Every journey starts with a step - rebuilding from the ruins

Date walked: 14/05/2024

Time taken: 51 hours

Distance: 42.7km

Ascent: 1240m

They say that every journey starts with a step. A single step. Then another, and another, and repeat. This particular journey was probably somewhere in the region of 60,000 to 70,000 individual steps over 3 days, but in terms of its potential importance and symbolism, it was one small but hopefully significant step on the journey to a new beginning - a rebuild from the ruins of a once thriving and successful programme.

I came to Perth High School in 2004 as a young(ish), newly qualified and inexperienced teacher. I came into an ageing, long-established department. My arrival was the second piece in the jigsaw puzzle of completely rebuilding the department, as every member of it retired and left over a period of a few years. I quickly went on to become Principal Teacher of Modern Languages in 2008, although after 3 years, decided to step back and re-join the regular troops. I have worked under 5 different Headteachers. I have had periods when I have loved the job almost unconditionally. I have had periods when I could quite happily have told anyone willing to listen where to stick the job. Most of the time it has been somewhere near the mid-point of these two extremes. The department today is once more an ageing, long-established department. We are on the brink of the sort of seismic changes that were beginning to take place when I joined two decades ago. We are also a shrinking department, having gone from 7 to 4.4 in the space of 3 years as Modern Languages are increasingly squeezed within the curriculum, not just in my school, but at a national level. The times they are a changing, as someone once sang.

The building too (a 1971 vintage and not exactly in its first flush of youth when I arrived) is showing its age, and that's putting it kindly. It is frankly WAY past being fit for purpose. Its days are numbered, with a new state of the art replacement building under construction next door and scheduled for opening in August 2025. I get a great view of it from my window as it inches its way towards completion.

22nd June 2023 - the early stages of construction and not much more than a hole in the ground at this stage

8th May 2024 - still a long way to go but it at least looks like a school now

Over most of the last two decades, our Duke of Edinburgh programme (and wider Outdoor Education programme in general) has been a constant in my teaching year. It was my early involvement in the programme and training for various National Governing Body qualifications that reignited my love for the hills that had lain dormant since my teenage years. I first went out with a PHS DofE group in 2006 and with the exception of 2011 (when I had just become a father and was far too knackered for such things!), I had been out on average 3 or 4 times each school year until the COVID pandemic hit in early 2020. It was remarkable how we as a school managed to become a virtual, on-line entity in the space of a couple of days in March of that year and keep the wheels moving. But some things were instant casualties, Outdoor Education being one of them. Then on the back of the pandemic we had what politicians and the media like to call the "cost of living crisis". This is of course a euphemism for "inevitable consequence of the mismanagement of the resources of a society and dereliction of public services and infrastructures", but "cost of living crisis" rolls of the tongue a lot easier, and helps to shift focus away.

PHS now operates in what the current Headteacher refers to as a "deteriorating environment". Whether as collateral damage or through conscious financial expediency, things like DofE have inevitably suffered. There is no continuity, no ownership, no sense of building, growing or sustaining. The sticking plaster approach had allowed us to stumble on for the last couple of years with a programme that was a pale shadow of its former self but there would soon be nothing left to stick the plaster to! Our programme was withering on the vine.

The previous Outdoor Education person had been on maternity leave for much of the previous 12 months and was no sooner back than she was head hunted into a more secure, flexible and better paid job. I had been waiting to see what would come next, but with the DofE expedition season almost upon us, the answer seemed to be precious little of any significance. So one day in early March, I walked into the Headteacher's office and asked what was happening with Outdoor Education in our school. I was prepared to be told that it was dead in the water, a thing of the past, but he wanted to know if I was interested in taking it forward. I spluttered something about maybe definitely being very quite interested and we agreed to speak again soon.

Fast forward to early May and I was back in his office and we were discussing finer details - what the split in my week would be between my "day job" and a new OE role, what I could deliver and how soon, how it could possibly be funded (my day job would require to be covered part-time) e.t.c. They would get back to me, I was told, at the end of the meeting. In the meantime another sticking plaster had fallen off after less than a fortnight in place! My message had been pretty stark. Continue with sticking plasters and die sooner rather than later, or think outside the box, use an existing resource who knows the programme inside out and has a vested interest - and try and bring it back from the brink.

First priority was to try to get our Gold group (the fact that it is in the singular says everything about how far we have fallen) out on training expedition and then their qualifier before they officially leave school in June. It was pretty obvious that nobody else was going to do it, so I called some parents, rounded up the troops and organised an expedition. I guess I was trying to make a point, and make it fairly bluntly at that.

We were going to use a new 3 day route that I had put together, starting near Rannoch Lodge at the western end of Loch Rannoch and tracking north around the western side of Ben Alder and then following the River Pattack out to the A86 road.

