Written August 2012

East Highlands

After my June 2012 trip to Scotland, I planned to head up for a second trip to finish off 23 Munros in the East Highlands around the village of Braemar. This would be a two week trip, restocking food supplies at the Co-Op in Ballater at the end of the first week (the Braemar Co-Op had only basic supplies due to refurbishment work).

The first week would be mostly concentrated on the East Mounth plateau, with a quick foray onto the west side of Glen Shee at the start, and a finish over Mount Keen, the most easterly Munro, at the end.

The second week would tackle six Munros that I'd missed on previous trips to the area. The group around Beinn Iutharn Mhòr I'd approached from Glen Tilt in April 2006, but had to retreat due to a combination of cold weather and inadequate kit. The finest approach to this area is a long track up the beautiful, remote Glen Ey, which would more ascetically pleasing than the quicker cross-country option from Glen Shee.

The two Munros I'd omitted from my 2005 trip to the Cairngorms, would make a fine end to the trip through the Larig Ghru pass, passing amongst beautiful stands of native Scots pine at the beginning and end. I hoped that allowing six days to cover these remaining Munros would help recapture the relaxed character of my first Cairngorms trip, and so make a silk purse out of a sow's ear!

In June and July 2012 a trough of low pressure settled on Britain and refused to shift. Storms and flooding caused chaos all across the country. All I could do was prepare kit for the next trip and keep an eye out for improvements in the forecast. Towards the end of July the forecast suggested a "subtle shift" in the outlook, from heavy rain to scattered showers, with better conditions in the east rather than the west.

This looked to be the only good weather window before the stalking season commenced, so my decision to go came quickly. With such short notice there was no space available on the sleeper train or sleeper bus, so I decided to travel up on a basic night bus.

Thursday 19th July 2012

I took a National Express coach from Southampton leaving at 12:30pm and arriving at London Victoria at 14:50. The cost was just £7.50 for a non-transferrable "Fun Fare".

I had a few hours in London before the Glasgow bus departed, so bought some chips from a nearby takeaway as an early dinner. The Megabus set off at 5pm and was due to arrive in Glasgow at 2:25am, costing just £15. The bus was in a shabby state, with worn and faded seat covers and a strong odour of urine wafting from the back of the bus.

A Muslim chap sat down next to me, headed for Manchester, and we chatted for most of the way. He was working as a Bangladeshi translator in law courts, so often had to travel to different cities. After an hour or so, we got stuck in slow-moving traffic due to an accident on the motorway.

Once past the accident, we stopped into motorway services to change drivers. The new driver sent everybody off for a ten minute break, while she dealt with the toilet. After more than twenty minutes not everyone was back, and since the bus also had an empty fuel tank, she drove the bus around to the filling station, which soon brought back the stragglers.

After just five minutes back on the motorway, the new driver pulled off and announced that the indicators weren't working, so it wasn't safe to continue ("I wondered why people weren't letting me out!"). She contacted the Megabus control centre, who initially took her through the troubleshooting menus on the on-board computer, and when this didn't work they agreed to send out an engineer, and put a replacement bus on standby. A couple of passengers helpfully went outside in the rain to give status updates on the indicators.

Time was ticking away, and I was concerned that I would miss my connection at 3:40am in Glasgow, so I put my predicament to the new driver. She was initially firm: "Megabus don't do connecting services", but I protested that in the middle of the night I would have no way of arranging an alternative. She agreed to contact the control centre, and came back five minutes later saying that the bus would wait a short time for me, and if I missed it, there would be a place booked for me on the next bus to Aberdeen at 7:40am.

The bus trundled through various cities in the north, changing drivers in Bolton. After Carlisle, the motorway was quiet and we made good time. Although I was tired, it was impossible not to keep an eye on the clock, worrying if I would make the connection. I asked the new driver for an ETA, and he said it would be touch-and-go whether I would make the connection. His phone was broken, so he couldn't make them aware of our progress.

We pulled into Glasgow Buchannan bus station literally as the last passenger was getting on the Aberdeen coach. I quickly grabbed my luggage from the hold, and hurried onto the new bus. It was a huge relief to make this connection, as I wouldn't have wanted to hang around for three hours until the next bus. As it turned out, the delay had meant I didn't need to hang around in Glasgow at all!

On reflection the London-Glasgow trip would have been much smoother had Megabus laid on a bus that was properly serviced prior to departure on such a long journey. The lady coach driver dealt with the problems calmly and with impressive professionalism.

Friday 20th July 2012

The Aberdeen coach was due to arrive at 6:40am (cost £13), so I was able to catch up on a few hours sleep. This was a much newer and better presented coach than the previous one, with hardly any passengers. On arrival in Aberdeen it was rather cold and I hurried inside the adjacent Union Square shopping centre. This was very plush (posh toilets) and I hung around for a cup of tea when the Costa opened at 7am.

At 7:40am I got the 201 Stagecoach bus, which heads up Royal Deeside, connecting villages and terminating in Braemar. Due to the many stops, this bus takes over two hours to cover sixty miles. The cost of £10 must reflect the duration rather then the distance! Less than half an hour into the journey, embarrassingly I had to ask the driver to wait while I nipped out for a pee!

The journey along the wooded banks of the River Dee was very scenic, particularly beyond Ballater. The next stop at Crathie is where passengers get off for the tour of Balmoral Castle and Lochnagar Distillery. A little further there were good views of the dark cliffs of Lochnagar and the ancient woods of Ballochbuie, both located entirely on the Balmoral Estate.

Balmoral was purchased in 1852 by Queen Victoria and her consort, Prince Albert. They demolished the existing house and completed building Balmoral Castle in 1856. The purchase of a Scottish estate by Victoria and Albert, and their adoption of Scottish architectural style, was very influential for the ongoing revival of Highland culture.

Albert spent many days shooting deer and game, while Victoria took long walks of up to four hours daily. The royals decorated Balmoral with tartans and attended Highland games at Braemar. To this day, the royal family come to Balmoral for their summer holidays and attend the games, held on the first Saturday in September.

The bus finally arrived in Braemar at 10am, 21½ hours since I'd departed from Southampton! This was an earlier start than I would have been able to make on either the sleeper bus or sleeper train.

Braemar is the highest village in Scotland at 339m above sea level. In the east Highlands the floors of the glens are generally higher, so the amount of effort to climb Munros is generally lower than in the west Highlands. During the ice ages, glaciers in the east nibbled into massive plateaus forming heavily incised U-shaped glens, but apart from freeze-thaw action, the summits remained untouched. This contrasts with the sharper, sculpted, rockier peaks in the west.

I didn't hang around in Braemar, and was soon was walking south along the main road up Glen Clunie, which heads up to the Cairnwell Pass and the Glen Shee ski centre. On the outskirts of Braemar I spotted a red squirrel in the pines. There were good views behind to the northern Cairngorms, still with a few snow patches. Ben Avon stood out in particular, with distinctive granite tors scattered across its summit plateau.

After two miles down the road I turned off at Auchallater down Glen Callater. At the car park here there was a machine for paying a voluntary parking charge to contribute to the upkeep of the estate. I used this opportunity to get rid of some loose change. There were several information signs, each giving a different date for the start of the stalking season!

The track up Glen Callater follows the old right of way Jock's Road, which climbs onto the Mounth plateau and down the far side into Glen Doll and Glen Clova. Jock's Road has a key place in the history of Scottish Access. Duncan Macpherson, a rich Scot, bought the Glen Doll Estate in the late 19th century and immediately put a ban on people traversing his land. This upset many folks such as shepherds, and a certain John Winter ('Jock') defied the ban, fighting for the right to walk this old drove road.

The Scottish Rights of Way Society set up "right of way" signs on the estate and after many a court battle, going all the way to the House of Lords, MacPherson eventually lost his battle in 1888, leaving both him and the Rights of Way Society bankrupt. It led to the passing of the Scottish Rights of Way Act, the most important piece of legislation for walkers until the more recent Land Reform Act of 2003 granted increased rights.

