A week in Kintail

The author, still climbing mountains at 80.
Photo credit: Gill Swales

In the lush green county of Hampshire lies a range of chalk hills: the South Downs. As a young boy I lived close to these hills in the post-war 1940s as an unofficial evacuee from the London bombings. These diminutive hills rose to the dizzy height of 800 feet at their highest point, Butser Hill, just a couple of miles from our house. My kind Uncle Bill, with whom my mother and I were lodged, would take me for walks down the crab apple tree lane that led to the steep scarp slope of the hill to the top. Descending the other, gentler side, he would share a half pint of shandy with me in the Hogs Lodge Inn in Clanfield, followed by a bus journey back home. Little did I realise what an enduring effect these mini adventures would have on my later life.

In the ensuing years, my father left his military service in the Royal Navy, and we moved up to the flatlands of East Yorkshire, where following secondary education I went through university, and took my first job at the Windscale Atomic Energy Works in West Cumbria.

Little time lapsed before the spark was reignited in a big way, and I began to walk and then later rock climb in the Lake District. The interest soon blossomed to such an extent that it became a way of life, and I became fully immersed in the sports of rock climbing and mountaineering. I must confess that my self-indulgence had negative effects on both my family and career, something of which I am less than proud, but down the ‘rocky road’ of life these outdoor interests have prevailed, helping me in times of stress and self-doubt.

At the age of 81, I am fortunate in that I have retained good physical health and fitness, enabling me to continue with my interest, albeit in a slightly reduced way regarding the climbing. I count myself lucky in that I have a partner who shares my interests, particularly in hillwalking, and we have just returned from a week’s holiday in Kintail, one of my favourite Highland haunts.

Kintail is on the road to Skye and is best known for its famous tourist destination Eilean Donan castle. That apart, it is home to a good selection of mountains of Munro status both sides of its main valley. A Munro is defined as a mountain over 3000 feet in height, named after Sir Hugh Munro, who towards the end of the 19th century took it upon himself to walk and record all 282 of them.

The month of May is one of the best to visit the Highlands. Although not guaranteed, the weather can be settled and it was to our good fortune that this was the case last week, enabling us to ‘bag’ three Munros in the area.

Climbing a Munro is hard work, particularly in descent, which can be unforgiving on ageing knees. There is even a degree of masochism in the activity, with the high points to some being the stop for sandwiches at the summit and the return to the car later. Walking poles are a godsend on these adventures, but the true rewards are the viewpoints, and the simple pleasures of spending time amongst beautiful, rugged country which is ageless and unchanging. Each mountain has a different character, and this was very true of the three Munros we walked that week. On the first day we chose the most accessible one from the road, a mountain named Saileag, 3136 feet in height. Fairly short on distance but with an initial steep approach, providing a sting in the tail on the way back. The day was near perfect weatherwise, and the summit view gave a panorama of the well know Five Sisters ridge with its own three Munro tops.

My partner Gill at the summit cairn of Saileag, with the three Munros of the Five Sisters ridge in the background. Photo credit: R. Bennett

Following a rest day with a cycle ride up a local glen track, we decided the following day to try an ascent of a mountain that had eluded us some years earlier. Ciste Dhubh is an attractive Munro with an elegant ridge approach, and on our first attempt we were turned back by strong winds.

Ciste Dhubh from the South. The summit (just right of centre) is approached up the fine ridge coming in from the left. Photo credit: R. Bennett

Unlike Saileag, the approach is gentler up a long glen. A short steep bit brings one out onto an interesting ridge path leading to the summit at 3212 feet. The ridge itself is quite precipitous in places, becoming like an Alpine path as it narrows and crosses a very steep slope, a fall from which could be fatal! The return is the same as the approach, the long walk down the glen compensated by the mostly gentle gradient, easy on the knees!

Gill along the ridge path of Ciste Dhubh. Photo credit: R. Bennett

Another (real) rest day passed visiting Attadale Gardens, a very pleasant place, with an ageing but affable Laird and his daughter both making us feel very welcome.

Our final foray of the week was up Beinn Sgritheall, a popular mountain in the area, associated with author Gavin Maxwell and mentioned in his book Ring of Bright Water. With a splendid situation above Loch Hourn, there are views into the wild area known as the rough bounds of Knoydart, accessible only by boat or a long walk along estate tracks.

Ascent is from a roadside parking place up a steep, and stony path. Another ‘there and back’ walk, the subsequent pain of the descent being somewhat mollified by the attractive young and old birchwood’s on the hillside, itself carpeted by primroses and violets. Once the bealach is reached on the way up (a dip between mountains also known as a col) the walking becomes enjoyable, with a steady climb leading to a steep winding path and the summit.

Towards the summit of Beinn Sgritheall with The Cuillin Ridge of Skye in the background. Photo credit: R. Bennett
The summit of Beinn Sgritheall on the right with friend Neil posing manfully. Photo credit: R. Bennett

Just to round off, one rest day saw the fulfilment of a trip I had wanted to do for some time, taking a boat from Elgol in Skye into Loch Coruisk, the bay below the Black Cuillin. This loch and its dramatic surround of mountains had previously inspired many artists and writers of the 19th century. They included painters William Daniel, JMW Turner, S.R. Percy and A.T. Lydon. Both Sir Walter Scott and Lord Tennyson were moved to pen vivid descriptions of the scene.

The view from Elgol beach to the dramatic bay, surrounded by the best mountain range in the British Isles. The bay is accessible on foot by a long and difficult walk around the headland just right of centre, including a tricky section known as the Bad Step. Photo credit: R. Bennett

It was with some reluctance that we headed home on the Saturday, the end of one of the best weeks we have experienced in the Scottish Highlands.

Robert Bennett

Our monthly flash theme for May was Walking or Chronic Illness

In May we celebrate National Walking Month with some blogs from keen walkers and ramblers aged 60+, accompanied, hopefully, by some of their photos. We also honour World MS Day with a blog focused on multiple sclerosis and looking generally at how chronic illness and creativity intersect. We would love to read your flash submissions in honour of either or both of these themes. Would you like to tell us something about your experience of being an older person who loves to hillwalk or ramble? Are you an older person managing a chronic illness which has had either a positive or adverse impact on your creativity? Send us your flash submissions!

Entries will be accepted until midnight on May 31st and flash submissions can take the form of a poem, short story or flash memoir. The winning entry will be chosen by the Autumn Voices staff team and the winner will receive the books Walking For Creative Recovery, by Christina Reading and Jess Moriarty and Piranesi by Susanna Clarke.

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