The Angry Corrie 51: Sep-Nov 2001
Life up top - John Burnett turns his thoughts to high things
HILLS AND MOUNTAINS can be appreciated in many different ways. TAC indulges those of us who like pecking away at lists, while recent issues have also mentioned the aesthetic enjoyment of mountain scenery, for instance through the writings of W H Murray. Some people, heaven help them, like running up hills. Others are fascinated by the history of hillwalking, or by the study of flowers and birds. And the hills are places where people have worked and lived in the past.
So, combining the list-making and human interest approaches to the hills, I have been wondering about the highest points in Scotland at which various things have been built or done. The purpose of this article is to seek out information from those whose knowledge of the hills is wider than my own, and I am already grateful to Ian R Mitchell (IM) for his observations. I'd be interested to hear from anyone with any information - please get in touch either via TAC itself or direct at the National Museums of Scotland: firstname.lastname@example.org
Highest shieling Shielings were inhabited in summer by people who came to graze cattle on ground remote from their winter quarters so that the lowland grass could recover over the summer. Shielings were usually chosen well above the winter toun. Under the name transhumance this practice has been identified over much of Europe, as when the Swiss take their cattle to the Alps.
The OS Landranger map is a doubtful friend when seeking shielings. Sheet 51 helpfully marks a fair scatter of them (the explanation is probably that the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland did a lot of fieldwork in the area north of Loch Tay), but other maps show few or none when there are many. Anyone who has walked in the Highlands is familiar with the low lines of rubble which are the remains of walls repaired and rebuilt every spring. In The Making of the Scottish Rural Landscape (1995), David Turnock refers to a shieling high on Creach Bheinn north of Kingairloch - but I am not sure exactly where it was. [Donald Bennet, in the SMC Corbetts book, pp124-5, refers to "a dry stone walled enclosure that may have been built as a look-out at the time of the Napoleonic wars". This is "just N of the summit", ie just below 853m - Ed.]
The highest shieling known to me is at 630m, on the south side of Ben Lawers, which must have been one of the very few regularly inhabited places above the 2000-foot line. IM points to shielings in Coire na Cnamha between An Stac and Rois-Bheinn which are probably a little lower. He also mentions a prehistoric camp on Ben Lawers, at 2150ft/650m.
Highest house (likely to have been inhabited all year) Shieling of Saughs stands at 630m in a remote spot near the head of the Water of Saughs in Angus (44/396758). It is both the site of a high shieling (based on its name) and a very high house (it's marked as a building). I haven't been there: is it a shepherd's cottage, presumably now in ruins? Or a bothy? I was once told that Corrour Old Lodge (the one which looks down on the West Highland Railway from 540m on the slopes of Carn Dearg) had been the highest house in Scotland before it was burned out. But Fealar Lodge under Carn Bhac among the headwaters of the Tilt is at about 550m (43/009800). During its lifetime (1883-1904), Ben Nevis observatory was continuously inhabited and unbeatable.
Highest remains relating to deer stalking This is taken to include paths, dykes, fences, butts, bothies, and so on. Some of the answers here may depend on the activities of the eccentric and unlovable Walter Winans, who in the 1880s leased a huge tract of country running from Kintail to Strathfarrar and is supposed to have erected a huge iron fence to stop "his" deer from leaving "his" ground. Does anyone know exactly where this was, and whether anything remains?
A bothy I take to be a hut occupied intermittently rather than being, like the shieling, linked to seasonal grazing. Here John Kerr's The Living Wilderness (1996) provides some ideas stemming from his descriptions of how the deer-related aspects of the Atholl estates actually worked. He mentions two very high bothies: Carn a'Bhuta on the south side of Carn Bhac (43/035822) and McAra's bothy, east of Glas Mheall Mor (42/683773), both around the 880m mark. But the winner is surely that built for Winans near the summit of Mam Sodhail, at over 1000m (IM).
Highest dyke The highest dyke is probably the one on Beinn Dearg in the Inverlael Forest, which must reach to about 1070m. It is certainly higher than the one on the South Cluanie Ridge and that over Garbh Chioch Mhor (1013m) in Knoydart. Is there still a stone wall over Cairn of Claise (1064m)? The highest dyke in the south of Scotland may be on Cairnsmore of Carsphairn, for controlling the wanderings of sheep. What was the purpose of the Beinn Dearg one? An attempt to stop deer crossing from one forest to another?