Further up the glen, a group of walkers overtook me. I chatted to one of them called Sandy. He was born locally and had moved to Australia because he didn't like the cold winters, but came back every summer to walk in the mountains in this area. At Loch Callater the group headed off to climb Càrn an t-Sagairt Mòr, while I hung around to investigate the Callater Stable Bothy. This is located next to the private Callater Lodge, which was locked and unoccupied. It's fairly common to find an open bothy next to a private lodge - presumably the hope is that it will deter people from breaking into the lodge.

I decided to take a track up the first Munro of the trip, Càrn an Tuirc. The track goes nearly all the way to the summit, so was a good easy start to the trip. Much has been written about estates bulldozing ugly tracks across the Highlands. I think that it should be subject to a planning approval process, but I'm definitely grateful of there being some tracks to ease progress across the land.

As I gained height, looking back in the glen was a patchwork quilt of different ages of heather. This pattern is due to controlled burning of the heather, which encourages the new shoots which grouse rely on for food. Deeper areas of old heather are left to provide shelter for nesting grouse. If the heather is not controlled it can reach 4 feet high, preventing growth of new shoots, and becomes inhospitable for grouse.

Towards the top of the track, there was a good view down into a steep-sided corrie in upper Glen Callater, cradling Loch Kander. I was now on the Mounth plateau, a vast area of high ground extending 20km from the A93 road in Glen Shee to Lochnagar, never dropping below 800m. The outline of the plateau is defined by the surrounding glens and corries: Callater in the west, Muick, Clova/Doll and Isla/Caenlochan in the east.

South of Jock's Road, the plateau is covered by rich grassy tundras based on granite intrusions through quartz and schist, while northwards to Lochnagar the underlying granite yields poorer soil and sparser arctic-alpine vegetation. In the summer months the beautiful dwarf cornel can be seen, along with cloudberry, bog bearberry and on higher ground the trailing azalea can be found growing on the acidic soil.

Thirteen Munros and sixteen Tops are scattered across the Mounth plateau, with no great drops between them, which can be climbed in various combinations. I chose a route that would visit all the glens defining the shape of the plateau. This involved more ascent that simply staying on the plateau, but would provide sheltered camps in the glens if the weather turned bad.

After a short walk across a boulder field, and a false summit cairn, I arrived at the true summit of Càrn an Tuirc. There were many mountain hares which thrive on the grassy tundra on the Mounth plateau. Soon I was joined by a father and daughter who'd walked up from the A93. The father had completed the Munros, while his daughter had only just started and was keen to increase her total. They were heading off to visit more summits on the plateau.

I decided to leave the plateau and descend down to the A93 aiming for the three Cairnwell Munros far side of the road. The first part of the descent was down steep scree, but soon I picked up a rough path. The map shows "Carn an Tuirc Hut" here, but I found no trace of it. The point I crossed the road was at 550m - in other circumstances this would be an appropriate height for a low point in a ridge. On the far side, I had a rather tiring climb up 200m to reach a corrie out of sight of the A93. I quickly set up camp and cooked some pasta, then fell asleep early, totally exhausted!

Inside Callater Stable Bothy
Inside Callater Stable Bothy
Loch Callater Lodge & Bothy
Loch Callater Lodge & Bothy
Mountain Hares
Mountain Hares
On the summit of Càrn an Tuirc
On the summit of Càrn an Tuirc
Glen Clunie beyond the Cairnwell Pass
Glen Clunie beyond the Cairnwell Pass

Saturday 21st July 2012

I awoke to blue sky and sunshine. The weather forecast for the following day was cloud and high winds, so I decided to do more than planned today, and after the three Cairnwell Munros, I would drop down and get back up onto the Mounth plateau, climbing two additional Munros.

The first Munro of today was Càrn Aosda (pronounced Ooster, not Asda!), reached by a short ascent from my campsite. On the far side I had views across to The Cairnwell, my next objective, with its ugly radio masts clearly visible. I descended along the top of the Glen Shee ski area, Scotland's largest ski centre. At the Cairnwell Pass the A93 reaches 670m, at this point the highest public road in Britain. The ski tows and chair lifts scar both sides of the road, but given the convenient access, such developments were really inevitable.

At the low point I passed above Loch Vrotachan, then continued up a track to The Cairnwell. Just shy of the summit there is a chair lift (unmanned at the top), which operates all year round. This chairlift and the elevation of the ski centre car park make the three Cairnwell Munros the easiest in Scotland. I was tempted to take the chairlift down for a cup of tea in the ski centre, but I was keen to keep moving. Strangely my camera gave a false "low battery" warning, which must have been caused by interference from the radio masts.

The next Munro was Càrn a' Gheòidh, set back a few miles from the road. I found a rough path that traversed around the side of The Cairnwell, getting away from the ugly ski developments.

On the way to Càrn a' Gheòidh a couple of walkers caught up with me. One of them was near to Munro completion - after the three Cairnwell Munros, he just had Ben More on Mull to finish. The other chap declared that he was "too intelligent" to do the Munros! They'd had a very long day yesterday, cycling up Glen Ey to tackle the five Munros at its head. All these Munros were clearly visible from Càrn a' Gheòidh, and further on to the spectacular Beinn a' Ghlò massif. They kindly gave me some chocolate and took a photo of me on the summit.

So far today's walk involved virtually no ascent, and now I had 500m descent and re-ascent to get back to the plateau. The descent was cross-country through rough heather, along the side of Càrn nan Sac and down into the incised Choire Dhirich. On the far side of the A93, I took a narrow path along the banks of Allt Coire a' Bhathaich, in places crossing recent landslips. This sheltered valley was lushly vegetated, and I spotted a few tiny wild strawberries. I tasted the largest, which was delicious.

After a short distance the stream branched, and I followed the branch going up to a bealach between Meal Gorm and my next Munro, Creag Leacach. Higher up the path became more distinct, and I passed over a rock subsidiary Top before joining the dry stone wall which runs along Creag Leacach's rocky summit crest. This Munro has a rocky well-defined ridge, which is unusual for the Mounth plateau. I chatted to a Scottish group on the summit, who'd driven up for a day trip to climb four Munros on the plateau.

Continuing along the ridge, I passed a couple who commented that I was well disguised against the white summit rocks, in my pale-coloured clothes! Soon I was following a line of old iron fence posts up grassy tundra to the summit of Glas Maol. At the summit trig I chatted to a Scottish group, one chap who had around 30 Munros 'til completion, mostly remote ones like the Fisherfield Six and the Ben Alder Six.

Dropping down from the summit, passing more mountain hares, for a short distance I followed the route of the Monega Pass. The top of this pass is just over 1000m and as such is the highest historic drove route in the Highlands.

To camp I dropped down into the upper reaches of Caenlochan Glen. I reached a hollow containing a group of lochans around 850m, which provided sufficient shelter without having to lose much height. There was an excellent view down the steep-sided glaciated Caenlochan Glen. The floor of the glen was covered in little hills, which are moraine deposits left by the retreating glacier.

I spotted somebody traversing steep slopes some distance below me and to the right. It was late in the day and if they'd walked up from Glen Isla; they were over five miles from a public road. I wondered if they would ascend to where I was camping, but saw no further sign.

Ski lift up The Cairnwell
Ski lift up The Cairnwell
Summit of Càrn a' Gheòidh
Summit of Càrn a' Gheòidh
Wild strawberry
Wild strawberry

Sunday 22nd July 2012

In the night the forecast bad weather came in, and by the morning I was just below the cloud level. The wind had picked up, but my position was sheltered from the weather coming in from the southwest. Today I planned to tackle five Munros on the plateau. The amount of ascent was minimal, but the challenge today would be navigating across the featureless terrain, reaching ill-defined rounded summits.

