3rd to 6th July 2014
It was raining gently when I parked my old Dutch reg Volvo at Rannoch Station. It rained as I walked back along the road to where the path to Corrour Old Lodge slants gently northwest into the wilderness. It rained all along the path, and it was raining when I pitched my tent on the grass in front of the ruined buildings of the lodge. There were midges too, in great abundance. It was about four in the afternoon. I was tired and a bit low, having discovered along the way that my old raincoat was not as waterproof as it once was. So I climbed into my sleeping bag and dozed off.
A few hours later I awoke to the heat of the sun on the tent, opened up the flysheet and looked out onto the northern reaches of Rannoch Moor. The Blackwater Reservoir was shimmering, backdropped by pointy peaks, flanked to the north by Leum Uilleim. A tiny train rattled along the track towards Corrour Station, apart from this ruined lodge and the denatured landscape, the only other sign of human presence.
I laid out my wet things in the sun to dry and set about cooking supper. Behind me, above the old lodge buildings, was a gentle climb of little more than four hundred metres along the course of a burn onto a bealach, just to the south of what was going to be my first Munro after returning to live in Scotland with aggressive, incurable prostate cancer, and since surviving an intense course of focused radiotherapy. No longer was it necessary for me always to have immediate access to toilet facilities, the scarring of the organs and tissues surrounding my prostate was healing and excretory functions had returned to something akin to normal. The blood marker had dropped to next to zero. My fitness level was reasonable; I was keeping myself healthy with good food and exercise, and my confidence was returning. My core strength had not been much affected, either by the disease or by the radiotherapy.
Specific planning for this trip had been vague; until this sunshine I was not sure what my route was going to be. It was depressing enough trudging in the wet over heather and bog, along this ancient, badly maintained path, and I had no desire to ascend into cloud to the ridge to the east to get wetter still just so I could get to the top of a mountain. Which, under more clement circumstances, might have been a plan. Had I not come upon this grass by this ruined lodge I would have carried on to the shore of Loch Ossian for the night, and then walked northeast towards the turn on the path southeast to Alder Bay, where I was aiming to camp so I could ascend the mountain above without a heavy pack. I had food enough for three nights out, maybe four.
Ben Alder was my only real goal. I wanted to come at it from a new direction, having many years previously walked through from Dalwhinnie to Fort William past its precipitous northern buttresses. With this deisease, I had become accustomed to making choices about what to do with the rest of my time, and Ben Alder had been on my wishlist ever since I can remember. Always I wanted one day to climb it, even before I knew that the enormous lump of snow-filled corries west of Loch Ericht, clearly visible from the A9 corridor north of Dalwhinnie was called Ben Alder. Reports I had read described grassy pastures at three and a half thousand feet, impenetrable corries and steep access paths. A worthy focus for my initial ambition simply to get out again into the hills, while I still could.
For the rest of the evening and into the night I reacquainted myself with tent life; the little rituals and ordinary chores made necessary by lying on the ground insulated from the elements by technical equipment, aluminium tentpoles, goretex, down and windstopper. It had been many years since I had camped out in Scotland; in more recent years this little tent, or one very like it, had been pitched all over northwest Europe, and once on a cycle trip from Calgary through The Rockies to Seattle and Vancouver.
This particular tent was nevertheless reaching the end of its usefulness. It was not possible to sit up at the front and to look out, only to lean on an elbow and squint backwards, which was not what my body wanted to do as it approached the second half of its fifties. This was the most strangely shaped tent I have ever slept in, utterly asymmetrical, but oddly spacious and very light, useful on mammoth journeys by bike, but after the raincoat, it was next on the list of new things I would need for any future expeditions into the mountains. At this particular moment, I was still under the impression that my death was imminent, my mental life was still scarred from radiotherapy, my spirit weakened by a year or so of inactivity and recovery, not to mention the disease. I was unsure whether or not I would continue to pursue this outdoor thing, and had invested only in what was absolutely necessary, a new rucksack and a new pair of boots. For the rest, I was relying on stuff left over from travelling by bike in Europe, and stuff stored in the attic at my mother’s house.
