Three Glens, Two Days – A Stravaig through Angus

Coire Fee and Glen Doll

It is often said that the five main glens of Angus – Isla, Prosen, Clova, Lethnot and Esk – branch out out like the thumb and fingers of a giant’s hand, the palm firmly planted in the sweeping Vale of Strathmore. Due to this geographical arrangement, many walkers tend to find themselves funneled into individual valleys, drawn by the unique personality each possesses. Isla is green, Clova craggy, Prosen peaceful, Lethnot wild and Esk remote.

Explore one glen and thoughts quickly turn to seeking out others. If only there was a way to combine the contrasting characters of each in a single outing…

Well, thanks to a network of hill and valley tracks, there is and it promises a fascinating journey of discovery through an area of the Eastern Highlands where rare wildlife and plants lurk amid dramatic upland scenery, where vivid vistas await marvelling eyes and where history is woven into the countryside’s colourful quilt.

Eager to immerse myself in this enchanting backdrop, I donned boots in the hamlet of Kirkton of Glenisla and set off on what could best be described as a stravaig. While the Cateran Trail passes through Glen Isla, the route I was embarking upon would lead me into some of the quieter corners of the county and along less frequented trails.

My first challenge was to negotiate Glenisla Forest, a huge block of commercial forestry. Thanks to some careful route planning, I had a clear path through and soon emerged into Glen Damff. While the upper reaches of this lost and lonely valley remain wild and desolate, man has harnessed the lower part. It was flooded in the 1960s when the Backwater Dam was built and along with nearby Loch of Lintrathen, the reservoir supplies water to 300,000 people in Dundee and Angus.

Backwater Reservoir

Hiking past a derelict cottage at Barny and skirting the rounded summits of Black Binks and Cuilt Hill to reach Glenhead Farm, I was treated to a sparkling view over the water. But however tempting the shoreline was, the track beneath my feet was insistent. It had me on course for Glen Prosen and ahead a stiff climb beckoned.

Rising through patches of woodland where I spotted both red and roe deer skulking in the conifers it elevated me on to high ground where I made a brief detour to the summit of Corwharn, an excellent viewpoint, before descending into Glen Prosen.

Glenprosen Village is the only settlement of any size in the valley and it is really little more than a cluster of cottages with a traditional red telephone kiosk and post box. There is a hostel but I was not quite ready to call it a day so I sought out the Minister’s Road, a signed right of way leading over the hills to Glen Clova.

Hiking the Minister’s Road over Balnaboth Moor

In the 19th century, a single minister was responsible for both Prosen Church and Clova Kirk. Every week, whatever the weather, he would conduct his first Sunday service at Prosen before riding on a pony across the moor to Clova for his second sermon of the day. To preserve the heritage of the route, parishioners continue to hold an annual Minister’s Walk, beginning with an afternoon service at Prosen and concluding with evening worship at Clova.

The road is one of scores of hill tracks protected by the Scottish Rights of Way & Access Society, also known as ScotWays, a campaigning group formed in 1845 when access to the countryside was often made difficult by Victorian landowners. 

From its Edinburgh beginnings, the society quickly became national in response to issues further afield, which often led to court cases defining rights of way. 

The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 represents one of the most enlightened attitudes to countryside access in the world. However, the Act does not cover all rights of way and, even when it does, problems can still arise.

The Minister’s Road rises on to Balnaboth Moor. Like many of the estates in the Angus glens, this is grouse shooting country. The land may at first glance appear wild and untended but it is carefully managed. Shooting and stalking are mainstays of the local economy and heather burning, vermin control and the construction of hill tracks and shooting butts are just some of the ways sporting activities impact on the lie of the land.

From a wooden gate high on the moor, I began my descent to Clova. Part way down the slope, the Minister’s Road splits. At some point in history, a more direct route east found favour with travellers. However, according to Scotways, the original road ran north from here, rising over Elf Hillock.

Clova Kirk

I opted for the latter and, aided by occasional waymarkers and stiles, made good progress up the glen. Descending through woodland, I emerged on to the road just short of Clova. A good path led me across grassy fields and over the meandering River South Esk to the Glen Clova Hotel.

