It's been a tremendous summer in Scotland, but my favourite time of year has arrived at last. Autumn.
Together with a friend, Vince, I journeyed to the small town of Callander on the fringes of the Scottish Highlands, about a half hour drive from Stirling.
With our loaded-up mountain bikes we set off north, following Route 7 of the National Cycle Network. With not a cloud in the sky and a chill in the air, we scooted along the cycle path, scrunching fallen amber leaves beneath our tyres. Within just 20 minutes or so we were past the car park that serves the hillwalkers of nearby Ben Ledi, and passing an ever-expanding collection of log cabins. I hadn't been this way for almost five years and in that time a half dozen log cabins had grown into a small village.
Grateful to be past the sprawling development, we were now on the west shore of Loch Lubnaig, on a well defined wide track, with the low sun in our faces, its lingering warmth taking the chill off my cheeks. On the opposite shore speeding cars and screaming motorbikes competed to be in front on the narrow loch road, but we were safe and quite content as we pootled along.
After 10 miles we reached Strathyre and four miles further on the small ancient settlement of Balquhidder, at the head of Loch Voil. Settled in the 9th century, it is most famous for Rob Roy McGregor, some of whose exploits were played out in the area, and deemed by some as the Highland Robin Hood. He died in 1734 and is buried beside his wife Mary and sons Coll and Robert in the grounds of Balquhidder Parish Church.
We had just 7 miles to go, and having turned west from Strathyre to Balquhidder, we now turned back on ourself, east, on a quiet little back road, before turning north once again toward Lochearnhead, back on a well defined cycle path. This section follows what I like to call a "rails to trails" route, following the route of the old Callander and Oban Railway. Non profit making it was closed in 1965 as part of the Beeching closures of many railways in the 60s.
The path of the old railway line gradually bends to the left as it passes Lochearnhead and starts a long, slow climb up through Glen Ogle. I love this section, far above the busy road and lined in lush vegetation either side. That is until it crosses a granite-faced viaduct as it majestically sweeps round a curve. Just a little further on from here we decided to make camp for the night in a small wood next to a a small hidden body of water, Lochan Lairig Cheile.
We had been camped for about an hour, a place I have used before with Pauline, when we decided to explore the dense woods surrounding our hidden away camp spot. Fallen trees were now covered in a thick layer of spongy moss, and a last splash of summer colour was provided by the purple of a solitary fox glove.
As we rummaged around the long thin trunks of the firs, we spotted a large tree that had been uprooted some time ago. Where its roots had left a small crater we spotted something lying in the collected water. As we got closer I could see that it was, or had been, a young male deer. Just 3 points on it's antlers. Probably this had been its first summer. As we rounded the animal we could see that its jaw had been ripped away and was lying exposed. I'm no expert but it looked as if it had suffered a fatal blow at the antlers of a larger male during a recent confrontation. This was, afterall, the rutting season for the red deer.
I was saddened by the sight. I spotted hoof prints in the mud on the opposite edge of the water, where it had stumbled its last few steps into this pool and come to rest, exhausted and fatally wounded. There was no smell from the carcass, and the blood from it's mouth was still bright red in the water, so it was likely this had happened very recently, perhaps during the last day.
After supper we sat in silence looking up at a star filled sky. In the distance I could hear the mournful bellows of the stags as they called out in the night. I knew it was for the rut, but a part of me felt it was a lament for the loss of the young deer.