58/59: Garrel Hill, North Lanarkshire and Darrach Hill, Falkirk

Garrel Hill
Garrel Hill, the day’s first CT, seen from the east.

Date: 10th September 2022. This is basically the same weekend as I used to bag Mount Battock last year, and for the same reason – coming to Scotland because of the need to drive Joe to uni. See the commentary.

Weather conditions: Very good indeed. A beautiful day.

County Tops bagged: Two today. Firstly, Garrel Hill, the summit of which stands at 1,506 feet/459m above sea level, at grid reference NS705810. This is the highest point in the local authority of North Lanarkshire.

Secondly, Darrach Hill, at 1,171 feet/357m and (more approximately this time) NS755827, the Top of the local authority of Falkirk.

Darrach Hill
Darrach Hill. (West Lomond, CT of Fife, is in the background.)

Both of these lie in the range known as the Kilsyth Hills. Neither is a historic Top: both were in the historic county of Stirlingshire, of which Ben Lomond was the Top. They became CTs in 1996, after the second Great Reorganisation of Scottish counties.

Rankings by altitude:

The walk also takes in the separate summit of Tomtain, at 1,486 feet/453m a.s.l., and to be honest, this peak is the dominant mountainous object of the walk.

Tomtain, and one of the several other walkers who were surmounting it today.

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Start and end point of walk: The “Tak ma Doon” car park, located on the road of the same name north of Kilsyth, at approximately NS734811. This cannot be reached on public transport, though Kilsyth can be: see the access notes below. There is parking here for a dozen cars, officially, though after it filled up on a sunny Saturday with no other entertainment options available (commentary, commentary), people just parked out on the road, at various points to the north, at least.

The walk, with a lunch break, took me 3 ½ hours.

Pub at end: I had to drive back to Dundee, so did not indulge in alcohol today. Options that I did not explore include the Carronbridge Hotel, a few miles to the north of the car park, or whatever is in Kilsyth to the south.

Distance walked: 8.1 miles/13 km approximately.

Tak ma Doon road
A sign on the Tak ma Doon road.

Total ascent: 1,400 feet/ 425m approximately. Although the starting point is elevated (approx. 1,050 feet/320m), there is a lot of up-and-down on this hike.

Difficulty: ★★★. Had I done only Garrel Hill I would have given it two stars. There are some boggy, indeed positively juicy, sections on this part of the walk, so hiking boots are required, but other than that it’s easy enough.

However, the final stretches of the climb to Darrach Hill’s summit, and the first part of the descent off it, are an absolute arse, and I mean this most sincerely. This stretch involves more than a mile of awful ground, forcing one to negotiate felled trees, treacherous hidden streams, thick heather and not a path to be seen. This part can have four stars on its own, so let’s split the difference and call it three for the walk as a whole.

View off escarpment
The view south off the escarpment, over Kilsyth.

Ease of access: ★★★. One is as near to the centre of mainland Scotland here as makes no difference, and access by car is straightforward; come off junction 7 of the M80 and you’ll be at the car park about twenty minutes later.

There’s no public transport to the starting point, but one could get a bus to Kilsyth and start there instead, though this would involve more climbing, and personally I wouldn’t add on Darrach Hill if doing it this way. A climb up to Garrel Hill from Kilsyth, then along the ridge to Tomtain and down the road to finish back in the town, would be a decent walk, though.

The Ochils.

Scenic qualities: ★★★. There’s a superb view even from the car park, and this panorama is never really lost throughout the walk. One can see the whole of Scotland’s central belt, including the Ochils (above, and crowned by my old friend Ben Cleuch), the Firth of Forth, the Lomond Hills in Fife, the Pentlands and, distantly in the west (I am fairly sure about this) the Isle of Arran: see the picture below. Plus the southern Highlands, including the distinctive, pointy Ben Lomond and probably at least another couple of other CTs that I do not yet have the experience to identify.

