Date: 29th October 2019.
Weather conditions: After two wet, and three cloudy, county top walks it was a pleasure to do this one in excellent conditions. The skies were blue and visibility perfect, allowing full appreciation of the walk’s spectacular views. The only negative was a chill wind, which hit on the top of The Law and persisted most of the way down. But it, alone, was no cause for complaint.
County Top bagged: Ben Cleuch, which at 721m/2,365ft above sea level is the highest point in the county of Clackmannanshire. The summit has the OS grid reference NN903006. It is the highest point in the Ochil Hills, which extend west from the towns of Stirling and Dunblane, on the north side of the River Forth. The name of the summit is pronounced ‘klookh’, more or less.
Rankings by altitude:
- 32nd of the 91 historic Tops;
- 24th of the 172 modern Tops;
- 37th of the full list of 196.
Ben Cleuch is one of nine of the full list of Tops to bear the name ‘Ben’ (from the Gaelic word for mountain, in case you didn’t know), and it is the lowest-altitude of these.
[ << West Sussex — Blackdown (4) | (6) Glamorgan (et al) — Craig y Llyn >> ]
The walk described below also takes in two other distinct summits: The Law (638m/2.093ft) and Ben Ever (622m/2,040ft).
Start and end point of walk: The little town of Tillicoultry, one of the ‘Hillfoots’ — a string of small towns and villages along the southern edge of the escarpment of the Ochils. This can be reached by regular buses, running every half hour, from Stirling and Alloa, which both have train stations (see ‘Accessibility’ below). The walk took me about three and a half hours.
Pub at end: Tillicoultry has four pubs. An ideal terminus would be The Woolpack, right as you come out of Mill Glen, but this was closed when I passed it (at 12.30pm). I did get a pint in the Eagle Hotel on the main street, which is pretty basic, and doesn’t do food, but there was nothing wrong with it. None of the pubs in Tillicoultry serve food as far as I can tell, although there are plenty of take-aways, a Co-op supermarket and a tea room if you need refreshment at the end.
Distance walked: 7.5 miles/12km approximately.
Feet of ascent: 2,500 feet/760m approximately.
Difficulty: ★★★. The first hour and a half is all uphill, and steeply so. However, apart from one bit of scrambling at the point just after crossing the final bridge over the glen, it is never difficult and the path is in good condition and not eroded. After The Law is surmounted it is all easy walking. A couple of points in the descent are steep, although not difficult — except that those who lack a head for heights will find the final climb back down into Mill Glen rather worrying. Paths are clear throughout and on a clear day I never needed to consult the map. All in all, while proper gear is needed this is a half-day of fine walking without major difficulty.
Ease of access: ★★★. Tillicoultry lies on the A91, about 15 minutes’ drive east of Stirling. To get there by public transport is a matter of getting to Stirling bus station, which is just outside the rail station (frequent services to Glasgow, Edinburgh and elsewhere), and boarding a number 52 bus which runs every half hour during the day. You can also get buses here from Alloa, but to get to Alloa you need to go through Stirling anyway, so might as well travel in from there.
This walk could certainly be done on a day trip from all the big cities in central Scotland. From England, except for the very northern extremities (like, Carlisle), it’s too far to get there and back in a day. Anyway, if I had tried to, I would have missed the opportunity to spend time in the very fine, and good value, Wyvis Lodge B & B on Stirling Street in Tillicoultry — which comes highly recommended.
Scenic qualities: ★★★★. Ben Cleuch itself is a dull-looking hill with few photogenic qualities, but it has a very satisfying summit that is clearly the highest point for a great distance in any direction. Views on this walk are magnificent, ranging from Edinburgh and the Forth Bridges in the distance to the east, up the Forth valley to Stirling and then beyond it, the southern part of the Highlands, with Ben Lomond (county top of Stirlingshire) visible, capped in snow, on the day I walked.
Add to this Mill Glen, which is very dramatic, a steep-sided, rocky ravine which the route crosses multiple times on increasingly impressive bridges: this path is a significant engineering achievement. Definitely four-star scenery.
The area: Clackmannanshire is the second smallest of all the historic counties. At 61.4 square miles (159 km2) it is less than half the size of even Rutland, and the County of London — only the minuscule Isles of Scilly are smaller. It basically consists of the town of Alloa and the flat lands around it, the ‘Hillfoot’ villages like Tillicoultry, and this bit of the Ochils. So it’s possible to get a good overview of it even on a two-day trip such as mine. And my impressions were generally positive.
Running through the county is one of Britain’s major geological faults, the Ochil Fault — significant enough that earthquakes get recorded round here, and quite apparent when you look at the south escarpment of the Ochil Hills, where there is no transition zone at all between the steep slopes and flat lands beside the Forth. The Hillfoots were built to take advantage of the water pouring off this escarpment (very obvious when you see how the stream descends through Mill Glen) and as the name of that valley attests, mills were the main industry here from Victorian times on. Now, these have gone but there are still various industries around and the place, while not exactly prosperous, still seems to have a reasonable amount of life about it.
Map: OS Explorer 366: Stirling & Ochil Hills West. Though as I noted, on a clear day, I didn’t really need this. This summary map makes clear the navigational simplicity of the walk.
Route: Get off the bus at the stop just past the Royal Arms pub, and then turn up the street on that corner, Upper Mill Street, and follow this up past the Woolpack pub to the little park at the top. Keep the stream on your left and enter the woods of Mill Glen, following the path upwards into the ravine.
