Mr. Richardson was our part-time gardener when we lived at the Green Walk in Chingford, north London in the 1940s. He used to come round a couple of times a week for an afternoon’s jobbing work. As a small boy I would often 'help' him with his rather set routine. He would cut the large back lawn with a huge push mower that purred over the grass leaving it beautifully striped with silvery and darker green. He would weed the herbaceous borders with their helianthemums and Michaelmas daisies and the vegetable patch towards the end of the garden. He had a compost heap and a shed down there too, the latter filled with all sorts of intriguing objects like trowels, trugs, spades, sieves, forks, rakes, hoes and long, buff horsetails of bast. This was raffia bast, used for tying plants and binding taller stems. There were also boxes and drawers of assorted nails and screws and a strong smell of creosote used for painting the close boarded fences around the garden.
The compost heap was enclosed by large broken lumps of concrete. These must, I think, have come from a demolished World War II air raid shelter. Behind it, the remotest feature of the garden, was a mature laburnum tree which I regularly used to climb so that I could survey the back gardens of the houses in Mount View Road. I remember these from when a V2 bomb landed nearby in about 1944 and blew the backs of several of the Mount View properties, leaving them like dolls houses with one side removed. I fell out of the laburnum once when a dead branch broke, but made a soft landing on the compost heap though I grazed my head slightly on one of the sharp edges of a concrete boulder.
One of the finest features of the garden was four or five pear trees on the fences to the east and west of the large lawn. These had been trained as espaliers, with lateral branches reaching out horizontally, herring bone style against the fence. In winter the year's growth would be carefully pruned back to retain the shape of the trees and generate fruiting spurs for the summer's pears.
This reminds me now of the well-known passage from Czech writer Milan Kundera's The Book of Laughter and Forgetting:
One night, for example, the tanks of a huge neighbouring country came and occupied their country [a reference to the 1968 Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia]. The shock was so great, so terrible, that for a long time no one could think about anything else. It was August, and the pears in their garden were nearly ripe. The week before, Mother had invited the local pharmacist to come and pick them. He never came, never even apologized. The fact that Mother refused to forgive him drove Karel and Marketa crazy. Everybody's thinking about tanks, and all you can think about is pears, they yelled. And when shortly afterwards they moved away, they took the memory of her pettiness with them.
But are tanks really more important than pears? As time passed, Karel realized that the answer was not so obvious as he had once thought, and he began sympathizing secretly with Mother's perspective--a big pear in the foreground and somewhere off in the distance a tank, tiny as a ladybug, ready at any moment to take wing and disappear from sight. So Mother was right after all: tanks are mortal, pears eternal.
Halfway through his afternoon stints, Mr Richardson would come indoors for a cup of tea and one of my grandmother'’s rock cakes. He usually wore a waistcoat over a striped shirt and would take his flat cap off. He sat on a heavy ladder-backed carver chair at the end of the wooden kitchen table and I was always intrigued by the fact that he had lost a finger on one hand so that he held cup and cake in an unusual way. The chair followed us for many years, but gradually fell to pieces and finally expired on a bonfire, the kind of bonfire Mr Richardson would have approved of, in about 2010.
My first trip to Scotland was when I was sixteen. At the end of the summer term I was asked not to return to Lancing College, my boarding school, as I was deemed ineducable. My parents didn't really know what to do with me but, somehow, my mother learnt of adventure training courses run by the Scottish Council of Physical Education (now Sportscotland) at Glenmore Lodge a Highland centre near Aviemore. The Glenmore Lodge I stayed in lies some seven miles east of Aviemore, and was formerly a Victorian hunting lodge. It became a hostel when the Central Council for Physical Education acquired it in 1947. It later became the Loch Morlich Youth Hostel, and then the Cairngorm Lodge Youth Hostel (which is its name today) after a newly built National Outdoor Training Centre was opened nearby in 1996 and was named Glenmore.
I set off by myself from home in Robertsbridge, East Sussex with rucksack and walking boots on the 600 mile train journey, mostly through the night and was met by coach with others in that fortnight's mixed group of students. These fellow travellers mostly came from Scotland or the north of England but, being fresh out of boarding school, I settled in straight away.
