Since my last “tail” a month or so ago Christmas shopping and Strictly Come Dancing have taken their toll so it’s about time to get off the backside and do some writing. In reality the Fatdog and I haven’t been up to much since our day trip with Cap’n Jack to Ben Vrackie and Schiehallion in early November, with only a couple of half days out since then. Two weeks ago we were on the snow covered Ochils in blazing sunshine but 2 weeks before that we plodded our way up the majestic Ben Gullipen.
I can almost hear the puzzlement as frantic googling goes on in the background. Our multi-compleatists are going spare trying to figure out where this oversized lump of rock is before pontificating knowledgably on the pros and cons of the various approach routes to the summit. Sit back and relax, I’ll save you all the bother.
Ben Gullipen – In Search of Houdini
Like most walkers confronted with a gate I expect it to be locked, if nothing just out of shear bloody awkwardness. I knew this one would be locked but FD and I are becoming expert at circumnavigating these sort of things. Why did I know the gate would be locked? Simple…it was me who instructed the lock to go on some 20 years ago! Well strictly speaking it was the police and the landowner who wanted the lock to protect their valuable equipment from thieves and their empty hillside from rampaging punters respectively. This was another of my “tracks for radio masts” jobs from the 1980’s and this was my first return visit. I had expected the original lock to either be very rusty or to have been replaced, probably more than once, since I had left. What I didn’t expect was that the lock would have managed to reproduce. The evidence was however irrefutable. Wrapped around the gate and post was a multiplicity of locks, nay a veritable plethora. Given the absence of human remains I am assuming that Houdini escaped this one. Alternatively, I suppose, it may have been the tethering point for a prospective groom the night before the wedding, supplied with 100 keys only one of which would open one particular lock. Maybe he was lucky and didn’t escape for a couple of days. I looked on the bright side…maybe we would find the remains of either further up the hill.
The track had changed a bit since my last visit. There were no trees when I was last here. What had been superb open views to the east and south were now totally obscured by the Sitka planting of my old landowning adversary Captain BH. The landrover track formed a narrow corridor through the trees as it headed straight up the hill from the road.
So where are we you are probably asking yourselves? Ben Gullipen is a 414m bump just to the SW of Callander and north of the A81 to Aberfoyle. A gated access to the mast track (616, 047) on the A81 provides very limited parking (although there is a rough forestry lay-by just across the road).
I remember this first section as a steep daily slog but after two years of constant hillwalking it was close to luxury to myself and the Fatdog. As the track goes all the way to the summit there are no significant gradients to worry about so all in all it’s a fairly easy half day. By this time you are no doubt wondering “Why go up this little pimple in the first place?” The answer is partly about great memories…and the views. I recalled killer views over Loch Venachar to Ben Ledi with an encompassing panorama of the Trossachs, the Campsies and the Ochils. In my mind I can still see a frosted hillside, the Forth Valley filled with cloud and just in front of the Ochils Dumyat, an island poking through the mist. Well worth a return visit, but we would have to wait a bit longer this time to get the views.
This is a short walk, so about 20 minutes from the car we were ready to say “goodbye” to the trees and “hello” to open hillside. But first it was to be “hello” to another gate before we were free of the forest.
The phrase “pedigree highlanders” on the estate sign conjoured up a number of exceedingly unwelcome images. Were we to be treated to a herd of doddery plaid clad clan chiefs with knobbly walking sticks singing about “mooses loose” or heaven forbid, prospective Chippendales in vests and kilts roaming the hillside grazing on shortbread and single malts? Maybe best to have a multilocking system after all, the public should be protected from such clichéd beasties. Anyway I would be more than happy to ensure I closed the gate after me as requested…assuming that is, I could find a way of opening it in the first place!
Closer inspection confirmed that Houdini had escaped once again and that the lock breeding programme was still active. FD and I magicked ourselves past this second gate and set out for the summit.
Not only had the locks been propagating but the masts were running a close second. I remember installing bases for a mast and 2 huts. Like all construction programmes in this country there appears to be a need to cover every square inch of available ground with a building and the mast site was no exception. The summit of Ben Gullipen would soon achieve new town status.
While Ben Gullipen was in some ways my main target I was keen to walk further along the ridge to Beinn Dearg, a Marilyn, about 1km to the west. To do this I would need to cross a fence hemming in the Ben Gullipen summit. Just before the mast compound I noticed a weak spot in the fencewire and after I moved a few spikes away from the gap FD crawled through and I stepped over…straight up to my knees in deep heather. I knew there would be great views of Loch Venachar some 20m or so north, so off we waded, the Fatdog spinning up a white cloud of fine snow from the winter brown heather tops. These were to be the best views of the day, with a surreal light capturing Ben Ledi in a white haze.
