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A summer walk wearing my MacGregor plaid from Balquhidder to Glenlyon

By Peter Lawrie, ©1997

An interest in Highland history quickly raises the question of communication. Although, in the past, many clansfolk may not have moved far from their native glen throughout their lives, others such as pedlars and cattle drovers did travel, usually on foot. Rob Roy who was deeply involved in the Jacobite activities in the Highlands, as well as his personal dealings travelled a great deal. Nowadays we have the benefit of many years of investment in Highland road-building, beginning with Wade, Caulfield and Telford, although not all the old routes have been developed. So what would it have been like walking these unimproved hill passes, dressed as they would have been?

Balquhidder Church   In July 1997, anxious as well, to prove to myself that I was not too old for such madness, I planned a walk from Glen Gyle, over the hills to Balquhidder, on to Glen Lyon, Rannoch and by Loch Erricht to Dalwhinnie. Optimistically I extended my planned route eastwards, by the Tarf to Braemar and then over Jock’s Roadto Glen Clova . Five days would be no problem I told my family and I would wear my MacGregor belted plaid.

Then I received a request for a volunteer to represent the Clan Gregor Society at the Friends of Balquhidder Church AGM on Sunday 27th July. OK, I thought why not do that and go by the Kirkton Glen from Balquhidder directly thereafter.

My family drove me to Balquhidder for the Friends AGM. I had intended leaving at 3.30 immediately the meeting closed, but there was a talk by Killin Mountain Rescue to follow. Was that prophetic or what? No, but it sounded worthwhile, so I waited to examine the contents of their rescue rucksacks and see their slides of winter rescues from the hills around Killin. They waxed lyrical about the benefits of mobile phones on the hill. They would work on all the peaks, I was told, but not in some of the glens. Good, I thought, at least on the lairig I would be able to let the family know that I was OK, or if I needed rescue!

In Rob Roy’s time a plaid, a sword and a poke of meal was all that would be needed. By saving the weight of the sword, I could take a few extras instead. Tent, of course, sleeping bag, compass, high tech hill walking boots, waterproof poncho, several changes of underclothes, food - including a poke of meal - and a mobile phone. Yes, a mobile phone. Mary, Rob Roy’s wife, would let him off to wander the hills for weeks on end, but my Mary insisted that I kept in touch, so a mobile phone had to be included. I had to have my camping gas ring, and three spare gas cylinders (boy, are they heavy!). Then there was food for five days: rice, oatmeal, pasta, some flavourings to add interest, lots of dried fruit and nuts, coffee, dried milk, then a cup, pans, plates, cutlery, water bottle. Wow, it looks bad enough on paper - on my back it felt worse! Somehow I cannot believe that the Great Marquis and Alasdair Mac Colla Ciotach would have won any of their famous battles if their men had been encumbered by this lot. When I was in my early twenties I had traced their route from Kilcumein over the hills, bypassing Loch Oich and Loch Lochy, to the surprise and destruction of Argyll's army at the Battle of Inverlochy. I had been hard pushed to cover the ground on my own, in dry summer weather in the time that their army had taken in the depths of winter. The pack I carried then was nothing like as heavy as this one. I found that it was difficult to get it on my back without assistance or a support such as a large rock, but once it was on I decided that it did not feel quite so bad.

At last, at 5.15, I set off up Kirkton Glen. The trees behind the church stopped the breeze completely and held the afternoon warmth. In no time, I was dripping and the midges congregating! The folds of the plaid on my left shoulder padded the rucksack straps, and I gathered the hanging end under the strap on my right shoulder. This kept it clear of grasping vegetation and formed a handy pouch for my map. Soon I was clear of the trees around Kirkton. The previous time I walked the Kirkton Glen it had been through mature forestry plantations. Now with the exception of isolated sections it had been clear felled, with the young growth only a few feet high. Thus, there were open vistas ahead and back across the main Balquhidder glen to Glen Buckie. The day was somewaht overcast but moderately warm with a pleasant cooling breeze in the open. The wind does penetrate this plaid, which has a relatively open texture, unlike worsted material. It had been hand-spun and hand-woven by a weaver on Loch Lomondside, and still had the feel of the natural sheep lanolin.
At the top of the forestry road was a deer fence with no obvious way through. Should I go on to the western side, where the terrain seemed steeper, or had I missed the way on the eastern side of the glen? Fortunately, a party of walkers were descending and I waited untill I saw that they were on a track, higher than the main forestry track on the east. Rather than double back I clambered up through the heather by the fence to the path. At the top was a stile and then the open ground with a path, barely distinguishable from a sheep trail.