Following the closure of the youth hostel and campsite in Glen Doll, this long-established hostelry now has a monopoly on visitors seeking refreshment or a bed for the night in this remote corner of the county. There has been an inn here since the 1850s and the climbers’ bar is adorned with evocative black and white photographs depicting life in the glen in days gone by.

Clova occupies a stunning spot. The landscape here is a product of the Ice Age, shapely peaks, deep U-shaped valleys and cavernous corries sculpted by glaciers. Above the hamlet, neighbouring Loch Brandy and Loch Wharral lie in two such corries while others are to be found further up the valley in Glen Doll.

Loch Brandy

Lying within the Cairngorms National Park, the Glen Doll Ranger Base, a little over three miles west of Clova, is a good starting point for ascents of Munros including Driesh, Mayar, Broad Cairn and Cairn Bannoch. However, the high ground also attracts botanists for the crags and slopes are home to some of the nation’s rarest plants.

Below the summits, outcrops of limestone and calcareous schists in Caenlochan and Canness glens support a very rich flora of arctic-alpine plants such as the nationally rare Alpine Gentian and Alpine Fleabane.

Eastwards, the plateau on Meikle Kilrannoch looks down on Glen Doll which, with Corrie Fee and Corrie Sharroch, has small populations of some of Britain’s rarest plants. These have a precarious foothold in gullies and on crag ledges, which are out of reach of grazing animals.

North-facing gullies with late snow-lie give shelter to montane scrub species and damp crevices provide niches for the dainty Alpine Woodsia and Oblong Woodsia ferns. Steep unstable slopes along the base of the crags have a patchy distribution of other rarities, including Alpine Milk-vetch, Alpine Saxifrage, Rock Speedwell and Yellow Oxytropis.

A visit to the ranger base reveals that there is also an abundance of wildlife. Threatened species like the red squirrel, pine marten and water vole have benefited from conservation measures and there have been sightings of one of Scotland’s most elusive creatures, the wildcat.

After a hearty breakfast, I was back on the road early, following the twisting ribbon of tarmac that runs parallel with the River South Esk down the glen. Beyond a lonely steading at Wester Eggie, a green right of way sign reconnected me with the Minister’s Road. Hiking up through pine forest I returned to the junction encountered the previous day and, above this, branched south on to what is known locally as the Airlie Ridge.

This line of low hills rises between Clova and Prosen and offers an elevated hike with stunning views over both. Cairn Leith and Hill of Balbae lead me on to Hill of Couternach, the highest point on the day’s itinerary.

Cross on Craigs of Lethnot

An excellent track and accompanying fence line ensured navigation was straightforward and the next top, Craigs of Lethnot, was soon conquered. A cairn marking the summit lies to the east of the track and close by there is a metal cross. Casting my gaze across the glen from this airy vantage point, I felt like a bird on the wing as I surveyed the quiet pace of life in the valley below.

The track continues on to The Goal where a stand of windswept conifers clings precariously to the exposed moorland hump, stooped trunks and cowering branches bent but not broken by the elements. I pondered that perhaps these brave trees are escapees from the more regimented ranks of timber below.

The track descends a swathe of heather separating plantations on either side of the ridge but my attention was now focussed solely on the landmark tower rising skyward ahead of me.

The Airlie Monument, visible from miles around, sits atop the last peak on the ridge, Tulloch Hill. Erected in 1901, the 30-metre high red sandstone edifice commemorates the life of David William Stanley Ogilvy, the 9th Earl of Airlie, who died in the Boer War. Sturdy metal doors prevent entry but it is an impressive structure when viewed from below, with some interesting carved panels set into the roughly hewn stonework.

Below the monument, a track led me down through woodland towards the village of Dykehead, my final destination. Or at least, so I thought. For as I trekked the last mile, my thoughts quickly turned to the other two Angus glens – Lethnot and Esk. Maybe I was not quite ready to end my stravaig just yet.

James Carron is author of Walking in the Angus Glens published by Cicerone

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