Hill walking in Scotland can be a serious business, you can spend hours planning your routes, fork out a fortune for gear and tick off Munros or Corbetts, Grahams or Marilyns. You can tackle long ridge walks, seek out those tucked away mountains where you won’t see another person all day and you can join others on some of the [rightly] more popular routes up dramatic mountains. In winter these mountains are often covered in snow that makes the walking much tougher. I enjoy walking in Scotland when the weather and the views are good far too much to be interested in ticking off tops. From my limited experience, although Scottish mountains vary enormously, there are a few experiences that many share and our trip up Morven, the distinctive and yet diminutive mountain in Caithness gives a flavour of the summer hill walking experience. Morven is just 706 m above sea level, making it a Graham, that is a mountain between 610 and 762 metres high.
It is true that not every Scottish mountain requires a long drive along a single-track road, there are some you can climb from the A9, but neither is Morven untypical in requiring almost 6 miles of driving along a narrow lane before you start walking. Owning a campervan adds to the excitement of the start of any Scottish walk as we are often unsure if we will fit in to the car park. I am often amazed at the inconsiderate parking of others in small car parks, when tidier parking would have meant that more cars [or a small campervan] could have fitted in. We set off early on our Morven day and so we got first dips on the parking area that will fit just three cars [if tidily parked].
In the ‘van we often have a brew at this point but eventually we have to put on our gear and venture out on the next stage of the walk; that is reaching the base of the mountain. The walk-in for Morven will be familiar to many hill walkers; the land rover track takes walkers over two and a half miles in to the moorland, ending at an abandoned cottage. At least this track is easy going and good progress can be made as the next section of a typical Scottish mountain walk is the bog trot. The soggy Caithness moorland had grassy tussocks, each one trying to turn over my ankle, and black peaty sections that might look stable but linger for more than a second and your boots are soon covered in dark mud.
Already we have walked for about four miles but haven’t really gained much height and the toughest part is yet to come. Eventually you reach the climb and in Scotland this means a steep, almost vertical hillside. I am the slowest hill-walker in Scotland and it is on this section that I will be over-taken by other walkers. I plod up the hill, desperately trying not to look up, as each time I do the top seems to be no nearer than it was the last time I looked. There is a rule on Scottish mountains that there will be at least one false summit, these catch out the inexperienced walker who will get excited that the top is within reach and will start looking forward to resting. These false summits no longer catch me out, I never expect that what I can actually see will be the summit until I am standing on a point where the only way is downhill. We had Morven more or less to ourselves so there were no other walkers to rush past me, highlighting how snail-like I am. The bonus with my slow pace is that I spot the wildlife. On Morven there was a mountain hare silhouetted on the skyline, a large group of hinds in the distance, a lizard, plenty of frogs, a water vole and a grouse that terrified me as its frantic wing beats broke the silence. There were also flowers; bright cloud berries on the summit, bog asphodel and the heather was in glorious flower.
During this slow ascent of a Scottish mountain the weather will change a number of times, either getting worse or better, the only rule is it will change. Sometimes you have a great view from the summit, sometimes you just miss it, sometimes you are lucky enough to walk through low cloud in to sunshine on the summit and at other times the cloud just stays with you. The uncertainty of the weather means layers are the only way to walk and these will be on and off throughout the day. On Morven we set off on a glorious day that slowly got cloudier. With the cloud came a breeze that was welcome, as when we were sheltered from the wind on the ascent this bought the midges out and I was grateful to reach the blustery and midge-free summit ridge.
Eventually I reach the top, feeling exhilarated and exhausted. The exhilaration is short-lived because I know that, although the climb up seemed interminable and tough-going, the descent is worse. By this point I don’t really care where I put each foot I am so tired but the walking now gets more technical; descending a steep-sided Scottish mountain is tricky and puts lots of weight on the knees. The only way to get through it is to take my time, grit my teeth and once again try to avoid looking at the vast distance I have to cover, concentrating only on securely placing each foot.
On our Scottish holiday, as well as climbing Morven, we walked up two other hills. Ben Rinnes, at 841 metres high is a popular Corbett in Banffshire where the parking is also limited. The summit gives great views and with a well-marked path and only 500 metres of ascent it is achievable in a short day. We also climbed Lochnagar, a splendid and popular mountain above Loch Muick that has plenty of parking. We took the direct route up the mountain, pausing to enjoy the fantastic viewpoint over the corrie before climbing steeply up above the crags. We descended down the lovely path by Glas Allt that is quieter and easier on the knees. After a tiring day of around 12 miles the walk back along Loch Muick seemed to go on forever and if I hadn’t started a game of i-spy-meets-name-that-tune [try and think of a song title that includes something you can see around you, eg River Deep Mountain High] I may never have made it back.