The Big Routes: Ossian's Magnificent Seven

© Dan Bailey

More than 30 years after climbing my first Munro I conceded it was about time to think about completing a round of all 282. I'm not list-motivated, just keen on hills, and the first 250 or so had been done by default rather than design. But the remainder would take application. Largely among the less prepossessing peaks, many of the omissions simply hadn't had the charisma to turn my head before. With an unfamiliar sense of purpose, if no great urgency, I began planning the occasional trip to one or other of my unfinished 3000ers, dotted inconveniently around Scotland.

Beating sunset to the top of Ben Alder  © Dan Bailey
Beating sunset to the top of Ben Alder
© Dan Bailey

Munro bagging might involve a few too many heathery domes but, as any keen bagger will tell you, it does have the benefit of sending you places you might otherwise never get around to. Whilst not every entry in the tables can be a Buachaille or a Braeriach, there's no corner of the Highlands unworthy of exploring. And of course once you start looking, you may realise just how much you haven't yet seen.

For me, one under-visited area was right in the middle, that great Central Highlands expanse sprawling between the soggy green desert of Rannoch Moor, the fjord-like ribbon of Ericht, and the easy-access peaks of Ardverikie. Previous visits had naturally focused on the headliners, Ben Alder and the Geal-Charn ridge. But that left me plenty yet to do down towards Loch Ossian. For the price of a train ticket to Corrour I could bag three new ones - nothing remarkable in themselves perhaps, but a pretext to head for a wild location that's all big spaces and grand horizons.

Glen Coe's mountains across the expanse of Rannoch Moor  © Dan Bailey
Glen Coe's mountains across the expanse of Rannoch Moor
© Dan Bailey

Put a bit of bounce in your step and you could do Beinn na Lap and the south Ossian two in a solid day. But why go all that way without climbing Ben Alder and the Geal-Charns too? They are the headliners for good reason, so missing them out just because I'd been up them before would be taking this bagging lark too far. A logical biggie jumps out of the map, anchored around Loch Ossian but looping wide to rope all the high points into an extended circuit. If you're a Munroist new to the area then there's seven ticks for you here (the super-keen might make it nine). The not-Munro-motivated could simply consider it a fantastic hill round that stands very much on its own merits.

The position above the moor makes for expansive views. Space is the defining character of these hills

Most Highland days are best reached in a car, but Corrour is a well known exception, a major hillwalking destination that's not only easy by rail but unique for being accessible by no other means of transport. A huddle of buildings on the empty edge of Rannoch Moor, this train stop (station would be a stretch) is the UK's highest, and easily the most remote at about 16km by foot or bike from the nearest public road. There's a romance to arriving by train somewhere this out-there, and the step from a warm, busy carriage onto the windblown platform is an instant and radical change in tone. The contrast is most striking if you start in London and come by sleeper.  Today I had to go only one stop from Tulloch, but the skeleton timetable meant it was lunchtime before I could put shoe rubber to gravel track and get cracking.

Loch Ossian and distant Ben Nevis from the ascent of Carn Dearg  © Dan Bailey -
Loch Ossian and distant Ben Nevis from the ascent of Carn Dearg
© Dan Bailey -

A short stroll east brings you to Loch Ossian Youth Hostel, a Scandi-style wooden hut overlooking the piney islands at the head of the loch. It'd make a great base for a longer stay in the area - other accommodation can be had at Corrour Station - but today I carried my bed with me, aiming for a mid-point camp up on the Alder plateau. For non-runners, especially far from solstice, this big circuit may best be considered a two-dayer. Civilisation - such as it is - left behind, I headed up-track towards my first Munro, Carn Dearg, baking under unseasonal sun. Despite the heatwave I would meet only two people on the hills in two days. Midweek, it's that kind of place.


Ben Alder's airy outlook over Loch a' Bhealaich Bheithe and Loch Ericht  © UKC Articles
Ben Alder's airy outlook over Loch a' Bhealaich Bheithe and Loch Ericht

Space is the defining character of the area. With height gain, the outlook at my back just seemed to keep on expanding - a handy pretext to stop, cool down, and fill lungs still tight from a slow Covid recovery. Over the water-dappled splurge of Rannoch Moor, the sharp peaks of Glen Coe and the Black Mount presented a familiar skyline from a slightly novel angle. Lochaber's biggies looked great, The Ben dominant as always, while out east, Schiehallion did its best impression of a Fuji-like cone (it's not). Carn Dearg lacks much by way of identity; even its name, red hill, is blandly unoriginal. But the position above the moor makes it a staggering viewpoint. Whether you're collecting scalps, or indifferent to the notion, this alone justifies the journey.

