|Scotland Ė A Slight Return|
Iím out of topics relevant to Ireland so as a farewell, Simon has suggested to me that I write a note on walking in Scotland. Well fair enough, normally Iím trying to convince Munro-baggers to take a stroll in Connemara, itís no great turn around to do my bit for our own mountains. This is actually a second draft. First time round I was describing the lot and heading for book length. So Iíve got to get particular. Come to Scotland. Come on the 19th of May and base yourself in Ullapool.
Well, I can hear someone saying, "Jesus, Davie, what are you thinking of? What about Glen Affric?...or Glen Coe? And August Ė thatís your man." But thereís method in this and bit by bit Iíll get to it. Hopefully, youíll come back again and not just see the Highlands. The western isles are pretty near heaven, and wild Galloway has its advocates, but weíre really going for the taster menu here.
For those of you whoíve not been there, the Highlands are deserted in a way that you donít get in Ireland except for a few benighted souls round Blacksod. At the risk of being superficial, itís the difference between an ecological disaster, The Famine, and ethnic cleansing, The Clearances. From the late 18th century landowners cleared the country for sheep then as a Victorian deer-stalking playground. It seems to me that even in the wildest country someone in Ireland stuck with the land, where our landowners just evicted and burned. We couldnít even blame the English; these were our own clan chiefs.
On the one hand, this has its positive side, a lot of wilderness for walking that was once inhabited. The down side is that pubs can be twenty miles apart and hostile when you get there. So choose Ullapool. A fishing village on Loch Broom, a few hotels, lots of B&Bs Ė many not operated by white settlers Ė and some reasonable howffs for drinking.
Stay in one of the B&Bs such as Westlea, Point Cottage or the Sheiling. Upmarket is something like the Ceilidh Place. There arenít many places going for the top end of the market so prices increase rapidly. Places to avoid are the tourist hotels which charge high but cater for the coach tours. The Ferry Boat Inn is a good old pub but if I was eating, the Ceilidh Place is the best formal choice. The Seaforth is a barn of a place but it shares the kitchen with the award-winning chip shop next door. It serves excellent ,well-cooked local sea food at low prices. After 11 it gets lively Ė often scarily so. I was in one evening with a bunch of sullen Russians off the boats, Catholic South Uist men and Protestant Lewis men jibing at each other (they were on their way back after a Celtic Rangers match and would be getting the morning ferry), a folk band playing (which is far less common than in Ireland) and a local drunk organising a choir to sing some other completely different songs. Violence never erupted but it felt a bit like youíd imagine Dodge City and Wyatt Earp off on his holidays.
OK, youíve arrived in Ullapool. Youíve driven through some fantastic territory and youíre looking forward to walking tomorrow. You walk down by the lochside to the FBI, soaking in the sheer beauty of a northern twilight. This is why youíve come in May. From the end of May the midges control the evenings. These little suckers will drive you mad. Theyíll eat you alive. Kill 200 of them and youíll just be flooded with relatives for the funeral. They rule the air till September. Another risk is the impossibly romantic atmosphere of loch and hill. You may wish to bring your own partner, though some of our more rapacious landlords may charge corkage. But donít go making eyes at the hairy-arsed mountaineer beside you. Itíll likely all end in tears.
So weíre almost ready for the hills. But first, a word on lists. Weíve got lists like a dog has fleas, Munros, Corbetts, Donalds, Grahams, Marilyns. As a visitor youíve probably got an idea that Munros are what matter and youíre going to do one or bust. Even if youíre not entirely clear what they are. Well they are separate mountains over 3000 feet. They were initially on a list created by Sir Hugh Munro in the 19th century. It was very much his own opinion and as well as summits he listed tops, subsidiary 3000 feet summits. Itís not always too clear what the difference is, he made a lot of subjective judgements. Since then the SMC,
our mountaineering bufties, have had ownership and done a lot of tinkering. The list now stands at 284 Munros and 221 tops. Most days of the week itís hard to do these hills without meeting people and there are heavily worn tracks to each of them. A little ingenuity though can get you a route to yourself. Corbetts are well defined. They are hills between 2500 and 3000 and with a 500 feet drop separating them from a higher summit. Theyíre far less used than Munros. These are the major categories and there are some fantastic hills which are smaller still.
Youíll also want a guide book. The outstanding ones are Ralph Storerís 100 Walks and Nick Williamís Pocket Mountains Ė Northern Highlands. Nick Williamís books came out in the last few years and they are imaginative occasionally bordering on batty but a ton of fun. The SMCís Munros is an excellent overall book and Muriel Grayís First Fifty and Tom Pateyís One Manís Mountains are about the best volumes on falling in love with mountains Iíve ever read. Avoid anything by Cameron McNeish, especially his Munros book. Heís dull and an alleged plagiarist who came near being sued on that score by the SMC for his Corbett Almanac.
