My last web log was , on reflection a bit premature. We finally got away to Loch Tay in Scotland and had a good time visiting the Triple stone circles of Fortingall, Croft Moraig (almost) , the Falls of Acharn and Kinnell all of which are in and around Loch Tay. Apologies for the length of this post but it contains lots of pointers on what to do if you would like to make a similar journey.
I have this strange desire to turn right at Callander but wee malky and Jon shout at me and I have to swing left in, what to my mind, is the totally opposite direction to where we want to go and we're finally on the home straight to Loch Tay. Up on the surrounding hills I can see small holiday cabins that we leave behind as the road twists and turns into Killin and the falls of Dochart. Its 7.30pm. First point to note for those of you who wish to follow in our steps is the fact that the bridge over the falls is a single track. Whoever is on the bridge first has right of way which seems to work fine even though this sleepy little town is the main tourist attraction in the area and should by rights be a horrendous bottleneck for traffic. I don't drive that much and as we pull into the car park first right after the bridge I get a pang of conscience that we are here to visit some of the Neolithic sites but arrive in the earth destroying carriage that is my Car. What I guess I'm trying to say is 'Would Julian Approve? After all it was his book which pointed us in this direction but even the arch drude has to drive so I tell myself its okay.
If you are planning on camping on the sides of Loch Tay then there is only one side that this is possible on. It's the Southern side which is accessible by a single-track road signposted on your right as you come in to Killin from Glasgow. It has a rather ominous Stone Archway that leads into a dark tunnel at its entrance and you do get a sense of being off the beaten track as soon as you drive through it. There is a large white sign saying that the road is unsuitable for large vehicles such as buses and trucks. Now I have already said that I'm not that much of a driver but single-track roads really scare me. There is always the possibility of meeting someone coming the other way at the most awkward point and having to reverse back, back, back and crunch into some tree or other but we had no choice. It was either that or take one of the campsites owned by 'the man' and if anything we were doing this to get away from 'the man'. We drove down leafy lanes and passing places glimpsing amazing looking homes through the trees. Each of us were thinking the same thing the further we drove; where the hell are the decent campsites and in addition I was thinking where am I going to park? After fifteen minutes we came to a couple of old transit vans parked at an angle in the dirt and I squeezed the car in beside them. Down a dirt track to a sandy beach there was already two tents pitched. Jon said 'Oh no ….kids' and sure enough there they were running through the trees. On our right I bare-chested man with dragon tattoos down each arm was holding a can of lager and staring out at the loch. When he saw us he stood up and I could see he was absolutely plastered. It wasn't that warm but his face was covered in a bright sheen of sweat and his skin looked like it had been stretched across his face in a way that made him look both surprised and menacing at the same time. I remember as we turned around and walked back up the track that I felt we had to say something to him rather than just walk away. So I stupidly turned around and said 'We're just looking for a campsite' As soon as I said it I realised it sounded pathetic and when he grunted something back I also realised that he either hadn't heard me, hadn't understood a word I'd said or wasn't interested anyway and was just beginning to get pissed off with the fact that he'd had to get up from his seat and look over in our direction.
This wasn't boding well. Jon said "I bet you there's neds all the way up here at every possible place to camp". We drove on and came to a lay-by with a place to park about 5 mins later. All 3 of us jumped the fence and walked down the steep incline to the campsite made in heaven – a little stony beach, a small wooden pier, a glorious view of the loch and a giant pile of rubbish pushed up against a tree. Rubbish left by the previous tenants. When I say rubbish I mean everything including pots and pans charred from the fire and discarded with everything else. Neds. I thought. Bloody Neds and not even lets-get-away-for-a-weekend-but-Pa-taught-me to-respect-the-countryside kind of ned. No, it was the worst kind. I tried not to get angry as we set up for the night but (audible sigh), some people shouldn't be allowed out. Above us on the road a giant truck filled with bleating sheep roared past and I thought two things. Thank god I didn't meet that head on and 'he's breaking the rules about large vehicles on the road. Then I thought maybe we had reached somewhere where the rules didn't apply. Someone had taken those sane runnels that we all trundle down day to day and driven a chisel right across them. We built a fire and slowly I warmed up.
