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Hiking the Cowal Way

I confess to being more "hands-on" than most publishers, or even editors. Our forthcoming Cowal Way guidebook was finally nearing readiness for repro when I was struck by the fact that the authors had never written a book before, let alone detailed walking directions. So I decided to test their manuscript by trying to walk the 57-mile route from their directions alone. To avoid delaying the book (due out in May), this had to be done by the end of January. I knew the short hours of daylight would be challenging, but I hadn't reckoned on the deep snow. From Cowal's coastal roads, it's hard to believe how wintry conditions can be on the high ground.

My trip began early on Sunday 25th with a hair-raising drive from Blairmore to Portavadie along the thickly snow-carpeted single-track B836. It was passable by my car (front-wheel drive) only by sticking to the tracks of the previous vehicle as if to tramlines. Any oncoming traffic would have ended the attempt before it began: it took all the momentum I could muster to crest the hills.

On Tuesday, I left Strachur very early, apprehensive of the uphill hike to Curra Lochain, the watershed above Loch Goil. Its outflow burn was in spate with melt-water, and it seemed impossible to find a safe crossing for this raging torrent. The "stepping stone" (promised by the directions) was submerged, slippery and sloping. Alone, unsupported and with no desire to get frostbitten feet, let alone swept away, I hesitated, backtracked and finally overcame my loss of nerve by tossing my rucksack across. It contained my prized Lumix G1 camera, so then I had no choice but to follow.

After an untidy, strenuous leap and scramble, I sat down to recover my breath and happened to look up. And there it was, less than 100 feet above my head, soaring and wheeling: a golden eagle. I had never seen a wild one before (other than as a speck in the distance), though buzzards are commonplace at Landrick. Once you see an eagle close up, there can be no confusion: its silhouette is more like a plank of wood than a bird's! The moment was too magical to spoil by reaching for the camera, but this photo (taken elsewhere by friend Sandy Morrison) evokes it well:


The descent past Sruth Ban falls to Lochgoilhead was easy enough and I reached Drimsynie House just after lunchtime. Wednesday's plan was to go over the top and try to meet friends Rob and Di Tennent somewhere on Loch Long-side. The cloud level wasn't too low when I left Lochgoilhead, but by the time I had climbed up Coilessan glen, I found myself approaching a featureless white plateau in total white-out, looking (according to the directions) for white marker posts! Not surprisingly, I didn't see any, but headed easterly, found the cairn and descended to pick up (with some relief) the line of a fence which, after some time turned out to be roughly the right route after all. Our rendezvous worked just fine and, even better, Rob and Di (with dogs) had kindly hiked and photographed the Ardgartan/Arrochar section for me. So they kindly ran me back to Strachur to retrieve my car and we celebrated the success of my four-day hike with a decent meal and a stiff drink.

But still I had this nagging feeling. I couldn't pass the proofs without checking out the white marker posts, so I went back today to look for them. The snow was still lying, but this time the visibility was superb, albeit the wind chill factor breathtaking. And, happily, neighbour Malcolm decided to join me as I hiked up from Ardgartan to the cairn. That meant that two of us tramped all over that plateau for an hour, but neither of us saw a single marker post! It turns out they were removed some years ago, so I just deleted them also from the route description. And although it demanded an extra expedition just to be sure, I'm not sorry I returned to the cairn. Here's looking west toward Beinn Bheula, across the frozen lochan:



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