Saturday 27 March 2021

In search of a track that was probably never there and finding an old path that almost isn't

Summit for the day. 434 metre Sgor Gaoithe

The highest hill within walking distance of my home is 549 metre Carn na Loine, a massive heathery lump in the midst of a large grouse shooting area. It's a slog through boggy heather to the top and I don't go up there often. My only memorable ascent was in February 2009 when I camped on the summit after skiing there right from my front door. It's definitely a hill that's far better under deep snow. 

On a cold blustery day late this March I headed that way again though I didn't climb to the top. My walk was inspired by a vague memory of seeing a track angling up across the hillside. Was that track really there? I went to find out. 

Walking up the little glen below the hill I could see no sign of this track. I did note though that three deep gullies running down the lower part of the hill still had large snow patches in them and also much green vegetation that stood out against the winter brown of the heather all around. One day I'll go and have a look at those gullies, I thought.

Climbing gently out of the glen I reached it's head to a view north over the Dava Moor to the Moray Firth, a huge landscape. Just above lay Sgor Gaoithe, its little summit decorated with a cairn. The short walk up through the heather tussocks reminded me of how difficult walking was off the few tracks in this area. The rocky top - unusual here - is a great viewpoint, hence the cairn I expect. Carn na Loine lay two pathless kilometres away. The walk was not appealing. Today, I decided, would be the day I'd investigate those gullies. If I traversed the hillside, crossing each of them, I'd come across the track I'd set off seeking if it existed, which I now doubted.

The going was rough at first. Then I came across an old path running across the hillside. Overgrown and very faint it still made for easier walking. Sometimes I couldn't see it under my feet, just it's gentle depression in the heather some way ahead. The path was a bit clearer where it cut down into the first gully and climbed the far side. There were old birches here and a surprising amount of juniper bushes plus big firm snow patches. Further down there were willows too. The path remnant led to the second gully where the juniper was really prolific. Sheep graze these hills. I guess there's enough food for them not to need to descend steeply into these gashes in the hillside.

On the way to the third gully the path vanished completely and it was back to heather and bog bashing. The third gully had fewer juniper bushes but the biggest snow patches. Given the low level, around 350 metres, and the completely snow-free slopes all around I was surprised at how much snow was left.

Tired of the heather and convinced now that the track I'd set out to find was a figment of my imagination - maybe I'd seen sunshine picking out a line in the snow and mistaken it for a track - I decided it was time to head home so I descended beside the gully to a farm track and so to the road. All the way back I had splendid views south to the high Cairngorms, shining with new snow.

Back home I looked at the oldest map I have of the area, a 1980 OS 1:25,000 sheet. The track that wasn't there wasn't on it, as I knew. Neither was the old path I'd found. But it is there, just. 

The track not being there didn't matter.It had just been an excuse for a bit of local exploration. I'd had a grand walk with grand views on a day of snow showers and sunshine. As well as finding an ancient path I'd seen buzzards and pied wagtails and the juniper in the gullies. I felt refreshed.

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