A weekend of Scottish reconnaissance24th October 2012
June’s Diamond Jubilee holiday weekend with its two public holidays needed using and I picked a hotel in Pitlochry as my base away from home. Getting there did involve more effort than catching scheduled trains but it proved worth the outlay. Not only did I get to spend more time taking in the sights around the town where I had located myself but I managed to leave it to head into some hill country too. With other parts of Britain seeing rain, it would have been rude not to make good use of whatever opportunities that made themselves available to me like they did.
A feature of my stay this time around was that mornings were spent pottering around Pitlochry before heading somewhere else. This included the Tuesday that I was leaving for home but it was Sunday morning that started the trend. For one thing, I needed to attend to a few necessities prior to the day’s walk along the shores of Loch Ericht. The later getaway also allowed some time for walking by the River Tummel. That I had found a quick way to get there from the town centre on a post evening meal stroll the evening before helped too as did fleeting episodes of sunshine
In fact, it was the Pitlochry end of the Rob Roy Way that took me down to the river banks and across a disconcertingly bouncy suspension bridge, especially when other folk were using it at the same time as me. Once on the other side, I was reminded of the last walk of my last time around Pitlochry in July 2006. That took in the top of Ben Vrackie before I dropped down to Killiecrankie, from where I made for the eastern side of Loch Faskally. There was a lot of cloud around that day too though it did attempt to clear as the day wore on. That eventually took me by the hydroelectric generating station though I never crossed the dam for some reason and continued on by road to my then lodgings.
This time around, I was lured as far as the dam and took in the views north along Loch Faskally. As I did so, there were surprising plops; salmon were emerging from their ladder into the loch. It certainly was a memorable sight to see a large fish ever so briefly emerging from the water. It just felt like experiencing nature in the raw. For those wanting a more manicured experience, there’s a visitor centre where television pictures of the chamber where salmon reside before going on their time-honoured way upriver, repeating a feat that has gone on for millennia. You may see more on that television screen but it also poses a question: why civilise the experience? That a fish ladder was included as part of the dam’s construction is a display of the sort of enlightenment of which many of us would like to see more. It certainly would have helped defuse uneasiness about the construction of a hydroelectric power station in some quarters. The station now seems to fit well within its surroundings these days but I am left wondering what feelings about it were when it first was proposed.
Quite apart from denying myself the sight of leaping salmon, not crossing over that dam in July 2006 was the cause of my missing out on more sights. Looking back along Loch Faskally would have been one of them but there was another: a view of Ben Vrackie itself and one largely without the encumbrance of human constructions. If this had been presented to me back on that earlier trip, I wonder if I might have come away home feeling more satisfied than I did; it was as if I had savoured a little of a variety of different things without really sating myself with any or all of them. That proved not to be the case this time around.
In fact, it took a few tries to get the photo that you see above. That serendipitous sight on Sunday morning drew me back again on those of Monday and Tuesday. As it happened, it was the last of these when clouds kept out of the sun’s way enough for me to make something of what lay before. That I didn’t have similar luck with Loch Faskally is no irritation but rather a reason to return. Hopefully, that takes less than six years, unlike the last one.
Back on that summer 2006 trip to Pitlochry, I got in what now seems like plenty of decent walking: from Kinloch Rannoch through the hills and along by Loch Errochty to Trinafour, following the Rob Roy Way from Kenmore on the shore of Loch Tay to Aberfeldy and that aforementioned circular walk around Pitlochry itself that took in Ben Vrackie, the Pass of Killiecrankie and the shore of Loch Faskally. A grey day spent in the rough around Newtonmore was another walk that I got in while up. This sounds a lot so I am left wondering how I left without feeling a greater degree of satisfaction from it all. Was I expecting too much?
After all, this was an area that I then hardly knew and much of it remains largely unfrequented by myself even now. Maybe it might have been better to settle with getting to know it a little more before embarking on longer walks. The getaway was a last-minute one too, so there wasn’t much of the advance planning that took me to the Western Isles and back in August 2008. If there was more of that, there wouldn’t been any chance for drowning in the many possibilities that the area offers. Sometimes, it can feel like an impossibility to decide between these, though weather ironically can make that task easier too.
Another item that might have helped on this year’s escapade may sound a strange one: a laptop PC that I had brought with me for the weekend. For one reason or another, my planning prior to leaving for Pitlochry was limited. It might have work-induced weariness that made me go for basing myself somewhere and then taking things from there in the first place. It was that Saturday evening in Pitlochry that it came into its own for sorting out possible places to go and their travel logistics. That isn’t to say that I went away without any plans in mind because the prospect of walking the Rob Roy Way from Aberfeldy to Pitlochry did come to mind. In the end, other places shone more brightly for me even if the sun struggled to do its business at times.
