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The Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal
The Killan Hills


By J. G. STOTT.

"Till now you dreamed not what could be done
With a bit of rock and a ray of sun.
But look how fade the lights and shades
Of keen bare edge and crevice deep,
How doubtfully it fades and fades
And glows again yon craggy steep."

—RUSSELL LOWELL.

ALTHOUGH bulky Ben Lawers, with his height of 3,984 feet, claims sovereignty over all the hills of the Loch Tay district, and indeed over all Perthshire, nevertheless his entourage includes some princes and potentates to whom it is fitting that the mountaineer should render homage.

A brief note in the September (1890) number of the Journal chronicles a most enjoyable ramble the writer made with Mr H. T. Munro—well named by the President "our indefatigable colleague "—over the Ben Lawers range proper, i.e., Bn Ghlas (3,657 feet), Ben Lawers, An Stuc (3,643 feet), Meall Garbh (3,661 feet), and Meall Gruaidh (3,280 feet). The two western hills of the group—Meall Corranaich (3,530 feet) and Meall a Choire Leith (3,033 feet)—we left unclimbed for some future occasion. Immediately to the west of the last-mentioned hills a deep glen— or, to be more correct, pair of glens, connected by a col at a height of about 1,700 feet—carries a road across from Loch Tay to Bridge of Balgie in Glen Lyon, a wildly picturesque walk of about nine miles; and westward again from this depression boldly upheaves, in steep green slopes and rocky scarps and cliffs, a very fine cluster of peaks, to which, from the name of their culminating point, we had hitherto been accustomed to give the name of the Tarmachan tops. These are the stony summits that fill the horizon immediately to the north of Killin.

For some years past I had entertained quite a grudge against these Tarmachan tops. On several occasions, when an ascent was meditated, the weather took such a determined turn for the bad, that pleasurable climbing was not to be thought of; and so it came that, as one hill after another all through that country was conquered, the Tarmachans still raised their heads and mocked me. Once indeed, in May 1890, I travelled specially from Edinburgh to put a stop to this. But the Tarmachans were wrapped in fog of truly Cimmerian density and darkness; and though I did succeed in gaining an elevation of about 2,500 feet upon one of them, I became entangled among nasty crags, and, being alone, was glad to come down and return home baffled.

Such a state of things could not be allowed to last, so when December frosts brought a promise of finer weather, I enlisted Munro, and together we journeyed to Killin, amply provided with warm clothing, compasses, aneroids, quite a library of maps, and our ice axes, and determined to make a most resolute assault upon these ill-omened peaks.

The stars were twinkling in the sky as we left the hotel a few minutes after eight o'clock on the morning of the 21st December, but the rapidly strengthening light, and the beautiful tints of sunrise over in the south-east, gave promise of a fine day. The snow lay three inches deep all over the country, and our objectives—the four Tarmachan tops—towered above the dark woods and the lower hills white as though hewn out of marble. Cold! Indeed it was. Munro's pocket thermometer registered its utmost, 18 of frost, and then the mercury disappeared into the bulb; so we were hardly surprised to find the Lochay River fast bound in ice both above and below the bridge.

Just before reaching Boreland, in Glen Lochay, we quitted the road and took to the steep frozen hillside. About an hour carried us over or round the intervening ridges to the foot of the main mass of Creag na Caillich, the westward high hill of the group. For a few hundred feet the slope became very steep and strewn with great boulders and outcrops of rock. These were often ice-coated, and fringed with long grey icicles, and between and amongst them the snow had drifted to the depth of a few inches. But we soon left this ground behind us, and worked our way upwards over smooth hard snow. Close on our right were the fine crags enclosing Coire Fionn Lairige, and their tops formed hummock after hummock, each one surmounted showing another and higher one in front of us.

The sunrise was particularly beautiful. Up out of the rosy mists came the huge red orb of day, tinging the clouds with gold and crimson, flashing back in a million prismatic points of light from the gleaming snowfields. Away in the north-east the great snowy peaks we meant to climb shone like molten gold, their every detail seen most distinctly, and yet appearing far farther away than we knew them to be. At 10.25 we reached our first summit, Crag Caillich, 2,990 feet. At our feet we had the crescent sweep of Coire Fionn Lairige, a horse-shoe some three miles in circumference, fenced all round with crags and rocks, dominated by the shapely summits of Ben Nan Eachan and Meall Garbh, [These names are taken from the six-inch to the mile map. They are not given on any other, nor are their heights. Our aneroids made them respectively about 3,350 feet and 3,400 feet.] drained by the now frozen streams that fall into the head of Loch Tay, and give its name, Finlarig, to the ruined castle there. Deep down below, fringed with dark pinewoods, was the loch; and far beyond it, in the south, Ben Voirlich and Stuc a Chroin showed 500 feet or more of their long ridgy backs above a stratum of cloud. They were yet in shadow; but farther west Ben More and Stob Binnein reared their graceful cones high above cloudland, and bathed their snowy slopes in the warm golden sunshine. Others of the western hills were in sight too, all heavily snow-clad; and nearer us Meall Ghaordie lifted his great pyramidal shape, and invited the visit we meant to pay him before evening.

