A wander through the Scottish Highlands
12.09.2006 - 14.09.2006
The starting point, Blair Atholl. Home to one of the most photogenic historic homes in Scotland, Blair Castle, and the last remaining private army in Europe, the Atholl Highlanders. The finishing point, Aviemore. The skiing and mountain sport capital of the UK. In between, the Cairngorms National Park. Some of the most stunning scenery that Scotland has to offer, ample opportunity to lose yourself amongst the hills (literally!) and a 60km trail through Glen Tilt, Glen Dee & finally the Lairig Ghru.
The first time I attempted this walk was in September 2003. My girlfriend and I decided to trek from Aviemore back to Blair Atholl through the Lairig Ghru and the two glens. We arrived in Aviemore on an early evening train and decided to spend the night in town and head for the mountains first thing in the morning. We awoke the next day to find the first snow of the season blanketing the nearby Cairngorms. Undeterred, we set off and within 4 hours had lost sight of Aviemore after climbing up into the high mountain pass that is the Lairig Ghru. Less than an hour later we took the decision to abandon our trip and head back toward Aviemore as the temperature had plummeted, snow covered the trail and it dawned on us how unprepared we were for camping in snowy mountains.
Exactly a year later, September 2004, we decided to try again. Again starting in Aviemore and aiming for Blair Atholl. This time the sun was scorching hot, the hills were green, the sky was blue and there wasn't a cloud to be seen during the two days we spent walking through the glens. By the time we arrived in Blair Atholl at the end of the second day both my girlfriend and I had been seriously burned by the sun. Over the next month and a half my nose peeled off at least 3 times and my girlfriends chest blistered badly and stayed that way for two months. On the flip side, the lack of clouds meant the nights were freezing cold and our sleeping bags were old with poor insulation. By day we burned and by night we froze.
Walking through the Lairig Ghru, 2004. The mountain furthest away is the Devil's Point.
However, we learn from our mistakes and become wiser because of them. Well that's the theory anyway. If it were true then I'd be walking through the glens in the height of summer, the time of year when the Scottish weather is trying its hardest to be semi-reasonable, prepared for every scenario imaginable. However I find myself doing the walk for the third time in September. With snow the first year and blazing sunshine the next, my expectations for this third meander were for low grey cloud and torrential drizzle. Typical British weather. The two weeks leading up to the walk I was on both the BBC weather centre website and the met. office website practically everyday. As the departure date approached the forecast did not look good. Although there was no sight of snow, the heavens were predicted to open up and let loose a torrent of rain. Joy!
However, Tuesday morning, day one, we awoke to find blue skies with a smattering of little puffy white clouds, which I was more than happy with. Our motley band, consisting of my girlfriend Naomi and I plus my best friend Ali and his good lady Gayle in tow, were on the road heading toward Glen Tilt by 9.30am. I had hoped that we would have set off earlier and as such have a good chance of doing the walk over two days, but the later start combined with a slow initial pace meant the walking would extend to a third day. It took almost two hours of tramping through the woods before we came out into the open space of Glen Tilt. Some people love to go walking in forests, but for me it’s frustrating. You’ve no sense of the distance that’s been covered, you don’t get any views to enjoy and, in my mind, freaky people live in the woods. If you don’t believe me then you've obviously never seen the Burt Reynolds film, Deliverance. So, as you may imagine, I was more than happy when the trees thinned out and before us lay tall green hills bordering the narrow strip of agricultural land on the valley floor. Through which the river Tilt meandered.
