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The Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal
The Ben More Trio


HAVE you ever been on the Highland hills on a really fine day in October? If you have not, you have still something to live for; but as much time must elapse before the mellow month comes round again, a foretaste may serve to whet the appetite, and strengthen the good resolve not to let another October go past unutilised.

It is night, and a chilly night too. There is no mistake about our being up among the hills, even were we unable to see them towering into the starlit sky. Everything promises well for the morrow, and with light hearts we go to bed, and are soon lulled to soundest slumber by the music of a stream hard by the window.

Nor does the morrow belie the promise. -The hill above is all green and brown and golden in the sunlight, the loch is scarce stirred by a ripple, the hoar frost lies white and sparkling on the grass, on the summit of the mountain over against us floats a light cloud that will disappear before noon. Leisurely, then, we complete our preparation, and about ten o'clock we set forth. Leaving Lochearnhead behind us, in a couple of miles we quit the south road, and turn towards the woods, the green pastures, and the brown hills of Balquhidder. Soon we reach the church, a modest building on a knoll by the roadside. A considerable crowd surrounds it—the day is Sunday—and gossip goes forward merrily. Rob Roy's grave is here in the kirkyard—a simple slab, on which a sword has been rudely carved—and when we have visited it, we take the road again.

How lovely the scene as we wind around the margin of Loch Voil! Across rocky promontories, and round deep curving bays, where the wavelets lap gently on the pebbles, or the broad leaves of the water lilies and the slender spears of the rushes break the blue surface. On our right the hill rolls aloft to a height of more than 2,000 feet. It is green, brown, or golden, according as the grass, the heather, or the withering bracken forms the carpet that softens its contours; and in places it is seamed with gully and ravine, or bristles with grey boulders and scarps and masses of rock. All along the shore the graceful white-stemmed birches, with their airy foliage turning pale gold colour, muster their ranks; the sturdy pine and the larch are on the hillside; the rowan, with its fern-like fronds and clusters of red coralline berries, leans far out over the brown pool and the glancing foam of the linn. The sky is blue, the loch is blue; and so clearly are rock and wood, silver strand, bronze fern-clad slope, and tinkling rill, depicted on the mirror-like expanse, that it is hard to say where reality ends and shadow begins. The wagtail trips daintily over the pebbles, a lingering swallow skims past overhead with low sweet twittering, a splendid old blackcock rises with huge commotion from the birch wood, the copse and thicket are gladsome with the noise of small birds; indeed, so warm is the sun, so balmy the breeze, so pleasant our whole surrounding, that it is difficult to believe we are not in midsummer instead of in later autumn. Ahead of us the great mountains are drawing nearer now; and a dozen miles behind, grim old Ben Voirlich lifts his shapely cone high over the brown hills and the dark masses of the woods.

We have left Craigruie behind us —a charming house on the meadowland above the loch, with the stout old pines clustering round it, and a wild mountain torrent hurling on its way in a deep rocky gorge close beside—and soon find the head of the loch; the white farmhouse of Monachyle gleaming across the water, the wood thinner, the hills bolder and more imposing than before. Across the mouth of the narrow glen, and on for perhaps a quarter of a mile at a considerable height above the lazy flow of the river, and then we open up Loch Doine—smaller, darker, and wilder than its neighbour lower down. Unlike Loch Voil, its surface is rather black than blue—dark and smooth as a burnished shield, and stirred into a thousand and a thousand dimples by the trout which are rising freely all over it.

For neat a mile more the road, now a rough cart track, followed the curves of the hillside; and then, on the right, came a narrow green glen, with steep grassy sides and a rocky floor, down which came roaring and foaming the snowy stream of Alit Carnaig, having its source high up on the shoulder of Stob Coire an Lochan, whose summit, 3497 feet, was to be our first point. Ten long miles we have footed it on the hard road, but now the springy turf is to be our flooring, and little time is lost in setting our faces to the slopes leading up into the solitudes of the glen.

