Foulbog to Dryfehead

“Foulbog”

The name of the rural house to my right as I drove over the line separating the Scottish Borders from Dumfries and Galloway which made me giggle. On a par with “Cauldhame”, another building moniker I’ve seen on a walk which would surely make you re-think whether it was the best place to live your life.

The heat of the early morning sun was creating the only mists for miles as frost melted and the blue skies stretched over the southern hills. Only a few weeks earlier I’d stepped over the border between the two local authorities at Ettrick Head in the opposite direction as I walked some of the Southern Upland Way with Mr Clyde. Today I was out with Neil in the same area, even walking some of the same route, but with a different plan.

We met at the Samye Ling Tibetan Centre, and after a wander around the grounds of the centre decided what to do with our vehicles and headed to Moffat in Neil’s car.

We were walking along the road leaving Moffat almost as quickly as we had driven in, such was our wish to be out in the open countryside. Once again following the Southern Upland Way path I walked with Mr C recently along the river and up the track, it’s always interesting to see a path on different days and in different weathers. There’s also the chance to see something you might have missed first time around. For me it was realisation that I had been calling the main SUW route over Croft Head the “high level route”, when in fact it’s nothing of the sort, it is the main SUW route. Today’s route would continue along the lower level “poor weather route”. Language is important and I kicked myself a little for my sloppiness.

So at Damsel Shoulder, we kept to the forest track and along the poor weather route (also known as the Romans and Reivers Route) and continued walking through the plantations, a wooded feature that would become the norm over the next two days. As well as the abandoned shielings, definitely an under-rated art form as well as practical in their own right.

Neil had mentioned Garrogill in passing as being the toughest part of the day but I don’t think either of us had realised how tough until we saw it. Almost 200m of ascent in less than a km of walking. Even with the plantations the view down the valley was beautiful.

From the top of Garrogil it was a steady drop in ascent down to the bothy, initially on a trail and then later on a forest road.

The wood and extra food/water we were carrying were starting to take it’s toll on our backs and shoulders and we were pretty excited to catch site of the Dryfehead bothy roof as we closed in.

The bothy is in a lovely spot, surrounded by the Dryfe Water and Rue Gill (making me wonder why I’d carried as much water with me….) and consists of three rooms, two with fires.

Already inside we met Morten (who we found out was the MO) and Jack (who made the fab new table you can see in the picture below) and they were just finishing a weekends labouring in the right hand room. A cuppa and a whole pack of jammy dodgers restored our energy after the walk in and as Morten and Jack set off, we made up our bed spaces for the evening in the left hand room.

We were joined later by Michael and Morag, and later still by Leah and Keir, who’d walked the same route as us but were heading back the same way to Moffat the next day, while we would be heading towards Eskdalemuir. As darkness fell, Neil became fire chief and the bothy heated up really quickly. We had our tea and as the whisky was removed from our bags the atmosphere became as warm as the the now roaring fire as we all chatted about walking, whisky, primary teaching, Labour Party leaders, Gaelic and a whole lot more besides.

As you’ll see below, I took no pictures of day 2. A combination of weather, recurring plantation views and maybe some icky belly from a little too much Highland Park meant the camera stayed hidden in the depths of my jacket pocket. It’s not like we didn’t reach our final destination in Eskdalemuir, with us vanishing into a bothy black hole, but Dryfehead was a great end to day one, and quite honestly I could have stayed on for a good few days as it is a fab bothy in a lovely location. After breakfast we said goodbye to our new chums and headed for that final destination.

The walk to Eskdalemuir and the Samye Ling Monastery was a breezier affair than the day before and our waterproofs kept us protected from the elements. The number of spruce trees we saw clearly explained the “timber” road we had seen the day before on the way to Moffat. The area is full of forest plantations and the trees and their cheering arms followed us all the way home.

We threw around a lot of Gaelic words around the fire on Sunday night. The best one that I think would describe this trip would be “sgoinneil”, which interestingly includes Neil’s name in it, but also means brilliant or fantastic.

Bha seo coisich sgoinneil! #hopethisiscorrect

The Rugged Country of Coire Garbhlach

According to the LearnGaelic dictionary, Garbhlach apparently means rugged country. And this was where I was heading for a bluebird weekend with some of the boys, a roam around the rough corrie and the wider expanse of Glen Feshie, one of my favourite glens.

