Lochnagar and Gelder Shiel Stable bothy from Balmoral
Why do it? An adventurous round of Lochnagar’s awe-inspiring north-east corrie from Gelder Shiel Stable, with grandstand views of the crags towering over the loch that gives the mountain its name
Distance 13 miles; 6.5-8 hours over two days (in summer conditions)
Rising nobly above Royal Deeside, on the edge of the sprawling Mounth plateau, Lochnagar is one of the most celebrated hills in the Cairngorms. The mountain is the focal point of the southern quarter of this vast, protected region, its most prominent feature a huge amphitheatre of fractured granite buttresses that inspired Byron’s rousing 1807 poem, Lachin Y Gair.
From the crossroads at Easter Balmoral (57.0325, -3.2129), head up past the estate cottages, through the dark woods of the Dubh-chlais, and out on to the grouse moor below Lochnagar. Gelder Shiel Stable is hidden in a small stand of ancient Caledonian pines, directly across from a hunting lodge commissioned by Queen Victoria – the three miles will take about 90 minutes. The bothy has bunk beds, a woodburning stove and an outside loo.
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After stowing your overnight bag, pack a day sack and set out across the undulating, heather-clad moraines that sweep down from the corrie of Lochnagar (the seven-mile round trip will take about five hours). When the track abruptly stops, continue on a faint trail that plots a steady course up towards the high crags. Off-piste, away from the crowds, you become accustomed to the startled cries of black grouse as they shoot skywards from the undergrowth, and the sight of mountain hares dashing between the boulders piled up before the coire lip. Suddenly the dark, curving lochan appears, and above it the imposing crags. The breathtaking scale of the scene is only truly evident if there are climbers on the rock face. Since the early days of Scottish mountaineering, the vertiginous crags have attracted a succession of hardy mountaineers.
From the outflow of the Lochnagar Burn, climb to the bealach (pass) south of Meikle Pap, looking back for spectacular views of the coire, which quickly feels a world away. Now pick up the well-worn trail leading up from Glen Muick and traverse the edge of the cliffs to the summit, Cac Carn Beag. On a clear day, a splendid panorama unfolds: Ben Macdui and the central Cairngorm plateau are steadfast in the north-west, while the huge whaleback of Beinn a’Bhùird and the distinctive tors of Ben Avon dominate the skyline above Deeside.
To complete the circular walk back to Gelder Shiel, descend steeply north-west to a bealach (pass) then follow the stream down to the corrie of Lochnagar and seek out the path back to the bothy. Settle in for the night, before the leisurely walk back to Balmoral the following morning.
• Open all year. Contact the Balmoral Estate (01339 742534) before planning a trip between 1 September and 20 October
Suilven and Suileag bothy from Glencanisp Lodge
Why do it? This is one of Scotland’s finest mountain walks, stopping off at Suileag bothy, under Suilven’s formidable sandstone buttresses. There are wonderful views from the summit dome over Assynt’s rugged peaks and ribbon lochs
Distance 12 miles; 6-8 hours over two days
It is easy to be seduced by any of Assynt’s distinctive sandstone peaks, but the striking monolith of Suilven (Sulr Bheinn, or Pillar Mountain) and the thrill of its spectacular summit panorama have inspired their fair share of prose, poetry and song. Scottish bard Norman MacCaig wrote about both the toil of the ascent and the reward of the views in his poem Climbing Suilven. Battle-scarred by successive waves of glaciation, the hills here are unique in Scotland, enshrined within its first geopark, which was given Unesco status in 2006. Although guarded by formidable, intimidating buttresses, the dome of Suilven’s western summit, Caisteal Liath, is far easier to climb than it might appear. Starting from the walkers’ car park on the road to Glencanisp Lodge from Lochinver (58.1463, -5.2182), Suileag bothy is a 2½-mile hike (about 90 mins).
Once through the estate buildings, take the stalkers’ path just beyond Loch Druim Suardalain and out on to the open moor. The turn to Suileag bothy is marked by a cairn and soon comes into view. Named from the Gaelic for “little eye” or “loop”, it’s a long, single-storey stone cottage with an impressive view of Suilven from the front door. There’s room for half a dozen people, so if you arrive early, bag a space on one of the sleeping platforms for your return after the day’s climb.
