In a week or two more there will be no more leaves on our trees, autumn will have tightened its grip on the countryside and will only loosen that grip when winter finally takes it by the throat and chokes it off.
Already the daylight hours have lost their legs; today’s walk around the horseshoe of Benin a’ Bha’ach ard (pronounced: Ben a vayack ard), a good ten miles in all and with over 900 metres of ascent, would have to be taken at a lively pace.
Thus it was that an insanely early start to our drive from the east coast had us driving through the incredibly beautiful strath of the River Beauly in the weak light of dawn; of the strath’s beauty we sadly saw but little.
Loch Monar, way down Strathfarrar, has been dammed by the Hydro folk, the hills down there seem to climb straight from the water. We’d passed through the locked gate last week to reach the loch and some of those very hills. Today, since our Corbett rose ahead of us, lit golden by the rising sun and deceptively close looking, we left the car by the gate, near the farm of Inchmore.
The fields hereabouts are well known for the herds of red deer that often come down, often to the roadside, in big numbers; there were none to be seen today, the rut being well under way, witness the occasional bellowing of stags that greeted our ears as we booted up.
Here the River Beauly gets fed up with its name and takes the name of Farrar; pleasantly shaded by birches, the mile or so we walked along the road that hugged it made for a pleasant walk in. Just beyond a little power station we took a track that dove into the thickest of these trees and climbed easily to a point where we could get onto the foot of our hill’s long and meandering south ridge.
Dead autumn grass the colour of straw, black heather and grey slabby rock, gave us a variety of surfaces to scrabble over. The usual way up is due north, directly along the ridge. To be different we negotiated the easy slabs of Carn Coire na Muic, and then the steep, heather clogged flank of Benin a’ Bha’ach Ard’s ridge on its eastern side. It was hot, sweaty work, the hardest of the entire day in fact; thankfully it was short lived.
Once on the ridge proper the views began to open to us. Strathfarrar, below and behind us now, with its sparkling river, green forests and mountain back drop, looked especially fine in the early morning light.
Gentle walking soon had us at the foot of another rise, Cnoc an Duine, with grand views west to those Munros known to baggers as The Strathfarrar Six. It will not be very long now until their heights will feel the first cold snows of winter; today they loomed golden in the light of the climbing sun.
The grass we walked on was a mix of dead grass, short wind-shaved heather and the greenery of blaeberry; during the early summer months it would require nimble footwork in order not to crush too many of the little berries so much loved by walkers in the Scottish Highlands.
Now with the company of a freshening breeze, we climbed steadily but easily. We weren’t working hard enough to keep warm; on went our coats and bonnets. After the grass and heather of the main ridge, it was nice to get onto the steeper, stonier slopes of the summit cone; in less than 10 minutes we were sunning ourselves inside the big ring of stones that crowns the mountain’s 862 metre pate. We’d been walking now for two and a half hours, cuppa time now!
All around us hills of every shape and size marched away to crisp horizons. To the north, the waters of Orrin Reservoir reflected the blue sky while, way out east the waters of the Beauly Firth squeezed themselves through the Kessock Bridge and out to sea by Inverness. Lingering in the sunshine, albeit cold in the fresh wind, we contemplated our way forward. When it was time to move we headed north east, over pleasantly undulating ground and onto Sgorr a’ Phollain. We walked that mile on a gorgeous carpet of dwarf heather and moss so soft and springy we could have been in some outdoor giant’s living room. Had it been a day of summer warmth I’d certainly have walked that mile bare footed!
Two figures appeared on the horizon. As they approached we could see that they were old timers, at least in their 70s. We exchanged comments on the weather and the scenery. They’d chosen to walk round in the opposite direction and warned us that on the way down through the wet moors below the path temporarily lost itself. Easy enough to follow our noses though, so long as we headed for the lochan we could see way below, glinting in the midday sun.
Diving down now on steeper slopes of heather and rusty grass, we picked up an excellent stalkers path which led us to our final top, Carn na Gabhalach. It was on our way there that we spotted a pair of ptarmigan, the male of the pair already showing signs of the white plumage that would hide him through the coming winter months of snows. The female, though duller, was no less beautiful. Hardly at all nervous they let us get quite close for photographs.
As we were warned, the path disappeared in the boggy grasslands we found ourselves walking through next. Stagnant pools alive with frogs punctuated our way down. But the going was easy and on the western shoulder of a little knoll with the name of Carn an Sgoltaidh, we picked up another feint track which took us to the secluded waters of Loch na Beiste, an idyllic little haven in the sun with virtually our entire day’s walk for a backdrop.
Our walk was nearing its end. With a little over a mile to go we joined a path which led us down through the last of the heather. Further down as the moor gave way to trees, we saw various sprouting fungi; amethyst, ceps, stink horns and more providing little flecks of colour here and there against the oranges and dirty browns of this year’s fallen birch leaves already decaying into another layer of leaf mould.
As the gloaming deepened we passed through the meadows above Inchmore Farm. The farmer was bringing his tractor to its shed, another day’s labour done. We reached the car and slaked our thirsts on orange juice, another day’s walking thoroughly enjoyed. As we turned down east, back along the glen, we gave the now black Benin a’ Bha’ach Ard one more backward glance; peaceful, almost sombre, seemed the hill now.
We wondered how the older couple were faring on those lower, slabby slopes. I hope, like them, I’m still climbing mountains when I’m their age!