Traversing Schiehallion, Scotland’s Magical Mountain

At 1,038 metres (3,547′) Schiehallion isn’t especially close to Ben Nevis in height, but it is certainly one of the most iconic Munros. The distinctive, near-symmetrical profile of the mountain attracts hikers from both home and away looking to experience the great outdoors, and it’s a great choice for first time Munro baggers.

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The view from the western end of Schiehallion, looking along Loch Rannoch to Rannoch Moor and Glencoe. In clear conditions, it’s possible to pick out Ben Nevis.

Schiehallion

In the heart of Highland Perthshire, close to the very centre of Scotland, Schiehallion has the reputation of being both one of the most mysterious of Scotland’s mountains, and the most measured. The name Sidh Chailleann translates from Scots Gaelic as “the fairy hill of the Caledonians”, and it’s not difficult to find traces of folklore and superstition on the slopes of Shiehallion.

Reach the summit on a summer evening, and you’ll be enchanted by views of Loch Tummel and Loch Rannoch stretching out towards the vast blanket of Rannoch Moor in the gloaming. Descending through the dusk you’ll catch mysterious sounds reverberating across the hillside: secret whisperings of the wee folk, or magical drumming snipe and roding woodcock?

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The first glimpse of Schiehallion appearing through the trees on the road from Loch Rannoch.

Planning my route

I was taking part in the 2019 TGO Challenge, a coast-to-coast crossing of Scotland on foot, and wanted to include a few mountains on my route from west to east. As it happened, dropping a few planning pins into my ViewRanger map put one close to the peak. After a few days of low-level walking, I reckoned I’d be limber enough to take on the mountain and make a west-to-east traverse of Schiehallion.

From the east and west the peak looks like a perfect pyramid; from north and south, a long whaleback ridge with a more gentle rise to the top. It stands in isolation, easily picked out on the skyline ahead of me as I left Glencoe and crossed Rannoch Moor.

Schiehallion Traverse

  • Start Point: East Tempar Farm*
  • Finish Point: Braes of Foss
  • Distance: 10km
  • Hiking time: 4 hours
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Map: OS Explorer OL49

*Note: There is nowhere to leave a vehicle at East Tempar. Parking is available at Braes of Foss carpark (approx. 7km on the road) or in Kinloch Rannoch (approx. 3.5km on the road). I walked along the road from Kilvrecht Campsite, approximately 9km.

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Go slow, baby lambs. Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it. Sign on the roadside at East Tempar.

The glorious May weather had stayed another day, so despite not being in any particular rush to get underway, I’d been up since 6am with the sunshine, packed my tent (shaking off drifts of tree pollen that had accumulated through the previous evening), loaded up with drinking water, and hit the road to get to my starting point for 9am. Find a route map on my ViewRanger.

From East Tempar Farm a hill track rises gently through sheep pasture, gaining around 350m in a little over two and a half kilometres, to the base of the towering west flank of the mountain. The track continues on to the tumbledown shielings at the col at the head of Gleann Mor, the dale between Schiehallion and the Can Mairg hills to the south.

Gleann Mor is reputedly just as magical as the mountain that looms above. According to legend, the fairies of Schiehallion make their home in Uamh Tom a’Mhor-fhir, a cave in the upper reaches of the glen, and the doors leading into Elfhame (fairyland) marked by tussocks of white heather.

There might be little real evidence of fairies on Schiehallion, but the region wears its history close to the surface. Old shielings are a reminder of the traditional cattle grazing way of life in highland glens, and traces of hut circles and ancient cup-and-ring marked rocks a connection to a more distant and mysterious past.

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Hillside haggis tracks in the heather.

My route led upwards, over rough ground cut only by deer tracks contouring the slope. I snapped a couple of quick pictures, along with some of some grouse droppings, to perpetuate the haggis myth with which we were teasing my French and Romanian crewmates. Haggis is “…un cochon d’Inde écossais indigène. C’est vrai.” True fact.

There wasn’t a breath of wind when I reached the first boulder field, a patch of fractured quartzite exposed amongst the heather tussocks and spongy lichens. Higher above, the first false summit of my climb marked the point where the vegetation began to yield to the rock, with just sparse turf between the boulders.

