“We need a couple of volunteers next week to walk into Garbh Choire”, said our conservation manager.
My ears pricked up. It would doubtless be a tiring day, as we’d be retrieving some 1t bags, wooden stakes and rolls of wire netting. But I jumped at the chance because, for some reason, I’d never actually visited An Garbh Choire. To my considerable shame, I might add, given its reputation as a grand and wild place, the home of the Sphinx (Scotland’s most famous snow patch), and it simply being the gnarliest, farthest flung corner of my office.
Sandwiched between Braeriach and Sgor an Lochan Uaine, An Garbh Coire is a long way from anywhere. Seen from above, it has the appearance of a huge bite taken out of the high ground to the west of the Lairig Ghru, with four smaller ‘bites’ around its edges: Coire Bhrochain, Garbh Choire Dhaidh, Garbh Choire Mor, and Coire an Lochain Uaine.
In all, the complex is more than 3km long and about 2km wide. The altitude of its floor ranges from about 650m to 950m, which means, given it is ringed by some of the highest hills in the land, its upper walls still tower a further 300m above you. For such a massive feature it does a good job of hiding from view until you’re level with its entrance, but the scale of the place is quite unlike anything I’d experienced before in Scotland.
After completing our work, we explored all the way up into Garbh Choire Mor to check up on the size of the Sphinx (woefully small for June), before contouring around into Garbh Choire Dhaidh.
In all, we were there for about three hours, had the entire place to ourselves, and it felt immense. Boulders lay everywhere, waterfalls tumbled, cliffs and slabs towered, and all the while Ben Macdui hulked on the other side of the Lairig. One of my colleagues had a ten-minute headstart on the walk out, and it was sobering to see how readily he faded into insignificance as he descended the coire.
It was a hot, tough walk back to Derry Lodge with the heavy gear we had to lug out, but I was on a high that lasted a week. In the days following our visit, I excitedly told anyone and everyone who’d listen what an immense place Garbh Choire was. They all knew already, of course, as they’d been there before, but they indulged me nonetheless. One colleague agreed it was a special place, but as we discussed coires in general he paused, looked into the distance and then said:
“Coire Mhic Fhearchair – is that not a contender for the finest coire in Scotland?”
Hmm. Now that was a question, so I went onto Facebook and Twitter to conduct one of my famously unscientific surveys, asking: “What is your favourite coire in Scotland?”
What is a coire?
Before you can pick your finest coire in Scotland, you need to know exactly what you’re choosing from. Often anglicised to ‘corrie’, in gaelic the word means a hollow, or cauldron, and unsurprisingly it therefore crops up all over Scotland as a topographical noun.
On maps you’ll find ‘coires’ in the kinds of places you’d expect, but not exclusively so. In the more sedate Campsie Fells there’s Corrie of Balglass. In Strathbraan in Perthshire, a stone’s throw from Dunkeld and at barely 350m, you’ll find Coire a’ Mhor-fhir. On Islay, you’ll find Coire Liunndrein.
In many cases the word merely refers to the upper reaches of glens, both big and small, where the sides of the glen start to close in. ‘Coires’ in that sense are frequently just grassy bowls or depressions, gentle in slope, perhaps with a small burn draining them down the centre.
But to most hillwalking folk, when you ask them what their favourite coire is, they’re not going to be thinking of sedate slopes at the head of grassy glens. Most will be thinking of something bigger and more dramatic. Something semi-circular with that distinctive bite-like appearance, open on one side, perhaps flanked by narrow aretes. Archetypal ‘armchair’ coires.
Craggy and imposing, there will likely be scree slopes below a steep, rocky headwall, and large boulders will be scattered all over the place. It will look undeniably glacial in origin.
Such features are common the world over, although the names differ: in French, ‘cirque’. In Welsh, ‘cwm’. In Scotland, ‘coire’. But even within this more targeted definition, the variation of form is considerable.
Some coires are small, others are enormous. Some have lochans, others don’t. Some are more grass than rock, others the opposite. But how many do we have?
Well, if I had a spare month, I’d happily work my way through all the grid squares in the country at a 1:25000 scale, counting all the coires manually and then letting you know the answer. But that assumes they’re all named, which of course they aren’t. Suffice to say, there are hundreds of them, and so even being familiar with them all is nigh on impossible.
Some, like Coire na Tulaich, which forms the main approach route up Buachaille Etive Mor, are of course on well-established routes up hills and are therefore well-trodden and well-known. Others, by virtue of their inaccessibility or roughness (or both) are little visited, if visited at all.
Carn Ban for instance, the remote corbett up by Alladale. I wonder how many people have visited Coire na Glasa on its northeast slopes? Well, given that even geograph.org.uk (whose dedicated band of volunteers always seem to have been EVERYWHERE) don’t have photos for those OS grid squares, I’m guessing very few.
