The Angry Corrie 63: Dec 2004-Feb 2005

Bag a bing!

An occasional series on hills which might not really be hills at all

"IF IT LOOKS like a hill, and it feels like a hill, then it's a hill." So wrote Alan Blanco in TAC37, in the course of discussing what constitutes a genuine summit. "Masts and buildings, walls and bridges, do not look like hills," he went on, before raising the awkward question of things that start artificial but end up going native. Into this category come ancient summit tumuli and - perhaps, eventually - spoil tips from bygone mining operations. Blanco cited the case of Hensbarrow Beacon, a low-lying Marilyn in Cornwall, where the summit area is strewn with cast-offs from china clay workings such that the precise baggable highpoint is a matter of some debate. Is it the trig point? Is it the highest of the tips? The consensus seems to be that it's the trig, but what if the top tip was still there in 100 years' time, by that stage carrying a healthy covering of grass and shrub and having served as home to generations of rabbits? Would it have become the valid point to visit for would-be Beaconbaggers? Quite possibly.

It's with bings, or pit tips, or whatever they're called in different parts of the country, that this question is at its most pronounced, as it's not just the summit bump that is open to question, but the whole "hill" itself. Often as not, bings/tips are both substantial and completely artificial, built from the ground up on previously flat land. Two centuries ago there wouldn't have been even a sniff of a summit, but the industrial revolution included hill-building as a byproduct - a waste product, in fact - of its main thrusts of mines, railways, steelworks and the like.

For many years there was no doubt as to status: bings plainly fell into the "doesn't feel like a hill" camp. But we live in a largely post-industrial age, when many mine-workings have fallen into disuse and have - in some cases - started to morph into natural-looking parts of the landscape. So does it follow that they're gradually becoming hills in the sense that we know and understand the term? It was time to engage in some on-site research.

TO THE WILDS of West Lothian, where many of Scotland's most prominent and substantial bings are to be found. One fine evening in May, I drove to Broxburn and met local hill-man (and accomplished TAC quizzer) Bruce Smith for a potter around on some are they/aren't they hills. Three oil-shale bings, clustered together, were climbed in a two-hour expedition. These differ from coal bings in that they're cast-offs made from rock crushed and heated to produce, in the main, paraffin. It's slightly unnerving to realise that all this stuff was, from the 1860s to the 1920s, tunnelled and blasted from the now-hollowish ground immediately beneath. And it's plain startling to learn that the deepest shaft went as far down as 1030m, the equivalent of an upsidedown Ben Oss.

As with sand dunes, the Ordnance Survey declines to draws contours on bings, choosing instead to map the area to the northeast of Broxburn with some mottled speckledy stuff. This gives no clue to what the actual terrain is like - and the terrain is terrific. The first bing we reached, on the north side of a big bend in the Union Canal, rears to around 125m (according to our wrist altimeters) from a base of about 80m. That's quite a hefty ascent, especially given the brutality of the angle and the underfoot conditions: red screes (as opposed to Red Screes) pitched at something like 35°. The best tactic seemed to be to kick in and plod straight up, steering for the occasional sanctuary of embedded, igneous-like lumps of clinker: these did at least provide some semi-firm ground on which to stand and look down and around.

The summit, however, wasn't the pointed peak that such an approach seemed to merit. It was a spacious hands-in-pockets plateau where it was nigh on impossible to pinpoint the precise highpoint. There was no cairn or marker, but one of several straggly trees seemed to be pretty much on the highest ground, so we settled for that. There was a fine view all round, especially to the northeast where one of the towers of the Forth Road Bridge pronged over the nearby (and equally impressive) Niddry Bing.

