Ambivalence on Cairn Gorm

Preamble:

This has taken an absolute age to write and I’m really not sure if I shouldn’t have just paid heed to that and abandoned it. For a while I’ve been toying with the idea of taking the blog in a different direction, without ever really being clear about where that direction should be. Brilliant, eh? An outdoor blogger who can’t even navigate a way through his own thought processes. 

Thing is, there are only so many times it’s possible to write about the final approach to the summit of Worcestershire Beacon, or the tricky descent of Light Spout Hollow. Ironic really, considering there is probably no limit to the number of times I would happily descend Light Spout and never tire of doing so. And it can be tricky…

Anyway…

I’m not a great lover of Cairn Gorm; at least not on its northern side. Actually, that’s not an entirely fair resumé: it would be more precise to say that I’m not a great lover of what’s been done to that part of the mountain, not least the rebranding – and why? – of the mountain’s name, which somehow grates more than it should when I see it on facilities, information boards, or even one of the funicular vehicles and its completely innocent cargo of passengers.

I’ve touched on this before [here] and Chris Townsend recently posted about the rather slipshod manner in which redundant infrastructure was being removed – albeit only partially – from parts of Coire na Ciste. As someone who isn’t, and never has been, a downhill skier, I don’t feel qualified to argue the merits, or otherwise, of the pastime; hence this, from the earlier post…

“It’s true that Cairngorm itself is an untidy clutter on its northern side: mostly the consequences of ski development. I know there are arguments in favour of skiing as a leisure pursuit; not least the economic benefits in the winter months and, equally importantly, the fact that, for some, it’s an enjoyable activity. There’s no denying though that skiing is greedy for land and creates an awful mess on the hillside when there’s no camouflaging blanket of snow…”

I did also – in the interests of intended balance – concede that “there are equally instances of spots (Snowdon summit, Ben Nevis as examples) where the accumulated effects of tens of thousands of walkers can leave the place looking far from attractive…”

With all of that said, and nothing really resolved, I just think that the development – if it had to be done at all – it could have been carried out with a little more subtlety, a lot less intrusion, and with a view to a generally more sympathetic outcome. There’s an obvious question hanging here: if that’s how I feel, why go there? Well, it is a very accessible summit on those days when the weather looks like it might run through its entire repertoire in the space of an afternoon, and – the other side of that coin – a relatively straightforward place from which to retreat. And, once you begin to cross the summit plateau and the buildings and equipment, the tows and fencing, fall behind and dip out of sight, then it really becomes a different place.

I find my gaze is usually drawn first to the lochs Avon and Etchachan, rather than to the neighbouring summits; then, as I adjust my eyeline upwards, there’s often the compulsion to look back down again and confirm that I have secure footing, despite standing on a solid rocky base and a long way from any precipice; a feeling of exposure, where none actually exists – it’s almost become a mannerism. Then the details begin to reveal themselves: the high summits of neighbouring mountains; steep crags falling away into deep-cut valleys; watercourses threading their way down until they meet, combine, create bigger watercourses, spill into the lochs and, in some cases, feed rivers which will make their journey all the way to the coast, gathering power as they go.

And then I realise that I actually love it up here…

I might have liked it more in former, wilder days; I might have liked it more in the future, when the wolves have returned and land management lower down has been reclaimed by lynx and beaver. But for now, and as long as I’m able, I’ll continue to climb past the ugly bits and enjoy the views from the top. To some extent, traversing the summit plateau from north to south is like crossing a watershed, a frontier where national park status is broadly observed to the south, and has been selectively set aside to the north.

(Context: it has been more than nine weeks since I last wandered past the summit cairn to take in the views to the south)

Ski tow equipment – Coire Cas

 

Just walking clear of the last of the development

Not pretty, maybe, but natural and as its intended to be

No comment needed (other than that this is taken inside a national park)

 

 

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Carn Ban Mor and Sgòr Gaoith: 10/08/17

About this time last year I was ruminating, in that way that curmudgeonly old gits do, about the vagaries of Scottish hill classifications. It was to do with Carn Ban Mor (3,451 feet) not being a munro, on account of having, in close proximity, a parent hill, Sgòr Gaoith (3,668 feet).

