Going into the mountains after all

After deciding last Friday not to do what I had wanted to because the weather had suddenly turned shite, I woke up on Saturday to weather that was not really very shite at all. Still, I had a yearning to head for the hills and decided just to take the car to where I had been planning to take it, and instead of doing what I had planned, to go for a walk up the glen and see what opportunities might present themselves, see what the weather turned out to be like and to explore the area in preparation for bagging its many Munros in the future.

I arrived at the road end at about three-thirty. It was a fine afternoon. A man with binoculars told me he had seen pipits, ravens and a buzzard. And two women wanted to know where I was going to camp, what I would be eating, whether I slept well alone in the mountains, whether the weather put me off. I told them I was going to put up my tent wherever I could find a flat bit of well-drained ground somewhere by the burn up the glen, beyond the last farm buildings, that I would be eating rice with vegetables, crackers, nuts and dried fruit, that I like to sleep out with only the sound of the weather and the burn to occupy my attention while I rest and meditate.


About two hours later I made camp on a little moraine by a burn coming down from the south east shoulder of Creag Mhor. A little while after that it started raining. It rained all through the night and into the next morning. I was warm and dry in my tent, listening to the noises of the mountains, reflecting and seeking inner peace. At about midday on Sunday I clothed myself against the weather, loaded up with a few supplies and went for a walk up the glen. I did not know where I was going, nor what I was going to do. It had stopped raining though, but it was still gloomy and dreich. The clouds were hanging below the mountain tops.


This is a glen that is, like many in Scotland, ripe for repopulation. People lived here for centuries without the benefits of modern technologies and infrastructures. There is no reason why they cannot do so now. The estate and Hydro Board roads and tracks could be easily improved and extended over the pass into Glen Lyon and all the way through to Crianlarich. The outlines of shielings can be seen at many places, there is plenty stable land where new buildings could be constructed, good grazing on the lowers slopes of the surrounding mountains, and on the upper slopes a recently planted forest of assorted indigenous trees, fenced in against grazing. People could live here easily.  While contemplating these things and walking towards the pass to Strath Fillan, I looked up to the left and saw a stalker’s path zig-zaging to a bealach between two hills and above that the ridge to the top of Meall Glas. The clouds were lifting. I could see the summit and that I could quite easily walk there.

The sides of the mountains in this area are grassy and easy to traverse, but they are often steep, and when they are sodden with rain and melting snow, they can be very slippery. I reached the end of the stalker’s track and began to see the extent of the mountains that contain this glen. They are impressive. I shall certainly be coming back here. I plodded up the side of the mountain and got to the top in good time, where there were views South over to Bredalbane and Ben More, West to Ben Challuim, North to Creag Mhor, Beinn Heasgarnaich and Glen Lyon, and East to Sgiath Chuil and Meal nan Tarmachan. Awesome!

This is the 39th Munro I have climbed since I was diagnosed with cancer. I did not set out to climb it. It just happened that while I was out for a walk, I got to the top of a mountain. I returned by the same route back to my tent. As soon as I got inside, it started to rain again. But I was warm and dry inside, with plenty of food and the noises of the mountains to occupy my attention. At one point in the middle of the night, nature called, so I emerged into the darkness to answer it and saw stars twinkling between thin clouds moving past. In the morning it started to rain again, so I packed up and walked back down the glen to the car. It rained all the way, the cloud was right down. The colours of the grasses and trees are always more vibrant and dense when it is raining.

Back at the road end, I read through a notice that explains to visitors what this land is, how it is managed, what sorts of animals and birds live here and why there is a newly planted forest of indigenous trees. The glen is used to graze cattle and sheep. When the new forest is mature it will serve as the upper border of grazing land and provide cover for wildlife. During the stalking season, as on estates in every part of Scotland, very rich people pay a lot of money to kill the red deer who live in the upper corries. The Scottish canned hunting industry is usually overshadowed in the popular imagination by the obscenely rich killing giraffes and lions in Africa. It is nevertheless well established, and, as information boards at road-ends and on mountain paths all over the country proudly attest, it is the mainstay of the highland economy, it provides employment and serves a vital ecological function by culling an animal that otherwise has no natural predators.

Of course, that things are at the moment as they are, that the economy of the Scottish mountains is dependent on rough grazing and canned hunting, does not mean that there might not be other ways of doing things. At the moment only two permanent shepherds work the farm at the centre of this estate. As it states explicitly on the information board:

“The farming here is really a continuation of the extensive sheep farming that replaced the shielings system in the latter part of the 18th century.”

Once again I am taken aback by the extent to which one of the most violent and repressive episodes of Scottish history is sanitised for tourists and visitors, and glossed over with marketing speak about what a great job the highland estates are doing. People used to live in this glen in little houses called shielings, but were cleared from the land to make way for sheep because sheep were more profitable and because the ancient highland cultures were a threat to the British crown. This is the first modern example of what during recent years has come to be known as ethnic cleansing – deliberate efforts made by a political power to destroy a people and their culture. The continuing existence of this cleansed land is testament to our collective blind spot. There really is no reason at all why many more people could not return to live in the glens and to build communities together. There is no reason at all why there should not be libraries, tradespeople, pubs, community centres, hospitals, retreats, care facilities, and any manner dwelling spaces for all kinds of family and domestic arrangements. No reason why new roads should not be built and state of the art power and communication infrastructures not be laid down. No reason why lots of people could not build lives here.

But actually …. there is one very good reason: the land is owned by oligarchs, aristocrats, pension funds, hospitality conglomerates, absentee landlords, hedge funds, or dodgy holding companies registered in one of Madge’s little tax havens, and is expected always to generate profit. It is the usual capitalist calculation; the fewer people required to work, the greater the profit. The stupidity of history, of our complicity in its lumbering processes, is to believe that things must carry on being as they are because that is the way they are and this is good, that this is the only way of maintaining the land and of caring for our heritage. For as long as we defer like sheep to capital and its bland hagiographies, we will never know what this land could provide for us. All of us.

It continued raining all the way back to the city. I was very pleased that I had accidentally climbed another Munro and done some important reconnaissance work for further trips to this glen. Sometimes not doing things according to plan works out for the best.

Author: Duncan Spence

Mountaineer, retired bicycle messenger, philosopher, wordsmith, proofreader, Dutch translator.

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