The Cairngorms in Nan Shepherd’s Footsteps

I am lying with my head in a spray of blaeberry, looking up at the twisted limbs of a Granny pine, my mind wandering over Nan Shepherd’s words that have just been read. “No one knows the mountain completely who has not slept on it.  As one slips over into sleep, the mind grows limpid: the body melts, perception remains.” I wonder why my own ventures in the mountains aren’t punctuated more often by stops to observe, to lie down, or even to dose. Why is it always about the summit and the route? Why not stop to notice the baby pines pushing up the hillside, the spring of the lichens tangled in the heather, the sound of the rushing burn. And then I wonder whether there are many ticks in these parts.

I am with a group of people here to take part in the performance of ‘Into the Mountain’, a site specific dance work by Simone Kenyon, dancer, choreographer and artist.  She has taken her inspiration in the writings of Nan Shepherd, particularly her extraordinarily lyrical meditation on the Cairngorms written in 1944, but not published until 1977, ‘The Living Mountain’. Part of the experience is in the approach to the performance site in Glen Feshie.  We crouch to touch the ground, we listen to the changing tones of the Alt Ruadh, as Nan wrote, “The sound of all this moving water is as integral to the mountain as pollen to the flower. One hears it without listening as one breathes without thinking.” We are one of three groups taking three different routes and converging on one point in Glenfeshie.


Photo: Felicity Crawshaw / Scottish Sculpture Workshop.

Simone invites participants to “walk out of the body and into the mountain” as Nan describes in her book.  We are invited to take off our boots and walk barefoot on the heather, to dip our feet into the mountain stream.  One of our group braves the rain to stand ankle-deep in a perfectly round basin in the rock.

The site of the performance is between two streams running parallel and we take our seats on the springy heather as a cluster of people in black waterproofs start to sing. Bright spots appear on the distant hillsides: glinting gold are five space blankets held by five dancers who then leap, gallop and zig zag towards us from all directions. The movements of the dancers evoke the wild place we are in and its nature and reflects passages from the book we have read on our approach to the performance space.

The choir’s music, composed by Hanna Tuulikki, is less song and more sound – evoking the wind and the water of this landscape. At times I hear bird calls in it: a red grouse or a the peeping of a wader, once, perhaps a black grouse’s bubbling gurgle.


Photo: Felicity Crawshaw / Scottish Sculpture Workshop.

Later at the Old Post office Café in Kincraig, where hot soup brings us all together at the end of the day to dry out, to warm up and to share our experiences, I meet Simone, and ask why she chose the site for the performance. She explains that she wanted the performers to see the lines of people filing, in their bright mountain gear, to converge on the performance spot. “It’s such a beautiful thing to see people in their lines on a mountain, I wanted to choreograph people’s own walks to the site” she says. Glenfeshie is also the site of an incredible transformation, as deer numbers have been brought down, Caledonian pine forest is regenerating and everywhere we see baby pines. The performance site set on the 600m contour will, in 50 years, be the point at which trees, dwarfed by the harsh conditions at this altitude, give way to the open hill.


The following day I head into the Cairngorms once again, Sgor Gaoith our objective. But our experience is changed by what we have experienced. We stop to sit, we lie with our noses in the lichen, at one point on the plateau my companion dozes off, we listen to the wind and the thin piping of a golden plover and later find a golden plover eggshell among the moss. We reach the summit eventually, but we have taken to heart Nan’s words, “To aim for the highest point not the only way to climb a mountain” in our journey there.


Into The Mountain, the first project of its kind, has been developed over the past six years by artist and choreographer Simone Kenyon, in collaboration with hundreds of women who live and work in the Cairngorm Mountain Range and Scottish Sculpture Workshop. Photo: Felicity Crawshaw / Scottish Sculpture Workshop.


Photo: Felicity Crawshaw / Scottish Sculpture Workshop.


Photo: Felicity Crawshaw / Scottish Sculpture Workshop.


Getting a Nan Shepherd view on the Cairngorms.


