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An alternative way to climb Ben Dorrery

By Ben MacGregor

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OUT AND ABOUT WITH RALPH: Heading for the hills again as a biting wind proves winter has its grip even on these lower vantage points

The Shinnery Rowan.
The Shinnery Rowan.

Ben Dorrery is the smallest of hills. It’s like the last of a mountain wave which broke over the Cuillins, roared across Torridon, rolled over Klibreck and Armine, and finally petered out in a trickle of foam after washing the Caithness Flows.

The hill can hardly be considered a challenge except for those with walking difficulties or the very elderly. Or for me. Still improving after a major operation and laid low again last week with that ‘super cold,’ it would be my first hill for quite a while.

There is more, though, to Dorrery than the simple walk up the track from Dorrery Lodge. The northernmost top, Beinn Freiceadein, is a much more attractive place than the main summit with its adjacent phone masts.

Freiceadein overlooks some little crags which you could even fall off if you tried, and has an unstable stone cairn marking the top. There’s no path, and the surroundings are all rough heather. Walk a little way to the west for a fine view of Shurrery Loch. You could kid yourself it’s a miniature mountain, and it certainly has fewer visitors than any Munro!

I like to start a walk over Dorrery by leaving the road about a mile short of Dorrery Lodge, heading over wet fields past a couple of deserted and largely ruinous croft houses.

Shinnery, the building further from the road, was inhabited until maybe 50 years ago, a porch has long since collapsed and inside there is peeling wallpaper, gaping windows and old dangling electric wiring.

A gleam of December sun, looking towards Loch Calder.
A gleam of December sun, looking towards Loch Calder.

Young trees are growing well from former cattle stalls and just beyond is a fine rowan which sprouted through an abandoned car – the metalwork protected the young seedling from grazing sheep. Most of the car has rusted away but you can still see the chassis wrapped around the tree if you look carefully!

Wet sheep paths lead on towards the hill and a fine stone-built cairn appears to the left amid the low broken walls of an old settlement. This must be the least-known monument in Caithness, there is a plaque commemorating the Rev John MacDonald who was born here at Balnabeen in 1779 and became a Gaelic poet and the supreme Gaelic preacher of his time.

From this unlikely spot, now lost in the moorland, he went on to become the best mathematician in Scotland, he founded the church on St Kilda and preached the first Free Church sermon in Edinburgh after the 1843 Disruption.

Beinn Freiceadain looms ahead, looking mountainous but it’s only a 300-foot climb, and a big moorland fire in 2020 has removed the long and lanky heather which used to give difficult walking. There is even the option of some easy scrambling up through the crags.

It was the first of December and a suitably biting northerly wind was picking up, hail showers trailing veils of white-out across the flow country. It’s always rough going to walk between the two tops of Dorrery, though deer paths help a bit. A gleam of sun lit up the landscape towards a white wave-capped Loch Calder, sheltered from the wind it briefly felt that spring was maybe not too far away.

South view.
South view.

The wind could, though, still be heard roaring in the telecoms mast half a mile away and darker clouds loomed to the north.

The view from the main top is much better than might be expected given Dorrery’s humble altitude, particularly of Shurrery and the many lochs and lochans scattered far out across the flows. Do your best to ignore all those wind turbines around the horizon whose electricity cannot be taken south when it’s windy! Also seen well are the vast coniferous forests planted on deep peat which we now know were about the worst thing that could have been done to degrade the peat and release huge quantities of greenhouse gases…

But otherwise it’s an inspiring view and well worth the little effort required to walk up the track. And having done the circuit this way round, I could now enjoy an easy walk down the track to Dorrery where I’d left the car. Just remember to drive that road of cratered potholes very, very slowly – or better still, cycle out here instead.


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