Beinn a’ Chlaidheimh – 916m Sgurr Ban – 989m Mullach Coire Mhic Fhearchair – 1018m Beinn Tarsuinn – 937m
Date: 21st August 2012
Weather: Warm and sunny
Two Feet Four Paws: Anne, Stewart and Molly
Anyone who has completed a round of Munros will know that planning plays a vital part in reaching that goal. I am usually quite good at planning, so how was it, with a mere six days to go until my 4th Round completion party I found myself with the four Mullardoch Munros and four of the Fisherfield Six left to climb?
Things hit a major hurdle when Stewart and I arrived at the locked gate in Glen Strathfarrar on Sunday morning aiming for a swift round of the Mullardoch Four from the end of the glen. Booting up in the carpark Stewart realised he has managed to bring two identical left boots with him rather than a pair! Thankfully disaster was averted when a couple parked next to us offered to loan Stewart a pair of boots for the day and the walk was saved. After a successful walk over the four Munros, only incurring minor wrath from the gatekeeper for being 5 minutes late the Weather Gods at MWIS indicated that there would be a small weather window on Tuesday for our visit to Fisherfield. Stewart was keen to join the trip and promised to bring the correct configuration of boots this time.
On 15th September 2018, accompanied by over 50 friends, I stood on the summit of Fiarach, my final Graham. How the bloody hell did that happen? I am a Munro bagger and there I was having climbed all 219 Grahams (a Graham is a Scottish hill between 609.6m and 762m with a drop of a least 150m on all sides).
Years ago, Robin and I had started to use the derogatory term DG’s as a tongue in cheek term to describe the ‘Dull Grahams’. Like the majority of my hill walking friends, I still had my Munro blinkers firmly in-situ and was not ready to be converted to the joys of spending hours trudging over bogs and ploughing through thigh deep heather just to reach the summit of a mere ‘DG.’ Even a cursory glance at hill walking websites showed a distinct lack of interest.
There is a plethora of route descriptions, photos and trip reports on every Munro and there is even a growing interest in Corbett bagging. There are guidebooks aplenty, but the Grahams remained overlooked, they seem to be a poorly loved relation that very few would actually admit to climbing!
There was a guidebook, Andrew Dempster’s 1997 publication ‘The Grahams’, but it wasn’t exactly an inspiring tome, text heavy with a few black and white line drawings thrown in for good measure but nothing that would make a keen hillwalker want go out and actually climb them. The book does have its uses, it is ideal for getting the bothy fire going and the pages are thick, strong and thoroughly absorbent! (Since I started climbing Grahams the SMC have published their new hillwalkers guide to ‘The Grahams’, I wonder if this will tempt people away from bagging the far more popular Munros?)
Most hillwalkers can probably name hundreds of Munros, they may have even climbed a handful of Corbetts, but how many even know what a Graham is? A few of my hillwalking friends were busy climbing Grahams and a few had even completed a round of them. Me, I just chose to ignore them!
I had already completed 5 rounds of Munros and round 6 was reaching its closing stages, the Corbetts had been completed in 2010 and I was busy banking Munros for round 7, but I was getting bored, Munro bagging was beginning to lose its appeal and I needed a new challenge.
I have always found that one of the most enjoyable aspects of hillwalking is the planning involved with each walk and repetitively climbing the same Munros again and again didn’t exactly involve a lot of planning, just a lot of determination.
Then, during the autumn of 2014 Molly started limping. Molly was extraordinary, she never tired of being out on the hill, she completed her own Corbett round in 2012 and climbed 1227 Munros. Her limp started off rather insidiously, coming and going over a couple of weeks. After a visit to the vets Molly was diagnosed with bicipital tenosynovitis (shoulder tendonitis to you and I), restricted exercise was prescribed until the limp resolved itself and in the end, it turned out to be a very long winter! Thankfully after 4 ½ months of veterinary physiotherapy and a slow steady increase in exercise, Molly was ready to get back on the hills. After all that time off, we were both pretty unfit and needed some shorter and easier days to break us back in and the Grahams of the eastern Cairngorms fitted the bill perfectly. These hills have a reputation for being rather unremarkable, and indeed they were! It was fantastic to be back in the hills again and the big Cairngorm skies helped to rejuvenate my enthusiasm to go out and bag something. We had to be very careful not to do too much too soon so we continued to travel further afield and climb more of the easier Grahams. After a couple of months I updated my hill logger and realised I had already summitted over 30 Grahams!