Highest roads The three highest metalled roads which actually go somewhere are those over the Cairnwell (680m), the Lecht (635m), and the Bealach na Ba (625m). The car park at the top of the Cairngorm road is at about 750m. Of the Wade generation of metalled roads, the Corrieyairack reaches 780m. The highest drove road must be the Monega, which passes over the east side of Glas Maol above 1010m. [The flimsy bothy/hut just NW of Little Glas Maol is now away, but my tatty copy of OS43 has this written on it: "Ruin but some unroofed SW/NE protection, 20/1/90". The hut was at 43/174761, at a height of 960m - Ed.] The highest made path is the one up Ben Nevis. The highest Land Rover tracks are probably those on Beinn a'Bhuird (highest point 1080m) and Mullach Clach a' Bhlair (990m).
Highest inn The highest may be Inchnabobart (400m) near the Spittal of Glenmuick, which closed in about 1850 (IM). The heights of some other inns are: Kingshouse (Glen Coe) 245m, Tibbie Shiel's 240m, Aultguish 225m, Cluanie 210m, Tontine (Carsphairn) 180m, Kingshouse (Balquhidder) 140m. Were there higher inns at drovers' stances?
Highest reservoir The highest reservoir, including those which began as natural water but have been raised, is not the Cruachan reservoir at about 400m, but Lochan na Lairige, between the Tarmachans and Ben Lawers (520m). It doesn't seem very high compared with the upper reservoir of the pump storage scheme in the Wicklow Mountains at about 620m.
Highest racecourse In the south of Scotland racecourses were often at surprisingly high levels. There are still traces of Berwick's course on top of Lamberton Moor at about 200m, for instance. Its origin lies in the beating of the burgh's bounds: the riders stopped halfway round to have a race. This is also the reason why Hawick racecourse is at a height of 240m. The highest of all was at Duns, or rather about 5km west, on top of Hardens Hill or Langton Edge. I have not been able to establish the exact location, but it must in part have been over 350m and thus provides the only example of horse racing in Scotland above the 1000-foot line.
Highest electricity line The clear winner at 790m is the one which defaces the Corrieyairack Pass. A dishonourable mention goes to the line over the Lecht (635m), helping to make the summit of the Lecht road, for my money, the most horrible place in the Highlands.
Highest microwave tower / other electronic gizmo The aircraft navigation beacons on Green Lowther are at 732m and the awful mobile phone mast on Mount Blair at 744m (IM). Any other offers?
Highest ecclesiastical structure This is pretty boring, as far as buildings in use are concerned: the churches in Leadhills (around 400m) have no apparent competitors. The kirk at Corgarff is at 380m. Delving into history, Soutra Aisle is at 360m. The hospital at Spittal of Glenshee was at 340m and its counterpart at the north end of the Monega pass was about 510m. Did the Border abbeys have remote chapels high in the hills? Graveyards seem no more interesting, though one notes the Dead Wife's Grave at 425m on the Thief's Road south of Stobo. The most probable story is that she was the wife of one of Montrose's Irish soldiers - he had a contingent from Antrim with him at Philiphaugh - fleeing from Leslie's troops (thanks to Trevor Cowie for this).
Any thoughts on the location of the highest corpse in Scotland? The unfortunate Ayrshire man who died after the Battle of Rullion Green is about 400m up on Black Law (72/078522), and the graves of the Atholl men - who fell in combat with the Braemar men while the latter were trying to divert the headwaters of the Tilt - seem to be about 485m. One is grateful that the Earl of Fife's plan - to have himself buried under a giant pyramid on top of Ben Macdui - did not mature. (See Henry Alexander's original 1928 SMC guide to the Cairngorms, p115.)
Highest market Alexander (p62) writes of an important cattle market on top of An Sgarsoch (1006m). This may seem odd, but a mountain top was a distinctive place, often on a boundary and so to some extent neutral. The distinguished Celtic scholar, Dr Ronnie Black of the University of Edinburgh, has suggested that "Aonach" place names may indicate hilltop markets. One wonders: most of us associate aonach with big jaggy mountains (specifically, well-defined ridges), and Peter Drummond in Scottish Hill and Mountain Names (pp20-21) favours that meaning.
