Sunday 17 May 2015

A Stormy Schiehallion

A glimpse of the Glen Lyon hills

Last week saw me on a visit south to Highland Perthshire to give a talk on my Scottish Watershed walk at the impressive Birnam Arts and Conference Centre. The talk was well-attended and there were plenty of questions afterwards so I think the audience enjoyed the evening. Giving this talk for the first time in many months I was reminded of just how stormy much of the weather had been, especially in the Northern Highlands. With fine weather in Birnam I was hoping for better conditions for a walk on my way home. It's always best to hope!

The following day I first went to Pitlochry and the John Muir Trust Wild Spaces visitor centre and offices where I was shown round, as a new Trustee, by Media Manager Alan McCombes, with whom I'd had a few beers and stayed with the night before. We'd had long conversations then about the Trust, conservation and politics and we continued these the next day so it was after midday when I left Pitlochry and early afternoon when I reached the base of Schiehallion, one of the JMT's mountain properties, just as the sunshine was fading. The first rain drops fell as I parked the car......

The JMT's property is the East Schiehallion estate which stretches up to the summit and includes Gleann Mor to the south of the mountain. Schiehallion means 'the fairy hill of the Caledonians' but it's famous for science rather than fantasy due to Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne's experiments to work out the weight of the earth in 1774. On the same expedition mathematician Charles Hutton came up with the idea of contour lines, for which all hill walkers should give thanks.

An isolated hill, Schiehallion is prominent from far afield, often appearing as a distinctive and easily identifiable conical mountain. Steep-sided and with the upper slopes covered in quartzite boulders that are greasy when wet it's not the easiest hill to climb, especially in stormy weather. On the east side a good path, built by the John Muir Trust to replace the old badly-eroded one, winds up the lower and middle slopes then fizzles out when the rocky terrain is reached. With the clouds descending over the summit, the wind picking up and the showers becoming heavier this was the route I took, up and down, abandoning my idea of descending the pathless southern slopes and walking back through Gleann Mor.

Extensive snowfields still lie high on the mountain

As the path faded so did the visibility as the clouds swept over me. The squalls were now bitterly cold and the rocks were becoming increasingly slippery. Ahead I could see a group of dark figures plodding up a big snowfield. After they vanished into the dense mist I caught up with a solo walker, or so I thought, who was not dealing too well with the rocks. As I approached she let out an agonised cry and slumped down onto a boulder. For a brief moment I thought I might need to assist but she turned and told me her calf was sore but she'd be alright in a minute. I chatted with her for a few minutes until she felt able to continue. I'm with a school group she told me but they've disappeared into the mist and left me behind. They shouldn't do that, it's dangerous, we should stay in sight of each other. I agreed. At the summit I found the school group sitting round the cairn. There was one adult, who asked me if I'd seen a woman. Yes, I replied. Had she given up or was she still coming up? I said she wasn't far behind me, thinking he was setting a really bad example to his pupils by leaving his fellow teacher behind and seemingly not too bothered about what might have happened to her.

The summit

Soon reunited the school group set off back down. I lingered on the summit, sheltering behind a boulder while I had a snack and donned warm clothing. Mid May and I needed hat, gloves and fleece. The rain was icy, the wind strengthening. Visibility was down to ten or so metres. Starting to feel cold I accepted there would be no clearance and set off back down, slipping and slithering over the wet rocks to the path and then on in the mist, much lower now, until finally I dropped below it to a view of a dark sodden landscape. A day to remind me of the Watershed walk, I thought.


  1. Great photos and narrative!

  2. Wow that's really bad of the leader to leave the lady behind then go onto ask whether she's given up. Especially with poor visibility. Reminds me of a couple of Ramblers leaders I have had the pleasure of walking with over the years (notice my sarcasm). Good on you for checking on her. I would have given the leader an earful of it were me!

    Miss Tulip

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