Nan may have said that heading for the highest point isn’t the only way to climb a mountain, but we went there anyway


Noticing an empty golden plover shell on the ascent we hoped the chick had harvhed successfully


getting a different perspective on the massive Cairngorms in these teeny tiny creeping azaleas


A walk and a coathanger accountant

Part 2 of the Glen Affric Blogs.

See here for Part 1. 


Morning dawned grey and damp. The cloud sat along the base of the hills about a ten minute walk from the youth hostel.

“We could always do just the one Munroe and see how we feel” said Jo.


“There’s bound to be a cloud inversion with blazing sun on the summits” said I, ignoring all possibilities that we would do less waking than we had committed to when we were planning the trip.


We got packed up and headed off, straight up the back of Glen Affric hostel on an excellent path. A couple of men had arrived late and pitched their tent between the main military green corrugated iron hostel and the nearby dorm. They were finishing their packing and headed up just after us with enormous rucksacks. Their plan was to do a few Munros and sleep high, then complete the set the next day. Our plan was to do the same but return to the comfort of the youth hostel for the night.

  Despite my natural inclination to conversation and chat, my plans for the trip had been a quiet, contemplative pacing the hills to free the mind of clutter. This clutter had accumulated during a long period of being over-busy, over-stressed and not having enough visits to the wide open spaces of the hills. Jo, my long-suffering walking companion, on the other hand, sees long walking trips as a chance for lots of chat and catching up. So once we fell into step with the other two walkers (there was no getting away from them, I tried an onslaught of speed but I slowed eventually and they caught up) Jo was in her element, chatting away.


As we traversed the peat hags, just before the final ascent to the coll I overheard the conversation that one of them had driven from Essex via Warrington to pick up the other and then straight through to Glen Affric – and I had thought we’d been in the car for ever coming up from Glasgow.


‘What do you do in Essex?” I asked “I am an accountant in a firm that sells coat hangers” he said.

Well. What do you say to that? I’d never before had the opportunity to make conversation with an accountant from Essex working for a firm selling coat hangers.


“Erm. Do you like it?” I asked

“No I hate it but l can’t leave” he said.

I asked him why not and he told me about the generous benefits that he gets with the role.

“I get free petrol for my own use, as well as work” he said triumphantly, “it helps when you love the mountains so much and you live in Essex”.

No doubt, I thought, but then immediately wondered why he didn’t just leave the job and move to Scotland which would, at once, solve both of his problems. “We get as many free coat hangers as we want too” he continued.


But I wasn’t in a life coaching mood, I had come to find wildness and I couldn’t get to wildness until people and chat and the stuff of civilization, especially thoughts about coat hanger manufacture, were left behind.


We continued on our separate way when we reached the coll and the day began.


The sun started to shine through as we reached the top of the first Munro, An Socach. A misty brightness, as if the light was within the cloud around us. Directly above we could make out a pale, chalky blue but the sun couldn’t burn though to reach us. I imagined that, with another 10m of altitude we’d be in broad sunshine looking down all around us on a sea of cloud with a few of the tallest mountains poking through.


Munro number one done, we wandered down the gentle broad ridge to a coll littered with small peaty-black pools. The two mountains beyond were behind a couple of smaller peaks, and Jo had started talking about possibly fitting in a fourth, Beinn Fionnlaidh, which was utterly miles away.

 I was happy though. The path rose at a comfortable angle across the slope and the sun kept breaking through. We even had a bit of phone contact with the outside world for the first time since stopping in Beauly for lunch. (Where Jo had spent part of the meal whispering “I think I know that woman from school” and “but I haven’t seen her since then” and “should I go and say hi?” Until I had said (rather too loudly) “if you don’t go over and say hi to her then I will!” She did turn out to be an old school friend of Jo’s in the end)


Anyway. The hill was lovely. There was snow. And sun. And those fantastic shattered stone pavements on the summit ridge. I’d got to the point of thinking about nothing in particular, and had started noticing things, like lichen mapping out whole continents on a piece of ice-smoothed rock, and slivers of silver layered through the schist, when I tripped on a bit of rock, coming down really hard on my knee. It was properly, awfully and excruciatingly painful and I lay on the snow in the foetal position screaming intermittently like a  hoarse siren. I could hear Jo in the distance, as if through glass, saying “take your time Kat” and then my own personal opiate supply kicked in. I lay there motionless and silent on the snow wondering when Jo would come over to see whether I was dead. And then I wondered absent-mindedly, if I wasn’t dead, whether a helicopter was going to come and pick me up.


