The Grahams: A journey I never intended to take

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).

Guard of honour approaching Fiarach

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.

The seldom ascended Meall a’ Chaorainn

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!

Molly on Beinn Ghoblach

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?)

Views from the Grahams. Creag Dubh Mhor above Attadale

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!

Staggering back to Oban Bothy after climbing Meith Behinn

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.

Carn Gorm above Glen Cannich

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.

Beinn Alligin from Beinn na h-Eaglaise

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!

Molly on Creag Ghuanach

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.

Glen Elchaig from Carnan Cruithneachd

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.

Beinn a’ Mhuinidh in Torridon which translates as ‘hill of pissing’!

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.

Ralph on Uisgneabhal Mor, Harris

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.

Spring skies in Cowal

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.

On the ridge, Suliven

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.

Molly on Ben Stack

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.

Approaching Beinn Talaidh on Mull

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.

Ralph on Lamachan Hill above Loch Trool

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.

Above Glen Sax

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.

Loch Neldricken on our way to Mullwharchar

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 depths of Ettrick Head

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.

Carn Breac in the Coulin Forest

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 Stac above Loch Morar

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.

On Meith Bheinn

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.

Incongruous artwork on the way to Beinn a’ Chasgein Beag

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.

Ben Armine, it’s a long way from anywhere

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.

Ralph on Beinn Ghoblach

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!

Looking back the way we came, Beinn nan Lus

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.

Bill finally looses the will to live

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.

Sandstone pavement and erratics on Beinn a’ Chearcaill

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).

Perfect conditions on The Pap of Glencoe

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.

Posing on Beinn na Muice

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.

The completion cake

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.