During all our time off I had been chatting away to David Batty who was already well into the final stages of his own Graham round and he was always very clear about what a great set of hills the Grahams were, under-rated, virtually deserted and pretty challenging. I didn’t really need much more encouragement, my passion for the hills had been rekindled and I felt excited at the prospect of climbing lots of new hills and visiting different areas, plus of course, all those delightful hours of planning, something that I was sorely missing during my previous years of Munro OCD.
We visited lots of new places. I am embarrassed to admit that I had never been to the Ochils and had driven past the Luss hills numerous times when we lived in Helensburgh without giving them a second glance. Graham induced visits to Caithness and the accompanying views to Orkney from the summits of Morven and Scaraben will live long in my memory and I will always associate their isolated summits with an overriding sense of space and freedom.
I am sure that if I hadn’t decided to complete the Grahams these areas would remain unvisited to this day. My previous trip to the Outer Hebrides had resembled a ram raid, all that way just to climb Clisham. A slightly longer visit to the Grahams on South Uist and Harris in 2016 whetted my appetite but further exploration was needed and I was very pleased to revisit not just Clisham and the 4 island Grahams again in 2019 but to also explore many of the hidden Hebridean gems that I had simply driven past on previous visits.
I have only met people on a handful of Grahams so they are ideal for the anti-social hill walker. Of course, there are popular Grahams, with Stac Pollaidh and Suilven being the standout hills in Assynt irrespective of their classification. Bill, Molly and I first visited Stac Pollaidh in 2009 and we had done absolutely no research on how hard the route was. During the morning we climbed the Corbett Breabag and from the summit cairn we looked across to Stac Pollaidh and decided to go and climb it that afternoon. We reached the ridge and Bill became unhappy with the exposure, so I left him sitting with Molly and my rucksack and went out to the summit by myself. I looked at the final climb to the summit and realised that there was no way I was going to get up there on my own. I turned around and almost walked into two blokes heading up to the summit, I told them I couldn’t make it to the top and they replied, ‘we’ll get you up there no problem’ and true to their word, they did. I have no idea who they were and I was so relieved to get down in one piece I didn’t ask their names, but I am forever indebted to them for helping me get up and down safely.
We climbed Suilven on a stunning spring day and it lived up to its reputation as one of the most spectacular mountains in the country, I am just not sure why it took me 18 years to climb it.
We were in full bagging mode when Molly started to slow down. Nothing unusual as she was 9 ½ and becoming very grey around the muzzle. A trip to the vet revealed devastating news; Molly had kidney failure. She did not respond to treatment and died at home 7 weeks later in her favourite chair. Ben Stack at the end of June 2016 was the last hill we climbed together.
Life without a dog was hard and hillwalking without a canine companion seemed very lonely, so a few weeks after Molly died Ralph joined the family. He is a Border Collie from a working farm in Dunkeld and he spent the early months of his life learning recall, how to negotiate his way through a boulder field involved several visits to the Chalamain Gap and how not to fall into bogs (which he did, a lot). We gently built up his stamina taking care not to strain his joints and most importantly he learnt not to chase wildlife or livestock on the hills.
The very easy Graham Carn na-h Easgain near Tomatin was Ralph’s first hill. We climbed those unremarkable eastern Grahams all over again and we travelled north, south and west to pick up some of the more straightforward ones that I hadn’t already climbed with Molly.
During Ralph’s first year on the hill we spent a lot of time down in the Borders and Galloway. I had made the decision to climb the Donalds as well and planned my routes to maximise the number of hills climbed on each walk and reduce the number of trips away from home.
Some of these walks, earlier dismissed as a means to an end were a revelation. Maybe I was lucky in that I climbed a lot in August when the heather was in full flower. Beforehand, I would never have thought that the Glen Sax round near Peebles (Dun Rig and 3 Donalds) would go down as one of my Top 10 most memorable hill walks.