From Aviemore station we drove through Inverdruie and Coylumbridge then followed the valleys of the rivers Druie and Luineag to Loch Morlich on the 7 mile journey to the Lodge itself in Glen More. The road ran through pine forests both natural and planted with areas of rough brown grass, moss, bilberry and heather. Some of the drier parts were close planted with conifers of even age giving an almost scandinoir film dimension and there were scattered boggy areas of pale green and fawn. The occasional patches of the old Caledonian Forest were characterised by the open branched Scots pines quite different in shape from Scots pines elsewhere in Britain and sometimes distinguished as Pinus sylvestris subspecies scotia.
Coylumbridge is often said to be a newly built hamlet but it features on many maps of over a century old. Today there is a four star, modern hotel there opened in 1965 on land granted by the Rothiemurchus Estate and many new buildings housing various sports and holiday activities.
On past the grey stone of the Aultnancaber hunting lodge, now a clay pigeon shooting centre, past the layby at the start of the track to what was the Cairngorm Sled-dog Centre opened around 2001 at Moormore. Among the conventional sled dog options, floodlit sledging was available. The centre closed in 2020 due, according to the owners, to global warming though they claimed that snow was not essential for sled dog action. This heavily forested area with its rows of Scots pines is shown on the map both as the Queen's Forest and Glen More Forest but there are often many layers of naming in the Aviemore area. In one of the more open areas to the south of the road there is the placename Rinraoich over open, boggy ground with a small 1,000 foot summit nearby. Rinraoich is thought to have been the location of a heather shieling, once an area of heathy pasture grazing.
Where the road turns south towards Loch Morlich, there is the start of track on the northern side that leads to the Badaguish Centre established by The Speyside Trust in 2006 and catering for people with disabilities. This is essentially cabin style holiday accommodation with a range of appropriate activities at a site in a remote part of the Queen's Forest.
Visiting the web sites and other marketing manifestations of the various attractions in the area a curious paradox emerges. The primary offer seems to be the opportunity to relax and stuff yourself with food and drink in tranquil and beautiful places, whereas the social intention of the tourist resort dimension seems to be on activity and vigorous sports and pursuits both outdoor and indoor. The centre also offers a Speyside Kitchen with a wide range of conventional restaurant dishes and a few specialities such as locally made boerewors sausage, popular in southern Africa, with sticky onion sauce. Elsewhere fancy names have been coined for new facilities, the Pine Marten Bar and Scran for example (scran is a Scots word meaning, among other things, take away food) at the Glenmore Centre. Then there is a car park near Glenmore Lodge strangely titled the Wanderparkplatz (perhaps to make German visitors feel at home). It is as though the lovely but unpronounceable local place names in Scottish Gaelic like Cnap Coire na Spreidhe weren't enough vocabularic variation. A short distance further east of the Youth Hostel is the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre. To add to the etymological circus 'reindeer' is a word deriving from the Old Norse 'hreindyri'.
Not far along from the road from the Badaguish turn is the sign for Rothiemurchus Centre under Castle Hill some distance from the Glenmore road. It offers cabin and chalet accommodation to members of the British forces and associated people and organisations. There are also picnic sites, fishing opportunities, cycle trails and orienteering facilities on or near the shores of Loch Morlich and a large sandy area called Loch Morlich Beach, said to be the highest beach in the British Isles. One intriguing feature is a monument marked at full stop size on the map just north of the road and the western end of Loch Morlich. The Highland Historic Environment Bureau are aware of this but claim to know nothing much else about it - what it commemorates and how old it is. Neither do they have a photo or drawing of it. However, using StreetView an object like a sundial can be seen among the pines in more or less the correct position and is apparently known as 'The Queen's Forest Pillar' a name presumably connected to the fact that the surrounding area is shown on the map as The Queen's Forest.
As outlined above the Glenmore Lodge I stayed in in 1954 is now the Loch Morlich Youth Hostel. It later became the Cairngorm Lodge Youth Hostel. A new build, Scotland's National Outdoor Training Centre, a short distance to the east of Glenmore Lodge, was opened 1996 and appropriated the one word name Glenmore. This complicated nomenclature means that many of the maps and other manifestations of the area's geography are incorrect and/or out of date, ironic for institutions one of whose major aims is to teach hill walking visitors how to use maps. The web site of the Reindeer Centre at Glenmore also claims that SatNav directions will take you to the wrong place - all part of the magic of the Highlands no doubt.
When we arrived at Glenmore Lodge males were separated from females and we were allocated bunk beds in dormitories of half a dozen people. Very utilitarian with bland pale blue and cream walls and rough blankets. We all had to stow our walking boots and other outdoor accoutrements and then assemble in the dining room for our first meal for which we sat on benches on either side of long trestle tables. Then we were mustered for briefing before outdoor activities began. This walking, climbing, sailing and kayaking I will cover in another place.
