Friday, 2 September 2016

To Wild Places

I was very sorry to miss a visit from my Lancashire friend Stan Bradshaw recently.The note he had slipped through the door told his own story:

“Called at 10 a.m. on my way home, after climbing
my last tops in Glen Affric. Wonderful days! Left
Alltbeithe at 6 p.m. and got to the top of Sgurr nan
Ceathreamhnan at 8.30 p.m. Watched the sunset
about 10 p.m. and the new moon set at 1 a.m.
Bivvied right down on the summit.

“Rising sun awoke me at 4 a.m. Set off and did the
nine tops and back at Alltbeithe at 11 a.m. Good meal.
Slept outside until 4 p.m. Climbed 32 tops this time,
22 to go. Will be up again soon, Knoydart this time,
maybe see you then. Trust you and your wife are both
well and enjoying life as we are.”

That peak with the difficult spelling—it’s usually pronounced Keranan—is the fourth highest north of the Great Glen, and in my mind’s eye I could see the wee man tracing and retracing his steps on the complicated ridges of this massive mountain with its inconveniently placed tops.I didn’t see him walking like me, for Stan is a noted fell runner and at 68 years of age is the youngest old man I know.

I wrote about him when I met him on the Cuillin.At 63 he wondered if he was the oldest man who had ever done the main ridge in a day, involving 10,000 ft. of ascent and eight miles of intermittent rock scrambling, some of it very serious. Curiously enough when I got Stan’s note on his latest ploy I had just been out with a climber who had celebrated his 70th birthday by doing the same ridge.He was Charles Warren who in pre-war days had been on Everest in the early attempts on the mountain. Charles and I had climbed what was a new Munro for me, Mullach Fraoch-Choire, 3614 ft., which looks directly across to Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan.

There was an even greater coincidence, for another friend, John, who is coming up to 73, wanted to celebrate his birthday by climbing The Cobbler, so since it was to be an old men’s expedition I invited my friend Pat Sandeman along as well to share the fun. Off we went on a morning of such warm sun that I was glad of khaki drill shorts on a day of high promise with old man Cobbler, softened by heat haze, looking down benignly on a limpid Loch Long.

It was four years since I had been up on its rock prongs, and I had forgotten what a lovely approach it has by the Buttermilk Burn on a path rising swiftly past a succession of waterfalls shaded by rowans and birches, each rock pool an invitation to dip in its green depths. Then you are into spruce forest, following a steep ride to the plantation edge where suddenly the angle eases and the full splendour of the open corrie lies ahead, the jagged Cobbler to the left, and the bouldery Narnain to the right. John and Pat, who had never been here before, were fumbling with their cameras at the vision of wildness bursting on them so soon.

Warm sun, cool breeze, drifting cloud shadows, it was perfection, and underfoot everything was dry after weeks of fine weather.It was an easy walk to the Narnain Boulders and now that we were close in to the corrie floor it needed little imagination to see how The Cobbler got its name; the slender pinnacle—the highest point of the centre peak—resembles a man with a hammer bending over his last, with the bulkier hunched shape on the right, his wife, and on the left, shapely Jean, his daughter.We struck off for the north peak, rising swiftly on a well-trodden path through beetling slabs of wrinkled mica-schist which were a mere foretaste to the rock architecture to come, a world of overhangs and strange jutting beaks.

We thought we had it all to ourselves until we heard voices and the clink of steel on steel, and I spotted a party of helmeted and roped climbers in the vertical slit between overhangs known as the Right-angled Gully. We arrived on top to watch the second man of the party of four, edge up the final moves of the vertical crack which was led for the first time by Jock Nimiin in the ’30’s when it was considered to be the hardest climb on the Cobbler.The leader grinned when I told him this.

