Squinting at the night sky, the Ancients (and sometimes, the surprisingly moderns) allege to have seen the figures of twins, fish, virgins, sextants, and giraffes imprinted on the heavens. In comparison I normally expect geology to be… down to Earth. I’ve spent the last few years trying to muddle my way through learning little bits of Scottish Gaelic, and while it’s been fascinating at times, it’s had a rather catastrophic effect on my understanding of the romanticism of the hills. “Beinn Dearg” becomes simply a red hill, “Beinn Dubh” the dark hill, and “A’ Bhuidheanach Bheag” the little yellow place. Perhaps a little mystery and romance is left in some of the places after all… A hill name where this romance and mystery is not lost through greater knowledge, however, stands above the small town of Ballachuilish (the town of the narrows) on the A82 between Glasgow and Fort William. Its name, Beinn a’ Bheithir, is often translated as “the hill of thunder” or something along these lines, but really, this hill which bares over the aforementioned narrows, is named for a mythical dragon or serpent.

Or so Google tells me. I’m not sure I can see the resemblance from photos, so perhaps astronomy isn’t unique in requiring more than a little imagination.

The spring is firmly on the turn to summer, and there’s warmth in the breeze, perhaps for the first time this year. We set out running from the car park at the Co-op, through the village, past the school, and start the gentle climb along a track in a field. Beinn a’ Bheithir looms over the town in a way no other Munro I’ve ever climbed quite does. Ballachuilish is dominated to one side by it, and to the other side by the Pap of Glen Coe and the Aonach Eagach ridge. I’ve run up hills before; I’ve raced up hills before, but I’ve never managed to find an happy medium between walking and running all-out which allows for conversation, but where I won’t be a drag on the pace. I’m accompanying an experienced hill runner. I anticipate making a fool of myself.

As we turn up the path which will lead us onto the Schoolhouse Ridge I quickly realise that running the climb isn’t possible. My accomplice slows down too without objecting, but we make fairly rapid progress as the air warms up and the sun beats down on us. The tops themselves are sheltered in cloud. I’ve been to Ballachuilish many times, but never seen the top of this mountain. I assume it has one. The map suggests it has three.

We pass plenty of people on the way up, as we ascend whichever fanciful part of the snake dragon we’re climbing. Squinting at the map I can perhaps believe that the tail stretches out towards the loch and the sea, which leaves the uncomfortable suggestion that we’re climbing its head. The mountain has multiple spurs at this side; perhaps we’ve encountered a hydra.

Summit cairn
▲ The summit of Sgòrr Dearg

The climb is steep, but soon we’ve reached the dragon’s rocky armour, and we have plenty of scrambling to do to reach the top. I’ve been climbing lots of hills in the Cairngorms lately, and this is the first time that I’ve needed to put hand to rock for a while. The foliated metamorphic rock makes for a sturdy platform, and a reminder that even though the destruction brought by the mountain’s namesake was mythological, the geological processes in Glen Coe which formed the mountain were not.

We climb into the cloud, and quickly reach the white peak of Sgòrr Bhan, made from striking quartzite. We don’t linger, but press on towards the first Munro summit, dropping just out of the cloud on the way, and being offered views back over Loch Leven. The summit, Sgòrr Dearg, lived up to its moniker, (the red peak), especially in comparison to the previous top. Once again a reminder of destruction is to be found; the summit cairn is full of bits of iron and concrete. The trig pillar’s remains. I ponder for a while what could have brought such destruction to this pillar. Perhaps it is the mountain of thunder and lightning after all.

After stopping for a short while we follow what feels like an obvious path off the summit. We encounter some more scrambling, and drop out of the cloud, to discover that there’s a mildly ominous lack of mountain ahead of us. We’ve taken the wrong bearing off the summit in the cloud. There’s a little amused embarrassment that apparently neither of us knew any better before we climb back up to the ruined trig.

Summit cairn
▲ The summit of Sgòrr Dhònuill

From here we were rewarded with mostly-runnable terrain down to the bealach which links the Munro summits, and we reach the start of the next climb quickly. Sgòrr Dhònuill breaks with the naming pattern (Donald’s peak), and during the ascent looks almost pyramidal. There is, in fact, space at the top for a cairn! We reach this, my 103rd Munro, and pause for a while to decide on how to get back down. Walk Highlands suggests a return to the bealach we’ve come from. The SMO guidebook however suggests that there might be a path further around the horseshoe, and the Harvey map agrees. We head for this, though, to my (mild) horror it turns out to be a scree chute.

I pick my way down the hillside as Declan elegantly runs (slides?) down the hillside, arriving at the bottom what feels like hours before I do. When I was taught geology at school we were told about various sources of erosion, but hill runners had been omitted from the list. From here we had a short stretch of boggier ground to cross, though it was close to bone dry, before we reach the forestry which fills the coire in the centre of the mountain. Once we were onto forestry roads we move fast, startled some sheep, and reach the A82 a little under a mile from the car. The only remarkable thing about the road is the number of dirt bikes driving along it, presumably from the Scottish Six Days.

By the time we reach the bottom the cloud has lifted. Shortly after, as we’re driving back down to the Central Belt the heavens open, and we have downpours for most of the drive. We’ve timed things well.

Share Share Share