Date: 12th September 2021.
Weather conditions: Tolerable. There were a few minutes of light drizzle. For much of the way it looked as if the summit of Mount Battock was going to be wreathed in cloud when I attained it, but it mostly cleared by the time I was up there.
I was, however, glad I remembered my experiences in Scotland last month, and wore the fleece today. The winds on the top were coming from the north, and one didn’t need a compass to determine this. This was definitely the first walk of autumn.
County Top bagged: Mount Battock, the summit of which is marked by a trig point at 2,552 feet/778m above sea level, grid reference NO550844. This is the highest point in the historic Scottish county of Kincardineshire. That county ceased to exist in 1974 (see ‘The Area’, below), and these days the summit sits on the boundary between Angus and Aberdeenshire. Hence, it is a historic County Top only.
This is one of only three CTs to have the word ‘Mount’ or ‘Mountain’ in its name, the others being Holyhead Mountain (Anglesey) and Black Mountain (Herefordshire); although if we extend this into Welsh, then Mynydd y Betws (Swansea) and Mynydd Varteg Fawr (Torfaen) should also be counted. (No fewer than 68 of the CTs are called ‘….Hill’.)
Mount Battock is sometimes called ‘Scotland’s most easterly mountain’ — it is, at least, the most easterly Corbett, classified as a Scottish summit over 2,500 feet. By altitude it ranks 26th of the 91 historic Tops and 31st of the full list.
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Start and end point of walk: Started and finished at Millden, in Glen Esk, specifically at the parking place near the telephone box at NO540789. There is space here for about six cars.
The walk took me about four hours. It also takes in a couple of subsidiary summits: Hill of Saughs at 2,152 feet/656m, and Wester Cairn at 2,352/717m. (With Mount Battock being 2,552ft, there is a neat regularity to these heights; they arrange themselves a little like the three blocks on an Olympic medal podium.)
Pub at end: Nothing at the terminus, nor, as far as I can tell, in the whole of Glen Esk (though I assume Millden Lodge will serve you alcoholic beverages if you are staying there as one of the elect). The nearest place that plebs can get a drink at the end of the day is in the village of Edzell, about eight miles distant, on the way back to Dundee. There, the Panmure Arms Hotel served me a pint; I’m glad it was open, but I wouldn’t expect to really get down and party in this place.
Distance walked: 9 miles/14.4km approximately.
Feet of ascent: 2,230 feet/680m approx.
Difficulty: ★★★. Much of the walk takes place on hard-topped mountain roads, built for the grouse shooters (see the commentary) but also useful for the walker: without them, this would be a much tougher hike. Had these roads reached all the way to the summit and back I would have given it two stars, but they don’t quite. The final climb to the summit is done through a short bout of peat bog then a mostly pathless haul up beside a fence. For this, but only this, I give the third star.
Ease of access: ★★. It’s not too far from the main A90 road; it took me about 50 minutes to drive to the starting point from Dundee city centre. But there is no way to even get close to Mount Battock by public transport, and while Scots could do this as a day trip in the car if they chose, anyone living south of the border is going to need to stay over.
Scenic qualities: ★★★. This is remote and lonely country. The views of Glen Esk, all the way down to the flatter lands of Angus, are very fine, but this is all you really see, except from the summit where there is a little more variety. The scenery close to hand is not that exciting, and neither the roads nor the patchwork burning of the heather help here.
The area: Kincardineshire is so obscure that I am sure that most Scots have forgotten that less than 50 years ago it was still a part of their country. Even the place for which it was once named, a medieval village, ceased to appear on maps long ago; the name has nothing to do with the Kincardine in Fife, that people may have heard of due to there being a motorway bridge there, over the River Forth. The main town is (or was) Stonehaven, a place that I’ve only ever passed through when on the train from Dundee to Aberdeen.
In 1974 Kincardineshire was absorbed into the region of Grampian, and it never reappeared. Nowadays the territory of the historic shire is subsumed in the southernmost parts of Aberdeenshire, on the North Sea coast. And there does not seem any big push to get the place its independence back — so Kincardineshire has to be considered one of the UK’s forgotten counties. I’m not claiming this walk is a great tribute to its memory either, seeing as the majority of it takes place in Angus.
