built here was a radio relay installed by the Braemar Mountain Rescue Association in memory of Brian Goring who died from hypothermia in the Cairngorms in April 1967.

View of the other side of the mast and outbuildings © Gordon Brown

The next addition was a small research station installed in the 1970s by the Institute of Environmental and Offshore Medicine at Aberdeen University, to research the treatment of hypothermia in the field.  This was followed by an automatic weather station, similar to the one on the summit of Cairngorm (see post #253).

Memorial plaque on the radio relay hut © Nigel Corby

All these are sufficient in my mind to justify the summit buildings, but if you still aren’t convinced, ask yourself this question – why do you think there is such a good 4G mobile phone signal in the surrounding area?   There can be little doubt that the combined Morrone installations will have saved lives over the past 50 years.

About to leave the summit, with the view southeast to Loch Callater

We didn’t linger long at the summit – there was a chill breeze, and one of the few sheltered nooks in the buildings was already occupied by a group taking a lunch break out of the wind.   There was just enough time and motivation to grab a quick shot of Loch Callater (see post #259) about 7 kms (4 miles) away to the southeast.

The track heading southwest from the summit

Looking back to the summit of Morrone from the track

The Landrover track that serves the summit installations allowed us to make rapid progress, losing height at the same time as generating warmth – I bet the researchers who worked on the hypothermia project on Morrone could have told us that, but I already had a good idea that might be the case.

Red deer on Braemar golf course

Lower down we joined a quiet minor road, constructed in 1748 as part of the network of military roads built after the rebellion of 1745 but now bypassed by the faster A93 road on the other side of Clunie Water.   From there it didn’t take us long to reach Braemar, passing through the golf course on the way.    The main party on the course was a group of young red-deer males – I’ll bet you they aren’t members!

I bet they aren’t members!

Text and images © Paul Shorrock, except the images tagged Alan Findlay, Gordon Brown and Nigel Corby, which are taken from the Geograph Project and are reproduced here under a Creative Commons Licence.


p.s. More from the North East in the next post.

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#285 – Wheels and Water Spirits

The mountains of Assynt in the far Northwest of Scotland

(For the best viewing experience, left-click the images and maps to zoom in, then use your browser return arrow to go back – go on, it really does work!)

2020 was a year to remember, but for all the wrong reasons!   The Covid-19 lockdown managed to coincide with the best spring weather conditions enjoyed in the UK for years, and it was frustrating to have to put a planned trip to the Scottish Highlands on the backburner.

The River Avon as seen from Tomintoul, with the Cairngorms in the distance

Travel restrictions were finally lifted in Wales in July, and plans were made to head north to Scotland.  The only factor to delay us was midge season!  Those who have never endured a full-on swarm of Scottish midgies can’t understand what a complete pain in the arse they are – suffice it to say that 20% of working days in the Scottish forestry industry are lost each year due to midge activity.

Glencoe – Gearr Aonach (left) and Aonach Dubh (right) with Stob Coire nan Lochan rising behind

The Scottish midge season is at its worst from the beginning of June to the middle of September, definitely a time to avoid the Highlands.   So we wouldn’t be going in July then!    On the other hand, delaying too long would bump into autumn, with the chance of the good weather going down the pan.   Then Chris had the idea of mooching up the East Coast of Scotland, seeing places we don’t normally see.

Coire na Ciste and the North Face of Ben Nevis on a murky day

The title of this blog (One Man’s Mountains – One Pillock’s Hillocks) is a bit of a clue as to where my main outdoor interests lie.   Still, we could set off for the (usually) midge-free East Coast and see some of the sights, before heading for the mountains when the midge season was over.    Which is exactly what we did, eventually taking a six-week trip where we visited all the places in the photos above and more besides (blog posts to follow).   But, before the mountains, we went to see a wheel and a couple of water spirits.

The Falkirk Wheel on a sunny day (© Sean McClean)

Not sunny on our visit! (Note the boat just below centre about to enter the Wheel)

The Falkirk Wheel is a rotating boat lift which has been described as “the largest piece of functional sculpture you will ever see”.    It was opened in 2002 as the ‘Millennium Link’, joining the Union Canal and the Forth and Clyde Canal for recreational boating.   The lift is 35 metres (115 ft) high and replaces what was previously a series of eleven locks in the 19th Century.

The Wheel in action, with the gondola lifting the canal boat to the upper level

Closer view of the boat in the lift

The wheel consists of two gondolas, each containing 300 tonnes of water, meaning that the wheel moves 600 tonnes on each lift, but as the gondolas balance each other, the wheel can raise or lower the boats using just 1.5 kWh of energy, no more than it would take to boil the water in eight domestic kettles.   After watching a couple of canal boats making the transfer, it was time to give Border Collie ‘Mist’ a run – near to the Wheel is one of the best-preserved sections of the Antonine Wall, built by the Romans nearly 2000 years ago, and the engineering feat of its time.

A view of strange horses, seen from the M9 Motorway (© J Thomas via the Geograph Project)

As seen from the M9 Motorway (© unknown)

It’s about a 20 km (12½ mile) walk from the Falkirk Wheel to the Kelpies, but we were driving there as we had discovered that overnight parking in campervans is permitted.  Our route took us through a mundane urban sprawl that could have been anywhere in the UK, but for drivers travelling on the M9 Motorway between Edinburgh and Stirling, the view of two strange horse-like beasts is anything but mundane.

The Kelpies by day, an amazing sight

The two Kelpies are each 300 tonnes of structural steel with a stainless-steel cladding, standing 30 metres high (almost 100 ft).  The horse head sculptures, inspired by Clydesdale drought horses, depict shape-shifting water spirits, described in Scottish folk tales and myths.    Knowing that beforehand still doesn’t quite prepare you for an amazing sight.

