They’re not big, they’re not famous, but for Ben Dolphin the unsung hills on his doorstep have been a revelation
“I’m moving to Fife.”
“What? You’re joking! Whereabouts?”
“It’s near Falkland. In the Lomond Hills.”
That was back in 2010 and could be an excerpt from any number of conversations I had at the time. Not that I needed conversations in order to gauge some of my friends’ reactions because their expressions said it all.
I may as well have been moving to the dark side of the moon. At least the moon is known for its cheese. What’s Fife known for?
I dare say many folk probably only know what they see from their cars as they whizz through the narrowest point of the Kingdom at 70mph. Blink and you’ll miss it.
Nobody had heard of Leslie. Nobody had heard of Falkland either, and I began to wonder if I’d made them up. Even Google Maps, with its sophisticated algorithms and scary “we know more about you than you do” shenanigans, still insists on flying me thousands of miles to the Falkland Islands when I type “Falkland” into it. It knows full well I’m sat at a computer in Fife, in Scotland. It’s as though the world is consciously refusing to acknowledge that Fife exists.
Now, I’m not claiming I was any better informed about the Kingdom than my pals were. I adore Fife now, but back then what did I know?
Well, I knew there was a coastal path. I knew there was a fish and chip shop in Anstruther. I knew that St Andrews was so difficult and time-consuming to reach by public transport that it really wasn’t worth the effort. And I knew there was a gargantuan array of green static caravans somewhere near Kinghorn, so vast and geometric as to be visible from space. But that was pretty much it.
Clearly I’d been guilty of the same dismissive behaviour during my seven years in Edinburgh as everyone else. I didn’t deliberately shun Fife and its hills, rather I did so unknowingly by always choosing to go elsewhere for outdoors pursuits. To places with lofty mountains, wild glens and extreme weather. What chance did Fife’s wee hills have, faced with that?
A few of my friends had heard of the Lomond Hills but most of them were puzzled to find out they were in Fife and not the Loch Lomond & Trossachs National Park. Most of the Fifers I met at least knew that the Lomonds were actually in Fife, but the ones who lived in Dunfermline and Dalgety Bay spoke of them as a mysterious far-off land they rarely visited.
“Is that the place with the aerials?”
“Oh yeah. The ones with the giant golf ball.”
“They’re not as nice as the Pentlands.”
And best of allâ€¦
“Beware the Beast of Balbirnie!”
That last one was genuinely scary until the person expanded on it, telling me it was a What rather than a Who. A big black cat, routinely spotted prowling about in and around the Lomond Hillsâ€¦ all of which conveniently began with the letter B. It really did feel like the back of beyond. Here be dragons!
As someone on the Edinburgh side looking north I’d seen that Fife outline enough times to be familiar with it. Undulating but with an area of high ground in the middle, with a distinctive bump at either end: the twin peaks of East and West Lomond. The Paps of Fife.
Those two hills are visible from much of the Central Highlands, Cairngorms and Southern Uplands, and you’ve probably seen them from a distance even if you’ve not set foot on them. Together they are the focal point of the range and for that reason you could be forgiven for thinking that the Lomond Hills comprised just two hills. Not so. The range also encompasses Bishop Hill and the outlying Benarty Hill, both of which overlook Loch Leven, on its east and south shores respectively.
I knew those two bumps were the Lomond Hills, but I don’t think I regarded them with much curiosity. As someone hurrying north up the M90 every weekend I knew their profile very well, but I never really considered them as anything other than a warm-up act for the main event, whether that was Perthshire or the Cairngorms or wherever else I was on my way to.
The Lomonds beg for attention, though, especially when you consider that they showily present their most formidable aspect to all those travellers hurrying north; a long unbroken escarpment that rises to the east of the M90, across Loch Leven. All too often, though, they lose out because people are on their way to higher hills. That’s a shame, because plonk the Lomond Hills in vertically challenged countries such as Belgium or the Netherlands and they’d probably be famous.
If anything I viewed them with annoyance when I lived in Edinburgh, because from Arthur’s Seat (â€˜Arthur’ to his friends) they were selfishly managing to obstruct views any farther north to the bigger hills beyond. It didn’t occur to me that, if they were the obstruction, then they themselves must offer terrific views north. Yep, the Lomond Hills were calling but I wasn’t listening.
That all changed in 2010 when we left Edinburgh and moved slap bang into the middle of the Lomond Hills. There was no avoiding them now.
Everyone and everything had prepared me to be underwhelmed. I was anything but. I quickly became enchanted with the place, but it would be doing the Lomonds a disservice to suggest this stemmed purely from low expectations on my part or that they gave up their secrets easily or quickly. They didn’t.
Everyone and everything had prepared me to be underwhelmed. I was anything but.
They undoubtedly reward the casual visitor but doubly so anyone who devotes time to exploring them, as they are diverse enough, surprising enough and have enough land off the beaten track to take a while to get to know. That said, I had the sense of having discovered somewhere quite wonderful after only my very first foray into the hills.
That was just a wee jaunt up East Lomond, the lesser of the two Paps. If you approach it from the south, as I did, it rises via a steady transition through fields, upland farms to grass and heather moorland. There’s a final steep haul up to the summit and then without warning the ground falls away below your feet, plunging 350m to the pancake-flat field patchwork of the Howe of Fife.
Viewed from the south, there’s no sense of this drama. Standing up there on that freakishly crystal-clear day, I got that wonderful sensation I’m more familiar with on the coast; of standing at a high cliff edge and looking out to sea.