I set off into the cloud, heading first for Cairn of Claise, picking up a stone wall that was a good handrail to follow. The air was very damp, and with the strong wind, I was becoming quite wet, so put on waterproofs. Beyond Cairn of Claise there was initially a path following a line of iron fence posts, but this soon vanished into the boggy moorland. I had planned to climb Tolmount later in the trip, but the extra distance and ascent was minimal to include it in today's walk. Double-checking my position on GPS, I located the rising ground and fortunately found a little path up to the wind-blown summit of Tolmount.

Retracing my steps along the path, I continued on to Tom Buidhe. The ground was very confusing and again I needed to used GPS to find the higher ground of Ca Whims and up to Tom Buidhe's rather pathetic summit cairn. I now had to cross more than four miles of pathless moorland in the cloud. This I did by following a compass bearing just east of south, occasionally double-checking my position on GPS. At the lowest point of 817m, I had a brief view under the clouds to the upper reaches of Glen Doll.

The final stretch was over Dun Hillocks, here I was supposed to cross a track at right-angles, but somehow I crossed two tracks (or the same track twice!). I was short of water, and luckily came across a spring high up on the plateau. Continuing around to the south east and I soon reached Mayar, another windswept summit with no view!

I was a relief to have completed the pathless section, and I would now be on paths for the rest of the day. I had just one more Munro to climb today (Driesh), before dropping down out the wind. Mayar and Driesh are very popular Munros since they are easily accessed from the south up Glen Clova to Glen Doll. I continued on to the bealach at the top of the Glen Doll path, then a steep climb up to the Driesh trig pillar. Driesh is pronounced Dreesh, but today I was tempted to call it "Dry-ish" after the damp weather conditions.

Back at the bealach, I passed a couple and a young child on the ascent. I picked up an old right of way called the "Kilbo Path", which descends along the side of the Shank of Drumfollow to Corrie Kilbo (reminiscent of Bilbo the Hobbit!) Dropping down I had the first extensive views of the day, across the forest plantations to the cliffs on the opposite side of Glen Doll.

In upper Corrie Kilbo there are two small patches of conifers. The fences have long since disintegrated, and the interior of the woods is churned-up mud, evidence of use by deer sheltering from the weather. I camped on the perimeter, happy to be out of the worst of the wind, although there was still a pleasant light breeze coming through the trees.

Summit of Cairn of Claise
Summit of Cairn of Claise
Glen Doll
Glen Doll

Monday 23rd July 2012

The day started with light showers and the clouds just covering the summits. The first part of my walk was through the Glendoll Forest plantation, and the trees provided enough shelter to not bother with waterproofs. On entering the forest, there was some kind of electronic device fitted on two opposite trees, which I guessed was counting passing walkers.

I descended down through the trees, crossing the river White Water to Glen Doll lodge. The youth hostel here sadly closed in 2002, and the lodge is now a family home. The Forestry Commission also closed the campsite here in 2001 as part of the foot and mouth outbreak, and it never reopened. Ironically the reason often given is that facilities couldn't be made available that would cope with the popularity of the site!

I was now back on Jock's Road, on the opposite end of it to that which I'd walked two days previously. The first few miles were through the shelter of trees. I caught up with a local Scottish couple who were walking Jock's Road to Braemar, staying in a B&B, then walking back the same way the following day. On leaving the woods it was clear that rain had set in for the day, so I stayed behind in the trees to put on waterproofs, saying farewell to the couple.

The track became a footpath and views became more spectacular, with steep cliffs all around and water tumbling down. At the top of the climb there is an unlocked shelter with a turf roof over corrugated iron. The door has recently been painted red (the same colour as a post box), making it less likely to be missed, particularly when there's snow on the ground. Although the roof is low, the shelter is very spacious inside, and undoubtedly could be a life saver. The rough dirt floor is probably enough to deter people from using it as a regular bothy.

The shelter is known as "Davy's Bourach", and was built by Davy Glen in 1966. Bourach is the Gaelic word for a mess or shambles. Forfar & District Hill Walking Club is responsible for the upkeep of this refuge. The club carried out major repairs in 1984 and again in 1987, when it was totally re-roofed using material carried up by helicopter, and finally in 2001. The wonderful Gaelic motto of the club is written on the door: "Far I Wi Noo?" (where are we now?)

Davy's Bourach is opposite the site of an older shelter, now demolished. There is a small discreet plaque from the "Universal Hiking Club Glasgow", erected in memory of five members who died on New Year 1959. They lost their lives in adverse weather conditions on a traverse of the Mounth plateau, heading for Glen Doll. The shelter was built to prevent such a tragedy occurring again.

A short distance beyond the shelter, the path deteriorated into soggy peat. I missed a turn at a cairn and continued up the valley floor, before realising and ascending the valley side to rejoin the correct path. Cloud was swirling around, beginning to lift, and I had a good view across to Tom Buidhe, which I'd visited yesterday. Just below the summit of the pass 920m at Crow Craigies (a Munro Top), I sheltered out of the wind for lunch.

Continuing over Crow Craigies, I had a good cloud-free view of Tolmount, less than a mile away, which I'd also visited yesterday. I'd now walked most of Jock's Road, with the exception of the section in upper Glen Callater. Leaving the path I headed off cross-country over saturated ground towards my first Munro of the day, Broad Cairn.

Broad Cairn is topped by a granite tor, and I had hazy views down the great trench holding Loch Muick, one of Queen Victoria's favourite haunts. I could also see the cliffs above Dubh Loch in the upper basin of Glen Muick, with the spectacular waterfall tumbling down granite slabs from Eagle's Rock.

This area is known as the "White Mounth", perhaps due to the white gravel paths caused by the exceptionally friable and easily-eroded granite. The granite tors and cliffs, and the sparse arctic-alpine vegetation give this area a character that has much in common with the Cairngorm mountains further north.

I retraced steps for a short distance, then headed north to climb the granite tor of Cairn Bannoch. I spotted someone camped in the notch just to the southeast of the summit. I had no energy for more Munros today and was keen to get out of the rain, so descended north through granite outcrops to a flattish spot. On entering my tent it took quite a while to sponge everything dry.

My camp had an excellent view of the waterfall tumbling down from Eagle's Rock. The rain stopped, and the wind soon dried my tent out. It was clear that better weather was on the way for tomorrow. The ground was unfortunately rather saturated with cold water, causing condensation under my sleeping bag and cold spots in the night.

Deer near the head of Glen Doll
Deer near the head of Glen Doll
Davy's Bourach
Davy's Bourach
Eagle's Rock & cliffs above Dubh Loch
Eagle's Rock & cliffs above Dubh Loch

Tuesday 24th July 2012

I awoke to sunshine for which I was extremely grateful, as today I would be visiting Lochnagar, one of the finest mountains in Scotland.

The SMC guide said that on the southern side of upper Glen Muick there is one of the most awe-inspiring features of the Mounth, a great face of overlapping granite slabs of Creag an Dubh-loch. I descended a short distance to cross the Allt an Dubh-loch to see this.

I got a view of the Dubh Loch, but my view was too foreshortened to really appreciate the cliffs, and the morning light was not at the best angle for illuminating this dark wall.

I followed the Allt an Dubh-loch, upstream, then picked a way up my first Munro of the day Càrn an t-Sagairt Mòr. The summit is an elongated table, with cairns at either end. I continued on over Càrn an t-Sagairt Beag, passing the remains of a crashed aircraft. This RAF English Electric Canberra plane belonged to 50 Squadron and crashed on 22nd November 1956. Wreckage is scattered right over the top of the mountain, and has presumably been left as a lasting marker to those who died in the crash.

I made a short detour to visit The Stuic, a Munro Top, which can be ascended from Deeside by a short steep scramble up granite blocks. I peered down to suss out the scramble for future reference. The Stuic marks the start of a great north facing escarpment, cumulating at the summit of Lochnagar and continuing round to the Meikle Pap. Below the cliffs is an apron of moorland, peppered with granite boulders and studded with seven lochans. The most famous of which is of course Lochnagar, from which the mountain gets its name.

