At just 366 metres, Meikle Balloch, GM/ES-082 isn’t a big hill, but today it was a mountain to climb for me.
The six months that have elapsed since my previous activation, still in my first year of SOTA, have been dominated by a debilitating illness which is improving but has yet to depart fully. Today, however, accompanied by my team of wife, son, two grandchildren and omnipresent SOTA dog for moral support, I was determined to get back into the hills, even if it was just a little one, to start activating once more.
Meikle Balloch (the name comes from the Gaelic “Bealach” which means an opening or pass through the hills and “Meikle” which is Scots for great or large) lies just three miles from the Aberdeenshire town of Keith in north-east Scotland, which itself lies at the start of the famed “Whisky Trail” of world-famous distilleries. The summit is just 17 miles from my home QTH.
There is a small parking area for a few cars at the starting point.
The aftermath of the vicious storms suffered by this area less than a year ago is still evident with one of the access paths still blocked, but this is easily by-passed on the other waymarked routes.
The route heads steadfastly upwards and initially arrow-straight through pleasant woodland, which becomes thicker as you ascend, on well-maintained paths throughout.
Just when you think you might not see daylight again for some time, the path bursts out on to the ridge with the summit not too far away.
The summit is wide and heather-covered with plenty of space for antennas. There are fine 360-degree views from the trig point, with Tap o’Noth (GM/ES-054) visible behind it, and further round, views to Ben Rinnes (GM/ES-021) and down to the town of Keith itself in the valley below.
OK, enough of the tourist-board-type waffle. It was time to get the radio out. While the family constructed the tarp tent for themselves to offer some shelter from the disappointingly keen wind, I opted initially for my homebrew compact “up and across” antenna for 20m, coupled to my KX2. I only had my 6m carbon pole with me, which is really too short for this antenna, but I gave it a go anyway.
My illness has left me a little uneasy and flustered at times and so I opted just to listen rather than call CQ. The band soon offered up the familiar tones of Horst @OE6STD and a first S2S of the day was secured. Or so I thought. Unfortunately, I messed up giving him my SOTA reference by one digit (amazing how an 8 can look like a 6 in poor light on a hill) an error which was spotted immediately by my ever-attentive support crew who were listening discreetly behind me. I couldn’t raise him on air again so an instant apologetic email was sent from the summit in the hope that my error can be corrected. It wasn’t a good start for an anxious activator and I was seriously hacked off by such a schoolboy mistake on my part.
No matter, I pressed on and a few minutes later worked Fritz @HB9IQL for a second S2S.
As the wind rose, I changed my antenna on the pole to a 41ft end-fed wire with 17ft counterpoise that I made up a few days ago, coupled to a 9:1 UnUn.
Scanning across the bands, it tuned up well on 20m and 17m and particularly well on 15m where a good S2S with Stephan @HB9EAJ working as F/HB9EAJ in the Vosges Mountains gave me a third S2S contact.
Returning to 20m, I then worked Robert @HB9OME for a fourth S2S and the requisite 1pt for activating Meikle Balloch was in the bag. An hour after arriving, that was enough for me for one day. Time to pack up and head back down via a waymarked path which offers a pleasant round-trip to the summit and back.
Compared with what most activators achieve, today is almost not worth recording but for me, it was a mountain climbed, a significant achievement and, hopefully, a corner turned, despite fluffing my lines and opting for gentle S2S contacts rather than facing the possibility of dealing with a wee pile-up following a spot. Those days will come again, I hope, but for now I’m back in the shack, tired and sore but uplifted by the fact that no matter how small the summit, or how few the contacts, the sheer joy of a SOTA activation on a Scottish hill is irreplaceable.
Soon it will be onward, and upward, once more, I hope. I can’t wait.