A stylishly aged, indomitable, and well-travelled gentleman once gave one of our daughters and her family a small watercolour he had painted. On the back it bore a message of thanks and appreciation for their friendship and hospitality. For a few years it sat on a shelf in their drawing room. The apparently casual yet expert strokes depicting a pair of gently sloping hills at the head of a loch drew my attention each time we visited. Discretely penned in one corner were his initials: in the other, in a hand that suggested calligraphy was his everyday writing style, was a single word: “Dalnaspidal.”
Now, in whatever weather I drive north up the A9 and over Drumochter, I’m reminded of the painting’s muted colours and understated elegance when I see the solitary road sign pointing west, to a cottage and, on the other side of the railway line, a lodge. My view may be impenetrably grey. It may be washed with steel sheets of rain or illuminated by a rare, scorching sun. At times the midnight darkness will be speckled by on-coming diamonds or departing rubies tracing the line of the road ahead. However, for a few hundred metres I can see the umbers, ochres and siennas of Meall na Leitreach and the contrasting washes of cobalt or cerulean blue of Loch Garry and the sky: James had a light but expressive touch with his brush.
However, I’m sure I’m not the only one who has dashed past that point on the A9 on countless occasions, with little regard and bigger fish to fry. In one direction maybe we’re intent on getting past that tanker or truck before the dual carriageway ends or, in the other direction, concentrating on changing down, ready to accelerate past a campervan or caravan when the two lanes open up.
But for me, now this hill's time had finally come. A quick splash-and-dash, Corbett-pitstop to break the monotony of a big drive north. Yes, later I too had bigger fish to fry, but wanted to use the day to the full.
There’s little complicated to this outing, apart from the usual blunder at the beginning. Once confronted by the imposing gateposts of Dalnaspidal Lodge, I realised that I should have turned right and followed the tracks to the weirs and dam that must be crossed to start the ascent. A pair of lapwings whirled and hovered while peep-peeping as if mocking my mistake. Attracting each other or merely deflecting the intentions of a predator? Who knows?
Leaving their occasionally frantic attentions behind, it was just a case of following the ATV track to the skyline and beyond.
The top must be considered so undistinguished that the track avoids it by a good hundred metres – or maybe it’s considered so sacred that no powered vehicle should transgress.
At 748m (I’m sure it must have a name locally), a small cairn gives reason to pause before the final stride across to the “summit” where a low jumble of slabs and blocks of stone mark the highpoint of Meall na Leitreach. Given the height of the surrounding hills, the panorama will not quicken the visitor’s heart. Apart from a couple of serrations in the direction of Ben Lawers and the obligatory view of Schiehallion, it is largely one of undulations and smudges. The visitor is even denied a view down the length of the trench containing Loch Garry.
Despite these misgivings, Meall na Leitreach had served its purpose and appeared to welcome me. Benign conditions, too cool and breezy for any midges, and just enough effort required to check that the legs and lungs were still in working order. With hindsight, while I saw the outing as a way to get my legs going for the day ahead, it could also be an opportunity to loosen them and to break the advancing stiffness on a long drive home on one of those long summer evenings.
The lapwings greeted me on my return, still perky-feathered and shrill. The couple of hours spent on Meall na Leitreach reminded me that there is no such thing as a bad, dull hill, just the wrong frame of mind in which to visit.
As I looked back up the glen after crossing the railway line, the view yet again brought that painted card to mind. It wasn’t on that same shelf when we visited a couple of weeks ago. I hope it’s been safely stored in a draw and not discarded.
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