It was then short walk to visit to the actual Munro, Càrn a' Choire Bhoidheach. Set back from the cliffs it is less spectacular than The Stuic. I then picked up the main path to the granite tors of Cac Carn Mòr (big shitty cairn!) and Cac Carn Beag (little shitty cairn!), the main summit of Lochnagar. This summit has both a trig pillar and an indicator showing the direction of significant hills that can be seen from Lochnagar. The indicator was erected by the Cairngorm Club of Aberdeen in 1924.

Prince Charles wrote a children's book called The Old Man Of Lochnagar which was published in 1980 in aid of The Prince's Trust charity. He'd first told the story to entertain his brothers, Andrew and Edward, when they were young. The story revolves around an old man who lives in a cave in the cliffs surrounding the corrie loch under Lochnagar, overlooking the royal estate at Balmoral. The book was later made into an animated short film by the BBC, with Robbie Coltrane providing the voice of the hermit and Prince Charles narrating.

Given the popularity of this mountain, I was expecting crowds of people. There were some about, but it wasn't unpleasantly busy. After a spot of lunch I followed the path along the cliff tops, keeping away from the steep drops as it was still quite windy. There was a good view down the Black Spout, a gully which is the only weakness in the cliffs and can be ascended by an easy scramble, the only difficulty being a chock-stone that needs to be squeezed under.

I also had good views of Lochnagar the loch, with the main water body and its necklace of smaller lochans along the outflow. I passed a ptarmigan on the cliff tops, in summer plumage, well disguised against the rocks. Peering down there was a herd of deer grazing at the foot of the cliffs.

I followed the cliff-edge downhill towards the Meikle Pap. Here the path has been well rebuilt with granite blocks, and at one stage passes through a boulder-field which amazingly has been levelled to provide a safe route for tourists. Given the quality of the path repairs, I suspected that royal money was behind it.

The well-drained path crosses a moorland, before a short ascent to join a track. In one direction, this track descends towards Balmoral, past Gelder Shiel Stable Bothy. The book "Mountain Days and Bothy Nights" records the current Queen making a passing visit to this bothy, and seeing its rather squalid state, she commissioned an upgrade for the bothy. I headed down the track in the other direction, towards Glen Muick.

After a few miles, the track passed through a small wood of fine Scots pines, with blaeberry ground-cover, before emerging to cross the floodplain of the River Muick to the Lochnagar visitor centre. I didn't investigate the visitor centre, as I still had a few more miles to go, to reach the Shielin of Mark Bothy. This bothy sits at the head of Glen Mark as the river valley dissolves into the rolling moorland. Not a single path goes to the bothy, so I planned to initially follow a stalkers' path along the Allt Darrarie, then follow its pathless tributaries to approach the bothy.

Starting up the path, I passed a family coming down on mountain bikes. I have mixed feelings about mountain bikes in the Highlands, due to the amount of erosion they cause to fragile paths, which must be costly for the estates to maintain. On the other hand, some lesser-used moorland paths might actually benefit from increased traffic, lest they vanish into the encroaching moorland.

Half-way up the valley, a plank bridge crossed the burn to easier ground on the far bank. I branched off up the Burn of Mohamed, a strangely named tributary, with a rough path unmarked on the map. Branching off on a smaller tributary any semblance of a path vanished.

I then crossed a ridge of moorland to reach Glen Mark. This short distance was extremely rough going, with rampant heather, and wet peat bogs requiring large diversions. On the way I found an old Landranger map (dated 1994) in an Ortlieb map case, with a Silva compass. The map was marked as the property of 58th Culter Scouts (http://culterscouts.com/), but in its mildewed state was unlikely to be wanted back.

Finally I saw the bothy, and had a short walk down the river to reach it. A few trees have been planted recently outside, wrapped in chicken wire to deter grazing deer. Inside the bothy was tiny, with a table, a few chairs, three sleeping platforms and a wood-burning stove. One comment in the bothy book remarked that it was the Fiat Punto of bothies! With the bothy table I was able to cook dinner in relative comfort. During this I found one tick crawling on my trousers. The high glens and severe winters mean that ticks are much less common in the east highlands.

After dinner I caught sight of the moorland outside being lit up golden by the setting sun. Rushing outside, it was lightly raining with a spectacular full double rainbow facing the bothy. Behind the bothy the sky was lit up bright orange, pink and purple. What a magical welcome to this most intimate of bothies.

Top of the Black Spout of Lochnagar
Top of the Black Spout of Lochnagar
Lochnagar the loch
Lochnagar the loch
Cliffs of Lochnagar
Cliffs of Lochnagar
Shielin of Mark Bothy at dusk
Shielin of Mark Bothy at dusk

Wednesday 25th July 2012

I decided to leave behind the Landranger map that I'd found, as I thought it would be a nice addition to the bothy wall above the table. I used some gaffer tape (which I always keep wrapped around my trekking poles for emergency repairs) to mend a few tears in the map, and to reinforce the corners so it could be attached to the wall.

I hoped to reach Mount Keen today, the most easterly Munro, and continue on to the village of Ballater. Check-in at the Ballater campsite for new arrivals closes at 5:30pm, so it would be quite a challenging day's walk. Mount Keen was over five miles away across heathery boggy moorland. I'd originally planned to keep to the high ground, but from yesterday's experience, I knew that this would be very rough going.

Studying the map, the alternative was to follow Glen Mark downstream. The fertile banks were grassy, which looked to provide easier going than the rough heather moorland. This would involve some loss of height, but I hoped it would offer faster progress. There were little scraps of path, probably created more by deer than people. In the upper reaches I was able to cut corners on some bends.

I was surprised to come across a black adder, sunning itself on the grassy banks. This is quite high for a coldblooded reptile, but the valley must provide sufficient shelter from the elements. Further down I came across a duck with a clutch of baby ducklings. The mother shot off down the river, with the ducklings flapping wildly to keep up with her. I kept catching up with them and provoking more wild flapping, until eventually they diverted off to a small creek on the far bank.

Lower down the glen became steeply incised, and one section the deer paths traversed half-way up the valley sides. The last section was easy, along the banks below Craig Michael. I had to remove a few adult ticks from my trousers. Presumably these had been carried up by deer, as the elevation was too high for new ones to be born.

At a sharp bend in the river I spotted a grassy hillside going up onto the moorland towards Mount Keen. This provided an easy ascent route, but soon I was wading through rough heather. En route I disturbed a bird which looked to be an owl. This was quite surprising as I thought owls were nocturnal woodland birds. Researching afterwards, this was probably a short-eared owl, known to be most active during daylight hours and associated with moorland (http://www.scottishraptorgroups.org/raptors/short-eared_owl.php).

Eventually the rough moorland relented, and I crossed an area of peat hags that was in the process of becoming re-vegetated. Once exposed, wet peat can be like a open wound, too acidic and saturated for vegetation to take a hold. In this particular location there must have been some change in drainage for the vegetation to regain control. The naturally levelled-out peat was wonderfully flat and soft to walk on, and I followed a few deer paths to the Mounth Road which traverses along the side of Mount Keen.

A small cairn marked the start of a path up the side of Mount Keen. After a short climb I was standing by the trig pillar atop the granite outcrops on the summit. Several groups of walkers were already on top. I didn't hang around as there was still far to go. Descending down the north side, I was shocked at the eroded state of the path. The friable white granite is rapidly disintegrating, exposed by the passage of thousands of feet on this popular mountain, with the harsh weather doing the rest. The scar is visible for miles, and urgently needs a Lochnagar-style repair job with granite blocks.

Lower down I chatted to a couple of chilled-out ladies from Aberdeen. They weren't regular hill walkers and were surprised that I'd climbed seventeen Munros in the past six days. Lower down I crossed the river in Glen Tanar, over a new bridge that replaced one washed away in 2002.