Likewise, the circuit of Loch Enoch to Craignaw and Mullwarchar, over some of the most heinous terrain I have ever had the misfortune to walk across, still lives in my mind, not for the tortuously slow progress through the thigh deep undergrowth but for the remote lochs, birdsong and endless views.
I wonder how many Munro baggers have experienced the solitude Ettrick Head? A place you have to put some effort in to get to in the first place and where you will find yourself surrounded by steep sided heathery hills.
The flipside of this was two car linear walk with Frank and Mark over Windy Standard and its accompanying Donalds. We did seriously question our sanity having spent 8 hours on the hill in low cloud and drizzle and where the only features of note were wind turbines, bulldozed tracks, cairns, trig points and endless miles of squelchy bog.
At the start of 2018 I was left with only 35 Grahams left to climb before completion. That doesn’t sound too bad but they were possibly the 35 hardest to do. Some logistically challenging, particularly when you live in Aviemore, trips to Mull, Aran and Jura were needed and somehow all the remote ones had been left to last on the list. In fact, when I showed David Batty my list of remaining hills he laughed!
An Cruachan, Croit Beinn, Beinn Gaire, Meall Garbh, Beinn a’ Chaisgein Beag, Beinn nan Lus, the Mam Hael group, Mullach Coire nan Geur-oirean, Slat Bheinn and Meall nan Eun, Ben Armine and Stob Mhic Bheathain were all still unclimbed.
These names will mean nothing to the vast majority of people reading this but they will send shudders down the spine of those busy bagging the Grahams. All of them are remote, all of them are very long days out and the terrain is typical of the Grahams over miles of pathless bog, tussocks and heather. Only 10 days out but those 10 days amounted to 300km and 11,000m of ascent.
I am lucky that living in Aviemore meant that most of my remaining hills were day trippable from home so I was able save them for decent days and the weather during the late spring and summer of 2018 was generally kind. I left Ralph at home with Bill and travelled to Caithness for the long bike and hike to Ben Armine, with the daffodils and lambs lining the Strath of Kildonan invigorating me for the long 52km day ahead.
We took the boat to Barrisdale Bay for the energy sapping climb up Slat Bheinn and Meall nan Eun and it was the first time I have ever thought I would have to abandon my route due to the heat, despite the fur coat Ralph seemed totally unperturbed by the temperatures and spent much of the day wallowing in burns and water filled peaty hollows. We took advantage of the extended dry spell to venture up Glen Moidart which is reputedly the wettest and boggiest glen in Scotland. In June 2018 it certainly wasn’t; I got back to the car with my books as clean and dry as they were when I set out.
Pouring over the maps I decided on a shorter approach to possibly one of the most difficult to reach Grahams, Beinn nan Lus. The long slog in from Loch Awe did not appeal and I planned an alternative route from Glen Etive over the col between Ben Starav and Glas-bhein Mhor. Closer examination of the map revealed that the col between the two Munros was actually higher than the Graham I was aiming for!
An Cruachan was another solo bike and hike up the scenic Glen Elchaig on another blisteringly hot day. The long slog up Stob Mhic Bheathain above the Cona Glen in Ardgour nearly broke Bill and the mere suggestion of climbing another Graham will induce palpitations.
Completing the Grahams filled in some of the gaps in my knowledge of the highlands, visiting glens I had never been to before and looking at previously visited hills from different angles.
Along with several of my hillwalking friends I used to view the Grahams as a poor relation; of lower height, which obviously equated to something inferior. How wrong we were! They are a massive challenge and, in my opinion, far harder to complete than a round of Munros. I never intended to climb any of them, never mind finish the lot and even more surprisingly I am now almost half way through a second round (and to be honest I have absolutely no idea how that happened either).
I have to admit that some of the Grahams were actually pretty good! That’s it I have said it out loud. In fact, not just good, they gave me some of my most memorable and taxing days on the hill.
So if you are planning on completing the Grahams you will grow to love the luxury of a path when you find one, you will delight in the novelty of meeting another person on the hill and walking through bog filled tussocks will become commonplace. Oh, and don’t leave all the hard ones until last.
