Hillwalking: A fast road skyward along an eroded trench like path: Glenshee

Hillwalking
Hillwalking

A Spanish invasion! Well, perhaps not an invasion. For their ill fated rising in 1719, The Jacobites should have been joined by some 5,000 Spanish troops.

Only 300 arrived in Glenshiel to fight alongside Rob Roy Macgreggor and his men.

You see, most of the promised 5,000 never made it to shore; a storm wrecked a large part of the fleet that carried then off Cape Finisterre. Many Spaniards took refuge in Eilean Donan Castle only to be bombarded into surrender by English frigates on Loch Alsh.

And the 300 who stood at arms with Roy? After a good deal of hard fighting in Glenshiel, they were forced to retreat uphill. That retreat was probably even harder than the fighting; 2,000 feet they had to scamper, up the very steep flank of the mountain that, in their honour, was afterwards named: Sgorr nan Spanteach (The peak of the Spaniards). Their final part in the Battle of Glenshiel was to spend a cold and miserable night atop this craggy mountain. Thoroughly demoralised, they too surrendered in the morning.

It’s still a very steep hill! The Bealach an Lapain looks so close from the roadside, it’s barely a mile away. But it’s as steep a mile as you’ll ever walk. The path, a good one, is in places very eroded, trench like higher up, but it gets you skyward fast.

In less than an hour we were standing at the bealach, beautiful Glenshiel with its mountains soaring either side, below us in the south, the huge bulk of Ben Attow (Beinn Fhada), and its neighbours, peering back at us from the wilderness out north.

We might have reached the bealach even quicker but for the flowers we paused to photograph. Early summer begins to grip. Pink orchids littered the grass, as did deeper pink louseworts, deep blue milkworts, yellow tormentils and creeping jenny.

At the bealach we turned to walk the rising, narrowing ridge of Spanteach. It’s a fine ridge with a number of little tops; each time you think you’ve reached the summit there seems to be another little rocky peak to go. There had been an invasion of a different sort these past few days. With every step along the route we were buzzed by montane craneflies, thousands of them! A veritable feast for the mountain’s wheatears and their soon to hatch chicks.

And on the bealach we’d watched the clouds slowly dropping onto Ben Attow’s pate; as we’d walked we watched it dropping further still, until, by the time we arrived at Spanteach’s summit cairn, we too were enveloped in the mist.

Sgorr nan Spanteach is a long rocky hill, even in the mist the walking was delightfully atmospheric. At its western end the ridge drops sharply giving an easy little scramble down to the next stone choked col, and the first of Glenshiel’s famed Five Sisters, Sgurr na Ciste Duibhe. This is ‘the peak of the black chest or coffin’. It’s eerie in the mist! Ribs of rock loom almost arete like, tempting the unwary into little dead end situations. It isn’t dangerous and can, if you have the time and inclination, be fun. But there’s a good path which leads the walker very quickly to the mountain’s big summit cairn; if you wish, however, you can deviate from the path and indulge in some easy scrambling.

We walked a little farther west beyond the cairn hoping for a view of Sister number two, the mighty pyramid of Carnach. Alas, it was not to be today. With clouds swirling now way down in the glens and corries, all we saw were the rocks a dozen feet before us!

We’d been followed up by two other parties, here they passed us, on route for Carnach and her other sisters; a long way yet for them to go indeed. We ourselves were on our way to Skye and the delights of that island’s Black Cuillin. Today’s foray was but a gentle warm up; no sense in overdoing things with a weekend’s work on gabbro yet to come.

So we ate our lunch and turned to go back down. Amid those ribs of rock a raven croaked loudly; we didn’t see him, just felt his presence as we passed his mist enshrouded roosting rock. As Spanteach had been infested by craneflies, so Ciste Duibhe had its share of ground beetles, small, black and scurrying. It was sometimes difficult to avoid trampling them underfoot.

And this highlights a benefit of foggy days aloft. When the sun shines or the clouds scud high, you concentrate on views and distant vistas. You watch out for the soaring Golden Eagle, the herd of deer darting in the glen below, the plovers and their kin. On cloudier days like this one you are forced to look closer to your feet, if only to ensure that you stay with the safety of the path. But you will see more of the mountain’s little folk. Various kinds of ground beetle find their way up here. To eat them frogs and lizards will venture well up the hillsides too. There are moths and even butterflies that feel much at home higher on the hillside.

We clambered back onto Spanteach’s back. As we made our way back east along the spiny ridge we could sense the sun’s efforts to break the prevailing gloom; above us blue holes began to appear, promise of warmth and better views to come.

But it wasn’t until we were once again above the Bealach an Lapain, dull Saileag and the more exciting ridges beyond, stretching out in front of us, that the sun finally won the battle. Glenshiel stretched below us, new summer green with its silver strand of river winding, glinting at last in the sunshine. Beyond the river and its narrow plain the hills of the South Glenshiel Ridge rose darkly, most of their own three thousand foot summits still swathed in cloud.

In the bealach we found a cairn marking an obvious footpath off; not the path we’d come up by. We decided to give this alternative route a bash.

This was a patently less used trod than that of our ascent. In many places, as we shot down the steep hillside, it seemed to disappear altogether, only to reappear a little further down in tandem with some trickle of a stream or convenient mini gully.

It was a knee wrenching descent, despite the relative brevity of our walk. But it was drier by far than the eroded path we’d earlier used, it had us down in no time.

The road, busy with traffic and growing noisier as we dropped, seemed to reel us in like fish on a line. Parallel with it can still be found remnants of the old military road built to help facilitate the pacification of the clans post 1715-19 and 1745. As we stepped at last onto the warm tarmac, our minds drifted back those few hundred years to Rob Roy’s time. We thought about those three hundred Spaniards skulking on the heights we’d just been on. We wondered if any of them had appreciated the beauty of the place as we had today. I’m pretty sure most had not. Hardy though they undoubtedly were, I believe they could hardly have waited to get off the hill and home.