Monday, March 11, 2019

Scotland: Steall Falls at Glen Nevis

Steall Falls, Glen Nevis, Scotland – 6/5/18 - 3 miles

When Jim and I were planning our trip, we envisioned that this day would see us hiking to the summit of Ben Nevis, the highest point of Scotland, actually the highest point of the United Kingdom. As the trip got real close, I began reading detailed descriptions of the endeavor and felt those trail jitters, waking me at night and filling me with doubt.  The main route is long and steep and takes all day, and even if you begin in clear skies, it’s likely to end in fog and rain and having to turn around just short of the summit.  Hmmm…did I mention that we also planned to drive to the Isle of Skye after this hike?

So last night at the Fort William hostel we had conversations with hikers who had climbed Ben Nevis just that day, some of them less than half our age, and their tales confirmed that I for sure did not want to attempt the hike.  Maybe if we were staying in town another night…but definitely not with an hours-long drive the same day. With that settled, I had the best night’s sleep of the entire trip – in a full eight-person bunkroom!

So we had time to do something else this morning: Steall Falls. We can do a drive-by of the Big Guy on the way. First we walked a few streets in search of breakfast [note: next time, allow a day to knock around Fort William, looks like an interesting place] and headed off to Glen Nevis (glen is valley and ben is mountain, remember?) Getting out of town was confusing - one-way streets, is it the second or third roundabout, is that the train station again, we could never survive living in this country – but we found our way. 

The road through the Glen parallels the River Nevis. On the left, the green slopes of the base of Ben Nevis are so close that the summit was hidden – or is that the summit? Instead, those cute Scottish sheep captured our attention.

The Glen tapers down and the mountains close in, and at road’s end the parking area was filling up – we were in the right place. Though Steall Falls is a major attraction, there’s much to explore here. The powerful waters spilling from the gorge towards the valley have worn away the rough edges of massive boulders that have tumbled down with time. There are also more trails and loops for those with more time than we had. [Note: the Ring of Steall, a16km route that appears to require nerves of steel.]

The cobblestone-type path lured us into Nevis Gorge, quickly becoming more rugged with steep sides and overhanging boulders. There’s a pinched-in feeling similar to walking up the washes in Death Valley, only with trees.  In several places we tiptoed over small streams that flow down to join the River Nevis.

In less than a mile we popped out of the trees where the unexpectedly grand Steall Meadow spreads out wide. Just around a bend to the left, we could see across the meadow to Steall Falls (An Steall), flowing like a loose skein of white yarn down the rock face of An Gearanach.

At 120 meters, Steall Falls is the second highest waterfall in Scotland, and Harry Potter fans may recognize its appearance in tournament scenes in “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.” But if you are an HP fan, you already know all the places in this area that were used in filming. 

To the right of the waterfall there’s a sketchy cable wire crossing over the River Nevis, but Jim and I scouted to the left and found a good rock hop so that we could investigate more closely.  

Which is more dramatic, taking in the waterfall’s massive scale from across the valley or sitting beside it, hearing the thunderous pounding and feeling the spray? I say both!

The trail continued past the waterfall, pulling us further up the broad valley to the Steall Ruin. I couldn’t find much information about this other than that it dates from the 1700’s.

Jim conquered the cable crossing – and then had to come back!

We met a steady flow of peeps on our return hike and were glad we’d started as early as we did, for now cars lined the roadside for a half-mile past the parking area. The flower report today:



Bluebell/wild hyacinth

Our drive to the Isle of Skye was filled with more adventures (we’ll stop to look at just about anything) and with daylight until after 11:00 p.m., there was a lot to see.  Our B&B for the next two nights was on a farm outside of Portree.  How about some sheep with your sunset?