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From the bothy, head towards the foot of Suilven and climb the steep slope to Bealach Mòr. The anticipation builds as you approach the summit ridge, and the view does not disappoint. The sweeping profiles of Cùl Mòr, Stac Pollaidh and Ben More Coigach stretch off to the south, beyond the mesmerising curves of Fionn Loch and Loch Sionasgaig, while to the north, there are tantalising glimpses of Foinaven and Ben Hope beyond Quinag’s complex ridgeline. Turn west through a gap in a drystone dyke and up on to the summit dome, the view of protected wilderness expanding with every stride. There are a couple of rock steps to negotiate, but nothing too hard. At 731 metres, Suilven’s summit is relatively low, but it punches well above its weight. Return triumphant to the bothy, retracing your steps down the slope, and settle in for a night by the fire (the seven-mile round trip should take about five hours) or continue to the car park if you’re heading home. Whatever the weather, this is an unforgettable expedition.
• Suileag bothy is open all year round, but closed from 6-13 June for a work party. Loch fishing by permit only. Dogs not permitted. Further details at assynt-foundation.co.uk
Jura’s remote coastal bothies, Cruib and Ruantallain
Why do it? This three-day round trip takes in two beautiful bothies along the remote, uncompromising northern shore of Loch Tarbert on Jura. A haven for wildlife, this is among the finest landscapes in Scotland
Distance 17 miles; 12 hours over three days
The westward-facing seaboard of Jura has been sculpted into a procession of quartzite cliffs, caves and raised beaches that are as remote and inaccessible as any in Scotland. A world away from Glasgow, but barely 50 miles as the crow flies, it is home to a large population of red deer and wild goats that roam the open moorland. Golden eagles and buzzards soar, and otters and grey seals share the rocky skerries. Traversing this untamed coastline is a true voyage of discovery.
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Arriving on the small vehicle ferry from Port Askaig on neighbouring Islay, follow the A846 round to Craighouse, and on past the rock-shattered slopes of the Paps of Jura, through the tiny hamlet of Tarbert. Park in the small layby just beyond a stand of conifers above Tarbert Bay (55.9787, -5.8397). Monday to Saturday a regular bus from Feolin Ferry stops on request.
Head west across the mudflats at the outflow of Loch Tarbert, and negotiate a patchwork of peat bog and tussock grass down to the coast, using intermittent deer tracks. Jura derives its name from the Old Norse for “deer island” – and the local herd significantly outnumber humans. Finally, spy Cruib bothy, in the corner of a secret cove, about three hours after you set off (the walk is 3¾ miles). Expertly renovated in 2012, the bothy’s communal room would not look out of place in a hostel, with a sleeping platform, armchairs and a heaving bookshelf above the fireplace.
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Suitably rested, set out on a circular day trip to Ruantallain bothy. Pick up a track leading west over the moor and on to the promontory, where the bothy lies behind a low bluff in a show-stopping location. The view south is framed by Loch Tarbert and the Paps of Jura, and from the point there is a rare view of Colonsay, last stop before Newfoundland. Wildlife is plentiful. Along with the red deer and wild goats, otters and grey seals are regular visitors, and shags and cormorants perch on the rocks.
Ruantallain (55.9772, -6.0004) is a throwback to a bygone age, crammed full of antique furniture and crockery left from the 1950s, and lit only by a tiny, south-facing window. You could stay here a night too, but it is far easier to explore the coast unencumbered with a heavy rucksack. Head back to Cruib via the coast, giving time to explore the numerous hidden caves and sweeping raised beaches (allow six hours for the 9½-mile round trip). After a second night, return reluctantly to civilisation.
• Deer-stalking takes place between July and February. Call Ruantallain Estate (01496 820287) for information on whether any routes are affected
Knoydart and the Rough Bounds via Sourlies bothy
Why do it? This is a daring expedition through superb hiking country, with an overnight stop at Sourlies, one of the most popular bothies in Scotland. And this remote, rugged terrain can be accessed via public transport
Distance 27 miles; 17 hours over two/three days
Renowned for its steep-sided peaks, deep lochs and wild, challenging terrain, the Rough Bounds boasts some of Scotland’s finest mountain scenery. And by happy coincidence it also has the highest concentration of bothies in the country. There are several possible through-routes linking these remote shelters, but this expedition is the pick of the bunch.
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Only accessible by boat or on foot, the tiny village of Inverie, on the western shore of the Knoydart peninsula, has a unique atmosphere. Arriving by ferry from the rail terminus at Mallaig, leave the day-trippers behind and walk through the village past the tempting pub (the Old Forge may be the most remote hostelry in mainland Britain) and out into the open glen. Now head along the Inverie River into Gleann Meadail, up over the saddle and down to the ghostly ruin at Carnoch.
Loch Nevis is soon within reach, where an obvious path climbs to higher ground then down to Sourlies bothy (56.9935, -5.5190), above the mud flats at the head of the loch (the 9¼ miles will take about six hours to complete). After the hard-earned walk in, there is a real sense of satisfaction as you soak in a fjord-like landscape that could be Norway or New Zealand.