It turned out I wasn’t dead. I just had a grazed knee.
I made a mental note to increase the level of sympathy towards my children when they graze their knees in future.

This was a very strange house with door and window almost on the summit of Mam Sodhail.

It took two dressings and a handful  of jelly beans and then I was back on my feet and we headed to Munro 2 of the day. I had no pain, it was a miracle, I almost ran to the top.  Jo pointed out that the sun was out and it had got quite warm, melt-water was trickling down the hill from the remaining snow on the ridge. I declared it ‘taps aff’ and said we shouldn’t miss out on Munro 3 because of my knee.

“It doesn’t hurt at all at all” I said.


We reached Mam Sodhail and sat down by the an extremely well constructed and enormous cairn for a snack, not expecting to see anyone. But a couple were just approaching from the other side. I hastily put my top back on, and then my knee started to hurt.

The couple regaled us with their experiences of coming up and over the melting cornice, “no we didn’t have any ice-axes” they said. Jo and I paled, as we looked at the route they’d taken. My knee was throbbing. Better get back, said Jo sensibly, and we decided to leave Carn Eigh and Beinn Fhionnlaidh for another expedition. As we walked along the ridge we looked back and saw the woman standing right up at the edge of the cornice to pose for a photo. We stayed watching long enough to be sure we didn’t need to call for the helicopter, or try and effect a rescue, and then we headed back to the Youth Hostel.


Postscript: the sore knee developed two pleasingly large scabs which are currently in the process of sloughing. (Is that the correct word for scabs? I certainly feel like I’m sloughing them). Lovely.






















The West High-Mountain Way

Well that did turn out to be a good walk.

In fact it was such a good walk it deserves its own name. I shall call it The West High-Mountain Way. That’s after the fact that most of it generally followed the route of the West Highland Way except that it took the route over the biggest mountains we could find (and had a little detour via a very nice hotel too)

I conceived the idea for the walk back in July (see this blog post) and amazingly managed to do everything planned. Accompanied by one dear friend all the way and by others that dropped in for certain days, it took us from Loch Lomond to Cuil Bay via 9 munroes, 6000m of climbing and around 70km over six days.20140624-210401-75841700.jpg

Continue reading

Day 6: Ballachulish Horseshoe – a bit of botany and geology

“You seem to be in a great hurry,” said a man with a thick German accent as I brushed my teeth while filling my water bottle in the Glencoe YHA kitchen “Do you have some information that the mountains will disappear today in a sudden movement of the tectonic plates?” I tried to explain that I had a taxi due as I ran to the fridge to retrieve my faithful companion the French cheese, but it’s hard when you have a mouthful of toothbrush.

In the end the taxi was late and before we could get into it my Dad had appeared to join us for the day. He’d left Dundee at 6am but it was too late for me to cancel the taxi. In the end I travelled with the taxi driver and Jo travelled with my Dad, the two miles to the car park at Ballachullish. Dad had tried to pursued the taxi driver to take us up as far as the school but he was unwilling to run the gauntlet of the Glen Coe mums on the school-run (and I suggested that an additional 300m in a vehicle was a rather negligible distance compared to the traverse of the Ballachullish Horseshoe that we were planning.)20140624-000320-200168.jpg