On some of the evenings there were social activities and I particularly remember everyone singing this song with its words and tune ringing through the ceilidh on the last evening of the course.
From Perth up to Dalwhinnie And on to Aviemore The hills and aw there splendour Would set my heart a glow You'll make the open highway And head for old Glenmore
The tune appears to be The Lights of Lochindaal a Scottish dance tune about Islay and I like the version on YouTube by Jack Sinclair's Television Showband. The words I knew are thought to have been written to the tune perhaps by someone at Glenmore Lodge. The song is a couple of lines short but the last two lines can be repeated at the end of the verse, The hills and aw there splendour should perhaps be The hills and all their splendour.
Despite the healthy and invigorating activities, the young people on the course soon tended to form into male/female pairs. Somehow, by the end of the first week, I found myself increasingly involved with a girl from Edinburgh called Faye. We had very innocent, fully clothed wrestling matches on her bunk bed. Being an only child and at boys boarding school from the age of twelve I knew very little about women either mentally or physically and, I am sure, Faye knew very little about men in those far off days when sexual relations were still very restrictive and contraception unreliable or non-existent. I had never had a sex education lesson or a biological chat from my mother or father. Faye was a lively and warm young woman with a posh Edinburgh accent and now, after all these years, I particularly remember the soft and fluffy very feminine pink jumper she often wore and her bright scarlet lipstick. After we returned to our respective homes from Glen More we wrote love letters to one another from time to time and hers would always be drenched in perfume and have SWALK inscribed in that bright scarlet lipstick on the back of the envelope.
On the second day of our outdoor training course at Glenmore we were told to put on walking boots and weatherproof clothes for an ascent of the nearby hill (or mountain) called Meall a' Bhuachaille which at 810 metres (2,657 feet) is classified as a Corbett, a Scottish mountain over 2,500 feet (762 metres) and under 3,000 feet (914.4 metres), The meall lies like a sleeping elephant at the eastern end of the two and a half mile long Craiggowrie Ridge. This is a range of smooth sided, dark grey, hills rather than mountains that wobbles along like king sized downs, quite different from the granite heights of the Cairngorms on the other side of Glen More. The difference is because the underlying geology of the ridge is schist whereas that of the Cairngorms is granite.
The Scots Gaelic name means Hill of the Herdsman and the pronunciation is a bit like Mall of Vroccoli. The underlying schist geology provides more soil fertility and hence better grazing than the granite Cairngorms which explains the Gaelic name. Wikipedia says that schist is "a mediumn-grained metamorphic rock showing pronounced schistosity". The latter not, I believe, a word in everyday use.
After walking for ¾ mile uphill through the pines by the Coire Chondlaich burn we emerged into the sunshine and the open ground of grass and heather tufts all as brown and bristly as a boar's back on the southern flank of the mountains. On the approach to the meall there is a path running northwest along the Craiggowrie ridge via the summits of Creagan Gorm, Creag a' Chaillich and Craiggowrie itself. The footpaths over these hills and the meall itself are very clear both on the ground and from the air. Bare of vegetation from the regular footfall of hill walkers the schist of the paths has been ground into pale narrow ribbons of sand in marked contrast to the tanny gramshoch surroundings and quite soft and easy to walk on. I enjoyed watching my newly broken-in boots padding along behind a file of hill walkers resembling a train of ants following a trail back to their nest. At the summit of Meall a' Bhuachaille I met the first cairn of my life.
The steep descent on the eastern flank of the meall led to Ryvoan (originally Rebhoan), a bothy at the northern end of its eponymous pass and just inside the Abernethy National Nature Reserve. 'Bothy' is a word for a small shelter and the word is cognate with the English 'booth' and Welsh 'bwthyn' (a cottage). In Scotland a bothy is generally a free, cottage-like shelter in a remote place where walkers and cyclists can spend a warm, dry night. The drovers of the past used to travel through the Ryvoan Pass and there are various tales of fairies and witches associated the area. In some accounts their small black cows are referred to but there do not appear to have been any small black cows associated with the Highland glens. The famous Aberdeen Angus are more likely to be found on the rich pastures to the east of the hills in Aberdeenshire and Moray while the Highland cattle with big horns and shaggy coats occasionally come in black but are quite large. The Galloway (not the belted Galloway) is small and black but more associated with south west Scotland.
