The Awful Hand

Most of the Awful Hand

It was time for the annual summer Walking Challenge and this year Jazz, Stuart and I had decided on doing the Awful Hand range straddling the Ayrshire/Galloway border.  But how to plan for the vagaries of the Scottish “summer”?  Well, our approach was to have a curry, get out the diaries and say “How does the 14th sound to you?”.  A simple and, as we’ll see, very effective strategy.  After the success of last year other people are clamouring to join us, and so our party was joined by Archie, an ex-Olympic coach (seriously!) and so someone used to dealing with performance athletes such as ourselves.  

The Awful Hand is a linear walk of roughly 19km compromising five main hills, all of them Donalds.  Jazz and I have climbed them all individually, but stringing them together into this one traverse would be a real challenge.  They are, in north-to-south order:

  1. Shalloch on Minnoch (the highest in Ayrshire at 768m)
  2. Tarfessock
  3. Kirriereoch
  4. The Merrick (the highest in south-west Scotland at 843m)
  5. Benyellary

Jazz checking for extra breakfast at the start

The Range runs to the west and parallel to the Rhinns of Kells.  The plan involves dropping the car off at Stinchar Bridge and getting picked up by our attractive support team at the Bruce Stone at Glentrool.

Help for the hard-of-thinking

Given the weather we’ve been “enjoying” this summer, we’d been keeping a close eye on the weather forecasts as this walk wouldn’t be offering much in the way of shelter.  The Met Office computers were busy sucking in data to feed their sophisticated weather models and came up with “isolated heavy showers”, i.e. the classic meteorological term for “we haven’t a clue so let’s hedge our bets”.  We therefore expected at least the sight of a shower at some point, but instead we had a lovely summer’s day, albeit a little cool at the tops. Why do we even bother looking?

Kev and Jazz on Shalloch on Minnoch

10am.  We set off along the road until we leave the forest and branch out for the “path” heading up Shalloch on Minnoch.  We need to cross a small burn and this is where Archie demonstrates his skills at falling in.  This could be a bad day.  But we squelch on and the conversation covers a wide panolpy of topics, including the law, arts, and what competitors get up to at the Olympics.  And so the prize for most surreal comment of the day (and it had many worthy competitors) goes to Archie for the “They are trying to steal our condoms” shout he heard at the Lake Placid games when the condom dispensers were removed to avoid offending the religious types.

Jazz heading for Tarfessock

12:25pm.  We reach the top of Shalloch on Minnoch with the morning cloud now lifted.  Here we recharge on some chocolate and feel pretty smug that things were going smoothly.  From here we can get a view on the next three hills to come and a nice view over to the Rhinns of Kells.  The next on the list, Tarfessock looks an easy saunter and we spotted a group of 3 Red Deer moving effortlessly over the hill at Nick of Carclach; just like ourselves…

Makeshift graves

Pool with the “Hippo-stone”, Tarfessock

12:55pm. This is easy.  We get a great view of the Tunskeen bothy below us, the Wolf Slock and the various lochs dotted around the forest.   We found a few strange circles where someone had stuck in sticks in a circle around some erratic boulders and what looked like a line of three makeshift grave markers – was someone expecting us?  Someone went to a lot of effort carrying these sticks up here – summer solstice rituals?  My colleagues graciously decided that I’d be the most suitable sacrifice if things turned nasty as I had the highest BMI.

Archie and Stuart plan the attack

Stuart checking emails, Kirriereoch

Then we get a good look at the north face of Kirriereoch called Balminnoch Brae…  It is covered in scree and looks pretty steep.  Surely this is just foreshortening, and things will be fine when we get to the base.  Unfortunately not: it is much worse.  We pick a route up through the boulders and resign ourselves to an unpleasant slog. I measured the incline at 47° at one point while waiting for my legs to drain of lactic acid.  But hey, lunch was booked for the top.

Lunch: note the happy faces

Sundew flowers

Sunshine on the Spear

2:40pm.  Lunch is served. Conversation had dried up, with only expletive descriptions of the climb allowed. This was turning in to a real challenge. The really good thing was the complete absence of rain – that would probably have been the last straw.

Jazz, Loch Enoch and Howe of the Cauldron

The Fang of the Merrick

The view now was the last main climb of the day: up the Spear and onto the Merrick.  There is a steep drop into the wonderfully named Fang of the Merrick before we get onto the ridge of the Spear and a view into the scree bowl called the Howe of the Cauldron.  With our legs done in by climbing up Kirriereoch we were getting tired pretty quickly.  We decided we’d have a rest 5m beneath the top of the Merrick and then jog up to the top and impress anyone there.  Well, the message went to the legs but the best we could manage was a rough stagger.

Stuart and Archie with Black Gairy of the Merrick

Looking east from Benyellary

4.10pm. The top of the Merrick was devoid of impressed punters: just a family taking pictures.  Ah well, a bit more chocolate and a chance to admire the view over towards Curleywee and Cairnsmore of Dee.  Just one more hill to finish the Hand.

4:50pm.  The top of Benyellary.  This is probably the easiest of the fingers of the Awful Hand – the pinkie.  We all agreed that Kirriereoch was the (raised) middle finger.  But now we are on the tourist path and it is downhill all the way…  Unfortunately tired legs didn’t have time to relax, and as we got nearer Glentrool the path is made from boulders that require concentration: a tough way to end the day.

Celebratory beers, Glentrool

6.10pm. We made it to the Bruce Stone, only 10 minutes after the agreed time. Planning, planning!  But then a miracle happened.  From beside the stone our support team emerged with bottles of cold beer in their hands. Were our brains finally drowning in lactic acid? No, it was real beer!  I don’t believe I’ve ever tasted anything nicer, and so a new tradition was formed.  The ladies were counting their brownie points in units of millions.

Retracing our steps at the Bell Memorial

So another great summer Challenge successfully accomplished with good weather, views and company.  It was a tough but very satisfying walk and lived up to its name.  After a fast change for dinner (the midges found us at last) we headed for the excellent House o’ Hill pub and more beer and good food.  But it is unlikely any of the four of us will be on Kirriereoch any time soon…


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