A Scottish Rights of Way Society signpost marked the way to Ballater. This was a narrow footpath, gently gaining height by traversing a hillside. Those who originally defined these routes must have been highly skilled at picking the line of least resistance across the landscape. Crossing a stream, I continued along the path, flanked by rough heather, up to a fence. On the far side the vegetation was wetter and grassier, and a line of posts had been installed to prevent the route line being swallowed up by the landscape.

After a short descent I picked up an estate track that zigzagged up to a ridge, then dropped down the far side into Glen Muick towards Ballater. This track was very well maintained, and rotten drainage troughs bisecting the track had recently been replaced, the old ones dumped beside the track.

Lower down I passed through some conifers and past a lodge before joining the road at Bridge of Muick. I then had a mile to walk along the road besides the river Dee, then across a bridge to Ballater. A plaque on the bridge noted that two previous stone bridges and one wooden bridge were washed away, before this bridge was opened in 1885 by Queen Victoria. Most of the houses in Ballater are built of grey granite blocks, and the town is laid out in a grid pattern. This serves to give the village quite a stern austere feel.

Both yesterday and today had involved long walks, 13 miles and 14 miles respectively, across rough terrain, and my feet were now very sore. I arrived at the Ballater Caravan Park, and paid £10 to camp. There were no fixed pitches, and the guy told me to pick a spot a suitable distance for existing tents. I chose a quiet corner of the field next to the River Dee, put my tent up, then lay down to rest for an hour or so.

I made a shopping list then headed off to the Co-Op. There was not a massive selection, but I managed to find most things. For evening meals I bought pasta "Mug Shots", calculating that two would be sufficient for a meal. They stocked Orkney oatcakes, which I was pleased to find. The only flapjacks they had were very small and cost £1, so I selected what I hoped would be equivalent cereal bars. In total the shopping came to around £20.

The next objective was to find a pub with good food and beer. Looking at several pub menus, the fish & chips was quite expensive. Next to the imposing bulk of Glenmuick Parish Church, I came across the Glenaden Hotel. The food here was cheap and they had real ale, which was very well kept. This was very much a locals pub, but the staff made me feel welcome. The fish & chips was pallid and lacklustre, which was a bit of a disappointment, but I guess you get what you pay for.

Returning to my tent nicely inebriated, I soon dropped off to sleep. Unfortunately I was woken up by the sound of a group of youngsters coming back to the campsite around 1am, talking loudly outside for about half and hour. It took a long time for me to get back to sleep after this.

Inside Shielin of Mark Bothy
Inside Shielin of Mark Bothy
Black adder in Glen Mark
Black adder in Glen Mark
View from Mount Keen
View from Mount Keen
Imposing granite church in Ballater
Imposing granite church in Ballater

Thursday 26th July 2012

The first bus to Braemar was at 9:25 so I had to get up fairly early. I'd discovered a fault with my GPS, where it was draining the batteries even when switched off, so had to return to the Co-Op to buy some new batteries.

The bus departed on time from the Ballater Bus Depot, with the driver picking up the morning papers to deliver to Braemar. I was surprised that the ticket cost £5.20, for such a short journey, and I ended up with quite a lot of loose change. Along the way to Braemar, several mountain bikers got of the bus for day trips in the pine forests.

In Braemar I went into the tiny Co-Op to convert some change to a £5 note. It definitely would not have been sufficient to restock food supplies. There was a jovial atmosphere in the shop, caused by a Scottish chap at the front of the queue, and the staff insisting that he take up the buy-one-get-one-free offers on cheese and iceberg lettuces ("I'll send my wife down here to sort you out"!).

I now had a four mile walk up the minor road to Inverey. This was quite pleasant, with hardly any traffic and good views over the River Dee. After two miles there was a good viewpoint across to the Linn of Quoich and the entrance to Glen Quoich at the foot of Beinn a' Bhùird. This glen is noted as having one of the finest stands of Scots Pine in the area, and one day I'd like to come back to visit it. There is a "secret howff" at the foot of Beinn a' Bhùird, built illicitly by climbers in the 1950s, who sneaked the building materials past the estate workers.

Further on up the glen I passed the gatehouse of the Mar Lodge Estate (http://www.nts.org.uk/property/mar-lodge-estate/), and the Victoria Bridge across the Dee leading to the lodge. This estate, owned by the National Trust, occupies nearly 7% of the Cairngorms National Park, covering in total 29,380 hectares of some of the most remote and scenic wild land in Scotland, including four of the five highest mountains in the UK. Fifteen of the Trust's 46 Munros can be found in the Cairngorms around Mar Lodge. The Trust have actively reduced the deer population and fenced off areas to encourage re-growth of the native Scots Pine forest. They are also painstakingly removing bulldozed tracks, replacing them with footpaths.

At Inverey I turned off the road and headed up Glen Ey. A good track winds up this beautiful glen for five miles. For the first three miles the glen has an open character, flanked by the familiar patchwork-quilt heather moorland. In the lower section the Ey Burn flows through a narrow lushly vegetated gorge. There was a sign to "Col Bed" (Colonel's Bed), which I would investigate on the way back.

For the last two miles the glen turned a corner and the character changed. The track crosses a bridge and continues up the glen through beautiful grassy meadows. The valley narrows, with steeper sides and feels much more enclosed. The skies darkened, marking an end to the spell of good weather. Higher up the track re-crossed the river to reach the atmospheric ruins of Altanour Lodge. The ruins are surrounded by a neglected sad-looking clump of conifers. There are some who want to restore the lodge and turn it into an open bothy.

It was now beginning to drizzle and I forded the Ey Burn, picking up a rough track towards An Socach. I wanted to gain some height up this Munro before camping, so I followed deer paths up the corrie on its north side. I found a wonderfully flat area and got the tent up just before the heavens opened. It was quite some time before the rain stopped and I could venture out to fill up my water bottles from the stream.

Lower Glen Ey
Lower Glen Ey
The atmospheric ruins of Altanour Lodge
The atmospheric ruins of Altanour Lodge

Friday 27th July 2012

The day started fine, but showers were forecast for later. I headed up the corrie, following the burn and collecting water at its source. On the way up I disturbed a group of ten stags, who ran off up the mountain.

The long humpbacked ridge of is An Socach strewn with quartzite rock and scree. It gave a fine view across to the next three Munros on today's walk, and Loch nan Eun, the jewel at the centre of this group. I descended south, picking up traces of a path leading towards Loch nan Eun.

The mossy grassy terrain made for easy walking, but my right leg was aching due to overly taught calf muscles. The two long mountain days to Ballater, then yesterday's march along road and track had taken its toll. I had to stop regularly to stretch and massage some of the tension out of the muscles. I'm quite lazy about stretching, which should really be done at the end of a day's walk, when the muscles are warm.

I passed the beautiful Loch nan Eun, then followed a path around the side of a knoll, and up the well-defined ridge of Glas Tulaichean. I could see the silhouette of a group of walkers on the summit, but missed them as they dropped down into the grassy corrie towards Càrn an Rìgh. I didn't hang around long at the summit trig as the sky was darkening and a shower was on the way.

Dropping down into the corrie, the shower hit, but was short-lived and I didn't need to put on waterproofs. I picked up a stalkers' path to the bealach below Càrn an Rìgh. A walker was descending and chatted to me at the bealach, pointing out a group of deer looking down at us from the ridge of Càrn an Rìgh. He had cycled up from the south, up Gleann Taitneach, before leaving his bike to climb these Munros. He mentioned a few Cairngorm bothies that he liked, such as Corrour and Bob Scott's bothy.

