Monday, 5 October 2009

The White Shepherd: Walking the Strathfarrar Hills

The weekend saw the appearance of the 'white shepherd', a name for the first snows of winter derived from their effectiveness at flushing grazing sheep from the high tops. The phrase dates back to a bygone era; it was the roaring of stags rather than the bleating of sheep that provided the soundtrack to Sunday's traverse of the ridge separating Strathfarrar from Glen Orrin.



The 'white shepherd': the first snows of winter on Sgur na Lapaich at the head of Glen Strathfarrar


I read about the white shepherd in the book 'Isolation Shepherd', Iain Thomson's delightful account of the years he spent as a regular shepherd in the upper reaches of Glen Strathfarrar. He was to be the last to experience this lifestyle, for the glen changed forever when Loch Monar was dammed as part of a hydroelectric scheme in the 1960s, consigning his Strathmore croft and its few acres of arable land to a watery grave. Even if the loch had not been dammed it is unlikely the softened population of today could produce people hardy enough to live the life that Thomson described, capable of working the land and raising a family so far from the comfort and convenience of civilisation.


View west along the Strathfarrar ridge to Loch Monar


Even before I became captivated by Thomson's prose, the glen captured my imagination by virtue of its inaccessibility. Vehicular access is strictly controlled by a gatekeeper who lives in a cottage beside the padlocked gate. She grants access only during British Summer Time, and even then only between particular hours, lending to the glen the air of a forbidden kingdom. This medieval arrangement is a legacy of the public money used to upgrade the glen's 20 odd km of single track road during the construction of the hydro scheme. Under the terms of a deal brokered by SNH the estates are obliged to grant access to a maximum of 25 cars per day.


Snow flurries over Glen Cannich


When walking through this country it is easy to become sentimental about the past, to lament the passing of a simpler and less commercial age. I prefer to celebrate the fact the the human dimension of this splendid tract of country has been documented and preserved. What I do regret is that not all our hills and glens have been blessed with a chronicler of Thomson's eloquence; as their rich social histories fade the lands become barren, gradually turning one man's home to another's wilderness.


Up to date information regarding access arrangements can be found on the Mountaineering Council of Scotland's website.


I was accompanied on this outing by Donald. He has put some good photos on his blog.

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