Iíve got three routes to suggest and please note these are just suggestions. Youíd be mad to head out on the hills on the vague instructions of a nutter youíve encountered on the web. Any routes in these hills should be done with map, compass and an intelligent outlook. Myself, Iíve got the first two. Anyway, youíve got to get that Munro so weíll take that first. This is not the best route in the area but itís good and it gives you a view of a wide selection of the best. The hills are Sgurr Breac and AíChailleach. Theyíre outliers of the Fannaichs a group of hills about 15 miles south of Ullapool. Take the A835 south of town until you come to the A832 junction. Go west here for 4 miles along the Destitution Road, built as famine relief after our potato blight in 1851. Park at the end of a bank of forestry as the road bends right. Thereís a track to your left that takes you into heaven. The track goes down to Loch a Bhraoin which you go round to the east. You carry on south up the glen by the Allt Breabaig. At the bealach you climb west to Sgurr Breac.
Now for a note on access. Weíve recently had freedom of access legislation passed in Scotland. Up till then we had a de facto right. This stemmed from us having a totally separate legal system from the rest of the UK. We didnít have a criminal offence of trespass so you had to sue for damage caused and thatís not easy, even against clowns like mountain bikers. With the new legislation there are now rights and responsibilities. One good thing is that no track should have a locked gate without a way round, stile or side-gate. One of the debating points is access during the deer stalking season. This lasts from the start of July to about 20th October (for stags, though hinds are culled on into February). During this time the estates donít want you shifting the deer that paying clients want to slaughter. Itís major income for the region so no matter how freaky we see the sport we try to cooperate. Good estates will post notices and provide phone numbers to avoid collisions (see Hill Phones on the web). Bad estates will try to keep everyone out from July to February. The estate youíre looking out on used to be notorious but I hear itís now giving unconditional access at weekends during the season and negotiating for access on weekdays. Anyway itís another hassle, so arenít you glad youíre here in May.
Back to Sgurr Breac. From this summit, ahead and to your right youíve a wilderness. The big beast is An Teallach. If youíd wanted to rush things you could have gone there today. Itís a red sandstone monster, easy enough on the baggersí ascent but Iíve only heard fearful tales of the other routes. Ahead of you is Fisherfield Forest and 12 miles until the next public road. Thereís a dozen Munros and Corbetts in there which you only get either by being ultra fit or through a multi-day expedition, camping or staying in a bothy. Wild camping is again part of our access rights with limits on proximity to dwellings. Bothies are shelters of various levels of unsophistication in wild areas where you can find basic cover and weird companionship. They donít run to electricity or water. Sheneval bothy is the key to this area. Heading into these areas you have also tricky rivers to ford and if the rainís really pouring you may find them impossible to return over.
But youíre just going on to AíChailleach over an intervening top which you could traverse round instead. May in Scotland can still give you hard weather. Iíve crossed Sgurr Breac in a T-shirt and been in full winter gear including goggles on AíChailleach and finished the walk in a T-shirt again. From AíChailleach thereís a good route down the north ridge which Iíve not tried or you can go back to the centre top and go down its north ridge. Either way return east along Loch a Bhraoin.
The second route is Quinag, the milk churn. This is about 30 miles north of Ullapool on the A835, A837 and finally four miles along the A894 to its highest point. Connaught-lovers will have felt totally at home on the drive, as rocky hills erupt from miles of bog. Quinag is special, a long North to South ridge with a big North-East extension. Itís busy for a Corbett
(in fact it has three separate Corbett summits) but itís a succession of superb viewpoints and an easy day. From the car park go west then north-west to Spidean Coinich, a dramatic rocky summit. From there itís about three kilometres of narrow ridge with occasional mild scrambling to Sail Gorm. The view west to the sea has been tremendous all the way but now a stunning vista emerges to the north. Return to half way, then go east to Sail Gharbh. Return along the ridge and when it looks safe descend to the corrie and traverse back to the car-park. Iíd have got more lyrical about this walk but the last time I was up it was on a soaking, cloud-covered day. I love the hill so I kept describing the fabulous views we should have been getting to my companions. Itís the sort of nervous talking you do to cover the silence of the friend youíve brought along after telling everyone he was great crack and he turns out just to have been dumped by the girlfriend and is wearing his broken heart on his sleeve. "Davie, feck off." they finally said. Do this hill on a good day.