For that reason, many coires will likely remain the domain of those with more esoteric interest – devotees of truly wild places, for whom remote coires might represent the wildest of the wild. But probably also ecologists, scouring far flung ledges for new biological records, as Sarah Watts, conservation manager at Corrour Estate said when she responded to my question:
“At the moment I’m really into Corrie Sharroch (Glen Clova), where there’s the largest remnant patch of montane willow scrub in Scotland. There’s really nothing quite like it elsewhere in the country.”
That’s a nice illustration of how different coires mean different things to different people, and of how coires have long acted as refuges for biodiversity – their crags and ledges being inaccessible to the mouths of grazing herbivores.
Certain grandstanding coires do of course spring to mind when you’re asked to pick your favourite. But when you consider just how many coires there are, how many glacial ‘bowls’ you’ve walked through or looked down upon, and how many hill miles you’ve likely racked up over the years, if your memory is anything like mine there are doubtless some real gems that are easily forgotten or overlooked.
They might not be the biggest, the rockiest, or the grandest, but sometimes places can be made special by other things too – something you encountered or something you did, the memories of good times and experiences. As one repsondent said of Corrie Fee:
‘where i saw my 1st Golden Eagle and Peregrine as a wee lad.”
Or perhaps you rate coires differently for different pursuits:
“With a hillwalking hat on guess it has to be Coire a Grunndha. With a skiing hat on…..the Fionn Choire of the Glas Maol”
Maybe the walk-in itself is what makes a coire special – the way it reveals itself, or even the impact of other sights en-route:
“Corrie Fee. The view that hits you when you come out of the forest”
“Coire Àrdair on Creag Meagaidh because I love the walk through the woods on approach with all the amazing regeneration that’s going on”
And while a particular coire might not be the most spectacular, its inaccessibility might be what makes it notable for nomination. Conversely, perhaps its very accessibility, the fact that it can be enjoyed so easily, is what makes it special?
Certain coires also inspire differently depending on conditions, with the weather, the light, or even the time of year playing their part:
“Coire Ardair – ideally around May time with snow still in the gullies”
“Corrie Kander is a wee beauty in the winter”
Or, for one person, what the coire actually looks like isn’t necessarily relevant:
“Kilbo Coire, and simply because I love that name!”
All these variables conspire to make a ‘whole’, an experience of a place beyond what you can simply see once you get there. So, for the sake of variety, I hope you’ll indulge me as I go a bit off-piste for my selection.
The coire that springs to mind instantly is Coire Gaothach on Ben Lui. I adore the perfect ‘armchair’ it displays to anyone viewing it from Tyndrum, and under snow cover and a blue sky, it looks almost Himalayan.
It’s also very different in form to, say, the big coires in the Cairngorms. Instead of being a bite out of a plateau, with a relatively flat base, Coire Gaothach is a chunk bitten out of a steep, high mountain. Everything is therefore on more of a gradient.
As you approach from Dalrigh, foreshortening exaggerates this appearance, and yet the coire is surprisingly bowl-like once you get in there. I have fond memories due to a visit in March 2018 – a perfect cold day, with hard spring snow everywhere. Climbing into the alpine coire that day I was probably at the limit of my winter experience, but it was fantastic.
I do, however, like lochans in my coires, and so for my next choice I’m heading to Glen Clova, as I’m very fond of the coire in which Loch Brandy sits.
It’s definitely not the most spectacular, but the size of the loch and the way it fills the entire basin, coupled with a lovely curve of the coire headwall, makes it aesthetically beautiful in a way many coires aren’t. But I think also its accessibility makes me so fond of it, because when I stayed in Fife, Glen Clova was easily on hand if I ever wanted a small dose of big scenery.
I also cast my mind back to the many expansive, seemingly impregnable coire floors I’ve looked down upon, strewn with boulders and glacial moraines, wondering if anyone EVER has reason to go down there. For sheer mind-boggling rockiness and inaccessibility therefore, there’s Coire na h-Uaimh on Arran, laid out below Cir Mhor. What reason could folk have for going there? Well, this week I checked with Arran mountain guide, Lucy Wallace, who said she’s been there ‘loads of times’ and confirmed it’s popular with some climbers.
Then there’s Coire a’ Chaorachain, on the edge of Sgurr a’ Chaorachain, in Applecross. For no other reason than on that winter’s day, in that light, it was as fine as any coire I’d ever seen.
However, seeing and ‘knowing’ a place are two very different things. Yes, I’ve looked down into more coires than I can count, but how many of them have I actually walked through, or lingered within? How many of them do I actually, therefore, ‘know’?
This point was rammed home to me recently on Beinn a’ Bhuird when, instead of walking its expansive plateaux, I skirted my way along the top of all three of its huge coires. It was something I’d never done before, and it made for an astonishing day. Such variety in each coire, so many weird rockforms, such ridiculously rough coire bases.
If anything, it was even more impactful than An Garbh Choire, and ended up being my most enjoyable (non winter) hill day in years. But I wanted more, because I knew that until I’d actually set foot inside those coires, I could never hope to really know Beinn a’ Bhuird. I’ll address that soon enough, but I’m including those coires here because I fully expect them to become instant favourites.