Coming from different parts of the country, we all converged on the car park at Achlean on Saturday morning. Our bags bursting with wood and coal, we planned a wander into the glen as far as Ruigh Aiteachain bothy. From there we dropped our stuff, set up camp and backtracked to the corrie, which we’d seen from a distance on the way past.

Coire Garbhlach starts out as a wide, rocky mess, the remnants of winter storms gone by (e.g. Storm Desmond). The Allt Garbhlach quickly narrows as it heads east but it’s clarity is obvious from its confluence with the River Feshie.

The going was quite hard, rock hopping and river riding towards the first big twist in the corrie. We could see some simple tracks uphill from the floor so we tramped towards the first of these tracks.

Onward towards the corrie head wall, we came across a really cool waterfall , un-named on the map, but definitely worthy of a title.

By now, time was getting on and we had a couple of choices. Either head back the way we came through the tight and rocky corrie, or we head out of the corrie (through Fionnar Choire) and walk around the top of the cliffs.

Deciding on the latter, we followed the fast flowing burn up out of Coire Garbhlach and then climbed up the steep side of Fionnar Choire onto the plateau.

The views in all directions make the sweat and tears of the climb, as well as the time pressures become momentarily forgotten about.

The snow was hard going in places but fine in others.

The walk around the rim of Coire Garbhlach was a fantastic end to a glorious day. We’d expected to be down and off the hill long before tea time, but this unexpected lateness (or poor prep!) gave us the finest mountain sunset I’ve seen in a long time.

Darkness fell and we reached the top of the road down towards Glen Feshie just in time. The walk down was quiet as we were all shattered from our days efforts. But the glow of the sunset reflected the glow in our minds from the amazing day we had just experienced.

Back at camp, our bellies were filled and beds were calling.

The next morning we heading back to our vehicles in the glorious sunshine.

What. A. Day.

Check out the film below.

Belnahua Bound

When the chance came along to visit the abandoned island of Belnahua, on the west coast, my immediate response was an unambiguous YES as the exploring nerves in my body all went into overdrive. A friend is writing a book partly based on the island and she was chartering a boat to go over and do some research. Belnahua in Gaelic means “mouth of the cave” and is one of the Slate Islands. Slate was taken from the shores of these islands and slabs of the rock were used to cover buildings and as grave and hearthstones. There is surprisingly little online about the island but you can find out a little more about the islands here: https://slateislands.org.uk/belnahua/.

After speaking to Young Johnston about a possible boat trip, he was in. And Dave decided to come too. So along with Katie, who organised the boat, our merry band of adventurers were looking forward to stepping from 21st Century Mainland life to 19th Century island life.

We left early on Saturday morning and arrived in Ellenabeich, a gorgeous village about 20 miles south of Oban, from where our boat would depart.

From the village you can see the Slate Islands as they stretch south over the Firth of Lorne. We went higher to get a better look. If you look near the top left of the photo below, you can see two islands, one in front of the other. The one at the front, that looks a bit like a submarine, is Belnahua.

Getting our buoancy aids on.

Our boat arriving to take us out to sea.

The trip over only took about 10 minutes but in that short time we saw some stunning views of the surrounding islands as well as some porpoise. Young Johnston was on GoPro duty and took some cracking photos. In my head, the soundtrack to the trip was “The Island” by Skippinish.

Our tropical weather was probably showing us a side of the island that slate workers wouldn’t see in mid-Winter storms. The island still has the remains of some of the quarry workings as well as old machinery and some of the old housing.

Not only were the rocks on the island great for slate, but they were peppered with fools gold.

We’d come prepared to swim so before lunch we got our trunks on and tested out the water. The similarities to the Caribbean continued as the fairly warm water lapped our legs.

The water in the quarries was so clear and a pleasure to swim or even just float in.

After a last walk around some of the old buildings and another swim, this time in the sea, waiting for the boat to come back, we took our last selfie and headed back across the water into 21st century Ellenabeich. We booked into the Aire/Airidh, walked up the hills behind the village and ate fish and chips and ice cream, enjoying the sunset and talking about the day we had just enjoyed.

If you’ve never visited the island of Belnahua, or any of the Slate Islands, I’d absolutely suggest you should. Whether for the walking, history, swimming or to see a different part of the country, this won’t disappoint.

Castle Law Hill Fort

The doors are closed and locked on adventures far from home once more as coronavirus takes hold again. So close to home is the default option when scouring maps for places to explore. I’d seen the Castle Law hill fort from afar loads of times, often from the Dunning to Bridge of Earn road in the van, sometimes from the park in Forgandenny with Young Johnston.

