39: Ben Lawers, Perthshire/Perth and Kinross

Ascending Beinn Ghlas
On the ascent of Beinn Ghlas.

Date: 16th August 2021.

Weather conditions: Today was a classic illustration of how weather is affected by altitude. The early morning, spent driving along the valley of Loch Tay, was a little dull, but not unpleasant. Up on the tops, however, it was blowing a gale, and very cold for August. Clouds covered everything above 1,000m, with the shot below grabbed within one of the mere moments of such (relative) clarity. At least it stayed dry.

But once I got back down, all changed once more and the afternoon, in Aberfeldy, has been sunny and warm. Ah well.

View up to Ben Lawers
As much as I saw of Ben Lawers today… (from the col below Beinn Ghlas)

County Top bagged: Ben Lawers, the summit of which is marked by a crumbling trig point at grid reference NN635414 with an altitude of 3,983 feet/1,214m.

This is the highest point in the historic county of Perthshire, and in the modern local authority of Perth and Kinross. It is the tenth highest mountain in Scotland, and in the United Kingdom. In the whole country, there is no higher land south of here.

As all the nine higher peaks — the 4,000-footers — are either in the Highland region or in Aberdeenshire, that makes Ben Lawers the third highest County Top on every list (of historic Tops, modern Tops and the full list). The only two that exceed it in altitude are Ben Nevis and Ben Macdhui.

Ben Lawers from Taymouth
… but here is what it looks like in better weather. Taken from Taymouth, at the foot of Loch Tay.

[ << Glas Maol, Angus (38) | (40) Heaton Park, City of Manchester >> ]

Start and end point of walk: The car park on the minor road just north of Milton Morenish, at NN609379. This is the recommended parking spot for the Ben Lawers Nature Reserve, and a £3 charge is levied. As this stands at about 1380 feet/420m a.s.l., this is my second walk in a row to benefit from an elevated starting point.

The walk took me four hours. On the way, the route passes over the separate summit (and Munro) of Beinn Ghlas, at 3,619 feet/1,103m.

Bee and heather
A bee getting busy on the flowering heather, in the nature reserve.

Pub at end: Nothing at the terminus itself, but in Milton Morenish there is the Boathouse Kitchen and Bar. I didn’t visit this, so can’t offer a review.

Distance walked: According to the map, and the description of the walk on the (highly recommended) Walk Highlands website, it’s about 7 miles/11.3km approximately. I can vouch for the fact that it feels longer.

Feet of ascent: The elevated starting point does help, but you lose height after Beinn Ghlas, so there’s still about 3,085 feet/940m of ascent to cope with today. Therefore, at around 440 feet/mile, this walk doesn’t just snatch the record of the steepest one on average (set only two days ago on Glas Maol) — it demolishes it.

View on the descent path
Walker on the path I took back down. Ben Lawers ahead.

Difficulty: ★★★★. As those figures indicate, there is a great deal of climbing to be done today and all of it is quite steep. Add to that the weather conditions that I faced — and I imagine that kind of thing is a fairly frequent occurrence at this altitude — and I certainly felt like I’d put in a full day’s work. On the other hand, beyond the steep and constant climbing the walk has no particular difficulties or dangers.

Ease of access: ★. The one-star award (my definition: ‘a logistical nightmare to reach even with a car’) was certainly going to come out for the walks I still have to do on remote Scottish islands (Shetland, etc.). But it may as well make its debut today as of all my 39 CT walks done so far, this was the least accessible.

My first ever sight of a ptarmigan, and its unnecessary P.

It would be nice if buses ran along the A827, but they get no nearer than Killin, which is still six miles from the starting point. The main roads north through Scotland — the A82 and A9 — are each some twenty miles away to west and east respectively, as are the nearest train stations, at Crianlarich or Pitlochry. Finally, the last stretch up to the car park requires the use of a narrow, winding and difficult single-track road. Whichever way you get here, it’s going to require a long and tortuous journey.

Scenic qualities: ★★★★. Ben Lawers probably has a magnificent view; it would be a surprise if such a high and prominent summit did not have a great panorama. But thanks to the weather, I did not see it, so can’t vouch for it.

There are certainly dramatic parts of the walk, particularly once past Beinn Ghlas summit, but I have high standards landscape-wise and don’t think it quite hits five-star territory. Maybe I would have given five if the weather had been better.

View of Loch Tay
View of Loch Tay, from the ascent.

The area: The historic county of Perthshire occupied an approximately circular chunk of the middle of Scotland, and had a great amount of history, including playing host to the ancient abbey at Scone where Scottish kings — including Macbeth and Robert the Bruce — were once crowned. Not that this mattered to the wonks of Westminster who, as in most of the rest of Scotland, tossed away these ancient associations in the 1970s for the sake of administrative convenience. Perthshire has only been recently revived in the form of Perth and Kinross local authority, in 1996: along the way it lost a bit of its south-western section (to Stirling), but at the same time acquired the historic county of Kinross-shire.

I’ve never been to the city of Perth, but this week we’ve been staying in the town of Aberfeldy, a pleasant and lively little place. The beauty of the local landscape, not just the mountains but other nearby scenes such as Loch Tay and Glen Lyon, is undoubted. There are plenty of things to see and do, and time spent here will not be wasted. I recommend the Iron Age Crannog centre at Kenmore, and in Fortingall there’s a famous yew tree that is at least 3,000 years old. Check out also the village of Dull, and its magnificent sign, announcing how it is ‘Twinned with Boring, Oregon’.

Map of walk 39

Map: OL48 Ben Lawers and Glen Lyon covers the area, but navigation is not a problem on this walk and you could get away without bringing a copy.

