SATURDAY morning, and I'm sitting in the car at Strathfarrar waiting for the clock to strike 9am and the gate to swing open.
Only 25 cars are allowed in this glen at any one time, so I was nice and early to make sure my hill plans for the day went smoothly.
I have been there in the summer months when there is a queue for entry. On this occasion, however, I need not have worried – I was the only one waiting.
An overnight blast of snow had coated the mountains, and there was cover right down to the road. As I drove along, flurries sprinted from dark skies, juxtaposing with the bright sunshine and glistening landscape.
The four Strathfarrar Munros provide a grand ridge walk, but under these conditions and in winter hours with the entry time constraints, they tend to be too big a day for most.
I had a more modest target, Beinn na Muice, a few hours at most. This rugged little hill provides views that would be the envy of many higher summits, in particular the one down the length of Loch Monar.
The road up the glen is private. It was built for the Loch Monar hydro scheme but never adopted by Highland Council. It runs for around 17 miles and is badly potholed. You need to factor in at least half an hour drive time each way.
From Easter until the end of October, entry is controlled by a gate-keeper employed by the Braulen Estate, and you are issued a green ticket on entry which should be returned on your way out.
Times vary; from 9am until 5pm in April, rising in stages to 8am until 8pm in high summer and then reducing again. There is no access to vehicles at all on Tuesdays and until 1.30pm on Wednesdays.
To the casual viewer, this may all seem a little Draconian. But there is no conflict with our access laws; with the usual caveats that fall under responsible behaviour, there are no restrictions if you wish to go in on foot, by bicycle or even on a horse.
Wild camping is also fine. Even during the stalking season, the main mountain routes are unaffected. Walkers are welcome here all year round – it's only their cars that are an issue.
From today (November 1), winter access arrangements kick in. The gate is locked and there is no gate-keeper to permit entry until the end of March next year. Over the years, Mountaineering Scotland have had an arrangement with the estate to allow vehicles in for the day under strict conditions, and it's one that seems to have worked well for all involved.
There is a padlock on the gate with a code that will be provided to drivers who register with MS when planning a visit. This information is then passed on to the estate. The stag season may be over, but the estate still stalks hinds at this time of year. Access covers all the main walking and climbing routes, and vehicles must be parked in one of four designated areas. You cannot stay parked in the glen overnight.
Unfortunately, these arrangements have come under threat because of the actions of a few. On a couple of occasions, those living and working in the glen were subjected to abuse when they challenged people deliberately ignoring the agreement.
The result is that there will be a re-evaluation of the arrangements after this winter season. Meanwhile, Mountaineering Scotland have acted quickly to make sure there is no repeat. Only MS members will now be allowed to apply for vehicle access during these months, and everyone in the vehicle must be a member.
You will have to provide: Your name, MS membership number and phone number; specific date of intended visit and hillwalking or climbing objective (a date 'week commencing …' is not acceptable); vehicle registration number; names and number of other occupants of your vehicle, their MS membership numbers and phone numbers.
If you have to change the date of your visit, you must advise MS of the change before you go. The same applies if you change your vehicle or the members of your party change.
The code should not be passed to any third party. If anyone asks you to leave the gate open, politely refuse, and re-scramble the padlock code. If they are MS members, they will understand your actions as they will also have the correct code.
Treat this as you would treat security entry to a shared block of flats. Don't let a moment a selfishness or thoughtlessness ruin it for the majority.
*Members should email MS at email@example.com call 01738 493942 between 10.00am and 3pm, Monday to Thursday. Do not leave your call until the Friday morning or the day of your intended visit as it may not be possible to obtain agreement to your visit by estate staff.