Being neither a committed bagger nor cairn-toucher I didn’t much care, and still don’t. Which is just as well, because it doesn’t end there: turns out – if Wikipedia is to be believed – that Sgòr Gaoith itself also has a parent peak (Braeriach – 4,252 feet). Well, seeing as it’s Braeriach, we’ll say no more about it; you wouldn’t want to get into a dispute with Braeriach,

We followed the path – well walked and well engineered, winding up out of Glen Feshie from near the croft at Achlean. The first part is through woodland, always climbing but never too severe, until eventually the trees begin to thin out.

Encouragingly, well beyond the end of the established tree line, there are signs of regeneration and a gradual recolonising of the slopes by native pines. This could well be a consequence of Glenfeshie Estate’s policy of controlling deer numbers; if so it’s a welcome one, although personally I’d rather see implementation of the programme handed over to a few lynx.

Gaining height across the open hillside is, in the main, progressive rather than strenuous, and the views back towards Glen Feshie and beyond begin to open out. The path does steepen a little as it climbs to its high point, which is just about where you need to look for a small cairn marking the junction for the final short, easy stroll up to the summit cairn/shelter of Carn Ban Mor. It’s worth paying a bit of attention to directions and landmarks at this point because, by the time you reach the top of Carn Ban Mor and look back, this way-marker cairn will just have dipped out of sight.

Summit cairn/shelter – Carn Ban Mor

On a previous outing we’d decided against pushing on to Sgòr Gaoith; this was partly down to a later start, but also because a couple of trip reports I’d read had suggested that the walk across was deceptive in terms of both distance and re-ascent from the hollow between the two summits. In the event it proved somewhat easier than we’d expected, although the wind was beginning to pick up and the temperature was dropping as we climbed towards the distinctive outline of number 5 buttress (visible from the platform of Kingussie Station if conditions allow). The drifting clouds also meant that the top was disappearing and reappearing every couple of minutes.

The wind was sufficiently strong to keep us away from the very edge of the precipice, but we did venture close enough to get some shots looking down into Glen Einich and across to Braeriach. Loch Einich was a much more attractive colour than it had been when viewed from the shoreline a few days previously…

Braeriach – not quite prepared to reveal everything

This one – not one of mine, by the way – made it onto the Visit Scotland site

The edge of Sgòr Gaoith dissolving into the low cloud

With the wind coming hard from the west, the only viable shelter would have been one of the grassy hollows just above the 2,000 foot drop down into Glen Einich; maybe worth bearing in mind for a calmer day, or one where the wind is blowing away from the edge. We chose a more cautious option and walked back to the shelter on Carn Ban Mor , which had the dual advantages of being perfectly aligned for the wind direction, and a long way from the precipice. It was an easy decision, and a unanimous one.

Having said above that I’m not particularly fussed about touching summit cairns (or trig points), I do have a fondness for sitting inside them when they double up as a shelter. The one on Carn Ban Mor is particularly helpful, as it’s an exposed top, whichever direction the wind is from, and there isn’t much in the way of natural cover. We took an extended food stop while Braerich, Sgòr an Lochain Uaine and Cairn Toul played a game of cat and mouse with us – the object being to get a picture with all three summits clear of cloud. Inevitably the mountains outlasted us; they are better equipped for a long game.

Just a final word about Braeriach: what a staggering piece of mountain architecture that is! From a distance, or close proximity, it just seems to keep revealing one more new facet, then another… We haven’t yet viewed it from the Cairn Toul approach, so there’s still more to discover. The Highlands – there’s always a reason to go back.

 

Glen Einich (and its Loch): 06/08/17

The imposing crags of Sgoran Dubh Mor and Sgor Gaioth

How to describe Glen Einich? If it’s picturesque then it’s in a pretty uncompromising sort of way; speaking personally, I think that – for almost its entire length – there is a ‘presence’ about the place which is totally compelling. I can understand though that it wouldn’t be to everyone’s tastes.

There was no definite plan: the weather forecast was changeable and likely to remain so; some cloud; possibility of showers, but interspersed with clear spells. Okay, so waterproofs and anti-midge cream accessible at all times. We parked up alongside the road leading to Whitewell; this has become probably our favourite start point over the last couple of years and allows a last look at the conditions across the hills before setting off. Some cloud; the possibility of showers; maybe clear spells, looked about right; in fact – in an arc from Cairn Gorm to Braeriach – all of that was already happening.

