I’m a big sky girl and Scotland is a big sky country. So I’m a little disappointed when the clouds close in and truncate the view, flatten the tops of hills, hide beauty that I know is there. We turn to the Queen Elizabeth forest (clearly not Scottish Nationalist territory) surrounding Aberfoyle, walking alongside Loch Ard and a stunning, perfect reflection of the low hills beyond it which show that anything a New England fall can do they’ll have a damn good try at matching.
Large houses sit beside the lake, most with a boathouse at the water’s edge, and tall pines rise straight and tall alongside the path. The ground beneath them is bright green with moss, dark humps of brown scattered around where trees have toppled and pulled the earth up with their roots. The wind rises and leaves whirl around us, enjoying their brief moment of freedom before becoming trapped in mud and moss. Fungi cling to fallen trees, fronds of white lace against green velvet. I love the open wild land of the moors but this woodland is a magical place.
The next day begins clear but the forecast is for rain so we rush to try and bag a hill whilst the views are visible. The board at the foot of Ben A’an says the track is ‘strenuous’ and ‘not waymarked’, so ‘map and compass are necessary’. But the well-made path leading straight up the hill contradicts this and a lovely man at Tourist Information recommended us here, so we set off with the aim to get as far as we can but prepared to turn back if the path disappears or the weather turns.
It’s a steep climb, the view behind us opening out, sun rays silvering the surface of Loch Achray. Dark clouds turn the light to that of early dusk, deepening the colours around us. The only sounds are the tap of my poles, the click of small stones under my boots and the chirrup of a small bird that flits around me but won’t stay still long enough for me to identify it. Some oaks are surprisingly still green, leaves curling brown at the edges, but most are in full autumn dress, dark yellow and golden brown. A small copse of birches glows bright yellow and tiny splashes of colour line the path – a tenacious strand of purple heather, a few ruby red berries.
We leave the wood and the path steepens, big steps and rock scrambles, a mountain stream falling beside us, the cone of Ben A’an directly above us. The way ahead is steep and slippery and we know we must turn back. Disappointed, we do so, then realise we missed the path which has stepped across the stream. We continue our climb with some scrambling but the path is easy to follow, breaking out to a flatter section. We crest the final saddle and the view is stunning. Dark clouds hide higher, farther mountains, but the hills around Loch Katrine are clear and the water stretches long and dark, unlit by sun, a sliver of white boat gliding across it.
In little over an hour, no crampons required, we’re amazed at how high we’ve climbed. The light wind from below is fierce up here and we soon retreat away from the chill, dropping quickly, the yellow birches in view, traversed, behind us. Water spits our faces and we hear voices – others climb towards us. We’re glad we were early and had the mountain to ourselves. Some seem woefully under-prepared, clearly undeterred by the dire warning at track beginning. One couple are in city coats, he in jeans and she wearing light plimsolls, neither carrying rain gear. As we drive away the rain comes in. I suspect they will not be enjoying their walk.
The climb out of Balmaha, on the east shore of Loch Lomond, up Conic Hill, is easier. It’s all relative – this path is slippery and badly eroded, some areas so rough it’s a huge step for me and requires a pull up from Neil. We’re on the West Highland Way until that long-distance path circuits the summit and we continue, scrabbling up a steep rocky slope, the wind trying its best to dislodge me. At the top it’s freezing and I pull the cords of my hood tight, squinting into the sun, my coat a sail the wind uses to buffet me around.
The views are astounding, west across the Loch to rolling hills, north to jagged peaks dancing in and out of cloud and, closer, the snowy mound of Ben Lomond. No wonder I’m cold! On the descent, my pole, a necessary support in this terrain, sinks almost a foot as I lean on it. Laughing, I pull it up and realise it hasn’t sunk into the mud, it’s given up the ghost, the lower part sliding in and out and not holding, its spring clearly broken. Along with its partner it’s supported me up and down many climbs throughout the world and it feels like I’ve lost a trusted friend.
We drive around the loch in search of the bonnie banks and, as I suddenly remember from my first trip to Scotland over thirty years ago, find it uninspiring. Most of it is inaccessible behind gated properties, many of them exclusive golf courses. Even Luss, supposedly Scotland’s prettiest village, is underwhelming, full of people wandering aimlessly, the church and a famed smokehouse closed, the only shop open on a Friday being the gift shop.
We find the big sky as we drive farther north, destination Aviemore. It’s a day of sunny showers, the hills bright and the lochs blue one minute, cloud darkening it all the next. It’s more stunning scenery, the Glens of Garry and Tummul wide and open-sided, similar to the moors, behind them rising snow-covered mountains, many Munros I imagine. A rainbow arcs over Aviemore, the hills one side of the valley hidden by sleety rain, the other side shining in the sun. Hopefully the sun will beat the rain for our walk tomorrow.