Published 19th June 2022, 13:21

    MY abiding memory of Auchnafree Hill is a January trek on a bulldozed track across a vast expanse of heather and peat bog, a thin coating of snow and ice the only cause for any smidgen of enthusiasm.

    This less than inspiring trudge high above the shores of Loch Turret more than 20 years ago was an afterthought from an ascent of the Munro Ben Chonzie which started at the dam above Crieff.

    Second time round, the Corbetts demand a fresh approach. Instead of a mere ticking exercise, this would be an exploration of hidden corners and rugged slopes riven with steep gullies and little cascades. There would be still be the heather and bog to contend with on the plateau but reaching it would be a whole different experience.

    The scene was set by the journey through the beautiful Sma' Glen, a pass often likened to Glen Coe in miniature, where rough slopes and craggy faces squeeze in from either side and the horizon is a constant procession of V-shapes.

    From Newton Bridge, the track that mirrors the River Almond was shared with an army of hairy caterpillars and bustling black beetles. The alarm cries of oystercatchers pierced the air as they wheeled and darted overhead frenetically, their sound interspersed with the more measured offerings of curlew and the call of a cuckoo lurking somewhere in the trees.

    The glen was an absorbing verdant mix of the pastoral and the precipitous, sheep and cattle grazing on lush grasses, clumps of trees clinging on desperately to cliff edges. 

    My first target lay across the river high in Coire Chultrain, a cave said to have been used as a hide-out for raiders who preyed on travellers and cattle drovers passing on the road below. It is also suggested they may have resorted to cannibalism in leaner times. The cave is somewhat puzzlingly marked on the OS map as Thiefs Cave; presumably these raiders even managed to steal the apostrophe.

    The actual location of this particular cave is hard to pinpoint. There are several contenders in the massive jumble of rocks, hollows and trees on the back wall of the corrie, the most likely spot being where there has been a fall of a huge boulders which has collapsed the cave and blocked the entrance. To add to the confusion, there have been suggestions the cave is located to the south-west on the impressive Eagle's Rock, and even that it may be a standalone outcrop you pass further down the corrie, although it's hard to see how anyone could manage to remain unseen for long in that shallow gap.

    The slopes beyond the cave area felt remote: they were mainly grassy but steep and a fair bit of zig-zagging was needed to find the easiest lines. As I rose, I watched a golden eagle circling above the ridge-line, there one minute, gone the next. The angle eased on the way to Stonefield Hill, a Corbett Top with several points of similar height which all needed a visit just to be sure, the piercing echo of a lone plover accompanying me round.

    I could see tiny figures on the top of Choinneachain Hill, the nearest I would get to human contact all day, but decided to take a direct line towards the summit of Auchnafree Hill through patches of surprisingly solid black bog, ankle deep heather and a healthy explosion of cloudberry in bloom.

    Then, another curiosity. I spotted a figure on the skyline ahead, arms waving but otherwise static. The undulating terrain in between us meant I lost sight of it at times, but I was constantly gaining ground. The figure hadn't moved.

    When I topped the last rise I could see why. It was a female mannequin, staked in place and dressed in luminous yellow work gear, a heathland scarecrow designed to keep the birds away from grouse eggs. It was slightly eerie: I could imagine the potential for a real night fright if I had come across something similar on one of my nocturnal outings.

    I passed the two cairns at the summit and dropped off the other side, the track steepening and twisting to the floor of the glen and the long march out. So there you have it, a satisfying revisit of discovery and some mystery. 

    Or, as the film director Peter Greenaway might have titled it: The cuckoo, the thief, his cave and a plover.