I’ve got nothing against Munro baggers. Nothing at all. I really like the way they drive to the most convenient car park and head uphill the shortest available way. And then they follow the obvious ridgeline to the other Munro, and then they take the quickest way back to the car park. They get in their cars again, and they drive away: and they don't ever come back. I love it! I love the way they leave all the other ways up Ben Cruachan free and untrodden for me.
And, on all the hills that happen to be just below the arbitrary 3000ft mark which confers Munro status – there’s nobody about! The long woodland pathway up the river; the wild heathery path between the hills: hello, can you hear me? Nobody says anything back, except the stag and the rabbit.
‘Sgorr Dhonuill? Done it. Bidean nam Bian? Been there,’ say the summit baggers. But when it comes to the hills between Rannoch Moor and the Atlantic, once is not enough: when it comes to Bidean nam Bian, ten times is not enough. There are nine ways to walk up Bidean by my count, and if you’re ready to grasp Bidean’s rough rhyolite with your hands (and feet) there are another eleven ways up scrambling. And then you can come back and do 'em all again in winter...
Munro: the back way in
Let’s think big here. Let’s think Ben Nevis.
Ben Nevis by the ‘Pony Path’ – even after they’ve renamed it the ‘Mountain Trail’ – is still the grimmest thing in hillwalking. Up and up it goes, on a line of jammed boulders, for four hours or even five. The magnificent crags to the north: do you see them? You do not. The interestingly varied chalets and caravans of lower Glen Nevis: do you see those? You do, a nice full-on view, all they way until you hit the summit cloud and drizzle.
But if up is not much fun, just wait till you come down. Or rather, until down hits you by the toe-tips, as they negotiate 10,000 uncomfy footsteps, while the sun goes down, shadows gather in the glen and the lights go out in the bar of the Nevis Inn.
It’s no great secret that there’s a better way up the Ben than this. For Munro folk, the Carn Mor Dearg arête is the route up Nevis because it gets you Carn Mor Dearg as well, Britain’s sixth highest hill (unless I counted them up wrong). It also gets you a mountain mile of jammed granite, a line across the sky like a vapour trail made of solid stone. The scrambling from boulder to boulder is easy enough: it’s not usually counted as even a Grade 1 for difficulty. This is just as well: you don’t want to be too distracted from Ben Nevis’ mighty north face, its cliffs and towers and buttresses, spread out just above your handhold.
The CMD is one of Scotland’s finest scrambles: but on big Ben Nevis it's perhaps best kept for the descent. For great as those north face cliffs are when seen from the ridgeline right in front, they’re even better from right in the middle.
The Ledge Route, given dry rocks and only a little wind, is a scramble, but still at a mere Grade 1. There is also, until late summer, the small matter of the snowslope lingering in Number Five Gully, not far from the start. The snow isn’t that steep, and it does have big footprint steps in it – or there’s an alternative way around on the left. But then a slanty slab leads out to a ridgeline boulder with a great, great view down to the Great Glen. That great view goes unlooked at, for the way other it’s all cliffs, ridges and the huge hollow of Coire Leis. And even that gets no more than a glance, as you’ll be distracted by the rocks towering immediately overhead, or else by the very large amounts of empty space now lurking directly underneath you.
You’ll linger a long time on the Ledge Route. But not just now. Because there are at least three other ways of not being a bagger in these hills all around Ben Nevis.
The little hills
Ben Nevis was a bit of a strain. So now we’ll bypass the splendid, steeply-topped Pap of Glencoe (742m). We’ll skip the equally steep and altogether rugged Sgurr Innse (809m), lurking above the Lairig Leacach pass. We’ll skip the bare granite of Beinn Trilleachan. Instead, we’ll hit the littlest of them all.
Known only to locals, Beinn Lora rises a not-mighty 308m above the bottom end of Loch Etive. There’s a forestry commission path that goes up from the beach and under the beautiful beeches. Resist the picnic places, and after an hour it gets suddenly rugged. Short slopes of orange basalt lead to flat boggy bits, with all the usual bog plants. At the top is an outlook all the way up Loch Etive to Ben Cruachan, and across the sea to Mull.
Elsewhere in the Highlands a low level walk leaves you low in spirits, and with a bog in your boots and spruce prickles down the back of the neck. There’s some of that sort of fun to be had in the Nevis/Glencoe zone as well: try the two old passes on either side of Buachaille Etive Beag for a walk that’s tough, and rough, with scrambling through a stream in spate.
Or don’t. Just supposing you don’t like that sort of stuff, there is also the network of paths around Kinlochleven: two miles, or 12, right from the bus stop (or the porch of your hostel). Here is a quickie adventure through the woods to the Steall Waterfall, the one that’s a distraction behind the Quidditch stadium in two of the Harry Potters. Then there’s the more rugged adventure, with a gorge/wall pathway and a stream to paddle, which gets you to Glen Coe’s Lost Valley.
Or take a stroll from Oban to where a tiny ferry with a slightly dodgy timetable takes you to Kerrera. The walk right around the island gives you first a view of Oban across its bay, then a wild Atlantic seashore, with a chance of seals and a bit of grassy track. Next there’s a lawnlike walk along a former raised beach. Little seastacks stick up out of the green beach, and one of them offers the shortest Grade 1 scramble on any Scottish island (perhaps).
Around another corner, and under a cliff of basalt cobbles, you come to Gylen Castle, a romantic ruin with – like all the best castles – not just crashing waves far down below the empty windows, but also a first rate tea room half a mile inland, with honeysuckle twining above the tabletops.
Finally, there’s what I’d be tempted (if the back ways up the wee hills, and the low-down walking ones weren’t also so very good) to call the very best of all.
These western Highland hills are the place for three-day or four-day trips by drove roads, stalkers’ paths and lonely bothies, by high passes and hostels, by riversides and lochsides and deep woody glens.
Step off the train at Dalmally, or Taynuilt, or Bridge of Orchy. Head over the hill to Glen Kinglass, where the full moon reflects in the river and the track is specked with autumn leaves. Follow the track out to Loch Etive, where a forgotten path follows the salt water into the heart of the hills. The birchwoods are bright yellow and the stags are roaring through the high pass beside Buachaille Etive Mor.
Next day should see you at the dreich and lonely Loch Treig. And that sets you up for Lairig Leacach, the pass whose easy track, with pointy, craggy mountains on either side, gains the final niceness by the well-placed bothy at its top.
If your aim is to bag the Munros and never come back, the book you want is Steve Kew’s useful Walking the Munros Vol 1. There are other books, mostly hardback pictorials which are a lot more awkward in the rucksack.
Avoid my own Walking Ben Nevis and Glen Coe: it’ll just hold you up in the half-size hills, in the odd ways between and behind, and with big, peakless treks under a heavy rucksack.
And it could defer for ever your peaky project across the other bits of Scotland.