I had only done one 2 day Bronze training expedition on a pretty uninspiring route in the Lomond Hills since my last "proper" expedition before Lockdown. This would be a momentous step, but would it be a one off? A swansong for a once proud programme? Even on the morning of our departure, I was braced for being told that the plug was being pulled for whatever reason. In the end I needn't have fretted. We were mini-bussed up to the start point on a rather overcast morning and dropped off at the end of the track where my good friend John and I had emerged after a mammoth walk out from Geal-charn one Sunday night in October 2021.

Day 1 - Tuesday 14th May

I was being assisted by Tom, whose two girls had long since left PHS but gone through our DofE programme in their time there. He has been my assistant on a number of expeditions over the past 10 years or so and is exactly the sort of person, I thought to my myself, that I will need for support if I am to rebuild and move forward.

Tom and I eventually got fed up waiting for the kids to stop faffing and decided to head off before them. They would catch us up eventually and if they didn't, we would simply launch the latest in a long line of search and locate operations!

Our drop off and start point near the western end of Loch Rannoch

They say you should never swim in disused and abandoned quarries, but Luna seems to be oblivious to this message!

West between Sron Smeur and Beinn Pharlagain and across Lochan Loin nan Donnlaich and Lochan Sron Smeur with the Glencoe mountains in the distance

First sighting of Loch Ericht looking north from the edge of the forestry

We had stopped for 10 minutes for a quick refuel but otherwise had kept trekking all the way to the hut at the bay at the south western end of Loch Ericht. We stopped here for lunch, which we ate on the rather weathered veranda while wondering what kind of gear was kept inside behind the massive roller door! Luna and I went down to the beach and had a bit of fun before the kids eventually rocked up, said hello and carried on their way.

North up the vast length of Loch Ericht from just below the wooden estate hut

A spot of down time on the beach while we wait for the kids to rock up

Fuelled up, rested and back on the road heading for Ben Alder Cottage

Modest sized dog, decent sized beach, huge loch, big mountains

We soon passed them sat by the side of the track and carried on our way to Ben Alder Cottage bothy. A couple of TGOers were there before us, one in the bothy, one camped outside. Tom and I pitched our tents on the expanse of flat, short cropped grass in front of the bothy, got dinner on and waited for the troops to roll in.

Looking towards the southern end of Loch Ericht

Approaching our home for the night

We cooked dinner in the RHS room of the bothy as it had turned into a showery evening before getting an early night ready for another big day tomorrow.

Day 2 - Wednesday 15th May

The rain was a sporadic accompaniment throughout the night but we awoke to a much brighter picture in the morning. There was no sign of the TGO woman who had been in the LHS room of the bothy last night, but the bloke from the tent right at the corner of the bothy was enjoying a leisurely breakfast before heading up the west shore of Loch Ericht on his way to Dalwhinnie and, eventually, the east coast at Montrose.

Ben Alder Cottage and the crags of Sgairneach Mhor on a beautiful spring morning

Alder Bay from our camping spot

When it became clear that the departure time we had set the kids was not going to happen, we checked the vicinity of their tents, reminded them of how we expected the site to be left, and headed off before them. It was about as straightforward a day of navigation as you could come up with so there were no concerns about them on that front.

Back to Loch Ericht from the start of the long gradual pull up to the Bealach Chumhainn

Beinn Eibhinn beyond the Bealach Chumhainn

Back to Loch Ericht from the crossing of the Alder Burn

My mind wandered back to the day in October 2021 when John and I had come this way after a night in the bothy. We had been on our way to do the three Munros of Geal-charn, Aonach Beag and Beinn Eibhinn but by the time we had reached the summit of Geal-charn via the Bealach Dubh and the Lancet Edge ridge of Sgor Iutharn, full monsoon conditions had set in. We bailed on the other two and retreated to the bothy and then the seemingly endless walk back out to the road at Loch Rannoch. There may not have been any Munros on the agenda today, but the weather prospects certainly seemed more promising.

Cotton wool clouds above the Bealach Chumhainn

Just before the high point of the bealach, we passed an estate worker who was busy recutting the drainage ditch beside the stalkers path and we chatted for a few minutes. We asked him if he knew what was the purpose of the hut on Loch Ericht where we had stopped for lunch yesterday, but that was a different estate he said, so he was none the wiser.

Beinn Eibhinn, Aonach Beag and my October 2021 escape route from Geal Charn through Coire a'Charra Bhig

Ahead to the Bealach Dubh

As Tom and I sat just beyond the Bealach Chumhain and had a first lunch, I briefly pondered whether a quick blast up Aonach Beag and Beinn Eibhinn was a possibility but quickly ruled it out on the grounds that a) I couldn't be a*sed, and b) I didn't want to deprive myself of a pressing reason for a future train journey to Corrour Station and wild camp somewhere in the vicinity of Loch Ossian. Instead I wandered on with Tom to the high point of the Bealach Dubh, at which point we had a second lunch!