The 'gloaming' is that part of dusk before the sunlight truly vanishes and it found us sitting at the fire poring over the map of Loch Tay. The plan was to drive the fast road down towards Kenmore at the other end of the loch but take a detour to the Fortingall Yew which I'd always wanted to see and check out the Fortingall triple stone circles while we were there. On then to the Stones at Croft Moraig and then back on the South road stopping off at Acharn to climb up to the Stone circle at the Falls of Acharn. Then on finally to the jewel in the crown –the stone circle at Kinnel just outside Killin. Full Circle back to what we expected would be the highlight of the weekend.
In the morning Wee malky and Jon were raring to go but I felt lousy. It was a hangover and not just any hangover but a real cracker. My head was splitting and at times I felt like throwing up. Why had I drunk beer? I hate beer. I always get really pissed on beer but for some reason it just seemed to be the right thing to drink as I had sat on my Tesco 5.99 camping seat looking out over the darkening loch finally at peace with the world. Idiot. Now I would have to drive probably still half cut and feeling shitty. We set off at a slow and shaky pace back to Killin. I hadn't drunk lucozade for about 25 years but suddenly it seemed the right thing for a hangover so we stopped for provisions and then on the Fortingall. The Fortingall Yew is the oldest living thing in Europe and one of the oldest living things in the world. It squats across a small patch of earth surrounded by a stone wall in the churchyard surrounded by lots of old curiosities such as the old church spire but seems 'above' them all. Not in an aloof way, looking imperiously down its metaphorical nose at the young whippersnappers around it but impervious to them all by dint of its age. Its oooooooooooooooooold. Really old. Its as old as the Neolithic sites we were bent on visiting and this knowledge made it a wonderful thing to behold. It was a living connection to those ancient times and I imagined an old gnarled root twisting its way back to 3000BC with the sap slowly rising towards modern times. Jon pointed out the small ribbons tied to its branches and I wished I'd brought a ribbon too. Even now I still feel moved by the memory and embarrassingly teary. What was it that got me? I don't know. Maybe some things are best not analysed.
Down the road 5 minutes are the three rings of Fortingall. A triangle of small circles with 3 stones in each. Three. It's the number of the Christian triumvirate and more ancient still the three aspects of the earth mother. I got the same feeling as I had the previous year at Achnabreck in the Kilmartin valley. At first they didn't seem that special. The mind denies their statement but when you get up close and lay a hand on the cool rough stone flanks you realise that these are plumbing the same vein as modern day works of art that overwhelm with the thought of how just how much time went into making them. I immediately tried to imagine these three set amongst a clearing surrounded by trees. As spectacular as the hills around seemed it wasn't the same view those ancient people had viewed and I dearly wanted to get that connection, to mainline on it. I thought of the ancient yew brooding up on the small rise above us and realised that it would have been a sprightly young sapling when these stones were brought here.
From Fortingall to Kenmore and the Stones at Croft Moraig. The Stones are on the road out of Kenmore heading North. Be warned . They are about 5 mins outside town but this is a fast road with cars bobbing around behind trying to overtake. As we roared past with a snake of cars behind us wee milky spotted them on our right looking absolutely spectacular and with a wedding party slap bang in the middle of them. Yes, a wedding was taking place in the stones. There was nowhere safe to stop and turn so we had to keep on driving until I spotted a sign for some garden that was open to the public and slowed the car down to turn in. This must have come as a surprise to the stupid b**tard who I belatedly realised had been dogging my bumper for the last few minutes as I had frantically tried to spot a turning spot He almost ran into the back of me and had the gall to stare pointedly at me as he roared past. Hey back off buddy. If you can read this (imagine a middle finger pointed to the sky) you're too close! We drove back but the stones were unattainable. The wedding droned on and as as uncharitable as it may seem I was annoyed. After all we'd come all this way. Everybody had their backs to me except for one of the bridesmaids. I had expected some sort of pagan outfit but she looked like all bridesmaids do and when I realised that there was a minister reading out the vows I thought of the way the church had always tried to Christianise these places. This, so I had been led to believe was an old practise frowned upon by the modern church but here it was in front of me. A Christian wedding right in the middle of a pagan place. So, you future travellers take note. Drive slowly out of Kenmore and do it during the week otherwise I'm pretty sure there will be a wedding on.
