A short but beautiful hike in the Ochil Hills

Late winter feels almost colourless. The landscape holds lonely patches of pigment: browns, purples, greys, golds, and a dash of dark green.

But February is also the month where the sunlight returns. In my kitchen, gold paints the white walls and illuminates the words I’ve just written in my journal. Outside, new daffodils bathe in the small ribbon of sunlit soil that grows, like them, slowly each day.

In February I always remember the words of Kathleen Jamie, Scotland’s national poet, in her essay collection Sightlines: “Every year, in the third week of February, there is a day, or more usually a run of days, when one can say for sure that the light is back. Some juncture has been reached and the light spills into the world from a sun suddenly higher in the sky.”

So at the end of the month, under this new brightness, we find ourselves with a weekday off and decide to visit somewhere new.

In the heart of the Ochil Hills, rolling peaks that stretch northeast from Stirling and the Forth Valley to Perth and the River Tay, we explore part of the Glen Devon Woodlands. Across these hills and narrow glens, the Woodland Trust have three native woodlands that the charity has nurtured for over twenty years, following historically intensive sheep farming.

The charity say their long-term goal is to “establish a resilient mosaic of diverse native broadleaved upland woodland with open ground which offers a range of habitats for a wide variety of flora and fauna.” Or in short, to reimagine what these hillsides may have looked like centuries ago so that modern visitors can, in a way, time travel through the trees.

Trails stitch through this landscape but, from the large car park by the River Devon, we choose to walk the Ben Shee loop. It starts cold and shaded under evergreen boughs, until you reach a scree-sloped path that goes down to Glensherup Reservoir.

Then, bright February sunlight. There’s an old house by the water, unusual in its unique position next to the spillway, but with a tranquil garden dotted with daffodils and snowdrops and squawking chickens.

Past the fishery lodge, a tall stile leads onto the slopes above the reservoir. As we walk, we now notice native trees, part of the Woodland Trust’s work here — birch and sycamore and rowan. On the opposite bank, huge commercial conifer plantations.

The path gets damper and steeper as we come around the south-westerly face of Ben Shee. The name reminds me of Glenshee in the Highlands, which somewhat belies the height of this little hill, at just over 500 metres. Both names are rooted in the Gaelic for fairies, for magic.

We take the path pointing to the summit of the Ben. Here, we’re shielded from the northerly wind but already the views are opening up before us — more reservoirs, wind farms, faraway towns, and hills on hills on hills. Such delicate layers of blue.

Lunch here or at the top? At the top, we decide, our hunger held off in anticipation of the view.

There is not a trig point at the summit but a lonely stone. My partner stands behind me, his back to the wind, and I put my back against his front, using him as a windbreak. We eat our lunch and I put my hood up as my hands go red. The earlier sun has gone now and the February wind is ferocious against any bits of bare skin. It’s a quick feed, despite the beautiful scenery, and we head back down to the lower track, in the shelter of the slope.

The walk back is leisurely. Through more native trees, stunted in their youth, we soon rejoin the tarmac leading back up to the reservoir. Chickens watch us from the gate, unsure whether to approach. I wonder what it’s like living here, tucked away in a glen within a glen that feels both remote and connected at the same time. Close to some of Scotland’s cities, yet surrounded by hills, with the water supply for nearby towns pouring past your front garden.

It’s back across the embankment and into the evergreens, the trails and car park quieter today in the middle of the week, most people hindered from fresh air by day jobs and bills and the prevailing winds of modern life.

2 responses to “A short but beautiful hike in the Ochil Hills”

  1. I can almost feel the peace and cold from that walk, and the reward of taking the boots off and drinking a hot cup of tea. Another lovely piece Laura, keep them coming.

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