At 6.30 I reached Lochan an Eireannaich and Rob Roy’s putting stone where I found a suitable boulder to rest my pack. Kirkton Glen had once the same name as the lochan which fed its burn. Gregor Hutcheson told me an interesting story about the name Eireannaich, the genitive of a word which I had assumed to mean ‘Irishman’. In my Gaelic dictionary, an Irishman is Eirionnach (with a long E), but a young gelded goat is eibhrionnach, or eirionnach (pronounced with a short E). In fact the glen used to be known as the "Glen of the goats" and not "Glen of the Irishman". Gregor’s story goes that an Irish pedlar had sought a night’s lodging from a crofter. After retiring to his sleeping chamber he heard the man of the house tell his wife that he would kill the goat in the morning. Leaping to the obvious if wrong conclusion he made a rapid exit and a quick night march to the next glen!

Rob Roy’s putting stone is a massive boulder, the size of a three storey detached house, fallen during some wild winter storm from the adjacent crag of Meall an Fhiodhain. They do say he had long arms....! I tried the mobile phone but could not find a signal.
  Rob Roy's Putting stone
Shouldering my pack again, thinking “at least it’s downhill now”, I set off again. As the downhill slope began there were two tracks, both with boot-prints. One, to the right and level, was broad and obvious, the other less well marked and going straight down. I seem to remember a parable about broad roads and narrow tracks. Of course I took the broad one and after a few minutes realised as it veered eastwards along the contour of the hill that this was a sheep trail and I should have gone the other way. There was nothing for it but to struggle down the hillside to seek the other trail, although I never did find it! Once over the initial drop into the Ledcharrie Glen there is open moorland without too steep a slope. Occasional 4 WD vehicle tracks seem to go in the right direction but then they veer away or disappear. There was a clear view down to Glen Dochart and the pass beyond as a guide to the route. Sometimes the boot prints of other walkers can be seen, but usually the trails, like the one at the top are made by sheep and "they gang their ain gait". Near the farm, below the ruins of the old head dyke, and in front of the less ancient, but equally derelict railway line, is a high deer fence with an electric fence in front of it. I have been told that these do not carry a harmful current but I did not really wish to try it for myself. I had followed some 4 WD tracks for the last half mile down but they finally seemed to veer well away from Ledcharrie farm, so I had to follow the fence along to the main burn where there was a gate under a railway bridge. Now it was a fairly level tramp through a meadow to the back gate of the farmyard. There was no one in sight at the farm and I reached the Killin - Crianlarich road at 7.15.

Just a few hundred yards along the road towards Killin is the turn off to the bridge over the Dochart and the old road along the north of the river. The rucksack was weighing me down somewhat but the first hill had been conquered and I did not feel so bad. The original plan had been to camp in Glen Lochay for the night. I would not make that now, but maybe I could take a good bite out of the climb. The level tramp along the road went by quickly. It was a nice evening though overcast with the odd spit of rain, a cooling gentle breeze made the plaid feel pleasant.

7.45 pm at Auchlyne, ignoring the paradox of a sign stating ‘Strictly Private’ and under it a request for walkers to ring a Killin number for advice about stalking before going onto the hill, I turned up the land-rover track. This track, after several dog-legs up the hill, veers away almost a mile to the west before turning east again to reach the Auchlyne East burn further up. Should I follow the track for two miles to cover one? Though the burn was deep down within a wooded ravine the terrain to the west of it did not appear too bad. After half an hour, I was thinking maybe I should have gone by the track. The pack really felt heavy now, the midges were out in force and I was having to struggle around dense patches of bracken. Finally at 8.30, enough was enough and having found a side burn with some clear water in it I camped for the night.

Camping shops sell mattress rolls, about the size of a sleeping bag - even more bulk to carry of course - but I only regretted not having one when camped out on the hillside and finding rocks under the ground-sheet which had not been there when the site was chosen. Then I discovered another use for the plaid. Folded into six layers, 6 feet by three, it makes a wonderful mattress. Out came the gas cooker for a welcome cup of coffee, rice and pasta mixed in the other pan and flavoured with Danish blue cheese (delicious). In the distance I could still hear the rumble of traffic on the A85, but from the hills all around echoed the calls of lamb-less ewes and vice versa. A collie in the distance should have been hoarse from barking, but seemed to have nothing better to do. During the night I woke up several times to the sound of rainfall. Would it be as wet in the morning? I had read that the olden day highlanders, when sleeping out in the heather, would soak their plaids in the burn to improve the wind-resistance. That was one trick I did not want to test.

Dawn came and on went the gas for coffee and porage. I ate from the pan, wondering why had I packed two plates. The tent fly sheet was soaking but the rain had ceased, though the skies were still heavy. Now for the next problem . At home I could lay out my 18 foot by 6 foot plaid on the lounge carpet, fold it into pleats, position the belt under it, lie down on top, arranging the two aprons and tie the belt around me. How could I do that here? The grass was soaking, and though the sheep and rabbits might not mind me prancing in my shirt, I did not fancy the idea. In fact, it turned out to be quite easy to arrange it inside the tent. Having secured it round my waist, I could then crawl out and arrange the folds over my shoulder. Finally at 7.30, I erased the last traces of my presence, heaved the pack onto my back and continued up the hill.