On the other hand, little that is close to hand is worth getting excited about, and the topmost reaches of Darrach Hill are without any appeal at all. So, once more, let’s split the difference and call it three.

Arran in the distance? Quite possibly.

The area: This is not a part of the world I know a great deal about. North Lanarkshire curls itself around the east side of Glasgow; its principal towns of Motherwell, Airdrie, Cumbernauld and Coatbridge bring to my mind images of industrial decline and various lower-division Scottish football teams (with apologies to Motherwell FC, who have been in the top flight for decades now). Certainly Thatcherism didn’t do this part of the world any favours, and I doubt Trussism will either.

These days Falkirk is probably best known for the Kelpies, two giant sculptures of horses’ heads, and the Falkirk Wheel, which is a marvellous elevating aqueduct that connects two canals and is proof that engineering projects can still achieve magnificent aesthetics and be tourist attractions in their own right. I’ve never seen either of these sights, though I hope to one day.

This was also one of the furthest extremities of the Roman Empire. The remains of the Antonine Wall run through the valley just south of Kilsyth.

Map: OS Explorer 348: Campsie Fells was excess baggage during the first part of the walk, but on the way off Darrach Hill it was an invaluable guide to how the land and its fences were configured; I certainly did not want to make that ordeal any longer than it already was, so it’s probably a good idea to pack a copy of the map in some format or other.

Map of walk 58/59

On this summary map, the starting point is at the southernmost point of the walk, in the middle. I went out to Garrel Hill (west) and back on the same path, and my route up to and down from Darrach Hill is approximate (certainly in the sections nearest the summit).

Route: Essentially this walk is two separate four-mile hikes which happen to share a starting point, so might as well be done together. The first, up to Garrel Hill, is a simple, albeit boggy, walk along a ridge and back, with no problems at all and with very fine views. However, the second part, to Darrach Hill, involves at least an hour of negotiating awful ground, and unless one is on the same bagging project as me, I’d really not bother. The views are still good but that’s the only consolation. I would definitely save the walk for a clear day.

Signpost off road
Walk this way: the signpost off the Tak Ma Doon road.

From the car park, head uphill (north) along the road for about ¼ mile until it tops out, where a signpost points to the left. This path leads along the ridge quite straightforwardly, but there are some boggy sections which you will just have to live with, not to mention parts where both pine trees and barbed wire encroach on the path. This ridge, incidentally, is part of the principal east/west watershed of Britain, though it’s twisted here through over 90º. Water flowing north off the ridge will reach the North Sea via the River Carron, then the Forth, whereas that flowing south goes into the Atlantic, via the Kelvin and the Clyde.

The first and most prominent summit reached is Tomtain, which has a cairn, a trig column and a spectacular view, described above. It is a shame that this is not the CT of North Lanarkshire, but for the sake of 6m we conscientious types must carry on for another ¾ mile or so, first over the intermediate bump of Hunt Hill and then up to Garrel Hill. Note the point at which the path switches from one side of the fence to the other, to avoid the trees ahead.

Tomtain summit cairn
The summit cairn of Tomtain. Meikle Bin is the peak behind.

Despite the apparent claim of a few mounds to the left, Strava and the OS map are both insistent that the highest point of Garrel Hill (and North Lanarkshire) is by the path, slightly to the right, which comes as something of a relief. The view is not as good as it is from Tomtain, though. But you can enjoy this sight again as you head back the way you came, retracing your steps as far as the road. Darrach Hill is obvious ahead as you do this, and looks quite innocuous from this perspective. (See the picture near the top of the page.)

Back on the road, there are decisions to make; firstly whether you want to bag Darrach Hill at all. Completists must continue from here but those who walk purely for fun should consider just going back to the car. I pressed on, deciding to use a forest road that is apparent on the OS map, found by heading north along the tarmac for about ½ mile (this road marks the boundary between North Lanarkshire and Falkirk) and then turning right through a gate, just before reaching a ford.

Top of Darrach Hill (with crap)
The topmost reaches of Darrach Hill, and a lot of crud in the way.