“Be happy while you’re living, for you’re a long time deid.” ~Old Scots proverb

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Scotland: Devil's Staircase & Stob Mhic Mhartuin, West Highland Way

Devil’s Staircase, West Highland Way, Glencoe, Scotland – 6/4/18 – 5 miles


So many must-see-must-do’s in the highlands of Scotland! Every day of our trip included some walking.  On this day we traveled from the port town of Oban to Fort William. Along the way we sought out the magic of Glencoe, a deep valley cut by the River Coe.  Mountains rise high and close on either side, giving that Yosemite feeling only everything is awash in green, green, green.

We were still building confidence on driving, interpreting road signs, counting exits at traffic circles, thus by the time we found the Glencoe Visitor Center we were a wee bit frazzled (9:00 a.m.) We didn’t have a single € for parking (why pay parking at a visitor center? Upkeep for the restrooms?) The staff person at the information counter smoothed our ruffled feathers with a map and a detailed explanation of how to recognize the car park for our hike.

"Look for the white house," he said

Three Sisters of Glen Coe (left to right): Gearr Aonach (Short Ridge) and Aonach Dubh (Black Ridge) and Beinn Fhada (Long Hill)

Two out of three of the Sisters

It is really helpful to know (or at least know where to find a list of) Scottish Gaelic words used in mapping the hills and mountains of Scotland.  Once you’ve got your cheat sheet, it’s easy [for us paper map people] to determine what you’re looking at and distinguish different features. Most basic is that “glen” means valley and “ben” means super big mountain.  Also:

Aonach = ridge
Lairig = pass
Meall = rounded hill
Mullach = summit
Sgorr = jagged or rocky peak
Stob = point
Sron = nose

All features have qualifiers added to these words, just like back home (how many Cold Mountains and Bald Mountains do you know?), fun to parse out the names.  Buachaille Etive Beag seems to mean “little shepherd of Etive” which sits next to Buachaille Etive Mor, “the great shepherd of Etive.” Anyway, fun for those who like to know what they’re looking at.

All of that to say that Jim and I hiked up the Staidhre an Deamhain (Devil’s Staircase) and then up the side trail to the mullach of Stob Mhic Mhartuin (Son of Martin Point?). This is an out-and-back hike on a section of the West Highland Way that was built for military use in the mid-1700’s.

Our parking area was obvious, a deeply rutted pull-off across the road from the trail marker. West Highland walkers, some in groups and some solo, zig-zagged up the obvious and uncomplicated trail, an 800-foot elevation gain to the pass

The pointy peak on the left horizon is Stob Mhic Mhartuin

Turning around to look back across the valley at Buachaille Etive Mor

A cairn marks the pass between the summits of Stob Mhic Mhartuin to the west and Beinn Bheag to the east (that big ol’ hulk in the background here). From here the West Highland Way descends to the town of Kinlochleven.

But Jim and I turned left onto a slightly fainter track, gaining another 500 feet in elevation as we climbed the Stob.  Somewhere along this trail I realized that there would be no trees or even tall bushes, so I had to scramble quite a ways off trail to find a big enough rock for a potty break. No photos.

The top of Stob Mhic Mhartuin is quite broad and I don’t know it there are the equivalent of U.S. survey markers.  There were little cairns in several places.  Could this one be the “summit?” I am okay with the ambiguity. I mean, just look!

Looking across the valley toward the Three Sisters

We had a different adventure awaiting in Fort William, so we hustled back down to our car, making a mental note that someday we would return to walk the entire West Highland Way.

In the upper left you can see the Blackwater Reservoir

How did we spend the rest of the day?  Taking the Jacobite Steam Train to Hogwarts…

Our home for the night was Fort William Backpackers hostel, a fantastic base for travelers and the best night’s sleep of all our accommodations on our two-week trip – yes, a full eight-person bunk room.  Backpackers know how to keep quiet and sleep anywhere!  The town is an excellent base for outdoor lovers and is the northern terminus of the West Highland Way. We’ll be back!

“There are two seasons in Scotland: June and winter.” ~Billy Connolly