After an easy climb, I reached the summit of Càrn an Rìgh just as another squall hit. I sheltered behind the summit cairn, and had some lunch. Soon I was joined by a father and his teenage son. The father was strangely uncommunicative, only answering questions after several repetitions. The son didn't say anything, and sat wearing shorts, with a bleeding cut on his leg. They had cycled up Glen Ey, and were covering ground in a day walk, that would take me 2 ½ days to cover on foot.

Before departing, the father ask me which route I would take to the next Munro, Beinn Iutharn Mhòr. I planned to stick to the high ground, returning to the bealach below Càrn an Rìgh, then traversing along a path below Mam nan Carn to reach a second bealach below Beinn Iutharn Mhòr. He was planning on taking a more direct route - he said the shorter distance would cancel out the additional descent and re-ascent.

My route was good until just before the second bealach, when the path disappeared, and I ended up traversing a grassy slope set at an awkward angle. As predicted, the father's route was quicker, and I could see them making the final climb, although they only had day packs, so were moving faster.

I had previously visited Beinn Iutharn Mhòr in 2006 as the last Munro on that ill-fated trip, before retreating. I could have gone around it on the current trip, but as the highest of the group, it would be make sense to climb with the rest, and would be a good way of laying the ghosts of the failed trip to rest.

As I reached the summit cairn/shelter, another squall hit - unfortunately the showers were in synch with me reaching the summits! Sheltering behind the cairn I decided to leave the final Munro of the group, Càrn Bhac, to the following day, as my right leg was still aching.

I spent some time relaxing on the summit and had good views northwards to the Cairngorms, and up the Lairg Ghru, where the The Devil's Point was clearly visible.

I continued along the ridge for half a mile before descending steep quartzite scree down to peaty moorland. The guidebook said that the route to Càrn Bhac is blocked by sea of peat bogs, but I found it to be not too bad. I dropped down to camp on the grassy banks of the Allt nan Clach Geala.

In the stream I saw a fish flapping around. At over 700m this was very high for a fish, which I assumed must be a salmon, that had swum upstream from the Ey Burn.

Herds of stags
Herd of stags
Loch nan Eun
Loch nan Eun
Lairig Ghru from afar
Lairig Ghru from afar
Lizard south of Càrn Bhac
Lizard south of Càrn Bhac

Saturday 28th July 2012

Cloud was sitting on top of Càrn Bhac as I climbed up to its quartzite strewn summit. The onward route was around the side of Carn Creagach to reach a track. The thick wet vegetation was extremely rough going, and I was grateful when I finally reached the track. The sky darkened and another squall was on the way. I assumed this would be short-lived, which was not the case and I and got completely soaked. Fortunately the strong wind quickly dried me out afterwards.

The track dropped down to join Glen Ey, just two miles from the road. A family stopped to ask for directions, as they had forgotten to bring a map. They wanted to know if there was a loch at the head of Glen Ey, I said no, just a ruined lodge a few miles up the track. They had just visited the Colonel's Bed, which they said was a cave, in which they'd sheltered from the squall. Apparently you could see salmon swimming in a pool in the river gorge below. They gave it a strong recommendation, so I headed off to investigate.

A well-trodden path left the track at the "Col Bed" sign and ran a short distance to the steep wooded gorge through which the Ey Burn flows. A sign warned of loose rock, and a short rough path dropped down the wall of the gorge, before apparently terminating by a fallen tree. I couldn't believe the family had gone this way, so continued along the gorge to see if there were any other signs of a cave. Eventually I came to the conclusion that they'd used "cave" as a synonym for gorge. Still it was a pleasant stop for lunch.

Returning to the Glen Ey track, I saw the family had decided not to continue up the glen and were walking back down to the road. Catching up with them I asked about the cave. They confirmed that access had been made more difficult by a rockfall and the fallen tree, but you could still slither across. Searching online afterwards, all accounts said that the cave was now inaccessible due to the rockfall!

Chatting to the family, they were staying in a timeshare in Ballater, and came here every year on holiday. The two previous days they'd hired a guide to do scrambles on Lochnagar, including the Black Spout. They offered me a lift up to Linn of Dee, but I was keen to walk the two miles along the road, as I had plenty of time, and wanted to enjoy the scenery.

I had come to Inverey with friends Richie and Greg back in 2005, where we'd staying at the now-closed Inverey Youth Hostel. We'd walked up from Linn of Dee through the beautifully wooded Glen Lui and Glen Luibeg to climb Ben Macdui. I had fond memories of this trip, so was keen to spend some time soaking up the atmosphere of this beautiful corner of Scotland. After climbing Ben Macdui, I'd headed off on my own for two weeks, backpacking around the Cairngorms, my first Munro-climbing trip.

The road was pleasantly quiet and wooded, and for one section ran right along the banks of the Dee. I spotted a few tents either side of the road, people wild camping. At the Linn of Dee I crossed the bridge, with spectacular views of the water flowing through a narrow gorge ("linn" means narrow defile through which water flows). On the other side I was amused to see a girl dressed in a bridal gown standing on rocks beside the river, being photographed by an eccentric-looking girl with dyed red hair. It was just starting to rain, and they beat a hasty retreat.

At the Linn of Dee I saw the family again, who'd driven up from the Glen Ey car park. They waved at me, as I headed off up the path. The pines were festooned with beard lichen, as sign of good air quality (http://www.plantlife.org.uk/uploads/documents/Pinewood_Guide_1_-_FINAL_as_printed_-_14_12_09.pdf). Leaving the plantation, I emerged into Glen Lui, scattered with Scots Pines, with views of Derry Cairngorm and Ben Macdui up ahead. The path was quite busy with lots of day-trippers out for afternoon strolls.

A couple of Dutch tourists asked me for directions to Glen Lui. They had a basic map on a leaflet from the tourist office, which wasn't very accurate. As a child, one of them had seen a photo of snow-covered Glen Lui and Ben Macdui, and wanted to visit the place. He said it more than lived up to expectations. I told them that we were already in Glen Lui, and the track continued for several miles, until it split at Glen Derry and Glen Luibeg. I pointed out Ben Macdui on the horizon.

A bit further on I stopped to get some water from a burn tumbling down the side of the glen. This was the site of an old township, which was cleared in 1726 to make timber extraction from the glen easier. As I continued up the glen, the sky darkened, and another heavy shower was on the way. The Dutch tourists had seen this, and were now heading back down the track. I made a dash for a plantation on the right side of the glen, sheltering for ten minutes until the rain stopped.

A little further on, I branched off the track to visit Bob Scott's Bothy. Robert 'Bob' Lane Scott (1903-1981) was the best known deer stalker on Mar Lodge Estate. From about 1952 Bob offered the use of part of the outbuildings near Luibeg Cottage as a bothy for a nominal fee. Bob would also offer lifts to weary walkers from Luibeg down to the public road at Linn of Dee. The first Bob Scott's Bothy was sadly destroyed by fire in 1986.

The second Bob Scott's Bothy was built soon afterwards, on the east-bank of the Lui Water on the downstream edge of Derry Wood. That bothy had an open fireplace and was also destroyed by an untended fire in December 2003. The bothy was rebuilt on the same site within 18 months, reopening in July 2005. The most recent incarnation now has an enclosed wood-burning stove, so it is less prone to fire damage.

The bothy has a basic toilet in an outbuilding. Presumably to avoid polluting the adjacent river, this must have a sealed tank that the National Trust have to pump out when full. Inside the bothy there was outdoor gear and sleeping bags strewn everywhere - it looked like the occupants had left in a hurry, and brought to mind the Mary Celeste. I considered staying at the bothy, but it looked like it would get unpleasantly crowded this Saturday evening.

I was also keen to camp under the pines in Glen Derry, so I continued along the river, getting a glimpse of the boarded-up Derry Lodge through the trees. A little further on there is a wooden hut, with an emergency telephone. Around here, and a little further up Glen Derry, there were quite a few people camping. I followed the track up the east side of Glen Derry through the beautiful native pines, stopping briefly during another downpour.

