A stroll through a national treasure
WANT TO ENJOY SCOTLAND’S MOUNTAINS WITHOUT TACKLING HUGE CRAGS AND SCARY RIDGES? BEGIN YOUR ASCENT IN THE FOOTHILLS OF LOCH LOMOND AND THE TROSSACHS, ADVISES RONALD TURNBULL
LOCH Lomond and the Trossachs are the beginning of the big hills of the Scottish Highlands. And given that they stand in the front doorway, it’s only right that they are the friendly and welcoming ones. Instead of huge crags and airy, scary ridges, here are small paths that weave uphill among boulders and little lumpy outcrops. The Munros (3000ft or 914m mountains) are not easy anywhere, but here in the south they are that little bit less serious.
So it makes sense that these hills, first in geography for those approaching from the cities of the south, are also, for many Scottish hill-goers, first in time. The Munro tick-list will often start off on the most southerly of them all, Ben Lomond. Rowardennan car park is large, and has a handy shelter hut. Ben Lomond’s path is as wide, and as well used, as a town shopping street – but a lot more sociable and friendly. Chaps with chainsaws have cleared the gloomy spruce from the lower slopes, so straight away you see the spreading waters of Loch Lomond and feel the cool mountain air.
The path will offer views of the muchsung loch all the way up – at least, until the cloud closes in. And across the otherwise gentle slope runs one small crag, as a first footfall on the crinkly grey mountain rock. It’s the schist of the southern Highlands, wrinkled like the hide of an elderly rhinoceros, and like that rhinoceros friendly on the whole but with the occasional nasty moment. Unlike the rhino, the grey schist breaks down into a fertile soil that gives lots of grass, a sprinkling of tormentil and bedstraw, and in special lime-rich corners the tiny gardens of alpine rarities.
Nobody, we suppose, would clamber over a rhino, however elderly. And the schist, slippery when wet and well endowed with wild flowers and other green shaggy matter, tends also to form knobs and excrescences rather than high crags. It is not great for scrambling or climbs – the Cobbler, with its fine routes and rock-tower top, is an atypical oddity.
Otherwise there’s a loose ridgeline on Ben Lui, some scrappy crag on Beinn a’ Chroin, and small unserious scrambly moments almost anywhere.
But the walker attempting that firstever Munro is probably quite pleased about the lack of scrambling on Ben Lomond. As you emerge at the kissing gate on to the open hill, the loch spreads ever wider, with islands casually flung about in it by a preoccupied glacier. One of the little ferryboats chugs along the shoreline, its passengers well waterproofed and hunched under the drizzle. Or it’s a different day and they’re wondering why the sunshine isn’t also warm, as the breeze of the boat’s passage flutters their T-shirts.
Opposite, the hills of Arrochar give the impression of being somehow more mountainous than where you are just now. Their name – the Arrochar “Alps” – is an exaggeration, for here are no sharp shapes high against the clouds. It’s just that the skyline of Arrochar is excessively crinkly; a whole lot of ruggedness is happening over there. The Cobbler is referred to by the pedantically proper as Ben Arthur. By whatever name, its convoluted wee crags offer genuine mountain rock: more, a corner of them forms the actual highest point of the hill. So that the Cobbler, not even a Munro of 3000ft, proves to be the most difficult summit anywhere on the UK mainland.
But here on Ben Lomond the big and busy path winds upwards. The grass is comfortable, if perhaps a little damp. The view behind gives, at any moment you may need it, an excuse to stop and gaze.
Apart from the water, and the mountains opposite, the glory of that downward view is in the oak trees. Nothing sets off the smooth grass slopes and the silver-grey loch at their base half so well as the knobbly grey rocks bursting out all over the upper slopes. Nothing – apart from the lush oakwood foliage bursting out all over its base. Wild oakwoods once covered those lower slopes, and inside them lurked even wilder MacGregors and the occasional wolf. Sheep have nibbled the saplings and stripped the slopes to bare grass. But in recent years more and more of the dreary
spruce is being chopped down, and the wild oakwoods are rising again.
So around the lochs and along the riversides are paths where wild flowers grow, and you glimpse water between the tree trunks. This is the Trossachs: originally a single oakwood hump at the end of Loch Katrine, the name has colonised the whole eastern end of the national park. “Trossachs” now is shorthand for the rough, rugged Highland landscape experience, as invented in the late 18th century by Sir Walter Scott.
For those who walk long but low, the West Highland Way, in its loveliest section, runs along the eastern side of Loch Lomond. Gentler walks are found from all the villages, through plantations and woodland to rocky viewpoints and waterfalls. Even so, by the standards of anywhere further south, any walk here will be a bit rugged. This is, after all, the homeland of Rob Roy MacGregor, the redheaded renegade who resisted the government for half his life and was celebrated by Sir Walter Scott.
As well as the lochs and oakwoods, “Trossach” implies a sort of midget mountain. From Ben Ledi and Ben Venue down to Ben A’an, these hills are tough but tiny, each carrying enough crag to clothe a hill of double the size.
Oakwood wandering and minimountains: but when it’s time to get serious, there are some high-altitude hills as well. For its final quarter-hour, Ben Lomond gives a taste of real Scottish mountain ground, as the ridgeline narrows, and drops on the right to an untrodden corrie. But it’s on the Arrochar Alps, and above Crianlarich, that you savour the special sort of hill found here in the south. Ben More, the high point of the park, is a tough mountain, steep on every side; but the rambling range to its west, from Cruach Ardrain to Beinn Chabhair, mixes grass and rock for a day of rugged ridges and wide views.
This is ridge-walking of a friendly sort, as the path winds among knobs and terraces of the crinkly schist rock. And in the northwest of the area, Ben Lui is a full-sized mountain in both altitude (1130m, Scotland’s 28th) and seriousness.
With their easy access, convenient shops and accommodation, and public transport by road, rail and water, these slightly less savage mountains make an excellent introduction to the Scottish Highlands. From Lomond’s bonnie banks to the Hill of the Fairies, from Arrochar Alps to lowly Ben A’an, and whether you take the high road or the low, here is some of Scotland’s best – and best-loved – hill country.
Extracted from Walking Loch Lomond And The Trossachs: 70 walks, including 21 Munro summits by Ronald Turnbull, published by Cicerone, £13.75
Ben A’an, rising above Loch Katrine, is no giant, but it’s a rewarding day out for a novice of the mountains, and is typical of the joys the area has to offer
From left: Loch Lomond and Ben Reoch from above Tarbet; The Cobbler – or Ben Arthur to give it its Sunday name – reflected perfectly in Loch Long; winter walking on the south ridge of Ben Ledi with Ben Lomond and the Arrochar Alps behind