On the last leg back to Glenmore we followed the Faithe-Dubh burn. The Gaelic translates as 'black prophet', perhaps just another of the spooky manifestations of these forests and mountains. The path also ran beside An Lochan Uaine, The Green Tarn, where it is held the fairies wash their clothes colouring the water green. Having done my homework I had hoped to see some old Caledonian forest fauna in this last wooded stretch: crossbills and crested tits, red squirrels and maybe the odd pine marten, but the pines were still, dark and silent as they often seem to be everywhere.
As well as rock climbing and mountaineering, about a third of the course at Glenmore Lodge involved water-borne activities. I was not quite so keen on these as they usually involved getting cold and wet as well as sitting fairly still.
Our first session was to learn elementary sailing on Loch Morlich and a small group of us - two girls, the instructor and I - proceeded, suitably clothed to the mooring nearby where our vessel stood waiting. It looked like a large, wooden rowing boat with a mast and a sail and quite unlike the ubiquitous white plastic dinghies of today or the modern wooden ones.
Loch Morlich is roughly circular and about 2½ miles across having been formed as a kettle hole when the glaciers retreated after the last Ice Age. A kettle hole is when a large lump of ice shed by a glacier melts slowly under a capping of sand and silt ground out by glacial action elsewhere and dumped over the stranded iceberg. Some geologists suggest the Loch Morlich landform is a jökulhaup, an expressive Icelandic term for a glacial flood beware the jökulhaup. Apart from its circular shape one of the few indications of these mighty events in the past is the Loch Morlich beach. This is an extensive area of sand at the eastern end of the loch now popular for a variety of traditional beach activities. At 300 meters above sea level It is the highest beach in Scotland and therefore often freezing cold. The sand is described either as pink, white or golden and a trawl through the numerous online photos show all these shades with the golden slightly more numerous. One old account says:
At the upper end (of Loch Morlich) there are great banks of the smoothest white granite sand, formed by the attrition of the waters on the rocks around, in which grow dwarf juniper bushes and willows, spreading widely and flatly over the surface, and knitting the particles of sand into a compact sward.
Although the sand is said to have been ground out from Cairngorm granite, I suspect the schists of the mountains on the north side of the loch played a major role especially as they are more grindable. Some accounts say the beach sand is full of glass (surely untrue) which might lessen its attraction for bare footed swimmers and picnickers. Even more astonishing is that this idea seems to be conflated with the fact that some Norwegian commandos trained in the area during World War Two. Maybe the Norwegians had such a powerful grip they could crush glass bottles to powder with their fists.
Once we got going the capricious winds from the mountains drove us hither and thither across the flat expanse of water with its baby waves. The distant landscape was superb in all directions but I thought the loch itself rather dull, no islands or inlets to explore. We saw no goldeneye ducks, red-throated divers, hunting ospreys or foraging otters on or above the surface and, as can only be expected, the pike and rainbow trout stayed hidden in the depths. I remember no aquatic flora - reed beds, bulrushes, water lilies and so forth. One can really bring a place to life by describing what isn't there, or isn't visible.
Tacking to and fro with the variable winds across the water and learning how to dodge being brained by the boom we eventually reached the centre of the loch some half a mile from the shore. Maybe it would be a good Idea to build a new tourist village on the far side of the loch so that visitors could sail, or otherwise be transported by water, between one side and the other with various attractions in each place. As it was all we could do was potter about for a while before heading back to where we had started from. It was at this juncture that the urge to have a pee struck me but, as I was a shy sixteen year old among a mixed company of strangers, I thought I would have to hold it. We sailed round and round and I got weaker and weaker with constraint while the others chatted and laughed about what fun sailing was. Eventually I think I must have become slightly delirious as I could hear the strains of the small pipes wafting from the woods along the shore playing the sithes' Fairy Dance
I wondered if the piper was Big Donald, King of the Fairies, himself and later learnt that his headquarters was at Loch Morlich. I think he wanted to make sure I never went back.
A few days later a new group of us left Glenmore Lodge and travelled to the bank of the river Spey for our kayaking experience. My memory of this episode is so frayed compared with my hill walking, rock climbing and sailing adventures during the rest of my course at Glenmore Lodge that I sometimes wonder if this riverine episode happened at all. Shooting white water rapids was certainly exciting and memorable, but maybe the scene along the river did not change enough. When we arrived at the launch point we were shown, among other things how to return a kayak to top side up should it capsize while one was stuck inside . We were also told how to shoot white water rapids by aiming for the smooth wave between the foamy bits. This seemed to work and both I and the kayak remained intact throughout. Nevertheless, I returned to the Lodge wet, cold and hungry.
