Every year for the past 13 years, my 4 sons and I have gone off for a few days into the mountains of Scotland to walk up Munros which are hills over the height of 3000 feet or 912 metres. There are 282 Munros (I know several people who have “bagged” them all) and while I had already done about 50 with a group of teaching colleagues (the Lofty Peakers) the boys and I have chalked up about 50 more. This may not seem like a lot but we only have time to go out for 3 days every year. We have bagged 7 of the highest 10 which are all over 4000 feet as well, so have been putting together a decent collection of Munros.

Walking on the hills of Scotland, enjoying a healthy, free pursuit, is not the only reason why I organize this every summer however. It gives me also a fantastic opportunity to be together with my four sons away from the girls and the children and all the other distractions of daily life which demand of their attention and time. I am therefore able to talk to each of them individually and hopefully find out the honest truth about how their lives are going, their hopes and fears for the future and whether there are any issues needing to be tackled. Thankfully I tend to come back from the hills a lot less worried about any of them!

For this year’s weekend away, I had chosen to take on Mount Keen near Edzell in Angus on the Friday. This meant asking the boys if they could get that day off work, but they had all managed it before George had to pull out at the last minute after getting an interview for a promotion. Scott actually came over to the flat on the Thursday evening after work in Falkirk so Mary and I had the opportunity to catch up with him then. But we were up bright and early on Friday morning to prepare our sandwiches, pack our rucksacks and drive up to Gavin’s house in Arbroath where we were to have the night together. The three of us then drove to Edzell where we joined up with Greg in his car and we took both vehicles to a car-park in the village of Auchronie, from where our walk would begin.

But wait! There was something unusual about it this year. Now let me think: same boots, same sandwiches, same rucksack, same car. Got it! The rain. It wasn’t! Yes, for almost the first time in 13 years, the sky was a uniform blue and the temperature was up around 20 Celsius. So much so, that we all lubed up with sun block before heading off up the track, having also made sure that each of us had a couple of litres of water to keep us going. We knew of course that there would be opportunities to replenish our stocks in the numerous streams cascading down the steep hills.

Day 1 Mount Keen

The first 2 miles were pretty much over the flat and we soon reached “The Queen’s Well”, a memorial arch where Queen Victoria is said to have stopped for a drink on one of her sorties out into the Scottish countryside (probably on a horse in the company of John Brown). Shortly afterwards we began the plod skywards via a fairly steep bulldozed track. The boys were soon striding ahead leaving an ever-growing gap between me and them so they reverted to our policy of “helping Dad get his arse up to the top” by taking turns at dropping back to keep me company and keep me focused on the strenuous task in hand. Thankfully all these steep hills eventually let go and the gradient becomes lighter, allowing a time for recovery before the next challenge. That’s how it was on Mount Keen, as the hill relented and we all joined up again to bandy anecdotes as we approached the summit, a rocky and quite steep mound.

When the going gets tough (I fall behind!)

Mount Keen bagged!

As always, we shook hands at the top, placed a stone on the cairn and took some photos for posterity and our own records. Lunch was a ham sandwich, a couple of pork pies, some crisps and an apple for me, while the boys displayed an amazing variety of dietary elements according to their own regimes and tastes. Scott was “Mr. Health” himself, Gavin ate normal healthy stuff and Greg had a couple of cigarettes! No longer do they get tucked into different packets of “Pop Tarts” which for several years were the lunch of choice at the summits. I never really understood that! After lunch, for the first time, we were able to just stretch out on the ground and enjoy the warm sunshine on our bodies. We had splendid views through 360 degrees north and west towards Ballater, Royal Deeside and Glenshee, and south and east towards the coast which, unknown to us, had failed to shrug off the veil of mist which we had left behind as we drove inland from Gavin’s.

The Queen’s Well

Coming back down was, as is always the case, painful for me with my knees but easier on the lungs and legs in general. As we passed, we stopped at the Queen’s Well again to take some photos and, half an hour later, we were back at the cars. A short stop at a supermarket in Brechin for beer and nibbles was necessary before we arrived back at Gavin’s and settled in. Granddaughter Arry had gone next door to her other grandparents and Gavin’s wife Eve was away for the night to a show in Dundee, so we had the place to ourselves and, after showers and a change of clothes, we got stuck into the beer while Gavin rustled up one of his famous Spag Bols but made with Quorn mince to accommodate George’s vegetarian lifestyle. George himself arrived around six o’clock to join in the evening meal with us. He had no news of how he had done in the interview but admitted it had been very tough to negotiate in terms of multiple questions, tasks to analyse and deliver upon and theoretical challenges to manage. We had all crossed our fingers for him but felt it was fine to uncross them now.

The night progressed as it often does when all four of the boys are together, freed from their female life companions. It just got sillier and sillier, especially after Gavin called upon his computerized manager to play some background music. Once we all realised that it would respond to our voices we were off and running, asking ludicrous questions of it, sometimes getting ridiculous answers and often loving how it played us exactly what we wanted almost immediately. I sat and mused that I was witnessing a scene which would have been regarded as Sci-Fi when I was a teenager: you speak to a wee box on the table and it plays songs you want to hear; you ask difficult questions and the box tells you the answers. It even apologizes when it can’t find the answer to a question!

