Modest mountain with a saintly name has hidden glories to offer

Walkers on Ben Challum - or "Malcolm's Hill"
Walkers on Ben Challum - or "Malcolm's Hill"

At about the beginning of the eighth century, St Fillan came over from Ireland, in the company of St Kentigearna, to preach “the word” in Scotland.

His works centred mainly in Pittenweem, Fife. He retired however to Perthshire, and gave his name to Strathfillan where, at Kirkton Farm, he made for himself a little priory. Its remains can still be seen.

The identity of Malcolm, on the other hand, has been entirely lost in the mists of time. Who he was and why a mountain should bear his name is a mystery. Maybe St Fillan knew the answers, or perhaps these two characters lived many years apart and never knew the one or the other. Who knows?

Yet St Fillan was surely familiar with Malcolm’s Hill, or to give it its more authentic rendition, Ben Challum. The remains of the old saint’s home lie in the very shadow of the mountain.

Ben Challum is a good winter hill, especially suited to walkers intent on their first taste of winter mountaineering.

There are very rarely technical difficulties up or down, yet given a fair enough coating of the white stuff, the mountain offers spectacular views from a summit which will often require the use of ice axe and crampons to attain.

Three miles north-west of Crianlarich, on the A85, look out for the sign post directing off right to Kirkton Farm.

Along the tree-lined little slip road, just before a broad wooden bridge spanning the River Fillan, you’ll usually find ample room for parking.

When the river flows sluggish and its margins are choked with ice, when the trees along its banks are caked with frosted snow beneath a crystal winter sky, the magical view back down the strath to Ben More and Stob Binnein, will hold you up for sure.

Across the bridge collies barked and came inspecting. The snow, even at this low level, was deep and, compacted on the farm track, slippery. Reverently we passed old Fillan’s Priory. Beyond the last building we left the track and headed straight for the nearby railway line.

The bridge we crossed it by had clearly seen long gone better days!

There is a path of sorts which makes a bee-line up the gentle slopes that face you; apart from various snaking lines of footprints in the snow before us, we had no idea where it lay. It is generally easier to locate the obvious uphill striking fence and follow that.

The ground rises in a gentle, undulating, though ever upward, fashion. After a while we found ourselves on the steep eminence of Creag Losgte. With its smattering of young firs over to our left, we kept to its more craggier slope, the only slightly cumbersome section of the entire day’s walk.

We were glad of the snow. Even in summer conditions the path can be very boggy - at a gate well up on the hillside, you can often find yourself dropping over the other side…into a morass of peaty mud that will have you swearing! Today deep snow made all the difference.

We breasted one final hillock to stand looking across a col at the “dull” pure white slopes of Challum’s South Top. I say “dull” only because it hides the mountain’s true summit — the views from here, especially across to the Crianlarich hills and out west to queenly Ben Lui, were already to die for. And they’d be even better from the top!

With these views, and those of Ben Dorain’s vast slopes growing over on our left, we cramponed our way up the stony slope. There are no navigational problems with Ben Challum, even in a pea souper you’ll usually have the remnants of an old fence to guide you to the top.

The South Top is spacious and stony. Today, windswept of any depth of snow, but frosted hard, our crampons scratched and scraped, the only sounds to mar the morning peace.

The true summit is detached from the South Top by a strange little ridge, a narrow neck of rocky arête that rims a curious hollow hard against the mountain’s shoulder. It’s the one small feature on the mountain that comes anywhere near to being alpine. We’d been following two other walkers up and now we watched them teetering along the arête like a couple of tightrope walkers.

It’s only a short sharp climb from the end of the arête to Ben Challum’s summit, yet the slope which confronted us was a different proposition from the South Top. That had been largely windswept and firm underfoot. This final slope, sheltered as it is by its South Top, held a great deal more snow. And for the most part the snow was soft. Towards the top we found ourselves floundering, and had to “swim” the final few dozen metres!

But by now the views all around had grown to nothing less than stupendous. So far this winter, Scotland’s hills have had a fair dumping of snow. Now, standing at the frozen cairn, we gazed around at peak after peak covered head to toe with beautiful virgin snow: glorious! And if it hadn’t been for that wonderful mini range of Munros called Ben Cruachan, beyond Ben Lui and the rest, I’m sure we might have even seen the sea.

We drank tea and chatted with our newly-made companions, two brothers up on holiday from Derbyshire in England. “Munro Baggers” in their early stages, this for them had so far been their finest winter in the Scottish Hills.

We pointed out and named many of the peaks that crowded in on us. Dorain, Mhanach, and the Achallater hills a little farther north. The superb Auch Glen Corbetts, just across the glen from where we stood. We named the hills of the Mamlorn Forest, and many more besides.

“Have you done many yourselves?” was one enthusiastic query.

“Them all,” someone answered, trying to sound modest.

“This is the first we’ve done in this area”, came the envious reply. “Still, we’re up here for a fortnight!”

And so, beneath a subtly deepening sky, we lingered. It was the frosty air that got us moving in the end. But we didn’t rush, we had our own footsteps to lead us down again and lots of camera work still to do.

Midweek is always a good time to walk the hills. Weekends bring the crowds and Ben Challum, for all its seeming modesty, is a popular hill. We made our way back down slowly and in peace with the mountain. And the mountain, as though to thank us for our quiet consideration, gave us one last parting gift. It was almost dark when we passed by old Fillan’s sanctuary, with the sun by then all but gone.

But not yet quite. As its last rays argued with the western hills, those rays shot out defiantly to light, for just a moment, the snow-clad summits of Ben More and Stob Binnien in as rosy a glow as you’ll ever see. An Alpenglow in Scotland!