South west down the Uisge Labhair to Loch Ossian, Leum Uilleim and Beinn na Lap

The northern cliffs of Ben Alder from the Bealach Dubh

Dropping north east from the Bealach Dubh with the Drumochter hills in the distance

Barring a few short sections of ascent, from the Bealach Dubh it was, mercifully, all downhill to our campsite at Loch Pattack. From the point where John and I had left the path that Sunday in October 2021 to take to the ascent of the Lancet Edge until Culra, I was on the only short section of this whole route that I had not covered at some point in the past one way or other.

Down the Allt a'Chaoil-reidhe to Geal-charn and Beinn Udlamain

The Long Leachas of Ben Alder

We sat just across the far side of the crossing of the stream flowing from Loch an Sgoir nestled way above us below Sgor Iutharn and waited for the kids. By the time they arrived and we had watched them safely negotiate the tricky crossing, we had turned the colour of ripened tomatoes in what was now a beautiful, warm sunny day.

The Lancet Edge of Sgor Iutharn

Alder and Iutharn

The classic view from the once great howff of Culra

I resisted the temptation to see if Culra bothy was unlocked and take a glance inside for old times sake. I remembered a few good nights in there in the past, both on DofE business (including one very cramped, stormy evening after assisting with the rescue of a group from Gordonstoun School of all places, and the airlifting of one of their leaders) and also personal hillwalking adventures, and quietly lamented its loss before continuing on our way to Loch Pattack.

Tom and Luna approaching Loch Pattack

The Fara from the southern end of Loch Pattack

Loch Pattack is a place redolent of memories for me - that Gordonstoun rescue on a day of truly horrific weather many moons ago, the first night on that epic last ditch Gold DofE assessment expedition in the final days of October one year when we could barely get tent pegs in the ground, and night time walks into Culra and the frisson of the old shoogly bridge and wandering exactly when one of the wild horses was going to jump out at you from the pitch blackness! :lol:

Bheoil and Alder from campsite #2

Day 3 - Thursday 16th May

The horses had come to visit us the previous evening and performed a couple of stampedes a short but safe distance from the tents. I momentarily wondered if it was a good idea camping here when they clearly liked stampeding about the place, but figured we'd be OK. We warned the kids not to leave anything outside the tents that they weren't prepared to be chewed or eaten and I retired for another wild night of crosswords and sudoku.

Thursday morning - packed up and waiting for the troops

After another long wait for them to be ready, we sent the troops off ahead while we performed a quick site inspection. We were looking forward to a day of gentler gradients and less ascent and descent, as well as seeing what hydro developments had taken place along the River Pattack since we each last came this way.

North down Loch Pattack

The Alder hills reflected in the flat calm of Loch Pattack

Luna waiting for Tom to return from his off-piste trenching trip amongst the trees

Despite feeling the euphoria of his recent trenching activities, Tom was crestfallen to see that a former excellent campsite he had used alongside the river was now submerged under goodness knows how many feet of water behind one of the larger, more prominent examples of hydro scheme infrastructure.

River Pattack a short distance downstream from Tom's lost camping spot

Approaching the Linn of Pattack - more memories of DofEing on the edge of winter in colder but more stable times

Downstream from Linn of Pattack

With time to kill before our 14.30 pick up by one of my colleagues at the Gallovie Farm road end on the A86, we sat on a fallen tree trunk in front of the seemingly empty Gallovie Cottage holiday let and had a leisurely lunch with a fine view across the fields towards Creag Meagaidh.

Lunch spot with a Window view

Back home in Perth I reflected on a job well done and the fact that had I not taken the bull by the horns, various people would still at that moment be talking about getting the expedition out, and then talking some more, and then some more..........

Meanwhile I waited to see what the outcome of my recent meeting would be and whether they would indeed get back to me. They did the following week, confirming that as of the start of the new session in August, the job I have done for 20 years will be covered two days a week. I will continue to do it the other three days, but two days a week I will be responsible for coordinating and delivering our wider Outdoor Education programme. A major priority will be to build our DofE programme back up to the levels it used to operate at, promoting, recruiting, planning and training. I'll be sad to no longer be a full time classroom teacher but also excited about having the opportunity to do something I have long dreamt about combining with the classroom teaching job in an official capacity.

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Comments: 7

Carn Ban from Magoo's - le monde est petit, je suis vieux!