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The summit. Or is it?

The Schiehallion Experiment

The splendid isolation and arresting symmetry of Schiehallion caught the attention of the Royal Society as a place to observe the “attraction of mountains”. In the summer of 1774, Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskylene and surveyor and mathematician Charles Hutton gathered data on the tiny deflection of a pendulum against the position of the stars, revealing the gravitational pull of the mountain.

Between astronomical observations and a survey of Schiehallion’s shape and composition, the experiment provided evidence of Newton’s theory of gravitation, and of the density and shape of the entire planet. During the development of the experiment, Hutton pioneered the concept of contour lines to show relief in cartography, helping me greatly with my TGO challenge route planning.

The Schiehallion experiment is commemorated by a plaque at Braes of Foss, and the eagle-eyed can spot the footprints of Maskylene’s parallel observatories on the north and south flanks of the mountain.

The Summit

Into the boulder field proper, the true summit rose up behind the last false peak, identifiable this time by the small gathering of people on the rocky outcrop. Tucked into hollows on the northern side of boulders were tiny patches of snow, none larger than my backpack, holding on in the 20°C heat. I scrambled up the last six or seven metres to the top, and turned to take in the view that had been at my back during the climb.

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From the summit, I could see across the Tay Forest and Loch Tummel to the Beinn a’Ghlo in the east, south to Ben Lawers, and north to Ben Alder. But the view to the west was the best. The eye skims along the shining surface of Loch Rannoch into a golden-blue haze over Rannoch Moor. On the edge of visibility, I could just make out the Black Mount and Glencoe, where two days ago I’d caught my first glimpse of this peak.

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I took a long break to rehydrate, and devoured a packet of Tuc sandwich biscuits that were by now mostly cheese-flavoured dust. This won me the friendship of a springer spaniel called Saoirse, waiting with her dog-dad for the rest of the family to join them at the top. I hunted around and found the spiral carving in the rock. More likely a modern addition than ancient art, but still a reminder that for many the mountains are spiritual spaces.

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Descent

The route across the boulder field was indistinct, but the following the ridge easterly with the natural compass of the sun was moving in the right direction. Skipping over the loose rock in the boulder field for a couple of kilometres, trying unsuccessfully to pick my way along Saoirse’s chosen route, I found a worn track and reached the top of the path. The way down was much simpler than the way up, dropping down the flank of the mountain on a well-surfaced route.

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I reached the carpark at Braes of Foss in mid-afternoon, glad to be able to refill my water supply and find a spot of shade for a cuppa and spoonful of peanut butter. It had been another long, draining hike in the sun. I still had another few kilometres to go to reach the end of my planned route for the day, to the access road for Foss mine, where I was to meet my lift.

On the way round the road, I decided that the TGO Challenge could wait for another day, and rescheduled my rest day for the next morning. I’d take the chance to buy some sunblock, and just enjoy the shade for a while. It was a real treat to get into Pitlochry that evening, pick up a takeaway and some cold beers, and sit in the garden of my friend’s house celebrating reaching half-way across Scotland on the top of that magical mountain.

Schiehallion East Path

  • Start / Finish Point: Braes of Foss carpark (£2/full day)
  • Distance: 10km return
  • Hiking time: Usually between 3 and 4 hours (depending on how long you enjoy the view for!)
  • Difficulty: Easy to moderate
  • Map: OS Explorer OL49

Most hikers visiting Schiehallion follow a different route to the one I took, starting and finishing in the carpark at Braes of Foss, and following the East Schiehallion path. In a rare case of mountain rescue, where the mountain itself was the casualty, the path was constructed by the John Muir Trust to manage erosion and protect delicate vegetation on the lower slopes of the mountain. Find a route map on my ViewRanger.

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A plaque commemorating the Schiehallion Experiment by Nevil Maskylene and Charles Hutton at Braes of Foss, with the mountain behind.

The route is clear and obvious, though there is no waymarking, tackling the east ridge of the mountain in zigzags that avoid expanses of bog but still gives hikers glimpses of wildflowers and bog plants. The area is also home to wildlife like red deer, black grouse, and ptarmigan.

