JUNE 2000: The most noble of plans sinks into dregs outside the Bridge of Orchy Hotel. I’m walking the West Highland Way, and today I’ve hiked the few miles along General Wade’s military road from Tyndrum to the scattering of buildings that is Bridge of Orchy, with the intention of pitching the tent on the riverbank and climbing Beinn Dorain (pictured) before recommencing my walk tomorrow. But having downed several pints of beer and a beef sandwich on arrival, I now feel like dozing in the sunshine. So I do. Take no notice of Hogarth. Beer is the ruination of the productive classes, not gin . . .
This is a retro post for Because They’re There. It’s a letter from the past featuring a memorable walk and the contemporary events surrounding it . . .
June 2001: Back at Bridge of Orchy after a couple of days in Glen Nevis, I park the car, pull on my gear, and march up the tarmac road to the station, where the path to the summit of Beinn Dorain begins. I’m feeling good – full of energy and baked beans. There’s an underpass runs beneath the West Highland line, and on the other side a gate to the expansive mountainside. The sun is shining and a keen wind’s blowing from the north. On the gate is a notice that says: FOOT AND MOUTH. ACCESS TO OPEN COUNTRYSIDE FORBIDDEN. Neither a cow nor a sheep is to be seen.
September 2001: Back a third time. The morning is cold and cloudy. At intervals of precisely fifteen minutes, great squalls of hail sweep in from the west across Rannoch Moor, obliterating the visible world and confounding the senses with noise and pain. They are sudden and ferocious. And more than a bit scary.
Clad head to toe in winter gear, I struggle up a waterlogged path to the bealach between Bein Dorain and its northern neighbour. Up here there is snow in the hail and ice in the wind. Visibility is poor, even between squalls. Conditions deteriorate with every inch of altitude gained. This isn’t what I signed up for. It’s always blue sky and purple heather on the shortbread tins.
I’ve had three months to ponder over the foot-and-mouth notice. According to my research, access should not have been blocked in this part of Scotland. I think somebody was pulling a fast one, like the farmer at Piercebridge who closed all the paths on his land then opened them up at the height of the crisis when his pick-your-own strawberries were ready. No strawberries here, though. Just misery.
Beinn Dorain is one of the most beautiful and shapely mountains in the Scottish Highlands when viewed from the road north of Tyndrum. It is a stately pyramid rising from a glorious green glen. On certain days, travellers can glimpse the pure white smoke of steam locomotives as they haul passenger services around the mountain’s toes and across the picturesque viaducts of the West Highland line between Glasgow and Fort William.
But, like many beautiful and shapely mountains, the beauty and shapeliness diminish when the peak is observed from different angles. Rising above Bridge of Orchy, Beinn Dorain and its neighbour are great swelling green lumps connected by a dark and indefinite ridge, hardly worthy of celebration on a tea-towel, never mind a shortbread tin. Up here today in the howling wind and thrashing hail, Beinn Dorain is an ugly, grey, inhospitable beast.
On the 1,076-metre summit I experience a rare moment of satisfaction. As another squall retreats, the world opens up at my feet and I glimpse – for a few seconds only – distant glens and hills rolling south towards Loch Lomond and Glasgow. If I had my camera I’d take a picture, but I ran out of film yesterday in Glen Nevis. And I’m not spending money on one of those digital contraptions, because you just know they are a complete gimmick and are going to share the same ignoble fate as eight-track audio tapes and Dixieland car horns. I’ve been caught out like that before.
I backtrack to the bealach with hail drumming the left side of my body, but instead of heading down to the station I climb northern slopes towards Beinn Dorain’s neighbouring Munro, the 1,004-metre Beinn an Dothaidh. Hail and snow scatter horizontally from the west. It’s an uncomfortable and challenging experience.
Huddled behind the summit cairn of Beinn an Dothaidh, drinking my last cup of hot tea and totally insulated from the slenderest of views, I decide to make a hurried return to the car, but in doing so become temporarily lost on a windy plateau. This experience adds an uncomfortable half-hour to my walk.
Down at Bridge of Orchy the rain drifts in waves as wind buffets Rannoch Moor. It’s no day to sit outside the hotel enjoying beer and beef sandwiches. Instead, I brew a pan of tea in the shelter of the hatchback.
High in the mist, Beinn Dorain and Beinn an Dothaidh stand unseen and unmoved by my visit. Unlike audio tapes and the fickleness of man, mountains don’t alter. The squalls roll in, wind bends trees, yellow lights flicker on distant trains, but the mountains remain tall and constant.
I dwell upon this thought during the long drive home. Perhaps that’s a reason why people climb mountains – because those rocky lumps are one of the few constants in our lives.
Anyone want to buy an eight-track tape player and one of those anti-static straps to hang from your car bumper? What about a camping stove toaster made from asbestos – brand new in 1968 and only used once by my father on a family holiday in Cornwall? Pair of Wayfinder shoes with the footprints of ten British animals moulded on the soles and a secret compass in the heel? Penknife with a tool for removing stones from horses’ hooves? Steel punch for making triangular holes in beer cans (essential item at one time)? Canvas igloo tent and foot-pump . . . ?