Climbing Ben Vrackie
Pitlochry is a town of great charm and friendliness, a place to linger and a centre for some beautiful walks. Ben Vrackie is its mountain, in the same way that Zermatt claims the Matterhorn, or Fort William Ben Nevis.
Not that you can see the Ben from the middle of town, you need to journey to the heights beyond to achieve a good view, but it is Pitlochry’s mountain none the less – the backdrop to the town as you approach from the south. Ben Vrackie has the reputation of being an easy mountain, one whose top may be achieved even by the tourists. But that is to do that lovely mountain a great disservice, for it is a good hard climb from the town, and its summit offers one of the finest viewpoints in Perthshire.
The circuit over the mountain and then back to town by way of the Pass of Killiecrankie has long been a favourite of mine, since I first journeyed that way fourteen years ago.
A good track leads from Moulin village and out on to the open hillside to Ben Vrackie, and what a track it is for views as it climbs gradually towards the Ben, a great sweeping vista over the town and the great wide valley of the River Tummel. Ben Vrackie takes its name from the Gaelic for “speckled”, and I had assumed that it took this from the folds of rock across its summit.
But as the paths around catch the sun the ground beneath your feet glistens with microscopic dusts of quartz and I have come to the conclusion that that is what is meant. Whatever, the paths offer an easy approach to the foot of the summit cliffs above a little dammed lochan called Loch a Choire.
I first walked this way in June, on a fine hot day, with skylarks invisible to sight, whose song echoed across the grouse moors below the mountain. I saw few grouse that day, though the ones I did disturb skimmed the heather with angry cries as I disturbed their rest.
The steeply climbing track that the tourists take edges round to the east of the sharp cliffs above the lochan, but I took a route to the top that involved a bit more rock scrambling. This offered some thrilling climbing on fair rock and steep heather banks, gaining height quickly and making the dark waters of the lochan seem a long way below.
It took me a half hour to get to the summit, always a heavenly moment as you feel that something almost mystical has been achieved. I lay down in the shelter of the viewpoint indicator on the top, and looked abroad at the great panorama that lay all around; the woods and pastures of Strath Tay and Tummel, the great wooded gash of Killiecrankie, the summits of the Grampians to north and west, some still snow-capped, as they reached over towards Rannoch Moor and Glencoe.
It was a sight to take the breath away.
I thought about that distant day in June on my last climb to the summit of Ben Vrackie, a hard journey against a freezing gale from Killiecrankie. Approaching the mountain from the north it was all I could do to stand up. I had fought my way across bogs and deep patches of heather, before climbing the steep slopes of the lower summit of Meall an Daimh. At one point was a broad band of lying snow, unmarked by footsteps, trapped in the shelter of a shallow corrie. It felt almost intrusive to walk across the virgin white snow, but delightful to do so, for it was crisp and hardly gave at all under my weight.
How wonderful to be on the mountains in the snow. There is something pure and elemental in mountain tramps in such conditions. It is a world away from the boredom and thanklessness of workaday existence. Never have I felt as alive as in the mountains in wild weather.
There was no one on the mountain on that wintry day, except me. As I rested on the top of the snow band, the clouds parted and threw open a view of one distant snow covered peak after another. A raven croaked amid the boulders above me, and suddenly a stag and a herd of red deer hinds broke cover from the shoulder of the mountain, streaming downhill like the waters of a tawny river.
I watched them with a sense of wonder, that there could be such moments in a lifetime, such a reckoning with the wilderness. I climbed to the top of Meall an Daimh and lay back in the snow and heather, thinking of that first June expedition and the many times I had climbed these hills since.
On that first time to the summit of Ben Vrackie I sat and had my lunch, my back to the rocks, admiring the view over Pitlochry. I had scarcely begun before the mountain goats arrived, two of them; both obviously used to the lunchtime habits of mountain stravaigers. They would have eaten my rucksack if I had let them. I believe the goats have gone now but they were legendary in their time, much beloved by the many hillwalkers who topped Ben Vrackie. They had much of my lunch that first time, and I have missed seeing them on my many returns to the mountain.
On the descent down towards Killiecrankie there are fine views across to the old Jacobite battlefield, though it is marred by the new A9 trunk road. It was on the slopes above the River Garry that the Jacobite army under “Bonnie” Dundee, or Claverhouse, or “Bloody Clavers”, depending on your political perspective, drew up to await the government army commanded by Lord Mackay, which had to negotiate the narrow path through the Pass of Killiecrankie, on what turned out to be a very bloody day in 1689.
Dundee had the benefit of holding the high ground, which facilitated a highland charge downhill on to the poorly positioned government army. Mackay’s army was thoroughly routed, fleeing in terror back down the Pass, one soldier jumping the Garry in a massive leap as he was pursued by angry highlanders. The Jacobite cause took little comfort from this victory, for Dundee was mortally wounded at the very moment of his triumph and the rising faded away.
The track through the heavily wooded Pass of Killiecrankie is as narrow as it was on the day that Mackay’s army marched along it, high above the roaring whisky-coloured waters of the River Garry. The Pass has always been one of the gateways to the Highlands, hence the building of Blair Castle. In the 1700s General Wade constructed the first proper road through Killiecrankie, fragments of which may still be seen in the car park of the National Trust for Scotland visitor centre. The railway from the South to Inverness takes a dramatic route this way, as does the modern A9.
But the best way to experience the Pass is by journeying on foot along the original track. I first walked it in early summer, when the leaves on the trees had their first green freshness, its banks covered with such a profusion of wild flowers that my journey was a long series of admiring pauses. Red squirrels chattered in the boughs above, and the songs of the birds competed with the crashing roar of the river.
I have walked the Pass of Killiecrankie many times, but never lost my sense of wonder at the spectacular passage of the Garry. I can see myself now, on that first walk, tired after my long journey but thrilled at the ascent of Ben Vrackie, the walk up to Blair Atholl, and this magnificent finale through the Pass.
Above Pitlochry is Loch Faskally, a reservoir which gathers the waters of the Garry and the Tummel. I find most reservoirs unattractive, with their artificial shorelines scarring what was once pretty countryside, but I do like Loch Faskally; somehow it works as a complement to the wild scene around.
A path from Killiecrankie winds around its banks and takes the walker back into Pitlochry, but I always remember my first time there, when I was staying in the hillside village of Moulin, crossing the railway line and walking up the brae to the cuilc, the pond filled with hungry ducks and waterfowl, where I sat for a while on a bench and wished that I never had to leave such beautiful countryside.
In moments of tiredness, I sometimes close my eyes and picture elements of that walk so vividly that I can feel the mountain air on my face, hear the rush of the river, and sense the tranquillity of the woodlands in that peaceful glen.