After around 3.5km the path reaches the boulder field on the top of the ridge.  Here the route is undefined to the summit, crossing loose rocks and scree, so care and attention to navigation is needed over the final 2km, especially if visibility is reduced.

Incredibly, thanks to an initiative by the FieldFare Trust, the first third of the route has been approved as wheelchair-friendly, with the remainder of the route to the summit deemed accessible at an individual’s discretion, making Schiehallion the first wheelchair-accessible Munro in Scotland.

Descend by retracing your steps to the boulder field to the path, and return to the carpark.

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Starting to feel the power of the sun. Walking in the mountains needs preparation for all weather conditions.

What to wear for hiking in Scotland

Though the warm, windless conditions on the day of my hike suited shorts and a t-shirt, that’s not what I would usually recommend for a day in the Scottish mountains. The best clothes for hiking are thin, quick-drying layers, and well-fitting, supportive boots.

The temperature can be quite different once you reach the summit, and a good rule of thumb for planning is that for every 300 metres (1,000′) it will be around 2°C colder. On a windy day, this will feel even more.

Walking trousers are robust but breathable, and usually have good pockets for gadgets and snacks. Shorts will normally be ok in fine weather, but if you’re going to venture off the beaten path and bash through the heather it can be uncomfortable. Gaiters will help protect your trousers and keep them dry and clean. They also double up as a dry mat for sitting on the ground when you stop for breaks.

A waterproof jacket and pair of trousers are always a good idea in Scotland. Even if there’s no rain in the forecast, conditions can be unpredictable, and a waterproof layer can break the chill of the wind.

A fleece or light sweater will keep your core temperature toasty when you reach the top. A warm hat, buff and pair of gloves will be useful in most conditions, but don’t underestimate the sun. There’s no opportunity to escape into the shade on most Scottish mountains. A broad-brimmed hat and something covering your shoulders could be important in summer to prevent heat exhaustion.

What other equipment will you need?

  • A backpack to carry your gear (with a waterproof cover)
  • A map and compass (and GPS)
  • Walking poles – optional
  • A good supply of water and snacks.

Tips for solo hiking

  • Be prepared for the hike with the right clothing and equipment.
  • Plan your hike in advance, and work out the time you will need, factoring in breaks on the way.
  • Always take a map and compass, and know how to use them. Even if you use a GPS.
  • Tell someone where you are hiking, and remember to let them know once you’re back safe.
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8 Activities for Adventurers Staying at Home

A list of indoor activities and things to do around the home for outdoor and adventure lovers.

Though we’re encouraged to think of our current situation with the coronavirus lockdown as being safe while we’re at home, there’s no denying if you’re an outdoor type, you’ll inevitably find yourself feeling stuck at home. Denied that usual dose of adventure, there’s a serious risk of an outbreak of cabin fever.

So, given that there’s unlikely to be an immediate cure to our condition, I’ve compiled a list of activities that can bring the outdoors indoors, and help stave off longing aches for the hills, rivers, forests, and beaches for a while longer. They’ll help you stay mentally resilient, and get you prepared to get back out there when the time comes. They’re fun, and virtually all free, or at least affordable, so give them a go!

If you’ve got any of your own tips to share, let me know in the comments below!

1. Soak in someone else’s adventure

Take the time to choose some inspiring adventure media among all those books, box sets, and blogs you’ll have a bit more time for at the moment, and relive the ups and downs of someone else’s adventures. You might even find the seed of an idea for your own expedition. These are my current favourites:

Book: I’m currently reading Horizon by Barry Lopez, and you can browse my armchair travel lists for more ideas.
Documentaries: I’ve been feeding my Antarctica longing with the Penguin Post Office film from the BBC; David Attenborough’s Seven Worlds, One Planet; and Encounters at the End of the World by Werner Herzog (also known by my friends as the sad penguin film. It’s not Happy Feet).
Podcasts: I’ve been flitting between Tough Girl Podcast and Terra Incognita recently.
Magazines: Picking up TGO magazine has been my treat when I go on shopping trips.