I slept well that night, excited from time to time by looking out into starry summer skies, and arose early. I had forgotten the ferocity of midges until that moment. This was the most glorious morning of sunshine, burgeoning heat and wispy clouds. Insects and flowers, twittering birds, this grassy knoll, where burns from the ridge behind the lodge gurgle over rocks in little gullies through a slight pasture before spreading out into a morass downhill, a vast expanse of hags reaching into the headwaters of the Blackwater Reservoir. These fascinating ruins of a once well-appointed lodge with outhouses, stables and walled gardens, and this view of pointy peaks. I had forgotten how much more beautiful this country is on the inside, beyond the end of the road. At this moment though, I was entirely focused on moving about so as to create drafts sufficient to fend off midges, all the while eating muesli with almond milk and packing for the ascent.
It was hard work, through rough heather, following the burn. The sweat felt good though. I emerged smiling onto a rocky ridge from which it was a straightforward plod north to the summit of Carn Dearg, my first Munro with cancer. I sat for a while, took a couple photos and turned northeast towards Munro number two, Sgor Gaibhre, following an easy path through outcrops and over a minor boulder field to peaty pastures in a shallow bealach, followed by a long slow grassy trudge to the summit. Half way up I was overtaken by a group of six, firstly three young men and a few minutes later, three young women. When I arrived at the summit they were all sunning themselves and admiring the views. Somebody offered to take my photo, so I stood seriously with my arms folded in front of one of the few mountains I recognised – Ben Nevis. On the way to the next top, Sgòr Choinnich, I met a couple of ladies of my generation, one of whom suggested that bridges be built across such chasms as this to aid more mature walkers. It was a steep descent indeed, followed by a steep climb. From which there was another steep descent, all of which following the northern lip of a corrie, surrounded by dark crags and brutal cliffs, concealing a shallow lochan, dazzling in the summer sun.
At the next bealach, I decided I was fed up with all this up and down, that it was time to traverse the steep edge of Meall a’ Bhealaich towards Bac na Craoibhe – a shoulder that would lead gently east and down to my destination on the grassy shore of Loch Ericht by Benalder Cottage. It was not long before I remembered that traversing is not always as straightforward as might appear, particularly where there is deep heather growing through loose scree and boulders. The flatter route out along the floor of the corrie from the lochan was a mess of peat hags and squiggly rivers, totally out of the question, so I persevered until I found the flat of the shoulder, and also its boggy hags and mossy pools. Eventually there were also outcrops of rock where I could sit, rest and look out at my goal for the day. I tarried and snacked in the sunshine gazing down on my campsite, reluctant to leave to pitch my tent quite yet. I had no idea what time it was. There was not a cloud in the sky. It was warm.
Benalder Cottage nestles under the southeast corner of the Ben Alder massif, beside burns flowing into Loch Ericht; two coming off the bealach between Ben Alder and Beinn Bheòil, another flowing beside the stalker’s path that connects with the path to Corrour. There is a bit of ancient enclosed pasture garnished with tussocks of reed, a few straggly alder trees and evidence on the ground of more ancient habitation. The cottage has a reputation as one of the most haunted in the Highlands, and has been turned now into an open bothy for walkers. Many years previously on an overnight visit to an allegedly haunted bothy in Sutherland, I was aware immediately upon entering that I did not want to sleep in the room to the right, but found the room to the left most welcoming. So I was keen now to visit Benalder Cottage to see if there was any obvious odour of ghosts.
Hauntings are social phenomena, entirely reliant on stories. The most popular explanation for a ghostly presence at Benalder Cottage recalls the last permanent resident who is said to have hanged himself in the lobby. The truth is that the last resident had an attack of pneumonia and went to live in the lodge further up the loch, after which he retired and moved into a cottage in Dalwhinnie, where he died at a ripe old age. The story of the last resident’s suicide was no doubt made up by somebody at the estate to discourage poachers, or by poachers to frighten off others, and despite being debunked it has percolated into the climbing fraternity. Which does not of course mean that nobody ever hanged themselves in the lobby. This is a location with a long history, lying at the intersection of important paths through the glens. Stories persist of strange things happening in the night, music playing, doors banging, of visitors being so scared out of their wits they preferred to leave even in the midst of storms to pitch tents outside rather than endure a moment longer inside. There are other tales purporting to explain the unhappy presence and maintain the reputation of the place.
