In my last blog I wrote about a place that I go to regularly in the little hills above Dunkeld. Well, just another couple of train stops north is another favourite spot of mine, Glen Tilt. Stretching north from Blair Atholl, Glen Tilt winds for 30 kms into the southern Cairngorms. It’s another place of great variety with woods, fields, mountains and a wild river through its heart. I always seem to end up there just before Christmas when it’s deserted and I can feel like I have the place to myself. But I also love it at this time of year when it’s often dusted with the first snows of early winter, turning the place into something magical.
A couple of weekends before this Christmas, I stepped off the early morning train at Blair Atholl. The train had been busy, no doubt with people travelling to family visits, but I was the only passenger to alight here. I walked through the village which was still and quiet on a cold, grey morning. The only light was a smudged peachy line on the southern horizon. The only sounds were the crunch of hard snow under my boots and, in a strange juxtaposition, the quacking of ducks, more associated with the summer months. But a stream runs through the centre of the village and there are always a dozen or more mallards there, bobbing on the water or snoozing close by on the village green.
At the far side of the village, I took the high path which heads up the east side of the glen, passing through woodlands and fields, and opening up big views to the snow-capped Carn a’Chlamain, the glen’s Munro. The snow was soft and dry now and squeaked with each footstep. A little way up the glen and an easily missed footpath descended through the trees to the valley bottom and crossed to the other side of the gushing, black river.
The track that continued north is one of my favourite parts of this walk. It keeps close to the river except on a rise which opens up views backwards, over the pines to the knobbly outline of Farragon Hill. Then soon it crosses over the top of a waterfall on a delightful old arched bridge. I always stop to peer over the parapet at the deafening flow of water below. Just above here is a high, grassy shelf, hidden from most views. It contains a cluster of half a dozen or so old shielings. The elements have worn them down over the years so now they are just collections of rectangular, low walls. Down in the glen, you’d never know they were there. It’s a nice place with open views to the flanks of Beinn a’Ghlo and in summer it must catch a breeze to keep the midges away. There was a trickle of water in the stream that today made a black streak through the snow. It was enough to fill a pot so I pitched the tent here, facing down the glen.
With the tent pitched and a cosy home to come back to, I set out up the ridge behind which leads onto Carn a’Chlamain. Not with the idea to climb it as it was already late in a short winter day, but to get a higher view of the winter landscape around me. As I walked higher, the sun broke through to illuminate patches of snow-covered hillside but there was no warmth in it. Up ahead higher on the ridge the wind picked up spindrift and swirled it around in mini tornadoes that moved along the ridge as if they had a life of their own. I gained a high point on the ridge where three cairns had been built but didn’t linger in the windchill and followed my footprints in the snow back to the tent.
I love winter camping and back at my tent, I enjoyed snuggling into my sleeping bag and warmed a pot of hot soup. As dusk descended the temperature dropped and a thin veneer of ice formed on the water in my pot. As the last of the light was fading, I heard a noise that I can honestly say I have never heard before in the hills. It was a constant bleating, not like sheep, more like the kind of squeaky toys that you give dogs. I unzipped the tent and looked around. Behind me on the ridge were about 50 red deer hinds with their young. The noise I was hearing was the young keeping in touch with mum. When I got up later in the night, the stars were out but there was no sign of the deer. Down in the valley below I saw a car move along the glen track, the orange glow of its headlights illuminating the snowy track ahead. It reminded me of the motorcycle scene in The Snowman.
Next morning, I woke to a frosted tent and a frozen water bottle, despite it overnighting deep in my pack. My gaiters, carelessly left in the porch, were like cardboard and the gas stove took a lot of encouragement to heat porridge and coffee. But I love these freezing winter mornings, enjoying breakfast in bed and watching the sun creep above the snow-covered mountains. I made it last longer with a second coffee. Double coffee mornings in the tent are special.
I packed up and walked back down the glen under sunny, blue skies. The morning was Alpine and the cold night had coated the dried summer grasses with a light frost. Lower down, where a freezing mist had formed, the grasses were bowed over with heavy clusters of ice crystals that sparkled in the sun like diamonds. I saw two red squirrels and where a bridge crossed a side stream, there was a perfect set of their footprints in the snow along the top of the parapet. Before long, I emerged from the woods back into the village to catch my train home. How pretty it looked with the lights on the trees of the village green and its dusting of early winter snow.
Start/finish: Blair Atholl train station
Public transport: Trains on the Edinburgh/Glasgow to Inverness route stop at Blair Atholl
My route: Out of the station I turned right on the main street and continued to the bridge over the River Tilt. Turned left after the bridge signed for Fender Bridge and followed this road uphill. Kept right at Old Bridge of Tilt then took the next road left. Up the hill took the right of way signed for Deeside. After the cottage at Croftmore below the track I took a faint path down through the woods then turned right on the main track to cross the river by Gilberts Bridge. On the other side I turned right up the track. It crosses another bridge further on with a waterfall below it and just beyond here there is a viewpoint marker. I pitched the tent up above here. Next day I stayed on the same side of the river to return to Blair Atholl.