The track came back to the stream beside a small dam, the water-supply to Auchlyne, presumably. Beyond this there are some signs of a 4WD track following the stream further up the hill. The hillside levelled out here to a more gentle gradient. I wish that the Ordnance survey would mark all the tributary burns on their maps. I have never understood why one burn should be marked when the next, or previous (?), which seemed to be just the same size or even bigger, was not. I had to use my compass to find the correct burn to follow. At the top of the bealach the burn briefly turns west into Feur Lochan. This little loch is hidden in a fold so it cannot be seen until one has walked past it. So far I had not been able to find a signal for the mobile, though the Mountain Rescue had assured me they should work on the tops. To my left was the bulk of Beinn Bhreac, a Corbett, not a Munro, but to the right was Loch Tay and Ben Lawers beyond with no intervening peaks. Surely it would work here? I walked round to the east of Lochan nan Damh, a bigger loch of 5 or 6 acres in extent. Beyond a low ridge I could see most of Loch Tay, sunlight dappling the slopes on either side as the low clouds scudded through the sky. The wind was stronger here, penetrating the plaid, a little too chill for comfort, needles of light rain stinging slightly. I donned the poncho, having to face into the SW wind. It flapped wildly until I could secure it, pulling it over my pack and holding the edges firmly as I walked east.

Red deer   On a convenient boulder, I sat down, letting the rock support the pack as I tried the mobile. Still nothing. The screen showed a signal from the east, but not strong enough for a call. Just as I was ready to get up, there was a movement about four hundred yards ahead. I watched as a stag appeared, followed by others. They did not appear to have seen or smelt me though the wind was almost behind me. The soft red and green of Clan Gregor lay clearly in their full view over the heather. The herd of thirty stags came closer, to within fifty yards before they detected my presence and abruptly turned away north. Who said MacGregor was a bright tartan?

On with the pack again and following the deer tracks down the slope towards Glen Lochay. Across the glen I could clearly see the hanging mouth of the next lairig between Meall Ghaordaidh, a Munro and the lesser Meall Dhuin Croisg. Less than half a mile of descent brings one into woodland. I had feared a deer fence, but this was unfenced over-mature birch wood with many fallen trees, steep slopes and even steeper ravines on both sides cut by the streams. This made for harder going than the climb. At the bottom there was a deer fence, necessitating a struggle up a steep slope alongside the fence and down the other side until I found a gate. At last came level ground and the cup-marked stones near Corriecharmaig.
The rain began as I reached the Glen Lochay Road. On went the poncho again as I sat on the dyke by the gate to Tirai, munching nuts. Two walkers surprised me as the gate clanged, the woman carried a small light pack, but the man had none, how I envied them! The rain ceased as they crossed the field to the upper gate. I followed them. I saw them ahead, briefly, several times as I climbed the hill past the ruined settlement, once home to MacGregor kinsfolk. Later on, I was able to count five climbers on the skyline of the shoulder of Meall Ghaordaidh to the west. There was a 4 WD track, unmarked on the map ascending the hillside beside the ravine. It gradually became greener and less defined, becoming no more than a welcome greensward amidst dense bracken as the ravine to my right became less pronounced.

By now my back was soaked with perspiration under the pack and the straps were biting into my shoulders. At last the land levelled, and instead of steep bracken and heather hills, a pleasant meadow stretched for almost a mile ahead. The Allt Dhuin Croisg now meandered gently along, instead of crashing noisily as it had before. On elevations on either side of the quarter mile wide strath stood the remains of the sheilings. I had visited sheiling sites before but never one so inviting and tranquil. By now it was 4pm, and I was well behind my planned timetable. Flinging the pack off beside a substantially intact, though roofless, sheiling, I made a cup of coffee. The sheiling’s living room was pierced with a door and window and an internal space of roughly 7 feet by 8 feet. In the central wall was a low door which, even allowing for debris on the floor, could have been no more than 3 feet high, and through which the occupants would crawl into the window-less sleeping room, about 7 feet by 5 feet. (Not much bigger than my tent). Here would have been the summer grazing for the cattle, it was all green and lush, though there were damp patches where the burns came down from the hill. Easy walking except where the meanders of the burn cut in close to the heather slope. Strangely, the blackface sheep seem to ignore it, preferring the sparse grass among the heather slopes on either side.