Of a woman, destitute, derelict and trapped in the bothy by a storm, who felt she had no choice but to kill and eat her own baby, and whose bitter, wailing grief is said at certain times of the year to reverberate still. Several unidentified or unidentifiable corpses have been discovered over the years on the mountain above. Assorted navvies, employed during the construction of the great hydro projects of the last century and billeted round the loch, succumbed to the weather or were killed in accidents, or just drank themselves to death. In the century before, there were clearances involving the usual brutality and indifference, and before that, the flight from Culloden, the first purges of the British state against highland culture.
I stopped more than once at rocky outcrops on the way to my intended campground. Eventually I crossed a burn and followed the path to the bothy, which I decided to investigate before making camp. A little nervously I set down my pack and opened the door of the outside lobby, a wooden attachment to the old stone building, and pushed open the double doors to the inner lobby. I did not like it in there, not one bit, it was pitch dark and claustrophobic, immediately I felt very uneasy. In the room to the left, a work party had stowed inflatable kayaks plus assorted kit; the bunks in the middle room appeared to have been reserved with sleeping bags and thermal mats; in the main room to the right there was some scattered equipment, but it was devoid of furniture and lacked several wall and ceiling panels, rubbish had been piled badly in the hearth. In general the place was a mess, it stank of wet decay and sweaty human.
I was very glad I would be sleeping in my own stench, in my little tent outside, well ventilated. I winced, shivered and closed the doors to the rooms, before standing again briefly in the inside lobby, soaking up the atmosphere, which remained unsavoury. Backing out into the outside lobby, I stood reading a notice pinned to the wall about how sporting estates cooperate with each other to ensure that the surrounding ecology is managed, that the deer population regulated and employment provided for local people. There was also a note, hand written and attached to the panel wall with a wooden handled vegetable knife, warning visitors that unless they took their rubbish away with them and disposed of their excrement responsibly using the spade provided, far away from the bothy and nowhere near any water courses, the owner would withdraw permission for its public use. Two sheds attached to either end of the building were already in use exclusively by the estate, secured against entry by padlocks and sturdy metal shutters. It would no doubt take little more than an afternoon’s labour to fit similar security measures to the public section of the building.
Scathingly I moved outside into the fresh summer air and crossed the burn to pitch my tent with the entry facing away from the bothy. After which I did a bit of a recce of the environs, then cooked and ate supper and sat on a rock gazing over the loch, allowing my mind to absorb the sparse events of the place, overwhelming my senses with not very much at all. I sat like this for hours, feeling the privilege of being alive, gazing in awe at the far shore of Loch Ericht, where native trees cling inconceivably to the scree, only punctuating the stillness with cups of tea, urination and visits to the burn to replenish my water. Here I met some of the people from the bothy. None had heard stories of hauntings.
At length it got darker and I went to sleep with the tent front open to the night. There were surprisingly few midges. In the morning it was misty. I waited as I prepared for the climb, hoping the sky would open. The bothy was empty when I passed it by, but there was plenty stuff still lying about. On the way up, the path passes a hole in a crag described optimistically on the map as a cave, one of Prince Charlie’s many hideouts as he was pursued by government forces after the slaughter at Culloden. It is a steep unmanaged walker’s path, both boggy and rocky, and it had a familiar feel under my feet, but it was hard work.
When the path became less steep, I was able to pick out a route up the side of Ben Alder. Cloud still hung round the plateau, wisps dangling down, torn off by crags. There was a route following a branch of the burn to a outcrop in front of what appeared to be a grassy slope all the way to the round stump of the southeast shoulder and onto the plateau. But there was no real path. Complex terrain. Large rocks. Tusssocky grass. Water flowing from every pore in the ground, gathering into burns and dispersing again, cascading beside the path to the bothy and into Loch Ericht. As I climbed, a fine drizzle melded into thick fog hanging in the air, then more general cloud moving along in the morning wind, although tantalising glimpses of light seemed to promise more than this gloom.