I didn't want to take water from the Derry Burn, as there was a possibility that wild campers could have polluted the river. Further up there were a couple of small burns tumbling down the side of the glen. I set up camp, but was soon enveloped by clouds of hungry midges. The sheer numbers were intolerable, so I upped sticks and climbed up above the tree line to get a breeze.

The heather was deep and rampant (presumably due to reduced deer numbers, and no regular burning). The only campsite I could find was a sloping grassy spot besides a burn, under a Scots Pine. Unfortunately the new location made little difference to the midges, and I was held siege in my tent. Nevertheless the view across Glen Derry was spectacular over the pines, a landscape that looks to have changed little since the end of the last ice age.

I managed to wedge gear to prevent me slipping out the tent, and finally managed to find a more-or-less comfortable sleeping position. I wondered if it would have been better to have stayed at Bob Scott's. I'd been looking forward to the Cairgorms being a wonderland, so was a little perturbed by the ferocious midges. Still it was a clear signal that this area was a notch above everywhere else in both difficulty and beauty.

Colonel's Bed above the Ey Burn
Colonel's Bed above the Ey Burn
Linn of Dee
Linn of Dee
The 3rd incarnation of Bob Scott's Bothy
The 3rd incarnation of Bob Scott's Bothy
Scots Pines in Glen Derry
Scots Pines in Glen Derry

Sunday 29th July 2012

Overnight a cloud of midges had accumulated around my tent, and I hurriedly took it down in the morning, wiping hundreds of midges off my face and arms in the process. Somehow two midges got inside the display screen of my camera! Wild campers in Glen Derry were wearing head nets, so I wasn't the only one suffering the midges.

I headed up Glen Luibeg, with more beautiful native pines. At the last of the pines, there was a good camping spot beside the river, which I noted for future reference. A little further on I had to cross the Luibeg Burn. Rather than divert upstream to the Luibeg Bridge, I entered a small plantation of sapling pines and used stepping stones to ford the burn.

The path climbed gently and I had first views of the Larig Ghru and the spectacular Devil's Point rising up from the far side. The original Gaelic name for this peak is Bod an Deamhain. The English name is a result of a visit to the area by Queen Victoria who enquired as to the meaning of the Gaelic. Her quick-witted ghillie, knowing the correct translation to be "Demon's Penis", gave a euphemistic answer to avoid embarrassment.

I was overtaken by a walker with a small daypack, wearing shorts and walking sandals with no socks. This was rather brave, but I guess having no fabric below the knee must allow the skin to dry quickly. He was climbing Ben Macdui via the Taylor Burn up the side of the Lairig Ghru.

I was heading for Glen Geusachan, a tributary glen to the west of the Lairig Ghru. To reach it I'd originally planned to divert up the Lairig Ghru to cross the footbridge by Corrour Bothy, but from a distance the water level in the River Dee looked to be low enough for a ford. I descended cross-country, intersecting the main Lairig Ghru path, then dropping down to the banks of the Dee. A heavy shower hit and I sheltered behind a boulder for ten minutes.

I searched along the Dee for a suitable ford, and started picking a way across. Almost on the far bank, I ran out of stepping stones, and had to awkwardly removed my boots and socks while balancing on a rock! The cold water was actually quite refreshing, and I felt immediately better.

The SMC guide describes Geusachan as a remote and enchanting glen flanked by the imposing slabs of Beinn Bhrotain and The Devil's Point, with Monadh Mòr rising directly ahead with a prominent plaque of slabs below its summit.

The guidebook warned of very rough going in Glen Geusachan, and sure enough I was wading through deep heather and long wet grass. Soon my boots were sodden, a state that they would remain in until the end of the trip! I crossed the Geusachan Burn and picked up a rough path, that soon fizzled out. My original plan was to camp in the glen and climb up onto the Cairngorm plateau the following day, but as it was still early, I decided to continue climbing.

I ascended Coire Cath nam Fionn to a narrow bealach between the two Munros. This route is not mentioned in any guidebook, and although flanked by rocky cliffs, the map showed a feasible slope of grass and scree between the crags. On the way up I had to shelter from yet another heavy shower.

From the bealach I turned left to climb Beinn Bhrotain. The path soon vanished into a huge boulderfield of pink granite blocks, created by freeze-thaw action during the ice ages, and subsequently rounded over millennia.

The summit trig was an unusual cylinder shape, that I've previously seen only in the west Highlands. There was a bird loitering around the summit cairn, presumably having become tame by people having lunch and leaving food on the summit. People should avoid feeding wild animals in the mountains as this destroys the feeling of wildness.

I retraced my steps to bealach. The sky was darkening again, and since there was no cover up on the plateau, I decided to put on waterproofs for the rest of the day. As I reached the lower south top of Monadh Mòr it began to rain heavily, I continued on to the main summit, then continued along the plateau aiming for Loch nan Stuirteag.

Despite the rain, visibility was excellent, and from this angle the 1000m Devil's Point appeared as an insignificant afterthought, compared to the massive plateau towering above it. The sun was still making an effort through the rain, and I saw several spectacular rainbows.

The rain was lashing and being lazy in navigation, on descent I ended up having to divert around steep granite slabs, across sodden ground where streams were literally flowing across the surface. It seemed unlikely that I would find a well-drained spot to camp, but aiming for the head of the loch, I found a small "island" of arctic-alpine tundra surrounded on all sides by soggy ground. A little stone wall indicated that people had camped here before.

This spot was sufficiently below the highest ground of the plateau, and provided shelter from south-westerly winds. Still an occasional gust would shake the tent, and a little later a hailstorm battered my tent! At just below 900m, this was the highest camp of the trip. I felt rather exposed camped up here. Indeed in winter, the winds are so ferocious that it is preferable to build a snow-hole rather than camp in a tent.

Scots Pines in Glen Luibeg
Scots Pines in Glen Luibeg
The Devil's Point
The Devil's Point
Looking north up the Lairig Ghru
Looking north up the Lairig Ghru
Rainbow beside the Devil's Point
Rainbow beside the Devil's Point

Monday 30th July 2012

Having finished the 23 Munros on the trip itinerary, I still had sufficient food for two more days, so could take it easy for the rest of the trip. Rather than head back down into the sodden Glen Geusachan, I decided to go over Sgòr an Lochain Uaine (The Angel's Peak), to make a spectacular finish to the trip.

Sgòr an Lochain Uaine is the fifth highest mountain in Scotland and is one of the Cairngorm 4000ft peaks (the others being Cairn Toul, Braeriach, Ben Macdui and Cairn Gorm). To give an idea of the scale of the Cairngorms, from my 900m camp, I still had 350m to climb to its summit. On the ascent there were good views of its neighbour Cairn Toul (hill of the barn, after its hipped roof shape).

Reaching the rim of the plateau, I could see the huge snow patch on Braeriach, which has melted completely just four times in the past hundred years. I could also see the infant River Dee tumbling down from the plateau from the Wells of Dee, the highest river source in Britain.

The view from the summit of Sgòr an Lochain Uaine was astounding, standing on the brink with a phenomenal void below me, Lochain Uaine immediately below, the wild corries of Braeriach to the left, the great trench of the Lairig Ghru in the centre, and massive bulk of Ben Macdui rising up to the right.

I was struck by the remarkable void - a vast space left by the billions of tonnes of rock removed by fluvial and glacial action. Such was the scale of this view, that it was impossible to fit into a single photo.

My onward route was rather daring. I had a vague recollection of reading about a scrambling route up to the summit of the Sgòr an Lochain Uaine. Normally I would have planned this and taken a photocopy of the guidebook. The weather was holding and peering down it looked feasible. The initial plunge was very steep, and awkward in places with a big rucksack. Lower down the angle eased, but I still had to proceed with caution to avoid a slip. I saw some very unusual arctic-alpine plants, that I've not come across on other Scottish mountains. There was plenty of juniper growing, which is always nice to see.

