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

The Herald on Sunday - Sunday Herald Life - - Contents -

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

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