As is often the case, I only had one free weekend this month when I could get a walk in ... as isn't so common (this winter anyway), the forecast initially looked very promising when I first looked on Wednesday evening: 'little chance of precipitation', according to the www.mwis.org.uk website. Aye, right ... By Friday, things had changed significantly with 'remnants of a weak front [forecast to bring] intermittently heavy flurries of snow', particularly over the Loch Lomond NP which had been my initial objective, to try to bag the one Luss Graham I still have to do, Cruach an t-Sidhean.
Well, I should have known better really . The dreaded Cruach an t-Sidhean has become something of a béte noir for me: whenever I plan to climb the thing, I can guarantee that inclement weather, traffic issues, civil unrest or whatever will get in the way ... those Sidhean clearly don't fancy being bothered by the bobble-hatted one any time soon!
So, a late change of plan... another quick check of the updated www.mwis.org.uk forecast revealed that the Galloway hills were promised fairly good weather with '70% chance of cloud-free summits'. Well, that sounded good enough for me. For some time, I'd had a hankering to bag Cairnsmore of Fleet, the most southerly Graham of them all. So I dug out my dusty and little-used copy of OS Landranger Sheet 83, and took the Narrow Road to the Deep South. (More specifically, standard routes from Glasgow to New Galloway, then the A762 south, then the unclassified single-track road for the long nine miles from Laurieston to Gatehouse of Fleet - slow going, but it cuts a big corner - then the B796 north from Gatehouse of Fleet, signed 'Cairnsmore National Nature Reserve', then the unclassified road north from the end of the B796, then a heavily potholed track about a kilometre on north from there .)
After that wee drive, I'd brought my Chevy not to the levee, but to the Big Water of Fleet viaduct - an impressive structure that the potholed track actually allows you to drive right under - great fun ! This is a marvellous bit of late Victorian engineering, a rival to the much better known Glenfinnan viaduct, although sadly it no longer carries trains since the closure of the Dumfries to Stranraer rail line. It featured in the Hitchcock film version of 'The Thirty-Nine Steps', apparently, although I've never seen that so I wouldn't know... Anyway, it's right bonny. This into-the-sun photo doesn't really do it justice:
My planned route was the one described in the new SMC 'Grahams & Donalds' book, where it forms the very first route description, no less. A round of the Cairnsmore massif from the Big Water of Fleet viaduct allows a circular route taking in not only the Graham, but its two satellite Donald Tops, Knee of Cairnsmore and Meikle Multaggart. Now, I wish I'd had time to do my homework on this route a bit more ... in particular, I wish I'd read nxmjm's fine Walk Report in which he recommends an anticlockwise approach after encountering 'issues' with the clockwise route. In retrospect, I'd heartily endorse his advice - DO THIS ONE ANTI-CLOCKWISE! Of which, more later. In the event though, I took the clockwise route described in the SMC book. Ho hum.
The route starts off up the forestry track that's the northern continuation of the potholed vehicle track.
This continues north for a couple of kilometres, passing a signed side track on the right to 'Loch Grannoch Lodge' that is used as the return route, and then turning west to eventually leave the forestry. En route, there is a lot of clear-felling going on at the moment, with big piles of logs and what have you, and the forestry vehicles have turned sections of the track into a bit of a quagmire . At least the clear-felled area gave a fine early glimpse of the whole Cairnsmore massif, still with its head firmly in the clouds at this stage of the day, and looking rather more impressive than I'd bargained for: mildly intimidating, even. Thankfully the muddy section of track didn't go on too long, however, and the forestry track eventually ended at a double set of high gates in a deer fence, just after which is a Forestry Commission information board on walks and cycle tracks in the area. Another good view of the Cairnsmore from here - was the Clag maybe starting to lift a bit ?
I headed off almost due west, now pathless but reasonably easy going, finding a wee wooden bridge over the Cardoon Burn and passing right of the line of crags marked on the map as 'Door of Cairnsmore' to gain the east ridge of the Knee of Cairnsmore. It was a bit of a plod up onto the Knee, with a series of false summits. At least the Clag definitely seemed to be lifting a bit though, giving a brief glimpse of the summit ridge which looked to have a reasonable dusting of snow:
Once I reached the snowline, there was a nice wee view back down over Wigtown Bay:
It wasn't too much further from here to the large almost-summit cairn of the Knee of Cairnsmore. Like the cairn on Cairnsmore of Fleet itself, this is one of those ones claimed to be of Bronze Age vintage, although I remain befuddled as to how anyone can possibly know how old any particular big pile of stones on a hill happens to be:? ...
I headed on north-west along the enjoyable ridge to the bealach with the Graham itself. The Clag had lifted from the bealach and there was a good view of the Cairnsmore ahead, with a fair bit of snow on it, and its head still deep in a big cloud:
There was a pleasing wee partly-frozen lochan right on the bealach.
It wasn't that much more ascent to the summit of Cairnsmore of Fleet itself. This is a busy summit area, with a big cairn, a Trig point, a circular stone windshelter, and a memorial to the depressingly large number of pilots and crew who have lost their lives in air crashes on this hill ... as an isolated massif in an otherwise flat area, it seems to have been a real plane-crash blackspot over the years.
Anyway, here's a shot of the cairn. It is also Bronze Age, needless to say. What, you mean you hadn't already spotted that from its typically Neolithic architectural features?!?
...And the Trig point, with windshelter and cairn visible behind it:
My next target, Meikle Multaggart, wasn't visible from the summit itself, although its northern outlier Craignelder was visible as a big snow-free brown lump.