In 2019 Ralph and I revisited Ben Stack. It was a bittersweet return, we sat at the summit taking in the views and shared a cuddle.
Beinn Sgritheall – 974m
Date: 20th July 2012
Distance: 5 miles
Ascent: 1, 300m
Two Feet Four Paws: Anne, Bill and Molly
We were en-route to Kintail Lodge for our summer minibreak. We needed a shortish walk, just enough to give Molly some exercise and to make sure we got to the hotel early enough for the pre-dinner drinks. Beinn Sgritheall fitted the bill perfectly.
Despite searching each time we have climbed Beinn Sgritheall we have never been able to locate the cairn marking the start of the path through the woods and have always ended up in Arnisdale ready to tackle the hill from the west and this time was to be no exception!
A rustic handwritten sign indicated the start of the path to Beinn Sgritheall which passes through some scattered birch and oak woodland alongside the burn.
Carn an Fhidhleir – 994m An Sgarsoch – 1006m Date: 17th July 2012 Distance: 25 miles Ascent: 1,250m Weather: Warm, dry and sunny Two Feet Four Paws: Anne, Bill and Molly
These are two much maligned and overlooked hills which give a great feeling of space and freedom in proper big sky country. I enjoy visiting these hills but I really don’t enjoy getting to them. Cycling and I have never really got on, but these are hills where the bike comes into its own unless you enjoy having sore, aching feet. The alternative option of an overnight camp was even more unappealing than using the bike……….so biking it was.
Bill had never climbed these hills and after being bribed with the promise of a fish supper, he agreed to join us.
Bikes send Molly into a frenzy of excitement and for the first half an hour of each ride she runs around in circles barking madly and chasing the bikes.
Ben Starav – 1078m Beinn nan Aighenan – 957m Ghlas Bheinn Mhor – 997m Distance: 12 ¾ miles Ascent: 2,200m Weather: From perfect to dire Date: 26th June 2012 Two Feet Four Paws: Anne, Molly and Milly
It was definitely a day of two seasons.
We started our walk in beautiful summer weather, blue skies, warm sunshine, fluffy clouds and a cooling breeze, the grass was green and the birds were singing. When we arrived back at the car the dogs looked like they had been through a car wash, my boots contained an inch of lukewarm rainwater and I was soaked down to my underwear.
The early morning drive up Glen Etive was stunning and I was looking forward to a big day bagging Ben Starav, an out and back trip to Beinn nan Aighenan and then over Ghlas Bheinn Mhor on our way back to the glen.
On previous visits to these hills the approach routes have always been a boggy slog through an endless squelchy mess before reaching some more solid terrain on the ridges. Today I was pleasantly surprised to find the paths soft and dry after the relatively dry spring. The going was easy under paw and we made quick progress onto the steep north ridge where the views got better and better, even Molly and Milly seemed to be stopping to take it all in rather than dashing around the hillside as per usual.
Ben Cruachan – 1126m Stob Diamh – 998m Date: 20th June 2012 Distance: 6 ¾ miles Ascent: 1,250m Weather: Atmospheric Two Feet Four Paws: Anne, Andy, Molly and Ali
They say it’s not what you know but who you know. How true!
Ben Cruachan is Andy’s local hill and taking advantage of his contacts we were able to drive up to the dam, saving us 300m of ascent and more importantly 300m of knee jarring descent at the end of the day. I am still mentally scarred by the trauma of a previous descent back to the station, through trees and head high midge infested bracken.
After a leisurely start from Oban we were at the dam putting our boots on busily trying to avoid the evil glances from a group of walkers who had sweated up the path from the station. As we walked across the dam and along the western shore of the reservoir Andy pointed out all the security cameras positioned around the reservoir and the dam. A word of warning………………..don’t stop for a pee until you are well up into the corrie or you will find yourself immortalised on CCTV.