On Carn Dearg, with Sgor Gaibhre, Ben Alder and the Geal-Charn ridge ahead  © Dan Bailey
On Carn Dearg, with Sgor Gaibhre, Ben Alder and the Geal-Charn ridge ahead
© Dan Bailey

Up on the summit a raven circled me curiously. Pressing on to Sgor Gaibhre - Munro two, and an absolute walk in the park - I met it again, its throaty caws then following me into the steep down-and-up to the Munro 'Top' of Sgor Choinnich (no, I'm not keen enough to start adding mere Tops to my to-do list). At the bealach beyond I thought my companion had lost interest until I spied a black head popping up from behind a rock. Do ravens play peekaboo? I'd swear this one was.

You might think it's in the bag by this stage, but in truth your day has barely started...

Shadows began to lengthen on the joyous wander to the northeast end of the range; autumn's shortening days always seem to catch me out. Separating the Ossian hills from the far bigger bulk of Ben Alder, the Bealach Cumhainn represents a major loss of hard-won height, a motivation sapper before the next uphill plod towards the distant high point of the round. A gel sachet gave me the beans to race sunset up Alder's grassy western flank, and in golden light I strode over the close-cropped turf of the plateau, scattering a vast herd of deer before me like something from a safari. With so many tree killers on legs chomping these hills, it's no wonder the area is an ecological waste. Perhaps one day we'll get a grip on deer numbers and return lost natural wealth to the Highlands.

Loch Ericht and the southern Highlands from Ben Alder's huge summit plateau   © Dan Bailey
Loch Ericht and the southern Highlands from Ben Alder's huge summit plateau
© Dan Bailey

You could pitch almost anywhere on the top of Ben Alder, a rolling green high altitude expanse that wouldn't disgrace a Cairngorm. There's even running water. In windy weather this would not be the place to camp, but tonight's breeze was perfect - sufficient to keep the midges at bay, but not enough to worry a tent. Noodles dispatched and sunset duly photographed I retreated to my cocoon as the day's warmth quickly vanished into a clear evening sky, soon regretting my weight-saving summer sleeping bag.

Northeast from Ben Alder at sunset  © Dan Bailey -
Northeast from Ben Alder at sunset
© Dan Bailey -

A murky dawn did little to restore body heat, and despite the autumn hot spell promised by the forecast it was even trying to rain. In vain hope of decent light for photos I wandered over to the edge of Garbh Choire, a huge cliffy scoop on the mountain's impressive eastern side with a vertiginous view over the loch below. Even in grey gloom it looks pretty good.

The creak of a raven accompanied me down the rugged northwest side of the hill, and while I couldn't pretend to recognise one bird from another I fancied it was my friend checking in on progress. It's another big height loss to the Bealach Dubh. Deep-carved between the massive haunches of Alder and Geal-Charn, this dramatic pass will have been a major through-route for millennia, a link between Speyside and the west for cattle drovers, outlaws, backpackers and bikepackers.

Sgor Iutharn's Lancet Edge from Geal-Charn  © Dan Bailey
Sgor Iutharn's Lancet Edge from Geal-Charn
© Dan Bailey

It felt a reasonable haul up to Geal-Charn, allowing time for sunshine to reassert itself. While the name, yet again, is as dull as they come (white hill - one of an unlikely four Munros so-called within yodelling distance in this part of the Highlands) it's quite a grand, sprawling slab of geography, with a wide plateau second only to Ben Alder's in this neighbourhood, and a summit cairn that marks the start of a lovely bit of ridge walking. At this point my SLR gave up the ghost, turning three kilos of photographic equipment into dead weight in the pack; it was going to feel a long way back to Corrour with that much useless ballast. The ridge walking made up for it, over the green dome of Aonach Beag, Munro five on the round, and onwards, narrow and nicely defined, onto the curving summit crest of Beinn Eibhinn.

With six down and only one hill to go you might think it's in the bag by this stage, but in truth your day has barely started. The leg over to distant Beinn na Lap goes on for miles, and since most folk will pick these hills off over several shorter day trips, the linking sections between them tend towards the rough and pathless. First a long, rocky descent over the knobbly Munro Top of Mullach Coire nan Nead (nope, still not tempted by those Tops).