image from The Angry Corrie

Our own mini-range seemed to lack names, as the obvious Broxburn Bing applied to another chunky lump just south of the A89. But a later reading of Peter Caldwell's A History of Broxburn told of these workings having included the Albyn and Dunnet shale mines, so this first bing could be called Dunnet Bing - apt given that it's around the same height as faraway Dunnet Head. Just to the north was an even bigger and completely separate bing: Albyn Bing. The descent from Dunnet (which Bruce tackled with the confidence of a local, skidding down scree in a cloud of dust) brought another 80m altimeter reading, while the slog up Albyn - beyond a presumably-not-quite-natural lochan - was if anything even more brutal than the initial ascent. Again there was a plateau and a hard-to-find highpoint. The terrain up top was like a run-to-seed blaze football pitch, but the overall feel of both these bings was a cross between Ayers Rock and some absurdly tilted speedway track. (Indeed, the skiddy gravel is popular with wall-of-death-type motorbike scramblers.) Another possible similarity, as Bruce pointed out, was with the Dalveen Pass hills. Imagine Steygail red-raw with all its grass stripped off and you're in the right territory.

The height of Albyn Bing was around 155m, which made Dunnet Bing a subsidiary top to this one's main summit. Separations of this size are significant, be it in terms of slithering down and skelping knees, or in possible admission to hill lists. Look at it this way: were Broxburn in a higher part of Scotland, such that the "base level" wasn't 80m but, say, 550m, then it could be argued that these bings ought to count as Donalds and/or Grahams, given that their summits would project above the 610m/2000ft contour. This isn't as far-fetched as it might sound: various of Scotland's mining areas are substantially above sea level, eg the village of Forth is close to 300m while Wanlockhead sits on the 400m contour. What spoil heaps remain in Wanlockhead and neighbouring Leadhills are pretty puny affairs, but things could have been different had oil-shale rather than silver, lead and gold been discovered in them there Lowther hills.

On this first visit we found ourselves wondering whether Albyn Bing was a "sleeper" in the list of Yeamans. Eric Yeaman produced his Handbook of the Scottish Hills in 1989, and had a go at listing everything with a drop of 100m. He also allowed a distance criterion, however: "A hill is defined as an eminence which has an ascent of 100m all round or, failing that, is at least 5km (walking distance) from any higher point on neighbouring hills." This includes just enough vagueness to make it amusingly awkward. What is meant by "walking distance"? At the very least it differs from a flying-crow route in that unbridged lochs would have to be circumnavigated. But what about field enclosures, houses, gardens and the like? Tricky.

As it is, Albyn Bing isn't a Yeaman due to the "any higher point" clause. The relevant genuine Yeaman is the trig on Cairnpapple Hill, 312m at NS987711 - although if this summit, also a Marilyn, is truly called Cairnpapple (which derives from and applies to the "henge and cairn" half a kilometre to the north) then Cairn Gorm might as well be renamed Funicular Top Station. The OS calls the Cairnpapple trig Ballencrieff Hill, after the farm to the southwest, so what's wrong with that?

At first glance the excellent and underrated Binny Craig, 220m at NT043735, looks like it should be a Yeaman too, as the distance between it and Cairnpapple/Ballencrieff exceeds 5km by any kind of distance, walking or otherwise. But "any higher point" means that measurement is taken not to Cairnpapple/Ballencrieff but to the nearest 220m point, regardless of whether it's a summit or just a shoulder of slope. Hence, in Yeaman terms, Binny Craig is cancelled out by the intervening Riccarton Hills (254m summit at NT018736, and with a broad 220m contour), which are in turn cancelled out by the point at which the eastern slope of Cairnpapple/Ballencrieff nudges above 254m. Likewise, the 155m contour east of Binny Craig cancels out any notion of Albyn Bing making it into Yeaman's list. A shame, really, in that the natural walking distance/route from Binny Craig to Albyn Bing is so close to 5km that some kind of pedometer palaver would be needed for precise measurement. But rules are rules.

