We bag peaks over 3,000 feet. We complete iconic road trips, tick off countries and cities and places. We make lists of things to do before the next milestone birthday.
Scottish writer Nan Shepherd couldn’t have known how millennial culture would intensify the desire to collect experiences in this way, but that instinct was already rooting as she wrote The Living Mountain in the 1940s. She watches on as people make a ‘game’, a ‘race-course’, of the Cairngorms.
And yet The Living Mountain is about swapping the summits for the recesses, trading height for depth, knowing and knowing again.
That is just one of the reasons why I tend towards the small hill, sometimes lacking in altitude, but never in richness. I go five minutes beyond the boundary of my Fife commuter town and spot lapwing and owl and hare and deer; other times we drive to Perthshire and spend the hike dodging mountain bikers and Land Rovers on sprawling estate land.
We don’t always need the big summits to have an experience in the outdoors that means something. Here are some of my recent favourite hills in central Scotland, albeit with, what Nan calls, a smaller ‘tang of height’.
Cliffs overlooking North Third reservoir, by Stirling
A bright but cloudy Saturday in the middle of April. We meet halfway — my brother and parents coming from the west, us from the east, gathering among Stirling’s Touch Hills with chocolate eggs to exchange.
There is already a flock of cars on the verges, several of them with fishing tackle pouring onto the gravel, but the circular walk itself is quiet. Up steep, stony paths we soon gain elevation, coming onto the plateau of Lewis Hill.
A white shard — a trig point — cake-tops the dolomite rock below our boots. On tree stumps we eat a picnic, looking east: the River Forth stretching to the sea, the bridges, Fife, Grangemouth, Arthur’s Seat. Our home, somewhere over there.
Later I look back across the half-full reservoir, past the dam and towards the plateau, crags looming above the water’s edge. It reminds me of the cover of National Geographic’s latest issue, which I brought today to lend to my brother. A tepui — a tabletop mountain in the Guiana highlands of South America — just smaller, more Scottish, Strongbow cans instead of rare frogs tucked away in the dark damp corners of the forest.
A small range of rolling hills overlooking the Forth estuary
Another rocky outcrop like Lewis Hill, the Binn is the southerly flank of the hills hanging over the Fife town of Burntisland. You can park in town — and return later for coffee and cake — to begin exploring either from the west, by Grange Road, or from the east, by the golf course.
Both routes are hard going for a short while, but soon level out at the Binn’s summit, where cooled lava from this ancient volcanic plug has created a sheer drop to the streets below. For less than 200 metres of elevation, the panorama across the Forth estuary is breathtaking.
There’s a lot to explore here and you’ll need repeated walks to do it. A cup-and-ring marked stone tucked amongst the trees. Binnend, a buried village. Evidence of the area’s mining past. An old distillery and a few forgotten quarries. Deer and pheasant and hare disappearing into the gorse.
Another small hill and a farm ruin lies to the north east of the small pond: Silverbarton. When we were last there, the land looked strange. Clumps of grass pressed close to the earth, yellow-dry, the stalks gone. I found a large rock, painted with the soot and rainbowed grime of a blaze which had clearly spread into the field, the shadows of the local firefighters somewhere on the breeze.
From a tree growing out of the farmstead’s wall, eyes look at us. A brush of gold and wings — a barn owl, there then gone, erupting into the sunset. The evening sky plates the Forth’s islands below us gold, the ships silver, Edinburgh’s buildings glittering in the light, the jewel in the crown.
The spring equinox and beyond at Stronachie, near Kinross
During a delicious stretch of blue-sky days in early spring, we first visited the forests found within the squashed square of land between the M90 and A9. I had followed Instagram breadcrumbs to somewhere called Stronachie and, since then, it’s become a weekend favourite.
We park at a lay-by and jump the stile. The walks are twofold: either long leg-stretches on hard gravel tracks, or soft strolls in the dark corridors running between mossy pines, where you may come across a forgotten reservoir.
For a woodland not far from the bustle of Kinross or the roar of the motorway, it is quiet, and the views honest. Look east on a clear day and you’ll see the Lomond Hills shaded in sunlight and cloud, Dundee a cluster of diamonds in the distance. Over the brow of the hill a bench appears, where you can sit and look west to the Ochils, or south as the contours fall into Fife, even spotting Arthur’s Seat if the visibility is good.
If you follow the grit track rather than the forest paths, a gate eventually appears, so we return to the car, where we hear a cuckoo call somewhere from the shadowy boughs.