When compasses go wrong: A tale from the Angus Glens

Shadow, our dog, and I headed for the hills via Jock’s Road from Glen Doll. I’m still getting Shadow used to the bigger hills and longer distances. We’d done a drive up best forgotten through roadworks and heavy traffic in the morning, arrived too late to lodge a route card at Ranger Base (the braces in my safety belt and braces plan)  and we  didn’t get started on the walk in until 1050. Shadow was pretty excited by the woodland walk and lots of new scents until the upper end of Glen Doll where the trees disappear and the amazing geomorphological features become visible. Then I became the excited one.

The plan for the day had been to try for Broad Cairn, as this would be an unusual approach to that peak but the clag was descending and already I was mentally trimming back to maybe just doing Tolmount and Tom Buidhe.

We got up to Davie’s Bourach (NGR NO 233 778),


The bright red door that leads into the basic shelter. This is no well-appointed hobbit hole but could be a life-saver. Thank you to all those involved in maintaining it.

an an emergency shelter built by Davie Glen after an incident where a party succumbed to the elements on the edge of the Mounth plateau. Cameron McNeish wrote this article about it on the 50th anniversary.


Plaque commemorating the party that perished 

Marker poles are now on the path to the position of the shelter, a new addition from the last time I visited with my friend Andy and his dog, Fearn. Later that evening, when talking over the day with Andy at his place, we both agreed that those unfamiliar with the shelter could easily miss it. I shall leave the debate about putting up navigation aids in the mountains to others.

We entered the bothy to gear up for the plateau, me adding my woolly bunnet and gloves and Shadow in his hap. By this point the visibility was poor, the clock was ticking towards dusk and I was settled upon a quick trot up Tom Buidhe when things started to go awry. I checked my compass and it was about 90 degrees out from north. Fortunately, problems with magnetization of compasses has been widely publicised and I realised this was a genuine problem, as I knew how the map should be set . I did have a spare compass and got that out and it was OK. What had happened was that I had unwisely transferred a reflective band with a magnetic backing from my wrist to my walking pole and my compass had been coming into contact with the magnetic field from the band.

After crossing a few icy patches and small snowfields, we were ready to head off on a bearing for the burn to start the navigation legs to the summit Tom Buidhe. The bearing of 270 degrees was set and off we went for on, 30 paces. Then I noticed the compass no longer had the bezel present in the housing and I was left with an empty baseplate! It had dropped out. I was able to retrace my steps and pick up the pieces but at this point I decided that doing the contour and map based navigation to top out in visibility this poor was a bit daft. So it was the long walk of mild embarrassment back to the car park. Shadow was very excited to be let off the lead on the lower part of the glen and through the woodland as I cursed my ineptitude with one compass and the pay-off of the experiment of buying the second cheapest option in the shop as a back-up compass.

Without the thrill of a summit it was a long and somewhat dejected walk back to the car down the glen. Shadow was unbothered and seemed to be taking a keen interest in the red grouse. However, lessons were learned and some new information on the area gathered. The hills are still there for another time and so are Shadow and I.

I am a palaeobiologist in my early 40's carrying out research work. I am based in Scotland.

Posted in Mountains, Navigation, Scotland, Trips

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Al is a Summer Mountain Leader
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