Sgurr Choinnich – 999m Sgurr a’ Chaorachain – 1053m Maoile Lunndaidh – 1007m Date: 13th June 2012 Distance: 21 ½ miles Ascent: 2,400m Weather: Warm, dry and overcast Two Feet four Paws: Anne and Molly
I was really looking forward to this walk as it was one that I have always enjoyed on previous occasions and I was delighted that the day could not have turned out more perfectly. I had decided to complete the route on foot as all the faffing about when using my bike always results in a massive sense of humour failure by the end of the day; lifting the bike over the level crossing gates, struggling through kissing gates, pushing it up the steep bits and being eaten by midges getting it on and off the car, it seems far more trouble than it is worth.
Garbh Bheinn – 885m Distance: 5 ½ miles Ascent: 1000m Weather: Hot and sunny Two Feet Four Paws: Anne, Bill, Andy, Robin, Stewart, Sheila, Heather, Ted, Andy, Amanda, Doogz, Alan, Peter, Hamish, Molly, Milly, Ali, Louis, Meg
Molly’s mission to become the first canine Corbett completer.
‘She’ll need a lot of exercise’ said the farmer as he handed me over to my new Humans. Well they certainly took him at his word.
I was born on a Dartmoor hill farm and spent my puppy hood surrounded by moors, tors, hills with loads of fantastically smelly things to roll in and apart from a couple of embarrassing encounters where I was beaten up by sheep, life couldn’t get any better. Then when I was six months old one of The Humans gave up work so she could devote herself to entertaining me full time. Such dedication.
Shortly after my first birthday The Humans started preparing for my first holiday. I had no idea what this involved and I nervously watched as my bed, toys and huge quantities of dog food were loaded into the back of the car. The journey was very dull but eventually we arrived. Wow! All this space to run around in, the hills looked huge and most of them were covered in some funny white powdery stuff. I couldn’t wait to investigate.
My first adventure was on a Munro called Creise. The white stuff made me want to run around like a puppy again……………….in fact after all these years it still does. After a couple of hours, we reached a pile of stones and The Humans stopped, patted me, took my photo and gave me my lunch. A strange ritual that they seem to follow every time we reach a pile of stones. My bagging career had started and during the holiday I climbed my first Corbett, Beinn an Lochain.
A few months later The Humans packed everything we owned into a lorry and we drove north to Helensburgh, but this time we didn’t go home again. I certainly wasn’t going to complain because each night The Humans would look at something called the ‘weather forecast’ and if they started smiling, I knew I would be getting a good walk the next day. We drove for miles to climb up hills and touch the pile of stones at the top and before I knew it I had climbed my 50th Corbett on Beinn Maol Chaluim.
After a few months The Humans packed everything into another lorry and unloaded it in Aviemore. It was November and there was white powdery stuff everywhere, even in our garden!
We kept walking and walking and after a year I was rewarded with a celebratory sausage on Beinn Spionnlaidh to mark my 100th Corbett.
As if walking wasn’t enough The Humans started to experiment with other forms of transport. One day Uncle Andy turned up and made us sit in a lump of plastic and we floated to Ben Aden. This was not an enjoyable experience and I sat on her lap shaking the whole way. I was very relieved to get out and put up a bit of struggle when they tried to get me back in it again.
I became quite an expert on the canine facilities aboard CalMac ferries and I loved to chase The Humans on their bikes in a futile attempt to make them go faster. On one of my overseas trips The Humans took me to Arran and Uncle Andy took us on to the A’Chir ridge. I was having great fun leaping up and down the rocks when suddenly we arrived at a huge drop. ‘No problem’ says Andy. Whoever heard of a dog abseiling? I don’t think I’ll be doing that again in a hurry.
Last year The Humans took me for a walk on a mountain that was on fire!! I was becoming a bit concerned about burning my paws when a huge noisy helicopter appeared and whisked us back to safety. Now that was fun!
In 2012 we walked up to The Cobbler again, but instead of waiting patiently at the bottom, guarding the rucksacks while The Humans climbed it I was trussed up in my climbing harness and before I knew it I was standing on the top!
I traveled the length and breadth of Scotland with The Humans and slowly but surely, I reached 150 on a very snowy Sail Mhor and climbed my 200th during a heat wave on Beinn an Eoin. With only a few Corbetts left to climb I found out that it was probable that I had walked where no other dog had walked before and plans were made for a celebration on Garbh Bheinn.