Map: Outdoor Leisure 54: Glen Esk and Glen Tanar covers the walk. Although navigation was fairly easy, I would still bring a copy just in case, as this is not country that one would wish to be lost in. (In May 2020 a 74-year-old man was rescued after wandering in this area for three days — see this page.)
Note also that the 1:25,000 scale maps, both on paper and digital, are currently less up-to-date, when it comes to the configuration of mountain roads in the area, than the 1:50,000 series. Map 44 of the Landranger series might be more useful in that respect today.
Any walk on a general north-south axis, like this one, will fit on these summary maps in a less satisfactory way, and so it proves today. But it just about suffices.
Route: I did enjoy this walk, and having the mountain roads underfoot does reduce the effort needed. I’m sure it would be a safe walk in misty or wintry weather. The views are good and there’s a palpable sense of solitude and utter remoteness; not only did I feel that I was on the highest land for many miles around, but also that I was the only person for a similar distance. When I finally did see another walker (see picture), this came as a big surprise — to him too, I imagine. Along with one gamekeeper buzzing around on his quad bike, these were the only other people I saw today, in four hours out of the car.
On the other hand, this is not a walk to do for excitement and drama. It feels like a long haul, particularly on the way down, and when the extensive views are lost, there’s not really a great deal to see.
Park at the phone box, which is signposted off the Glen Esk road just after a narrow bridge over the Burn of Turret; the walk, basically, is a circuit of the valley of this stream. Start by crossing back over this bridge and then taking the track on the left-hand side of the road, which rises to the right of the drive to the ‘Underkeepers’ Cottage’ — it is obvious from the start that one is in gamebird territory. See the commentary.
From here to the summit of Hill of Saughs is about 3½ miles of constant ascent, rising just over 1,640 feet/500m, with almost no height lost at any point and all on a mountain road. The views of Glen Esk are good from the start, and as you ascend, the panorama opens up to take in the headwaters of Glen Dye to the east, and in the west, Mount Keen, the most easterly of Scotland’s Munros (mountains over 3,000 feet). At any junction in the road, just keep heading uphill.
After a while this track meets and then runs parallel to a fence, that marks the border between Angus and what was Kincardineshire. This takes you up onto the summit of Hill of Saughs, after which there is the first (very slight) descent of the day, and also where, sadly, the road ends, abruptly leaving you facing a peat bog. Fortunately, these hags are neither too wide nor too trying to negotiate. After doing so, regain the fence and follow it steeply up to reach the trig point and wind shelter on the summit of Mount Battock.
Turn left at the top and head west, dropping off the summit dome and then up to the flat top of the subsidiary, Wester Cairn. A mountain road is rejoined here — passable by quad bikes, at nearly 2,350 feet above sea level, this is surely one of the highest such roads in the country. Turn left on attaining it and descend with care; the stones on the road surface are loose and as a result I found this almost like going down loose scree, which as anyone who has done that knows, is not an altogether pleasant experience. But it does improve.
Turn left at the next, sharp junction, and drop back down to the valley of the Burn of Turret. All should be straightforward, if unexciting, for the next three miles or so. Once you reach a complex of fenced enclosures (sheepfolds, probably), bear off to the left to drop down to the stream, which begins to run through a fairly deep gorge. There were vast numbers of grouse round here on the day I walked.
Eventually you come down to a ford, which pedestrians need to cross via a footbridge. Cross the second bridge as well, and one can finish the walk along a footpath on the left bank of the burn; although note that this path looks as if it will be closed at times when there is clay pigeon shooting going on. However, doubtless you will hear in advance if this is going to be the case, and if so, don’t cross the second bridge, instead follow the track up past Muir Cottage, finishing the walk that way (see the map).