One possible starting point for our spey was the Aviemore pinch point where the railway, Dallaber Road, woodlands and grassy banks run by the river. There is a picture here Kayaking on the River Spey at Aviemore taken in 2011 showing clothes, kayaks and almost everything else in rainbow colours quite unlike the sensible hunting green and badger grey we wore in 1954. The Spey is quite a long river divided by two names, the upper 'Strathspey' and the lower 'Speyside' the one changing into the other at Grantown-on-Spey. Apart from a sporranful of well-worn Highland tropes and clichés I don’t think I am doing Strathspey justice and will therefore leave it. Even the music is parodically Scottish (to an Englishman). Amaze your friends with The Source of the Spey, a type of reel known as a Strathspey, which is a subtype of country dance. Or the Scottish guide to strap-hanging www.youtube Scottish guide to strap-hanging.
In late summer 1954 I stood on the Cairngorm plateau by the summit of Ben Macdui, a Scottish Munro at 1309 metres, (4295 feet) and the second highest mountain in Britain. I was with a small group of friends in a cold Scottish mist drifting over the sub-arctic landscape of rounded wind flattened boulders like concrete cowpats decorated with orange patches of lichen and bordered by cushiony green carpets of woolly fringe-moss. Ben Macdui is not really a peak but the highest point in a granite plateau with several named points over 1000 metres (3281 feet) in height. We had set off early the previous morning from Glenmore Lodge on a two day expedition to cover most of the higher points in the Cairngorms. The first section was through the pine forests of the Glenmore Forest, now a National Nature Reserve. The trees were quite widely spaced and sunshine fell on the softly mossy, silent ground with its blanket of decaying pine needles We emerged from the woodlands to trudge slowly up the lower slopes of Coire Cas, an area much of which is now given over to skiing and its accompanying facilities. In 1954 the only structure on these slopes was Jean's Hut, a refuge or bothy built to commemorate Jean McIntyre Smith who died here in a skiing accident on 17th March 1948. There is a line of Gaelic on the website covering her story: Cha till I taillight (' I will not return') which I think refers to a bagpipe lament. It sadly reflects the way in which Jean's Hut, built in 1951, was moved in around 1964 to nearby Coire an Lochain, before being taken away altogether and its commemorative plaque lost.
Jean's Hut was near the site of what is named on the maps of today as the White Lady Shieling at an altitude around 2,500 feet. This relatively small area is shown as crowded with modern names like flies around some carrion and contrasting with the scattered Gaelic overlay of most of the Cairngorms, the ghosts of a language that was once universally spoken there. A shieling was a simple hut or collection of huts and the surrounding pasture used in the warmer months. While it may look Gaelic, shieling is a Scots/Middle English word in origin and they were largely absent in the Cairngorms because of the hunting reserves in the area. Its use today in Coire Cas perhaps derives from a restaurant called The Shieling that was built there in 1960s. This subsequently burnt down in a blizzard (sic) in 1985. The name 'White Lady' refers to the large ski-able snowfield that accumulates in the colder months It was originally the Lady Grant Snowfield from the Grants of Rothiemurchus. It is tempting to consider this as a reminder of the fairy white women, the Baobhan Sith, of Highland legend. These were very nasty female vampires that would make a good triple x horror film.
The ptarmigan (Lagopus muta millesi) is a mountain bird related to the grouse. The range of the endemic British subspecies is on the highest Scottish mountains from 2500ft upwards. Its name is essentially the Scots Gaelic tarmachan but a 17th century antiquarian thought it looked more like Classical Greek (and therefore better) if you prefixed it with a silent p. I suspect few British people outside Scotland have any idea of what a ptarmigan is. I feel privileged to have seen a small flocks of them scuttling and fluttering among the rocks on the Cairngorm plateau, especially as they let us approach quite closely.