I passed by a couple of dark pools nestling inside a claw of crags, and found a slight gully slanting past more rocky stuff, dark and imposing in the swirling cloud. I was a bit trepidatious; the ground was rougher underfoot than can be detailed on maps, steep and always upwards into thicker cloud. From time to time I paused to pick a route over or past scree, snowbanks, boulder fields and outcrops. Somewhere near the end of the climb, as the gradient became more forgiving, I disturbed a fluster of ptarmigan. Then navigation became a bit easier, the clouds were now lighter, the sun palpable above, but it was still monochrome. Following a spur to the plateau, I found a path hugging precipitous corries, rambling through rocks and boulder fields and over a slab or two of snow, one of which obscures the allegedly highest body of standing water in Scotland. And then towards the summit, a massive cairn atop this enormous mountain, at the very edge of a vast expanse of grassland sloping gently down to the west and deep cliffs to the east. Mist blew past, thinner, but still no sunshine. I wandered about the plateau near the summit, trying to persuade myself that it was not so important that at the top of the mountain there was no view beyond the mountain top.
I sat for a while eating oatcakes, then took many selfies with every possible angle of the grassy plateau in the background. Proving to myself beyond any doubt that I have definitely been here, utterly in awe of my achievements, and grateful. I hung about for a while before deciding that the cloud would never lift, then headed west to what appeared from the map to be a relatively less steep descent. As is the way of these things, the cloud began genuinely to disperse, so I returned immediately to the summit, to admire the view north up Loch Ericht into Speyside and to gaze down on remnants of mist still swirling in corries, scraping past crags and pinnacles.
The long walk down became exponentially steeper as I approached the stalker’s path round the mountain and back to Alder Bay. It turned out to be a glorious day. On the way I stopped several times just to sit in the summer air, to breath in the odours of peat, cascading waters and flowers, to watch the diversity of plants growing amongst the rocks and take in the view towards Loch Rannoch and the hills behind – of which Schiehallion and Ben Lawyers were the only ones I recognised.
Back at the tent, I pottered about the bay and extended my recce to the remnants of a path round the corner and north up the loch. Then I made supper and again sat on my rock facing the opposite bank of Loch Ericht, observing the occupants of the bothy returning from their days out to make food, prepare for the night or for the next stage of their journeys. Presently, the work party inflated their boats and launched them into the loch, full of black bin liners, and rowed north round the corner. I began to see the people in much the same way as the fox I saw sniffing about under the roots of an old pine by the shore, or as the snorting young stag blundering by, apparently oblivious to my presence.
At about seven in the evening, a middle-aged couple arrived from the northwest down the stalker’s path on top-of-the-range mountain bikes, wearing only light cycling gear and shoes with cleats. Clearly they had a bit of a communication issue going on. He looked in at the bothy, portly, supping at his bottle, while she persevered along what she thought might be a path behind it, until coming to grief, then carried on, pushing. Even from a distance, the body language between them was unmistakable. I watched as they sought paths round the loch to the north, she through tussocks and he over the rocky beach.
Loch Ericht forms part of the extensive hydro system contained by the catchment of the River Tay. Its outflow at the south is dammed and water piped to turbines on the shore of Loch Rannoch below. At its north end there is also a barrier and extra water is added via channels taken from burns that would otherwise drain into the Spey. Consequently its shoreline is not stable, no longer created by natural water cycles, but managed according to demand on the national grid. Over the years, the consequent rising and falling of the water level has left a bald, three metre vertical scar of white rock all along the loch’s edge, which unlike the seashore, is inert and barren. Such a moonlike shoreline is a defining feature of all lochs that are dammed – whether as reservoirs of drinking water or of power. Where the shore is flat, for example at Alder Bay, there is a bit of a beach of stones where rocky skeletons of former land features, gullies and outcrops can clearly be discerned; where it is steep north of the bay, the remaining shoreline of dense peat, heather and scrub hangs over the bleached rocks, demonstrating both the tenacity and fragility of life. The path along the western shore on this precipitous section weaves through a mix of bracken, alder, rowan, birch and heather, hanging precariously above the peaty depths of the loch, very often undercut.