Heading up Glen Tilt
Halfway up the glen sits Forest Lodge, a Victorian era hunting lodge that is used by Atholl Estates today to accommodate outdoorsy chaps who are willing to pay a small fortune, wear silly tweed clothing and shoot wild animals, all in the name of sport. As such the track through the glen is well maintained and fairly easy walking. We stopped for lunch about 1pm, just beyond Forest Lodge. It was, however, a fairly swift meal break as only once we had started devouring the sandwiches did we realise that we had in fact chosen a popular doggy toilet area for lunch. We were soon marching north again. The second half of the glen, i.e. the section after Forest Lodge, is much the same as the first with the exception that the hills slowly become more rugged and rockier. Then about a mile before the top of the glen and the Falls of Tarf, our camp for the night, the wide path splits and the northward trail becomes narrower and strewn with bigger rocks. It was just before this fork in the road that we walked past the only other person in the upper reaches of the glen, a young man clad entirely in tweed, complete with a tweed bonnet and high woolly socks worn on the outside of his trousers. It was amazing. He looked as though he’d just stepped out of one of the sepia photographs in Blair Castle showing stag hunts in the 1800’s. Needless to say he occupied my thoughts for the rest of the day. Maybe he had lost his fancy dress party? Maybe he was a ghost, although he looked quite tanned!? Did he realise he looked like a museum piece? Where could I get socks like those?
Looking southwards down Glen Tilt
The questions went on until I realised that Ali and Gayle had dropped behind and seemed to be struggling. At some point in the mid afternoon, Ali’s boots had decided that he no longer needed any skin on his heels and as such thought it right to rub it off. The last mile to the falls took him an hour to cover as he hobbled along in agony and by the time he collapsed onto the grass at our campsite, both his heels were missing around 2 square inches of skin. We pitched the tents and everyone was asleep by 5pm! Just before I gave in to my sleeping bag, I watched in amazement as the skies to the south disappeared and the glen became engulfed in rain clouds, yet the north stayed clear and blue. Typical British weather.
Day two started as it meant to go on, pissing rain! The tents were packed away soaking wet and it was decided that we’d aim to spend the night in corrour bothy (a small detached residence for walkers in the wilderness) in the southern end of the Lairig Ghru. However, we would be doing the rest of the walk without Ali & Gayle. Ali’s feet were in such a state that he felt he couldn’t go on and was instead faced with a 20km hobble back to Blair Atholl. We said our goodbyes, arranged to meet up at Loch Morlich (7 miles east of Aviemore) and for Ali to play taxi driver in getting us back to Blair Atholl. Naomi and I were heading north again by 9am. The change in destination from Aviemore to Loch Morlich didn’t alter the distance that we’d have to cover, in fact it might possibly be a mile or so more to walk. However, I decided that after 3 days in the hills living on instant noodles and cereal bars, some serious sustenance would be required and nothing beats the legendary all day breakfasts at the Glenmore café next to Loch Morlich. So, with a new destination in mind and the rain battering down, we were off. Our intended route to corrour bothy covered two sections of similar length. The 3 to 4 hours through a stretch of hills, which I have yet to find a name for, to White Bridge (the junction for the paths to Aviemore & Braemar). And then another 3 or 4 hours up Glen Dee to the bothy.
The nameless stretch was, in my mind, to be the most difficult section. Initially the walking was fairly easy going. The narrow path went up and down along a steep hillside but was in good condition and easy to walk on. To our right at some points the hillside fell away into a steep gorge whilst on our left the gradient was similar but stretching upwards. After about an hour the hills started to become a little gentler and more rolling. Eventually it opened out into a wide, swampy valley floor. The downside to this was the deterioration of the path to the point where it was more like walking along a river tributary. In fact, the sedate little streams that are normally tributaries of the main river had turned into raging torrents in their own right and negotiating a dry crossing was a struggle. However, after a couple of tricky crossings we soon found ourselves on a level four-wheel-drive track and making good time. The only thing standing between us and completing the section to White Bridge was the Geldie burn which would have to be waded through. On the map it’s the only river that the path crosses but in reality, after a torrential downpour, it’s one of three that must be crossed without the convenience of a bridge. Of course at the time we didn’t know this and so after successfully crossing the first body of water with relatively dry toes, thanks to many a well-placed boulder, I was extremely miffed to find a second, much wider aquatic obstacle. This was a trickier proposition but eventually crossed without too many problems. As you might imagine, the third river (and the Geldie burn proper) came as quite a shock when stumbled upon. It was only about 20 metres wide but it was the deepest, fastest flowing and most menacing of all three and the verbal outrage it produced in the wanderers stemmed from a mixture of anger and genuine fear.