Turning back to Kenmore we took the south loch side road again. This time from the top of the loch. Acharn is about ten minutes drive with a small shop selling pies and basic supplies. The family who owned it sat outside with the children running around and looked for all the world like the Clampits set down in rural Scotland. Ma was a whizz with the macaroni pies and obliging with information about the falls of Acharn. "It's a hard steep walk that doesn't last that long". If I had any other advice to add I would say that you'll need walking boots or stout shoes for this one and, as I'll explain later, a dogged determination to get the stone circle as it'll test you to the limit. On the way a giant dragonfly buzzed Jon and we all stopped to stare as it weaved its way like a drunken helicopter down the steep path and out of sight. You only see dragonflies this size when you are truly in the Scottish hills and it lifted my spirits and my hangover to see it. I could recount the falls of Acharn for you but suffice to say they were spectacular and well worth the climb. At the top of the path just past the falls the path splits and curves off up the hill in two different directions. Don't look at the map like we did as these won't be marked properly and you'll no doubt decide to set off across the field in front of you towards what you think is going to be the right way to the Stone circle. Wrong. Unlike us you will carry on up the hill taking the right hand path which cunningly curves to the left when its out of sight and takes you across a sheep strewn field eventually meeting up with another path. Don't double back like we did, doubting your map reading skills and silently cursing under your breath which by now is laboured from the constant up and down of your confused meander across the fields filled with cow pats. No, take a right as the paths converge and carry on up the hill. Don't think as we did ' this can't be the way. I can't see the remains of the ancient settlements on the distant hill. Lets turn back and walk all the way back to the falls'. No, don't do that. Carry on up the hill, up, up until you see the horizon and the path vanishing over it. Then and only then will you stumble up over the rise and notice up on your right the remains of the Stone circle of Acharn. It was just like an artists impression of a ruined stone circle high up the hills. You stumble up the hill to it and at first it underwhelms you. You turn around and look at Loch Tay spread out below running left to right with the tiny boats leaving faint lines behind them like fingers tracing a line on a frosty window and it blows your mind. This was the place. This was the 'perfect moment' I had been looking for. As I looked at the circle, ruined now with one stone lying on its side and one stone almost certainly broken up I saw it as it had once been. Complete, majestic and magical. If you visit the Neolithic sites of Loch Tay you must make this journey.
Dusk had begun by the time we dragged ourselves away and made our way slowly down the hill. The drive along the loch side should have been a sombre affair as we reflected on the days events but instead it was all eyes to the windows to spot a place to camp. On we drove until we came to the same spot we had camped out at the previous night to find all the parking spaces gone and the glint of firelight far below. Jon had really wanted to build another fire but every single camping spot had gone. Be warned future travellers. Eventually we made our way round past Killin to the first paying campsite outside the village. It had a dark and unwelcoming feel to it so we turned the car around and drove out and still North along the loch side to the second campsite which was big and roomy. Wee milky went into the farmhouse to see the owner who was profoundly deaf but a lovely man and we camped down for the night.