Braeriach in cloud; the path into Glen Einich just visible

The early part of the walk is probably best described in a single word – Rothiemurchus; that should convey more than any amount of waffle from me. It’s all here in this amiable walk in – shifting cloudscapes; views of hills, near and distant; mixed woodlands, including welcome indications of regeneration in places; the sounds of water moving through the landscape, sometimes unseen.

Lochan Deo had an unruffled air about it, although there have been times when we’ve seen it looking a little more blue. It’s a useful reference point, being immediately adjacent to a junction of paths leading to/from Aviemore; Coylumbridge; Glen Einich; The Cairngorm Club Footbridge and the Lairig Ghru. We frequently see wild campers who’ve pitched up close to the lochan; even when there are midges about. There are certainly some lovely spots around there; easily accessible but still discreet without needing to travel too far from the path.

Lochan Deo

Foot and cycle bridge over the Allt Beanaidh

Once you’ve picked up the Allt Beanaidh, flowing north from Loch Einich towards its confluence with the Rivers Druie and Luineag at Coylumbridge, it remains pretty much a constant companion all the way to the loch. It needs to be crossed a couple of times: once by means of a handy bridge (which also seems to act as a repository for a mysterious assortment of single gloves).

And once with some improvisation…

It’s okay, I’ll carry everybody’s kit…

We’d been barefoot in the river on a previous outing, so it didn’t come as a total shock. If anything, it wasn’t quite as cold as I’d remembered it, but the current felt strong, even though it wasn’t particularly deep. Every few minutes the skies seemed to change and, with the variations in light, those changes were reflected in the landscape. Those buttresses along the face of Sgor Gaioth can look pretty intimidating, even from the safety of the path.

Sgor Gaioth’s mood not quite reflecting the blue skies and fluffy clouds

Eventually we began to get teasing glimpses of the grey, then blue, then grey again sheet of water which was Loch Einich; disappearing and reappearing as the path twisted and dipped…

By the time we reached the gravelly shoreline, alongside the outflow into the Allt Beanaidh, a spell of squally wind and rain was arriving just in time to greet us; there was barely time to take a handful of photos before the visibility was all but gone. From this aspect and in these conditions, the loch itself looked quite unprepossessing, although the same couldn’t be said about its setting. Fortunately, a few days later, we would see it from an altogether different vantage point – the path along the rim of Sgor Gaioth – and come away with better pictures and an altered point of view.

On the walk out we’d turn now and again to look back at the view; the rolling low cloud and rain hung around the semi-circle of hills surrounding Loch Einich for a long time and it would have been a mistake to stick around there waiting for the weather to clear. However, as we headed back towards Rothiemurchus, the skies were gradually lightening, although the cloud cover had eliminated most of the blue gaps by then.

Routebuddy made the out and return distance 21.6 kms (13.4 miles). Total ascent, out and back, was a surprising 568 metres (1,864 feet); a far higher number than I would have guessed on a route which never seems more than undulating. I suppose spread over thirteen plus miles it’s actually not that much.

All photos should enlarge with a click.

 

 

 

08/08/17: Meall a’ Bhuachaille, Creagan Gorm, and…

… and a navigational cock-up.

The plan was to walk a circuit taking in the three summits of Meall a’ Bhuachaille, Creagan Gorm and Craiggowrie, then make our way back to Loch Morlich and Glenmore, by paths passing close to the Badaguish Outdoor Centre. What could possibly go wrong?

We’d climbed Meall a’ Bhuachaille a number of times before – out past An Lochan Uaine and pick up the track just behind Ryvoan bothy. That bit passed uneventfully…

Ryvoan bothy

As did the next – the climb up to the summit cairn/shelter on top of Meall a’ Bhuachaille; a place where it is traditional for us to partake of food and drink. My kind of place…

Summit shelter – Meall a’ Bhuachaille

That was the high point already taken care of and, with good visibility ahead, what could – at the risk of repeating myself – possibly go wrong? The plan was to drop down from the top of Meall a’ Bhuachaille and continue across to Creagan Gorm and then the third summit (Craiggowrie) before picking up the path down towards Badaguish and Loch Morlich. However, in the planning process, a member of the party – and I won’t say who (okay, it was me!) – had failed to notice that although Craiggowrie is the third named summit on the route, there is an unnamed top between it and Creagan Gorm. In my defence – and, as defences go, this is about as thin as they get – the intermediate top is one of those anomalies where the ridge leading to the summit is named (Creag a’ Chaillich), rather than the top itself; I didn’t notice this on the map I’d printed out.

