A Midsummer’s Hike in the Bluestacks

Selected Blog from the Returning to Wonder Series – 2012 to 2017

This week, I would like to share a guided hike I led up the Bluestack Mountains, but first a few updates.

I’ve been delighted so far, with the response from my summer storytelling evenings in the Olde Castle Bar, Donegal Town. I don’t know where the owner, Seoirse O’Toole, is getting such enthisiastic audiences for me, but I can feel my confidence growing with each live performance. My set is a mixture of short stories and recitations from Donegal interspersed with Celtic tales. So far, I’ve got the opportunity to entertain visitors from the U.S., Canada, Australia, Spain and England. It was a great buzz to engage some kids and teens during the last gig. One young girl even came up to me afterwards and asked me where is the best place in Donegal to see fairies!

I’ve also begun stepping up my research on a local book project which I hope to have finished by late October. It will be a collection of stories, folklore, poems and local history from my local parish of Drumhome, related at a walking pace from townland to townland.

I relished the recent opportunity to lead a small group guided hike up through my home mountain range in Donegal. The Bluestacks range span the entire horizon looking north from Donegal Town, and until historic times, formed a formidable natural barrier to travel – with only one infamous pass through Barnesmore Gap. The Bluestacks or Croaghgorms get their name from the fact that on hazy summer evenings, they look like rows of hay stacks and appear purple-blue in colour.

Even today, the Bluestack Mountains have retained a sense of wild, rugged beauty. The first leg of our hike took us past Jimmy Burke’s whitewashed cottage, perched below Carnaween. Jimmy was a great storyteller and held a deep belief and reverence in the fairies. Cloud shadows raced across the mountainside as a freshening wind blew around us.

Our first ascent was of Silver Hill or Cruach an Airgid. The summit provided panoramic views of Donegal Bay looking southwest, and the wee market town of Glenties, looking northwest – nestled deep in the heart of the Donegal Highlands. From Silver Hill, we descended along a deep saddle of mountain to begin our approach of Lavagh Beg. We soon dropped down into a lonely mountain valley, far from any signs of civilisation. The mind becomes much more expansive when walking in the high hills and the imagination can take flight. We passed a large erratic boulder which looked like a giant’s chair where a huge lump of quartz seemed to glow brilliantly white from within. We also saw tracks of native Red Deer in the bog. Small herds tend to move up into higher mountain pastures during the summer months.

One of my walking groups parents came from near Brockagh in An Gaeltach Láir. I was able to point out to her her parents home valley from the summit on Lavagh Beg. I was also able to tell her some stories about Pádraig Eoghain Phádraig Mac An Luain, a gifted seanchaí, who lived all his life in a remote nearby glen called The Croaghs. He was quite possibly the last monoglot (Irish-only speakers) left in Ireland when he passed away in 1979 at the grand old age of 94.

The mountain saddle between Lavagh Beg and Lavagh More was more shallow, which allowed us quicker access to one of the highest peaks in the Bluestack Mountains at 671 metres. Lavagh possibly derives from the Irish leamhach which means ‘a heap or lump’. So these twin mountains were given the unromantic names of An Leamhach Beag ‘the wee lump’ and An Leamhach Mhór ‘the big lump’!

I was able to point out Donegal Town from the summit of Lavagh More; the Sperrin Nountains in County Tryone to the east; Slieve League to the west; and Errigal and Muckish Mountain on the Northwest Donegal coastline. The sparsely populated Donegal Highlands stretched off into the hazy northern horizon, like a land that time has still forgotten.

It was blowing a gale on the summit so we quickly made our way down from Lavagh More until we came to the ridge of the steeply sided Sruell Glen. We then had some lunch above a spectacular waterfall called ‘The Grey Mare’s Tail’.The waterfall spills almost one hundred metres down the steep sided glen from a small mountain lake, above the ridge. The gusting wind sometimes caught the waterfall, sending plumes of silvery spray in our direction. I had guided my friend, Charlie Gallagher, to visit this special waterfall back in 2011. He used its waters to forge the gift of a Celtic shield he made the Dalai Lama’s visit to Ireland back in 2011 and presented it to him in front of a crowd of 2,000 people.

We made it back to where our hike began seven hours earlier, wind-burnt but elated. The great American mountaineer and conservationist John Muir summed it up nicely, “climb the mountains and get their good tidings.”

The Returning to Wonder continues.