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Immerse yourself into a book about travel, adventure, or the outdoors to inspire ideas for journeys after the pandemic ends.

2. Deal with the photos and films from your last travels

This is my biggest challenge. I have a huge backlog of photographs, sound recordings, and film footage from my travels over the last couple of years just waiting for some attention. Editing, cataloguing, backing up; there never seems to be enough time to clear the decks before the next batch is gathered. Until now. It’s actually a fantastic way to reflect on past journeys, especially on a rainy evening with a glass of wine. I might even get around to producing a photo book or two once the process is near complete.

3. Find a bit of solace in nature

I’m not one for mindfulness and visualisation; guided meditations tend to leave me sniggering and silly rather than feeling still and soothed. But I am a master at staring out the window at the birds flying by. Putting out bird feeders makes it easier to get to know the usual suspects, and a birdbath gives some excellent opportunities to observe behaviour. If you don’t have a garden of your own, you can find feeders that attach to window and walls instead.

4. Get green fingers

This time of year is perfect to get to know your garden better, and growing your own fruit and vegetables has benefits beyond delicious fresh food. Herbs are a simple starting point if you’re new to gardening, and there’s nothing like your own home-grown strawberries. Boost the biodiversity of your patch with a bug hotel or log pile to keep friendly insects close to your greenery. If you don’t have a garden, try small containers on window ledges to grow basil, rocket, and pea shoots for fresh salad greens.

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A small patch of wildness in your garden creates a haven for wildlife

5. Brush up your adventure skills

The great outdoors might be your favourite classroom, but there’s bound to be a few skills you could work on perfecting from home. They might even become your new passion. Try these for a start:

• Learn the necessary knots. The RYA has eight essential knots for the competent crew qualification. Climbers will need a few different knots in their basic repertoire.
• Fine-tune your map reading skills. It’s understood that real navigators never get lost, but sometimes may become unaware of their present location.
• If you have outdoor space to try, how about practising bushcraft skills like making fire by friction, creating a solar still, or carving a wooden spoon.
• Teach yourself how to service your bicycle and repair a puncture.
• Find a new fitness challenge. It could be anything from skipping or hula hooping, squats or bodyweight workouts, to Pilates, yoga or Tai Chi.
• Test out recipes for homemade hiking snacks, or try your hand at dehydrating meals for your next backpacking trip.

6. Give your gear a going over

Looking after your outdoor equipment properly will extend its useful life, saving money in the long run, and ensure that it does the job you want it to do when you next take it out. Clean your hiking boots and running shoes; clean and re-proof waterproof jackets and pants; wash and air your sleeping bag; mend wear and tear on tents and backpacks; service stoves. I like to make a kit list before I go anywhere, and review it afterwards to work out what was missing, what worked well, and what was unnecessary or needed improving.

7. Learn something new

Keep your brain stimulated with an online course from one of the many free open learning providers like FutureLearn, OpenLearn, and Coursera. Indulge a deep passion, or search for something that might bring richness to your next trip, like a geography, history, or anthropology topic. Or brush up on a foreign language that might come in useful when you travel next. I’m using the Duolingo app and Coffee Break Spanish podcast to improve my skills in Spanish. I don’t want to make the owl sad.

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Where do you really want to go?  What will you do?

8. Plan your ultimate expedition

So, once you’re dosed up on inspiration why not start planning your next big expedition? Start off by asking yourself, what would you really, really like to do, if money, time, the usual commitments were no problem. Then follow up with a few more questions:

• Is it something you’d undertake alone, or as part of a team?
• How long would it take, and how much time do you need to prepare?
• Do you need to start saving up?
• How much training is needed, and when would you have to start?

If travel is your passion, try throwing a dart at the map to decide on a destination. Then ask:

• What do you know about that place? The country?
• How would you get there? Can you do it without flying?
• Can it be done in my budget?

Then it’s time to get maps and guidebooks out, read blogs and browse Pinterest. Whether it’s going to be a serious undertaking, or an exercise in vicarious travel and adventure, you can shape a plan and take to back to the drawing board again and again, until you have your dream expedition.