Just for confirmation – and because I like to plan my cock-ups properly – I’d read a couple of trip reports on Walkhighlands.co.uk and was sure that the descent route would be on the left, immediately after the cairns (plural). And so, arriving at the cairns on what I thought to be the summit we were heading for; and, by the way, why would an unnamed top have four cairns? Yes four! Isn’t life difficult enough? I began to look for the downward path, in the relaxed manner of someone about to enter a very large doghouse.

We looked, didn’t find; pushed on a little; looked again, still didn’t find; saw a group below us who had decided to just yomp through the heather and bilberry and wondered if the path we were looking for had become overgrown (it’s called clutching at excuses) and eventually decided to retrace our steps because we seemed to be heading for Boat of Garten by the pretty route. This meant we had to negotiate, for the second time, some very boggy ground and reascend the unnamed top – replete with its four bloody cairns! – then Creagan Gorm again, before picking up a path which at least we knew was there, having used it before and crossed it earlier in the day.

Later, looking at the printed Routebuddy sheet while we had a coffee and bite to eat, it was clear where we had gone wrong: allowing me to be the one with the map was the critical flaw in the plan. I probably chose the wrong time to suggest that days like this are character building.

Oops…

Heading off Meall a’ Bhuachaille and towards Creagan Gorm

Summit cairn – Creagan Gorm

There was no shortage of cairns – Lochs Garten and Mallachie beyond

A boulder which we passed (twice)…

Badaguish (below) – exactly where it was supposed to be

A rainbow which our original plan might well have missed

The route reacquired

Almost time for coffee and recriminations… 

 

The mountain at the end of the street…

I read somewhere – and for the life of me I can’t remember where – about the visual and sensory impact of mountains where they are visible from the streets of a town or city. I recall the article mentioning some of the obvious examples – Seattle, Kathmandu – but also referring to the views of The Peaks from Manchester and Sheffield. I’d credit the author if I could remember who it was; it might have been Robert Macfarlane.

This shot was taken looking south-west along the high street of Kingussie: the looming presence dominating the skyline is Creag Dubh – a two and a half thousand footer which is actually beyond Newtonmore but almost looks within touching distance…

 

A belated in memoriam…

Just returned from a couple of weeks based in Kingussie: tired from the M6; body back in the English midlands, head still somewhere meandering one of the endless trails; intending to make a start on a series of posts about selected days and escapades. But, before any of that, an oversight needed to be rectified…

We travelled north on Friday August 4th and there was something about the date that nagged at me; a couple of days later I would remember what it was. A year ago to the day, the blogging community sadly lost one of its finest: he went by the online name of Oldmortality and his blog – witty, erudite, original, thought-provoking, never dull – can be found among the links to the right, under the name One Small Step; OM’s final post was dated 27th July, 2016 and among the comments is one from his daughter confirming that he had passed away. If you’re not already familiar with the blog then I’d urge you to read through the backlog of posts while they still remain available; I still do, and I know I’m not alone. They are unique reflections on a life well lived.

This was where I was when I remembered why August 4th was significant…

It’s the Cairngorm Club footbridge across the Am Beanaidh, which flows north from Loch Einich, and the reason it’s significant is because it’s the spot where Oldmortality once met up with fellow blogger Mike Knipe (whose also excellent blog can be found here: northern pies); their rendezvous is also remembered in the comments attaching to OM’s final blog entry.

Memory jogged, I took a contemplative moment and resolved to do the same every time I’m fortunate enough to pass this way in the future.