Grouse grouse Commentary: I had planned to do this walk in June when we came to Dundee, but never quite made it. But Joe got the grades he needed to enter the university of his choice, namely Abertay, and this weekend I drove him up to Scotland so he could move into his new residence. No way was I doing that journey — at least 5½ hours’ driving — in each direction on consecutive days, so today, Sunday, was my ‘day of rest’ before the return; which of course, I then used to yomp nine miles round a grouse moor. But that’s just me. Either way, there will be no more CTs until October; I have work to do and, for now, I’m tired of moving around.
OK, the grouse shooting. Before moving on let me state that I am not against the hunting of game. I’ve never done it myself, but I have family members who stalk deer, or shoot, and the meat from their efforts often ends up on our dinner table, so it would be hypocritical of me to condemn this. Thus, what follows is not a criticism of those who hunt. But around Mount Battock this activity is being industrialised on a huge scale, and that does cause problems.
My walk today took place on the Millden Estate, of roughly 19,500 acres (over 30 square miles). When this came up for sale in 2011 it was described in The Scotsman newspaper as ‘Scotland’s priciest estate’. The reason for this premium status is not just the size of the landholding, but the value of the sport that takes place there: the hunting of pheasant, partridge, salmon and grouse. And to realise this value — to make sure, firstly, that there are plenty of birds on the moor, and then to make sure that the shooters can get to them — requires activities which amount to ecological crimes.
For a start, in October 2019, raids here by the Scottish Police uncovered evidence of animal fighting and the illegal culling of raptors (birds of prey) – see this story. But the problems run deeper than just the actions of a couple of individuals. Here I draw on Nick Hayes’s brilliant Book of Trespass (2020, Bloomsbury); this from pages 223-4:
[Peat] bogs have blanketed the moors since the end of the Ice Age, when the trees there had been cleared for grazing by Bronze Age settlers. Over millennia they have absorbed the carbon in the atmosphere, which now lies densely packed beneath our feet in ‘carbon sinks’. However, every year, these moors are systematically burned to increase the yield of new green shoots on the heather. Grouse can eat up to 50 grams of heather shoots a day, and to keep up with the prodigious productivity of these moors the growth of heather must be maximised in its efficiency. But the burning destroys the sphagnum moss and dries out the peat, turning the carbon sinks into a carbon source; the damage done to these peatlands in England releases 260,000 tonnes of carbon back into the atmosphere every year, the equivalent emissions of 88,000 average-sized saloon cars.
The same motivations — maximising the profitability of the land, and ensuring its value appreciates — explain the rash of access roads that spread across Mount Battock’s landscape like bindweed. Many of them are very new, going on the evidence of the Ordnance Survey map. The copy of OL54 that I used today was published in 2015, and yet, for instance, it does not show the track that goes over the top of Wester Cairn and then heads north, around the rim of Glen Tennet. Look at the 1:50,000 map; this road doesn’t actually go anywhere. The effort in infrastructural development made by the Millden’s owners was not motivated by a desire to improve transport links between Angus and Aberdeen.
And as Hayes explains throughout his book, all this is generously funded by large amounts of money from the public purse. Now I’m all for directing public funding towards maintaining the British countryside. Allowing access to open space, particularly rural open space, brings demonstrated and obvious benefits to public health. But it’s very difficult to sustain the argument that Mount Battock and the hills around are being looked after as natural assets. Instead, this area is being thoroughly exploited, for the benefit of a few; and arguments that the wealth generated by this industry ‘trickles down’ to local people are simply not true. In 2015, the Office of National Statistics revealed that one-third of all jobs in Angus pay below what is considered a ‘living wage’, and that a full-time job in ‘grouse moor management’ pays only just over £11,000 per year. (see http://www.andywightman.com/archives/4342)
I truly believe that Great Britain, taken as a whole, is one of the most beautiful and diverse landscapes on the planet; that is one reason why I thought of doing this project in the first place, and why I have taken to it so readily. But there are plenty of ways in which we could do a lot better at stewarding this natural heritage, and equalising access to it, seeing the value of our land distributed among the nation as a whole. It’d annoy the hell out of the establishment, but I’ve always said — if it annoys the Daily Mail, it’s probably worth doing.
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