There’s likely to be times where this lockdown leaves you feeling listless and filled with ennui. That’s ok. It’s a strange and unusual time we’re in, and it’s not necessary to use your energy to do anything other than just getting by.  Just remember, this too shall pass.

Tell me what you’ve been up to while you’re locked down.
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Photo Journal: Machair Wildflowers on the Isle of Coll

The island of Coll is breathtakingly beautiful.  The sort of place where you leave a little piece of your heart behind when you finally bring yourself to leave.

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The sweeping arc of Feall Bay, on the southwestern coast of Coll
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The beaches of Feall and Crossapol are separated by a fixed dune system rising over 50 metres in places, including a large swathe of flower-rich machair

The turquoise waters of the Sea of the Hebrides wash up on sweeping silver-white beaches backed by lofty, marram-clad dunes, reaching over 50 metres high behind the strand at Feall.  Between the coastal bents and the bogs and bare rock inland, is a rare place; machair, a habitat unique to the Hebrides, the fringes of northwestern Scotland, and western coast of Ireland.

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I started to rue not paying attention when being taught the names of wildflowers by my Granny.  But I do know this is silverweed, and prefers damp spots close to the shore.
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I think this dandelion-like flower is a type of hawkweed.
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Sea pink, also known as thrift, and stonecrop clings to niches in the bare rock.
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Wild thyme and ladies bedstraw form a dense, deeply-scented carpet on the machair.

In her 2018 book Wilding, Isabella Tree recounts several alarming statistics about the state of nature across the British and Irish Isles, including the fact that around ninety per cent of wildflower meadows have been lost since the Second World War.  This has had a devastating knock-on effect on invertebrate fauna, and the birds which depend on them.

The machair of the Western Isles is a last stronghold, lavish with wildflowers through the spring and summer.  Common species like red and white clover, buttercups, daisies, wild thyme, ladies bedstraw, and bird’s foot trefoil carpet the pasture, with a scattering of rarer species like the Hebridean spotted orchid and Heath orchid.  The area around Hough Bay is a hotspot for bloody cranesbill.

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A blanket of daisies and buttercups cover the machair next to the RSPB reserve carpark.
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Machair wildflowers are vital for rare bumblebees, such as the great yellow bumblebee, once common across the British and Irish Isles, and now restricted to a few areas in the Hebrides.
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The machair was traditionally used for summer livestock grazing and hay cutting.  It would have been exactly like the scything scenes in Poldark.
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The size of that handsome lad.  He’s so tiny and cute.
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The island of Coll, and neighbouring Tiree, are reputed to have the highest number of sunshine hours anywhere in Scotland.
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I think this might be saxifrage, or maybe eyebright.  I do have a very good flora guide (Warne, The Wild Flower Key), but I’m just not very good at using it.
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There are three or four different species of orchid found on Coll and Tiree.

Sea pinks (thrift) and stonecrop find refuge among the rocks. Ragged robin, meadowsweet, and beds of yellow flag (iris) define wetter areas, and provide the preferred hiding spots for crackling, croaking corncrakes, often heard but rarely seen on their summer sojourn from southern Africa.

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I’m pretty sure that these pictures are all of the same kind of orchid.
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They are either the Hebridean spotted orchid or the heath spotted orchid, though they can hybridise.  I also saw early march orchids, but my photo was rubbish.
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A green-veined white caterpillar chomping on a creeping willow.
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Hay meadows in the in-bye can conceal corncrakes; the crackling calls that give them their scientific name, Crex crex, the only clue to their presence

The drowsy, blossom-sweet scent of the machair charges the air on a warm day in June, enough that passing ships catch a draught on the breeze, like a half-remembered afternoon from childhood.  From the beginning of May to midsummer, the machair belongs to the skylarks, singing more than 18 hours a day, from dawn to dusk, and rare bees, bumbling through the flowers, honey-drunk on nectar.

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The sandy machair merges into the blackland of peat moors and bogs, and the plant community changes.
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Bell heather, ling, crowberry, bog cotton, and even some rare alpine species are found on the higher ground.
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