The long craggy flank of Crag na Caillich forms one side of a horse-shoe, and we had now to work our way round its inner bend. A few hundred feet of descent, some intricate ins and outs among the frozen hummocks, in the course of which we surprised a few mountain hares, and once more we began to rise, on the western abutment of Ben nan Eachan. The slope was very steep, probably about 40, the snow deep and very firm. Had the gradient been a little steeper, or the snow a little harder, the axes would certainly have had some work to do; as it was, by taking the ascent In short zig-zags, so as to bring the cutting edges of our boots into play instead of the points, we got up to the ridge without difficulty. Here and there we came upon patches of ice, but a slash or two with the axe easily surmounted them.

The weather had been thickening a little in the west since sunrise. A light breeze had sprung up, and the temperature had risen, and now, as we followed the ridge to the summit, a thin grey mist came brushing past. The sunlight played fanciful tricks with it, painting it with beautiful rainbow tints; and once, for a few moments, our shadows were projected, enormously magnified, on to a distant snow slope, where they stalked along with aspect terrific. We reached the top at eleven. There was small inducement to stay, for the distant views were now all blurred with mist, and a cold wind was sweeping the frozen particles along the snow with a rustling noise that was quite eerie.

But as we descended to the next col, a few hundred feet, the sun again appeared, and the splendid sweep of crags, —scraps of snow, ledges fringed with icicles, rocks rearing black and naked, or gray with rime and hoarfrost,—supporting the three white peaks, made a picture quite Alpine. There must be some good climbing among the Coire Fionn Lairige rocks. For the most part they do not look very difficult, but there are some fine cliffs and chimneys amongst them.

MealI Garbh (the Rough-hill—wherever you find that name it is generally well called) was taken in the same way as Ben nan Eachan. A steep climb from the cal up the western abutment, thence along a sharp ridge to the top. But in the case of this hill, the last dozen yards of the ridge is a fine are'te of rocks not more than two or three feet wide, and from it the actual summit rises as a rocky turret a few yards in height, from whose hand and footholds we had to clear away the snow and ice before venturing on to it. Meal! Garbh is a very shapely hill, quite the best of the group, and more deserving of pre-eminence than great lumpish Meall nan Tarmachan (3421 feet), for which we next turned our faces.

Meal! Garbh had been reached at 11.45, and, following the highest line we could get, we crowned Meall nan Tarmachan at 12.15, nearly an hour before our calculation. The mist gave us little or no view; and when we had laid off a compass course W. by N. for Meal! Ghaordie, we commenced a steep descent to the huge corrie drained by the Alit Bhail a Mhuillin. The snow was too hard for glissading, and it concealed numerous ice-patches—the frozen overflow of springs—which necessitated some caution. At a height of 2,500 feet, in deep snow, we came upon a mouse endeavouring to get a drink at one of these frozen basins. All morning we had been coming upon plenty of hares; and certain numerous tracks, which we took for those of small birds, wheatears or pipits, had been puzzling us. A close examination now showed that these had been made by mice or other small quadrupeds.

We ate our lunch as we descended the last slopes of the corrie, struck the stream at a height of about i,800 feet and, after smashing in the ice in order to get a drink, we lit our pipes, and started very leisurely to climb the ridge of Meall Ghlas. We topped it at about 2,500 feet, and immediately made another descent of some 700 feet to the Lairig Breisieich, a narrow depression that runs northeastward, to the west of the Tarmachan group, from Glen Lochay to Glen Lyon. For nigh two miles of a villainous frozen bog—all peat haggs and heathery hummocks—we travelled in a south-westerly direction. Our course was parallel, more or less, with the main direction of the ridge of the Tarmachans. To turn the shoulder of Ben nan Oigreagh we had to rise 200 feet. Most of that we lost again in descending to cross the lolaire Burn; and then at three o'clock in the afternoon, just as old Sol sank, blood- red, behind the Tyndrum Hills, we started from a height of 1,600 or 1,800 feet for the top of Meal! Ghaordie (3407 feet).

Easily rising at first through long heather and snow, among bothering hummocks and hollows, we put the pace on in a race with gathering darkness. When we reached the. foot of the long southern ridge, not very far below its junction with the summit, we rose straight at it. The snow was deep now, and many a pile of ice-clad boulders had to be surmounted or turned, and many a treacherous slide of ice called for prompt aid from the axe.

We topped the ridge, to find ourselves enveloped in thick mist. The snow was a foot deep here, concealing both ice and boulders in many places, and in and out among crags and rocks we scrambled at our best pace. "Three thousand—three thousand two hundred—three thousand four hundred feet," said the aneroids; and then, "Hurrah"! in front of us the huge saucer-shaped cairn marking the top.

We only noted that it was four o'clock, and then turned in our tracks and bolted with all the speed, that was consistent with caution. Many a rude rub our shins took from snow-covered rock; not a few rude sittings-down we owed to unseen ice; but ultimately we got off the steep and rocky part of the ridge, and in thinner snow followed its easily falling line down to Glen Lochay. We reached the road at 5.20, near the farm of Dalgirdy, and almost immediately the moon—whose assistance would have been invaluable on the ridge—came out.

The snow-clad glen, the frozen river, the dark leafless woods, the huge misty hills, were wondrously beautiful in the moonlight; but a degree of cold that turned our leggings into solid masses of ice, and froze our wet gloves on our fingers, made us rejoice when half-past six saw us back in our hotel. We had been out ten and a quarter hours, steady if not fast going all the time; and a feeling of wholesome satisfaction took possession of us, after an excellent dinner, that on the shortest day of the year we had been able not only to subjugate the whole family of the Tarmachan tops, but to throw another good big hill into the bargain.


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