Aonach Beag and Beinn Eibhinn from Geal-Charn  © Dan Bailey -
Aonach Beag and Beinn Eibhinn from Geal-Charn
© Dan Bailey -, 02 Sep 2023

Beinn Eibhinn & Ben Alder from Beinn na Lap's north ridge  © Dan Bailey -
Beinn Eibhinn & Ben Alder from Beinn na Lap's north ridge
© Dan Bailey -

Wet-footed, I slithered downhill beside a waterfall to gain a loch-side vehicle track in the wide green trough of Strath Ossian. At just 350m this is the lowest point of the entire journey, a hot and airless place on a dazzling September afternoon. The estate here was bought by an heir to the Tetrapak billions, so it's possible that every litre of juice you've downed in the last couple of decades has contributed to the upkeep of this private empire in the hills. A couple of kilometres on tracks almost tarmac-smooth made for an odd change from tussock and rock, an incongruous feel only accentuated after my hours of mountain solitude as I was passed at breezy speed by a succession of gravel bikers. An off-road route from Inverness to Glasgow comes this way, and if its apparent popularity is any guide it must be quite a ride. Just occasionally I have doubts about the pedestrian plod of a backpacker.

Strath Ossian and Loch Guilbinn, the low point of the round  © Dan Bailey
Strath Ossian and Loch Guilbinn, the low point of the round
© Dan Bailey

Of course wheels would be sunk off-track, a fact soon wetly obvious as I swapped expensive estate motorway for the peat bog that seems to blanket the northern foot of Beinn na Lap. While I imagine most walkers will pop up the southern side of this little Munro as a quick there-and-back from Corrour, the long north ridge is a cracker, with a barely-worn feel and more of those edge-of-the-moor views. The end was now in sight far below, the tiny station building adrift in its blue-green grassy ocean.

I'd a good four hours to kill before the late train north. By a stroke of luck the station restaurant was open for business, and doing a surprisingly roaring trade. Where had all these cheerful revellers sprung from? I propped up the bar with a succession of bikepackers and hill wanderers, taking on a portion of chips sufficient for a family, and enjoying the slightly surreal change in circumstance after two days alone on big hills.

Beinn Eibhinn, Aonach Beag, and distant Knoydart, from Ben Alder  © Dan Bailey -
Beinn Eibhinn, Aonach Beag, and distant Knoydart, from Ben Alder
© Dan Bailey -

The Route

Distance 43.7km

Ascent 2798m

Time 13-16 hours

Start/Finish Corrour Station

Maps OS Landranger (1:50,000) 41 & 42; Harvey Superwalker (1:25,000) Ben Alder

Terrain Easy estate tracks in the glens, and largely clear walker's paths on the main ridges. All of this is fast going and very runnable if that's your game. But the link-ups between Munro groups tend to be rough and pathless. Some steep, rocky slopes; some interesting plateau navigation; and naturally a few bogs.

Seasonal Considerations Winter conditions would hugely increase the isolation and commitment. In snow and limited daylight this round could prove arduous, but would also make for a memorable long weekend's adventure. In poor visibility watch out for big cornices on Ben Alder in particular.

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18 Sep

I enjoyed reading your piece, Dan. My experience of those hills was rather different. I once dared a work colleague to visit Ben Alder during February for a backpacking trip, and to my surprise, he agreed. With heavy winter sacks we left the car near Dalwhinnie and legged it across the railway line, heading for the snowy Loch Ericht track. After a mile or two, a JCB drove up and gave us a lift in its front bucket as far as Ben Alder Lodge. We left the Loch Pattack track and crossed hard-frozen ground to make camp opposite Culra Bothy. The next few days were spent on Carn Dearg, the Lancet Edge to Geal Charn and Aonach Beag, and best of all, the Long Leachas onto Ben Alder's vast frozen plateau - no doubt it's a simple scramble in summer, but in winter it felt like alpine mountaineering - and a descent via Beinn Bheoil. I slept each night in full Paramo gear, with overnight temperatures of minus 11C and some heavy snowfall. And plodding back beside Loch Ericht we got a lift in the back of an estate pick-up. Good times!

Thanks Steve, that sounds like a properly memorable adventure. I've yet to do the Lancet Edge in winter, one for the (long) wish list for sure

Calling Beinn na Lap 'magnificent' might be a bit of a stretch. Strong candidate for the 282nd most magnificent Munro... Long Leachas is indeed not demanding in summer (Grade 1, low in the grade) but still very worth seeking out. And if getting off train at Corrour is a weird moment, much more is waiting for it on a December evening in starlight and hard, hard frost, seeing the lights approach above Loch Treig and hoping it's going to stop and then stepping into the bright, warm urban-smelling carriage. A truly liminal moment.

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