The original Ptarmigan restaurant, which looked like a small flying saucer at 500 feet from the summit of Cairn Gorm, was opened in 1968. The new Ptarmigan restaurant was opened in 1970 and is still there. Its menu is fairly conventional for the type of restaurant with a few items like venison chilli and Cullen skink reflecting A Taste of Scotland. Cullen is a village on the Moray coast fifty miles north east of the Cairngorms and skink a modern word for shin, an ingredient that, so they say, used to be used1. Today the dish is a thick milk soup based on smoked haddock with potatoes and various other ingredients. Ptarmigan, not surprisingly, is not on the menu though perfectly edible. The Internet reveals a range of recipes for roast, braised, boiled and fried ptarmigan while Country Sport Scotland says, "If you like a physical challenge and appreciate the beauty of Scotland's high tops then ptarmigan shooting is for you". The Cairngorms today have a well-known, free-ranging reindeer herd but this is managed more as a tourist attraction than as a source of meat, though this is good to eat.
The Ptarmigan Station is also the terminus of the Cairngorm Mountain Railway opened in 2001 and replacing the White Lady Chairlift. The railway is a funicular with two bright blue carriages like single decker buses attached at either end of a skipping rope style cable so that one carriage goes up when the other goes down and vice versa. It was a popular tourist attraction and in order to protect the unique ecology warmer month passengers were not allowed to get out at the top station. However, at the time of writing, the railway has been closed for some time while structural repairs are being undertaken.
A few days before our trek we had been schooled in rock climbing at first on quite small, but often tricky rock faces, chimneys and other challenges. As a climax three of us were roped to an instructor to ascend the north facing central headwall of Coire an t-Sneachda (it means Corry of the Snows and is pronounced Corry antrekker) to the top of the cliffs between Stob Coire an t-Sneachda (1176 metres) and Cairn Lochan (1215 metres) . This was a serious climb not for the faint hearted and much of the way the need to concentrate on hand and footholds overcame vertigo. I do remember sitting on a narrow granite eyrie decorated with a few tufts of grass about halfway up waiting for my turn to climb and looking outwards for miles across the mist veiled, grey brown Highland landscape and downwards to the two tiny lochans, small pools at the base of the cliffs. Over the years Coire an t-Sneachda has become increasingly popular with climbers, especially during arctic conditions in winter and a number of people have died on its challenging cliffs.
Halfway between the highest ski lift and the summit of Cairn Gorm at about 1190 metres is a spring called Marquis' Well named, it is thought, after one of the Marquises of Huntley. It is said to be the highest spring in the British Isles. It is shown hiding among the brown contour lines on the Ordnance Survey map as a pale blue full stop plus its pale blue name. On the mountain side it is a patch of clear shallow water trickling among the rocks and gravel beside the footpath. I suspect many walkers on their way to the top of Cairn Gorm must pass it by unaware of its geographic and historic significance. It must have been there long before any of the ski resort was put in place and maybe will still be there long after it has gone.
Once we had paid our respects to the summit of Cairn Gorm (1245 metres) we made our way across the undulating plateau which seldom fell below 1000ft (3281 metres) keeping our ears open for Am Fear Liath Mòr, the Big Grey Man a ghostly giant reputed to prowl these heights. Most accounts tell of hearing footsteps behind them, but I think the wind among the flattened boulders could account for this. We next made our way through the broken, craggy ground to the heights above Loch A’an (aka Loch Avon, pronounced a’an). ‘Avon’ is possibly a Pictish word used by the ancient tribes of pre-Gaelic northern Scotland and cognate with the Welsh ‘afon’ meaning ‘river’ and the widespread river Avons of England. It may be that the Picts gave particular significan to this remote loch and their name stuck. At 730 metres above sea level the loch is frozen for much of the year. Four miles long It lies like a huge whale stuck in a deep undersea trench between towering crags and slopes with blue grey water that runs out as the River Avon. The awesome combination of rock and glacial lake in this remote location creates a unique, much photographed, adjective-bound landscape that lifts the modern spirit.
From Cairn Gorm we made our way to The Saddle, a col with fine views in all directions and descended steeply to the Loch A’an shore following the path to the loch head under the towering cliffs of Stac an Fharaidh (Ladder Crag) to the Shelter Stone. This, until you have been there, is an almost mythical place. It is a massive cubical boulder that has fallen down from the cliffs above and come to rest on smaller boulders already fallen leaving a space underneath thereby. This accidental cave has been used as a shelter for people wandering the Cairngorms for centuries and can give rather damp and oppressive accommodation to six or so people. It is difficult to say why it should be such a popular feature for explorers of these mountains but in any social gathering it is frequently mentioned. Perhaps it stirs an atavistic memory of our caveman days.
