How journeying through familiar hills can bring a new perspective
A great way of getting a new perspective on your local hills is to immerse yourself among them for several days. That’s the approach Stefan Durkacz took last year, on a long walk through the Trossachs
HOW WELL do you know your local hills? My friend Mick and I would say we know Loch Lomond and the Trossachs pretty well. hey’re close to home for both of us, and as youngsters we’d both trailed in the wake of our respective dads up the more popular peaks, before adding our own layers of experience throughout our adult years. What was lacking though, for me at any rate, was immersion. I’d picked of the peaks with many day trips but never the longer thread of a multi-day journey, stitching together the well-known places and brightening the darker corners.
Perhaps I’d always thought of backpacking as something done far away rather than close to home. It was time to shake up that preconception – to go big in daytripper land, stay out in sight of home, and generally make the familiar completely strange. And what better time to do that than the sighing tail end of summer.
It was a short hop by train from our homes in Edinburgh and Glasgow to our rendezvous at Stirling and an onward bus to Callander. We’d let the motors at home and gone for the “planes, trains and automobiles” approach as Mick called it. What was sacriiced in convenience was made up for by the satisfaction of a complex public transport plan coming together… and the knowledge that cold beers awaited us at the walk’s end.
Callander, with its coach parties, cafés and tartan shops, is a key leshpot on the eastern side of the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park, and a gateway from lowlands to mountains. he Great Trossachs Path starts here, and takes a low-level route through to the West Highland Way at Inversnaid on Loch Lomond. hat was our destination too; but we wanted to go high and wild, climbing Ben Ledi then crossing the empty hills north of the Trossachs via a few increasingly obscure Corbetts.
The Scottish Mountaineering Club’s guidebook for the Southern Highlands describes the uplands between Ben Ledi and Stob a’ Choin, our inal summit, as “a rather desolate stretch of featureless hills of no great interest to the climber or walker”. Talk about a red rag to a bull! hough this landscape may lack high drama, it is rich in history, shrouded in myth, and guarantees solitude. We had all the encouragement we needed; an atmospheric autumnal slow-burner awaited.
Day 1: To Ben Ledi and beyond
Extricating ourselves from the bustle of the town, we found the cycle trail that heads out of Callander towards the looming bulk of Ben Ledi, following the course of the railway that once ran all the way through to Crianlarich and the West Highland Line. It was a sombre sort of day. he skies were grey and the season was turning, with the last of the rosebay willowherb going to seed and the rowan trees laden with berries. he Highlands begin abruptly here. Our way climbed into oak woods, the valley sides steepening and the voice of the river rising from a murmur to a roar.
Soon we reached the Ben Ledi path and turned our footsteps uphill, away from the buzz of traic by Loch Lubnaig. his is one of the most popular hills of the southern Highlands, and for good reason. A well-made path gives easy passage to a ine ridge and a narrow summit. here’s a great sense of height and marvellous views. here are more intangible qualities too. Ben Ledi is clouded by centuries of myth, and separating fact from fancy can be hard. here is some ancient human signiicance to this hill, but only muled echoes persist today. It still exerts a pull though. I can’t think of a hill I’ve climbed more oten.
On the long, easy southern slopes it was calm and warm. Mick and I were just wondering what had happened to the promised blustery northerly when we emerged onto the summit ridge and were briely bullied around as we fumbled for windshirts and hats. We were at the end of the daytripper trail now, with our backs to the Lowlands. Ahead was that “rather desolate stretch of featureless hills”, restless and blowy and smeared with showers and rainbows.
We wound down the northern slopes of Ben Ledi to ind lat ground for lunch and a brew, watched by a raven clearly used to dining on sandwich crusts. he aternoon wore away as we tramped the grassy, boggy uplands, heads into the wind, towards Benvane, another Corbett but a world away from Ben Ledi in popularity. Yellow grasses bowed in the breeze. Here and there the bellies of the clouds brushed the hilltops and ridges and blurred their edges with showers.
From Benvane we descended to the summit of the pass that runs north from Brig o’ Turk to Balquhidder.
The light was fading under dark skies as we dropped north on a grassy path that had clearly seen busier times. I had an old memory of spotting dry, grassy pitches by the burn and thinking what a great campsite it would make. To our relief, I was right. We set up shelters by the noisy waters, among the dying bracken. A familiar cold crept in as the day died away – it was that time of year. Supping tea and chatting in low voices in the gloom, it was hard to remember we were in the heart of a busy National Park, close to the most populated part of Scotland. It had only taken a little sidestep and there we were, away from all the trappings of the managed outdoors, just us, our gear and our map to see us through.