One of the those was Loch Ericht the idea of going there for a walk first came to mind during that trip in 2006. ScotRail’s being hit with a strike then was one of the considerations that worked against it. Since then, I have played with travelling to Dalwhinnie overnight from home (Caledonian Sleeper train service, more than likely), enjoying a walk around there and heading off to somewhere like Aviemore or Pitlochry to stay the night. That would have allowed a short weekend raid but it never came to pass. The more conventional approach of finding somewhere to stay and enjoying a day walk using that base was what did the trick.
Though it started with some promise, Sunday was to be a dry day with largely cloudy skies where I was. Even that was a stroke of luck because so many other parts of Britain weren’t that lucky; wet weather greeted many setting about enjoying jubilee celebrations so I only could be grateful. Even the greyness of the day as I left the Citylink coach from Pitlochry did nothing to detract me; a walk was in order and one was about to happen.
Leaving the side of the A9, I traipsed along the A889 towards Dalwhinnie. The atmosphere even here was quiet and peaceful and there was a gently flowing river not far from me either. This was the watercourse that gave the glen its name: Truim. That the road wasn’t so busy made the walking less taxing and I was in Dalwhinnie without much delay though I hardly wasn’t pushing myself. The surrounding hills could have done with a spot of sun to enliven their appearances but it was not hard to imagine how they might have looked.
There is a sign on the way into Dalwhinnie professing services like accommodation and catering, but there was not much of that to be seen as I made out the way to the train station. It was just as well that I hadn’t depended on having these. As I was passing the train station, I decided to double-check train times and platforms for the evening return journey before making for the vehicle track leading to Loch Ericht.
As I was setting off towards this, I retained an open mind as to how far I would be going along the side of Loch Ericht, mostly because of the amount of time that I had available to me. Also, the loch is of the long narrow variety so going its full length needs a multi-day backpacking outing that would take one by Loch Rannoch, again not a small body of water, before civilisation is reached again at Kinloch Rannoch.
Of course, Scotland seems to offer plenty of these large lochs and multi-day excursions into the hill country in which they are to be found. Loch Eilde Mor near Kinlochleven, Loch Shiel near Glenfinnan and Loch Etive are but two more possibilities that I have pondered. With those, I also have gone with out and back itineraries so far, but things may proceed from there. My visit to Loch Ericht was to follow the same out and back pattern and the fact that this was a first visit made it more sensible to do so.
While plodding a vehicle track and with grey skies over me for much of the way may sound like a disappointment for anyone seeking blue skies and sunshine, there were some advantages given the time of year. After all, those weather conditions come with hot temperatures and cooler ones better suit walking. There was also a calm stillness in the air that more than made up for the overcast conditions and, without very many folk going my way, it was possible to chill out and pace myself and that exactly is what is needed as an antidote to the frenzy of a modern working life.
On the outbound leg, a lunching stop was enjoyed and I got as far as the gates of Ben Alder Lodge before turning around. By then, folk were returning from their own hill wandering escapades on bicycles of various kinds. The wheeled approach to travelling around there sounds very useful if you want to make more of your day in the hills; the likes of Ben Alder itself take time to ascend so it is easy to see why this is done. Maybe, a wheeled Scottish hill country incursion of my own would be no bad idea either. It’s been quite a while since I enjoyed one of those.
Cloud cover was beginning to break over me as I retraced my steps. The success of the sun’s efforts at lighting the countryside turned out to be patchy to say the least. Still, they did provide hints of how things might look if the pesky clouds melted away. If they did so, my journey back to Dalwhinnie may have taken that little bit longer and I wouldn’t have had as much time for awaiting the train that I needed for returning to Pitlochry as I had. Maybe it was better that I had that extra time anyway since it was the last southbound train of the day and I doubt that coach services ran later anyway. A return seems in order, though.
Having passed Blair Atholl on my Scottish travels a fair few times, it was time for a visit since plenty of hills lay beyond the distinctive white Blair Castle. Before taking a look at those, my first priority on arrival was to see if I could make use of the bright sunshine to make a photo of Blair Atholl itself. Having seen it from a passing coach the previous day, I popped up the road a little to have a look at it over an estate wall. In the time that it had taken for a good viewpoint to be found, the clouds that lay in the sky overhead got in the way of the sun. Having some time to hand, I decided to wait for them to let it out again. In time, they did just that though I do wonder if the whiteness of the lower part of the sky caused me to make the subject of my photographic exertions a little too small in the frame due to my wanting some blue sky in there. Scotland might be wanting to draw me back hereabouts again; any excuse is good.
Retracing my steps into the village, I was on the lookout for an entrance to the Atholl Estate that I spied on my map. However, it proved to be the ornate main entrance that I needed to use. There were signs of car camping in the fields to either side of the main avenue. There was another avenue that I was set to take but I went closer to the castle to see if there were any signs up that listed visitor tariffs, but none were to be seen even though they clearly were charging incoming cars at a booth; maybe I should have been looking on the web first…
Retracing my steps, I noticed an extra degree of heat that was absent on my visit to Loch Ericht the day before. That particularly was apparent when I joined the avenue that I needed to use to head towards Glen Tilt and I donned a brimmed hat that I bought in Capel Curig in 2010 and has gone with me on a few trips since then. The estate “bus”, a tractor and trailer with seats on the latter under a roof, passed me with a few folk on board as I went on my way and I relished whatever shelter the trees had to offer.
