I expect Henry de Bohun’s last words were…
“Bloody hell…there’s a lot of rhododendron bushes on yonder hill!”
… seconds before Robert Bruce caved in his skull with his battleaxe.
Such was the density of the foliage that it wasn’t until the second day of The Battle of Bannockburn that the camp followers (easily identified by their neat rows of pink tents) were able to break through the shrubbery on the east side of Gilles Hill to brandish their curling tongs at the struggling English cavalry. Overcome by the stench of Elnet and singeing hair, Edward’s army broke apart at the arrival of this new force, preferring the ignominy of defeat rather the prospect of tackling a bunch of stroppy Scottish hairdressers.
The Fatdog and I were on Gillies Hill near Stirling from where, during the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, the camp followers of the Scottish army suddenly appeared, making the well humped English army believe that Scots reinforcements had arrived. On the west side of the hill large bites of rock have been removed by quarrying but today most of the densely wooded hill is the haunt of dog walkers and mountain bikers, with a maze of walking paths interlaced with purpose built cycle trails. Areas of it are, I discovered, also home to Rhododenron ponticum.
It would have been clever if I’d noticed the information board at the start of the walk, but that had been obscured by a vanload of mountain bikers setting up for the afternoon. We followed the main track west until we came across the mountain bikers quarry, thought “Oops!”, then backtracked east across the north side of Gillies Hill following the little arrow on the GPS, taking any type of trail which kept us on route…and away from the mountain bikers. At one point we found ourselves in an old quarry, long since disused and now overgrown to the point where the quarry walls were almost totally obscured by vegetation.
The coordinates of 11 geocaches were downloaded into my GPS and we were working against the clock. It was 2.30 and I reckoned I had to about 5pm to get back out of the woods before dark. Our probable route was about 6km but I had no idea of the path structure so it was follow the wee arrow on the GPS through the trees… and hope for the best.
In less than an hour, much to my surprise, we had notched up the first 3 caches, either finding them after a minute at the locale or spotting the hiding place as we approached. The cachers had taken us on a thoroughly enjoyable trek which involved views to Ben Lomond and Stirling Castle followed by a tour of old sequoias and tall ancient pines.
There had been an unsettling few moments when I realised we were walking up a mountain bike track complete with jumps and timber ramps. Mind you, doing the mountain bike trail in reverse was to prove a lot easier than what we were to tackle next.
We weren’t exactly lost…we just couldn’t go in the direction we wanted to go. My flighty little GPS was fixed on a distance to destination of 200m…and refused to budge more than 20m either way. It was the rhododendrons that were the problem, an impenetrable dark green mass of leaf and branch that blocked any hint of a route to the east. For half an hour we tried to crack the barrier clambering in and out drainage runs, clambering over fallen branches, forcing through thickets and squelching through mud as we worked our way first south then eastwards, inch by inch, only to find ourselves 200m away…on the opposite side!
We gave up. There was still another cache slightly further away to the north, which we weren’t going to be able to tackle today, so it made sense to come back another day to do them both.
At “Peigi’s Cottage” There was a geocoin lurking in the wee plastic box which I grabbed to move on. Peigi is a geocaching botanist from California who ended up helping out the Save Gillies Hill campaign aiming to preserve the hill’s habitat from the effects of further quarrying. The cottage is an unusual holiday home. From there it was across recently forested moorland towards a band of trees to the south. It was now almost 4pm.
I really should have read the blurb about the next cache beforehand. The detailed description held such little gems as “Don’t try to access from the west escarpment”. The Fatdog and I stared down the precipitous, tree clad slope. It could be done…it was more about whether we actually wanted to do it. It was a bloody big drop. I looked at my watch. That proved to be the deciding factor. We turned and headed north leaving the cache at Wallstale Dun, a habitation dating from about 1st Century AD, for another day.
Our next potential find was beside the main quarry at an easily spotted stand of tall sequoias. The path northwards skimmed the quarry rim with only a narrow 2m band of young trees as protection to the shear drop beyond. Our trail narrowed through prickly gorse – it didn’t look like many people used this part of the hill, a shame because there were good views into the quarry and to the hills beyond.
It didn’t take us long to find a clever little cache at the sequoia grove and it was off again to pick off our final wee box at an ancient bronze age hill fort with its view to the west. The sun was dropping behind the hills as we arrived, the sky streaked with smudged bands of orange and red. Another four people and three dogs arrived at the same time. In my efforts to restrain FD (playing next to the edge of a big drop can never be construed as a good idea) I missed a photograph of a great evening sky. Once my fellow sunset worshipers had left I was able to haul out the cache to do the final business of the day, which turned up a second geocoin.
Not bad. Six caches in just under 2.5 hours. Given the terrain I was pretty chuffed. It had been a harder walk than on a good number of our hill walking days. A happy Fatdog bounded about in front of me as I jogged down the forest trails as darkness set in, reaching the street lights of Cambusbarron just as the final flickers of light disappeared.
For any geocachers out there here’s a list of our caches in order of find: