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Nestled in Scotland’s most densely populated central belt, the Ochil hills are often by-passed or over-looked. But don’t miss out, pleads proud local Sean McFarlane, their ease of access, beauty – and pubs – make them the perfect winter day-walking destination…

ochils mcfarlane

To my north, the first dusting of snow on the southern highlands signals the start of winter. To the south, the Forth Valley glistens in the milky early winter light, with the Forth bridges hazily visible in the distance, and Edinburgh’s Pentland hills seeming to loom surprisingly close. To the east Loch Leven dominates the view, while behind us in the west is the edifice of Stirling castle and the Wallace monument.

I can only be in one place – the Ochil hills in central Scotland.

‘Hidden gem’ is a much over-used phrase, but this huge expanse of mountainous, safe, infinitely accessible and centrally located terrain really is one. This is a truly magical piece of landscape situated in the heart of Scotland’s heavily populated central belt, and as always when I’m here, I can’t help wonder why we seem to be all alone.

The Ochils are in my veins. They form a huge part of my life, are a constant source of intense pleasure and multiple adventures, and I never even come close to tiring of them, constantly finding new areas and tracks to explore. The hills are littered with routes. Some people might think I should keep my secret to myself but it’s too good not to share, and one thing is certain; there’s plenty of room for others.

With the Ochils occupying such a central location, you’re spoilt for perfect start and end points for walks, as small and picturesque villages throng around these hills.

We’ve chosen to start our walk from the fabulous Sheriffmuir Inn. It feels as if we’re in the middle of nowhere, but in fact we’re only two miles from the bustling towns of Bridge of Allan and Dunblane. The pub itself is a cracker, with great food, drink and accommodation. We meet there at the car park at 9am and, although it’s not officially open until noon, the door is open and the owner is keen for a chat over coffee.

“Let’s do this walk in reverse next time,” says my walking buddy for the day Chris, and I agree,  eyeing the  tantalising selection of draft beers at the bar and thinking what a perfect end of walk reward they would be.

The great switcheroo
Our walk today is a point-to-point route. I like to call it the Trans Ochils – after all, that’s what it is! We’ll finish in the village of Dollar, where I live, and where I know they have a pub, so our focus from the outset is clear.

I’ve always favoured point-to-point routes, as they do give that added sense of purpose – however logistics can be a bit tricky. So today we’ve arranged to meet two friends, Nick and Al, who are doing this route in reverse, and swap cars keys with them. It’s a tried and tested solution that works very well for us. Plus it means at least someone will enjoy that lovely post-walk drink at the Sheriffmuir Inn.

We leave the pub and briefly continue up the road before heading eastwards towards our first hill, Blairdenon. The obvious grassy track goes over Glen Tye first and we take that, until at its top, we see the path heading up Blairdenon.

In all our route takes in five peaks, all over 600 metres. Make no mistake: these are proper hills, but from years of experience of Scottish winters here I know they have a most welcome knack of escaping the heaviest of the snowfall that so much of our country’s higher peaks encounter. The nearby Trossachs, for example, are only 250 metres higher but the difference in snowfall on their upper sections is considerable.

After only 40 minutes of easy walking, we reach Blairdenon’s summit, where our four remaining peaks come clearly into view. The full expanse of the Ochils is on display now too and they look stunning. “I never knew this was all here,” says my walking companion Chris, gazing around in surprise in all directions.

A seriously outdoorsy type, Chris lives only five miles away in Stirling. I suspect more than three quarters of his fellow residents never have been here either, and sadly never will. As Chris now appreciates, it’s very much their loss.

Next it’s over to Ben Buck. The track starts well, then descends into some boggier ground. But the mush doesn’t last long and we’re quickly at the head of the track up Silver Glen and heading towards the start of the final ascent of Ben Buck.

Silver Glen’s track is a good solid gravel affair and we both agree it’s a great track for “getting you up into the hills quickly”. We’ve both been up this track on many an occasion on mountain bikes and we briefly compare notes on our previous two-wheeled adventures here. But today we’re on two feet each, and the slower pace means that we can appreciate our surroundings better, letting our gazes linger on the details of the hillside we’re on and beyond. We refill our bottles and head up the grassy track to Ben Buck.

On the way we meet another walker, at last. “Maybe he’s lost?” jokes Chris. He’s standing fixated, looking back westwards and smiling with a grin which quickly becomes contagious. We gather together to point out various peaks on display, mostly agreeing on the names involved. The Trossachs rollercoaster into the distance with the farther off peaks by Arrochar and Crianlarich looking majestic. Goat Fell in Arran looks spectacular too, as do so many, many more.

What a view
We exchange cheerful goodbyes and press on to the summit of Ben Buck. From here our ever-present grassy track leads us steadily up to a stile, over a fence and along to the summit of Ben Cleuch. At 721 metres this is the highest peak in the Ochils.

The viewpoint indicator at the top needs a bit of a makeover but at least it shows you the vast array of other features you can see from here. We have a good look. In other circumstances we’d be wowed by such a clear view of the Cheviots, but at this stage of the day, we’re more or less conditioned to a sense of amazement.

The track continues eastwards, down, then up again to our penultimate hill, Andrew Gannel. The descent from here to Maddy Moss is often voted the best descent in the Ochils by mountain bikers, and it’s hard to challenge that claim.

As we descend on foot, our final hill of the day, Kings Seat dominates our forward view. This is where we’re meeting the others, Nick and Al, for the key swap. Chris and I left Sheriffmuir at 9.30am and we’ve arranged to meet the others at the cairn of Kings Seat at noon. We thought our timing was more than a tad ambitious before setting off but with the time now just gone 11.30am, we’ve made good time and are now confident that we can honour our side of the arrangement.

As we make our final climb, we stop to look back on where we’ve come from. It looks much further that it has in fact been. All four previous peaks clearly show our route. We can see that once up onto our first hill at Blairdennon, we didn’t lose much height. Our summits have formed a perfect plateau and we’ve made surprisingly good time.

At 648 metres, Kings Seat’s actual summit is on its north eastern side. We reach that and head along its flat top to the cairn and shelter on its south eastern side.

Just as we’re starting to doubt that the guys have matched our timings, I see the sun bouncing off Nick’s bald head. The sweat on it suggests that they started somewhat later than planned, but at least we’ve met up.

Near miss
We come together, immediately exchanging excited words about our day, our walk, and the Ochils. Everyone expresses bafflement about the lack of other people. We discuss potential future routes and, with excitement clearly getting the better of us, shout a cheery “See you in the pub” and head off, only to quickly realise we haven’t swapped keys!

Shouting through cupped hands saves the day, and we briefly regroup once more. With keys now safely swapped, Chris and I head down the lovely Kings Seat tourist path. With Bank Hill below and Loch Leven, Edinburgh and Pentlands visible around us, Castle Campbell quickly comes into view, followed by the stunning village of Dollar down below. School’s out and the happy cries of children playing sports seem like an apt accompaniment to the end of our walk.

Our meeting point in Dollar is the well-named Kings Seat bar and restaurant. Once installed we opt for a pint from the local brewery – which is called Schiehallion. It’s the perfect post-walk refreshment, and has us quickly talking up the fantastic hill it’s named after: a classic Scottish munro. Still, when I’m looking for the perfectly situated and easily accessible one-day, all-year-round walk, even Schiehallion can’t compare with the Ochils!

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