Back to the Trossachs and Breadalbane
Stage 15, Monday 24 May 2010: Glenlyon to Rannoch, 18 miles (17 on route)
18 miles with a Munro in the middle? Not nearly as difficult as it sounds, especially in benign conditions. I had trained myself to think of this day as two road walks plus an easy hill, and that is how it worked out. Maybe I would not have been so sanguine if faced with a nor-easter blowing rain all day long.
First, a short diversion to the Bridge of Balgie post office so I could post back Craigbuie’s key, discovered far too late the day before to return it to the guest house. Red squirrel signs here are accurate – I saw two within a few yards, to the best of my knowledge the only two I’ve seen in my life.
Bridge of Balgie
Three roads run westwards. That past the 16th-century Meggernie Castle is guarded by a portcullis, so perhaps not the best. I gambled with the middle road, which although not ‘public’ only went past farms. But half a mile along, a severe notice in which ‘curtlilages’ outranked ‘please’ led to a retreat. Galling, when you have a distance to cover; and possibly not legal, in Scotland. So a retreat, to the public road, highest of the three, but it’s only when you branch off up a side valley to Loch an Daimh that you start to gain height appreciably.
The attractive Munro of Stuchd an Lochain to the south of the loch, its arms cradling a lochan high in a hanging valley, takes the eye, but my objective was another Munro, the more sprawling Meall Buidhe to the north. The summit is two and a half miles from the dam, but it’s reckoned ninety minutes along the generally very clear path will suffice, and in easy conditions I summited in eighty.
Now although Meall Buidhe may be one of the less favoured Munros aesthetically, it’s one of the best in terms of location, for it’s set apart from major hill groups, and so the view has an impressive sense of perspective in all directions. I spent a half-hour here taking it all in, and wished I had had time for more, but I will carry the panorama with me for all time: the Cairngorms to the east, possibly Mull beyond Ben Cruachan to the west, a last glimpse of Ben Vorlich south, and Wednesday’s target Ben Alder to the north … plus Rannoch Moor, the Blackmount, and many others including of course Ben Nevis itself.
The panorama below shows the octant from north-west to north, with Loch Eigheach lower left and Loch Ericht mid right – my route for three days.
Panorama north-west to north from Meall Buidhe
Most people climb Meall Buidhe from the dam and return straight there. Few traverse it northwards. At the dam, a large and ostensibly helpful estate map showed the traverse as a ‘hill-walker’s track’ proceeding over the minor top of Garbh Mheall. Hmm. It mistakenly shows the dam-to-summit path traversing the crags of Glas Choire rather than making the obvious way over the broad summit plateau. Maybe try something, um, safer.
Knowing that Garbh Mheall was craggy too, I took another route of which I had heard, down into Coire nan Cnamh. It was trackless but feasible, just about; a couple of dead sheep near the junction with the main stream showed the perils of harsh conditions.
Across the main stream, I easily picked up the track heading NNE, and the dense forest shown on the map was more imaginary than real. The main highlight along the track is the view of Cross Craigs, an outlier of the Corbett Cam Chreag. Progress is easy to the road at Bridge of Gaur and even easier after it, though by now one is climbing again.
I had mental note of bus times in case I wanted to speed things up with the one just after 6pm, but found myself wondering if the 3.40 was a possible. But I wanted to get close to the junction with the path up Gleann Eigheach, where I would be the next day, and it came just a little too early to justify. On a perfect evening, and with an easy rhythm and a clear view back to the day’s hill, it was no hardship.
Meall Buidhe from Loch Eigheach
Around Loch Ericht
Stage 16, Tuesday 25 May 2010: Rannoch to Ben Alder Cottage, 12 miles (10 on route)
My long-time walking partner Dave Travers journeyed up to Rannoch on the Monday and met me there. We now walked over to Ben Alder Cottage bothy, where we would spend two nights, with the ‘middle day’ (ie Wednesday) reserved for a ‘bag’ of Beinn Bheoil and Ben Alder – a popular trip from this location.
There’s an easy way to the bothy from Rannoch, back down to Bridge of Gaur and then a landrover track most of the way, but there’s a hill alternative too, over the Corbett of Meall na Meoig, the high point of the Beinn Pharlagain massif. This is usually taken as a warm-up to the Munro of Sgor Gaibhre but it is an interesting hill in its own right.
