The Tragedy of Gwenddolau (Knoydart – Part 3: Ladhar Bheinn)

Ladhar Bheinn from the Aonach Sgoilte ridge

GWENDDOLAU’S body lies in a hollow between the runner beans and the rhubarb. His face is white and his watery blue eyes gaze tragically to heaven. I know it’s Gwenddolau because everyone says it is. Everyone on the allotment site, that is. 

Amid the tragedy is relief and wonder. A major conflict has taken place – one of the Three Futile Battles of the Island of Britain, someone writes later – yet my brassicas are undamaged. But there are three fellows hiding in the sweetcorn. Sunlight glints on their armour. One of them must have a radio because I can hear Steve Wright. 

I go about my business, stacking freshly-baked cakes in the wheelbarrow. Gwenddolau just lies there doing nothing. But if you’re dead, I suppose you’re entitled to do that. 

That was last night’s dream, part of it anyway. Very worrying because I haven’t had a drop of red wine – in fact no alcohol at all – for three days. And no cheese either. There must be other forces at work here in Knoydart. 

Ladhar Bheinn is a mountain that rises straight out of the sea. Its Celtic name – and Gwenddolau has put me in a Celtic mood – means Hoof Hill, undoubtedly a reference to the great horseshoe of ridges surrounding Coire Dhorrcail. It’s a fine, noble mountain, with great ramparts that sweep up to the sky and frown down on mortals. And at the moment they are frowning down on me as I sit in the tufted grass of Coire a’ Phuill, just west of the Mam Barrisdale pass. 

Before me is Aonach Sgoilte, a ridge between Mam Barrisdale and Ladhar Bheinn, 800ft high and as steep as hell. It is, literally, a wall of rock that rises from the brown grasslands of Coire a’ Phuill. A rake of smooth stone shoots straight up its middle, and to the side of the rake, and rising almost parallel, is a grassy chimney. Last night on the camping ground a Scottish chap told me the grassy chimney is the best way up. “But it’s a bit dodgy,” he said. Then when he saw me flinch he added: “No, not dodgy. But very steep.” 

Ladhar Bheinn and the Aonach Sgoilte ridge

I clamber into the chimney. It’s what we call a “hands-on” affair, very much a scramble up rock and grassy ledges – with the possibility of tumbling all the way to the bottom making it a rather daunting adventure. For an anxious twenty minutes, using hands, feet and anything else, I heave myself up this fault-line in the crag to emerge on the top of Aonach Sgoilte (right) and collapse panting in a grassy hollow, like a lark in its nest. 

Ah yes. Gwenddolau. That’s how it all started. Yesterday evening I found an abandoned lark’s nest with a cold, dead egg in it. Gwenddolau was killed in a lark’s nest. 

Gwenddolau was a 6th Century king of Rheged, a kingdom encompassing modern-day Cumbria and bits north of the Solway Firth. In 573 he fought the sons of Elifer – a fellow British king from York – in the Battle of Arderydd (Arthuret, just north of Carlisle). The battle took place in an old Celtic hill fort called Caerlaverock, which translates as the fortress of the lark, or the lark’s nest. 

It was Gwenddolau’s final battle. He was slain in his lark’s nest. 

And last night he died again between the runner beans and the rhubarb, with Steve Wright in the Afternoon providing a soundtrack from the sweetcorn. Isn’t it amazing how the mind works? Turn your back for five minutes and it’s away with the larks. 

Ladhar Bheinn (pronounced Lava Ben or Loe-er Vyn, depending on who you listen to) rises before me in the west, a great brute of a mountain (1,020 metres high) with knife-edge ridges thrusting out at angles from its shoulders. I head off along the ridge that connects it to Aonach Sgoite. 

I’ll tell you what’s good about today. Not only is the sky blue and the sun beaming down on the hills; not only is the wind fresh and the ground firm beneath my feet; but I am living and breathing mountains; thinking mountain thoughts and drinking in the mountain atmosphere. Today I feel exhilarated and part of the environment. And that is how it should be. 

The connecting ridge is cut by Bealach Coire Dhorrcail and a number of other steep defiles. It’s hard work, a great deal of upping and downing and vaguely reminiscent of the Five Sisters of Kintail ridge, which I can see in the jumble of mountains away to the east. I am on the summit of Ladhar Bheinn, hot and hungry, by about midday. 

There are a few people on the top: a chap from Oxford who climbed the north-east ridge (my intended route down) and a couple of parties from Inverie on the southern side of the peninsula. There are three peaks on the summit ridge, and there is a discussion as to which is the highest. By popular consensus we decide on the middle one (above), and just for good measure we all trog off to the far one to take pictures of the Cuillin ridge on Skye, all blue in the hazy distance. 

The Cuillin and Skye

I escape along the north-east ridge down into Coire Dhorrcail, into the heart of the horseshoe where there are impressive views of the mountain. From the foot of the corrie, a stalker’s path snakes down to the coast, and I pass the rocks where I tarried last night and the rough meadows where I found the lark’s nest. 

Gwenddolau had a companion and bard whose name was Myrddin. Some scholars maintain that Myrddin was the original Merlin of Arthurian legend, his name borrowed and altered for the convenience of later authors. 

After the Battle of Arderydd and the death of his king, Merddyn went mad and sought solitude in the forests of Caledonia, but not before writing this verse, which seems like a poignant and convenient place to end this article: 

I saw Gwenddolau in the track of kings
Collecting booty from every border
Now indeed he lies under the red earth
The chief of the kings of the North of greatest generosity

North-East ridge of Ladhar Bheinn

Coire Dhorrcail on Ladhar Bheinn


About McFadzean

Alen McFadzean, journalist, formerly of the Northern Echo, in Darlington, and the North-West Evening Mail, Barrow. Former shipyard electrician. Former quarryman and tunneller. Climbs mountains and runs long distances to make life harder. Gravitates to the left in politics just to make life harder still. Now lives in Orgiva, Spain.
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1 Response to The Tragedy of Gwenddolau (Knoydart – Part 3: Ladhar Bheinn)

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