Attachment(s) Corbetts: Càrn Bàn
Date walked: 28/04/2024
Distance: 6.4km
Ascent: 690m
Views: 184

Beinn Tharsuinn from the Struie Road - a Magoo's preamble

Attachment(s) Fionas: Beinn Tharsuinn (Ardross)
Date walked: 27/04/2024
Distance: 13.3km
Ascent: 660m
Comments: 2
Views: 308

Acting the Goat @ 75 - prelude to a mass Arran exodus

Attachment(s) Corbetts: Goat Fell
Date walked: 04/04/2024
Distance: 10.8km
Ascent: 850m
Comments: 2
Views: 391

A very Good Friday in the Shire

Attachment(s) Sub 2000s: Cairn-mon-earn, Strathfinella Hill
Date walked: 29/03/2024
Distance: 6.7km
Ascent: 450m
Views: 328

The Mullardoch Redemption

Attachment(s) Munros: An Riabhachan
Date walked: 16/03/2024
Distance: 23.7km
Ascent: 1490m
Comments: 4
Views: 563

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Attachment(s) Sub 2000s: The Coyles of Muick
Date walked: 20/01/2024
Distance: 10km
Ascent: 510m
Comments: 2
Views: 918

Few redeeming features (or is that a bit harsh?)

Attachment(s) Fionas: Mullach Coire nan Geur-oirean
Date walked: 09/10/2023
Distance: 30km
Ascent: 1290m
Comments: 4
Views: 685

Foaming, but not at the mouth!

Attachment(s) Sub 2000s: Glas Bheinn (Glenelg)
Date walked: 08/10/2023
Distance: 9.7km
Ascent: 560m
Comments: 2
Views: 487

Beinn Tharsuinn - as easy as 1-2-3

Attachment(s) Corbetts: Beinn Tharsuinn
Date walked: 24/09/2023
Distance: 15.3km
Ascent: 880m
Views: 287

Graeme D

User avatar
Location: Perth
Occupation: Teacher
Pub: Moulin Inn
Mountain: Too tough to answer
Gear: Paramo gilet/Scarpa boots
Member: MCofS
Ideal day out: No such thing as a bad day out on or amongst the hills - only degrees of goodness.
Ambition: 2b sent home on full pay!

Munros: 251
Tops: 31
Corbetts: 125
Fionas: 76
Donalds: 22
Wainwrights: 28
Hewitts: 36
Sub 2000: 62
Islands: 6
Long Distance routes: West Highland Way   

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Trips: 7
Distance: 113.6 km
Ascent: 5890m
Munros: 1
Corbetts: 2
Fionas: 1
Sub2000s: 3


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Distance: 232.1 km
Ascent: 11110m
Munros: 6
Corbetts: 5
Fionas: 2
Sub2000s: 1
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Distance: 235.8 km
Ascent: 15225m
Munros: 15
Corbetts: 3
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Distance: 209.6 km
Ascent: 14050m
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Distance: 141.3 km
Ascent: 8280m
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Distance: 276.6 km
Ascent: 18150m
Munros: 11
Corbetts: 7
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Distance: 350 km
Ascent: 18085m
Munros: 6
Corbetts: 4
Fionas: 3
Donalds: 1
Sub2000s: 4
Hewitts: 14
Wainwrights 21


Trips: 19
Distance: 209.4 km
Ascent: 17090m
Munros: 9
Corbetts: 11
Fionas: 2
Sub2000s: 3


Trips: 26
Distance: 352.85 km
Ascent: 25760m
Munros: 18
Corbetts: 4
Fionas: 7
Donalds: 4
Sub2000s: 2
Hewitts: 15
Wainwrights 6


Trips: 23
Distance: 451.7 km
Ascent: 24468m
Munros: 18
Corbetts: 6
Fionas: 10
Donalds: 9
Sub2000s: 3


Trips: 28
Distance: 450.3 km
Ascent: 24390m
Munros: 16
Corbetts: 10
Fionas: 5
Donalds: 1
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Trips: 30
Distance: 355.5 km
Ascent: 24877m
Munros: 12
Corbetts: 14
Fionas: 8
Sub2000s: 6


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Distance: 393.5 km
Ascent: 23469m
Munros: 20
Corbetts: 8
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Distance: 478.9 km
Ascent: 28081m
Munros: 25
Corbetts: 9
Fionas: 7
Donalds: 1
Sub2000s: 16


Trips: 48
Distance: 569.5 km
Ascent: 24365m
Munros: 30
Corbetts: 21
Fionas: 11
Sub2000s: 7
Hewitts: 6


Trips: 19
Distance: 271.4 km
Ascent: 15243m
Munros: 27
Corbetts: 7
Fionas: 2


Trips: 3
Distance: 60.1 km
Ascent: 3488m
Munros: 4

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