“Now, it’s for beginners,” he said. “None of this party has climbed before. They’re from Jordanhill College for Teachers and for them this is just another ‘activity’, part of their course as physical education instructors. It doesn’t follow they will be mountaineers. This is rock climbing, with specialised boots and safety aids that were unknown in the early days.”
Leaving them to their sport I couldn’t help reflecting on the difference in attitude between theirs and mine.Armed with gear and guided by a trained leader they were engaged in rock sport, a form of athletics shown now as television entertainment in which the star performers are described in extravagant phrases such as “the finest climber in Britain “.

They are men who train on indoor climbing walls and on rock outcrops to attain world champion boxer fitness. From our armchairs we watch a very first ascent up a blank wall, or not quite blank, for the star climber has roped down it to inspect the face and brush the possible holds clean. As well as looking for cracks to insert wire chocks, he puts in one piton, telling us as he does so that a lot of climbers will criticise him for it. He says he knows he might die, but he has to challenge the rock rising sheer for 160 ft. Well, it’s all very wonderful in a way, but does it make sense? Not to me, I’m afraid.

What we were looking for was a special place out of the wind, and in the sun, to have lunch in sight of the best rock scenery of all three peaks. And we got it on an airy eyrie with a mica slab as back-rest, while John got out his birthday cake and Pat poured a refreshment guaranteed to do his health good while not affecting the steadiness of his feet. John usually has a nap at lunchtime but not today. Soon we were packing up for the climb up to old man Cobbler himself whose bare rock prow is to be reached only by an airy traverse along a shoulder blade exposed to a big drop below. They were content to leave it to me and enjoy the absolute silence of the summit, where neither sound of bird nor of man could be heard.

“It’s very, very rare in this modern world to hear silence” This remark was from John as we scrambled on along the ridge to the south peak, Jean, on which the rest had no intention of making conquest. So while they sunned themselves I enjoyed the succession of little rock walls leading directly from the col to the sharp summit from which I looked clown on narrow Loch Long winding to the widening Clyde dimmed by haze. This summit also enjoys the noblest aspect of Ben Lomond, elegantly pointed, and it was good to reflect that, for the next few years at least it has been reprieved from the threat of “hydro-electrocution”.
When I rejoined the others John asked Pat and me to go on ahead as he wanted to linger and enjoy the marvellous rock scenery and atmosphere of the corrie, since it might be his last visit here.

Later we all followed the burn from the corrie down through the trees and past the waterfalls. Back at the car for tea out of the flask we left it had been a good birthday party.I had enjoyed that day on the tops immensely.I was at Balfron and I thought I’d take a walk along a stretch of the Endrick where it meanders below the conies of the north side of the Campsies, lovely rolling countryside of big fields and woods. Under blue skies and towering banks of white cumulus I had never seen it look better than on that day, except that the river was less than half its usual size.

There was plenty to see, however; a family of dancing grey wagtails, the young ones trying to ape the darting flights of their acrobatic parents; a somnolent dipper; two pairs of sandpipers and a family of redshanks. Then came the thrill of the day, as a kingfisher went whirring past in a flash of sun-brilliant blue- green. To my delight it curved towards a high bank and settled for about two minutes. No bird plate could have been more artistic than the sight of that beautiful creature, two feet above the water of a crystal pool reflecting the yellow of the flowers on its banks.

 Just nine years ago I bought a couple of folding bicycles for my wife and myself, so that we could use them in the glens on right of way paths where locked gates debar motor cars.Fitted with 3-speed gears, the bikes have been a splendid success, and we’ve taken them over to Raasay, the Outer Hebrides, and many other places with no more trouble than the occasional puncture. Now that Pat has one of these bikes, too, he’s become a fervid enthusiast for excursions that combine cycling and hill walking. I had done one trip with him, and now he unfolded the map to show me what our next trip should be.

“We’ll take the bikes to Stronachlachar on Loch Katrine, and cycle the private road round past Glen Gyle. The bikes can be left at the burnside and then we’ll climb the peak due north, Stob an Duibhe. It’s hidden by other peaks, but I’ve looked at the wee bit you can see of it, and it’s got a pinnacle on its ridge.” He’d said enough, but we hadn’t fixed a date. Came a vivid morning of hail showers following a delightful sunrise of soft gold, and I phoned him before he was properly awake. “I had a late night,” he apologised, but when I suggested we make the expedition that day he was more than ready.

