I occasionally lead walks as a member of Glasgow HF Outdoor Club. Sometimes I’ll pick something I’m familiar with, other times less so. At times as each programme rolls around you can see the old favourites in there, so I like to add in something a bit less familiar. Hills which we rarely visit, or old favourites by more obscure routes. One of my recent leads was in the Pentlands. Now the Pentlands are neither rarely visited or obscure, but they aren’t on our list of regulars, which is a shame.
I turned up at Cadogan Street to find a good crowd waiting. Unfortunately they were all heading north, lured by a well tread Munro. All that is, apart from myself and two others. Ray, a regular with the club, and Naomi, a visitor from the US, on her first trip to the Scottish hills. With high winds forecast in the north I was hopeful that our trip east would be a more gentle introduction to the Scottish hills for Naomi than Ben Vorlich.
At only around an hour from Glasgow the Pentlands are quick and easy to reach by car, and even quicker if you approach from Balerno. We were starting at Castlelaw, and the walk was to be a repeat of my previous trip here, taking in Scald Law, East and West Kip. I was aware that this could be a pretty short day and had a few options up my sleeve, dependent on the group and the weather.
Red flags were flying over the hills when we arrived at the car park, a sign that firing would be taking place today. We skirted round the perimeter as the first few shots rang out, before dropping downhill to walk on the short section of road leading to the fingrpost which points the way towards Scald Law. Today there were a couple of portaloos in the field next to the gate. It might appear that the local council really looks after walkers, but in reality these are probably here courtesy of the Ministry of Defence. Many years ago if a soldier on exercise wished to go to the toilet he would go on a “shovel recce” and dig his own. This was unsustainable on well used training areas, and environmental concerns eventually led to the army bringing in portable toilets. Given that there is little cover on the ridge, we availed ourselves of the facilities before heading onwards.
The hardest part of this walk, for me anyway, is this first long pull up Turnhouse Hill. While the remainder of the ridge undulates comfortably, this part is less willing to yield. Below is is the site of the battle of Rullion Green, where the crowns forces, led by Tam Dalyell of The Binns routed a force of Covenanters, many dying of wounds and exposure in the heather as they attempted to flee across the hills and moors. I had been reading about this recently in a book entitled Pentland Walks by Robert Cochrane. The book dates from 1920, and while not a guide book as we now know it, introduced the area’s history and literary heritage through a series of walks. The book did contain a map from the time, and it’s still remarkably useful, although some of the transport information is not. One thing the book did was give you a sense of how well served the city was by the railways, many of which are now gone. Still, there’s always the trams…
It was interesting going along the ridge, part walk leader, part tour guide. As it was Naomi’s first time in Scotland, we were able to point out many points of interest from the walk. The Forth Bridge, Fife and Largo Law, Stirling and the Wallace Monument, Edinburgh itself, with the castle and Arthur’s Seat. It wasn’t all plain sailing however, as we were battered by winds gusting to almost 50mph. We wondered just how the Munro-baggers were faring, if we were being pummelled at this relatively low height.
The climbs were offset be the drops, and it made a change from the relative routine of climbing a solitary Munro, which would see a long period of continuous ascent, followed by a long period of continuous descent, and was far easier on the knees. Carnethy Hill, Scald Law, East Kip, and finally West Kip all fell by lunchtime. We tucked ourselves in out of the wind below the shark’s fin summit, and gazed across towards the road, lazing in the sun and chatting as we ate. I picked out features from the map, an old fort, the line of the Roman road, comparing it with the features on my 1920 guide book map. Were you to use it solely on these hills there would be little difficulty in doing so.
It was time to examine our options for the return journey. A straight descent to the road at the head of the reservoir would see us back at the car pretty early. As everyone was fit and willing for more we agreed instead on the high option, drop down to the waterfalls at Habbie’s Howe, then an ascent of Black Hill, before returning along the right of way to Castlelaw.
We contoured round East Kip, setting off a hare as we went. The view from here, with the reservoir shining between two steep slopes, is just fantastic, and much is it invited us down, we turned off the direct route towards the Logan Burn and waterfalls marked on the map. Having selected this section of route on the go, the sharpness of the descent was a bit of a surprise. It was manageable however, and we dropped quickly through bracken to take in the sight of the waterfall as it fell into a shallow pool, before adopting more sedate and Pentland-like behaviour, meandering slowly off down the valley.
Black Hill stood before us, our last major challenge of the day. I had climbed this only once before, after cycling from Airdrie. Almost devoid of paths for much of the way, we ascended through the heather to find the summit, marked not by a cairn, but a small radio transmitter, purpose unknown. Our last break of the day was taken overlooking Edinburgh and the Forth, before dropping down to the col between this and Bell’s Hill. We had begun to suspect how much cumulative ascent there had been, and decided to skip the next summit, although there was the small matter of crossing through the soft ground in between. Fortunately for us it had been relatively dry recently and we made our way across without getting bogged down.
The line of a drystane dyke led us to the intersection with the path signposted to Glencorse. We descended to the reservoir, running the gauntlet of the mountain bikers zipping downhill as we went. The water was high, no ruins peeked from the surface today, but the place was busy in any case. Walkers, cyclists, anglers, dog walkers, even berry pickers were present. The only group not in evidence were the soldiers. The range was quiet, the firing having ceased hours earlier. That’s not to say they weren’t there. They may have been camouflaged…
On arriving back at the car a check of the GPS revealed a surprising statistic. Our walk had covered 10 miles, a fair enough distance, but we had done 3708ft of ascent! That means this walk is on par with the top 30 Munros, or to put it another way, higher than the other 252. As an introduction to Scottish hillwalking Naomi probably couldn’t have asked for better. There’s so much packed in to such a small area. Next time the Munros are covered in clag or otherwise unreachable you would be well served by heading for the Pentlands, and go Munro bagging there instead!