This bothy is deservedly popular, though it is just a small, single-room shelter, so in the summer, be prepared to camp just outside.
If you are hoping to catch the evening train from Glenfinnan, you need to crack on in the morning. From Sourlies, head over the watershed into Glen Dessarry and down to A’Chuil bothy tucked away below a blanket of conifers on the far side of the glen (allow four hours for the five-mile hike). You could spend the night here, or just take a well-earned rest.
Continue round into Glen Pean and up to the Bealach a’ Chaorainn. Descend steeply to Corryhully bothy for a final pit stop. A few hundred yards before the main road, pass under the Glenfinnan Viaduct (better known these days as the Harry Potter bridge) and on to the railway station at Glenfinnan (about 13 miles and seven hours from Sourlies), taking in views of the northern end of Loch Sheil .
Returning on the train you feel a real sense of achievement. The walk is a challenging one for one night/two days, but using A’Chuil bothy means this can become a two-night/three-day adventure.
• Both bothies are open throughout the year. Keep to main paths during the stalking season (September-February)
Rannoch station to Corrour station via Ben Alder Cottage
Why do it? This is a classic two-day expedition through the vast upland moors of the central Highlands, staying overnight in the atmospheric and reputedly haunted bothy of Ben Alder Cottage
Distance 18.5 miles; 9-11 hours over two days
Since the 1920s, stravaigers (wanderers) and walkers have sought solitude in the empty quarter of the sprawling Grampian mountains, bounded by the West Highland Railway and the road over Drumochter Pass from Blair Atholl to Aviemore. Dominated by the Ben Alder plateau and the long, muscular arm of Loch Ericht, this remote region is notable for the absence of public roads, houses or people. This exceptional weekend expedition takes you into the heart of this brooding wilderness, utilising consecutive stops on the railway line.
Above a semicircular, lochside bay, Ben Alder Cottage has long had a reputation for being haunted, though this has not affected its popularity. The bothy is very comfortable, with bunk beds in a separate dormitory, as well as sleeping platforms in the two communal rooms.
From Rannoch station, there is a bookable minibus for the six-mile trip along the B846 to the start of the walk: a signposted forestry track half a mile beyond the turning to Bridge of Gaur (56.6866, -4.4399). Heading up through the fresh-scented spruce and out on to the open moor, you quickly earn your first glimpse of the undulating, granite-capped plateau in the far distance. This view becomes even more impressive as you reach the southern edge of Loch Ericht and begin the journey along the shore to the bothy. When the track stops, continue on an obvious trail that winds above the water’s edge before cutting inland to a rocky knoll, An Grianan. A little further on, cross the Alder Burn via a footbridge to arrive at the bothy. Ben Alder Cottage lies in the mountain’s shadow, a cheering sight after a solid few hours’ walking (expect the 8½ miles to take about five hours).
The cottage was originally named for deer forester Joseph McCook, who lived here with his family at the turn of the 20th century. Once he retired, the head stalker concocted some terrifying tales in an attempt to frighten away unwanted visitors who took refuge in the empty building. Though the stories had no factual basis, numerous yarns of seeing or hearing a ghost have been embellished over the years, even by such luminaries as climber and author WH Murray, who related a tale of the mysterious scraping of hobnail boots outside the cottage in his book Undiscovered Scotland.
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After (hopefully) a good night’s sleep, the walk will take you on to Corrour station for an evening train – allow six hours to cover the 10 miles. First, head up the stalkers’ path to the pass on the plateau’s southern flank, and descend to the Uisge Labhair river, which is clearly visible. After crossing the river, follow an obvious trail down to beautiful, tree-lined Loch Ossian. Continue round the loch and on to the station. The warm embrace of the Station House cafe is a fine reward for your endeavours (open from the end of March to the end of October) before you catch your train.
• Open all year with unrestricted access. During deer control (mid-August to 15 February) stick to paths where possible and use prominent ridges to access the hilltops. Ben Alder Estate: 01540 672000
Bothies are open shelters with no booking system or warden. Just turn up with all the items you would take camping, plus candles and fuel for the fire. Bothies have no facilities (gas, electricity or tap), but with a bit of initiative can become a cosy home from home. Many have sleeping platforms and woodburning stoves. Use fast-flowing streams for water. Hill walking in winter requires specialist equipment and experience. For the uninitiated, attending a winter skills course is essential before any unguided treks are attempted. Before setting out on any of these routes, be mindful of the forecast. The weather conditions can quickly deteriorate, making navigation particularly difficult, especially in winter.
Geoff Allan is author of Scottish Bothy Walks: Scotland’s 28 Best Bothy Adventures, published on 1 March (Wild Things Publishing, £16.99)
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