OCTOBER 20, the last day of the main deer stalking season in Scotland. It's also one of my favourite days of the year.
There is a link but probably not the one you think. Put aside the arguments for and against the annual stag cull for a moment – I'm not going down that road.
No, it's more a relief that mountain access is less muddied again. For a few weeks every year, some areas become more problematic, especially in the more hectic, final days of shooting.
Most of the main Munro routes are fine – and our enlightened access laws have much to do with this – but I'm a little more wary when planning a walk on some of the smaller or less frequented hills.
We may have the right to responsible access but there's always a niggle that the day's plans could be spoiled, no matter how polite the request to choose another route may be.
I suppose that's why I was so conflicted last week when heading off for a couple of days in Ardgour. I had definite plans. Then I didn't. And when I set off early in the morning, I actually didn't have any plan at all. I just drove towards Fort William, hoping I could figure something out before I ran out of road.
I was staying at the Corran bunkhouse, and planned leaving the car over the water to travel back and forwards on the ferry for free. The first day's walk was supposed to have been at Kingairloch, but the road had been shut by a landslide so it was dubious whether I could now reach my starting point. Besides, because the hill route there is so compact, there may be shooting parties where I hoped to walk.
The next option was to go along the Mallaig road to Callop, and then walk over the high pass into the Cona Glen, but it's a long walk into another stalking hot spot. Anyway, as I was trying to decide whether to go for it, the heavens opened and the rain pounding on the car roof made up my mind: move on to Plan C.
I did a little bit of recce work on future start points for hills, then decided to take the beautiful path from Polnish into the bothy at Peanmeanach. There was a lot of standing water and much mud, but the views were sensational, from high above Loch nan Uamh and its islands, over to the Rois-Bheinn mountain circuit; weaving my way through sections of delightful woodland, lochans and rock slabs to emerge at this shelter with the most idyllic beachfront setting.
There were lots of visitors; lone walkers, couples, families and dogs, and the massed ranks of an Outward Bound expedition on their way out, but it never felt compromised and there was a pleasing absence of litter.
Shame the same couldn't be said of the starting point. I spotted a bottle in the trees and went to pick it up. Then I saw others. The further I ventured back from the road, the more rubbish there was scattered around. I gave up – this would need a team of pickers. It was disappointing to finish such a stunning day on a sour note.
Next morning I boarded the ferry in darkness, then made the short drive to Glen Tarbert. I had emailed the head stalker here the day before as a precaution (like most people, I am allergic to stray bullets), and got a prompt and very helpful reply which removed any nagging doubts on my route.
I must admit that any time I have contacted an estate about access, the results have been encouraging. On one occasion, they went out of their way to be helpful, to the point of calling me back and suggesting I could drive much further up the glen than normally allowed.
This walk was so autumnal it should have carried an October copyright. The landscape was wall to wall russet, skies pale grey, mists hanging lazily across the shoulders of the hills.
From every direction came the roaring of stags. The first sounded like fingernails being scraped across a metal tray. They were just getting warmed up. The range of sound was incredible – sometimes a roar, other times a loud bark or deep lowing.
I took the long ridge to Sgorr Mhic Eacharna, continued over to pointed Beinn Bheag and then made the long diversion out to Sgurr nan Cnamh before returning under the dark, menacing buttresses of Ardgour's finest, Garbh Bheinn.
The sun never shone but that just made the day more beautiful as the mist swirled around. At times it appeared to be a living entity, enjoying providing surprises along the way; putting one arm around my shoulders and the other over my eyes, before taking then away to reveal another spectacular view.
I was certainly glad that my new friend Misty was in a playful mood. The route to Sgurr nan Cnamh lies over complex ground that could prove a problem in zero visibility. I made it back to the col and was halfway down the corrie when the drizzle moved in, but as soon as I had put on my waterproofs it stopped again.
The roaring accompanied me all the way back to the car, but at least I was spared the echo of gunshots. I had moved from a state of confusion to one of tranquillity in just over 24 hours.