7.14am. The tent next to ours which is a Vango mega-family tent and looks supremely comfortable starts to blare out radio Scotland. The sound of it wakes me with a start and as I wake I slowly begin to realise why wee malky and Jon were so keen to camp by the loch and not here where we have no choice who we end up sharing our space with. On the Saturday we'd already asked about how to get to the Kinnell stones and had been told that it was polite to ask permission at the 'big house' before going to see them. There is a road beside the pub at the Falls of Dochart which leads into the trees and past 'The Yellow House' which describes it quite well. Carry on along this road and you'll come to an impressive tree lined driveway which stretches out in front of you like a long walk up to the headmasters office. I must admit to feeling some trepidation about asking permission. It wasn't helped by our arrival at the main gates into the grounds that had a cattle grid between imposing stone pillars topped by weather worn but still fierce lions. They no doubt were looking down and laughing at us and our reaction to the sign attached to the gate that said:
"Danger. Electricity. This Cattle Grid is electrified. Cars Drive over. Pedestrians Grip the handle provided".
The handle was a rubber rod which swung lazily beside the now (in my mind ) buzzing iron grid ready to frazzle our feet and see us dance the tarantella. "No way am I crossing that". "What happens if you let go before you step off…?". These sorts of questions were raised until we realised that there is another iron gate beside this open one which isn't electrified and which can be climbed in safety. The 'big house' lives up to its name with an enormous greenhouse stretching out one side surrounded by high vegetation. It all looked a bit decadent and I half expected to catch a glimpse of the old colonel from 'The Big Sleep' spraying water on some evil looking orchid from his wheelchair. It all turned out a lot less romantic in reality. "You here to see the stones..?" "Yeah if that's alright " "Okay, just make sure you close the fence behind you". That was it. So we duly climbed the wall and were met by the imposing and magical Kinnell Stone circle. I'm not going to say much more about the details as these have been well documented but what descriptions don't say is how different each stones are. They each have their own character and one in particular seems to be pocked with pink quartz measles which stand out on the stone and are the weirdest thing to run your hand over. Every stone we noticed had a shiny area where many hands over the years has rubbed the stonework to a bright lustre. We sat in the high grass with the sun peeking out from behind the low lying cloud and drunk in the majesty of this spot. Its been gentrified that's true. The farm must be a fairly recent addition in the life of these stones but these stones were placed here for the same reason a grand house was built a couple of hundred yards away. There is something special about this area in much the same way as there was with the Fortingall circles and the Falls of Acharn. If there is one thing the ancient people were good at it was finding the best spots. There are a couple of large boulders in the middle of the ring which look like they were placed there recently as seats to sit on and commune with the circle and whatever powers it draws down. I felt a bit uncomfortable with this not because of the whole new age aspect but that the 'sacredness' of this place had been tampered with. Tell me I'm being daft but the stark simplicity of the circle, unadorned, is to my mind the point of building it. It's the serpent swallowing its tail. Not the serpent swallowing its tail with seats to observe the spectacle.
Sadly we walked back along the avenue of trees and drove home. I would recommend this trip to anyone as there are a lot of sites to visit in the area, all within an easy drive. As we arrived at Callander I finally got to turn right this time…. going back to Glasgow and home.
The thought of a Chambered Cairn may not excite you compared with some of the other places mentioned on this web site but the StockieMuir Chambered Cairn was worth the walk. It sits high up on the side of a Glen that rolls down for miles in a gentle slope to the banks of Loch Lomond. A better view can be had from the unusual rock formation that sits higher up the hill from us called the 'Whangie' but by the time we'd battled across the boggy ground to get here our new view seemed more worthwhile. The rocks that form this Cairn undoubtably came from the Whangie but here there is a river nearby and is obviously a good place for settlement. We did debate whether people settled near their dead but wherever it was they didn't want to travel to far to bury them hence this Cairn. The Chambers have collapsed to form distinct indentations along its length but for all that its is 'ruined' it still impressed the hell out of me. How could I have lived in this area all my life and walked the nearby Queens view many times and never known this was here? Its a lot larger than the pictures seem to suggest. Take your directions from Greyweathers postings and don't do what we did which was to walk 'as the crow flies' straight at it. The going is heavy and the heather hides a few nasty surprises such as boggy holes in which to sink your legs knee deep.
Posted by twinny
28th July 2003ce
Edited 10th September 2004ce