Anyway, back to the question of whether these bings count as legitimate hills, regardless of lists. In truth, both Dunnet and Albyn bings have some way to go in this respect. From below, with bare screes predominant, they look artificial and unnatural: just big piles of rubbish. Venturing up top, however, provides a much more natural feel - already enough small trees and scrubby bushes to suggest that real-hill status might someday come. Indeed, this process seemed much further advanced on the third of the evening's bings, an elongated 115m mound immediately north of the B8020 at Faucheldean. This was heavily covered in gorse and broom, such that we were less than sure if the summit had been reached. In terms of status, this bing, although much less prominent than its neighbours, was naturalised enough for it to be half a notch further up the scale.

image from The Angry Corrie

A FORTNIGHT LATER saw a second visit, this time with Grant "GPS" Hutchison added to the party. Albyn Bing was again climbed, and the summit (using eight-figure / ten-metre precision) assessed as being at NT08677376, 154m in height with an error of 3m either way. But the more interesting part of the outing - again held in ideal bingbagging weather - came with the short drive to Winchburgh golf course and an ascent of Niddry Bing. This proved to be a different beast from its neighbours. Again it was a shale bing, but more volcanic in shape. The interior was a hollowed-out flat area, the kind of out-of-sight place to which seriously dodgy punters drive for gun/drug deals in movies. That made the bing feel very un-hill-like. But there was also a pronounced and complex rim on the southern edge, an area of strange crumbly ridges that would have felt exposed had they not had the curious tendency to dissolve under our feet. Whereas traditional ridges - even on Skye - tend to be relatively solid on the actual ridgeline no matter how scree-ridden they might be on either flank, the Niddry ridges felt more like very soft snow, such that Walker B inevitably trod different ground because the shape of the crest changed as soon as it took Walker A's weight. Presumably this is akin, in its own small way, to what serious mountaineers are describing when they write of greater-range ridges where the whole hill feels unstable. As such, Niddry Bing gets one definite tick in the like-a-hill checklist, even if in terms of overall solidity and shape it misses out. Certainly when we perched for a snack on the second of two candidate summits, we could well have been on the narrowest piece of land between, say, the Lancet Edge and Sharp Edge. And there can't be many rooftop summits from which to gaze straight down on badly dressed boys wielding Ping putters.

For the record, this second summit - 129m at NT10107460 - seemed to be slightly overtopped by the 130m point at NT09727456, but with the height-difference falling within the instrument error this needs to be treated with caution. It's worth noting, however, that were Albyn and Niddry bings reversed - if the 154m and 130m points swapped grid refs - then the question of Yeaman status would arise again, as the 154m level on the shoulder of Binny Craig is very close to being 5km from Niddry Bing. Of course the bings aren't this way round, and never will be, but the height of each is really only a consequence of the way in which spoil-heap spoils were shared out a century or more ago.

image from The Angry Corrie

WE WANDERED DOWN to the clubhouse car park (from where the upsweep of Niddry Bing was reminiscent in both shape and scree-cover of Beinn Eighe seen from a point in Glen Torridon), and headed our separate ways. I was briefly tempted by some smaller bings just west of the B8046 at the Union Canal, but those can await another day. Likewise there will be a visit to the fabled Five Sisters of Westwood (see TAC26, p8), surely the most impressive of all central-Scotland bings and apparently subject to some kind of preservation order. The Sisters could be seen, jagged and jutting, in the middle distance from Albyn Bing, and there was a curious sense of affinity, as though this - and not the western end of the true-hill Pentlands - was the most appropriate place from which to study them.

Also to be visited sometime are (a) the coal bing right next to the Glasgow-Edinburgh train-line near Croy; (b) the curious and substantial grassed-over mound of the Prestonpans battle memorial; and (c) the even more curious twin-topped grassy pyramid thing that forms the centre of the Stepps roundabout, where the western end of the A80 meets the M80. As to whether any of these will feel like a proper hill, the answer is probably not. But there are worse ways to spend a couple of spare hours of a sunny summer evening.


TAC 63 Index