I seemed to be wrong about having caught the last good weekend weather of the autumn on Beinn Ime - I'd been watching with a kind of disbelief a perfect forecast - dry, clear and bright - falling on a Saturday when I was free, which is a thing that almost never happens.
Meall Chuaich was another hill climbed more or less by accident - I had set out for Lochearnhead, only for the bus to do a kind of vanishing act and only reappear once I had stopped looking for it. I should really have gone into the Ochils, but they didn't quite appeal - I wanted a Munro, and a Munro I was going to have. So since you can't really go west from Stirling without going right back to Glasgow, that meant Perth and points north-east, and from the shortlist of hills I had some idea about that meant Meall Chuaich, even if I was supposed to be saving it for a busless Sunday.
Possibly the real highlight of this trip is the train journey - I haven't been further than Pitlochry on this line very often, and the Perthshire prettiness fades out after that into a kind of great emptiness full of sculpted hills. I was the only person to get off at Dalwhinnie station, which has a good view, and possibly the tiniest waiting room I've ever seen - it was living up to its reputation as possibly the coldest village in Scotland, although even Perth had been a good bit colder than Edinburgh, but I'd come prepared for all eventualities, so this became the first outing of the season for my winter hat.
Dalwhinnie isn't much of a village, in that it doesn't really have a centre, just a straggle of houses along the road - station and village hall somewhere in the middle, with most of the houses, and distillery half a mile to the north.
A train came past heading south as I walked up the road - I always like how small the highland trains look in the large landscape.
My route to the hill was up onto the minor road, and then along the track leading to the cluster of houses (and many barking dogs) at Cuaich - possibly a slightly illicit route, as the level crossing is marked as for authorised users only, but I didn't know that when I set out, and anyway so is the one on the way to Culra.
Once across the A9 the track from the road soon met the track running up beside the aqueduct from the hydroelectric works, which runs up beside an odd looking valley - even if most of the water wasn't in the aqueduct rather than the burn, the valley would still be far too wide for its water, and flat between two edges like raised beaches, rather than a glacial U.
At first the aqueduct was just open, but further up it was crossed by odd spars for a while.
It took me a while to get the hills sorted out around me, especially as I only had a bit of map on my tablet, rather than a paper one I could spread out, but as I headed further in I knew I had Creag Ruadh directly on my left, which helped to pick out Meall Chuaich and ignore all the windings of Carn na Caim on my right.
At the end of the aqueduct the waterworks building was doing its best to hide in a cluster of trees, with the little dam and pool behind.
There didn't seem to be any more water flowing through the burn above the works than below, so presumably most of the water gushing through the aqueduct was brought down by a huge green pipe like a Very Thirsty Caterpillar.
Beyond the burn it was more of an ordinary worn track again - as I came up towards Loch Cuaich three big cars swept past me, but they didn't seem interested in me, and when I saw them again they were taking lots of chairs out of the little bothy to sit on to eat their lunch, and didn't speak to me except to apologise for their dog growling.
I thought I had better go on a bit before I sat down to eat my lunch - the path onto the hill leaves the track not far past the loch, and I climbed on over the first bump before stopping.
I'd been pleasantly surprised by the scenery, which I didn't find dull at all - hills throwing out rounded ridges in all directions - but there was something much more dramatic going on over to the west.
The first part of the path was quite eroded, but walkers didn't seem to be to blame, as it improved quite a lot once a sign pointed them off uphill.
I liked the view of an impressively wiggly little valley on the slope opposite, and the single flame-coloured tree at its foot.
Further up the path was nicer to walk on, and the slope had eased to give a view ahead - not that it was ever very steep, but I get fed up when all you can see is the slope right in front of you.
There were a lot more dark clouds lurking around now than the forecast had promised, and even spots of rain which turned into something which looked a bit like snow but didn't act much like it, but the clouds were also producing quite impressive sunbeams, hanging in the centre of the valley like spotlights.
Once up at the level of Stac Meall Cuaich the view opened out to the north, looking brown and quiet.
Meall Chuaich seemed to have a surprisingly stony summit for such a grassy hill, with all sign of a continuous path either vanished or wandered off somewhere else - but it turned out not even to be the summit, only a surprisingly stony edge to pass over.
Further up it got gradually less stony and more mossy, and steadily flatter, until a kind of broad stony track led towards the great summit cairn as if it was some kind of sacred processional site.
More rainclouds were lurking around now, especially to the north, so I thought I better not linger too long - it was snowing, or possibly raining, already, but only gently, and some hills were obviously doing much worse.
The views were good where they were out of the clouds - the Spey valley to the north, with glimpses of green in among the autumn brown.
The southern view was an interesting tangle of hills, from Schiehallion to Ben Lawers to Ben More.
The hills towards Culra were in the clouds, but Carn Dearg standing above the great scoop of Gleann Ballach to the north was doing its best to look dramatic in a diferent way.
Someone had made very occasional attempts to cairn a route across the flat top, but where everything was so smooth and mossy it really didn't matter - I found myself descending to the left, a bit lower down, which brought me round the edge of the stoniest place and then back down to the clear path below me. I liked the way the burn below seemed to be leading me on back towards the world, and I liked the way the water caught the light on the dark slopes.
I didn't really know where the people in the cars had gone, but something was definitely going on on the hillside opposite, with a lot of shouting and yelling - apart from occasional shots it sounded almost exactly like a village football match heard from a distance, a comparison which would probably not have pleased the participants!
Since it was a Saturday, with an earlier train up, adding on Creag Ruadh had always been an option - as I got back to the loch one train south had just left the station and the next wouldn't go for nearly four hours, and there wasn't a lot else to do. I'd said I would go for it if I got down by 4, but it was about 10 past, leading to indecision - I wasn't sure just how long it would take, and I was conscious both of the light and of the need to get some dinner before arriving back in Edinburgh after 10. In the end I let the fact that the rain came back on decide me and headed out, although it didn't last for very long.
I was still enjoying the shapes of the hills - I really liked this twin pair, like bookends or gateposts.
This time I followed the aqueduct track right out to the road at the other side of the village - good walking except just where it went under the A9, where it turned into a puddle so deep that I walked the aqueduct wall instead until I could jump back down at the other side. Its lower reaches were beautifully autumnal, but it was further than I thought, and I decided I'd made the right choice.
Down here was another little outpost of the village, petrol station/shop and hotel/cafe another half mile or so from the station. I was distracted from my objective, however, by a sign pointing to Loch Ericht 1/4 of a mile away - it was harder than I expected to actually reach the loch, and more of a view across than along, but I found a nice spot to sit for a while before the cold chased me on.
The Loch Ericht Hotel/Snack Shack hadn't quite made up its mind what it was - one end was grey stone and old fashioned white letters, and the other was all windows and colourful signs, while inside the menu was written up on a board like a cafe but the tables were all set with cutlery and napkins, and to add to the confusion one of the barstaff was pure Geordie and the other strongly Glaswegian! But I had a seat by a window with a view of river and ducks and autumn leaves, and it was a friendly place, with people popping in and out - plus they opened up the petrol pump to help some stranded tourists, as well as giving advice to another set.
I was the only person to get on the train at Dalwhinnie, too - apart from the fact that the toilets broke and they put us all onto another train at Perth it was a nice quiet journey, and they didn't mind me going straight through to Edinburgh despite my Stirling ticket.
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