But that’s enough about me. What did everyone else say when I asked them to choose their favourite coire? Well, people were understandably a bit put out at being restricted to just one:
“Impossible to single out one, so can I have three?”
“Any corrie will do”
“Coire Lair and An Garbh Choire. But actually just about all of them”
Overall, 32 individual coires were nominated (only one of which, on Maol Chean Dearg, is unnamed on OS maps), and it was nice to see a good geographical scattering from all across the country: from Creag Meagaidh, Assynt, Beinn Dearg, Seana Bhraigh, Arran, Glencoe, Torridon, even the Campsie Fells. But some areas did dominate in the number of nominations they received: Skye and the West Highlands received four nominations apiece, while Wester Ross, the Angus Glens and the Cairngorms each received six.
But…. in fifth place in the overall number of votes was Toll an Lochain, nestling on the east side of An Teallach. I’ve set eyes upon it, from Sgurr Fiona, but it’s not one I’ve ever walked into I’m afraid. I know it’s a favourite of Paul and Helen here, and certainly those who nominated it said there was “no contest”. I really must pay it a visit!
In joint fourth place were An Garbh Choire, where I started this whole article, and Coire Gabhaill in Glen Coe.
Of the former, people appreciated its ‘utter remoteness’. In terms of wildness it is “simply in a class of its own”
“And varied, if you count all the parts. Really special.”
Coire Gabhaill, on Bidean nam Bian, is a curious one to bear the name ‘coire’, as it’s less a coire and more a hanging valley. Even so, I’m not going to quibble as it’s a real stunner, especially the way it reveals itself as you climb higher, with the additional surprise of the vast flat area within. With plenty of history to boot too, arguably there’s nowhere else quite like it in Scotland, with folk describing it as “just magical” and “so isolated”.
In third place is Coire Lagan, in Skye’s Black Cuillin. Accessed via an atmospheric walk from Gleann Bhreatail, it’s one of the few places in the Cuillin I’ve actually visited.
I had a weirdly atmospheric day there one March, in snow showers, warm sun and a t-shirt. I loved the contrast of the smooth slabbiness of the rocks at the coire lip, versus the rough, chute-filled volcanic craziness of the backdrop. It had a menacing, otherworldly feel to it, like it was a gateway between this world and the Underworld. And yet, somehow idyllic at the same time. One respondent said it has:
“a sense of being watched upon by giants with the most wonderful views out to the small isles”
And while you might think the entrance to the Underworld would be the last place for romance, someone said Coire Lagan was:
“where I met my better half!
In second place is Coire Mhic Fhearchair (or Coire Mcfecker, as one person affectionately called it) hidden away around the back of Beinn Eighe’s massive quartzite summits. Quite justified of course, on account of:
‘sheer in-your-face gobbsmackingness’.
‘Can meander and sit in there all day, observing and absorbing (the scenery, wildlife and atmosphere, not the midgies!)’
‘the superb walk in, waterfalls, the lochan and the triple buttress.’
“Especially at this time of year when the deer rut is happening.”
It does take some beating, I’ll admit, with its cathedral-like buttress hiding from view until almost the very last minute. I skirted up the west side of the coire on my way to Sail Mhor, and I remember stopping every ten steps or so, simply so that I could turn around and gawp at the spectacle behind me. Amazing!
In first place, and this might surprise people, is Corrie Fee in Glen Clova. I was surprised too at first, but on reflection it makes sense. Its accessible, and has featured prominently and affectionately in people’s early hillwalking lives:
“Memory of climbing up through it aged 4 with my grandad”
“simply because it’s so accessible yet feels so remote once you’re there.”
But to be honest, there were all kinds of reasons cited:
‘cos its so pretty’
‘the scene unfolds so beautifully when you reach the big rock.’
And, as in Coire Lagan, romance appears to blossom in this particular coire:
‘Got married there’
‘Honourable mention to Corrie Fee where I proposed to my wife’
Ultimately though, I think this comment sums Corrie Fee up nicely:
‘not the most spectacular, but it’s a place that just feels right.’
So there you have it. The results of my unscientific survey, plus loads of other coires to get you thinking. Personally, I’m surprised that Coire Ardair, at Creag Meagaidh didn’t feature more prominently, or that Corrie of Lochnagar didn’t feature at all, but I’m sure if I’d asked folk to make longer lists, they would have been in them. Because at the end of the day, as one person said:
“Each area has its special place, we are blessed”
Interestingly, in writing this article I’ve been surprised to find that, despite all the walking I’ve done over the years, despite all the many summits I’ve stood upon, I really don’t know Scotland’s hills very well at all. Certainly, when you’re at the top of a hill, pointing out and naming all the peaks you’ve climbed, after a few years you can probably point to every single peak in a vista. But summits are small. What about what lies beneath? What about all the spaces in between?
Hmm. Seems I’ve barely scratched the surface of Scotland’s wild places, and I can’t wait to get out and explore!