Up! and up! and up! we won our way into the recesses of the hills. The slopes were steep, the gradients long, the burn roared and churned in fury amongst the grey rocks below, and over the southern hills rose the lordly presence of Ben Ledi. A couple of thousand feet up we stopped for lunch. Who that has ever experienced it can forget the pleasure of the meal in such circumstances! The mossy couch, that might have been made for the purpose; the tiny nil, cold as ice and clear as crystal; the warm sunshine, the refreshing breeze. We would not thank you now for an aldermanic feast The mountaineer's tastes are frugal,—a couple of hard-boiled eggs, a plentiful supply of bread and butter, a chunk of gingerbread, the smallest drop of the contents of the flask in twice its bulk of spring water! Never were viands so delicious! How is it that whisky drunk on a mountain-side is so much more like nectar than it is at other times? The iced beaker in your club,—the long tumbler in the smoking-room at night, though cunningly concocted, and aided possibly by ice, bitters, and lemon rind, are nowhere when compared with the simple fill of your flask-cup under your present conditions. And then the soothing pipe afterwards!—adjectives quite fail to describe its delights. As you lean back, and half close your eyes, and puff and puff and puff, a sensation, absolutely heavenly, steals over your whole being, to which the ordinary feelings begotten of smoking are as an attack of neuralgia to the healthiest and most high-spirited state you have ever known. What an unfailing source of comfort and delight is our short black pipe! A cigar or a cigarette is smoked and thrown away like an idle thought, and with it goes the recollection of it; your pipe is returned to your pocket--it has done its duty, and is ready to do it again! It is a counsellor ever at your elbow; it conjures up pleasant recollections; it has been your tried companion in many adventures; and whatever your condition, its company has always consoled and benefited you. Poet and prose writers from the earliest times have sung the pleasures of the wine cup; how feelingly would they have chanted the praise of tobacco had they but known it! Classic philosophers might have discoursed even more deeply and earnestly, classic poets been inspired with more fervid enthusiasm, could they have had recourse to the pipe as an adviser in their labours. And now-a-days, even the tramp and the navvy have the gates of philosophy opened to them in a "nose-warmer" and a plug of pig-tail.

But while we are moralising the sun is declining; the rocky ridge by which we are to win the top of our mountain is still high above us, and the top of the first mountain is only a stepping-stone to the second and third. So once again we breast the steep, climbing with monotonous regularity high into the north-west. The slope is arduous; but the turf is thinning, and moss supplanting the grass, and stones and shingle cropping up through the scanty soil tell us that the summit line is near. Quite suddenly we crown it, and all through the west and north we open up mass upon mass of mountain. The hard work is over for the present, and, slightly changing our course, we follow the line of the ascending ridge towards the summit. A few minutes more and we stand upon it, with the chill breeze whistling round about us; but high in front, still more than three hundred feet over our heads, heaves the graceful green cone of Stob Binnein, the grey masses of rock crowning his summit like a diadem. Two tiny specks circling high up in the blue sky attract our attention, and the glass brought to bear pronounces them peregrine falcons; but the wary birds shun our observation, and a few strokes of the powerful wings carry them out of our vision round the mighty bulk of the mountain.

A couple of hundred feet of descent, and once again we begin to rise. Deep down in the glen to the west of us a tiny cloud has formed, and as we watch it it grows and grows, like some genii of the Arabian Nights, and in a few minutes it is drifting along the slope in thin wreaths of white mist. Presently an upward gust catches it, and it pours across the ridge behind us, twisting and twining in rapid noiseless motion. Mist is always beautiful, except when you are enveloped in its embraces, when, like many other things that are pleasing at a little distance, you find it anything but enjoyable in actual contact. Nevertheless, one of the greatest pleasures in the way of mountain sightseeing is to watch it steaming up from some deep corrie, breaking over the jagged ridge like white surf on a rocky shore, or drifting in opaque masses along the dark hillsides, noiseless as the march of the spirits with which poetical fancy has peopled these lofty solitudes.

Without adventure we reached the top of Stob Binnein, the only living things we met being a bird of the pipit species and an old mountain hare, his dappled coat showing that he was getting into winter costume. We made short stay, for mighty Ben More still lifted his head above our position. A long-winged hawk would have traversed the distance with a couple of dozen strokes of his strong pinion; but being differently constituted, we had to descend steeply for a good thousand feet, and then laboriously tug up again to the summit.

Scarcely had we quitted Stob Binnein and taken our course downward over the moss-covered stones, when, looking back over our shoulders, we saw the white mist covering the ground we had left. It would be provoking if it reached the top of Ben More before us, and cheated us out of the view we had been hoping for all the day. The more reason then for haste, and off the moss, and once more on turf, we gathered impetus and soon reached the bottom. It is a broad saddle-shaped depression, containing some pools of cold clear water. Before and behind, Ben More and Stob Binnein roll aloft, steep, green, and grassy; on the east, the hill stoops to what from above looks like a wide boggy plateau; on the west, it is bounded by the deep dark glen of Inverlochiarig, beyond which rise the rocky giants of the Cruach Ardran group. We do not stop long for inspection; once more we begin to rise, and soon the moss and the Alpine plants tell us we are regaining our elevation. Climbing a steep slope is by no means conducive to conversation; with body bent forward and plodding step, we climb up and up steadily, and soon we find ourselves among the huge masses of mica slate forming the summit of Ben More, 3,845 feet above the sea.