We bivouacked for the night near, but not in, the Shelter Stone and when I woke up I sat hypnotised by the vast and magical scene of rock, water, sky and cloud. Later in life I realised that was my tourist brochure way of looking at it. The Reverend Charles Cordiner, an Episcopalian cleric writing in 1788 said, for example (it is assumed of the Shelter Stone area): a hideous cavern, awful as hermit ever retired to, yawning over the end of a dreary lake …. It chills the blood to enter it.
Once underway we headed south climbing near the Garbh Uisge Beag snow patch still present that summer but today usually melted away before the new winter. Snow patches have their own flora and fauna around the edges, so it is sad to see them go probably for ever in Britain as global warming increases. Below us by the Derry Burn on the floor of Coire Etchachan they had started building the Hutchison Memorial Hut, a modern bothy commemorating Dr Arthur Gilbertson Hutchison a geologist and mountaineer who died in a climbing accident in Wales in 1949.
We soon reached the shores of Loch Etchachan, at 927 metres (3,041ft) the highest loch in Britain (there are some small lochans nearby that are slightly higher) . It covers about 27 hectares (68 acres) and is some 20 metres (66 feet) deep. Loch Etchachan itself found a permanent place in my imagination “lying like a drop of ink at the base of a huge, dark, mural precipice”. I harboured a lifelong desire to go and spend a year beside it like Henri Thoreau at Walden Pond just to see what happened there. Golden eagles sailing over Cárn Etchachan, arctic hares making tracks through the winter snow, spring with green cushions of moss campion studded with shocking pink flowers and the ever present ptarmigan changing from winter to summer plumage. I would try and discover all the species that lived in and beside the loch or visited it. I did wonder when I gazed at the dark waters if there were any fish and I found in the 1977 Nature Conservation Review an account that said, “brown trout have been introduced in the past but recent attempts to catch any have failed.” However, the Cairngorm Club Journal for 1895 says of the loch “it contains trout and formerly a boat was kept on it for the use of fishermen, but it was maliciously destroyed.” I wonder who carried the boat up there. The Review also recorded a mayfly, a caddis fly, a stone fly and a diving beetle as well as plenty of non-biting midges and various micro-organisms all breeding in the water, so there is a lot going on there. It has also been used for wild swimming and wind surfing, but I hope it is not used for human recreation too much.
As usual I had read a little about the flora and fauna of the place I was visiting and had hoped to see some of the more charismatic species of the high Cairngorms. However, I saw very little wildlife and had to resort in my imagination as to what might have been, though I do think being in a place and knowing that somewhere there are interesting species lurking out of sight enhances the experience of that environment. My custom of writing about what I did not see remains. First here is the dotterel, a pigeon sized bird of the plover clan that nests in places like the Cairngorm plateau. After the female has laid her eggs, she flies off to fresh fields and partners new while the male incubates the eggs and cares for the young. The adult birds also reflect this sexual reversal, the females being more brightly coloured in their grey white and orange plumage than the males. The British dotterels spend their winters in north Africa and migrates to their traditional breeding areas in April and early May. In the past when migrating they used to appear in quite large numbers in areas like the Dunstable Downs north of London and the Lincolnshire Wolds and were literally harvested as food, being trapped in nets and/or shot. It seems its culinary virtues were highly regarded as one of the most toothsome meats. The feathers were also much sought by fly dressers, people who create fishing flies. The bird shows relatively tame behaviour hence its name which means ‘silly’ or ‘doddering’. This and the spread of urbanisation will have greatly reduced its numbers but now, as a protected species, it continues to decline rapidly and studies point to habitat change partly driven by global warming and nitrification being the likely causes. During the breeding season the birds with their sandpiper bills feed on invertebrates and there would be many species with larvae reaching maturity in the mats and cushions of woolly thread-moss and other plants on the high Cairngorm plateau when the birds are nesting. The leatherjacket larvae of the high altitude cranefly, Tipula montana, lives in mosses and particularly likes the roots of stiff sedge which grows with the moss. With the earlier melting of the snow cover maximum food availability from the mosses and other plants may be getting increasingly out of phase with the dotterel’s need for food meaning that fewer families can survive and those that do need to exploit a wider area. Whatever the case when in August I was scanning the racomitrium moss heath for these birds they were probably well on their way back to North Africa.
In the absence of dotterel I thought I might spot a small flock of snow buntings, but some of the only breeding populations are currently in the ski lift parking area enjoying sandwich crumbs like anaemic house sparrows or trailing round after the reindeer. The British Trust for Ornithology says you have to be lucky or determined to see any of the few breeding pairs among the rocks and snowfields, which is probably where they were during my visit. I was neither lucky nor sufficiently determined.