Loch Venachar with Ben Venue just left of centre
Struggling in deep heather and soft terrain we made it back to the fence and began to follow it past the mast compound in the direction of the next hill. We were only 10 metres past the compound when I looked back…to see a convenient stile over the fence previously hidden by the huts. Sigh!
The ground dropped off steeply after Ben Gullipen as we headed west towards Beinn Dearg. The Fatdog had found a faint track through the heather and was leading us down through snow dusted heather into a narrow bealach. These steep sided notches through the narrow ridgelines are characteristic of the Menteith Hills.
A stile with style
The Menteith Hills comprise 2 main ridges, the one we were on made up of Ben Gullipen and Beinn Dearg and one further west which includes the Marilyn of Craig of Monievreckie. From Ben Gullipen I had noticed a track heading just left of the Marilyn’s summit so at the big stile to Lochan Balloch we cut left of the ridge heading for the assumed track position.
A bit of unattributed background info:
Deep below the Carselands and peat mosses in the lower parts of the Forth and Teith valleys to the west of Stirling we find red-brown sandstones, mudstones and pebbly conglomerates. These rocks link at depth to the upstanding ridges of the Menteith Hills in the distance – formed by almost vertical strata of the same rocks. The strata were formed under tropical conditions about 400 million years ago in the Devonian age. Behind the Menteith Hills is the craggy backcloth of the Highlands with the prominent peaks of Ben Ledi, Ben Venue and farther west Ben Lomond. These much older rocks have suffered a longer and more complex history and formed part of the Caledonian Mountains which stretched from Norway to the Appalachians.
The Highland-Lowland boundary reflects the major geological change from hard Dalradian metamorphic rocks in the north west to pebbly conglomerates and softer sandstones of Devonian age immediately to the south east. Between the two there is a sequence of lavas, conglomerates, limestones, black mudstones and sandstones which are different to both Highland and Lowland rocks, called the Highland Border Complex. They form a zone up to 1.2 kilometres wide which is found between Balmaha and Callander. These rocks came from both deep and shallow waters and once formed part of the floor of a small ocean basin. We know this because of the marine fossils found in the limestones, although these are very small and difficult to find. The rocks range in age from about 550 million to 445 million years old. They became attached to the Highland block by lateral faulting as a result of plate tectonic movements.
Highland Border Complex rocks form hilly ground, which near Callander lies between the higher ridges of the Menteith Hills and Callander Craig to the southeast, and the rocky crags of the Dalradian which overlook them to the northwest.
The “track” proved to be no more than a route taken by an ATV but the vehicle had flattened long grass and reeds over boggy areas thus providing a relatively dry passage for myself and the Fatdog. Even better was the fact that it took us away from the steep ups and downs of the heather swathed ridge. We were now walking on the flatter ground just to the south of Beinn Dearg. Looking back to the east, the track rose gently to the bealach between Ben Gullipen and Letter Hill (to the south). That would be ideal as our return route.
Looking back to Ben Gullipen
Following what might have been an animal track we clambered up through the heather to the summit of Beinn Dearg.
Although it was dry the light was fairly uninspiring. I had come hoping for a drama of sun and shade, but the sky had failed to live up to its billing. Thicker loud than I had anticipated meant that the panoramas were merely dull with only occasional spots of weak sunlight creeping across Ben Ledi’s lower slopes. On a good day this place would be well worth the visit. I had considered walking to the western extremity of the ridge but a relatively new metal fence hinted at the prospect of dog tossing. I decided to call it a day and head back to the car.
The ATV track back towards Ben Gullipen
We took a fairly steep south turn from the summit down to the flatter ground and picked up the tracks of the ATV back towards Ben Gullipen. The ATV track ran out at the fence between Ben Gullipen and Letter Hill. With the benefit of hindsite I should have climbed the steep slope back to the summit of Ben Gullipen and picked up the landrover track from there.
Climb left here!
We made the mistake of continuing through the coll between the two hills which was nothing more than a big bog. I walked along the heather/reed boundary to keep dry but it made for an uninspiring slog back to the landrover track with its obsessively padlocked gates … and still no trace of Houdini!
It was a shame about the weather today as the views were somewhat diminished by the poor light. On a good clear day this would be a great short walk. Remember to bring your camera, as many keys as you can find and/or large bolt cutters.