Beinn a’ Ghlo, goats and Gaelic

The Beinn a’ Ghlo circuit of Munros is a favourite amongst the outdoors community. Meaning hill of the mist, this rolling, meandering, swooping massif is a touch of wilderness right next to the A9.

For two weekends we had been thwarted in attempts to visit the three peaks above Blair Atholl: first due to forecasts of 60mph+ winds, second due to high avalanche risk and whiteout conditions.

When the prospect came of bright, breezy and brisk (making a “brrr” combination, if ever there was one) weather, it was hard to resist.

Three giant mountains played host to a giant of geology in the nearby glen of Tilt. James Hutton, the father of geology, studied the granite in Glen Tilt, which featured marble protruding from its surfaces, indicating volcanic activity in the area.

Not only is it a geologically fascinating place, but botanically, too. Declared a ‘Site of Special Scientific Interest’ and ‘Special Area of Conservation’, the 40km-square range is the home of dozens of alpine and marsh plants like mountain avens, yellow oxytropis and many more. In summer, Beinn a’ Ghlo’s black skirt is turned vivid purple as the heather blooms on its lower slopes.

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Carn Liath’s reversed S swooping behind us.

Leaving the gushing River Tilt, we drove to the start at Loch Moraig. The loch was like an overly filled basin in one’s kitchen which, if lifted – despite all manner of precautions – would spill instantly over the sides. I have never seen a loch so definitively at its absolute rim.

Ahead, the great pale scar of Carn Liath winds its way skyward, like a lightning bolt. The white granite is crumbly and dusty, and – at its widest – the crack can be a dozen meters wide. Work is in the process of building a viable alternative to protect the heather and flora on the hillsides.

As we ascended, the “breezy” combined with the “brisk” joined the “bright” morning. On each switchback of the Carn Liath climb we had a lift followed immediately by a brick wall as we made the hairpin. The slope takes you up 604m in just 2.6k!

With such a steep slope, it allows you to rest and look back. Behind, the rolling hills of Perthshire galloped across the landscape, no one significant peak but all flowing together into a painting of the southern Highlands. Shadows flew across the ground below as cumulus clouds zoomed past like great birds above.

When the wind is up, looking out at a wide vista is like watching it on a timelapse: trees jostle with one another, grass ripples, clouds are on the A9 of the jet stream and pockets of rain rush smartly over the hills like feather dusters.

Atop Carn Liath, we could see the rest of the round ahead of us. Having visited these hills a few years ago, my memory was slightly hazy on the view from the first trig point. Because of this, I could not recall the spectacle these hills provided, especially the snaking line above the corrie sat behind Carn Liath. If there was every an underrated view, it was this one.

With 19 corries, there are few ranges which can match the scoured look of Beinn a’ Ghlo. Beinn a’ Bhuird, near Braemar, has half a dozen or so large corries appearing like letter Cs on a map. Those in Beinn a’ Ghlo are like the blasts from cannon fire, the contour lines utterly perplexed at the sudden changes in the topography.

A descent into a small elbow joint by Coire Crom precedes the sloping descent up the back of the more complicatedly named summit of Braigh Coire Chruinn-bhalgain, meaning the upland of the corrie of round lumps or (if you want to be crude) upland of the lumpy corrie, or (if you want to use Google Translate for a laugh) strike the pearl of a pearl. 

A rather innocuous summit, in nonetheless provides gorgeous views back to the humped back of Carn Liath, a side of it impossible to imagine from the car park. The snow had all but vanished from the hills but for some icy and sticky skirving hugging the corries’ edges.

The real wonder of the day the frost. Off Braigh Coire Chruinn-bhalgain’s back, the ground was like the moon’s surface, covered in a dusty grey colour. It covered the grass and heather with an eerie veil, lifeless and benign.

The final climb of the day rose slowly from the base of Airgiod Bheinn, into the anti-ankle terrain of Carn nan Gabhar*. All across this plateau are rocks of all sizes waiting to twist the unwary foot out of place, covered with that thin layer of frost to render any amount of sticky shoe technology utterly redundant.

The trig point of Carn nan Gabhar is about 2m shy of the summit proper, over yet more rocks. We returned to the base of Airgriod Bheinn to catch the outward path

The usually purple-blazed path is a charred-looking bog from autumn into early spring, but glimpses of buds could be seen amongst the heather. Sadly, grouse shooting is popular in this part of the world, but in a way the relationship is a love-hate one, with well-constructed paths keeping visitors off the heathland which – as seen on Carn Liath – can be destructive.

It was at this point, with about 5k to go, that the legs began to feel very heavy. After a tough week of training and a hard weights session the night before, that path was definitely in the ‘hate’ zone by the time we reached the old outhouse about 1k from the car park.

A last burst took us back to the car, from which we headed to Pitlochry and into the Escape Route Cafe for scrambled eggs and coffee! After a day leaning at 45-degrees into the wind, 45-degrees into a climb and 45-degrees down a slope, I couldn’t help but miss it when it was done.

Strava here. Walkhighlands route here.

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Suzanne, Lee and myself

*And so the rabbit hole begins! Gabhar means goat. Gabhar – sometimes gobhar, goibhrian or ghabhar – can be found across Scotland. Upon our return, I was intrigued that this area was the home of wild goats. I knew they had been a common feature in Scotland, but know them mainly from the inhabitants of Glen Shiel.

I stumbled upon Hugh Boyd Watt and F. Fraser Darling’s observations of 1937 in the Journal of Animal Ecology, titled On the Wild Goat in Scotland: With Supplement “Habits of Wild Goats in Scotland”.

According to their research, the wild goat was an extremely common animal in Scotland, brought as a domestic creature in the Stone Age. As their usefulness was eclipsed by sheep, goats were cut loose or killed. In their inimitable words: “Coming to Perthshire, a story dating back to 1829 says that the “only novelty from the hills this season is the murder of half a dozen goats by anEnglish party in Atholl, who had mistaken their prey for deer”. In central Perthshire there was, and still may be, a herd on Schieallion [sic]; the fine bearded head shown in the Natural History Museum, South Kensington, marked “Scotland, 1894, presented by Sir Donald Currie “, may be from that locality.” (p.16)

What truly pricked my ears then were the etymologies found in places such as Ardgour. When people complain of Gaelic roadsigns, they should consider how much we can learn of botany, ecology, topography and anthropology through them. In Gaelic, Ardgour is spelt Aird-Ghobhar – aird meaning headland and ghobhar goat. The headland of goats!

Anyway, that’s my two cents.

Published by Ross Brannigan

“It is worth ascending unexiting heights if for nothing else than to see the big ones from nearer their own level.” - Nan Shepherd

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