After Loch Etchachan we followed a path across the plateau and above the cliffs of Coirie Sputan Dearg (Corrie of the Red Spouts) with its many fancifully named climbing routes such as Snake Ridge and Amethyst Pillar to the summit of Ben Macdui at 1309 metres (4295 feet). After doing homage to this bleak summit we worked our way down some 750 metres of the steep hillsides above the Lairig Ghru (Hill Pass), a wild and challenging mountain route between Deeside and Speyside once used by drovers and fugitives but now a great attraction for walkers. We reached the bottom of the pass at about 570 metres (1870 feet) which seemed quite low down compared with its bordering mountains and headed north along the rocky and boggy track some 2½ miles past the Pools of Dee (described by one walker as “little shimmering puddles”) to the summit (2733 feet) of the pass where the cliffs between Cairn Lochan and Braeriach close in on either side. Described as iconic, which means worthy of respect, walking the length of the pass requires experience, understanding and determination. At some 20 miles in length It is beautiful, dangerous and ankle twisting tiring. Today the track is well marked and bridges have been built over the wider burns, but it is still a tough yomp and for our little 1954 party, even though starting halfway, it seemed far from home.
After another mile or so from the summit we were below Lurcher’s Crag (Creag an Leth-choin) on our right, a popular climbing area today, particularly in winter, with routes with many canine-related names. The Gaelic name, so far as I understand it, means Crag of the Half-dogs and ‘Leth-choin’ probably covers cross breeds, hemicynes, and mongrels as well as lurchers. ‘Choin’ the word for dogs is plural: a dog in Scottish Gaelic is cù. The lurcher is a cross breed often combining a gazehound – thin and fast, hunts by sight – with a scenthound or sniffer dog and lurchers have been much used by poachers who value both these qualities. An interesting Highland mix was a Scottish deerhound crossed with a collie, a formidable but probably quite biddable beast. There is a legend that Lurcher’s crag gets its name from a dog that ran over the cliffs to its death but, as the Gaelic refers to dogs, it must have been two or more of the unfortunate creatures. Maybe the apostrophe should be moved one letter to the right.
Soon after the path from the Lairig Ghru forked and we headed left to the boulder strewn Chalamain Gap. The Gaelic name, a plural, means pigeons or doves and there is no reason why the narrow, cliff bound gap should not be called that, but language scholars give much more complicated alternatives. The Place-Names of the Cairngorm National Park says, for example, that the “Chalamain Gap should be Eag Coire na Còmhdhalach (The Ravine of the Corrie of the Assembly). also known as Eag na Sadhbhaidhe (The Ravine of the Fox’s Den)” but they give no source for these names. It is difficult to imagine that this boulder-strewn gap deep in the mountains would be a convenient place for an assembly, but it would suit the hill foxes who like to make their dens in boulder fields. I think, however, there may be another reason for the word ‘chalamain’. The word ‘dubh’ meaning ‘black’ in Scottish Gaelic sounds not unlike the word ‘dove’ when spoken, so a term like Creag Dhubh meaning ‘Black Crag’ could somehow have been conflated with ‘Dove Crag’. The Brittonic word dubh, or its variants was widely distributed over the British Isles in pre-Roman times and Dovedale in Derbyshire is said to mean ‘Black Stream’. This suggestion is strengthened by the fact that there is a small stream mapped as the Caochan Dubh a Chadha that rises at the north western end of the Chalamain gap. The Lochan Dubh a Chadha three quarters of a mile north of the Chalamain Gap and close to a small pass called Eag a Chait (Pass of the Cats) may also be involved in the equation.
It makes me wonder how long ago people went round naming these places definitively and I suspect some of the Gaelic names are quite recent appellations. Maybe the original Ordnance Survey surveyors asked the locals what places were called and did their best to spell the reply. ‘Chalamain’ since we on the subject and its singular ‘calman’ are clearly related to ‘columba’, the Latin name for pigeons and doves (and the saint). A couple of furlongs north west of the Gap is the summit of Castle Hill (728 metres, 2388 feet) which seems, unusually for the Cairngorms, to have neither a Gaelic name nor a castle.
After the Chalamain Gap it was relatively easy going, mostly downhill, across the moorland and into the old Caledonian Forest back to Glen More Lodge with aching legs but feeling satisfied.1 Shin of beef is traditionally used in Scotch broth, a robust meat and vegetable soup totally unlike Cullen skink.