Route: Despite the freezing gale which I faced for an hour, and the lack of views from the top, I did enjoy this walk. It provides a healthy sense of achievement, and considering the altitude attained, is not particularly difficult. All the paths are of good quality. It’s a popular walk, so don’t come here expecting solitude, though we are not talking Ben Nevis-style crowds.

Beinn Ghlas from the nature reserve
Beinn Ghlas, above the heather of the nature reserve.

From the car park, follow the signs, which lead you across the road and into an area that is fenced off to keep sheep and deer from munching on the plants that grow within. For Ben Lawers, you are directed to the left, but you can also ascend to the right of the stream, by following the sign saying ‘Nature trail’. The peak visible ahead is Beinn Ghlas, which conceals Ben Lawers from view all the way until you reach its summit.

Once through the gate at the top of the fenced area, you come to a junction in the path, where turn right. The path on the left is the one that you will be returning down later. The right-hand path begins to climb steeply as it ascends Beinn Ghlas, and views of Loch Tay open up down the valley of the Coire a’Chonnaidh. (Don’t ask me how to pronounce any of these Gaelic names, as the main rule in this language seems to be to ignore as many consonants as possible; ‘dh’ is usually silent, I think.)

Coire a'Chonnaidh
Coire a’Chonnaidh.

At the summit of Beinn Ghlas, the terrain suddenly changes. Its small cairn sits right on the edge of a steep drop off into the valley of the Allt a’Chobhair, which runs north to Glen Lyon. Ben Lawers is now visible ahead (assuming you do the walk in better visibility than I managed). It’s a dramatic sight, but also a little dispiriting, as the 720 feet of climbing that you still have to do is very apparent. There’s no getting around this, so onward and upward you go.

From the beginning of the final slope, it took me about 25 minutes to get to the summit. I assume that from the top you get a fine view of Loch Tay and of nearby peaks, like the pyramid of Schiehallion, but that information is based only on the advice of the view indicator. This is one of the two pillars that mark the 10th-highest mountain top in Britain, the other being the OS trig point (pictured) that appears in danger of crumbling away.

Ben Lawers summit
Two walkers and the rotting trig point on Ben Lawers summit.

After enjoying the summit, descend back to the col and there bear right, along an obvious path that offers fairly good walking and excellent views down Allt a’Chobhair. This leads through a narrow pass between Beinn Ghlas and Meall Corranaich, which if you’re feeling energetic, I guess you could climb (it’s another Munro). I am past doing that kind of thing, however, so I just carried on back to the junction mentioned earlier, and from there, back down through the nature reserve to the car park.

High-altitude commentary: During this trip to Scotland we have been accommodated in Aberfeldy, at the home of some friends, and so thanks to Aileen Shovlin and Caroline Bailey for their hospitality. While the Scots are still a little more locked into Great Fear mode than we reckless English, this really only manifests itself in the fact we still have to ‘check in’ to the local pubs. Otherwise you wouldn’t notice it. And that’s all for the better.

View on the descent
A view from the descent path.

The neat thing about the CT list is that — by definition — the Tops are evenly distributed across the whole country, hence the innate variety of this project. But still, there are only 31 CTs higher than 2,500 feet — 16% of the total — and yet 18 of these are in Scotland. (Five are English, and eight Welsh.) So over 40% of the Scottish CTs are above 2,500 feet. Add to this concentrated altitude the innate lack of accessibility of many of them, which I certainly noticed today, and it’s the Scottish tops that are going to take the most logistical planning, even before the physical effort required.

So I’m glad I’ve bagged a couple of Munros over the last few days (three in fact — Beinn Ghlas counts alongside Glas Maol, so my lifetime score is now five Scottish 3,000-footers). It seems to balance out things a little better. Three of the top ten CTs by altitude are now bagged, though, admittedly, none of the next ten; though I’m planning for Helvellyn (#14) and Aran Fawddwy (#16) to fall within the next few months.

Beinn Ghlas ridge
View from Beinn Ghlas summit, down the ridge.

Blimey though, it was cold up on the top today. The worst bit was on the ridge between Beinn Ghlas and Ben Lawers. The wind was blasting up from the valley below and rushing through the gap between the two mountains at what must have been at least 40 mph. Rarely have I experienced a better illustration of the adage, ‘conditions can change rapidly when up a mountain’. I suppose being several degrees further north than I typically am made a difference, too.

However, six hours after freezing my bollocks off I’m sitting here putting this blog post together while sat outside in Aberfeldy in sunshine and 23ºC temperatures, and I guess this is some consolation. But as I have no intention of ever ascending Ben Lawers again, I must forever remain in ignorance of whatever panorama it has to offer: there were constant hopes that the clouds would clear, but they were never fulfilled.

Beinn Ghlas
Looking back to Beinn Ghlas, from the final col. Descent path to the right.

20% of 197 = 39.4, so although I’m not technically there, I have more-or-less completed the first quintile of the CTs, I am one-fifth of the way to the goal. Which still means I have four times as many to do as I have already done, and twelve of the remaining Tops are over 3,000 feet. I think my various limbs and lungs are still up for it, though. But there won’t be any more CTs this August. The plan is to get the next one(s) in September, when I come back to Scotland to deposit Joe and his luggage in Dundee, ready to start university. See you then.


6 thoughts on “39: Ben Lawers, Perthshire/Perth and Kinross

  1. Nice report. I did this hill back in 2008 when I was much younger (and fitter) and enjoyed it. It probably won’t help but the views from the top are pretty good.

    The Great Fear has ruined my hill fitness so it’s been a long time since I’ve been anywhere near 3000ft.

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