Munros, Mountains & Rocks

Scotland In A Heat Wave Happens

Moruisg in March

In July 2007 after visiting my brother in Forres, Morayshire, I went north in a rental car under blue skies. I stayed in John o’Groats, nipped across to Orkney, then drove along the north coast. I have always loved mountains, had climbed in the Alps, on Réunion and even in Glen Coe with Simon Yates, but up in Sutherland a change came over me. I discovered Munros.

The heat had warmed the peat, filling the air with the richness of a whisky soaked Dundee cake. To the south unknown mountains stretched away and all around pipits and wheatears sang to me. I stopped the car so often the day drifted by without much progress, and any thought of a quick tour vanished when Ben Hope started to dominate the skyline. There it was, on my map. Then a memory: Griff Rhys Jones had been on TV in the series Mountain and had climbed this in winter. ‘The most northerly Munro…’ On a whim I thought I’d climb it. I had drifted into unfitness, so the effort to get to the top was a shock. Yet in Ron Hill Tracksters, a vest, a small bum bag with a bottle of water and basic boots, I stood in beautiful weather looking at all the world. Something inside lifted my heart and I was lost – how could I let this go? I stayed too long, so had to scamper down, eventually finding a B&B just before 21:00.

Since then I have become what people call a Munro Bagger, but with me it is a means to many ends. I’ll do all 282, if I can, but the peaks will not be rushed, nor lesser mountains ignored. This perceived obsession is an excuse to immerse myself in all things natural: botany, birds, beasts and geology; also to set challenges of fast ascents, slow wild camps and a run or two. In fact any excuse to keep my heart full as on that first ascent of Ben Hope – hope really does spring eternal.

Pipe Rock

The Munro mountains in Scotland number 282, but the formula for working them out is arcane and beyond my own logic. Mountains over 3000′ is the general rule, but they should stand alone, separated by 500′ of depth, or some such. The rules float and adjust for each generation, but that is why climbing them is such fun. To me, an accidental Munro Bagger (one who ‘collects’ Munros), they are something to tick off whilst enjoying the varying locations of the mountains. I have climbed the high tundra of the Cairngorms in a heat wave and in freezing winter; scaled the jagged pinnacles of the Black Cuillins on Skye; and spent two days in the wilderness of the Fisherfields, bagging six Munros, only to discover that one was later demoted as not being lofty enough! 

The natural history of the Scottish Highlands has to be sought. Long walks produce the unexpected, so, after a modest 68 Munros, I have been rewarded with wonderful things. My first pair of dotterels and a bilberry bumblebee making light of screaming winds; soaring eagles; high altitude lizards; a recently abandoned ptarmigan’s nest, egg shells still sitting in down.

ptarmigan-nest-vacated

If I were to choose my favourite group of Munros it would have to be the Torridons. I have scaled them all. They captivate me, not only their unique, brutal, lofty beauty, but also for the mighty geology lesson set out for all to see. The flat boggy land surrounding these giants is made up of Lewesian gneiss – this base layer is 3 billion years old! The mountains are made up of Torridonian sandstone – this is ground down ancient mountains compacted into new ones – how wonderful is that? Some 800 million years old, they contain pebbles from ancient rivers and lakes and, to me, are most beautiful. One of these Torridon mountains looks different. Beinn Eighe is capped with Cambrian basal quartzite, so looks silver/grey. At around 500 million years young, they are of particular interest to me. They contain pipe rock. 

Pipe rock was always a draw for me to this Munro, so when I climbed it, it was one of my aims to find some. A wonderful trek between Liathach and the western slopes of Beinn Eighe in good weather took me into the magnificent Coire Mhic Fhearchair, fronted by the mighty Triple Buttress of Coinneach Mhor. Once on the ridge the rain came and my first peak, Ruadh Stac Mor, was practically invisible. Staggering back I looked down and there, beneath my boots was a wide slap of quartzite covered in 1cm rings – Pipe Rock!

pipe-rock
Later I picked up a piece and the long tubes below the discs were obvious. The pipes are given the scientific name Skolithos, and were probably made by worm-like creatures that lived upright in the burrow and fed by filtering food from shallow water above the sediment surface. As I scaled the final Munro, Spidean Coire Nan Clach, I looked across this majestic, ancient land and marvelled at the thought that, in my pocket was a small piece of rock in which were the petrified burrows of worms that lived half-a-billion years ago. Wonderful! I descended from 500 million years ago to 3 billion years ago where my car sat waiting. How lovely is that?