Highest forests and plantations Finally, we come to the question of trees. Where is the highest plantation? There are very few above 600m. From the maps to hand I think the most elevated plantations are those: (a) above Loch Lubnaig, on the eastern slopes of Benvane at about 630m; (b) on the Braes o'Balquhidder at the same height; (c) on the northern slopes of the Grey Corries at about 650m; and (d) finally and apparently highest, on the southern slopes of a remote Corbett west of Glen Feshie, Carn Dearg Mor, where there are two plantations. One corner of the more easterly one breaks the 660m contour (35-43/818903). The highest point of the plantation to the west is about 20m lower, and its west side is along the Minigaig path. I write with some hesitation, for these trees may have been felled. The first three are all part of large areas of tree planting, but the last two are comparatively small blocks; one wonders who put them there and why. The plantation which reaches 530m in Glen Lee (44/389818) was established to shelter deer in bad weather. Is that the purpose of the others?
The game of finding the highest fank ... bridge ... bar ... bar selling absinthe ... bar selling good absinthe ... bar selling good absinthe where you can get a seat ... can obviously be continued to the point of insanity, whether caused by absinthe or lists. But if any readers have any suggestions on the points raised above, or on similar matters, I would like to hear more.
Ed. - A few personal thoughts/observations before everyone else chips in. Highest remains relating to deer stalking: there is an odd stone shelter tucked in on the "wrong side" (the north-west) just below the top of Carn an Fhreiceadain, the 878m Corbett above Kingussie. This is well hidden and I'd climbed the hill a couple of times before happening to arrive on top in an easterly blizzard, when it came in handy. There are also a couple of well-made stone shelters high on Beinn Liath Mhor Fannaich, again almost certainly stalking-related. I don't have these marked on my map, and it's some years since I've been on this hill, but they are beside the made paths in the bouldery section and must be at 800m or higher. There's also the modern (and very intrusive) stalking hut at 700m on the ridge between Ben Venue and Beinn an Fhogharaidh (57/465050). This was mentioned back in TAC33, p19, and has continued to withstand the best efforts of Stirling Council's planning department as far as I'm aware.
The quarry just below the top of Meall Tairneachan north-west of Aberfeldy ought to appear in several categories - highest road, highest decrepit sheds, highest noise. The various bits of Meccano on top of Broad Law obviously trump all other Borders possibilities for the highest electronic gizmo, as the 840m summit is the highest piece of land between Ben Lomond and the border apart from mastless Merrick. There's also a mast at around 770m on the north top of Sgurr a'Chaorachain in Applecross - a hill which the maps continue to call Sgurr a'Ghaorachain, incidentally, so why don't the books go with that?
As to the highest graveyard in Scotland, this is surely that at 15/294232 north of Ben More Assynt, where the 640m site of a 13/4/41 planecrash is a designated war grave. The plane was Avro Anson N9857 from 19 Operational Training Unit at Kinloss. Its wreckage was located on 26/5/41; six aircrew died and their names are recorded on the memorial beside Inchnadamph kirk: Pilot officer J H Steyn, Flight officer W E Drew, Sgt J Emery, Sgt T B Kenny, Sgt H A Tompsett and Sgt C M Mitchell. According to David Smith's High Ground Wrecks (see TAC33, p8 for review), "the crew were the only airmen buried on high ground in Britain". See also www.dalshian.freeserve.co.uk/site17.htm and www.churchmousewebsite.co.uk/Anson.htm (Thanks to Val Hamilton, Gordon Smith and Alan Leishman for information.)
Re single graves / corpses, there's a tradition that the large cairn on top of 732m Beinn na Caillich above Broadford (32/601233) contains the body of a Norwegian princess. Less exotically, my old Alva landlord told of there having been two burials on the steep eastern slope of Torry in the Ochils - the small-topped hill which is the scene of a particularly brutal race each July.
Torry is around 395m high, so the gravestones will be lower than that. I'd guess they're at around 58/882980, but I've not as yet found them. Must have a proper search sometime: I'm needing an excuse to spend some time in the Ochils, after all.