This ascends past the huge old quarry (pictured above, with its colony of rooks or ravens), and up along walkways and over bridges where the need for guard rails is very apparent (keep dogs and small children under control, if you’re mad enough to walk with such entities), although there is never danger. The final bridge lies down below the path, down a rocky descent, and on the other side of this comes the one bit of scrambling: take care here.
But once up these rocks, the path becomes fairly agreeable, in the sense that the footing under your boots is secure and there is little erosion. It is an uphill haul though, and a steep one. The only recompense is the broad panorama opening up behind you.
I made the summit of The Law 1:20 after leaving Tillicoultry. After that it is much easier, as you round the head of the valley of the Inner Burn below and bear left for the summit of Clackmannanshire, Ben Cleuch, which I reached another twenty minutes later. The final slopes are a bit of a trudge, and may be boggy, but the summit is a good, lofty perch in the sky, with a trig point, a wind-shelter and a view indicator that’s not very easy to read.
There seems little point going back the same way, so carry on the way you were going, bearing left down a clear path with some steep bits that need care on the way down. This goes up and over the summit of Ben Ever. A bit further on, a path branching off on the right provides a descent to the town of Alva, which is a couple of miles along the A91 from Tillicoultry — it’s a possible alternative end point if you want (it’s all on the same bus route).
But if heading back to Tillicoultry, ignore this track and keep going along the ridge until the path crosses a fence (inexplicably lacking a stile despite the fact the path is obvious on both sides) and begins to drop, not too steeply, down into Mill Glen. There are a couple of moments where the vertigo may kick in, down a final zigzag that the deposits you just at the end of one of the bridges that you came over earlier on. From there, retrace your steps back to the town.
Clacks. Commentary: Before this trip, Clackmannanshire was just a name on a map, and — thanks to the minuscule size of the county — an obscure name, at that. But the whole point of this project is to discover parts of my country that I have not visited yet, and do what I can to experience them. The walks are part of this and in that respect, Clackmannanshire — abbreviated to Clacks. when written — certainly delivered on the morning of 29th October 2019.
We can forgive Ben Cleuch its failings as an object for photography (there are reasons there are no proper pictures of it on this page) because it delivered a fine walk with spectacular views, fully meeting the requirements of a ‘real’ county top in ways that Blackdown, last time, did not. The haul up the slope of The Law ended as it was becoming boring, and all in all I cannot see anything to complain about on the walk. And one can ask for little more. I liked Tillicoultry and my trip to Alloa in the evening too — joining football with walking in the same way as for all the other county tops walk thus far save Ben Nevis — so yes, thumbs up for Clacks. With it being such a small county I feel this was a representative sample, so to speak.
For how much longer will Scotland and its constituent counties remain a part of ‘my’ country however? I am English, by birth and by identity, and am happy to admit that. I love Scotland, however, and always have: Wales and Northern Ireland I know less well, but at least with Wales, intend to explore it via these walks. That these different and distinct places have historically been mashed together in something called ‘The United Kingdom’ has always seemed a reasonably natural thing to me — why wouldn’t it (particularly as I am English)? — but with the Scots about to be torn out of Europe thanks to a dubious vote that they rejected in June 2016, as a nation, it would seem quite understandable to me if they subsequently decided, ‘no thanks’ and voted for their own independence (and probably to remain in the EU) at some point in the near future.
I feel English, and European. This thing, this layer of being ‘British’ or a ‘UK citizen’ which is supposed to sit somewhere between the two, and — if you are to listen to the insane press — is somehow far more important than both…. well, up until June 2016 I guess I had a sense of what it meant, but now I reject it. The idea of ‘Britishness’ that is being promulgated now, something I am supposed to latch on to as a crutch, when the idiocy of Brexit is removing my rights in 26 other countries… you can keep this. I do not understand it, I do not identify with it, I do not want it. Whether I will in time come to accept it is a different matter — you could argue that this project is already a sign that I am, if Europe is to become more closed to me in the future (and it will) then I will compensate by exploring this island, this place I have always lived and probably always will. But politically I am now opposed to it, as are the Scots.
There are much more visible signs of a movement pressuring for independence than I have seen in Scotland before, except when I was here (in Dundee as it happens) for the 2015 general election, in which the Scottish Nationalists swept almost all the seats north of the border. In Glasgow on Monday, when I passed through on my way to Stirling, stalls and pamphleteers promoting a second independence referendum (and a ‘yes’ vote in it) were obvious among the streets of shoppers. Maybe I am embarking on this exploration of Great Britain — the island — at a time when the nations that comprise it are rifting apart. If it happens, I doubt it will lead to more tolerance and peace, do you?
Scotland has many things to offer a ‘United Kingdom’, whatever the hell that means these days. If it leaves it will be another part of life chiselled away by the lunatic ambitions of a handful of demagogues — and/or, by the blind self-interest of those who seem to still think that Johnson is a viable PM despite his unlawful contempt of court, his constant lies and fraudulent, corrupt behaviour. This is the true lament. And what can be done about that? I no longer know.
As for the walks, I doubt I will get in another County Top in 2019, although there is a brief opportunity in mid-December when I have to go to south Wales; but the weather is rarely good around that time so we will just see how it goes.
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