With two daughters, the oldest two and a half, the other approaching one, the time and the chance for a walk lasting longer than 45 minutes these days is quite remote. A few weeks ago, as they were both at their nana’s house, I laced up my boots as quickly as possible and practically raced towards my nearest hills. I had a window of around three hours. I knew I could get to, up and back home again in the allotted time to a hill known as East Cairn, on the very periphery of the west Pentland Hills.
I have ascended this hill many times, it being so close to my house. I was therefore quite surprised when the small car park, known as Little Vantage, was full but was able to leave the car at the entrance safe and out of the way.
East Cairn and West Cairn is ascended by way of an old drove road that runs through the middle of them. The first time I came here I didn’t know about this path. I was still in my more reckless exploration phase. Abandoning the car and wandering wherever you wanted was my ramblers right. Maps and dykes be damned. If it was there I wanted to see it and I didn’t even consider searching for it or even looking at a map. At this time I wasn’t the owner of a dog either so this kind of walking suited me well.
My approach was from further west, past the reservoir, and the remains of Cairns Castle. This belonged to the former warden of the pass, Sir George Crichton, the Earl of Caithness. A self-appointed yet seemingly necessary role which I shall mention later, it’s still a long way from Caithness. I had seen a car park at the fishery and decided that was my route. Struggling onwards and upwards through the heather and the bogs, it took far longer than it should have. I followed a burn that extends up and into the middle of the two hills for a while, which I found out later is the Water of Leith.
That’s one thing that having no children and a lot of time allows is the ability to be able to explore without the need for being somewhere at a certain time. I miss these opportunities to do things in a time that suits me and admit to finding this difficult. Without time constraints, you take in so much more, see everything from different viewpoints, you make mistakes and learn from them. You get more of a feel for the landscape because you have allowed yourself the time to do so. A time schedule makes you miss that as it becomes more about getting something achieved rather than an exploration.
I visited the ruins of an old drover’s cottage. Walked out to a promontory for no other reason than just because I could and I was there. I took the wrong way back and it didn’t matter. As a result of this, I startled a buzzard sitting on a fence post that flew off on front of me as I crested a hill. I really got an idea of its wingspan as it flew away that you don’t get from seeing them from a car.
Anyway, back to the present day. Jumping out of the car with the dog we marched off quickly through the initial boggy stages. There had been quite a lot of rain recently and I had forgotten the path can be quite waterlogged. I am grateful therefore to the Friends of the Pentlands group for providing such excellent sleeper boards at the particularly marshy bits, and the footbridge at Gala Ford built in 2010. This no doubt adds to the pleasure of the walk rather than show the human imprint.
But the human imprint is all over this land and it makes it interesting. The initial stages are through farmland with horses, cows, sheep and sometimes bulls either in fields next to you or sometimes right with you. As a result the dog was on his lead at times going past the farm but he is more interested in the rabbits. The track itself follows the Cauldstane Slap, a slap being an old word for a pass, and cauld meaning cold, which given the remoteness and windiness is a very evocative and appropriate name. It is part of one of the main drove roads, where cattle were driven from the highlands to markets down south. This one most likely went from Falkirk or further north, across to West Linton and Peebles before going on to markets in England. It was a dangerous place hence the need for a warden. The nickname the Thieves Road comes from the proliferation of lurking robbers and cattle reivers hidden on the route. Despite its proximity firmly within the central belt, it still has a feeling of remoteness about it that echoes the Highlands more than its location may give it credit for.
Upon reaching a patch of gorse just over the bridge, I discovered a sheep’s skull that I had left to naturally deteriorate a few years ago was still in its hiding place. Leaving it alone for the time being, I vowed to get it on the way back, pleased as well as surprised. Another one for the garden fence.
Following the slap up in between the two cairns, we turned left at the fence that runs east to west. It gets a bit steeper here and I was reminded how long it had been since I had done any hill walks or even exercise like this. Feeling unusually out of shape, and breath, I had to stop a few times to admire the view. I realised that I was in such a rush to get out, the digestive biscuit I had eaten since 7:00am wasn’t really the required energy for maximum performance. I was weary, but it was now after two so I promised myself some food and coffee at the top at the large cairn.
Unfortunately for me, someone was already having their lunch in the cairn so we kept going, continuing down the north-west side. This is quite steep and sore on the ankles, though at least short. Eating while walking is never a good idea but once back on level ground I ate a little. Stopping again at the bridge for some coffee and so the dog could play in the water, I realised that this was my first proper rest and I needed it. Gone are the days where I could fire up a mountain without stopping, or walk for 10 hours straight. Shocked would be too harsh a word, but I would definitely say I was surprised at my lack of fitness.
This is not meant to put anyone off, but an assessment of my own performance and my pre-children fitness level. They are excellent hills for those who feel like they can never be a hill walker and want to give it a go. They are accessible, the walk in is fairly flat and lengthy (although boggy) and the initial climb slight. You don’t even need to go up either cairn, the path continues on to West Linton, or you can just turn back and see where you’ve come from. But it’s a good walk in with a sharp incline to reach the summit on East Cairn. West Cairn is much more drawn out, taking a little longer with a much more disappointing top, but still worth a look for the views out west.
Picking up the skull from its hiding place we headed for home. Once back at the car I realised I had shaved half an hour off my time. I guess there is something to be said for head down walking when it’s necessary. No signs read, no real views enjoyed, no restful lunch eaten, just hit the tracks, and get up the hill and back. Was it enjoyable? Of course it was and a well needed walk post lockdown, absolutely. Recommended, as is the classic book on Scottish Drove Roads.
Give yourself three hours to enjoy it properly. 2.5 miles from Little Vantage car park to the highest point of the slap between the two Cairns. Another 5 miles to West Linton. Enjoy.