The Devil’s Penis

Munros since diagnosis #164 and #165

10:45 – Carn a’ Mhaim (M095), 3402ft, 1037m

14:00 – The Devil’s Penis (M130), 3294ft, 1004m

Legend has it that during one of her visits to Deeside, when Queen Victoria asked a ghillie the name of the striking, mountainous protuberance of sheer cliffs and glistening slabs at the south west entrance to the Lairig Ghru, he checked with a beater and then decided to spare the blushes of all present, offering Her Majesty a figurative translation of the local Gaelic and thereby sanitising future maps of any reference to Bod an Deamhain, or the penis of the demon.

When viewed from Upper Deeside, it is indeed a significant intrusion of sharp pointy rock, and when seen from further south in winter, its stark black crags stand out against the rounded white of the Cairngorm plateaux. From above it is a lot less imposing; its dark summit is hardly higher than the bealach that separates it from the mighty Cairn Toul, and the mountain seems hardly worthy of inclusion in Munro’s tables.

The first time I saw the Devil’s Penis was on the Sunday immediately after Margaret Thatcher entered Downing Street for the first time. Ill-equipped and lacking any experience at all I decided, after the result of the election was becoming apparent that this would be the moment to make my first solo journey into the hills, with a walk from Blair Atholl to Aviemore. All went well until the end of the second day, when I hit a blizzard at The White Bridge.

There, I met a man who wanted to make sure I had a tent with me, for my plans to reach Corrour Bothy were bound to be thwarted by these deteriorating conditions. I like to think of this man as my future self, not berating me for being so stupid and naive but rather warning me with a few well chosen words about the severity of Cairngorm weather.

Not that anything anybody might have said to me then, aged only nineteen, would have made the slightest bit of difference. But the fact that I remember this now despite only vague recollection of the rest of the journey, is perhaps significant, for, as light faded and snow piled high on the heather, I did indeed need to pitch my tent, long before I reached the bothy. In the morning, with clouds clearing, I carried on, stubbornly believing I would make it through the Lairig Ghru, oblivious to my ignorance of what I was doing.

There in front of me, one prominent peak, darkly dominating the smooth landscape of snow all around, glistening in the morning sun, inexorably representing my failure. For I was exhausted and could now see ahead that the route up and over into Speyside was deep with snow and would become a great deal more challenging than this. I was out of my depth. So I turned round and walked all the way back to The White Bridge and then to The Linn of Dee and on to Braemar where I found a phone box and called my parents to ask if they would rescue me.

With the construction by Marr Lodge Estate (and others) of so many miles of mountain paths and tracks through the Cairngorms National Park, access to this vast wilderness is a much easier than it was thirty-nine years ago. Technical clothing has improved, boots are now waterproof and rucksacks comfortable, going into the mountains is more common, mountain bikes exist. I have a car.

I parked at Linn of Dee, paid the fee and was cycling towards Glen Lui just before nine. My bike took me as far as the ford over Luibeg Burn, after which a good mountain path, resembling in some sections a newly laid staircase, took me to the top of Carn a’ Mhaim. From parking to summit in less than two hours!

It was extremely windy though, so I did not tarry, continuing north in search of shelter along the only bit of ground in the Cairngorms bearing any kind of resemblance to a ridge. Happily this is no narrow arête for the wind continued to buffet and knock me off balance.

Where the shoulder of Ben Macdui rises into grey and red boulder fields, a path slants back south towards Glen Dee. Before the descent, I found shelter from the wind at last under an overhanging rock, with views of the southern reaches of the Lairig Ghru, Braeriach and Cairn Toul with Devil’s Penis a minor spur, framed by the roof of the overhang.

The going down was initially steep, following the climber’s path that has never been marked on OS maps, until joining the manicured track through the Lairig Ghru. I stopped for lunch at Corrour, under a bunting of Tibetan prayer flags, then walked up the steepening path to the zigzags and out onto the flat bealach from which the summit of The Devil’s Penis is but a short step. The wind was fierce and carrying spatters of drizzle, threatening more substantial rainfall. The views from here in all directions are splendid and despite being but the northern most spur of a much larger massif, the highest point is next to a 500 meter drop, while the shoulder of Cairn Toul rises only gradually, so it feels like a separate summit.

I was back at Corrour within two hours of leaving, where I met a mother and daughter on their way to Blair Atholl from Aviemore, contemplating staying here for the night, since there looked to be a change coming in the weather. They had travelled all the way from south of London, for the first time visiting the Cairngorms after many years walking through the north west highlands, and were full of questions. I answered as best I could and realised that I know these mountains very well.

After the first failure to walk through the Cairngorms all those years ago, I did not give up. Every opportunity I got, even when I was living abroad, I ventured deep into their hidden places, walked through their glens from many starting points, slept in all of their bothies, and climbed to most of their summits. Since the diagnosis I have now climbed all but one of their Munros, with only Cairngorm itself left to be ticked off.

I find it impossible to describe what these mountains mean to me. Thinking about it at all, I well up, unwilling to be overwhelmed, not quite ready to know. These are long undisturbed emotions; and these mountains are the oldest of my friends, they have been here for me through thick and thin, for nearly forty turbulent and challenging years. Always I have found refuge here, with my tent somewhere on the plateaux, in a corrie or by a burn in a glen, or just walking among these vast lumps of Scotland that protrude into the Artic, dodging the foul, life-threatening weather they can create in an instant, at all times of year.

I was mindful of this after leaving Corrour as the wind blew stronger and the cloud thickened. It is a bleak, exposed path between Upper Deeside and Glen Luibeg and I was suffering a little from a stubbed toe. But the wind was at my back and the rain held off. I was glad that I brought my bike, for it made the final stretch both fun and swift and probably cut off three hours from the trip. I was back at the car a wee bit after five and home before eight.

Thirty nine years is a long time. More than two thirds of my life. Everything has changed since then; in the mountains there are more trees, fewer deer, better paths, less snow, more people; that naive confused young man became a cynical confused old man, divested of delusions of what to expect from life, of the promises of those purporting to speak on behalf of us all and to act for the common good, and yet still hankering after meaning or purpose, still wandering in mountains, seeking refuge from unreason, indifference and delusion.

When I was nineteen I still believed, as I had been brought up to believe, that I would be cared for from the cradle to the grave by a benevolent welfare state. That morning, thirty nine years ago, was the opening betrayal of that promise. The great social democratic experiment in this country was coming to an end; the political classes became more openly venal, incapable of distinguishing self interest from the common good, convinced, without the least critical reflection by neoliberal ideologies, that as long as they themselves became wealthy, then everybody else would benefit.

Climbing all the way to top of the Devil’s Penis now, after so many years living with it as a potent symbol of my inability to complete what I set out to do, shows me how easy it has become for me to complete exactly what I set out to do, with almost military precision, the only difference being that my goals are based on realistic possibilities rather than idealistic hopes, all of which arise from this profound experience of connecting with the land, these mountains, my old friends.

Author: Duncan Spence

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

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