Inspirational Trails 14: The Lomond Hills
Written By: SportsShoes
Here, in part 14 of a series featuring inspirational trails, trail and fell runner, Andrew Ballantine is flying the flag for Fife’s finest hills and trails.
In the heart of the historic Kingdom of Fife, Scotland, is a hill range fondly referred to as ‘the Lomonds’. The Lomond hills are characterised by two prominent, former-volcanic peaks East Lomond (1470ft) and West Lomond (1713ft) – “the Paps of Fife” – and dominate Fife’s landscape as well as the surrounding area. Despite not reaching the highs of Munro, Corbett or even Graham status, the Lomonds can be seen from far and wide, and pack a punch in terms of trails, tracks and terrain on offer. Stretching to over 25 square miles this vast area of farmland, upland and moorland is easily accessible and has a huge network of paths with interesting features throughout. The hills serve a large local population and outdoor enthusiasts come from all over Scotland to tackle what are regarded as some of the best wee hills in the country.
Despite loving the BIG mountains of the north and west of Scotland, I can take from these hills a more personable experience. Living in the picturesque village of Falkland located on the slopes of the East Lomond I can reach the summits of either hill in under an hour. When you’re after a quick trail/hill run at lunchtime to escape a day in front of the laptop, or want to avoid going in the car to reach the bigger mountains, these hills always deliver. From the house, East Lomond (also commonly called Falkland Hill) requires a hands-on-knees steep ascent and you can take in either the long set of wooden steps or the rough-and-ready mountain trails which snake their way up through a conifer plantation. West Lomond (the highest point in Fife) requires a more gradual slog up through the scenic Maspie Den to the popular Craigmead car park and then on to an exposed track, before a steep incline to the cairned summit. Both summits provide stunning views across the surrounding countryside and coastline, and on a clear day you can see as far north as the Cairngorms massif and Bass Rock to the south. I’m particularly fond of the summit cairn on East Lomond as it has an inset map of all the surrounding landmarks and hills – I’ve spent many a weekend afternoon pointing out faraway places to my kids including the Munros we’ve climbed together. Sunday long runs often include summiting both summits as well as taking in the surrounding trails with a few mates, whatever the conditions – come rain or shine (or snow or sleet or gale)!
The landscape of the Lomonds reminds me a lot of the hills in the Scottish Southern Uplands or the Lake District. The upland landscape is dominated by dry stane dykes, well-trodden paths and plenty of sheep and walkers. As well as the two prominent peaks the Lomonds offer a staggeringly varied range of trails for walking, hiking, running, and mountain biking. Of particular interest and popularity are the trails in the historic Falkland Estate (once home to Mary Queen of Scots). Here you can visit the Tyndall Bruce monument and the tumble-down stones of the Temple of Decision, follow the very popular Squirrel trail and grab a coffee at the rustic Pillars of Hercules, or get lost in Maspie Den’s designed landscape which is straight out of a Tolkien novel with its moss-clad bridges, tunnels and arches.
As well as opportunities for solo running in the Lomonds, there are two running clubs based in the local area. The Falkland Trail Runners and Lomond Hill Runners are two popular running clubs that take advantage of the trails and hills on offer including weekly training sessions or ‘social get-togethers’. As a Falkland local, I enjoy flying the flag for the Trail Runners at races across Scotland. The hills are also home to a number of well-established races including Falkland Hill Race (now Falkland Hill Trail Race), Bishop Hill Race, Lomonds of Fife Hill Race, as well as a variety of club events including the Lost Trails Race, Tufty Trail Race, the Tour of Fife and the Gateside Gallop.
My personal favourite is the Devils Burden Relay Race which is a multi-stage team relay race across the whole hill range that brings in teams from across Scotland and the rest of the UK. Taking place in January every year this race usually involves interesting running conditions across the most challenging terrain of the hills. Runners are paired up for the two most difficult legs of the race, so pairing up comparable runners is a tactical part of the challenge. Consistent with hill racing tradition there are various pubs in Falkland for competitors to mull over their team’s performance over a pint or two when all runners have safely returned to race HQ. We also have our very own Lomond’s FKT and the hills have also hosted previous editions of the Scottish National Trail Running Championships. A rich and well-recognised running environment indeed.
The area provides many points of interest out-with the running world too. The Lomond hills became the first regional park in Scotland in 1986 recognising their high scenic and recreational value to the local, well-populated area. The hills are steeped in historical and archaeological interest – Falkland Hill was once home to a hill-fort – and there are quirky place names associated with the area: Devils Burden, Wind and Weather, Carlin and Daughter, and Hanging Hill. Local lore tells us that a resident witch Carlin Marlin was turned into stone after having a contest with the Devil, never to be released until wind and weather set her free. You can visit Carlin Maggie today, a prominent column of rock found on the traverse of the Bishop Hill ridge. The Bunnet Stane (a spectacular mushroom-shaped geological feature) and Maiden’s Cave also feature another local from the past who had a similarly romantically-tragic fate to the story of Romeo and Juliet. Just round the corner, John Knox’s Pulpit – found at the head of the scenic Glen Vale – is a natural amphitheatre which acted as a secret meeting place for the Covenanter movement in the 17th century. Despite living in the area all my life I’m still finding out about the history of the Lomonds!
During lockdown earlier this year, the importance of our nearby natural spaces was brought in to sharp focus. I am extremely lucky to have the Lomond hills on my doorstep and within reach on foot. My daily form of exercise (and only chance to get out the house) during lockdown was to escape up the hills in what was unseasonably warm ‘taps aff’ weather. Now that we are back under COVID travel restrictions over the winter months, being confined within the Fife border certainly hasn’t been an issue with the Lomonds within a stone-throw of my house. Despite having always enjoyed a walk, hike, run or cycle up the Lomonds the importance of these hills in 2020 has undoubtedly been beyond measure. My experiences of the past year resonate a lot with a couple of charities I’ve recently become familiar with – Mountains Mend Minds and Mind Over Mountains – highlighting the importance of our high places to mental health. I’m sure I speak for a lot of people when I say I find solace and inspiration in my local hills.
In the words of the inspirational John Muir: “The mountains are calling and I must go”.
Photos: Credit to Andrew Ballantine