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In the Shadow of Cairngorm
XXXV. A Day on Cairngorm


"We will, fair Queen, up to the mountain top" (Shakespeare). There are several ways of reaching Cairngorm from Speyside. One is by the Rothiemurchus road; another is by the Slugan of Kincardine, and a third is from Nethy-Bridge. Each has its advantages. We prefer the last. Without dwelling on details, we will note some points of interest by the way, and some of the outlying nooks of the hill worth seeing. Half-a-mile above Nethy-Bridge is the Iron Mill Croft, celebrated by Sir Thomas Dick Lauder. At the Dell the Nurseries may be looked at, with the Summer Seat, the ingenious work of Mr Stephen, which is built up of 112 different kinds of wood. The road runs through the woods for about two miles, and then turns to the left, joining the old Glen Road a little above the Forest Lodge. Rhynettan (1325) affords a fine view of the course of the Nethy from the dark gorge of the Garvault, down through deep clefts in the drift, and winding ways among the muirs and mosses. Between the Cromalt and the Nethy, the roofless house of Inchtomach stands, sad and solitary, on its sunny knoll, bearing witness, like Rinuigh, Rinirich, Rivoan, and other abandoned homesteads, to the days that are gone. Inchtomach was long held by the Andersons, and the last tenant was Donald Anderson, a tall and handsome Highlander, who used to carry the Abernethy Standard at the Castle Grant Gatherings. A little beyond Rivoan is Loch-an-Uaine. This romantic lochan lies in the "Slugan" or throat of Glen More, at the entrance from Abernethy. The hills rise steeply on each side, but with more breadth on the right, where the road passes. The hill on the right is called Creag Loisgte (the Burnt Hill), and that on the left Creag nan Gall (the Lowlander’s Hill). These names are descriptive, and, doubtless, refer to forgotten incidents of the past. The lochan is oval in form, and about 600 yards in circumference. It has neither inlet nor outlet, but is fed from underground sources. The water is of a delicate green colour and exquisitely clear. Looking down from the bank, some 10 or 12 feet, one can watch the tiny trout swimming about, and wonder at the strange gathering of logs and roots, the relics of ancient forests, that lies in the bottom. Between the banks and the water there is a strip of ground which in an August day may be found gay with violets, bluebells, and St John’s Wort, with here and there thistles, dandelions, and wild strawberries. If the day be calm, all above and around is reflected on the surface of the water with wondrous beauty. The tufts of grass, the patches of purple heath, like clots of blood, the pines standing singly or in clumps, the ledges of rock, with the masses of loose stones sloping downwards from the cliff, the clouds, the blue sky, and the glorious sun are all there—

"For not a feature in those hills
Is in the mirror slighted."

So sings Wordsworth of St Mary’s Lake. Scott has a similar passage; so has Shelley in his poem, "The Recollections," but with a subtlety of thought and felicity of expression beyond either of the others. When one looked, as Coleridge has it, "with head bent low and cheek aslant," the beauty of the scene was marvellously enhanced. The colours took a more delicate tint, the sun shone with more chastened radiance. Things were in a manner transfigured. It became difficult to distinguish between the seeming and the real. The mind itself was caught as if in a spell. Fancy ruled. Now the thought was of our rude forefathers, and we listened as if for the horn of one of the old barons of the glen, or the wild shouts of the caterans as they drove their prey through the pass or turned fiercely on their pursuers. Anon, other thoughts arose. The scene seemed a glimpse of fairyland, and we felt as if it would have been no surprise to have heard the fairy maidens lilting "Crochailan" as they milked the deer, or to have seen "Donald More" himself with his elfin band sailing their skiffs on the lake or holding gay revels on the green. The question is often asked—-What causes the greenness of the water? In the "Survey of the Province of Moray" (1798) it is said:—"The rocky banks rise around to a great height, and are closely clothed with the ever-verdant pine, by the reflection of which the water is always seen of the deepest green colour in every possible situation." It is strange that a man so shrewd and intelligent as the Rev. Mr Leslie should have committed himself to such an opinion. The explanation is not a bit better than the old belief that the water is green because the fairies washed their clothes in it! Some twenty years ago Sir Robert Christison gave his opinion, as the result of enquiry, that pure water was colourless, but Tyndall and Aitken have proved, by various experiments, that this is a mistake. The colour of distilled water is blue-green. At the same time, owing to matter held in suspension or solution, the colour may be greatly varied. The Lake of Como is of a deep blue; the Maggiore is greener. Brodick Bay takes a green hue from the grains of yellow sand, whereas Loch Lomond is of a brown colour. In Australia a gum tree cast into the water will soon tinge it of a fine blue. It may be well to notice that there are three other "green" lochs in the Cairngorm district. One is on Ben Muich Dhui, another on Cairn Toul, and the third on Cairngorm of Deny. The latter is the one referred to by William Smith, Rynuie, Abernethy, in his fine hunting song (Gaelic) "Allt an Lochain Uaine."