I tried the phone again without success. I had promised my wife that I would keep in touch and the original plan had been that by now I should be at Bridge of Balgie in Glen Lyon where there was a public call box. Perhaps I should not have made such a gruelling plan. With more time to spend, I would have camped on this spot, it was so lovely and unexpected. However, I donned the pack and plodded on to the gentle rise at the end of the meadow where the burn began to tumble and clatter again. Now the ground became very broken, scarred by deep peat hags. The white bones of ancient trees gleamed where they had been exposed. The slope was quite gentle here, but it was not possible to see the deep gulleys until almost on top of them. Bright green sphagnum pools were interspersed with the black smoothness of wet peat, just beginning to crack as it dried. Periodically more powerful burns had cut through ten or more feet of peat to the underlying rock, making a deep boulder strewn gulley. What a contrast to the meadow I had just left.

At a side glen on my right, behind Meall Ton Eich, there were some more sheilings and a few more acres of greenery, but nothing to compare with the meadow behind. I passed over the watershed through a desolation of deep heather, peat hags, and protruding boulders The sun emerged, briefly, in and out of the clouds. On the sheer wall of Meall nam Maigheach ahead of me, the shadows played like three huge Fingalian warriors out of Ossian’s lore. It was 5.30, the hydro-electric road to Glen Lyon was more than two miles of this terrain away. I tried the phone again, leaning back against a boulder. Still no signal as I clipped it back onto my belt. I continued my erratic course around the hags and pools for another two hundred yards before realising the phone was no longer at my belt. Panic! I must have dropped it back at the boulder. I was on a slight crest about one hundred yards above the burn, having just crossed the gully of a side stream. I flung the pack off, and tried to double back. How much easier it was without the load on my back. It was not by the rock. Or was it this boulder, or that, now there were at least five boulders which it could have been. I paced back and forwards. The heather was almost knee deep interspersed with grass tussocks. Finally I decided I would have to camp here and search again when I was less tired in the morning. Then panic again, where was the pack? Fortunately, it was a bigger target and soon found. The wind was getting up and I could not camp out here in the open. I made for the burn and found a suitable spot where a small burn tumbled out of its gully into the main burn. The coffee was so welcome, but I found I had little appetite for savoury rice. The wind got up during the night and the tent flapped a lot, though it did not rain. The morning porage was more appetising and I felt better for the sleep. I spent another hour, pack-less, searching the trackless moor for the phone, without success. But how much easier it was hopping from tussock to tussock, without the encumbrance of the pack. The wind was penetrating but I was able to arrange the plaid around my shoulders like a shawl for comfort and warmth in the early morning cool. It felt pleasant and natural on the hill, this had been what I wanted to discover.

Bridge of Balgie, Glen Lyon Finally at 9 o’clock I gave up searching. I shouldered the pack again and continued down the glen. The ground became steeper and broken by increasingly steep and rocky gullies. I had to make my way down one of these gullies, hopping from rock to rock in its bed, or struggling through the heather at the side, around a particularly awkward obstruction. The wide rocky bed of the Allt Breisleich was easier to cross, as was the Allt Ball a Mhuilinn (The Mill-town burn) before I climbed the slope to the tarmac hydro road. Now I could tramp along at a good pace, the sun shining, the wind lighter. At every convenient spot was a parked car or two, with its attendant tents.

By 10.15 I was at Bridge of Balgie and a telephone box. I rang my family to let them know I was OK. Ahead of me lay sixteen miles of almost trackless route to Bridge of Gaur at the head of Loch Rannoch, where there was no telephone. The forecast was for a weather system to reach central Scotland later in the day bringing heavy rain and increasingly strong winds. Perhaps, discretion was the better part of valour, and the pack was really too heavy, so we agreed that they would come to pick me up a couple of hours later.

  Phone Box

It was good to be home again with a warm bath. I had learned a lot about the plaid on the hill, and I definitely plan to use it again. I think that I have also discovered that I am too old for such ambitious trips. Next time, it will be a light load with round trips from the car. I did succeed in crossing the three passes from Balquhidder to Glen Lyon that I most wished to see. The most interesting, in terms of the dramatic contrast in terrain was the final crossing from Duncroisk to Glen Lyon. After a couple of days the thigh and calf muscles ceased to ache so much, my trousers fitted better than before and I had to make an extra hole in the straps of the Glengyle MacGregor kilt which I bought last year. Despite losing the phone, I was glad to lose the inch!

[Note: In the following year, rather than walk, I took my bike in the opposite direction to complete the original plan. The bike with tent, sleeping bag and the rest were taken up Glen Clova by car, and from there, I rode and pushed the bike over Jock's Road to Braemar, and then along the upper Dee and via Glen Feshie where I camped, eventually reaching Aviemore and from there following the remnants of the military road to Inverness. Still hard going in places, but how much easier with the bike to bear the weight of tent, sleeping bag and supplies - and sadly, no belted plaid.]