A Journey into Scotland … Part 24
I arrived in Crianlarich after dark. I could feel the mountains enclosing higher and higher and had expected a steep and persistent climb from the top of the loch to the top of the valley. It turned out to be a gentle climb. No lights and a fast fading evening in a part of the country where night means almost total blackness. I pedalled quickly and managed to stay on the road.
I have no memory of actually arriving at the youth hostel. I can’t remember what I had for tea or whether I read or wrote or chatted in the evening. I do remember trying to get to sleep.
I like to listen to the exploits of walkers and climbers. I’m not much of a one for dormitory accommodation but I can quite happily fall asleep to the stories of paths walked and peaks conquered. I get plenty of this, and more. I’m one of the first into my bunk and quickly fall into a doze so I never see the night-time talkers. I’m gradually aware that the curfew is being flouted. I believe there are four in this conversation. I want to join in from time to time but resist the temptation. Pedalling along the shores of a loch doesn’t really compete with these fellows.
No-one knows each other and three want to share their triumphs of the day and one wants to share the triumphs of a lifetime. Three are Scottish and the fourth is gloriously English.
According to our mountain man these Scottish peaks are over-rated. He cannot see the virtue in bagging Munros. Munros are Scottish mountains over 3000 feet and it has become a popular endeavour to try to climb as many as you can and this is known as bagging Munros. There are 282 of them so it’s quite an undertaking.
They are named after Sir Hugh Munro who set out not only to climb all of these peaks, in the latter days of the nineteenth century, but also was the first to survey some of them. Once word got out that he was doing this, a competition developed between Munro and an enthusiastic man of the cloth, the Reverend AE Robertson. This vicar took rather more pleasure in becoming the first man to ascend all of the 3000 feet climbs than you might expect of a clergyman. On ascending his final peak he first kissed the cairn on the top before kissing his wife. (It was later discovered that his claims to precedence were somewhat premature. Robertson never climbed Ben Wyvis).
Some of the climbs are manageable by almost anyone if you choose a mild August day. All of them are potentially dangerous in winter and some are only possible if you have reasonably advanced climbing skills. A number of people have died in the attempt. Among them British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook who suffered a massive heart attack after reaching the summit of Ben Stack in Sutherland. An eloquent opponent of the war in Iraq, Cook’s demise has never been sufficiently explained to quieten conspiracy theorists. I liked Robin Cook. As of 2011 just over 4000 people have completed them all, but it isn’t just about ticking them off a collector’s list. They are also a considerable challenge and only an idiot would pooh pooh this.
At first his interlocutors try to match him for achievements but you’d need to be Chris Bonnington, Dougal Haston and Evil Knievel combined to get close. I am beginning to get irritated by his distinctive voice as he tells everyone of his climbing exploits in the Dolomites and the Andes. I’m tired though, and by the time he’s explaining how he walked across the Nullabar Plain on his own, and without backup, I’m drifting off into dreams of the beauty of the day.
In the morning I’m first into the member’s kitchen and am enjoying jam on toast when a weedy, hollow-chested, unprepossessing fellow joins me. “I can’t seem to be able to get this toaster to work.” he states in a familiar voice.
I take my tea outside and having been underwhelmed by Crianlarich’s very own adventurer, I am instantly overwhelmed by the towering mountain range around me. Garlanded with chiffon clouds the Ben More range quite simply takes my breath away.
I’d arrived in the dark and simply wasn’t aware that I’d ridden into the mountains proper. That realisation, in itself, did me good. I just stood in an state of awe and stared first at one mountain and then another and then at them all together.
These are the southern highlands. Sometimes known as the Crianlarich Hills and sometimes as the Ben More Range. Ben More itself is spectacular but in conjunction with the other peaks is more than wonderful. There are quite a few higher points as you go north but this is higher than any other part of the United Kingdom in a southerly direction. England and Wales between then cannot match this lofty peak.
That Scottish feeling is growing inside me again. That no matter how beautiful, spectacular or magnificent the view today; tomorrow is going to beat it. I’d marvelled at the Rhinns of Kells, been blown away by the Clyde and fallen in love with the bonnie banks of Loch Lomond but nothing had quite prepared me for this. A railway line runs beside the youth hostel and this seems right. If I wasn’t continuing my journey on a bicycle I would be tempted to take in the scenery through the window of a train. This is far too splendid to be seen through the windscreen of a car. This beauty is timeless and the way in which you see it should take that into account.
I’m early away and the roads are all my own. Passing the white painted Crianlarich Hotel and a handful of houses I’m soon passing a road sign that has names on it that confirm I’m altogether somewhere else. Oban, Fort William and first the quaintly named Tyndrum. The road ahead runs up the valley parallel to the railway line and the River Fillan. The valley sides are high and impressive. They don’t stop me from continuing to twist my neck round to watch the peaks disappear into the morning mist and memories.
It’s all gradually uphill. An almost perfect beginning to the day for my rapidly increasing fitness and stamina levels. The long gentle pull of a handful of miles warms up my legs and lungs as the views make me happy to be alive and well. On one side of the road birch and other broad leaf and on the other firs and pines. We’re high up here and going to get higher. The landscape gradually becoming wilder. Fields become scrubland and scrubland gives way to moors and fells with high sided valleys and beckoning peaks. Along this stretch of road almost any view is a contender for the best view in Britain. But that is just that Scottish tease. This country can always go one better. You will never know what is the finest until you have seen them all and then you will need to go back and see them all again but in different weather conditions.
Tyndrum is a heck of a place to be. Up here towns tend to have two features. A railway station that has a greater importance than railway stations generally have. And they have a hotel that is somewhat larger than the town seems to justify. These aren’t just there for the tourist trade but often he hark back to the coaching days when journeys into the north of Scotland took several days. Coaching Inns were essential. There was nowhere else to stay.
Once past Tyndrum the road divides. One shoot goes off towards the coast and the town of Oban. I dearly want to take that one. The other is signposted to Fort William and is the one I choose. Almost immediately I pass snow gates. These roads get blocked with serious amounts of snow in the winter and have to be closed off to prevent motorists taking chances with the weather that they shouldn’t take. Once past these gates the landscape changes again. I’m pedalling onto one of the biggest, bleakest patches of moorland in the whole of Great Britain. And I have rarely felt happier or more alive.