Oldmortality loved his music and would often sign off with a link to a tune of his choice. I’m not sure this would have been on his playlist, but it somehow seemed appropriate…

A head full of Scotland…

Not long returned from a couple of weeks in the highlands, it’s probably understandable that, randomly, places with Gaelic names still spring unsolicited into the consciousness, accompanied by mental images of a clarity which is almost harrowing. Ironically, the better the time enjoyed, the more acute the ache of nostalgia: this is the comedown to end all comedowns; this is what the highlands can do to you…

The Cairn Gorm wind (Sunday, August 7th, 2016): Winds were predicted and it was indeed a bit blustery in the Spey Valley; blustery but no more than that. After a low-key, settling-in day, we’d ventured to Cairn Gorm, intending to ascend via Sron An Aonaich, otherwise known as the ‘windy ridge’ route – appropriately, as it turns out – and explore some more circuitous descent options, with a view to avoiding the funicular and as much of the ski paraphernalia as possible.

Stepping out of the car at Coire Cas, it was immediately apparent that conditions were a little bit more severe than blustery. As we raised the tailgate a number of items of clothing were plucked from the boot and distributed around the car park. With everything retrieved, an impromptu meeting agreed – unanimously, which is a rarity! – that heading for the tops today would be neither enjoyable or sensible.

It turned out to be a wise decision: later in the day, a record gust for the month of August was recorded by the Cairngorm weather station – a short stroll away from the summit cairn. (From the BBC website): “Met Office meteorologist Stuart Brooks said the wind speed on top of Cairngorm in the Highlands had so far reached 115mph and the weather station there was on track to note the highest gust ever recorded in summer”.

The midges of Glen Einich (Sunday, August 14th, 2016): We love the hills, and being out on them; but sometimes we just like to look at them from beneath. This could be just an excuse for the lazier days, of which we are also quite fond, but there’s no denying Scotland does have some very inviting glens. Glen Einich for one: a walk-in framed on its western side by the buttresses of Sgoran Dub Mor and Sgor Gaoith, with the corries of Braeriach to the east and, when it eventually comes into view, the blank headwall of Coire Odhar. Oh, and of course, there’s Loch Einich.

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The looming presences of Sgoran Dub Mor and Sgor Gaoith, heading into Glen Einich

These are the places where it’s good to pause, reflect, and feel that particular sensation unique to the Scottish highlands; unique at least as far as the UK goes. Uneasy but not in an unpleasant way is the best explanation I can offer; a certain acknowledgement of scale on a number of levels – the physical scale of the mountains themselves of course; but also the timescales represented by those mountains, which will endure long after we, as a species, have become a footnote to their history.

I’m no mystic, but I do believe that on a certain level the genuinely wild landscapes communicate with us: come in here with attitude and you’ll likely come unstuck; don’t take liberties and maybe you’ll be okay – but there are no guarantees. And there would be no point in arguing back – mountains don’t debate!

DSC08507Anyway, to the midges… and maybe, like the mountains, they will endure us as a species; I think they probably will. We’d progressed, largely untroubled, up to the point where the track splits and the lower path descends to closely shadow the river (Am Beanaidh), with the right-hand fork gradually climbing clear of the valley floor. It was here that they sprang their ambush – rising from the ground, descending from the sky, outflanking us and mocking our feeble attempts at defence; and all in the time it took us to make the decision – high or low? The little blighters have no interest in discussing surrender terms either.

Eventually we reached a high point, where the breeze seemed to thwart them a bit, and thereafter we mostly lost them – as long as we didn’t pause anywhere for too long – at least until we picked up a couple of patrols on the return leg, still keen for one last bite.

Edinburgh and the Highland Chieftain (Monday, August 15th, 2016): We’re all pretty fond of Edinburgh, particularly the astonishing variety of landscape to be found within the boundaries of a city. And we also all like a ride on a train…

P1160559Having established that even the walk-up return fares from Kingussie were surprisingly reasonable, we turned up at the station and booked for an out and back trip on Virgin Trains East Coast service,  a train which goes by the name of The Highland Chieftain and eventually ends its journey at either London Kings Cross or Inverness. One surprise was that using the ‘Chieftain’ – a refurbished High Speed Train (Inter-city 125 in old money) – in both directions was actually cheaper than the alternative Abellio/Scotrail option, travelling by 3-car DMU. We enjoyed a nicely turned-out train – even on the northbound return, by which time it was several hours into its journey – with plenty of room and good seats in both directions. This doesn’t make me a convert to the idea of a privatised railway, and anyway the Mark 3 coaching stock dates back to BR days and could show a Pendolino a thing or two when it comes to seating pitch and window alignment.