For its great height it is one of the most easily climbed mountains in Scotland, except perhaps Ben Lawers. Its beautiful cone draws gently upwards from all sides, belted with copsewood about the lower slopes, grass and fern and heather higher up, and highest of all acres upon acres of soft green moss and bare ribs and boulders of rock.

"On high Ben More green mosses grow,"

sings Scott, and with truth, for moss is its distinguishing feature. The mountain has claimed at least 1one victim— easy though it is,—an unfortunate climber, who slipped, and was killed several years ago. As a mere piece of exercise the climb is a good one, though there is none of the rock- work usually attendant on gaining such an elevation. But if a spice of excitement of this kind is wanted, there is no need to go farther for it than some of the chimneys and crags of the Cruach Ardran hills across the glen. As we have seen them in snow and ice they are positively Alpine, and even in summer they offer some stiff scrambling.

It is only by looking far and wide from some lofty elevation that you realise what a very mountainous country Scotland is. Travelling slowly through the glens and round the foot of the hills, you move along with a certain number of peaks in view that are lost sight of and forgotten as your journey brings you into a new district. From such a station as Ben More you gaze for miles and miles over billows of land, upheaving all around you like the waves of a tempest-tossed sea. Valleys and depressions are lost sight of—mountain rises beyond mountain, peak peers over peak, shoulder looms across shoulder. All through the north and west the horizon is a jagged line of mountain tops and ridges, amongst which you pick out your old friends and joyfully remember your experiences upon them. On the nearer slopes there is the blackness of woods, the faded purple and the russet of heather and fern, the grey and white of the protruding bosses of slate and quartz, the flashing points of light that tell of the cascade and the waterfall. And so the glorious panorama sweeps along— the masses of the hills, the white belt of mist, the blackness of raincloud, the golden lances of sunbeams; the colours strong and distinct at short ranges, fading through exquisite blues into faintest grey in the extreme distance!

Such are the general features of our landscape ; to descend into detail, or attempt to enumerate the peaks within ken, would be but to fill a page with high-sounding Gaelic names, interesting and suggestive to the Celtic scholar, but meaningless and unpronounceable to most others. Nevertheless a few of the monarchs do call for mention—Ben Nevis, far away in the north, massive and square built, on whose plateau summit our glass shows us the tiny block of the observatory—the serrated line of the Glencoe hills—the five peaks of Cruachan, keeping watch by the western sea—mighty Ben Lui, black as basalt, sharp-pointed as a lancet, with a ribbon of white mist twisting and coiling round his pinnacle—Ben Ledi, Stuc a Chroin, Ben Voirlich, Ben Lawers, and many others. Beneath our feet—so directly below us that we fancy we could pitch a stone into it—spreads green Glen Dochart, diversified with cornfield and meadow, lake and pinegrove. The reaches of its winding river—the parent of the lordly Tay—the undulating streak of road, and the curves of the railway, lead the vision eastward to Perthshire's largest loch, visible throughout all its extent to where it merges into the pale grey of the horizon. All that is wanted to complete the picture is the sea. But the Atlantic is hidden behind the masses of the western hills; and although Ben More in Mull is in view, we should have to climb Lui or Cruachan to see its blue encircling girdle.

Absorbed in the distant prospect, our attention was recalled to our own neighbourhood by the sudden arrival of our silent enemy the mist. Cold and damp, it came rushing upon us from the east, driving past on the strong wind and utterly blotting out objects at more than fifty yards' distance. Uncomfortable though it was, we did not altogether regret it, for it showed things under a new aspect, framing in miniature portions of the great picture we had already enjoyed as a whole. Sometimes dark and impenetrable, sometimes thin and ghostly, sometimes lifted suddenly like a curtain, or rent asunder, it presented broad views blurred and indistinct, or charming peeps of sunlit valley and dark mountain peak—seen and hidden, and disclosed once more under new effects of light and shadow. At times the sun's rays tinted the fleeting vapours with lovely pink or greenish hues, that came and went chameleon fashion. The greatest surprise, however, was yet in store for us. Turning from the west, towards which point we had been looking, an exclamation of surprise escaped from both of us, when at a short distance we saw a halo of pale light painted on the mist as on canvas, and in the centre the shadow of the cairn and of ourselves upon it. It was the spectre of the Brocken, common enough in the Alps, but rarely seen in Scotland—not so much from want of atmospheric conditions for its development, as from the absence of observers. Much as we had read of it, we had not believed that the appearance could be so very realistic when the substance on which it was produced was semitransparent mist. Not only were all our movements reproduced, but minute details, such as the spiked ends of our walking-sticks and the shape of our head-gear. The nimbus appeared to be within less than a hundred yards of us ; and a curious feature was, that while it was visible from both the cairns on the summit—they are about forty yards apart—it was only from one of them that the shadows were projected. The appearance lasted for about three minutes, and then the mist came driving up thicker than before, blotting it out, and warning us that it was time to set about the descent.