At the corner of the bay, there is a large rock that forms a cliff into the loch. Here is also an iron fence descending from the mountain above, enclosing the entirety of the promontory. There is a swivel gate in the fence where the fragile path from the north merges with paths to the bothy. I watched from my tent as the couple struggled to pass their bikes over the top of the fence; it was already obvious the width of their handlebars would never fit through the swivel gate, the portly man seemed also to be having difficulties fitting his person through the gap. At length, they disappeared round the corner, bikes and all.
After a few minutes, they had not returned. I began to invent all sorts of stories about what might befall them, mainly involving collapsing ground, cold deep water and tired bodies. I was quite sure they would never be able even to carry their bikes along the path. After a few more minutes I booted up and decided I wanted to know if they were alright. I was genuinely concerned for their safety, but also just plain curious. It was already late, they were equipped with nothing but bikes and they were at least twelve miles from the public road at the north of the loch, and seven from the estate lodge.
I found them not far from the gate in the fence. She was not at all happy; he was trying to look on the bright side. They had cycled from Dalwhinnie via Loch Pattack and round the mountain following excellent paths and tracks. Now this. They asked my advice. I suggested cycling back the way they came, for at least there was a path that was suitable for bikes. Or staying overnight in the bothy first to recuperate a little. But they had absolutely nothing with them. He said that he had been here once before many years previously when it looked different. Then he wandered up the path to investigate the route ahead while she waited. She had to be at work in Inverness in the morning and had not expected the trip to turn out this way. He returned with the hopeful suggestion that they could probably walk up the path but that they would have to leave their bikes and come back for them another time. I pointed out that they were wearing cycling shoes, which are not designed for walking, and suggested they would be lucky to get to Dalwhinnie before midnight, adding that I had food at the tent if they wanted something. They declined and I left them to their plight.
On the way back, I popped into the bothy to discover that all visitors had now departed. The rubbish had gone too, but it still stank of mildew and sweaty human, and I still did not like what was hanging about in the inside lobby. Back at the tent, I continued gazing at the opposite shore of the loch, now garnished with rainbows and intense orange light from the setting sun. At last, I climbed into my sleeping bag for the final night out. In the morning, before packing for the walk out, I returned to the path round the loch. A little way ahead I saw two mountain bikes nestling in the heather. I could only assume that their owners had not fallen into the loch, but had made it safely back to Dalwhinnie.
It was gloomy. Thick high cloud, with the threat of rain in the air, and a little colder. I packed and found a path south over a wooden bridge to the remnants of a regenerating pine forest, bits now enclosed against grazing animals. I should have found a way through to the shore of the loch before I did, for I am sure the going would have been easier. I found myself trapped by an impenetrable deer fence, ploughtering through bog and peat. Eventually I found a gate into the plantation and then another in a muddy corner out again to an estate track that would take me back to the road. Towards the south end of the loch there was a large well-appointed wooden building with a marvellous prospect and a gruesome function, combining a veranda and lounge with a substantial barn, the former for the pleasure of those who pay money to kill red deer, the latter for preparing gathered carcasses. It was at this moment that my bowels decided to move. For the first time since leaving home. Urgent and persistent. Briskly, I repaired to the rocky edge of the loch, where just under the grassy bank high above the water level, I found a hollow to deposit my waste, after which I piled it high with stones.
The journey to the road from here was long and stony. After two miles plodding along the track I branched off on an old walker’s path, mainly to avoid following the track through a monoculture plantation and also to give my feet a feel again of softer ground. The path was boggy, but my new boots were working well and my feet remained dry. It hugged the edge of the plantation until on the other side of a stile it joined the estate track again, now through mixed woodland towards the western end of the road along Loch Rannoch, where I turned right and stuck up my thumb to passing vehicles. Within five minutes I got a lift from a French couple who were driving, as many do, to the end of the road at Rannoch Station just to see what is there. My old Dutch Volvo was exactly where I left it. I dumped my pack in the back, changed my shoes and drove home.
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