Day 2: Trackless tribulations
“Linking together mountains that shouldn’t be linked together” – that was Mick’s catchy synopsis of the second day of our trip. We woke early to a grey morning and a kestrel hovering nearby. From the outset the terrain was an unforgiving mix of bog and tussock, and progress was slow. Mentally, we hunkered down for a long day of hard-won miles. Our irst summit, Beinn Stacach, lay out on a limb to the north of the main spine of the hills. It was raining as we dumped our packs in the shelter of an outcrop and tramped out to the featureless summit.
Arriving back at the bags we disturbed a big fox with a beautiful rusty-red coat. It careered over the skyline, its brush bristling in alarm.
Ater lunch we carried on west, zig-zagging to hit the cols and keep to the highest ground. he rough country gobbled up the aternoon at a worrying rate. Long, empty glens dropped south to Loch Katrine; to the north, the perspectives on the Crianlarich mountains were dramatic and unusual. Ater the purgatory of the day’s pathless miles, I was glad to see Mick enjoying the views.
Our route began to take on a more mountainous feel. We crossed the ridge just south of the ine, steep peak of An Stuchd, and our next objective, Stob a’ Choin, appeared. Far behind us now, Ben Ledi, bathed in sunlight, has a classic, uncomplicated mountain shape. Stob a’ Choin, on the other hand, is crazily complex. Its southern face is seamed with gullies and broken by ancient landslips. We wove our way through this strange labyrinth and up a gully to… well, not quite the summit. I realised with dismay that the top was still around a kilometre to the west with a big drop and lots of broken ground between. I muttered an embarrassed apology to Mick for the navigation fail, but he was already declaring the view as the best he’d seen, so I considered myself let of.
That was enough for the day. We dropped south as the clouds broke up, giving way to long shadows and dazzling low light. Mick spotted a dry shoulder of land and we camped still high with a long view down to Loch Katrine. Darkness crept up from the south, chasing the golden glow up the slopes behind us to a last stand on the broken battlements of Stob a’ Choin. Soon, the sky was full of stars and we turned to brews and down jackets to keep out the autumn chill.
Day three: Down from the hills
I woke early, before sunrise. Ater a hurried miso soup and buttery (fusion cuisine, backpacking style!) I climbed towards Stob a’ Choin. Venus and a sliver of moon hung just above the shoulder to my right as I set of. Soon I was back among the gullies, crags and streamlets, picking a way through, using hands sometimes. I emerged near the true summit as the sun rose out of a bank of low cloud to the east and painted the hilltops. he Crianlarich hills were close and huge to the north, Stob Binnein especially impressive, drawing up its bulk from the glen loor to an elegant complex of sweeping ridges.
I jogged back downhill to ind Mick up and about. We breakfasted, packed up and dropped down to the boggy glen. Following the tightly meandering Allt a’ Choin towards Loch Katrine was hard work for bodies already tired from a day and a half of trackless terrain. Deer fences closed in on either side of the burn, protecting native trees planted as part of the Great Trossachs Forest project. he fences funnelled us down to Loch Katrine following a deer trod through bracken and head-high birch scrub.
A tarmac road runs along the north shore of Loch Katrine and round to Stronachlachar village on the south side. It was a shock suddenly to be back in daytripper land straight from some of the loneliest hill country in the southern Highlands. A steady trickle of bikes passed us as we plodded along in silence, each wrapped up in fatigue.
This was once the heart of McGregor country. We passed the old Clan Gregor burial ground on a promontory in the loch, and Glengyle House, birthplace of Rob Roy. here used to be a village in upper Glen Gyle. Now huge pylons march down the glen, and a wide service road. It must have been a lovely place, where the glen tapers away to the horizon from the head of the loch. hese days, while the reforesting work is admirable and will add immensely to the landscape, it’s just a little industrial and disappointing.
Our original plan had been to take a direct crosscountry route over another Corbett, Beinn a’ Choin, to Loch Lomond; but weariness, hunger and high The Trossachs deer fences across the hillside put us of. We walked on to Stronachlachar for lunch by the pier where the steamer calls in the summer. A refuse lorry pulled up, containing two refuse collectors spending the day travelling long distances along narrow roads to empty a small number of bins. hey regaled us with hair-raising tales of dangerous drivers encountered and near misses.