As now tends to be the case after 5 or 6 bottles of beer, it was me who put his thumbs up first and dragged myself upstairs to bed. The boys continued for a bit longer but I don’t think they were very late, considering we’d agreed to all get up at 06.30 the next morning. When the alarm woke me just before six-thirty, George was lying on the other side of the double bed. I had obviously been sound asleep by the time he came up. We all showered, ate breakfast, made up sandwiches and packed our back-packs then Scott joined me in my car while George drove off with Gavin as co-pilot, leaving Greg to make his way to Pitlochry alone. We arrived as ever later than we had anticipated and pressed on to the access point of the Beinn ‘a’ Ghlo range where I was relieved to find spaces in the small parking area for all three of our vehicles. And off we went. The walk-in was flat and easy, we found the hut, crossed the stile and started the ascent but before long the going got tough for me and even for Gavin who thankfully shrugged off his sore back and raced ahead. Scott was my saviour, slipping back to talk me through the steepest part of the mountain and get me to the cairn, after which it was ok.

Munroamers Day 2

Carn Liath

With the first Munro in our pockets (Carn Liath), and the weather continuing just like yesterday, the best we’ve ever had on the Munroamers, we settled down for lunch, took a few pics, admired the wonderful views then followed the path down to the bealach. The descent was steeper than we had imagined and it went on longer as well, leaving us with quite a steep walk back up to the second peak. Shortly after we started back up, I hit the wall and eyed the path back down to the car park with serious interest. But this time it was Greg who stayed with me and he very quietly encouraged me to take it 10 metres at a time with a minute rest in between. We repeated this rhythm over and over and suddenly the pain dissipated and I knew I was going to complete the climb. A couple of false summits tried my resolve but Greg stuck by me (he always sticks by folk!) and we all met up at the top. This mountain had a ridiculous name which none of us could get anywhere near pronouncing but it was spelt like this “Braigh Coire Chrunn-bhalgain.”. Two down, but what about the third?

Summit view

Well, as we set off down to the next bealach (a low point between two hills), I was the first to come out and say I’d done enough and intended heading down the valley following a path from the bealach. Greg was quick to join me and surprisingly both George and Gavin agreed that the two mountains were quite enough and that the third would have to wait for another day. But Scott, the fitness fanatic, was a whole different story. He quickly asked for permission to leave the group and go it alone up the third peak ………. running!! We don’t normally like any of the five of us to go off on their own as there are multiple opportunities for things to go wrong out on the hills, but Scott reckoned he could get up to the summit, back down the mountain and catch up with us on the descent path within about half an hour.

So we let him go and set off down the steep valley. As usual it was torture on our knees but how much worse would it have been if the weather hadn’t dried up most of the boggy patches and kept the streams to a trickle? Just as predicted, about 30 minutes later, as we reached the flat path leading back to the car park, Scott came racing up behind us and for a moment I thought he was going to sprint right past us and keep that up until the end. But even he was glad to put the brakes on and join us as we trudged back along a path that seemed to go on for ever before we finally saw the sun gleaming off the roofs of the cars next to a wee forest and we knew we were finished for the day. Thank God!

There was an embarrassing few minutes when I couldn’t get the name of the hotel we were staying in from my emails, necessitating a call to Mary who rescued me quickly, allowing us to head straight for Craigvrackie where we would be spending the night in two rooms. But being ever-so-slightly later than we had imagined arriving, and needing to shower and change, we were left with either having our evening meal in town, or starving and seeing the World Cup match in our room. We resolved this dilemma by ordering pizza and curry locally and staying together in the family room. George and Greg went and got beers again and the evening was spent in front of the TV watching the footie. Having missed a classic France v Argentina game that afternoon we hoped for a repeat and nearly got it as Croatia knocked Ronaldo’s Portugal out by 2-1. Shortly after the end of the game, it was Dad again who flagged first and fell asleep, fortunately on the bed I was meant to occupy.

Sunday started with me turning in my bed and knocking a half-eaten curry off the bedside cabinet and all over the carpet, giving me a tricky clean-up job to start the day. Fortunately it was almost all Pilau rice and no sauce which probably saved us an explanation to the owners. We all had a great breakfast, paid up and left for Blair Atholl again similar to yesterday, only today we drove to the caravan site where we had booked mountain bikes to cycle up Glen Tilt and take on our final Munro for this year. “The best laid plans of mice and men ……!” The bikes were secured, we donned our hard hats and off we went through a part of the town and into the glen.

Ready to pedal!

Had I known how steep it was going to be I wouldn’t have hired a bike at all. But I did manage to push/ride it uphill for about 5 kilometres before admitting defeat and sending the boys away to enjoy themselves despite their protests that I would be freewheeling downhill on a country track all by myself. To tell the truth, the ride back was totally exhilarating as I picked up speed and tried not to fly off into a hedge or over an escarpment. I got back to the campsite safe and sound, had a cup of tea and wandered around the site, talking to caravanners sitting out in the lovely sunshine. In what seemed like no time at all (I was actually checking the campsite plumbing if you get my drift!) the boys were back having decided to take a rain check on the final mountain and just enjoy a breakneck descent back down the glen. They appeared to have had a great time on the bikes and I think we’ll be repeating the adventure on future Munroamers.

Me going back

They seem happy!

Scott and I drove back to Dundee and chilled out while Greg drove Gavin back to Arbroath over the Moulin Moors road and George drove himself down from Pitlochry via the A9 around Perth. The weekend was completed when Scott set off back to Keira in Falkirk and I had just enough energy to drive down to the station to collect Mary who had sneaked off to see her sisters in Newcastle while we were up the hills. Via Social Media we all thanked each other for a brilliant weekend and voted Munroamers 2018 a huge success with 3 Munros bagged (4 for Scott) and a day of mountain-biking.

Roll on next year!

Gav happy

The End of Munroamers 2018