Drying off after the second river crossing on day two
The walking boots came off, the trouser legs were rolled up and we waded into the icy cold, fast flowing river. The rocks underfoot were covered in algae and it was like walking on smooth balls of slippery ice. After about 5 minutes we were only a third of the way across the river and both starting to have doubts about our ability to reach the other side. At its deepest point it only reached my lower thigh but the speed of the current, the chilly temperature and the lack of stability underfoot meant that it felt almost impossible to move forward or in fact anywhere at many points. After another 5 minutes I somehow managed to reach the other side of the river but Naomi was still only halfway across and struggling badly. I took off my backpack and waded back in to try and help her across. However, just before I got to her, she lost her footing on a rock and fell face first into the river with a scream, dropping one of her shoes in the process. I helped her up and luckily she was ok, but we were left standing in the middle of the river watching her shoe being swept downstream. A feeling of dread came across me. We were at least a days walk from anywhere, in pretty rough country and all alone. For a second I was paralysed and could do nothing but watch the shoe drift away. The dread quickly turned into desperation and I somehow managed to run out of the river without breaking my ankle or falling on my face. I threw my boots on and started sprinting down the riverside. I didn’t hold much hope of spotting the shoe as firstly I’m short-sighted and secondly the grey shoe would hardly stand out from the slate-coloured river, however I kept running. I stopped, scanned the water, spotted a grey lump bobbing along in the middle of the river and ran straight into the water in the manner of a demented hurdler. As the grey lump approached it took shape and revealed itself to be the float-away shoe. A small moment of triumph.
As might be imagined, this event put a bit of a dampener, physically and mentally, on the rest of the day. We traipsed on and made it to White Bridge by 12.30. The last time we did the walk, I saw the bridge as a little beacon of civilization in the midst of a lot of wilderness. This time it merely served as a reminder of how far we still had to go. We were both at a mental low point and I have to admit I felt like crying. We made our way into the southern end of Glen Dee along a rocky path which was badly flooded at several points. The path ran along the floor of the glen, quite close to the swollen river, and was surrounded on both sides by long ferns which obstructed any views. As a result there was a constant sense of making no real progress and the afternoon turned into a long, depressing trudge through a monotonous dreary landscape. After a couple of hours of this I was beginning to feel like an emotional wreck, depressed and tramping through never-ending dullness. Being soaked to the bone and facing another full day of walking tomorrow didn’t help either. However, the familiar sight of the Devils Point came into view and lifted my spirits slightly. The Gaelic name for this mountain is Bod an Deamhain, which translates as the Devil’s penis. However the story goes that on one of Queen Victoria’s outings into the mountains she saw this hill and asked her ghillie, John Brown, to translate the name for her. Of course Mr Brown obliged but gave an anglicised translation fit for a queens ears. Thus, to this day it’s marked on maps as the Devils Point. And it is at the foot of the afore-mentioned mountain that Corrour bothy is located, our home for that evening.