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Viewed from the train: early morning, low cloud rolling over the hills of Drumochter

Despite closely shadowing the A9 for a a sizeable part of the route, the train gives a much different perspective; particularly to someone who would usually be the driver. Passing Dalwhinnie, there was time to savour the view down Loch Ericht towards Ben Alder, looking massive even at this distance. Somewhere south and east of Drumochter, possibly around Killiecrankie, the highland wildness finally concedes its stranglehold, merging into the fertile prosperity of Perthshire and, for a while, we were back in familiar territory around Pitlochry and Dunkeld, rattling over the iron viaduct near to Dalguise. Away from the fractious and overcrowded peak-time commuter trains – which are an altogether different experience –  it’s a great way to travel.

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Looking along Princes Street from Calton Hill

We had 5 hours in the city: a little more would have been nice but, as we already knew our way around, we were able to make the most of the time available. August in Edinburgh means Fringe, and negotiating The Royal Mile felt like the most tiring walking of the entire fortnight.

There and back, we spent roughly as long on the train as we did in the city. Not once did the journey seem to drag, not even for a second and not in either direction. In fact we were all visibly downcast as the northbound service passed through Newtonmore and began to slow.

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Sadly, all good things have to come to an end – holidays, train journeys…

The birds (various dates and locations): What follows is nothing more than a sequence of disproportionately fortunate encounters, which will probably never be repeated during a single fortnight. That’s all there is to it: no claims of expertise or meticulous planning; just sheer dumb luck.

Two young cuckoos being fed, in plain sight, by a pair of warblers at Achlean – mentioned here

An impromptu pause at Loch Morlich roadside, where a firecrest – a bird I’d expected to go my whole life without ever seeing – worked its way through the foliage until it was a few feet from the passenger side windows, while the three of us sat as motionless as is humanly possible

Two golden eagles – one in Glen Feshie, the other, a few days earlier, barely into Glen Einich – and neither at a time of day when you would generally be optimistic. In the case of the Glen Einich one, we were no more than a couple of paces from stepping out from the tree cover – and almost inevitably spooking the bird – when we spotted it, drifting at not much more than tree height. As it was, we got to see it circle a few times before heading off towards the west. The Glen Feshie eagle was being mobbed by a flock of smaller birds and was distracted enough not to notice us for a while. Neither sighting would have lasted longer than about 15-20 seconds but – having only ever having seen about three or four in my whole life –  I don’t recall ever seeing a golden eagle for more than a few seconds.

We have, over the years, squinted at the tree line, trying to work out exactly where a cuckoo’s call might be coming from; never with any luck. We’ve similarly scanned skylines and hillsides, hoping to pick up the dark shape or shadow of an eagle in flight. Perhaps the occasional unlikely stroke of luck is nature’s trade-off for the fruitless hours.

Meall a’ Bhuachaille (Saturday, August 13th, 2016): For years we did this hill a disservice; an error of omission. We now try to make time for it whenever we’re in the area; the views are exceptional, it can easily be fitted into a part-day, and the summit shelter is sufficiently ‘wraparound’ to protect against everything other than a full-on northerly (there has to be a gap somewhere!). While we were taking advantage of the protection, a couple of young lads arrived who had run to the summit from Glenmore Lodge, via Ryvoan bothy; after all of 30 seconds, one said “Ready?”, the other nodded, and off they went in the direction of the next top – Creagan Gorm. We could only wonder, and wish them well

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Lochan Uaine from Meall a’ Bhuachaille

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Looking back down the track on Meall a’ Bhuachaille; Ryvoan bothy is just visible below.

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Hillsides virtually stripped of trees – lynx needed!

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Curtains of rain moving across Loch Morlich.

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Bynack More from Meall a’ Bhuachaille

It’s probably a consequence of its distinctive shape and position at the head of the Ryvoan pass, but Meall a’ Bhuachaille – despite keeping company with much loftier neighbours – seems to be in view from most of Strathspey. We began to wonder whether Meall a’ Bhuachaille might be Gaelic for “visible from everywhere” but apparently it translates as ‘The hill of the herdsman’.

[Below] Meall a’ Bhuachaille and neighbours from… actually, I’m not sure. Probably (top to bottom): Glen Einich; Whitewell; somewhere else…

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So that’s it for reflections until next time.

Which can’t come soon enough.