Campsie Fells: Skiing Central Scotland

Scotland isn’t renowned as one of the world’s great skiing destinations. But if the conditions are right, it can still be the perfect playground for winter adventures

22nd February 2021 | Words and photos by Fiona Russell

I pull up in a little layby, off a minor back road. It’s a weekday evening, just a 15-minute drive from my home. I clamber out of my van, already dressed for my after-work adventure. I’ve got my ski jacket and salopettes on. As I pull on my ski touring boots and set up my skis, a friend arrives in her car. We exchange a few words, and then I hear my named being called by a fellow skier who has just come off the slope.

Hearing our chat about where she has skied, a man nearby asks whether we recommend he sets off east or west from the road. All around, the layby fills with skiers coming and going. There is a palpable buzz of excitement.

If we were in Les Arcs, Zermatt or Jackson Hole, this would probably be a pretty standard scene. There, the idea of a post-work ski tour is nothing new and takes place day in, day out – as it does in thousands of other renowned ski locations worldwide every winter. Except, this is the Campsie Fells in Central Scotland, where I have rarely seen deep snow lying to the roadside, let alone skied day after day.

Skiing in Scotland: A brief history | Adventure | Wildbounds

Skiing in Scotland: A brief history

Across many areas of the UK, the snowfall in early 2021 was claimed to be the best for more than a decade. With COVID restrictions limiting our travel, I was particularly grateful for this blessing from Scotland’s mercurial mother nature. And coincidentally, the Campsies, a modest range of fells that stretch from Stirlingshire down to East Dunbartonshire, are recorded as the historical birthplace of Scottish skiing.

In 1892, William W Naismith of Glasgow skied the area. He is widely purported as being the first person to ski in Scotland. In the early 20th century, and especially in the late 1930s to 1950s, many small community ski areas were set up across Scotland, some even employing rope tows operated by tractor. This winter, I learned of the local ski scene in the Campsie Fells in the 1940s and ‘50s. One man that I bumped into recalled that his great-aunt was a regular Fells skier, and even met her husband ‘while skiing gullies’ in the Campsies during that post-war era. This was some years before the concept of a ski resort that we know today was ever imagined in Scotland. In fact, the first ski tow at a commercial ‘resort’ was only installed at Glencoe in 1955. Scotland’s wider ski industry has borne the brunt of many lean snow years in the past couple of decades and despite an ample snow dump this season, lockdown has put paid to resorts being able to open.

But a thirst for adventure and greater availability of modern lightweight equipment has seen a big rise in the number of ski tourers, especially those keen to explore Scotland’s ‘backcountry’. Of course, transplanting this type of skiing to a location like Scotland can be challenging, since it is so reliant on the right snow and weather conditions. At most, if you live and work in Central Scotland as I do, you might hope for a few days ‘up north’ to enjoy bluebird skiing in Perthshire and the Highlands – and possibly a chance day of skiing in the less lofty hills closer to home. However, in a year that saw frequent flurries of deep and heavy snow, which stuck around for longer than any winter in recent memory, I was able to seize plenty of opportunities to enjoy the frozen fells.

Ski touring close to home | Adventure | Wildbounds

Ski touring close to home

It was in early January this year that I ventured on skis into my local hills for the first time. Skinning from the roadside (the B822) at around 300m height, my husband Gordon and I climbed a wide, snow-covered track to reach Holehead trig pillar at 552m. A weather station located nearby had long caught our attention – it can be seen from many miles across the region – and it was also the first time we had visited this landmark. Looking west, we saw the Fells rising and falling, blanketed in ample snow. So, we decided to ski on.

At first, we were fortunate to discover the tracks of two other ski tourers, which made the going far quicker. It appeared they had turned back less than halfway to a major summit, Earl’s Seat, and from this point we had to break trail ourselves. If you have ever skied in Scotland, you might be aware of the term ‘heather bashing’. While the snow was mostly quite deep, there were areas that had a lighter coating of the white stuff and we had to skin over heather, cross burns (streams) and negotiate icy bog.

Ski touring close to home | Adventure | Wildbounds

There was very little downhill skiing until we reached Earl’s Seat – at 578m, it is the highest point in the hill range – and then from the neighbouring hill of Dumgoyne, at the western end of the Campsies. Yet the tour was as enjoyable as it was energy-zapping, with fantastic vistas of snow-covered hills and mountains further afield beneath an amazingly blue sky.

Inspired by our 14km A-to-B tour, the following weekend Gordon and I decided to get up before sunrise to ski on the eastern side of the B822. The aim this time was the summit of Meikle Bin at 570m, via Lecket Hill. As we skinned up to Lecket on a perfectly still but chilly morning, the sun began to peek over the snowy hill ahead of us. The pink and orange light painted the snow a stunning hue.

Ski touring close to home | Adventure | Wildbounds

A few important things that we learned on this out-and-back tour of several hours are that a) there is a way to climb over fences while keeping your skis on (if you are smart enough); b) in woodland, the snow disappears to leave mud and bog; and c) the weather can change from beautiful to terrible in just a short time.

We were amazed to see very few people during the 12km outing – and no one else on skis. But by the time another big dump of snow arrived a few weeks later, it seemed that hundreds more local people had either found their touring skis in the attic or rushed out and bought a set. Over a week of fabulous conditions, when I repeatedly skied powder snow, I was surrounded by many more skiers. The Alpine-esque night-time skiing was immensely rewarding and my friend Magda and I skinned to the small cairn atop Lecket Hill almost without the need for a head torch. The light from the setting sun reflected across the white hills, which was enough for us to see quite clearly. For the descent, having removed our ski skins, we each switched on our head torches and enjoyed a magical downhill run. Skiing on fresh snow in one’s own bubble of light made us feel like we were living out a Disney fairy tale.

Ski touring close to home | Adventure | Wildbounds

Later that week, I enjoyed an afternoon of repeat laps on the lower slopes of Lecket Hill. Time after time, I skied uphill before removing the skins to find fresh tracks downhill on light, creamy snow. In all directions, skiers, snowboarders and families with sledges were whooping with joy and grinning, while chatting to anyone who passed by.

Days later, the snow had all but disappeared after temperatures rose by more than 10°C overnight. The delicious memories of lockdown skiing in my local hills remained though – and I’m sure they will last for many seasons to come.

Ski touring close to home | Adventure | Wildbounds

Fiona Russell, better known as Fiona Outdoors, is a Scotland-based outdoors journalist and blogger.

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