The ruined house of Fedden lies to the west of the Great Glen, behind the great peaks of Meall na Teanga and Sron a’Choire Garbh. These are hill that I see often as I drive up and down the Great Glen. An intriguing track snakes up to the Cam Bealach between the two peaks. I have wanted to see what lies beyond since I first read of Fedden in the 1950 book about the drove roads of the north highlands, D.D.C. Pochin Mould’s ‘The Roads from the Isles’. In days past cattle bound for market in the south would have passed by on their way from Greenfield in Glen Garry to Loch Arkaig, for whence they would be close to Fort William and the West Highland Way south. Fedden translates as ‘wind whistle’ and was described as having been the highest dwelling in Glengarry at just shy of 400 m, inhabited by a wily cailleach (old lady or witch). I was keen to visit this remote and lonely spot.
An incursion of arctic air brought a first taste of winter. The hills were white and my bag was laden with heavy sleeping bag and mat, crampons and ice axe. I approached Fedden not from the west over the Cam Bealach but from the south, from near the eastern end of Loch Arkaig, where a track cuts up a glen. This route was more attractive because it allowed me to avoid carrying my pack over the 600 m Cam Bealach. It also gave me a better choice of hills, not only the Munros, but also a pair of Corbetts and a Graham. In my enthusiasm I imagined climbing them all, pitching my tent near Fedden and making an unencumbered ascent of the Munros and then bagging both Corbetts and Graham the next day.
It didn’t work out that way. I found that the path I intended to follow from the road was closed. As the detour was a lengthy one, I decided to find out how closed it actually was. Up the hill, just out of sight of the car park was a building site, quiet at the weekend. A hydro electric scheme is under construction which will capture the waters of the burn up near the head of the glen and divert them into pipes. The conifer plantation has been felled to make way for this scheme, which has required the construction of wide roads and much earthwork. The highlands is very much a place in flux at present with the majority of my recent excursions having been in the shadow of either wind farm construction or these small hydro schemes.
Though it was the weekend there were quite a few contractors out working in the glen, operating diggers and dumper trucks. One man built a fence wearing an oilskin despite the dry conditions. He may have been a local who knew that it is rare for it to stay dry long enough in this part of the world to make it worth removing your oilskins. Often I had to step aside to allow pick up trucks to crunch past me on the road of refrozen snow. A pair of stalkers surveyed the hillside from their truck, they had clearly been on the hill because black peaty mud glistened on the wheels of an argo cat on a trailer behind.
Beyond the intake weir the last few hundred metres were on muddy track through a dark conifer plantation. 65 years ago Pochin Mould had written of the beauty of the glen, where ‘the birches gave way to the young firs of the Forestry Commission’. The birches have now given way almost completely, only a handful of poor specimens lie on the hillside beyond what remains of the recently felled firs. I imagine the decline of the birch is a consequence of the ballooning deer numbers and resulting overgrazing.
With my first view of the glistening white of the open hillside ahead I paused to reflect on the changing land use of this area over the centuries, from a land alive with cattle to a playground of the wealthy – wire fences designed to prevent the wild deer from straying between estates are in evidence, both the old ones and new ones – the rise of the conifers and now the building works of the renewables industry briefly bringing people to the glens again.
Perhaps it was the unusually heavy pack or the relatively late start, but as I start to squelch and crunch my way across the undulating hillside my will began to creak under the weight of my plans. Footprints revealed the presence of two walkers ahead of me, and I thought I saw them ahead, on the slopes leading to the Cam Bealach. There were two stalkers on ATVs on the opposite side of the fence, their heavy loads of deer carcasses swaying as they negotiated the rough track. I paused on snow-covered stones beside a burn to brew coffee and eat my lunch of oatcakes and cheese. The two walkers strode past, their dog carrying a large stick covered with snow. Their light packs and fast movement made me question my approach. I felt tired and wondered if I might be coming down with a cold. The weather had closed in and dusk seemed close though it was only lunchtime. I walked the further mile to Fedden, a small ruin perched atop a small flat topped knoll above the confluence of two burns. It felt wonderful to have reached this remote spot, and almost unimaginable that it had once been inhabited. What did the Cailleach do for a living up here, surrounded by this sea of bog? It must surely have been less bleak a couple of hundred years ago, perhaps the streak of rushy bog land on the opposite side of the burn had been drained to give a small patch of arable land. The outline of the house and the central chimney were still standing. The front door facing towards the munro led to two small rooms with a hearth in each. In days gone past a peat fire would have burned in each.