Kelpies in myth and legend

Kelpies in myth and legend

In Scottish folklore, Kelpies are spirits usually in the shape of a horse, who are said to haunt deep pools in rivers and streams.   We are not talking about ‘My Little Pony’ here though.    They have the strength of a hundred horses, and anyone foolish enough to try to ride one will find themselves unable to dismount – once trapped, the victim is dragged into the river and eaten!   They may also materialize as a beautiful woman, hoping to lure young men to their death.    There, you’ve been warned!

Even more impressive at night

The two sculptures stand as the gateway guardians to the Forth and Clyde Canal, and if they are impressive by day, they are doubly so at night when they are illuminated.    ‘Mist’ was especially impressed, as a night visit for photographs meant yet another dog walk – good enough reason for the Border Collie to like kelpies.

The Kelpies at night showing the canal basin, the gateway to the Forth and Clyde Canal

Text and images © Paul Shorrock except where indicated otherwise

p.s.  Yes, we did get amongst the mountains in the Highlands – drop into the next few posts for the stories

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#284 – Cwm Eigiau in the Eastern Carneddau

Craig yr Ysfa in upper Cwm Eigiau

(For the best viewing experience, left-click the images and maps to zoom in, then use your browser return arrow to go back – go on, it really does work!)

2020 is going to go down as one of the strangest years ever – and that’s me being polite! April, May and early June were blessed with the best UK hill and mountain conditions for years, but due to the Covid-19 lockdown, the mountains were out of reach unless you actually lived within walking distance of them. Sure, we got to know our own local hills a bit better (see posts #275 and #276) but Snowdonia was out of reach despite being only 40 km (25 miles) away from home.

The Carneddau

The route in blue, anti-clockwise from the cap park (the red alternative to Foel Grach was abandoned)

As the end of 2020 came racing towards us, I realised that I hadn’t been on my favourite Welsh Mountains, the Carneddau, for almost two years. A favourable sounding weather forecast held the promise of a good day out, so Chris and me (plus Border Collie ‘Mist’) set our sights on Foel Grach, one of the easier mountains on the east side of the Carneddau range.

Looking towards lower Cwm Eigiau, near to the start point

First snow of the winter at about 600 metres on Cefn Tal Llyn Eigiau

A rare photo of the author!

Coming off Cefn Tal Llyn Eigiau to the Gledrffordd plateau ….

…. where the weather starts closing in

The road to the start point of the walk must be one of the narrowest in North Wales, a land with more than its fair share of narrow roads. The plan was to follow a route we have taken before (see post #134) following the broad Cefn Tal Llyn Eigiau ridge to a low plateau at Gledrffordd, then up to Foel Grach on the rough line of a Right of Way path shown on the map. We would then follow the RoW path down to Cwm Eigiau and return to the car by the old quarry track. Well, that was the plan.

The refuge on Foel Grach, seen on a visit in June 2013

The refuge isn’t obvious as it blends in with the rocks (June 2013)

Chris getting comfortable (June 2013)

Not big – but big enough to escape a storm (June 2013)

At an altitude of 977 metres (3205 ft), Foel Grach (translates as ‘bare, scabby hill’) is fairly unremarkable despite being the eighth highest mountain in Wales. The main highlight of the visit is a small but substantial stone shelter, where it’s possible to escape the wind and rain to enjoy dry sandwiches. That aside, the shelter has probably saved lives over the years, as the Carneddau Plateau is wild, open and exposed.

Difficult snow and iffy weather – it’s decision time!

It’s just a 10 km hike to complete the Gledrffordd /Cwm Eigiau circuit, leaving an option of an extra 3-4 kms diversion to and from Foel Grach. As we reached the 600-metre contour, it became obvious that Mr Snow had paid a visit – at first it was soft and slushy, followed by powdery, which slowed down progress more than a bit.

Taking the detour to the descent to Cwm Eigiau

The main problems came with the frozen sections – several metres of good, hard snow would help us pick up the pace a bit, but just as we came to trust the frozen crust, it would collapse. Time was slipping away, so it wasn’t a difficult decision to miss out Foel Grach, and to head straight to the descent to upper Cwm Eigiau.

The first view of the climbers’ crag of Craig yr Ysfa, hiding in the murk

Craig yr Ysfa in full view as we descended into the cwm

Closer view of Craig yr Ysfa

The navigation was a doddle, even with poor visibility. There are two ring contours at around 730 metres on the Gledrffordd plateau– a rough bearing of South West followed the faint snow-covered path, and the two ‘bumps’ indicated where we were. When we started to gain height for the third time, it was time to ‘hang a left’ and to follow the contour. The GPS came in useful towards the end, where the descending RoW path to Cwm Eigiau is vague at the best of times, but the sight of the climbers’ crag of Craig yr Ysfa, confirmed that we were on the right track.

The last bit of the descent to the remains of the old quarry in upper Cwm Eigiau

Looking back to Craig yr Ysfa, with the sun just about to go down

The descent to the remains of the old quarry buildings was as soggy as I have ever seen it, probably due to meltwater as much as rain. The sun was about to go down as we took the quarry track back to the car, but the light remained good all the way back – more’s the pity, as I like a night walk. More importantly, the rain held off, and I only felt the first drops as I took one last photo of the night creeping in – now, that’s good timing!

The walk out of the upper cwm – time to head for home

Night creeps in just as we get back to the car

Text and images © Paul Shorrock

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