I encountered a right shedload of the White Stuff on descent of the north-east face of Cairnsmore towards the bealach, and I romped off down it merrily, with the two-humped form of Meikle Multaggart now clearly visible ahead.
It was initially a carefree descent ... but about three-quarters of the way down, I became aware that something was wrong. It was all just a bit TOO carefree; I was feeling strangely unencumbered, yet also oddly unsupported... AARRGGHHH, I'D LEFT MY TREKKING POLES BACK AT THE CAIRN!!
After cursing myself by all the obscenities I was able to recall, I set off on the long Snow Plod back up to retrieve them. I was briefly tempted just to leave them, but they are a fairly new set and I'd have been sorry to lose them. Drat, Drat and Double Drat .
This isn't even the first time this has happened to me with trekking poles, although I think it's the furthest I've ever had to go back to retrieve them. Does anyone else ever do this, or is it just me ?
Anyway, back at Cairnsmore's cairn. So good I climbed it twice. At least the Clag had lifted properly by now, and there was a nice view of Wigtown Bay:
And a vista westwards over Wigtownshire:
Perhaps enough of that cairn by now, however. Poles retrieved, I stoated back down north-east through the snow to the bealach with Multaggart. Thankfully it wasn't too long before I'd finally reached a bit of hillside I hadn't seen before. There was a nice view back to the snow-covered Cairnsmore, with Knee of Cairnsmore to its left:
Meikle Multaggart is well named, as it truly is a big muckle lump of a thing. It has twin tops, and although the northern one looks higher when viewed from Cairnsmore, it's actually the first, southern top that is the true summit. The summit area is excessively flat, and (unusually for a Donald Top) it is unmarked by cairn, Trig point or anything else other than sheep droppings.
From here, the route continues northwards to Multaggart's slightly lower north top, then due east from there along a fairly level ridgeline, eventually terminating in a rocky protuberance marked on the OS map as 'Craigronald'. This is a view along said ridgeline with Craigronald in the distance, and the north end of Loch Grannoch visible to the left:
Now, the SMC 'Grahams' book warns that a direct descent eastwards from Craigronald to Loch Grannoch Lodge is blocked by substantial cliffs, so it's either necessary to cut left (north) of them or right (south) of them to gain the south tip of the loch and the Lodge (which sits at the end of a forestry track eventually leading back to the viaduct). After a look at the map, I settled on the left (northwards) bypass route, which looked more navigationally straightforward, cutting diagonally down from the north edge of the ridge towards the eastwards end of the line of forestry running down to the loch.
As soon as I left the ridge, the terrain started to deteriorate. It wasn't too bad at first - just the usual tussocky grass and heather - but once I got down to the flatter bit immediately south of the forestry, and then started to traverse southwards along the edge of the loch below the crags, it got truly nasty - much bigger tussocks interspersed with ankle-twisting boggy holes, slippery boulders and funsome patches of dead bracken and wee birch trees. This is bad enough in winter when the vegetation's died back a bit, and it must be an utter nightmare in summer. Having now read nxmjm's WR of this route, I'm somewhat relieved to learn that he went for the southward bypass route round the Craigronald cliffs and if anything had an even worse time of it ... so I guess I didn't miss out on anything .
After making a treacherous final descent down the bed of a stream gully towards the southern corner of the loch, I was eventually greatly relieved to see ... an old rusty shed . Surely this couldn't be the 'Loch Grannoch Lodge' marked on the map?
Once I got down to the shed, however, the Lodge itself was visible just a bit further south. Sadly this is now just a picturesque ruin, with a 'Dangerous Building' warning sign on one of the doors. It has a nice sun patio at the side, however, and someone (presumably forestry workers) has put plastic chairs out on it fairly recently ... quite a decent wee 'sit-ootery', by the looks of it! The Lodge boasts a pleasing view northwards along the loch:
To my considerable relief, it wasn't hard to find the forestry track that starts immediately beside the Lodge, and I set off on what was a bit of a Forced March back to the viaduct before I ran out of available daylight.
It was still a long way back (about 6 kilometres I think) on a potentially confusing network of forestry tracks, and I kept the map handy since a wrong turning could have been disastrous on a short winter day. The Loch Grannoch Lodge track runs south for a while, then turns eastwards to come to a T junction with a bigger track that is part of the National Cycle Route network. I turned right (south) here, and just kept going through the forestry for a while, passing a smaller track on the left signed for 'Loch Fleet', to eventually reach a three-way track junction where I turned right (west) past the cottage at Cullendoch, crossing the Big Water of Fleet by a bridge to join the original track I'd used on the outward route. A left turn here, and it was just a short walk back to the viaduct. That black dot just to the right of the left-hand fencepost is my wee Chevy - and a very welcome sight it was by now too !
A last view of the viaduct: rather impressive.
If I was doing this route again, I'd definitely go for an anticlockwise approach: that would make navigation up from Loch Grannoch Lodge onto the Craigronald ridge much more straightforward, plus you'd be doing that unpleasant bushwhacking at the start of the day, before you got too knackered. Ah well, you live and learn, I suppose. The combination of my indiscretion with the trekking poles and the tough terrain on descent from Craigronald meant that I took a good hour longer than the 'book time' of five and a half hours . All the same, it was a fine wee outing, and the Big Water of Fleet viaduct is definitely worth a visit .
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Warning Please note that hillwalking when there is snow lying requires an ice-axe, crampons and the knowledge, experience and skill to use them correctly. Summer routes may not be viable or appropriate in winter. See winter information on our skills and safety pages for more information.