Find out more about the fort here: http://hillforts.arch.ox.ac.uk/records/SC2994.html

It was so cold last night, the frost on the van was thick, snow-like and solid. -5 on the temperature gauge. But the sun was rising and the clouds were in hiding.

I passed the snow line and was slightly disappointed at what lay on the ground, you can’t craft snowballs out of powder. The views improved with every step looking west toward Ben Chonzie and back toward Bridge of Earn.

I passed what used to be Glenearnhill, an old farm, finding a bonus geocache in the old fireplace, and carried on up the last few metres to the top of Castle Law.

I reached the summit. In some ancient forts you struggle to spot the ditches or wall foundations. Today, even in the snow, the lines and curves here were clear.

The summit cairn included painted stones, a reminder of the virus. But my mind was lost in the hills and the snow and the sunshine. The views were stunning, with the shapes of Ben Vorlich and Stuc a’ Chroin obvious in their winter coats.

The snow was so deep in places. But it was so powdery that getting a solid foothold was pretty tricky. I slid most of the way back to the old farm.

After lingering in the cold at the summit and marvelling at the fort and sliding most of the way down, my hands were like ice blocks. So I built a wee fire, created a cheese and tomato masterpiece and checked out the geocaching app again to find another treasure nearby. Turns out there are a few around the Law.

And after my second treasure find I started for home.

My route.

Lockdown has curtailed our outdoor adventures again but their is so much to see on our doorsteps that it’s a great opportunity for Microadventures. And with this walk today I achieved my 50 mile target for Doddie Weir’s DoddieGump challenge, raising money to help fund research into MND. Might have to try for 101 miles now. There’s lots more to see on my doorstep.

Grid Square Journeys no. 3 – NN 7941 (Meall a’ Choire Chreagaich and a Swim!)

For the third of my Grid Square Journeys, I needed to do some tweaking. I’ve used the same number of steps since I was first taught to navigate properly by Rich. But either old age or maybe too many injuries has meant my stride has started to change.

The last two squares has seen me finish short of my goal, so after a bit of thought and some measuring, I’ve added 6 double steps to each one hundred metres. I’ve altered my timing too and you can see at the bottom my new stats.

So here was the plan, up to the top of Glen Quoich, in the hills between there and Kenmore. Far from dirty camping and cramped honeypot parking. Meall a’ Choire Chreagaich, a small peak to walk round, with a wee loch and not too much height, looked great. I stopped at an abandoned cottage on near the head of the glen. Good stonework and a solid roof, the sheep have made it their home.

I parked up at a road end, just a km from the start of my route. Note the lack of another soul or car. Bliss!

The weather was a mix of showers and brightness, with only a tiny point of blue sky seen all day. The going was fine, lots of heather. I could see the munros of Glen Lyon and Loch Tay, as well as Schiehallion, although the tops were shrouded in cloud. Lunch was the chunkiest cheese sandwich I think I’ve ever had.

And how did I do?

Distance-wise, I think the new steps made a difference to my overall accuracy and each section measured about right. Timing was more accurate too. My bearing was a little off on the northern and southern sections, although not by far. I’m aware that the long distances invoked, a full km, mean any mistake is exaggerated the longer the section.

It’s looks like a square, so maybe I shouldn’t be too harsh on myself. Here’s the stats.

After I’d finished I passed Loch Freuchie and remembered a waterfall I’d seen when before so pulled in and went exploring. The falls are 2km from the road and about 15m high so the noise of the water as I approached grew more deafening.

Definitely time for a dip. Not so much swimming, more bobbing, as a friend described it.

Grid Square Journeys no. 1 – NO 1114 (West Dron Hill and Pitkeathly Loch)

The coronavirus lockdown of the last 10 weeks has finally started to ease a little. On Thursday, 67 long days after it started, Nicola Sturgeon signalled the start of phase one of the lockdown relaxation. I can go to a garden centre (not unheard of, they usually do awesome cakes), play croquet (unlikely but if desperate, you never know) and mingle with one family a day, as long as we remain socially distanced and take our own cutlery. I loved how the First Minister specifically mentioned this at the briefing, as if she had already fully planned her own first barbecue in a post lockdown world. A lovely example of a politician in touch with what her constituents might be asking about.

Hill walking is now back on the agenda, as long as you don’t drive, remain within five miles of home and stay within your own personal limits.

