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The Buachaille Etive Mor from the Rannoch Moor

SCOTLAND sparkled in a late winter high-pressure system. I felt as though I’d be waiting weeks for such a day on this long and drawn-out winter. The sky was cloudless when I left Newtonmore to drive west to Glen Coe but the temperature was well below zero. Everything was covered in a blanket of frozen snow and although the amount of snow on the hills was deceptive (much of it had fallen in a high winds and had been blown off) it all looked quite Alpine.

There was sun a-plenty in Glen Coe, but no snow – thankfully the West had escaped the blizzards that had swept the eastern highlands earlier in the week. I’m not a great lover of snow. Ice axes and crampons and stiff boots are all necessary evils when there is snow on the hills and I much prefer to travel as light as I can.

So, with the hill bare of the white stuff I left my ice-axe in the car and headed towards the steep, grassy slopes of Beinn a’ Chrulaiste, a well placed Corbett that forms the minor part of the portal to Glen Coe as you approach from the south. Its neighbour, the higher and infinitely more impressive Buachaille Etive Mor, was attracting a fair number of climbers and hill-walkers, but on this day of days I wanted to gaze towards the bigger hills, rather than gaze down from them.

On the drive over to Glen Coe I had decided this wasn’t a day for big ascents, long distances or anything as mundane as peak-bagging! This was a day to dawdle on the heights, maybe to snooze in the sun, take lots of photographs and simply wonder at the majesty of it all.

The Buachaille Etive Mor, or at least its Stob Dearg peak that gazes down on the A82, never fails to invoke this deep sense of wonder. It bursts through the thin skin of the earth and thrusts upwards on sheer flanks of rock for over two thousand feet, its ridges, ribs and buttresses separated by deep gullies. It rears upwards with more boldness and aggression than any of its neighbours and from the slopes of Beinn a’ Chrulaiste its near presence is almost intimidating.

Beinn a’ Chulaiste is well placed for appreciating the Buachaille, but before I describe the hill it might be good to get its pronunciation sorted out. Try ‘bin a kroo-lastyer’. It means ‘rocky hill’ but it’s not nearly as rocky as it’s higher neighbour across the glen.

Glen Coe hills from Beinn na Chrulaiste

After a stiff climb up from Altnafeadh, I stopped for a while on the summit of Stob Beinn a’ Chrulaiste, settled down beside a rock, sipped coffee and just gazed across at the Buachaille’s profile. Crowberry Tower rose from the steep flanks and below it D Gully Buttress showed its face to the sun. Out of sight from here was the dark face of the Rannoch Wall but I could, if I squinted against the sun, see into the steep, deep and dark recess of Raven’s Gully. An involuntary shudder ran down my spine at the memory of it, a dank and icy place where I once severely overstretched myself…

Chilled, I moved on up the tilted plateau that leads to the summit trig point of Beinn a’ Chrulaiste at 2811ft. While the close views to the Buachaille were impressive the longer distance views were no less imposing. I can’t think of a better viewpoint in the whole of the central highlands. Below me the A82 snaked its way through the narrow defile of the Pass of Glen Coe, the Three Sisters rising sheer on one side and the slopes of the Aonach Eagach on the other. West and north a long line of snow dusted peaks ranged along the horizon, the Mamores and the Grey Corries with the crouching dome of Ben Nevis looking down on all of them. The Loch Trieg hills looked whiter than the rest and beyond Ben Alder the Monadh Liath hills and the distant Cairngorms were sparkling white. Closer at hand Schiehallion rose from the flats of Rannoch like, as John Buchan famously put it, “a skerry of the sea.”

At my feet the Blackwater Reservoir stretched its narrow profile deep into the heart of the Rannoch Moor and further south more lochs and lochans sparkled from this great expanse of watery wilderness. It’s been said that you could drop the entire Lake District National Park into the Rannoch Moor and still have some space around the edges. And it is the most extraordinary place, a huge region of knolls, rocks, splattered pools and blanket bog, a flat, tussocky wilderness so level that you can walk in a straight line for 10 miles between the 950 and 1000-foot contours.

In shape the Rannoch Moor resembles a great inverted triangle with its points being Loch Tulla, the Kingshouse Inn and Loch Rannoch. Its northern boundary is Stob na Cruaiche and the high ground south of the Blackwater Reservoir, and to the west it’s bounded by the great wall of mountain that makes up the eastern fringe of the Blackmount Deer Forest. The south-eastern boundary is another huge escarpment, the Wall of Rannoch, which is made up of Beinn an Dothaidh, Beinn Achaladair and Beinn a’ Chreachain and the lower hills which run north-eastwards to Loch Rannoch.