I thought I was going to burst with excitement! Everywhere I looked more and more of my friends and their doggie companions were appearing. We set off up Garbh Bheinn and once we got to the summit all The Humans seemed very pleased with me, I must have done something special as I was presented with a huge packet of sausages. The Humans were patting me and shaking my paw and everybody was taking my photo.
I’m not sure what was going on but it really was a grand day out!
But l’ll let The Humans tell that tale…………………………….
The idea of Molly completing the Corbetts begun in 2011 when I was updating her hill log and realised she only had 20 to go. The trouble was they were rather widely distributed and the last few walks meant some lengthy drives. South to the Borders, Galloway and Tyndrum, west to Skye and Ardgour and finally north to Foinaven.
Some detailed research followed (Hamish Brown, owner of Kitchy, the first dog to complete the Munros and Dave Hewitt of Angry Corrie fame both helped) and this showed that there had never been a recorded canine Corbett completer so it looked like Molly was likely to gain that honour.
The completion date was set for 13th May but the forecast torrential rain and 100 mph winds materialised and we didn’t even get out of the car. A rescheduled date was planned for 2nd June and the forecast looked pretty good.
We assembled in Ardgour with Molly’s invited guests gathering from afar and 5 dogs adding to the general air of bedlam.
We plodded steadily up the ridge to the 823m top with the views opening up all around us.
Molly and her assembled canine companions.
As we approached the summit, we were greeted by Hamish Brown who had made the journey specially to congratulate Molly on her achievement.
We finally managed to make Molly stand still for long enough to take a couple of summit photos, modelling her doggie buff which was sent to her as a completion present.
Molly and her companions were presented with a packet of sausages each. Most of the dogs scoffed theirs down in a couple of minutes but Robin managed to save a few to torment the dogs with.
We celebrated with the by now traditional cookies and champagne and in all the excitement I totally forgot to get the group together for a summit photo.
Molly was presented with a completion Frisbee at the summit just in case she wasn’t excited enough.
Celebrations over we took a leisurely stroll back down the hill followed by a cool refreshing pint in The Ardgour Inn before we all went our separate ways.
Beinn Lair – 859m Beinn a’ Chasgein Mor – 856m Date: 28th May 2012 Distance: 23 miles Ascent: 2,150m Weather: Hot, hot and even hotter Two Feet Four Paws: Anne, Stewart and Molly
A’Mhaighdean – 967m Ruadh-stac Mor – 918m Date: 29th May 2012 Distance: 22 miles Ascent: 2, 050m Weather: Hot in the glens and cloudy summits Two Feet Four Paws: Anne, Stewart and Molly
On all my previous visits to Fisherfield I had been based at Shenevall and climbed the Munros as a circuit from the bothy, then on my Corbett round I had visited Beinn Lair and Beinn a’ Chaisgein Mor from Poolewe. Stewart was in the final stages of his Corbett round so the opportunity to tackle A’ Mhaighdean and Ruadh-stac Mor via an alternative route seemed too good to miss. The promise of high pressure across the north west miraculously coincided with us both having a commitment free week so the trip was on.
Sgurr nan Coireachan – 953m Garbh Choich Mhor – 1013m Sgurr na Ciche – 1040m Date: 22nd May 2012 Distance: 16 miles Ascent: 1,850m Weather: Warm, overcast and heating up Two Feet Four Paws: Anne, Molly and Milly
Our first two visits to these hills had been in disappointing weather on days when the forecast failed to live up to expectations. The third visit had been during the stunning spring of 2011 where views were limitless and the only difficulty faced on the route was whether we would make it back to the car before we were overcome by heat exhaustion. As a result, I had vowed never to visit the area again unless we were guaranteed the same perfect climactic conditions.
Summer had arrived early in the north west highlands and unlike the rest of the country it seemed keen to stay. I arrived at the end of the road after the nausea inducing drive along Loch Arkaig with the car thermometer already reading 18oc and I was pleasantly surprised to find myself the only car at the start; one of the joys of midweek hill walking.