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I’m drafting this story just after finishing the one about Carn Mairg and Carn Gorm in Glen Lyon, which went entirely according to plan. This one was the opposite, but it’s still worth including. Walking Stories is not only for tales of successfully executed expeditions. Even short routes can become complicated, and it’s often easier to get lost hiking over low ground than on the open hilltops. And as with so much else in life and work, you can learn more lessons from things that go wrong, than from when everything goes smoothly!
John and I had agreed to go for a hill walk as usual around New Year, and we picked Sunday 2nd January 2005. I picked John up in Dundee, and although there had already been a little snow overnight it didn’t look too bad. We were thinking of heading up towards Aberfeldy, and perhaps climbing one of the medium-height hills such as Farragon Hill (780m) .
The sun was shining as we drove over to Perth, but as we skirted the town and turned onto the A9 at Inveralmond we could see heavy skies ahead, and it looked as though there had been more snow here than in Dundee. Driving towards Bankfoot, we were engulfed in thick snow, and had to slow right down. It was beautiful stuff, pounding the car very gently, muffling the sounds from outside and packing up quickly around the windscreen. Already we were starting to rethink our plans.
After Bankfoot the road climbs suddenly uphill, where it encounters the southern Highland Boundary Fault. The landscape is suddenly transformed from gently rolling pastures into heathery moorland and forestry plantations .This area was one of the first in Scotland to be forested commercially, by the Dukes of Atholl, starting in the 18th century, and there are so many impressive trees that it's promoted by the tourist authorities as "Big Tree Country". The Hermitage, managed by the National Trust for Scotland and situated beside the A9 just beyond Dunkeld, is a popular location to see the trees and follies dating back over 200 years.
Around the twin villages of Birnam and Dunkeld, on either side of the river Tay, there are small but craggy hills; Craig a’Barns just north of Dunkeld is frequented by rock climbers. John hadn’t hiked up any of these hills before (he’d been concentrating on completing the munros and many of the corbetts). If the snow continued, we could struggle in bad conditions on a higher hill then find ourselves stranded in the car somewhere up in Strathtay. So we decided to limit our ambitions and make sure we managed to climb something, then get back home. I’d climbed Birnam Hill a couple of times before: once in my teens during a family holiday staying at Kinfauns Castle; secondly about 20 years ago when we lived near Perth and I went up there during a visit by my brothers. I faintly remember that on the latter occasion we struggled through bracken and rocks and dead branches over uneven ground before we finally reached the top, but I couldn’t remember the route we took.
We turned off the A9 and parked by the roadside at the southern end of Birnam (map ref 038412), where we had a careful look at the map. We were close to where a lane led off to the left and under bridges beneath the road and railway line, and it looked like this provided access to footpaths around and up Birnam Hill. We got our gear on, as the snow continued to fall, and then set out along this little lane. Just after the railway bridge we turned left onto a track through tall conifers along the bottom of the hillside. The snow eased off and the sun broke through – suddenly we had sparkling Christmas card scenes all around us, with the branches of the trees weighed down low by the piles of soft snow.
All seemed fine, but we weren’t quite sure where our route went. I normally photocopy the appropriate section of a map and highlight the planned route on it, but this wasn’t planned in advance, and I was trying to check a path that crossed a fold in the map, having to take off my gloves to do so. I thought that we ought to be heading up the hillside to our right, and there were paths up through the trees, so we took one – but after a hundred metres or so the way petered out and was blocked by branches. We turned back to the original trail, and followed this further round the hillside to another turnoff on the right. It was a wide track, which we followed up between tall trees with the branches laden with snow. John knocked a couple with the hiking pole and the branches sprang up, relieved of the weight.
However after twisting one way then the next, the track arrived at a large flat area cut out of the side of the hill - a quarry! There were large rocks littering the foot of the cliffs and hillsides, but no obvious route through and up the hill. We thought we could clamber up the hillside, and scrambled over large rocks that were made slippery by the wet snow. It was very dodgy - we could easily trap our fingers or ankles - so we carefully turned back down to the track and made our way down again! We weren't doing very well.
Next we found a bit of a track leading off from one of the earlier bends, going further around then up the hillside. We followed this, and soon we were struggling through tall dead bracken laden with snow among scattered trees. Eventually we clambered up a steeper section of hillside to reach a bit of a track which took us up to what looked like a ruin, with piles of stones. Checking the map again, this was obviously the remains of Rohallion Castle. At least we knew where we were!
I scrambled over the low walls of the one-time castle, now very much part of the little hilltop that it grew out of, to see whether we could follow a direct route from there up the hill, but it didn't look too promising. A better prospect lay to the left, where a track seemed to lead across in line with the front of the hill towards some trees, then turn towards a gap in the steep slope.
At last we were on a better track again, and when we turned up towards the gap we found the route was marked by indentations in the snow - it was a line of steps! We had come across the proper route coming up from the south, which we would have reached if we had continued along the original track which (according to the map) curved right around the south side of the hill through Birnam Wood then up to this point.
We trudged up the steps, past a couple of striking Scots pine trees with their bright green needles half-covered in snow set against the clear blue sky. Then the trail headed over lumpy ground through scattered trees and up to the small rocky summit of Kings Seat. Only 404m, but a tricky climb that day!
The sun was still out and we stopped for a snack and hot drink with the line of the Highland boundary fault clearly stretching across the landscape and the lowlands of Perthshire beyond. Looking the other way, we could see a heavy dark cloud moving quickly towards us, and we were suddenly enveloped in a wintry squall with strong winds and snow. As we shoved our gear back into the rucksacks and hurried to get moving, I slipped on the icy rocks and fell awkwardly. Two days later, I had to take an extra day off before returning to work, with heavy bruising to the chest, and this must have been the cause. At the time I just got back up and moved on through the trees following John.
The snow didn't last long - we had a much easier descent, along a clear track. Halfway down there was an outcrop of rock to the right of the trail where we stopped again to take in the view down to Dunkeld, Telford's old bridge over the Tay built in 1809, and the Loch of the Lowes in the distance where ospreys can be seen nesting in the spring (see 2nd panorama below).
From here the trail was a bit steeper, and we had to take care, passing through more woodland and emerging onto a roadway just above Birnam railway station. It was just a short walk from there, under the bridge carrying the A9 road, into Birnam. This was the route we should have taken up the hill, and it would have been much easier (but less of an adventure).
We stopped again for a few minutes, this time to read some information panels in a shelter next to a small garden, telling the story of Beatrix Potter's time spent in Birnam. Apparently it was here that she dreamt up the Tale of Peter Rabbit and other familiar stories. The Visit Dunkeld website has more to say about it.
We wandered back to the car - in bright sunshine again - and at only about 2.00 p.m. it seemed a bit of a pity not to spend more of the rest of the day walking, but we both had other things we should be doing at home, and we set off back to Dundee.
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