Pine Martens and Digestives

I have not missed a visit to the Scottish mountains in the last ten years. Choosing where to go each time could have been fraught with difficulty, but becoming an accidental Munro Bagger gives a gentle discipline to such dilemmas. I stay close to the Munros I have yet to bagand there are lots still waiting close to one of my bases near the Kyle of Lochalsh – Craig Highland Farm. This steading clings to wooded slopes overlooking Loch Carron and is sheltered by prevailing westerlies by the Plockton headland. I discovered Craig many years back and it has now become my favourite base in the Western Highlands. Surrounding the ownerscottage is a working farm, interspersed with a scattering of wooden lodges and stone cottages. The property is tight to the shore of the tidal loch, reached by crossing the Kyle of Lochalsh to Inversess railway line, and takes in the little wooded Eilean na Creige Duibhe. From the vantage point of the lodges one has tremendous views across to the far side of Loch Carron and even sight of the road winding up Bealach na Bà towards Applecross.

Suffice to say, there are many birds and beasts to see around the farm and across the loch, so the lack of WiFi or television becomes an irrelevance. Outside the windows, locally purchased bird food entices all the common species including siskins and great spotted woodpeckers. At dusk the bats come out whilst the birds still feed, but it is as darkness falls that the farm comes into its own. These woods are home to pine martens.

The pine marten is that large and mysterious member of the Mustelid (weasel) family one sees on Springwatch and in nature books, decked out in thick red-brown fur with a creamy shirt front. Its preferred habitat is thick woodland or rocky hillsides, with dens frequently made in hollow logs or rock crevices, but also in rabbit burrows or the roofs of old buildings. They are nocturnal omnivores, eating anything from squirrels and beetles, to fruit and digestive biscuits. Anyone who loves natural history would have the pine marten as a must seespecies, but they are so elusive they have to be sought out. Craig is right in the middle of their expanding Scottish stronghold, so sightings are frequent to the point of being guaranteed, if one is patient.

With my Passepartout I have seen them trot across the road as Ive driven slowly to and from the farm, but to entice them the ideal bait is peanut butter or jam spread liberally on digestive biscuits. With such strategically placed comestibles outside your window at dusk, it is time to sit back and wait. Typically little voles and woodmice may come out for a nibble, whiskers trembling, eyes bright, their bodies tensed to dash for cover. Bats dip into view and the sinister, dark upon dark silhouette of a tawny owl may drift over. Pine martens never hint at appearing, they just arrive in a hefty, brazened, spectacular materialisation.

 It is not until one gets a windowpanes thickness from a pine marten that you realise how heart-stoppingly powerful and beautiful they are. Dense, rich fur in ranging from deep chocolate to foxy red, the creamy bib with little spots unique in each individual. A teddy-bear head, but more Steiff and feline, than round and cuddly. The legs are thick and muscular with large, strong, clawed paws, ideal for climbing. Indeed they are reminiscent of an oriental short-hair cat, not unlike my Passepartouts house cat at home. Such is the likeness that I once, with a spoonerismic slip, called this black, needy creature Cyrilinstead of her correct apellation, Cilla, and now pine martens have become Pine Cyrils as an accidental but accurate application of that simile.

Pine-Marten-Paul-Comerford
Once discovered the pine marten will grab a fully loaded digestive and run off to consume out of sight, or, if the watcher is very lucky, eat it there and then in the torchlight. Weve been lucky enough to see single adults and, occasionally a female with a couple of half-grown kits. They live around Craig and are part of the farms ecosystem. Even though they will kill and devour any chicken, duck or guineafowl left out after curfew, they are welcomed, sometimes with a curse, but never with cruelty.

Thus we will return armed with digestives and peanut butter knowing the pine martens will show up. You may note that Ive stopped using jam – it may be bad for their ferocious, shiny teeth…

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