Beinn a’ Bheithir, the Ballachullish Horseshoe, towers over the entrance to Loch Leven, its vast granite west flank dominating the skyline from Cuil Bay. The rounded shoulders of the great mountain rise from sea level up to two munros, Sgorr Dhearg at 1024m and Sgorr Dhonill (1001m) linked by a great ridge. The geology of the mountain changes very distinctly between the two main summits – the east is quartzite, a hard, white metamorphic rock and this forms a delicate, white curving sharp ridge with steep scree slopes falling into the corrie below. The west mountain is granite, warm, red and rounded and forming a pile of scrambly blocks and boulders rising up from the ridge to the summit and then a wide lumpy and knobbly plateau with high level lochans. It would have been tricky terrain to navigate if the cloud had come in.20140623-234241-85361762.jpg

As this was the last day of our walk from Loch Lomond to Cuil Bay we took the most linear route over the mountain. Most people walk the horseshoe from South Ballachullish to start and finish at the same spot, but we set off from the field just south of Ballachullish primary school and headed through a field of sheep, over a fence and into a trackless and near vertical bog. There was lovely cotton grass, and sweet smelling bog myrtle but there was no path.

I had been planning this walk since last summer and this wasn’t my route of choice. I had planned to ascend the beautiful steep and scrambley ridge that starts a bit further south of the primary school and rises almost directly to the summit of Sgorr Dhearg but my dad had other plans. He had been on the internet, he had printed out detailed maps on matt photographic paper (I’d recommend this actually). He had gadgets and he had annotated his map with GPS grid references on the line of best route, in case of poor visibility.

And so we went with his route.

We fought onward up the ever steepening heather and bog myrtle slope, me rapidly losing my sense of humour and wondering why one of the most popular mountains in Scotland speared to have no path up it whatsoever. Fortunately, just before we had a family crisis, Jo found the path, cutting across the slope above us and all was saved.

Once on the path the ascent was superb taking us onto the skyline giving fabulous views inland to the mountains of Glen Coe and the Mamores and westward out over Loch Linnhe and into Morven and Ardgour. Dad is a botanist and enriched the walk with talk of alpine plants (even though the mountain didn’t have some of the species he was hoping for). As we reached a wide part of the ridge at around 550m we came across an area of tiny, and entirely flat juniper bushes, growing to an altitude of only 2cms. I learnt a few other plants too – alpine ladies mantle was all over the place and, once the geology changed from quartzite to granite, so did the botany. There were little patches of fern growing between granite rocks which has the curled appearance of parsley, and indeed, this was the parsley fern.20140623-234817-85697858.jpg

At one point on the ridge dad disappeared over a precarious cliff perched over the top of a vertiginous scree slope. I scurried to the edge to check he was alright and found him bent over a patch of tiny white flowers. Starry saxifrage apparently. Other botanical highlights were the dwarf campion, and the exquisite dwarf cornell.20140623-234651-85611462.jpg

We wandered over the knobbly granite landscape until we came across a surprisingly large lochan at 750m altitude (obligatory swim) and then about a kilometre further on we started down the steep hillside, following dad’s carefully laid out trail of marked GPS locations, leading directly to the treasure of the Holly Tree Inn. It was here that the real botanical highlight of the day came. A celebratory, end-of-six-day-walk Gin and Tonic made with the wonderful Botanist gin from Bruichladdich Distilery on Islay.

I borrowed the gin bottle from behind the bar for a Botanist playoff. Could dad tell us the common names of all the ingredients embossed on the glass bottle in Latin?

Of course he could! (and I even knew a couple of them too)20140623-235045-85845213.jpg











Day 5 – Aonach Eagach: feet in fresh air

We started the day in a bit of a fluster, running down the road from the Glencoe ski area, takeaway coffee cups sloshing their contents all over our sleeves. We needed to catch that citylink bus hurtling along the main road from Glasgow to Uig. Fortunately we had a friend on board who’d got on at 7am in Glasgow to walk with us for the day and he asked the driver to stop as we panted down the track.20140622-222404-80644838.jpg

We would have been on time, except for my desperation for a morning coffee. The cafe didn’t open until 9am so I had tried various avenues: firstly I found the mobile number (thanks google) of the contractors I’d given my hobbit hole to in the night who were away with their truck, I assumed seeking breakfast. It was the least they could do to get me a coffee and a bacon roll from wherever they had gone. Continue reading

A Working Walk ….