From just beyond the bridge over Allt Eigheach at 435603, it’s straightforward to climb up slightly rightish onto the hill, attaining the ridge at a little col (444622). There are two subsidiary tops, one to the left and one (Garbh Mheall Mor) to the right, but with heavy packs – Dave had brought up our sleeping bags, food, fuel etc, and guess whose sack was bigger? – we chose to make straight for Meall na Meoig, and the distinctive pinkish granite of its summit cairn.
Meall na Meoig
Descending, we kept Lochan Meoigeach to our left, and located the east ridge.
As long as you don’t stray too far left, this is a fairly straightforward descent towards Loch Ericht. We made for the prominent bend in a stream, Cam Chriochan, crossing it by the bend for the easier ground on its north side before joining the regular Loch Ericht path at a bridge over the stream.
We had in all honesty expected the hard work to be over by now, as the well-travelled path sticks close to the lochside, but in fact this was the wettest ground of the entire trip. Despite several weeks with little rain, long stretches were awkwardly boggy, and it must be an arduous little slog when it’s genuinely wet. Still, there’s always the wide basin of the loch with good hills sweeping down steeply on both sides, and less forestation than the map pretends. The bothy comes into view after a little open wood on a short rise; we were soon to return, as the deadwood here is the bothy’s source of fuel. But first, on with the brew!
Stage 17, Thursday 27 May 2010: Ben Alder Cottage to Corrour, 12 miles
The weather was starting to break on the Wednesday, and with a late departure from the bothy on Thursday we were happy enough to keep off the tops, taking the excellent path back up to Bealach Cumhann. (At well over 2000ft, even the passes round here would be of hill-height elsewhere.) From the bealach it drops trackless though peat hags to the Uisge Labhair, which has a path on its far side.
Uisge Labhair, looking back to the Aonach Beag massif
Occasional showers turned heavier and, once or twice, to hail, with a dusting of snow on the tops. As only showers, they would not have been much more than an inconvenience, even by the Munro route to the south we had contemplated, but one can never know this. Indeed, conditions over the coming weekend would turn out to be severe at times, I found out when safely back home.
The Uisge Labhair path leads relentlessly to the shooting lodge at Loch Ossian, centrepiece of the Corrour Estate, and from here it’s landrover tracks all the way, passing but not stopping at the youth hostel.
Loch Ossian youth hostel
From here it’s just a mile to Corrour’s wonderful railway station. Its restaurant (!), now run by the Scottish YHA, had something of the feel of an Alpine hut, helped on this occasion by a big table full of German voices.
I mention on the Cross-Scotland homepage that it was useful to me that the West Highland rail line comes this way. Undoubtedly it is, of course, but it was no random chance that led me to this location. It might have been as early as a mid-1960s geography lesson; it was certainly no later than a mid-1970s purchase on the old 1 inch OS map of this region; but for some decades I have held as remarkable, first that a rail line crosses here at all, and second that it has nightly access to London by sleeper train.
Long may it do so. It is to me enormously comforting, if something of a paradox, that a place which in British terms is close to wilderness can be so accessible. So taking the sleeper home from Corrour was something of a dream fulfillment. The hour-and-a-half trundling through the Highlands in beautiful light, counting the deer and recalling the hill-groups as the steward brought whisky, was worth the price alone. And there was still next year’s return to come …
Forward to Lochaber and the Great Glen – page coming soon
Accommodation and logistics
Ben Alder Cottage bothy
You’re in the hinterland now of one of the world’s most wonderful railway lines, the West Highland Line. Its 33 miles from Bridge of Orchy to Tulloch cross rough and trackless country on the edge of Rannoch Moor, without ever crossing a public road. Dave’s journey up, by day train from Glasgow to Rannoch, was practical from East Anglia; our return, by sleeper from Corrour, is eulogised above.
As I arrived at the Moor of Rannoch hotel, adjacent to Rannoch station, I was worried at its signboard description as a ‘country house hotel’. However, inside it was warm and cosy, and the welcoming owners had a clear sense of the trains-and-hills motivations for most visitors here. Not cheap, but with the nearest shop – and that in a village – a 30-mile round trip by road, even these days the isolation must lead to a price weighting.
The other two nights were at Ben Alder Cottage bothy. Most readers will understand that a bothy is an unlocked shelter with little in the way of conveniences. Sleeping and cooking equipment must be carried in. Ben Alder Cottage is a little larger than many, with three rooms, and was in good order when we stayed.