On the map this forest road looked as if it would deposit me at a good base camp for the final assault on Darrach Hill, but sadly this turned out not to be the case. As it begins to loop back south, one must strike out for the summit across a stretch of awful ground, befouled by the remains of felled forest and some treacherous gullies. What looks from afar like a reasonable stroll turns out to be nothing of the sort. This is not even to mention the need to cross several fences topped with barbed wire; not dangerous (none of them are that high), but one could certainly do without it (as I have noted before when faced with this shit; just who is it that the landowners think they are really deterring?).

Having finally staggered up to the flat, heathery plateau that claims the mantle of the summit of Darrach Hill, and Falkirk, one will also need to give some thought to getting off it again and back to the car. I was damn sure I wasn’t retracing my steps, but the alternative descent I tried wasn’t a great deal better. I headed first for the subsidiary summit of Birns, identifiable by its trig column. But I didn’t actually surmount this, instead bearing west, following the fence that skirts the southern end of the forest, obvious both on the map and on the ground (and there’s no way you’re getting over this fence).

Tomtain again
Tomtain again, this time from Darrach Hill.

This did lead me back to the road, though not without some need to force my way through pathless undergrowth; it does get better, with my even deigning to award the sketchy traces of prior usage the status of ‘path’ after a while, but it could hardly get any worse. Eventually, and with great relief, this fence leads back to the Tak ma Doon road, at precisely the point it was left for Tomtain/Garrel Hill three or more hours before. There, turn left and return to the car.

Mandatory Mourning Commentary: This walk was done two days after the passing of Queen Elizabeth II. I’m sad she’s died, as it is always sad when someone dies. I doubt this will have any seismic political effects but there will be little things that the vast majority of the British (and indeed Commonwealth) population have always had one way, but now they have to change. Like we need to sing King instead of Queen when doing the anthem, and that Sex Pistols song is now definitively from the past. Will the Royal Mint trouble to issue new coins and notes with Charlie’s face on them however? As he’s already 73, perhaps they’ll decide it’s too much trouble as they could be doing them all again in a few years. Mind you both his parents were pretty long-lived, weren’t they.

Carron valley
View of the Carron Valley.

Most things that people were planning to do this weekend, and may indeed have invested money in beforehand, were cancelled, which I suppose was inevitable although that doesn’t mean there aren’t inconsistencies. Football matches were all called off, but theatre performances could stay on. Is there really any difference, morally? I struggle to see it. Anyway, at least this didn’t interfere with our important task, of moving Joe back up to Dundee for the second of his four years of university: and with no football on the Saturday, and a sunny day, a walk seemed entirely logical.

Joe is now committed to being here for another three years, and as he’s now got his own flat, as opposed to living in halls, which we can use as a base, all of Scotland suddenly looks a lot more accessible. Even the peripheral Shetlands are not bad from here thanks to the Loganair Dundee-Sumburgh flight. It was about 90 minutes from Dundee to and from the starting point today, and as I drove in there were all these pointy, bulky lumps of rock on the horizon; I would say I certainly spotted Ben Lomond (Top of historic Stirlingshire), and possibly others over in that southern part of the Highlands.

View to Highlands
View north, to some large rocky lumps (possibly Ben More, top of Stirling)

These are places I both need and want to go to. I’m keeping up the pace with the Scottish Tops in terms of quantity, but it’s time to get up some of the bigger ones, the remaining Munros, and also Goat Fell on Arran – which I’m amazed I saw today, from what must be at least 50 miles away. Looking at the map, though, I think it must have been.

My next firm CT is somewhere down in the Southampton/Portsmouth region in October, as I follow the wife around on one of her work-related weekends away. Perhaps I will get something in before then however, like Helvellyn, which I know I keep promising but it never seems to arrive. For now though, it’s back to Yorkshire, and back to the start of my own 22-23 academic year.


4 thoughts on “58/59: Garrel Hill, North Lanarkshire and Darrach Hill, Falkirk

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