We moved house on November and one of the advantages of daily exercise since March has been the chance to get to know my new local area in a way I probably couldn’t have done in a non-covid age. The lovely Spring weather has been perfect for this. Despite the hardship of the last few months, a rain-sodden spring could have made it even tougher.

As well as exploring my new ‘hood, this year I had made a full year plan of microadventures which didn’t quite get moving. I’m also keen to refresh my navigation skills and I’ve been thinking about a way to tie all this up in a nice, neat package. And so I give you….. grid square journeys. In my head, if it’s done correctly, it would look like this:

The premise is simple. Walk around a grid square on an OS map. Or any other map. A friend of mine on Instagram was looking at maps of The Shire last night. A grid square journey around Hobbiton or Rohan or The Lonely Mountain would be pretty mind blowing.

Anyway, you can choose the square. Those squares are built up from the blue lines that go from left to right and up and down on a map and cross each other regularly creating the grid effect. One square is 1km long in each direction so making a total perimeter of 4km (plus don’t forget to add the distance to get to your chosen square).

The simplicity appeals and this is a much shorter distance than I’d usually go for, but I wanted to see the 360o view of a square, seeing all that it has to offer from every angle. Every rabbit hole, every cave, every pimple hill or mountain.

But the real clincher is navigation, using only a map and compass. No GPS, no phone (other than turning your tracker app on at the start and end to log your route and see how you got on) or any other help. It was a challenge, how close could I get to a perfect square?

There are so many squares to choose from. Some easy, some hard, some so remote you’d need to cover the distance of three OS maps to get too. I started close by (within the 5 mile limit imposed by the Scottish Government) and on a lovely, sunny and warm day. So here goes.

I was going to journey round square NO 1114, which was actually a bit challenging, with hill ground (West Dron Hill), plantation and a loch to consider on my route, the healing waters of Pitkeathly Loch no less. I might have needed those waters as it had been so long since I laced up my boots. But it’s a hill I wanted to explore, and shouldn’t a challenge be fun and pique your interest as well? So up I went, along the back road to the start of the Wallace Road and up over the hill.

Forward toward West Dron Hill.
Backwards towards Bridge of Earn
On the Wallace Road heading towards West Dron Hill Farm.
A fenceless gate on Dron Hill
Found a geocache on the way up, near the gate.

By the time I reached the top, I was feeling the heat but it was a gorgeous day and I decided on a start point for my grid square saunter. I wasn’t going to just start on the grid square, I needed to navigate to it too. So on the map further east of my square you’ll see an old ruin marked West Dron Hill Farm. That would be where I started.

And I set to work. I worked out my direction (pretty easy on a grid square I know…), how long it would take (in distance and duration), any dangers to look out for and how I’d know I’d reached my destination. I’ll include all the info for each stage at the end for those who might be interested.

West Dron Hill Farm to the grid square.
Am I in the right place?! Looks like I’m wearing a pork pie hat. Which I wasn’t.
Maybe including a plantation was a bad move. It was pretty hellish moving around in there.
I had to make a few detours for gorse bushes.
How am I getting up there! (Pitkeathly Hill)
Pitkeathly Loch. With added gorse. I couldn’t find a way to the top of Pitkeathly Hill so I handrailed around the east side of the loch until I reached its tip.
Easier going at last.
And back near at the start of the square.

How did I get on? Let’s see. Here’s my information. The first few lines are what I use for measuring 100m and the rough time I take. Then each block is a section of the walk. Each section has my start and end point. Under that it has my bearing, my distance, the grade of terrain, the number of double steps, the time I estimated and in brackets is the actual time it took.

As I said the only time I touched or looked at my phone was at the very start to turn it on, and at the very end to turn it off. And I was so hopeful to see how I’d done.

I suppose it could have been worse. The first two sections were pretty ok. The plantation section was awful and the trees and undergrowth made staying a straight line pretty difficult. The gorse hampered my progress on a number of occasions. And it’s triangle!!!!! Not a square! I can’t really explain why that happened. My phone could have lost the signal? There is a wind farm in the area, I walked right under some of the turbines, could that have affected it? Where it stopped is also where I had my lunch, so maybe stopping for a wee while caused an issue with the app.

Whatever happened, it’s a start. I had a fab day in the hills, never far from home, I practised my navigation (and realised I’m in need of lots more practise…..) and I found a new way to explore the hills. And next time, my square will be squarer.

Well. Are you going to give it a try?

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