On the ascent of Beinn a’ Chrulaiste I had anticipated lying in the sun with my binoculars focussed on the crags, ridges and gullies of the Buachaille but instead I cooried down above the hill’s Coire Bhalach and trained my glasses on the flatness of the Moor. So often we draw on the dramatic scale of our mountains and wild areas to appreciate something of man’s insignificance, and just occasionally we can be audacious enough to believe that we can conquer it, or tame it for our advantage.

One particularly ambitious project was tackled in 1763 when Ensign James Small, the government factor to the then forfeited estate of Struan Robertson, tried to drain part of the Rannoch Moor, an area recognised today as one of the wettest and soggiest places in Scotland.

With the assistance of some soldier-cum-navvies, he dug a row of five trenches on a remote plot of land on the south eastern edge of the Moor , his intention being to “drain and sweeten the soil”. Not surprisingly, little came of the project. I suspect it didn’t take long for the Soldier’s Trenches, as the plot came to be known, to fill with sphagnum moss and bog-water and today all that can be seen of the project is an area of livid green corrugations, about three miles south of Rannoch Station.

While we have to admire the bold ensign’s ambition, his project falls into relative insignificance when compared to the dream of building a railway across the moor. This project taxed the great engineers of the day and eventually, as a solid testament to man’s enterprise, the track was laid on a bed of floating brushwood, (a fact that probably escapes most travellers today as they wake up to a Rannoch dawn on the night sleeper from Euston) along the south-eastern margin of the moor before turning north to cross extremely boggy ground to Rannoch Station and then beyond to Corrour and Loch Treig.

Despite the unqualified success of the railway the inner recesses of the moor remain inviolate. Certainly the A82 road crosses the western reaches of the Moor, but between that line and the railway is an enormous tract of land that is well worth a visit.

The great void of the Rannoch Moor

I’ve crossed the Moor a number of times throughout the years and I’ve always been thrilled by the solitude you can experience there. But not everyone enjoys that kind of emptiness. In 1792 the Rev John Lettice, later chaplain to the Duke of Hamilton wrote of the Moor: “An immense vacuity, with nothing in it to contemplate, unless numberless mis-shapen blocks of stone rising hideously above the surface of the earth, would be said to contradict the inanity of our prospects.” Lettice’s sentiments convey his enmity with such a landscape, but I find it immensely appealing, an empty quarter where the spirit can soar in unfettered abandon. I find it moving and I find it humbling.

For a fairly substantial taster that offers a pretty full flavour of the place, try this walk. From the building site that is currently the Kingshouse Hotel on the Moor’s north west corner follow the track eastwards and north-eastwards past Black Corries Lodge. A new track has been bulldozed around the back of the Lodge. Two to three miles beyond the path fizzles out and although the OS map suggests there is a footpath I’ve never found it! Nevertheless, the going isn’t too hard and for all the Moor has a reputation for being a huge quaking bog the going is reasonably dry underfoot. Continue on a rough easterly bearing to the old ruin of Tigh na Cruaiche, high above the northern shores of Loch Laidon. From there, climb north beside the Allt Riabhach na Bioraich, steeply at first then flattening out before a final steeper slope leads to the superb viewpoint of Stob na Cruaiche.

Here, high above the saucer-like Moor, you get a real sensation of being hemmed in by great mountains on three sides. Only to the east is there any sense of space, an astonishing perception when you consider you’re in the midst of 60 square miles of flatness.

With the Blackmount and Etive hills beckoning, head west now along a broad and rocky ridge to Stob nan Losgann and then onto a broad and featureless subsidiary which has a track running across it. Follow the track past Lochan Meall a’ Phuill to Black Corries Lodge and your outward trail back to Kingshouse. It’s a big day of some 17 miles/28k, but it will make you a Rannoch convert. Can a moor offer the same attributes of spaciousness and isolation as our highest mountains? The Moor of Rannoch can.

It was time to move. Descending the hill’s south-east ridge towards what’s left of the old Kingshouse Inn (the old building has been demolished and is being replaced by a new building, much to the dismay of traditionalsists) was like dropping down into a huge void – the openness, spaciousness and flatness of the moor, surrounded by distant walls of mountain, was simply breathtaking.

If you try this route up and down Beinn a’ Chrulaiste don’t be tempted into descending directly towards the junction of the Kinghouse road with the West Highland Way. It may be the logical direction but the south slopes of Beinn a’Chrulaiste are extremely steep and more rocky than the map suggests, so make for the Allt a’Bhalaich burn, and follow it down to the road. It’s a long walk back to the starting point but you’ll be walking in the shadow of the Buachaille and by the time you reach Altnafeadh you, like me, might just be convinced that this Great Herdsman of Etive is a mountain without equal, a giant amongst Scotland’s grand hills.

This feature first appeared in the Scots Magazine

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