Even if budget or schedule stops you short of the Highlands, the rest of Scotland doesn’t lack for ‘great escapes’. We track one down in the hills above Stirling.
In an age of Internet and SatNav, the name ‘Secret Glen’ has an obsolete ring to it. It’s in central Scotland, after all – the nation’s most populous area. You could comfortably cycle to the nearest towns of Stirling and Dunfermline.
Yet despite this, you can see what the label is getting at. Town gives way to countryside, the level road starts to climb and before you know it you are tucked away in the folds of the Ochil Hills, wondering how you got here so quickly
Modest, rounded summits surround you. It might not be the Highlands but such is the sense of separation they offer, you could easily think of it as ‘Highlands Lite’.
It’s my second visit to the Ochil Hills and I’m beginning to wonder how I lived so long in blissful ignorance of their existence. Grampians, Cairngorms, Cheviots; all of these are common knowledge south of the border, and who hasn’t heard “the Trossachs” used as a double entendre by the time he’s 18? But the Ochils? Maybe the word “secret” isn’t so far-fetched after all.
Why that should be remains a mystery. With Loch Leven on their eastern fringe, the golfer’s paradise of Gleneagles on the northern f lank and some great fishing and walking country in between, it’s not as if the people at VisitScotland are short of stuff to work with. Nor is it news: in his book An Angler’s Rambles, Thomas Tod Stoddart mentions that the valley of the River Devon, emerging from the Ochils, was known as the ‘Arcadia of Scotland’, a reference to the rustic utopia of ancient Greece. He wrote those words in 1866.
Details on fishing the river are at devonanglingassociation.org.uk but I’m headed further up the valley today, to one of the stillwaters that punctuate the river’s descent.
Before I even reach Frandy Reservoir, I’m underestimating it. Heading off the main road and up into the hills, I’m anticipating a tumbledown shack with a man behind the counter who jumps slightly at the sight of another human being. That is the optical illusion of these hills: you feel so isolated up here that you forget how close all those nearby towns actually are. Such is the f low of customers and associated banter in and out of the lodge all day, I suspect manager Ken McCutcheon would be far more spooked if he had the place to himself.
And there is nothing tumbledown about the establishment over which he presides: a surprisingly spacious, timber-clad home-from-home with kitchen area, sofa, woodburner and the décor pitched perfectly, from the antlers on the walls to the fly rods perched in the rafters.
Not that the estate agents will home in on any of this should the place ever go up for sale. They’ll be too busy rhapsodising about the view that awaits when you step outside onto the verandah.
May you be as lucky as I was and get to see this place at the end of a bright summer’s afternoon, when the hills on the far side of the reservoir turn emerald in the sunlight. The ground falls away from the lodge down to the nearside bank, a handful of boats in British racing green snug against a pale timber jetty.
It’s no mean trick for a 250-acre water to somehow look cosy but Frandy pulls it off and it strikes me that if you’re tentatively building up your boat-handling experience, this is the perfect place to sample a bigger water. The Ochil Illusion at work once more, all those protective hills shielding you from the outside world. Mess up your approach to the jetty here, and who’s going to notice…?
Such aberrations are unlikely today, though. I’m in a boat with Scott Pozzi, former Scottish national champion and Frandy regular. Once I’m aboard, he takes us down to the reservoir’s western tip.
The reservoir is an interesting shape. Like a breaching whale, arcing through the water, the bulbous head is the dam end, the start of a roughly rectangular section that lies in a west-north-west direction before turning south-west, narrowing as it does so, so that the final third tapers away to a narrow strait.
You shouldn’t equate size with potential, though. With depths of just 10-30 feet in places, that narrow section can be a happy hunting ground, rejuvenated as it is by an inlet from the adjacent Upper Glendevon Reservoir (no longer used as a public fishery, I’m told) and also by a burn on the northern shore, where the reservoir is a bit deeper.
It’s also the more intimate end of the site, the sliver of water emphasising the hills around it to the point where they seem half as high again as they did from the lodge. The appearance of an osprey is the crowning touch, Scott’s commentary on its soaring progress gradually changing from David Attenborough-style delight to mild proprietorial alarm as it hovers above our boat and the trout he has on the other end of his line…
The next hotspot, even a newcomer like me couldn’t fail to spot. Much of the bank opposite the lodge is marked by that pleasing union of deep water and overhanging vegetation and with the north bank’s sheer edge and loose stone composition precluding bank fishing there, it can be something of a boatmen’s benefit, as they drift parallel to the shore, picking off the risers.
With so many bugs like daddies and heather f lies on the water and not a lot of alternatives down below to distract them, Frandy fish soon become accustomed to looking upwards for sustenance, and Scott will continue to prosper by that far bank after lunch. By then, I’ve swapped boat for bank and the company of Crawford McEwan, who’ll take me for a guided tour of Frandy’s southern shore, winkling out the day’s solitary brownie en route.
We start at the dam and the visual contrast couldn’t be more marked. The morning’s cosy confines have given way to the expanse of water held back by the dam, with Ben Shee towering above it in the background. That expanse would be even more impressive were Frandy’s water levels not significantly down at the time of my visit. Images of the southern shore can be found on the Trout Fisherman blog (tauntedby waters.wordpress.com, entry dated July 21) to give you an idea of the terrain you’re casting to when levels are closer to normal.
It’s a fair hike (Crawford and I walk from the dam to the neck of the reservoir, where it begins to narrow and change direction) and it’s not always easy walking, but it gives those sound in body the chance to fish a variety of promising marks, from those at the dam end, to the point just west of the lodge and the neck itself, where, as Crawford explains, you always seem to find a drift lane, shimmering calmly amid the riff les either side of it.
“If the wind’s making it unfishable at the dam end you should try the dogleg,” he advises. “When the fish are on the top, you’ll see them working that drift lane.”
As Crawford fights an unequal battle with the brightening conditions that seem to be turning the fish off, I’m brief ly startled by the sight of wind turbines on the nearby hills overlooking Upper Glendevon. It is a rare intrusion of the outside world into this fishing hideaway, where losing yourself for the day doesn’t call for a drive of several hours beforehand.
As labels go,‘Secret Glen’ might be a bit of a stretch these days, but pick the right day for your visit and it could still feel just like it.