We could relax now as we only had a few easy miles to Inversnaid. Ater a leisurely lunch we picked up the Great Trossachs Path heading west above Loch Arklet. his section was a surprising gem. he trail follows the line of the old military road to Inversnaid Garrison, built ater the 1715 Jacobite uprising to control Clan Gregor. he route is well above the modern road, and the Arrochar Alps across Loch Lomond illed the view ahead.
At last, we wound down through beautiful oak woods to Loch Lomond and the ever-busy West Highland Way. Pints were ordered at the Inversnaid Hotel. It was a itting way to end our rummage through the obscurer parts of the National Park. It has its showcased jewels, and very ine they are too. But equally important is the dark hinterland, the backcountry that gives it all depth and meaning – the raw material of imagination and adventure, hidden in plain sight.
Ben Ledi: Separating fact and fiction Myths and stories cling to Ben Ledi, but what’s true, what’s false and what is harder to place? A holy mountain? We usually think of remote Tibetan peaks when we think of sacred mountains, but it seems likely that Scotland had some of its own, maybe including Ben Ledi. Ceremonies to mark Beltane, the Celtic ire festival celebrated around 1st May, were held on Ben Ledi’s summit, according to legend.
Some of the names for features on the hill are possible evidence for this. On the OS 1:25,000 map, part of the craggy west face is named Creag Ghorn, Rock of Embers, and further south is Creag Loisgte, Burned Rock.
What’s in a name? We’ll never know for sure whether we’re really walking in the footsteps of ancient robed druids, but we can be more certain that the mountain’s curious name doesn’t mean Beinn le Dia or ‘Hill of God’ as once popularly thought, but derives from Beinn Leitir, Hill of the Slope, a good description of its long south ridge.
A winter tragedy
Local legend has it that Ben Ledi’s Lochan nan Corp – Little loch of the Corpse – was the scene of a winter tragedy. A funeral party carrying a cofin from one glen to another stopped to rest on the frozen surface, only for the ice to give way and 200 mourners drown.
The story is impossible to verify, although the reputed number of casualties seems very high. It does however seem likely that the loch was by an ancient cofin road between the glens, denoted by the Bealach nan Corp, Pass of the Corpse, just to the south.
The Great Trossachs Forest
At the heart of the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park, this project aims to create one of the largest areas of native woodland in Scotland, restoring heavily grazed land to a more natural state.
It’s also the UK’s newest – and largest – National Nature Reserve (NNR). This is an ambitious, landscape-scale project with a long-term vision stretching hundreds of years into the future.
Deer fences are used to exclude grazing deer and allow young trees to lourish, while elsewhere Highland cattle, a non-speciic grazer, are used to encourage a mosaic of woodland and open ground, providing habitat for a range of invertebrates and wild lowers that would otherwise be out-competed by grass.
THREE DAYS IN THE TROSSACHS
Distance 51km/32 miles
Maps OS Landranger 1:50,000 sheets 57 (Stirling & the Trossachs) and 56 (Loch Lomond & Inveraray); OS Explorer 1:25,000 sheets OL46 (The Trossachs) and OL39 (Loch Lomond North)
Transport: Scotrail trains run from Edinburgh and Glasgow Queen Street to Stirling (scotrail.co.uk). The bus terminal in Stirling is a stone’s throw from the rail station. Service 59, run by First, departs regularly for Callander (irstgroup.com/uploads/maps/59%20 TT-nov%2017.pdf). Cruise Loch Lomond (cruiselochlomond.co.uk/waterbus-ferries) operates a waterbus service on various routes across Loch Lomond, including between Inversnaid and Tarbet on the west shore. From Tarbet it’s possible to travel to Glasgow by train from Arrochar and Tarbet station on the West Highland Line (services between Oban and Fort William and Glasgow Queen Street) or by Citylink bus (citylink.co.uk/ journeyplanner.php).
About the route: Between Ben Ledi and Loch Katrine, this is a mostly trackless route over remote, exposed and testing terrain calling for self-suficient wild camping, good navigation skills and plenty of stamina. Cumulatively, there is a lot of climbing, making the miles on the ground seem longer than those on the map!