It’s not wild, necessarily. It’s not a perch surrounded by mountains or crags or lonely glens. It’s not huge or gnarly. But as is so often the case, less is more. For although East Lomond is a mere 424m (1,391ft) high and is almost 100m lower than its sibling, West Lomond, it arguably has one of the biggest views I know of.
This is because of its relative isolation within the range itself, but also because the Lomonds are themselves fairly isolated within otherwise flat terrain. Add to that the proximity of the flat, silvery Forth to the south and southeast, and East Lomond has that “all alone by itself” feeling. It ranks alongside other fine hills all on their lonesome; Tinto, Suilven, Bla Bheinn to name but a few. Without exception those have stellar views, seemingly endless in their reach. And I rate East Lomond as highly as any of them.
Once I’d got accustomed to the immediate views of Falkland, looking like a model village 1,200ft below my feet, I looked up and realised just how huge the views beyond were.
To the northeast I could see Dundee, to the south, Edinburgh. The sea’s sharp horizon swept all the way around between the two, rounding the East Neuk and curving in an enormous arc past Largo, Methil and Kirkcaldy. With the Tay on one side and the Forth on the other, I could almost make out the outline of the entire Kingdom as it jutted out into the sea.
Looking down the coastline I could see Berwick Law, Bass Rock, Tantallon Castle, St Abbs and almost as far as the Border. Beyond the Forth and its islands, beyond Edinburgh, Arthur’s Seat, the Castle and even beyond the spired outline of the Royal Mile, the views extended to the Lammermuirs, Moorfoots and the entire length of the Pentland Hills.
Further out, Dun Rig and Dollar Law were visible behind Peebles. The Forth Bridges rose further west followed by the Bathgate Hills in West Lothian. Tinto loomed large on the horizon, all by itself, while even further out I could see the Lowther Hills on the other side of the M74.
Most special for me, however, were the views north. From Arthur you could just about see some far-off hills; Beinn a’Ghlo, Lochnagar, the Angus Glens, but that was pretty much it. What a difference those 20 miles north across the Forth made. What a difference it made to be standing on the obstruction, rather than trying to peer over or around it from Edinburgh.
Beyond the gorgeous greens of north Fife, rolling with picture-postcard beauty above the Howe of Fife was a roll-call of famous hills. Ben Vorlich, Ben More, Beinn Chonzie, Ben Lawers, Schiehallion, Ben Vrackie, Beinn a’ Ghlo, all stretched out along the horizon. The crags at the head of Caenlochan Glen were easily discernible east of Glas Maol, while even further north the huge bulk of Braeriach was visible some 60 miles away.
Suddenly I felt like I was straddling two Scotlands. To the south lay industrial and urban Scotland with petrochemical plants, wind farms, pylons and sprawling towns. To the north, it felt like the start of something else. Rural. Green. Rolling. Unmistakably Highland. And in the middle sat the Lomond Hills; one foot in the Lowlands and one foot in the Highlands.
I was ecstatic. I was hooked. How wonderful to be proved wrong about a place. And best of all? These hills are quiet. Countless ascents of East Lomond followed, via as many routes and under as many conditions as you can imagine. Before long I’d stood on East Lomond in every season, every weather and at every time of day, but still the wonderful experiences.
I’ve stood on those slopes before the sun has risen and long after it has set. I’ve stood bent double against gale force winds, peered through ski goggles at raging blizzards and lazed under Spring sunshine.
I’ve listened to skylarks, watched ospreys being mobbed by crows, and sat silently as short-eared owls hunt in the long grass just metres from me.
I’ve seen the Northern Lights, a thousand stars and have snowshoed under torchlight. I’ve watched the fireworks in Edinburgh, the Red Arrows over the Forth, and paragliders effortlessly floating upwards above my head.
Most memorably of all, I’ve seen sea fog come creeping in off the Forth like a wave in slow motion, consuming all in its path before settling and revealing Fife’s high points, like islands in a white ocean.
The most exciting moment of all, though, is climbing the hill in October and being greeted by the first snow of Autumn; the Cairngorms forming a defiant white streak across the horizon. Winter within touching distance; confirmation that it is coming. Ever since then it’s become something of a tradition, smelling the snow on a northerly wind and then excitedly climbing East Lomond, hoping for my first glimpse of autumn snow.
Quite how one hill has been able to give me so many memories is beyond me, and I dare say I could have made do with this wee hill thereafter, explored no further and been happy with my discovery. Instead, I slowly started exploring farther afield within the Lomonds and as I did so it felt like every journey yielded some extraordinary new revelation. A list of secret, special places steadily racked up.
I can vividly recollect them all, but much as I’d like to I won’t list them all otherwise I’ll still be writing at Christmas. What I will say, however, is that before I moved to the Lomonds I would drive to the Highlands every single weekend to go hillwalking. That’s what I lived for. Big hills and big glens. Big days out. Big experiences.
Since moving here I’ve noticed a marked drop-off in Highland time. Not because those beautiful hills are any less appealing but more because the Lomonds have almost singlehandedly managed to sustain my cravings and needs. Whether that be open spaces, greenery, bleakness, extremes of weather, wildlife, beauty, quality of light, expansive views, peace or solitude. Just take your pick, because the Lomond Hills of Fife have got it all.
For more from Ben, see his blog at Benvironment.com
You can also find him on twitter at @CountrysideBen