The Argyll forest’s spidery green footprint fills the glens of Cairndow and Dunoon, the ridges of bens and munros bare and heathery above the sudden treeline. Just a mile southeast of the villages Glenbranter and Invernoaden, the long and narrow Loch Eck fills one such glen. At the Loch’s southern point, it drains into the River Eachaig, which meanders further on, past the small pale cabins of a holiday park, and right on by a huge brick manor and an array of broad, flat fields. This manor and its fields, and the endlessly sprawling grounds beyond, are Benmore.
I set out from Glasgow heading west towards Midton, where a ferry makes a short crossing of the Inner Seas to Hunter’s Quay and Holy Loch. Without any intention of finding Benmore, it would be all too easy to drive past without ever knowing what it conceals — a few ordinary-looking grazing fields are surrounded by woods and bordered on one side by a small river, but this buffer of fields is all that is needed to turn the grounds into a perfectly quiet, isolated space for nature to grow.
Upon arriving in Glasgow a few months ago, I had noticed immediately how much more pleasant the quality of the air is here, compared to just about any place in the States I have experienced. But when my shoes hit the gravel at Benmore for the first time, still wet from today’s rain, the freshness of the atmosphere made even Glasgow’s air seem a little gray. I had the thought that perhaps the locals here could determine by scent next Tuesday’s weather, or possibly even count the trees on each ridge with their noses alone, thanks to the remarkable clarity of the air. Nobody has yet to disprove this for me. After just a moment of appreciating the grounds, I stepped out of the misty blue dusk and into the warmth of tungsten lights and fireplaces.
In the manor, I met Jon and Thea. Jon, tall and equipped with a quintessentially British sense of humor, is one of the Centre’s instructors, and was a farmer down in England some years ago. Thea is an old crofter on the Benmore grounds who tends to the cows and sheep while organizing the Benmore Wilderness Centre’s wilderness education program for primary school students. After a light dinner, I headed up to my designated bunk in the tower of the manor, still marveling at the lucidity of every scent from the last few hours. Mere moments later, or so it seemed, I was up again in the quiet of the glen’s soft gray pre-dawn mist.
Our itinerary for Saturday seemed pretty innocuous.
- 7:30 Breakfast
- 8:00 Suit up
- 8:20 Walk
- 18:30 Return
- 19:30 Dinner
Thea, who was leading our walk, described it as a “wee stroll about the grounds”. We were to strike northwest along the river for a bit, do a hill or two, then turn back and be back in time for dinner. “Not a bad time at all” Thea assured us was assured as we strapped on our waterproofs.
Fast forward ninety minutes. We stopped to drink and strip a layer off as we acclimate to activity in the cool, damp air. The sandy road was damp but not muddy, and the sky was a perfectly flat, evenly gray void — the only shadows were the ones directly under our footsteps. A bit of drizzling rain kept us cool while we trekked onwards along the gently sloping path.
We reached the foot of Am Binnean’s main runoff channel, stopping to check the map and get more water into our systems. Thea gestured up the side of the hill and announced that we’d now be heading up the slope, then following the ridge to top both Am Binnean and An Creachan before lunchtime.
Thea proved to be far more sprightly than myself on the ascent, despite being at least twice my age. The grade and conditions seemed as if they simply weren’t affecting her — clearly one of the perks that comes with a lifetime spent outdoors in the Scottish wilderness. As for myself… we’ll just say that I was glad to be getting the exercise.
To say that the hike up Am Binnean was arduous would not be incorrect, but it would be a bit short of conveying the absolute brutality of the hike. Wading upwards through several inches of mud, each footstep barely ahead of the last, practically crawling up the wet slope with only slippery grass as handholds, hoping that nobody asks how heavy my pack is, holding the extra gear I thought I could afford to carry on what was proposed as an easy walk…
The climb wasn’t a technical one, but I couldn’t help but thinking that a technical climb would have been easier in a way, because in this case there was no possibility of resting until we crested the first peak. Handholds could give way at any second, sitting down meant risking a slide all the way back down, and goodness forbid that you misstep on a slick, narrow pathway that drops off at an all-too-close-to-vertical pitch on one side.
Somehow, I made it up onto Am Binnean, the first peaks of the day. Thea cheerily declared it to be tea time, and we rested for a short while before the second major stage of the climb, which would be less technically demanding, but significantly more monotonous. Thea handed around some chocolates, “for the morale” that we would need to make it up to the next peak. Thea checked the map for a bearing, and all too soon we set right on up.
Just when things were starting to seem like they were getting easier, the terrain worsened; the flatter surface held much more water than the slopes, turning every bit of land into bog. Every step, before reaching something stable enough to walk on, first had to pass through half an inch of water and at least an inch of mud. With visibility strangled by the mist, there was no second peak in sight, but we carried on, checking the compass every ten minutes. Despite the obvious nature of the climb — to keep going upwards — it was all too likely that we could find ourselves on the wrong side of a cliff in the thick mist. Not a desirable prospect in the least.
If I had any suggestions for anybody attempting our path in the future, it would simply be to bring an aide with an entire pack filled with chocolates — for the morale, of course; you’ll need much more of it than you expect. There are three false peaks between Am Binnean and An Creachan, and each one appears so uncannily like a real peak from below that at first, we thought that we had made amazing time on the climb.
Not so. The second peak we crested, we certainly all thought “Finally, after that no-good false peak, it will be a relief to reach the top”. Nope. Another fake. The third one came and we all saw straight through its disguise. It was at this point I became certain that, as they say in the war stories, morale was at an all-time low.
And when we were least expecting it, the hill flattened out into a broad plateau, broken up by jagged piles of rock formations. Thea consulted the map and remarked that there ought to be a bit of a cliff on our right by now. We wandered a bit that way to investigate, and then, out of the mist:
A small cement block, in the form of a truncated obelisk, faded into view. Thea looked down to the map and compass to verify — and indeed, this was the peak of An Creachan! If we had been much further off course, we would have walked right by it and taken the express route to the base of the cliff looming ahead of us.
I don’t think that I have ever enjoyed a cheese sandwich as much as I did right then, at the top of the misty peak An Creachan on our “wee stroll about the grounds” at Benmore. Even the finest Scottish cheddar will never be able to conjure such satisfaction for me.
The way down was wet, peaty, and hard on the knees, but the joy of finding the peak kept us going strong until we hit the treeline. Most of the forestation in Glen Massan is planted and cut by the Forestry Commission, so the trees are packed so densely as to be impermeable by anything larger than a squirrel. The search for one of their service paths was tedious; we took turns speculatively reconnoitering potential paths and calling the go-ahead or no-good back to the others. Fortunately, we found one not too far north of where we wanted to be, and it luckily had a little stream from which we replenished our water stores. It was cool and crisp, like the taste that bottled water tries so hard to live up to.
At last we hit the road, surprisingly hard beneath our feet after all of the bog scrambling. We were right on time to get back before sunset — all that was left was the walk back along the river, just a mile or two to Benmore, where a hot dinner and dry socks awaited!
More images from my travels in Scotland can be viewed here.