I considered my options. Snow showers were closing, shrouding the summits. I could pitch my tent and bag the munro, but the time was already after 1400, leaving two and a half hours of usable daylight, almost certainly not enough. Another option would be to ascend onto the ridge of corbetts above the bothy, pitching somewhere suitable by dusk. I calculated that I would need about 1.5 litres of water for evening and morning and felt unwilling to add the extra weight to my bag. There was a lochan below the final summit but I wasn’t confident of getting there by nightfall and in case it might be frozen solid. I decided to pitch at Fedden and retreat into my sleeping bag, so I stamped and cleared a small area clear of snow and pitched up. I was tucked up by 1430 hrs.
After a short dose I started reading a book on my 6 plus, John McPhee’s ‘Coming into the country’ about his travels in Alaska. It is a long book and though I was enjoying his prose I had struggled to gain traction on it in short bursts before bed. Now was my chance to get into it as light snow tinkled off the flysheet. I ate my dinner of Mountain House spag bol at 1700 and continued reading until around 2130, occasionally looking outside to check conditions. Normally on a trip like this I would take some consciousness altering substance, wine or a lighter alternative, but on this occasion I had nothing. Despite this, when I eventually put in my earplugs and settled down to sleep I was distracted by the sound of muffled music. I knew that I’d switched off my phone so it couldn’t be real. It sounded like electronica and I wondered if I could use the powers of suggestion to make it sound more like the fiddle music of a ghostly ceilidh, as the cailleach entertained passing drovers by a peat fire in the house behind me. When I closed my eyes I was treated to kaleidoscopic eyelid movies of an intensity only previously experienced after taking psychedelics, an unexpected delight that I attribute to retinal stimulation from reading on a phone screen for 7 hours straight in a dark tent.
McPhee captured a unique period in Alaskan history, after the discovery of oil but before the pipeline allowed oil to flow out and significant quantities of money in. He devoted a long chapter to a wilderness canoe journey in the Brooks Range in the north of the state, another to a description of urban Alaska, the Capital Juneau, down in the south of the state, closer to British Columbia than the rest of Alaska, Fairbanks in the centre and Anchorage up in the north. The next to ‘the country’, small communites of Circle and Eagle and remote cabins on the Yukon River. I was reminded of a once strong and sure to return urge to spend some time in Alaska, and was heartened that McPhee likened the tundra country around anchorage to the bare hills of Scotland. I was glad that I didn’t have to concern myself with grizzly bears, and content that I was able to access remote country without recourse to a float plane. The book was full of wonderful stories of wild country and larger than life characters, and I was glad to have had an uninterrupted 7 hours in which to read it.
Milder air, still cold and damp, washed over me as I slept, taking much of the snow with it. After 18 hours in the horizontal I was recharged and invigorated and left my camp in the half light at 0730 after a breakfast of porridge and coffee. I ascended straight up the steep west face of Meall na Tagraidh, upon the pointed summit of which Bonnie Prince Charlie took refuge for several days and nights, during which he sheltered from the rain beneath a plaid with Cameron of Clunes, who brought whisky, cheese and bread to sustain him. An eagle soared above, white flashes beneath its wings revealing it to be a juvenile golden eagle.
Fedden lies near the watershed. A small loch a kilometre to the north drains both west to Loch Linnhe via Loch Lochy and east to the Moray Firth via Loch Garry and Loch Ness. There is a story of the cailleach of Fedden, that her house lay near a stream that marked the boundary between the lands of Glengarry and Locheil, and that with a little spadework she was able to divert it to either side depending on which rent collector was due to stop by. Having been on the ground I suspect this to be a tall tale, for it would take more than spade work to get a stream near Fedden to flow anywhere other than to the west.
Pink clouds grazed the nearby summits as I waited for daybreak. I had another three summits to visit on my ridge and I descended into a thin mist before its rays could warm my face. In the cloud I followed the tracks of a fox, and disturbed a couple of white arctic hares. The sky cleared as I neared the final bealach and I climbed the final top in bright sunshine with snowy peaks all around, many of them imprinted on my memory from previous adventures. I brewed chai, sweetened with condensed milk, to fortify me for the long descent to the van and home.