Hillwalking - Saddle up for the ‘Hill of the Table’

Hill of the Table - hillwalking column.
Hill of the Table - hillwalking column.

“Hill of the table”. Beinn a’ Bhuird, vying for sheer bulk with its equally huge neighbour, Ben Avon, is a massive table indeed! These two giants, separated by a narrow neck or saddle known as ‘The Sneck’, form a vast granite plateau at almost the 1200-metre contour giving a unique walk in as near tundra like surroundings as can be found anywhere in Britain.

In his earlier Munro bagging days my brother accompanied me to both these hills by way of ‘The Slugan’, a long trek enlivened by the glacier gouged corries of Beinn a’ Bhuird; today we thought to ascend ‘the table’ from the south.

The southern approach to Beinn a’ Bhuird had long been marred by an ugly bulldozed track that zig-zagged along the spine of the main ridge. Some years ago The National Trust for Scotland began work on an alternative path that has allowed much of the track to slowly disappear under re-colonising vegetation, mainly heather. At last the mountain is regaining its former dignity. We took up the story right at the start of the track, at the road near Allanaquoich.

Much of that tale is of beautiful Caledonian Pine and birch, for once unmolested, entirely natural. In some places those graceful old trees huddle together in thick stands, as if by numbers they might thwart the depredations they’ve witnessed in the past. Elsewhere the trees grow more sparsely; many have died and either stand like bleached and mummified ghosts or have fallen to nourish with their own death’s decay the very soil that nourished them in life.

With a summer variety of plant life too abundant to enumerate here, we witnessed colour everywhere. Adders seem to like basking on these sandy tracks. We saw two. Both were young. One slithered quickly into the cover of the trackside heather, the other made straight for my feet! Ah the inexperience of youth! I tapped it gently with my trekking pole; thankfully it too slithered away in a hissing high dudgeon.

We looked out for blackcock but saw none. We did see a crossbill, a shy flit of russet among the pine cones. We watched an alarmed roe deer bouncing away through the straggly heather and grasses; behind her, in a blind panic, her fawn crashed and stumbled as he tried to keep up with her.

After crossing a ford the track passes back into the trees and dies a welcome death. From here on the story is told by an ancient stalker’s path, the same so well repaired to leave the former track to its own devices.

Without much effort the path begins to climb. Soon it leaves the trees and introduces the walker to the open hillside. As it ascended the flank of Carn allt na Beinne, having ignored the mighty zig-zags of the offending track, it deposited us on An Diollaid, or ‘the saddle’.

A good place to halt and sup on the views. Close by, in the east, the allt na beinne comes down in a ribbon of foam, watering the deep green glen between our hill and Beinn a’ Bhuird’s grassy south top. In the west, beyond Beinn Bhreac, the main hulk of the Cairngorms loomed, chief amongst them and second highest in the land, Ben Macdui.

Later, from the day’s main summit, we would see even beyond these hills; the Athol ranges, Ben Lawers and, far in the west, Beinn Achaladair. In the north we would see Ben Wyvis and the Fannichs.

We still had three miles of gently climbing ground to cover; three miles of constantly changing terrain. For the moment we walked on granite grit; there was much bilberry and wind clipped heather. Pink granite boulders dotted the land.

My eyes caught a glimpse of something fluttering, something small and black. A Black Mountain Moth. These dark little moths aren’t to be found in many places other than the Cairngorms, they seem to like the harsh environment here. All of a sudden, like bonfire motes fluttering on the breeze, they were everywhere.

And then there was the dotterel and its single chick. The dotterel is an un-shy bird, quite a little poser too; we had no trouble taking his photograph. After which we walked over to the nearby corrie lip.

We visited two corries on our way to the summit. There’s Corrie Dubh Lochan, with its black little eye of water and, just below the summit cairn, Corrie nan Clach, named after the nearby ‘priest’s stone’.

We looked across the south bounding cliffs of Coire Dubh Lochan, at a great nipple of granite called A’ Chioch; beyond but not to be visited today, lay Coire na Ciche.

Three and a half hours it had taken us to reach the cairn and lunch. After, we wandered north on lovely grass and soft carpets of rachomitrium mosses. There was least willow too. Incredibly these tiny plants, no more than a few centimetres across, are in fact true willows; trees! Feeling like giants trampling a forest we trod as softly as we could.

Stob an t-Sluchd is a Top. A narrow ridge spiked with a cock’s comb of granite tors, it sits above the deep trench of the Slochd Mor, into who’s Garbh Choire, with its distinctive ‘Mitre Ridge’ we now gazed. Across the nearby Snecht, Ben Avon’s summit tor, Leabaidh an Daimh Bhuidhe (pronounced: liepee an daff vooie), seemed but a Titan’s hop away. The name is one of my favourites, it means: Bed of the yellow stag.

We returned to the summit and our abandoned packs. There we met two gentleman who were scattering the ashes of a deceased companion. Though they didn’t elaborate, they told us it was a wind up; we could only surmise that their departed friend wasn’t fond of mountains!

We set off for one more look into the corries, still sporting remnants of last winter’s cornices, dirty now and ready for their final plunge into the depths below.

This time the dotterel evaded us, but not so the ptarmigan. We kept off the path for a while and were rewarded. Although she craftily trailed an injured looking wing, she didn’t fool us. Searching in the opposite direction from her flight we soon found a lone chick. A week or so ago there would have been more but nature up here is as cruel as anywhere else on earth. We wondered at this little creature’s chances of survival.

As we arrived back at the track my brother suddenly leapt into the air with a startled “whoa!” There came an explosion of mottled brown and white at his feet as another ptarmigan burst into flight. We must have passed her on the way up, within inches; so perfect was her camouflage that we’d missed her. Sitting tight on her nest she would only be induced to abandon her eggs under the direst threat of disaster; thus she regarded my brother’s muckle boots!

Our final three miles passed in reflective silence. Another little box had been filled to overflowing with memories to be cherished, brought out again when the winter nights are cold and the photographs retell the stories yet again...