One thing youíll have noted by now is that weíve more wild-life than you. Weíre plagued with deer but with luck youíve also seen half a dozen raptors, maybe including an eagle, hares now almost out of their winter white, lizards, snakes, pine-martens and voles. Youíll have seen a lot of birds and possibly seen my favourite, the ptarmigan. Theyíre not as noisy as their cousins the grouse, change their colours three times a year and will walk around in a fussy fashion when you disturb them rather than flying away. You only see them above 700 metres and youíll meet them there looking perfectly at home in a winter blizzard. If you see one say hello.
The third walk and maybe the best is Ben Mor Coigach. Nine miles north of Ullapool, itís two miles to the west on the minor road to Achiltibuie. Walk south along the Allt Claonaidh to Lochan Tuath. There youíll stand in total awe of Sgurr an Fhidhleir. This is a 400 metre near-vertical rock prow. Just getting here would make anyoneís day but head up the gully on your left then make your way easily back to the summit. Go as near to the edge as you like to get a view back down the 400 metres to the lochan. For me, I tend to believe that it may have stood like this since the last Ice Age but todayís the day itís going to fall again. Anyone familiar with this feeling will know that when a loved one goes near the edge, this feeling becomes a certainty and your essentials make an attempt to climb into the pit of your stomach as fear kicks in. Gill canít see a cliff without looking over, so Iíve shed all my hair.
From Sgurr an Fhidleir retreat about three hundred metres until youíre sure youíre passed the cliffs then head up south onto Ben Mor Coigach itself. Explore the fantastic narrow ridge running just south of west to end up over Loch Broom. On a good day youíll just sit here in awe. Return and bypass the summit on the south. Itís worth a visit to the free-standing top of Speicein Coinnich on your way for a perspective back along the ridge. Finally, traverse Beinn Tarsuinn then drop north west to rejoin the Allt Claonaidh and retrace your steps.
Anyway, thatís it, Scotland and welcome to it. Weíve not got what youíve got in acceptance of tourism Ė try getting the pub singing in Kinlochewe if you want a real challenge. However our best beerís better than yours and a surprising number of pubs north of the Great Glen are fed by local breweries. Above all weíve got, not a wilderness but a once-populated area thatís now a desert to wander in. Come, enjoy, and try to raise a song for the people that are gone.
White settlers is the pet name for incomers, largely English but not necessarily so. There are many incomers who bring a major contribution to depopulating areas but in places like Plockton, Surrey on Sea, itís more like an expat community and thereís definite tension. Ullapool is a working port and is unlikely to be culturally swamped.
Changes to the Munro list when heights are resurveyed are fair enough. The last eight additions were advisedly for aesthetic reasons. Itís more likely they were to boost flagging sales of the Munros book. In the same changes a Munro which had been promoted on similar grounds 20 years earlier was relegated again. My count of tops is a guess. Only the second page and I was already hacked off with research.
Iíve found out Simonís a podophobe. So a Munro is higher then 914.4 metres and a Corbett is between 762 and 914.3 with a 152.4 drop. Thatís easier isnít it?
For an argued description of McNeishís ill deeds see http://bubl.ac.uk/org/tacit/TAC/tac51/atriskof.htm
Actually if you head into private ground 6 abreast or blacken your faces, you move from trespass to poaching and can be arrested. So donít combine walking with extremes of stag-party behaviour.
For more detail on freedom of access try http://www.mountaineering-scotland.org.uk/access/code_guide.html
Bealach is one Gaelic word that remains standard walking parlance. Itís the equivalent of the Irish Mam for pass, which is not very common over here. Although in general use, it fairly gets massacred Ė the English can only master beelack and I doubt our bee yallach is little more authentic.
Do it on a good day is the sort of advice you should never give, so please put it down to nervousness. You see it on inane websites in Scotland. Go on a claggy day and have the experience of the clouds parting in dramatic style. The other negative effect of this advice is that people head for underrated hills on these days and their reputation gets even worse. Ben Chonzie occasionally gets called Scotland's most boring hill which is mince. The high level round of Loch Turret with it as a centre piece is the berries. Go on, if you get hooked on Munros, do this one on a clear day.
If youíve loved Ullapool and want more then here are a few bullet points. Glencoe and the Black Mount are steep and spectacular but crowded in summer. The Cairngorms are massive, slab sided and demand long expeditions. Glen Affric is the most beautiful place in Scotland. Fort William is horrible but nearby Spean Bridge is a good centre for the Mamores, with the Ring of Steall, a top high level walk, Ben Nevis and the Grey Corries.
Or just donít go home, grab the morning boat to Stornoway and get the fantastic hills of Harris all to yourself.