Last Wednesday evening, I was dropped off at Ardlussa House by Konrad, the estimable Jura Bus driver, and set off in the misty murk, bound for Glengarrisdale bothy. It’s an hour or so’s yomp up the rustic single track road to the point where Argocat tracks head off north-west across the bog. By the time I left the ‘road’, the murk had lifted – along with my spirits. The ground wasn’t too bad and I managed to get across to Glengarrisdale without stuffing my legs into any booby-trapped bogs disguised as terra firma. Arriving at Glengarrisdale bothy with dry feet is always a cause for celebration and the feel-good factor was immediately amplified by the vision that awaited me when I pushed open the bothy door.
The place was sparklingly clean! It seems that a lass by the name of Nicole had come all the way from Hamburg just to spend four days spring cleaning the bothy! As she noted in the visitors’ book: ‘I can’t help it; I’m a nurse and I’m German’. Let me be the first to nominate Nicole for the MBA Distinguished Bothy Services Award.
The whole of Jura’s wild hinterlands are littered with shed antlers at the moment and you can’t walk very far with out tripping over the blooming things. The island’s many red deer stags are busily growing their new ones and to my eye they look a bit comical with these stumpy little velvet covered protuberances. I startled one of these humorous-looking critters on stepping out of the bothy door and he stood rooted to the spot about twenty yards away. I carried on about my business for the next ten minutes going in and out of the bothy several times, but still the daft animal stood transfixed. Perhaps they keep their brains in their antlers? By next morning he was gone.
However, the misty murk still cloaked the hills and this had ramifications for my day’s endeavour. I’d planned to walk from Glengarrisdale over the mountainous spine of the north of Jura to the bothy at Cruib on the north shore of Loch Tarbert. I’d come here to try the same walk in December, but the weather was too bad. I wasn’t going to be defeated a second time. Or was I?
The idea for this route came from reading an entry in the bothy visitor’s book the previous winter. Andy from Girvan in Ayrshire had done the route in the opposite direction on a freezing cold December day – in around seven hours. To me, this sounded like a great walk – taking in the summits of Ben Garrisdale, Beinn Bhreac, Dubh Bheinn, Rainberg Mor and Cruib. These mountains aren’t huge – Dubh Beinn is the highest at a modest 485 metres, but I was still looking at around 1300 metres of ascent and descent over the course of more than 20 kilometres of pathless and often tough terrain. Furthermore, the visibility situation was looking poor and the terrain is very complex in places.
I’m no black belt in the art of navigation and the prospect of route-finding in these conditions was making me a little nervous. Still, the island is only 13km across at it’s widest point – how lost could you get? Obviously I had map and compass, though I had eschewed the GPS that Konrad had wanted to loan me – my reasoning being that as I couldn’t be sure of operating the thing correctly it might be more of a hindrance than help. Unable to accept defeat a second time, I launched myself south-west up the stepped ridge of the north-west summit of Ben Garrisdale.
This was relatively easy as even in this total pea-souper I just needed to keep climbing on a south-west bearing until I could climb no more. Here then was the trig point atop the Ben.
Heading ESE, I found Loch Fada Ben Garrisdale by almost stepping in it and followed it’s outflow down the very beautiful Gleann Airigh Mhic-cearra. As it descended, the glen narrowed into a gorge with trees clinging to its steep sides while the burn cascaded down in a series of waterfalls.
At the bottom of the glen lay the ruins of a number of old shielings – basic stone shelters – and, just a short detour off my route, the very beautiful Srath Long waterfall, which was too murk-shrouded to photograph.
Continuing on my way, I found a route up a glen that would cross over the south-eastern flank of Beinn Bhreac at the top of which I could strike west for the summit. I hoped. Despite the fact that I couldn’t see a sausage, all seemed to be going well as I continued to climb and my altimeter indicated that I wasn’t far from the summit. However, the top of the hill is studded with rocky knolls of similar height and I wandered from one to another without being able to find the trig point. I was sure I’d identified a pear-shaped lochan that would have placed me close to the summit, but visibility was so poor I just couldn’t find it. A text arrived from Konrad: ‘I truly hope you’re not going to need the GPS in the hills in this weather…’ Eventually I gave in, not wanting to get snarled up in the complex terrain. I had plenty of daylight, but progress had been very slow with constant map and compass consultation – so I plotted a course for my route down off the hill, not entirely sure of where I actually was.
Happily, I soon found some Argocat tracks leading down a broad declivity in the general direction I was heading in. This looked promising after having wandered around feeling a bit lost up on the top of Beinn Bhreac. So content was I to follow the tracks that I almost followed them past the large, rock-strewn mass looming out of the murk ahead of me. What was this? For an awful moment I wondered if this could in fact be the summit of Beinn Bhreac? I checked the map and felt sure that this would be the outlying hilltop of Cnoc Tigh-sealga at the head of Cruaidh Ghleann, a kilometre south-east from the summit of Beinn Bhreac. If so, I needed to abandon the apparent security of the ‘cat tracks and skirt arond the Cnoc to the south-west where Loch Tigh-sealga should come into view… Yes! there it was below reflecting through the dense blanket of murk. Then it was gone. It seemed that I’d imagined what I’d hoped was there – instead of the loch there was just a bedraggled straw-yellow expanse of moor grass below me. Suddenly the loch was back and this time there could be no doubt. I noisily congratulated myself on my orientiering prowess, while quietly acknowledging that there was a good measure of luck involved.
I crossed the glen and started up the north-eastern flank of Dubh Bheinn and noticed that the blanket of murk was beginning to roll silkily up the flank of Beinn Bhreac on the opposite side of the glen to expose the mountain in all her voluptuous glory. What a tease! The mist had lifted higher up Dubh Bheinn also, but the mountain’s upper reaches were still somewhat obscured. Nonetheless, I was atop the higher of the Bheinn’s twin summits in no time and soon hot-footing it down the broad, steep gully south-east of the summit making for the lochans below in Gleann nan clach Reamhar.
Having climbed the middle and westernmost of Rainberg Mor’s tops on my last visit to Jura, I elected to make the short climb from the glen to the mountain’s easternmost summit, marked with a cairn at around 450 metres. Though it was only around 150 metres up from the lochans, I was feeling the weight of my pack and my legs were tiring – still, three down and one – the smallest – to go.
By now, the murk had pretty much cleared and visibility was fairly good, so rather than descending to Loch Mor Bealach na h-Imriche and making for the summit of Cruib on the route I knew, I thought I’d try something new.
Ho-hum. My route down to Loch Beag Bealch na h-Imriche and the subsequent up hill and down dale route to the top of Cruib was a rather trying and tiring affair. By the time I stood by the cylindrical ‘Vanessa’ triangulation pillar atop Cruib, I was just about done. It was 5.30 and I’d been walking for about nine and a half hours. I had a brief pause to admire the view down Loch Tarbert to the south-west, before heading down off the mountain and making for Cruib Lodge on the shores of the aforementioned sea loch. Being tired, it was doubly important to make sure I didn’t wander into any boggy or potentially ankle-turning terrain, but I got down without mishap.
On arrival at the bothy, I was as tired as I can remember being after a walk for a long time. My efforts were rewarded in magnificent style, however, as I opened the door to the bothy and sat there on the table was an entire, brand-spanking-new McVities Jamaica Ginger Cake, pristine in its shiny wrapper. I despatched two thirds of it with a litre of tea while sitting outside the bothy, rejoicing in the view and listening to the birds celebrating. Outstanding!