I don’t want to speak too soon but this may be turning into a ‘getting things done’ trip as well as a holiday. The plan for the walk was to take me from Arrochar, place of birthday celebrations, and where (too many years ago) we had our wedding reception, over mountains and through glens to take us to Cuil Bay, the place where we are building our house. A pilgrimage of sorts I suppose. When I had conceived the idea I had supposed that the house would be built and we’d be having a house warming party at the end of the walk.

However the plot is still a boggy field and the week before the birthday festivities started I had to make the big decision to take on the project management of building our house Continue reading

Day 4: Traverse of the Black Mount: the snack mountain

20140622-224330-81810806.jpgI really have planned this walk to within an inch of its life. And, so far most things have gone to plan. Every night’s accomodation was booked, arrival and departure times of every bus and train to bring companions to join me was noted, routes planned, and baggage booked into a company that transport luggage for West Highland Way walkers.

However the weak point was always going to be Day Five. We’d need to leave Glencoe ski centre for a traverse of the Aonach Eagach before the cafe opened at 9am and with no chance of a packed lunch.

Food planning is always quite high on the priorities. I had evening meals and packed lunches booked and we had ‘the snack stash’ a mountain of goodies a couple of feet high (and the main reason for needing to book the baggage transport in the first place.)

I have recently come to the conclusion that hill walking (once you have a basic fitness level) is mainly about the snacks and the psychology and not at all about fitness. Continue reading

Day 3: Sunburn, a Saunter and Soil risotto

20140617-225225-82345706.jpgOur rest day on the birthday walk has been to take the West Highland Way from Crianlarich to Bridge of Orchy. After day one of unrelenting bog and drizzle and day two of Munros in the blazing sun, each day finished and preceded by vast amounts of food and wine, this was to be a rest from route finding, uphill slog and wet feet but also a rest from overindulgence. No wine at all today. No late night, and certainly no prosecco chilled in a snowdrift. We need to prepare physically and mentally for the towering task looming ahead (literally looming over me as I write this on the remarkably midge free banks of the river orchy). Continue reading

Day 2: Ben Tulaichean – Overindulgence and Overexertion


I suppose it was my plan in the first place.

A walk across part of Scotland, taking in some of the hills I’d like to climb and one of the hotels I’d really like to visit.

It sounds lovely but wrenching oneself away from the white sheets and white paneled walls of ones room (steam room included) at Monacyle Mhor hotel is almost as big a feat of self will as climbing the subsequent two Munros. Add in the wine consumed, the gin sipped and the heat of the sun inviting a leisurely breakfast on the terrace, and you have a bitter internal conflict to contend with.

However, it was my idea and we did have a bottle of prosecco secreted in the rucksac, and so, off we went. Continue reading

Ambitions for a Long Walk

Here is an itinerary for a long walk that I plan to make from Arrochar to Cuil Bay, the plan being that most days start and finish at train/bus stops so friends can join me for one or two days along the route.

Day 1:Drovers Inn – Monachyle Mhor

  • An easy walk (but possibly boggy) past a beautiful waterfall to a col at 600m then down an easy glen to the Monachyle Mhor hotel. 10km, 3.5 hours
  • City Link to Dover’s Inn, No public transport options to Monachyl Mhor
  • Accomodation Monachyle Mhor Hotel 20131110-092830.jpg

Continue reading

Winter Climbing: My Glencoe and Ben Nevis Top 5

Glencoe and Ben Nevis is really the home of Scottish Winter Climbing. A veritable wonderland of ice, snow and frozen turf. The Atlantic climate gives very special climbing conditions that are particular to Scotland and draw thousands of people to its gullies, ridges and ice-rimed rock. Continue reading

Skiing at Glencoe

glencoeskiingThe ski area at Glencoe must have one of the most stunning views of any winter sports venue.  Meall a’ Bhuiridh, the mountain on which the 19 runs and 7 lifts are set is right on the edge of Rannoch moor. The last soaring peak before the flat, wild expanse of peat bog, pools and open heather moor. Continue reading