Down at Lochain Uaine, the difficulties were not yet over, as I still had some steep terrain to descend. The waterfall tumbled down steep granite slabs, so I traversed left and descended steep mixed ground, taking it slowly, until I reached the Garbh Choire Refuge. Although marked on the map as a bothy, this is little more than a basic shelter. It was built by the Aberdeen University Lairig Club in 1966 to facilitate access to the ice climbing potential then being opened up in the Garbh Choire area.

The structure comprises a tent-shaped frame, constructed from welded iron bars, filled in with steel reinforcing grid and covered with thick hessian and tarpaulin, with a substantial outer shell of boulders and turf. The tarpaulin is no longer fully watertight and numerous temporary repairs to the weatherproofing have used polythene sheeting placed under the boulders. Currently there is an old tent flysheet suspended inside to prevent drips on the residents. Inside are some wooden planks over the damp earth floor. One guidebook says "sleeps three in scenic discomfort"!

No one is currently responsible for maintaining this refuge, and over the years there have been various ad-hoc repairs, the most recent of which is a new door fitted in 2010-11 by two climbers, the previous door having fallen off its hinges. The Fords of Avon Refuge, also in the Cairngorms, has a similar construction, and was recently completely rebuilt by the Mountain Bothies Association. Hopefully the National Trust will take the initiative and commission some repairs, rather than allow this historic shelter to deteriorate further, or remove it completely. A detailed argument for retaining the refuge can be found here: http://cairngormwanderer.wordpress.com/garbh-choire-refuge/.

It began to rain heavily and I quickly ducked inside the refuge to put on waterproofs, grateful for the convenient shelter! From the refuge I headed cross-country for a mile through rough heathery terrain to reach a narrow path ascending to the Pools of Dee. I was now entering the heart of the Lairig Ghru, the most impressive mountain pass in Scotland. Just before the Pools of Dee the path petered out, and I crossed the burn to join the main Lairig Ghru path.

The summit of the Lairig Ghru is a rough boulder-field, that has caused many a twisted ankle. Even with frequent traffic, in places the path disappears completely into the boulders. Parts of the path look to have been menaced by recent rockfalls, tumbling down from the cliffs above.

On the far side of the pass, a few miles further on, there has been extensive recent path repair work at a junction of paths. From this point one path climbs to Braeriach and another goes through the Chalamain Gap to the Cairngorm Ski Centre. The heavy foot traffic and boggy terrain had necessitated the path upgrade. It was great to be back on good paths, which would take me all the way to Aviemore.

I decided to camp on the edge of Rothiemurchus Forest for one final night in the wild before returning to civilisation. At this point the path runs high above the Allt Druidh, and there were no obvious water sources. I had to resort to collecting water dripping from a peaty bank beside the path. I found a lovely spot beneath a reclining Scots Pine, located immediately beside the path. Later on I had a good view of a full moon shining through the pines. The midges we predictably awful, but weren't such a shock, now I was expecting them.

Lochain Uaine with Ben Macdui behind
Lochain Uaine with Ben Macdui behind
Sgòr an Lochain Uaine (The Angel's Peak)
Sgòr an Lochain Uaine (The Angel's Peak)
Garbh Choire Refuge
Garbh Choire Refuge
Upper limits of Rothiemurchus Forest
Upper limits of Rothiemurchus Forest

Tuesday 31st July 2012

I awoke to sunshine, and the weather was forecast to remain fine for the whole day. It was six miles to Aviemore, and this would be a pleasant walk though native woodland. The initial descent was down to a prominent junction of paths in the woods known colloquially as "Piccadilly Circus". I passed several groups of walkers heading up into the hills, they would have a splendid day, with this good weather.

Turning left at Piccadilly Circus, the path rejoins the Allt Druidh and they were a number of excellent camping/picnic spots along its banks. I crossed the Cairngorm Club Footbridge and continued down the path to Coylumbridge. There were some huge juniper bushes growing along this path, which looked to be a different strain to that growing in the high mountains. I found some bilberries, ripe and ready to eat at this lower altitude. A Scottish family took me by surprise as I was gorging on the bilberries, firing a string of questions at me, and expressing enthusiasm for my travels.

At the end of the path, I passed the lovely Coylumbridge campsite, set under pines, and joined the main road, two miles from Aviemore. A mile down the road I stopped at Inverdruie for a rest and to eat the last of my food. Here the privately-owned Rothiemurchus Estate has a café and farm shop. The estate lay on a vast range of outdoor activities, which provides a lot of the funding for conservation work in the forest. Beside the road here the estate have built "Tree Zone" an obstacle course high up in the trees, which people work their way around in the safety of a harness.

I continued on into Aviemore, and immediately headed for the railway station to find out travel options back to Southampton. Fortunately a sleeper berth was available for this evening at a cost of £116.60 to London. The single from London to Southampton was rather expensive at £36.50. Given the cheap cost of my outward travel, this cost of the return journey didn't seem too bad.

I now headed to the park to change shirt and get out of wet socks, that were beginning to smell even through the boots! As the boots were still soaking wet, I put plastic bags over my socks to keep them dry! I then headed off for a well deserved fish and chips. This was beautifully cooked, and a very generous portion with one large and one small piece of fish.

Afterwards I dropped into the tourist information centre to look at their selection of walking books. I bought an excellent Cicerone guidebook to the Cairngorms by Ron Turnbull, which is entertainingly written with lots of little-known routes, and scrambles up onto the high plateau.

There was a group of German hikers in the visitors centre who were asking about wild camping. I gave some advice, suggesting they camp above the forest, which is midgy this time of year. After some discussion they decided to take a bus to Glenmore Lodge, stay at Ryovan Bothy, then hike up to Loch Avon to camp the following day.

I stopped for a cup of tea in a friendly café beside the park. This was my first cup of tea in two weeks, and went down very well! I headed on to the Old Bridge Inn, which the tourist information centre had recommended for real ale. This pub had a veranda outside with sofas and an upright piano (out of tune). I relaxed, reading my new guidebook, chatting briefly to an Australian couple who'd stopped for a drink.

Later on I went inside and sat by the bar. There was live music from the Alistair McCulloch Trio (http://www.alistairmcculloch.com/), starting at 8pm, and the pub was getting busy. Alistair McCulloch is apparently one of the most sought-after fiddlers in Scotland today, both as a performer and a teacher. He has been performing traditional music for over 15 years.

I chatted to a friendly local by the name of Al. The pub food was rather posh, and I had planned to eat elsewhere, but since the music was good, I wanted to stay. The best option looked to be the vegetable spätzle topped with a fried egg, a German pasta dish, that cost £10. I cheekily asked the barman if this would satisfy someone who'd been in the mountains for two weeks, and he said that he would ask the cook to make sure. The meal was delicious, and I was glad that I'd stayed. The music was in full swing, and the pub was packed as I regretfully departed just after 9pm to catch the sleeper home.

I now had just 7 Munros left until completion. As my last big Munro-climbing trip, this trek through the east Highlands trip had been excellent. I had been very lucky with the weather, will good visibility for most of the trip, and only showers rather than heavy rain. I had really enjoyed the granite landscape of the White Mounth around Lochnagar and the dreamy quartzite peaks at the head of Glen Ey. It was fascinating to visit the remote shelters of Shielin of Mark, Davy's Bourach and the Garbh Choire Refuge.

The finish over the Cairngorms was spectacular, and it was wonderful to experience again the sheer scale of this landscape and the richness of its flora, the granite mountains softened by the beauty of the pine forests. There is nothing else like it in Scotland. The Cairngorms are a place of many secrets, drawing you back time and time again, each trip revealing something new.

Carn Eilrig above Rothiemurchus
Carn Eilrig above Rothiemurchus
The Allt Druidh in Rothiemurchus
The Allt Druidh in Rothiemurchus
Alistair McCulloch Trio
Alistair McCulloch Trio