Loch Benin a’ Mheadhoin in Glen Affric. A few miles further north, Loch Mullardoch; another handful of miles north again, Loch Monar. In common with many of Scotland’s largest bodies of water they have been dammed by the Hydro Companies in order to provide ‘power to the people’, in the form of electricity.
Thus the lochs have been bloated to forever alter our country’s mountain scenery, some say for the better, many, for the worst. Whatever your opinion on the matter, we live with it; we walk along artificial shorelines and either relish the newer scene or make an escape upwards.
But worse! Access to the hills Mullardoch-side is time-restricted. Be aware that although you can drive along Strathfarrar (below a handful of truly magnificent Munros, by the way and through some fine wooded sections too), you will have to ask at the cottage at Struy Bridge for the gate to be unlocked in order so to do. If you are not back at the gate at the stipulated time, usually 7pm, you’ll be stuck there for the night...
Above the slate-grey waters of Loch Monar, menacing cloud added a potency to the already grim atmosphere as we passed the sparse pines which shield the buildings of Loch Monar Lodge. Bleak islands punctuate the loch’s waters, leading the eye to distant, sombre looking mountains, prominent among which Bidian an Eoin Deirg formed a stark pyramid on the western horizon.
Our path climbed into a rocky defile below Creag a’ Chaoibh, for a while hiding today’s solemn waters from us. It was akin to passing through a mini Chaelamain Gap. When we emerged from the chasm’s western end it was to gaze along the entire length of the swollen loch, our sullen companion for the next few miles.
Gushy burns rushed down from the slopes above, cutting deep ravines over which we teetered on flimsy bridges. Across the loch, hazy through the morning’s veil of moist air, the dull hulks of the fine Benula Mountains stared back at us like their own ghosts.
Shortly after crossing a second ravine we found the hill-ward path we were looking for. At last we were able to climb upwards, over open grass and heather, towards our chosen summit, An Sidean. Pronounced: an sheen, the English translation of the hill is: The fairy hill, and, in company with such prestigious hills as Schiehallion, and places like Glenshee, not to mention many others, speaks volumes for the superstitious nature of Scotland’s former folk.
At about 400 metres our path took a lazy swing into the north; it was time to leave it to tackle the Corbett’s slopes direct. Never too steep, untroubled by deep heather or rock and thoroughly pleasant, the hillside lifted us gently to ever widening vistas along a broadening ridge with the name of Mullach a’ Ghleann Leathaid. Without much effort and scarcely out of breath, we found ourselves at last on an expansive stony plateau which undulated softly all the way to An Sidhean’s large summit cairn. Chief among the views, across the glen to the west, was Maoile Lunndaidh, a fine sprawl of a giant, which I’d only climbed or looked at from the north. Great mouthfuls of corrie and beautiful whale back ridges had us vowing to come back and climb the mountain from this side. Northward, hazy and scarcely discernible today, old friends rolled away to Torridon.
After a chilly lunch, a long grassy drop south-eastwards had us at a high mountain pass at the head of Glen Orrin. A wild and lonely glen, its river, born not many yards below us, meandered its way northwards to a sudden death in Loch Caoidhe and lands we’d visited not so many weeks ago.
From the col we could have picked up our original path and returned by the route of our coming. Instead we made the short ascent over the north end of Meall Dubh na-Caoidh, and went in search of a different path, promised by the map.
Either we missed it or it no longer exists (more likely the former). Steep slopes of boulder sprinkled heather and grass gave us the roughest walking of the day. We could see another stalkers path way down in the bottom of the glen, we made a crooked Bee line for it.
Northwards this path goes on forever, branching north-east and westwards towards Strathconon in one direction or Achnasheen, in the other. You could spend days on these paths exploring the wildest heart of the Highlands hereabouts without necessarily climbing high. And it’s a paradise for tent and stove.
Ironically we stumbled upon the path we’d missed earlier - at least its tattered lower section - and after a halt for a crafty cup of tea we let it lead us down to the stalkers path. This was a delight to walk along, traipsing as it did alongside the refreshing course of the Allt a’ Choire Dhomhain. Squeezed tight by steep, soaring grassy heights on either side, it led us down through a dark ‘V’ of glen to end abruptly at the shore of Loch Monar. We arrived at the second of this morning’s bridged ravines.
We’d been spoiled of late by autumn weather more akin to summer. The fine weather had come late after a long wet summer. The trade off had been fair however, warmer sunny days with deep blue skies and views to die for.
Today, for the first time in a while, the clouds, although high, had been dark and glutted. There had even been a spot or two of rain. For a change we’d felt the need of extra clothing and chill breezes had kept us on the move. That said, the atmosphere conveyed by weather a little more hostile, was closer to what we’re really used to in these airts.
Loch Monar’s waters were still dark and grey when we reached them and young pines whispered a mournful song as the wind tickled their blacker than green needles. But you couldn’t call that lovely song a dirge. As we walked back through the morning’s rocky gorge above the lodge and reached the man-tailored environs of rich men’s haunts, we did so in the secure knowledge that we’d made yet another friend. For such had An sidhean, ‘the fairy hill’, proved itself today.