We continued on. I guessed that it would take about an hour and a half to reach the bothy from when we first saw the mountain. However, after 45 minutes the path had completely disappeared under what was essentially a massive, ankle-deep pond. We splashed northwards for a while until coming across another path free of aquatic hindrance. This led straight to the bothy, with the only catch being the extremely boggy moor which had to be tackled first. On the crossing of which, it wasn’t uncommon to step forward only to see the majority of the lower half of your leg disappear into a large, boot-shaped hole in the mud. By the time we reached the bothy I was of the opinion that even if the little shack was packed to the rafters with German school kids I wasn’t sleeping outside. This scenario may seem a little unlikely due to the remoteness but as it turned out the bothy was in fact being occupied, but by a young Czech couple as apposed to the kindergarten mentioned previously. Hellos and ahojs were exchanged and I thanked the European Union as our cousins from the east plied us with hot tea. Our spirits lifted as we dried out over the next few hours and our group of four consumed the little bottles of wine that I’d packed (emergency rations!). Then, a little later on we were joined in the bothy by two German walkers who came prepared with tomatoes and beer, but no sleeping bag or mat. Instead, one of them had a shiny, metallic survival blanket that he rustled in all night long and the other just slept in his jacket on the floor. I couldn’t quite decide whether they were tough campers or just stupid.
Corrour Bothy at the foot of The Devil's Point
Day three, the final day, started well. We managed to cross the boggy moor relatively unscathed and quickly found the path heading north through the Lairig Ghru. Although still quite flooded, the track provided fairly easy walking for the first couple of hours. The contrast between the bright, green and inviting hills of Glen Tilt compared with the rocky, moody and ominous looking peaks either side of the Lairig Ghru was stark. Gradually the path climbed higher into the pass and the weather deteriorated. We were close to the highest point in the Lairig Ghru, 838 metres above sea level, when the clouds came rolling along and reduced visibility to about 15 metres. There were icy, whipping winds that chilled you to the bone and the sedate little streams that flow south had turned into angry torrents that spilled over onto sections of the track, forcing the frozen wanderers uphill to traipse across the heather covered hillside. About 3 hours after leaving the bothy we reached the start of the boulder field which covers the summit of the pass. The Lairig Ghru was used up until the 1870’s by cattle drovers taking their herds from Aviemore and Speyside, through the mountains to Braemar and Aberdeenshire. Upon getting to the boulder field, it was difficult to try and imagine dozens of cows crossing this section of the trail as some of the boulders were huge and perched very precariously. On a number of occasions whilst navigating a route across the rocks I almost broke my ankle and/or fell onto a very jagged and unwelcoming boulder. I’d imagine there would have been a few casualties amongst the cows.
Despite the difficulties and dangers we made good progress and a mere 4 hours after leaving the bothy we had Aviemore in sight, albeit a long way off in the distance. We picked our way along the rocky path toward the northern side of the Cairngorm mountain range and the Rothiemurchus & Glenmore forests below. The boulder-strewn mountains either side of the path reminded me of Mordor in the Lord of the Rings and I had visions of little master Frodo scrambling up the hillside with a nasty, evil ring. I think at that point I realized that I’d been in the wilderness too long. However, soon after we were descending out of the mountains and into the ever so green pine forests below. I didn’t realize at the time how desolate the Scottish highlands can be as although we’d only left the forests of Blair Atholl a couple of days ago, I marveled at the sights, sounds and smells of the woods and all the life that goes with it. I was having a “happy attack” and could do nothing but smile. The temperature rose as we descended and slowly the layers of clothing had to be peeled off, revealing 3 days worth of hard earned stinkyness. We plodded happily through the warm woods, contemplating what we had just achieved. In this thoughtful mood we arrived at Loch Morlich and made our way back into civilization with the first stop being the Glenmore café and its legendary all day breakfast. Happiness had a new level. So overwhelming was my joy at bacon and eggs that I suppressed the niggling thought that I might actually have trench-foot after two days of being soaked and three days of pounding. It may have been the finest hot meal of my life.
Looking back toward the cloud engulfed Lairig Ghru
After 3 days of hard walking to reach Loch Morlich, it came as a bit of a shock to the system when Ali picked us up in his car and took us back to Blair Atholl in less than an hour. It felt like the fastest car journey of my life and all the way down the road all I could do was sit and stare at the mountains longingly. After a lot of hard walking and possibly one of the worst days of my life I still wanted to go back. The Highlands are like that though. Maybe next September…