Scottish Highlands

IT'S all a matter of scale. As we climbed up out of the larch and oak trees into the clearing just before the final ascent, Ben An (or Ben A'an, if you prefer the traditional spelling for this little ``mountain'') looked to me more like Mt. Everest than an ``easy walk,'' as it is described in one old ``Walks of Scotland'' library book.

``That's where we're going,'' said Stuart Knowles, my guide and walk organizer for the morning.

I looked incredulously at the rugged peak. ``Up there]''


He, at any rate, was in no doubt.

We had already, it seemed to my sedentary, city-coddled sensibilities, been excessively heroic. From the convenient parking area by the Trossachs Hotel, near the west end of Loch Achray, we had set off on this ``easy walk.''

Immediately the stony path ``climb[ed] relentlessly,'' as the more realistic 1986 Bartholomew Guide puts it, and I had found myself after only a few minutes drawing in deeper breaths than I had in years. I was grateful, after a while, for the opportunity to pause for a glimpse back at the loch now below us.

Then onward and upward we went, Superman leading. I dug the toes of my brand-new leather walking boots into the peaty ground in the approved manner.

We crossed a gentle, soggy ``burn'' (stream) and wound on through the trees. Mr. Knowles -- a walker and, when not held back by novices, an uphill runner -- expounded something of his philosophy of walking in the countryside. He said he finds it a welcome freedom and change from city life. Those walks interest him most that offer the greatest variety of terrain and scenery; in fact, he had chosen Ben An for our short exploit because of these. And he likes walks with a challenge of some sort.

It's better, he points out, to return by a different route if you can work it out for yourself. (One way is to stick as far as possible to the higher ground so that you can judge your position.) Then the walk takes on an element of adventure, which adds to your sense of achievement.

It can even be fun to get a little lost. Then you might have to resort to your compass, which all walkers in Britain are strongly advised to carry, mainly because of the mists and fogs that can descend without warning.

But as we continued our upward path, the moment of truth arrived. I had no conception of how we would scale this silhouetted pinnacle of sheer rock ahead of us. It would surely require the intrepid skills of a mountaineer.

In fact, there is a well-worn path that climbs up the other, less clifflike side. The Bartholomew Guide sets it out clearly.

But Knowles had somewhat different ideas. We found ourselves scrambling up through deep heather (which actually provides excellent handhold), and, by a process of grasp, yank, and slither, we eventually arrived, triumphant, at the summit.

You can never trust guidebooks entirely. The old library one says that the end of ``this little climb to about 1,200 feet'' is ``an anti-climax, as there are other hills beyond.'' That is not at all what it felt like to me. For one thing, I would have been astounded if there had not been other hills beyond; this is particularly hilly country, the grandeur of the Scottish Highlands within convenient reach of Glasgow and Edinburgh. But I felt in no way disappointed as we sat up there like Edmund Hillary and Norgay Tenzing and gazed at the wide, rewarding panorama.

It had grown steadily colder as we climbed, and now I was glad of my anorak. It was also windy, and I held onto the rock rather tensely, not fancying a quick descent down what seemed to me to be a sheer precipice at my feet. Below, we could see the full length of Loch Katrine, and hills on every side.

Behind us, moorland sloped away in a great wide sweep. ``I wonder if you ever see deer up here?'' I said -- and at that precise moment five or six of them leaped distinctively through the heather and bracken way down the valley. Briefly, the world seemed to belong to them and us, and to nobody else.

I have come to the conclusion that I like the Bartholomew Guide best. Instead of categorizing the Ben An walk as ``easy,'' it characterizes it as ``strenuous.''

In fact, it isn't a difficult walk, except perhaps for the short, steep section at the end, and even this proved to be much more accessible and fun to conquer than it had looked from below. Bartholomew says it gives ``the impression of rugged, almost unapproachable, grandeur in spite of its small scale.'' And then the guide adds: ``It makes a pleasant afternoon's walk for the fit and well-shod. . . .''

It's all a matter of scale.

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