We met up two hours later at Aberfoyle when the sun was still playing hide and seek with the clouds scudding before the north wind. It was a joy to leave the car and take to the bike along the shore of Loch Katrine, with frequent stops to look at mergansers, mallard and teal, watch whinchat and redpolls, and enjoy the fringing oaks above the mirror of the loch.

 Past rocky Glen Gyle, birthplace of Rob Roy, and in another mile we were at the deep cleft of our burn, overhung with natural woodland but with a comfortable ridge on its flank for easy walking.We struck on to the Meall Mor ridge first where we were in the company of the red deer. From up there we could watch the hail showers approaching and then rattling us with white pellets before passing on like gauzy curtains dimming the outlines of the Trossachs hills and the distant Campsies. Luck was with us for we arrived on the top of Stob an Duibhe as all the high hills cleared, from Beinn Chabhair to Stobinian, each peak a different shade of grey or blue.

Now for a go at the wee pinnacle which had excited Pat’s interest.I took it by its overhanging front and it was good fun, with a raven seeming to bark approval. Immediately below us was the River Lochlarig and by dropping north to it and walking its course eastward for about three miles we could have been at Inverlochlarig, where Rob Roy lived at a later stage- in his life.Between Loch Katrine and Loch Voil is still a very wild block of country, cut up by innumerable glens and still unspanned by roads. Down at the house we spoke to the shepherd who told us he was having his problems. Because of the dry weather, the ewes were being tempted on to the lusher grasses of the rocky ledges where they get stuck.

“There’s one now I’ll have to go up and see to, and take it out with the rope.” Over a cup of tea he displayed a real knowledge of wildlife and enthusiasm for it, which was echoed by his young wife. One of the early records of this bit of country came from the Ettrick Shepherd, James Hogg, who in his Tour of the Highlands in 1803 speaks of droving sheep from the head of Loch Lomond to Falkirk by way of Glen Gyle and Loch Katrine to Aberfoyle.

The present hotel of Inverarnan was a droving inn in Hogg’s time and a pass leads from it west to Loch Fyne, with another one just to the north for Glen Shira. Just three days after our trip Pat and I went off to examine the rather complicated topography of this area, and now we had the company of two ornithological friends. We were not out to keep to paths, but explore some of the normally very boggy bits peppered with wee lochans, haunts of golden plover, which at 1500 ft. were calling mournfully around us, piping from high knolls and running ahead of us to lead us away from their nesting areas.

It was Pat who spotted his favourite bird, the golden eagle, a mere speck in the sky above a distant ridge, but coming nearer and nearer and showing off the breadth of its long wings relative to the short tail. Suddenly we saw it swerve as a peregrine falcon attacked it. For fully five minutes we watched the finest peregrine aerobatics of our lives as the falcon whirled about, climbing and attacking from every angle, wings going like a swift as it came in again and again skirmishing with the much larger eagle.

After watching that we didn’t mind getting a wetting, crouching against boulders on the edge of a small lochan eating our pieces, and having a celebratory glass of red wine. Our boggy plateau had a wee surprise in store for us yet, when we nearly stood on the nest of a dunlin, the little wader going off with a “scrake” of alarm to reveal four eggs neatly tucked into a tussock. “It would be easy to imagine you were amongst the flows of Sutherland,” I said, casting an eye over the bog cotton moor with its moranic knolls where 10 red deer hinds stood silhouetted. The time was 3.30 p.m. and two of our party were back in their homes in Glasgow by 5.30 p.m., which illustrates how convenient our greatest city is to some of the best country in Scotland, small scale in the Trossachs but becoming bigger and more spacious with higher tops as you go up Glen Falloch.

Tom Weir: First Published in The Scots Magazine