Crossing a public road, I walked through open gates to start along a track leading to Glen Tilt. There were warnings about steep drops into the gorge where the River Tilt was flowing but embracing those dangers would have involved real effort, as I was to find. My surroundings were still tended but felt ever more rural as I continued with the River Tilt below me, hence those earlier warnings. Onward views contained bare hillsides and gave me an early taste of what lay further along.
Another way of looking at those warning signs was that they were meant for the impatient who wanted to get to the banks of the River Tilt at the earliest opportunity. Of course, there is a safer way: taking one’s time and following the main vehicle track. That there’s no sense in rushing around in these alluring surroundings should be another hint, but some aren’t as open to that as they should be.
Rushing the experience wasn’t part of my plan and I found myself crossing the first of several bridges, Cumhann-leum, in Glen Tilt without too much time elapsing at all. Beyond there, the Tilt was to remain in sight for much of the time and Gilbert’s Bridge became a worthwhile diversion with the sun out. The photo that you see above is but one of the results of my dawdling. The conifer-clad slopes almost gave me a sense of parts of the world where I have been: American wildernesses.
Ironically, for all that, there wasn’t much more in the way of forest through which I was to walk. After that, the sort of bare hillsides that draw me to Scotland time after time took over. Settlements such as Auchglobal were passed as I continued towards my turning point of Marble Lodge, a simple wooden hut despite the pretensions of its name. Handing checked on train and bus times, I could have gone beyond that but thought it best not to overdo things on a first incursion. Also, the sky overhead me was so shuttered with clouds that it almost felt like an end of service for the day. That, and the distance to Braemar where a walk along Glen Tilt eventually would lead after an overnight wild camping stopover, made turning around not feel premature at all. The day had been good to me and it wasn’t going to stop there.
In fact, the walk wasn’t going to be a straight out and back affair like that along Loch Ericht the day before. The closure of the gates of Blair castle by the time that I would have reached them saw to that. My own curiosity and the times of trains helped too because I started to drift off the track onto any interesting diversionary path that I met. One of these took me around the back of Auchglobal and landed me on tarmac again near Kincraigie. There was an idea of returning to the original vehicle track that I used but it never happened and I ended up enjoying a quiet track largely to myself; only one other soul went the way and I using it and he was going in the opposite direction. The main track wasn’t exactly overrun, but this one felt far nicer.
The road walking from Kincraigie down to Fenderbridge and the Old Bridge of Tilt wasn’t that unkind either and there were views over Blair Castle and the surrounding countryside that would have me reaching for my camera if the skies were less full of cloud. An off-road path by the River Tilt was sought and found for one last trot on a softer surface before I emerged in Blair Atholl again. Cloudy skies had no effect on my mood and I happily awaited the local bus to Pitlochry and there was more than I at the stop too, a reassuring sign given that it was running late.
In some ways, the day had felt more like a normal working one than the public holiday that allowed me to make my getaway. Trains were working to normal weekday timetables and buses did the same. Also, I spotted folk checking on the wildlife and checking on the water quality too. For all that, there was nothing that shattered the peaceful atmosphere, even if a rifle range lay not so far away from where I was walking. That alone should be enough encouragement to return. Before I ever do so, more pouring over maps will be needed since this is big countryside with long trails through it. The comment applies to that around Loch Ericht and I now wonder it that was what left me feeling the way I did in July 2006; that there is so much that multiple sittings are needed to make the most of the hill country around Perthshire.
That did nothing to dampen the good that the long weekend did me. Restrained ambitions and an open mind ensured that was the way that things went. Given that, a return is in order. Maybe sometime not too far into the future? Of course, only time will answer that.
Ostensibly by rail from Macclesfield to Pitlochry with changes at Manchester, Carlisle and Edinburgh. An overly busy train from Manchester had me leaving it in Preston and a fatality on the line near Leyland disrupted the journey such that there was a train journey to Lancaster, a coach from there to Oxenholme and a train from there to Edinburgh. After that, things were as planned apart from later travelling.
Travel from Pitlochry to Dalwhinnie (A9 road end) was by Scottish Citylink coach service M91 and a train returned me to base again.
Travel from Pitlochry to Blair Atholl was by Scottish Citylink coach service M91 with local bus service 83 used for the return.
Otherwise, travel from Pitlochry to Macclesfield was by train all the way, with changes at Edinburgh and Manchester. Apart from a delay due to a bridge strike, this ran more smoothly than the outbound journey.
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