A trip to North Wales in September afforded me the opportunity to indulge one of my other passions (yes, I’m that sad species of a railway enthusiast) and to ride end-to-end on both the Welsh Highland Railway and the Ffestiniog Railway. Sadly, health issues prevented me activating any Snowdonia SOTA summits when there, despite my best intentions, but I was reminded of my trip to the amazing Welsh slate-quarrying town of Blaenau Ffestiniog when activating a hill much nearer home today: Hill of Foudland (GM/ES-071) close to the small Aberdeenshire town of Insch. Foudland, too, has an amazing and often overlooked history of slate quarrying.
Today was about more than an activation, though. Continuing slowly to build my hill fitness, we opted for a slightly longer route up the hill, approaching from the south-west rather than the more familiar one from the north-east direction, to give me more of a gentle workout. The route begins in a small, secluded parking space (OS map ref: NJ 579 319) which leads to a pleasant narrow path up through the forest.
Within a few yards, the all-too familiar ravages of Storm Arwen - almost exactly a year ago on 25 November, 2021 - required a thankfully easy detour round the fallen timber.
This picture shows how Arwen didn’t just uproot trees but was of such violence it snapped them off halfway up. Delighted to say that my Spiderbeam pole at my home QTH survived intact!
The path continues up through the woods and emerges through a gate on to a recently felled and now re-planted commercial forestry plantation. The access tracks for forestry vehicles are clearly defined, though, and provide easy, albeit occasionally boggy, walking. Heavy rain and strong winds from the previous day meant it was occasionally a challenge to keep one’s boots dry.
This particular route climbs round the shoulder of Red Hill with its curious double cairn from where the final objective of Hill of Foudland becomes clearly visible ahead. In a short distance the forestry track leads to a substantial metalled track which leads directly to the summit.
There is only one simple navigational choice to make: after the new deer-protection fencing and gate, keep straight on, don’t turn left. (We did. Oops!)
And so to the summit. The spoil heaps of the previous quarry workings are still clearly visible through the heather.
Slate is a wonderfully varied material in colour. The usual description of “slate grey” doesn’t do it justice. From Scotland’s West Highlands at Ballachulish it’s a deep blue-black; Welsh Snowdonian slate is dark purple; English Westmorland slate is a shade of sea green, but Foudland slate is midnight blue with a crystalline sheen.
The Foudland quarries were opened in 1754 and at their peak a century later, produced almost one million hand-split slates per year. In the 1860s, there were about 65 men employed here who sat on the ground whilst cleaving the slate. They did have small shelters with slate walls and timber roofs but the quarries had to shut down each winter. It can be rough in these parts!
Although the slate from here was somewhat inferior to the smooth, regular slates from elsewhere, blocks were cut to various sizes and used for roofing buildings within roughly a 50-mile radius of the site. This included the royal residence at Balmoral Castle on Deeside.
Hill of Foudland offers great views across north-east Scotland in all directions. Thankfully, the trig point is a little way from the nearby transmitter aerials - which carry, among other things, digital broadcast radio to about 200,000 people in the area - so interference from them is not a problem.
Curiously, Hill of Foudland is the only SOTA summit to date on which I have met a fellow activator. Two years ago, in November 2020 - and prior to me becoming involved in SOTA - I met Simon @GM4JXP at this very spot, as this picture shows.
Then licensed only seven months earlier, I was hoping to do some simple /P working with an EFHW and was well impressed by his multiple antenna setup that day. He worked 173 QSOs; I didn’t work any! Hopefully I’ve learned a bit since then!
This time, we set up the tarp tent, although on such a glorious morning it wasn’t really needed, and, forsaking my standard fare of homebrew wire antennas, I connected the KX2 into a SuperAntenna MP1, the first time I have taken it on to a hill. I simply stuck it into the soft ground on its spike but soon discovered I’d taken the radials cut for 60m and 80m with me in error. I connected them up anyway and obtained a decent SWR reading from the KX2’s ATU. I also set up a Bandspringer Midi with a 4:1 UnUn on a 7m pole as a check against the SuperAntenna’s performance, switching connectors from one to the other as I listened across the bands.
Things seemed much quieter than usual (it was now 11.00) but I did manage one S2S with Alpine Germany. Still feeling my way back into SOTA after my enforced absence, I had intended to utilise my technique of previous days by simply hunting for S2S contacts via SOTAWatch, but nothing was forthcoming. Therefore, somewhat nervously, I finally put out a spot on 20 metres and within 10 minutes I had a further nine contacts in the log, all worked on the SuperAntenna with generally good signal reports. It seems it will be worth trying again as it actually outperformed the Bandspringer Midi. Watch this space.
A little after midday, it was time to head back down the two-mile track to the car, although a little reluctantly given the delightful early-November weather.
The Hill of Foudland isn’t Snowdonia, but it’s fun nonetheless. All it lacks is a narrow-gauge steam railway!
Ironically, while the 19th-century arrival of the Great North of Scotland Railway from Aberdeen to Huntly should have allowed Foudland slate to be distributed further afield, it actually enabled cheaper slate to be imported instead. The end was nigh. Coupled with a slump in the building industry, the Foudland slate quarries closed 100 years ago.
About time I closed this story now, too, before I get slated by readers!