I was pleased as punch when I arrived to collect her from the excellent Westerton Bed and Breakfast in Callendar, as not only was she ready on time, fully packed, but had everything on my kit list and good quality boots too. Is this a first!? ;) In fact, she had taken advice off a friend who had some experience over here, and between that and my list she had equipped herself with some really good gear, so this was a real pleasant surprise to meet someone so well prepared.
After a chat, we decided on a modest objective in Ben Ledi 879m, which is also the most convenient hill for Callendar, so it seemed kind of fitting. The weather was predictably wet and windy, so we spent a lot of time in and out of waterproofs initially, but ended up more in than out as it was really squally on the tops, maybe gusting 50mph. We made short work of the Ben, and after a snack, set off into the mist and rain towards the bealach and the Stank Glen. We had a wry smile as we watched two young fellas in all the gear march confidently by us without much of a greeting, only to carry on too far North over the steeper ground, and contour around sheepishly to follow us down.
At the bealach it was decision time - Did we head down (sensibly) and have the short day we had planned, or did we press on towards Benvane, another Corbett at 821m? We quickly opted for the latter, full of ourselves, and we strode out North Westwards....over bog. And more bog. And a little more bog, in amongst peat hags. You get the idea, it was very hard going, especially for a novice. There was nothing for it but graft, as it was tedious, but eventually we battled the worsening weather to the summit. So now what to do? Do we wade and wallow back, or go 'off piste' down into Glen Buckie? There was an obvious gap in the dense forestry that seemed to offer an escape onto the forest track and finally the cycleway back towards Callendar, and after all, it was down hill..... so off we went.
It was rough going, and the ground through the forestry was even worse than I had expected, a veritable quagmire. I was really worried that we would have an unpleasant bash through the 100m or so of forest to gain the track, so was very pleased when the clue of the feint quad tracks led to an opening and a tunnel through. Hurrah! The map had indeed led us the most direct way, and my intuition had been proved right, but I was relieved that it had. So all that remained was the wee 7 or so kilometres back to the car.
A much bigger day than we both bargained for at 22.2k and 1600m of ascent and descent, but it certainly was an introduction into some of the vagaries of Scotland's hills.
Wednesday's forecast was even worse for early in the day, so after our efforts on Tuesday, we elected for a later start to allow the day to dry up, and it did. The wind was Westerly, veering Northerly, so we went for an anti-clockwise round of Mill Glen from Tillicoultry, taking in the highest of the Ochil hills, Ben Cleuch at 721m. It is a steep pull up from all but sea level, and as the air gradually cleared we could appreciate the contrast of the high sheep-infested hillsides against the industry and habitation of the 'Hillfoot' villages, Alloa, Stirling and beyond. What is also noteworthy is the excellent and extensive stabilisation work that Clackmannanshire council did in 2016 after the serious rock falls. It is a real delight, and given the glen's industrial heritage, I don't thing detracts from it in any way, more enhances the experience after a high-level walk.
We were back down by 14:30, so had a quick pint at the traditional Woolpack Inn before getting Jose back to Callendar at a more reasonable time than the day before. We were also able to discuss options for Thursday, as I had an unusual offer – My friends Mike was planning to gather the sheep on the Glenturret Estate as part of a team of shepherds. This sits at the foot of Ben Chonzie, above Crieff, and involves an area surrounding Loch Turret, a dammed reservoir, and full cirque of a valley with the only easy entrance being on the estate ground form the south. Although it would be fair to say hill walkers are not the Flavour of the Month with most shepherds, we were invited along. It would be a great opportunity to take part in the cycle of animal husbandry that has gone on for years in these areas, and get a perspective from the farmer’s point of view, and Jose agreed.
We were picked up early for the drive up to the estate, and joined Donald, Dougie and Neil in their pick-up as we bounced and banged up the rough track on the east side of the loch. Dexy and Steve were already high on the west flank, rounding up loose sheep and the ‘roughie’s who had escaped a shear on previous gathers. They all communicated by radio, and there was some choice language as the wayward sheep tried their level best to escape capture, often only being able to be seen by binoculars from a distance. Each man was running a team of dogs, and it was fascinating to see the skill of the team as each call sent them this way and that, often marshalled by Mike as we took our spot high on a rocky bluff called the ‘horse’s backside’. From here we could see the whole valley, and the progress of each man and dogs as they flushed the sheep down into the valley and towards us.
Mike and his dogs were clearly frustrated to only be bit-part players at this stage, but as the gather came on, he had to send a dog high across a ravine and almost out of sight let alone earshot to round on a group, and Queen, the bitch collie chosen for the job did him proud. We got quite cold with little activity, and were relieved to get moving across the rough terrain to join the rear of the gather as it passed along the track. It was some sight, hundreds of sheep being corralled along by the dogs, to the constant whistles and calls from the men.
All was well until two walkers came up the track. Not an issue normally, but a sign had been left at the track end asking folks to come up the west side of the loch to avoid the gather, and this had been ignored. It is apparently a common happening, and I had quite a task in convincing the shepherds that we walkers are not ignorant or deliberately confrontational. The sheep had been funnelled into a narrow corridor between the steep cliffs and the loch, down which the track led, and the walkers on the track formed an obstacle that meant the sheep would scatter up hill, or down to the loch side. Luckily, Neil had gone ahead and whilst he couldn’t turn them back, had politely asked them to lie low and await the gather passing. They were slow to respond though, and for a moment we watched from above as the sheep started to part. At the last moment they realised and walked a few metres off the track and sat down, and the gather passed without incident, much to my relief.
As I passed I took the opportunity to talk to them, a nice couple from the West Midlands. They said that they simply didn’t know what to do in the circumstance, had seen the sign, but unfortunately had chosen to ignore it. This is exactly Dexy’s point, that the public just will not co-operate for such a short time to allow an important task to be completed. Not good on our part, the walkers. Think on folks, and try to comply with reasonable requests from estates and farm. Our Right to Roam relies on goodwill and the fact we are all users of the countryside, so we should cherish it.
Once the gather was near the farm, the sheep were held in a fenced field, and the day’s work was done. For Dexy, 10 days of hard work in the fank was ahead of him, shedding the lambs from their mothers, marking the lambs, dosing and dipping. For us, after a hearty feed and a refreshing drink it was back home, and for Jose, back to her B&B. 3 good days, with an insight into what we can offer here in the Scottish hills, I hope she will return to Holland with some good memories.