Marhofn 106.06 - May 2004

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Theatre of the absurd

Colin Crawford

Standing atop Mount Eagle in near darkness, having struggled to locate the tree-moated grey trig in the failing light, I relished the sheer absurdity of what I was doing. How on earth would I have explained the purpose of this outing to someone who knew nothing of Marilyns? Any witnesses would have questioned my sanity, or indeed my possible criminal intent. And not for the first time. I well recall the bemused and suspicious stares from locals as I entered the compound on Ruardean Hill to touch the trig and ascend the water tank. Crazy, utterly absurd - the seductive facet of Marilyns which sets them apart from all other lists.

What hill list (I refuse to be drawn in by the sheer desperation of Yeamans or Clements) can attain the heights of irreverence and downright impertinence scaled by certain relative tops? For every A'Mhaighdean there is a Crowborough, for every Stac Lee a Bishop Wilton Wold. The juxtaposition of such extremes holds huge appeal for the lover of irony, cocking a snook at the smug seriousness of hardened Munro chasers. No Marilyn bagger could ever be accused of a sense of humour failure.

I didn't recognise this unique attraction immediately. The Relative Hills of Britain sat unattended on my bookshelf for several years before a casual tally of tops revealed the fact that I was over the 600 mark. Most of those 600 were 'respectable' hills; a mixture of Munros, Corbetts and Grahams, topped up with English and Welsh 2000ers and the occasional prominent lower top. Only when I began to explore the environs of southern Scotland with a fresh eye did I discover such unlikely treasures as Belling Hill and Corse Hill. The latter sits as an isolated mound above a sea of conifers, involving a truly mind-numbing approach along endless forestry tracks; the former is only a few minutes from the nearest road, yet the 'summit' is coy and elusive, unmarked somewhere at a crossroads of forest rides. Such non-hills removed the blinkers from my vision, and ever since I have pursued the silly stuff with genuine fervour.

The snow-covered Cona' Mheall treated me to an epic ascent several years ago, during which I escaped lightly after a series of foolish decisions, but for a genuine sense of menace it hardly compared to the clandestine bagging of Upper Park; there I had to crouch down in the trees to avoid being spotted by an armed and grim-looking gentleman on a quad bike. I lingered at the summit only long enough to ensure I'd reached the highest point, keenly aware of possible watchers in the nearby summer house.

Then there was Billinge Hill, involving a flat stroll of a few hundred metres from the car to a graffiti-covered monument overlooking industrial detritus. And Hutton Roof Crags was truly a voyage of discovery; for those who have yet to explore this unsuspected labyrinth of rock and foliage, a genuine treat awaits. Conventional hills? Hardly. To think that I might have missed out by restricting myself to the big beasts.

For the discerning therefore, I list below some of my favourite summits in a range of categories:

TMDT (too many damn trees)
Tops blanketed by obscuring foliage, especially of the commercial variety, have an almost uniquely bad press. My least favourite anywhere is Airds Hill, a truly vicious example of the genre, whose actual summit I cannot claim to have bagged with pinpoint accuracy. Yet some TMDTs have a perverse appeal. Locating the cairn on White Hill of Culreoch gave an immense degree of satisfaction. It has to be conceded that on a wet and blustery day the merits of an enclosed summit appear singularly obvious. Bucking the trend, the broadleaved wildernesses of Creag Ghiubhais and Ord Ban hold more conventional delights.
Unsuspected bagging
More than one obscure Marilyn must receive multiple visits from those who would never consider themselves baggers. The graffiti artists on Billinge Hill, the water board workers on Ruardean Hill, the farmer at Bishop Wilton, not to mention a certain household in Crowborough - all could claim a respectable number of 'ascents'.
Merited obscurity
Several Marilyns lose out in the fame stakes to nearby honeypot tops. On Bennachie, tedious Oxen Craig must receive a good deal fewer ascents than its lower but brasher neighbour Mither Tap. And how many of the hordes who make the ascent of cocky little Ben A'an think to continue to the uninspiring moorland top of Meall Gainmheach? Cairnpapple is another case in point - the lower top has famous earthworks, with interpretation centre, whilst the actual summit wallows in deserved neglect a few hundred metres south.
Here I include the unusual trig point on Brown Muir, its strange feature shared by the pillar on Corryhabbie Hill. On a recent visit to Brown Muir, this feature nearly caused me the loss of a finger, but that's another story. I have yet to visit Hensbarrow Beacon, where I will have to decide if bagging the top involves reaching the trig or one of the higher spoil tips (a real irony there - a summit which is not the highest point). More than one hill has a folly to admire. That on Hill of Garvock gave me my greatest fright in recent years, when a raptor rocketed past me as I ascended a precarious stairway. Much more remote, Farrmheall near Cape Wrath amazed me with its rudimentary vehicle track, marked by traffic cones; incongruity writ large.
Bloody impossible
St Kilda - need I say more?

Castle Stalker from Airds Hill (photo: Richard Webb)

Castle Stalker from Airds Hill (photo: Richard Webb)

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