B is For Buachaille

Buachaille Etive Beag

They are not quite the Pollux and Castor of the Scottish hills.

That Alpine sobriquet is probably more suited to Ben More and Stobinian further to the south. But gaze on the two Buachailles – Buachaille Etive Mor and Etive Beag – from above Inbhir-fhaolain in Glen Etive and they certainly do present a mirror image of each other, separated by the deep and rounded cleavage of the Lairig Gartain.

Most folk will recognise the two Buachailles, the big and the little shepherds of Glen Etive, from the A82 Glasgow to Fort William road. Their close proximity to the Tarmac have made them two of the most easily identifiable hills in Scotland, particularly the big Buachaille which upthrusts dramatically from the bare flats of the Rannoch Moor, dominating everything around it, standing guard over both Glen Etive and the the gaping jowls of upper Glen Coe. Its pyramid shape and sharp peak form the very epitome of a dream mountain, or a nightmare…

On the other hand the wee Buachaille, broader based and less upthrusting, offers a slightly more benign face, and a gentler day out. And talking of gentle days out, I wonder if I can throw in a third Buachaille at this point? Meall a’Buachaille, the rounded hill of the shepherd, rises above Loch Morlich in the Cairngorms National Park and while lacking the rugged pointed personality of the two Etive Buachailles, certainly doesn’t lack character. But more of the Cairngorm shepherd later.

I regard Buachaille Etive Mor as an old friend and I can recall, with an intensity that defies the fifty-year interval, our first meeting. It was in the early Sixties. I was in my father’s car and we came round that particular bend in the A82 that most hillwalkers will know, to have our breath taken away by the sheer and utter bravado of the hill. To my youthful eyes it was the very epitome of what a mountain should be. 

I spent weekend after weekend over a number of years bumming round its flanks, camping below it, testing my nascent climbing skills on easy scrambles like Curved Ridge or D Gully Buttress before moving on to some of the comparatively easy rock climbs like January Jigsaw and Agag’s Groove on the Rannoch Wall and then some of the harder John Cunningham routes like the Hard VS, Crow’s Nest Crack. 

Such familiarity with a mountain engenders a sense of belonging, a kinship, a relationship…

Such familiarity with a mountain engenders a sense of belonging, a kinship, a relationship, and when I left the car park at Altnafeadh to make a film of the ascent of the hill for the BBC’s Adventure Show recently, I felt a real sense of homecoming. From the cairn you gaze into a void with the flatness of the Rannoch Moor stretched out towards the Wall of Rannoch in the south and as far as Loch Rannoch and Schiehallion in the east. It’s an extraordinary sight, and more remarkable when you consider that you could drop the entire Lake District National Park into the Rannoch Moor and still have some space to spare.

With the sun shining and more hillwalkers than I’ve ever seen before on a Scottish mountain, there was an air of festivity about, a relaxed and happy mood of people just enjoying being there on such a glorious day. 

But the Buachaille’s mountain gods are not always so benevolent. Two or three winters ago, three hillwalkers were killed in an avalanche just below the lip of Coire na Tulaich. The thought of it brought a chill to an otherwise perfect day.

While the wee Buachaille generally lacks all the great features of the bigger hill, it still offers a wonderful high-level ridge walk between its two Munro summits. A new car park on the A82 gives access to the Lairig Eilde where a good footpath climbs up grassy slopes to an obvious notch on the skyline, the broad bealach that lies just below the Stob Coire Raineach top. 

The route from the bealach to the summit of Stob Coire Raineach is no more than a twenty-minute climb up a well-worn path but the views that open out as you progress are as good as anything you’ll find on the bigger Buachaille. To the right the sharp peaks of the Bidean massif give way to the rounded tops of Sgor na h-Ulaidh, Beinn Fhionnlaidh and Beinn Sgulaird, the big hills of Appin. Beyond lie the mountains of Mull.

Another Buachaille that often lifts you way beyond the bounds of expectancy is the Cairngorm shepherd, Meall a’Buachaille, a hill that holds a commanding position above Glenmore at the head of Loch Morlich. Meall a’Buachaille offers an easy enough ascent, even on a wild day, and in the summer my wife and I often climb it in the evening, following our walk with a beer at Glenmore Lodge. If you choose a good day you can combine it with a walk through the historic Pass of Ryvoan, a good afternoon jaunt for the whole family. Youngsters may well be fascinated by the translucent green waters of An Lochan Uaine, a lovely pine-fringed loch that fills the cusp of the Pass of Ryvoan. Grey screes fall sheer from the slopes of Creag nan Gall, the crag of the stranger, and it’s been suggested that the waters’ hue is from the clothes of the faery folk who traditionally do their washing here. 

Although dwarfed by the massive Cairngorms, this 810m rounded hill of the shepherd is magnificently positioned right up at the very head of Glenmore, from where you can gaze down the full length of Glenmore into the heart of Badenoch, and all the way down Strathspey to the Laggan hills and beyond.