Back in January, for really the first time since we completed the West Highland Way the previous year, Paul, Nathanael and I reunited in the Pentland Hills outside of Edinburgh for an honest day’s walking.
While our week in the highlands had left us feeling swollen with pride (and black pudding, but mostly pride), our morning in the lowlands was to prove almost exactly as deflating. We had barely started into the foothills when Paul was overcome by a coughing fit, while high winds and an impromptu hailstorm had forced us to divert around the summit — our altered route leaving us with no choice but to cross a bog and jump a burn. By the time we arrived back at Flotterstone Inn, we were weather-beaten and water-logged.
With our second long-distance footpath — the Great Glen Way — now booked for October, we returned to Flotterstone to see what impact our subsequent wanderings might have had on our performance levels, if any, and for each of us to save or at least salvage a little face. Paul and I met at Edinburgh Waverley, in the final days of the city’s annual Fringe festival, where we caught the 15 bus to Easter Bush Veterinary Centre — or, rather more amusingly, the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies — picking Nat up along the way. From there it was just a short, simple, straightforward walk along the A702 to the Ranger Centre — there not being any fields or quarries for Paul to redirect us through, save for a short detour into the university car park.
It was immediately clear that August was a better time to visit the Pentlands than January; not only was it warmer and hail-free, but what had previously been a rather bleak and barren landscape was now transformed into something exponentially more vivid and alive. We weren’t the only hikers on the trail, for one, with dog walkers and young families joining us along the way, dropping in and out of sight as time — and topography — passed us by, while recent rainfall brought out the purples and greens of the heather and grasses that dominated the landscape, spotlighted one moment and overshadowed the next as the clouds swirled overhead. It was still tough going — certainly tougher than you’d expect — but we soon made it to the same treeline as before, only this time pausing out of choice rather than necessity.
The plan was to do the semi-formal three peaks walk, so from our current position at the top of Turnhouse Hill we followed the ridge back down to the base of Carnethy Hill — the second highest in the Pentlands after Scald Law, which would comprise our third and final peak of the day. It wasn’t a straight climb to the summit, however, and already a little tired from our initial ascent we faltered on occasion as the track meandered from one elevation to the next. We kept overtaking a party of three (or four if you include the baby strapped to the young mother’s chest) only to lose the lead everytime we stopped to catch our collective breath. By now Glencorse Reservoir and Castlelaw were visible to the north, with Edinburgh and the Forth Bridge just about discernible in the distance. It further served to demonstrate just how accessible the countryside was from the city below — already one of the most beautiful and beguiling on the planet thanks to its proximity to Arthur’s Seat.
We were making terrific time, almost preposterously so, as a surprisingly short while later we were standing proud at the summit of Carnethy Hill. How anyone was able to differentiate between one peak and another was a mystery to us all, as the path we were following seemed to undulate indiscriminately, and sometimes imperceptibly, from one rise to the next. By the time we reached the summit of Scald Law — earlier than expected, and unrecogniseable from the route description — it was obvious that we had made some sort of mistake. Instead of a trig point we found a cairn, the largest any of us had ever seen, and it became clear that we had somehow overestimated our present location by one whole hill, having apparently conjured an entire peak from nowhere. We found a small nook in the shingle (I almost said niche, very nearly bringing this whole website to a premature and unsatisfying conclusion) and sheltered from the wind, enjoying an impromptu chiropractic overhaul in the process.
The views really were sensational — and not just of the cityscape unfolding to the north, but of White Craig Heads, Loganlea Reservoir and Moorfoot Hills, which completed the panorama. Looking back it’s little wonder we became so confused — the directions spoke of hummocks and bealaches, traverses and straths, which taken together could have been interpreted as any number of peaks and troughs — so really it was amazing that we hadn’t called it a day at Turnhouse Hill, secure in the knowledge that we had been up and down the requisite three times. The hills had lied. Throw in the fact that Paul was navigating and we were lucky we weren’t waste-deep in wheat, walking along a busy B-road or begging for food in Stanley. Happily, the path to Carnethy Hill was an undeniable (and apparently unending) pleasure, so we rose delicately from our stony seats, our backs newly reconfigured, and set about scaling our final last hill of the day — to the half-hearted protestations of Nat, who was just about ready for some lunch.
Normally I would have happily joined the chorus of complaints and are-we-there-yets, but just the previous week I had hiked Ben Vrackie with my parents so it might have seemed a little insincere. Ben Vrackie had been 841 metres to Scald Law’s 579, so I was in no doubt that I’d be able to do it. That said, despite having long ago dubbed the three of us mountain men, the truth was that we were far more comfortable in the glens of Scotland than the bens, so much so that Conic Hill — a mere 361 metres — had nearly bested us on the West Highland Way. (How I managed to climb Australia’s Mount Kosciuszko as a kid I’ll never know). Besides, I’ve always preferred to look up at heights than down from them. While from below Scald Law had looked enormous, from the summit the view differed only slightly from that afforded by Carnethy Hill; only without a larger mass to give it context this latest vista didn’t have quite the same scale or drama as before. This, I suppose, is one (of many) reasons that I will never climb Everest: I like having something to look up at.
Having taken wind-swept pictures with the marker at the top, and a few more overlooking the previously invisible East and West Kip, we returned to the base of the hill and followed the Monk’s Road down to a small house on the edge of the reservoir — or The Howe, as it’s for some reason known. It was here that we were presented with the best views of the day, out over pine trees, farmland and the Green Cleugh route to Balerno. Over on the opposite hill I spotted three sheep making a similarly urgent descent — only to cross paths in the middle, almost like that scene in Shaun of the Dead where the survivors meet their doppelgangers on the way to the pub — and decided that they too must be on their way to lunch. We also passed a heron, a fisherman in a boat, and a fisherman out of a boat who was wading in some sort of rubber ring contraption instead. Between reservoirs the route took us along Nine Mile Burn and the fateful leaping point from our previous visit. It was a real novelty to finish the walk with dry feet, to enjoy our dinner with dry feet, and to return to Edinburgh with dry feet — where we could once again watch a post-hike movie…only this time with dry feet. Dry feet. Dry.
We were almost ready for the Great Glen Way then, having finally proven ourselves in the Pentlands. But before we could undertake our next long-distance footpath in good standing there was one final wrong that we needed to right…