We rightly guessed that the cloud would be confined to the top of the hill, and we had not gone down more than a couple of hundred feet in a north-easterly direction before we left it behind us. Looking back, it was very beautiful. Each of the three summits we had stood upon to-day was wrapped in vapour, that had caught the rosy hue of the sunset, and looked very different from the chill grey fog we knew it to be.

As we dropped down the steep side of the Ben, one by one the great purple peaks on the horizon bade us farewell. Ben Lui, with the white cloud now closely furled round his peak. sank behind the dome of Ben Oss; Ben Chuirn hid Ben Cruachan; and soon our descent lifted the nearer hills sufficiently to hide these giants also. Ben Nevis was one of the last to go, but little by little the intervening range crept up the side of the monarch, and when we had taken our last look at him we lost no time in reaching the glen. Short as the distance had seemed from above, three-quarters of a mile of perpendicular drop takes some time to accomplish, and thus the blue shield of Loch Tubhair, the feathery larch-woods, the flashing reaches of river, and the ascending wreaths of smoke from the cottages, crept up to meet us as it seemed by inches. Down, down, down, plunging through matted fern and heather, striding from boulder to boulder, splashing through swamp and watercourse, and latterly swinging ourselves from trunk to trunk in the scanty copse- wood clothing the lower slopes! Such was our progress; and ever the twilight deepened, and the sunset hues flushed redder and more red, and sharper against the deep blue of the sky grew the bold outlines of the mountains. At six o'clock we reached the road, and the pleasure of a change from the violent motions of the descent to the smooth swing of a forty-inch stride, caused us to think little of the thirteen miles that still separated us from home. Long long miles they were though; but at first the attention was so taken up by the beauties of the dying day, that the ground slipped past unnoticed beneath the crunching foot.

Darker and darker grew the hour. The owls were hooting in the woods, and at intervals there came the call of some old grouse cock from a heathery hillock, the bleat of a lamb from the upland pastures, or the bark of a watchful collie. Then the stars began to twinkle, and far away beyond Loch Tay the full round orb of the moon rose above the low hills and climbed on her course through the heavens; but long long after darkness had fairly sunk down upon the scene, the glorious colours lingered in the west, fading through every shade of rose-colour till they died upon the breast of the night.

Luib was our first stopping-place--Luib with the cheerful firelight streaming from the hotel windows into the darkness; and the inner man refreshed, once more we pursued our way.

Oh, how beautiful was the moonlight! The sky was cloudless, the stars burned like great sparkling lamps, the huge silent hills were asleep all around, with the black shadows on their breasts, and the mountain rills flashing like gems. Here and there along our route mustered the sombre pines, flinging their gaunt arms abroad like restless ghosts; and the larch plantations hung like swarthy clouds on the distant slopes; and the fairy-foliaged birches sighed in the breezes of the night; and at long intervals rose the complaining voice of a torrent, sorrow-laden and melancholy as the wail of an unquiet spirit But few people were abroad; we had the smooth white road all to ourselves, and hungrily we consumed it with long echoing footsteps.

Ardchyle was passed, and our chests tightened as we bade adieu to Glen Dochart and commenced to rise on the slopes of Glen Ogle. The old station was deserted, save by a howling dog, across the glen the railway line looked dim and grotesque ; the stream brawled hoarsely below. Soon beneath us we saw the pinewood, sweeping down the hill like the march of an army of Fingalian ghosts, and the misty expanse of Loch Earn, and the soaring presence of Voirlich and Stuc a Chroin. And then, with sounding stride, Ave came clanking into the village, to receive a warm welcome from our host. He tells us he has good cheer ready for us after our mountain ramblings—and he has! Soup of the mountain hare, juicy blackfaced mountain mutton, mountain grouse, a tart of mountain cranberries, with cream from mountain pastures; and last, but by no means least—when pipes have been lit and adventures are about to be recounted—a steaming tankard, whereof the chief ingredients are "mountain dew" and mountain burn water!

And thus ended, pleasantly as it had begun, our day in October.

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