From Rivoan there are two routes to Cairngorm— one by the Garvault, the other by the Garbhchor. The latter is the better. The way by the Garvault is long and dreary, cramped and confined; but on the hill there is freedom and openness, bracing air, and a delightful play of light and shade. We feel the truth of Stevenson’s saying, "There are days when thus to climb out of the lowlands seems like scaling heaven." At Eag-Garbhchor in a sheltered hollow, may be seen the remains of a shepherds bothy. A little beyond is a huge boulder, which is said one stormy winter night to have shifted its position, and to have moved higher up! Doubtless it has been a great traveller in its time, and this may have been only one of its erratic turns. Foxes haunt the Garbhchor. When driven from there, they used to cross by Cor-na-spreidh to Bynack, and when they found no rest there, they sought refuge in the impregnable fastness of Caochan-na-Saobhaidh, near the Glasalt. The Eagle’s Cliff (Stac-na-h’ Iolaire) is a bold, roughly channeled cliff on the south side of Maim Suim (2395), facing Cairngorm. Eagles have built there from time immemorial. Once when passing we observed some goats feeding near the foot. Our collie barked at them, when they took refuge among the rocks, bounding from ledge to ledge with wonderful agility. They soon reached a height from which they could look down, as if with contempt, on the dog leaping and barking harmlessly far below. The scene called up Coleridge’s line

"Ye wild goats sporting round the eagle’s nest;"

and Wordsworth’s beautiful picture, "The Eagle’s Birthplace " —

"Familiar with forgotton years that shows
Inscribed, as with the silence of the thought,

Upon its bleak and visionary sides
The history of many a winter storm,
Or obscure records of the path of fire."

Near this, at Glaic-bhothain, is Archie’s Cairn. Some eighty years ago, two men, Archie Fyfe and Sandy Fraser, commonly called "Foxie Fraser," were watching a fox den. Archie’s gun went off accidentally, and he was mortally wounded. There were suspicions of foul play on the part of his comrade, but without good reason. The gun was regarded as unlucky, and the party carrying the corpse to Sleighich threw it into Loch-ghobhlach. As you ascend the hill, two curious effects may be noticed. One is the altered appearance of Ben-meadhon. At a distance, the paps on the top seem quite close together, but now they not only look larger, but seem to have drawn farther apart. The other is, that the higher you rise the more you come into sight and companionship of the great Bens. Those who seek may find a lesson in this. The path is now for some distance along the watershed. At one place there is a pretty steep bit of climbing, where the rocks rise like crow-steps on an old Scottish gable, but for the most part the ascent is easy. The chimneys of the Cath-no (Mudachan Chadha-no), lie a little off the track, but should not be passed by. These are huge masses of granite seamed and worn so that they resemble chimney stalks. They stand at the top of the stupendous cliffs that rise wall-like from the deep bed of the Garbh Alit,

"Precipitous, black, jagged rocks,
For ever shattered, and the same for ever."

At one time there were four or more "stalks." Two are said to have fallen in the great earthquake of 1816, and at the same time the others lost something of their height.

Another interesting point is Margaret’s Corrie (Cisd Mhearad) This corrie lies on the south east shoulder of the hill, away from the sun. It is notable as one of the places where snow lies longest. Even in the hottest summer it does not altogether disappear. A small stream runs in at the top, and gradually wears a way for itself. From the force of the water below, and the melting of the snow above, the channel is widened, till a sort of tunnel is formed some ten feet in height and more than a hundred feet in length. Once when there in the month of August, we were able to enter at the bottom, and pass up and out at the top. The gloom and the chilliness and the closeness of the overarching snow gave quite a sepulchral character to the place, corresponding to its name of "Margaret’s Coffin." Who Margaret was is not known. One story is that the corrie was the haunt long ago of some wretched hag who had been driven from society for her crimes, and that here she herded a flock of goats and found a grave. Another legend connects the place with the Witch of Moy, commemorated in Moritt’s Ballad. It is curious that there is a corrie in Badenoch with the same name and similar traditions. The path beyond this is covered with smooth, elastic turf, pleasant to walk on as a Turkey carpet. Further on there are reaches of coarse sand, channelled here and there by the snow torrents. Then there are loose masses of granite lying about in wild confusion. The vegetation is scanty. Here and there are tufts of grass and dwarf willow, with patches of thrift and sometimes broad carpets of moss campion gay with its pretty purple blossoms. This is the favourite haunt of the ptarmigan. They may be seen running about among the rocks and boulders, and if started, they shift to some other part of the hill, or make a splendid flight across the Garbhault to Bynack or Benmeadhon. Sometimes there comes a sudden change of temperature. Snow or hail falls, and the effect of the sunshine on the glittering slopes is very beautiful. Or mist may gather, boiling up white and sulphurous from the corries, and wrapping the mountains in gloom, while now and again the peaks of Carn-toul and Bynack stand out like giants glaring fiercely at the strangers who invade their territories. We remember Wordsworth’s saying "I would not give the mists that spiritualise our mountains for all the blue skies of Italy." Sometimes under favourable circumstances the Spectre of the Brocken is seen. Sir Thomas Dick Lauder describes such an appearance ("Edinburgh New Philosophic Journal, 1831.") "On descending from the top (of Ben Muic Dhui) at about half-past three P.M., an interesting optical appearance presented itself to our view. We had turned towards the east, and the sun shone on our backs, when we saw a very bright rainbow described on the mist before us. The bow, of beautifully distinct prismatic colours, formed about two-thirds of a circle, the extremities of which appeared to rest on the lower portion of the mountain. In the centre of this incomplete circle there was described a luminous disc, surrounded by the prismatic colours displayed in concentric rings. On the disc itself, each of the party (three in number), as they stood about fifty yards apart, saw his own figure most distinctly delineated, although those of the other two were invisible to him. The representation appeared of the natural size, and the outline of the whole person of the spectator was most correctly portrayed. To prove that the shadow seen by each individual was that of himself, we resorted to various gestures, such as waving our hats, flapping our plaids, &c., all which motions were exactly followed by the airy figure. We then collected together, and stood as close to one another as possible, when each could see three shadows in the disc; his own as distinctly as before, while those of his two companions were but faintly discernible." The Marquis’s Well is a favourite place for luncheon. The behaviour of people at the top of the hill varies greatly. Some are quiet, others noisy. Some are disappointed, while others seem as if they could not be satisfied with seeing. The deeper feelings of the soul in such a scene are strikingly described by Wordsworth

"Sound needed none,
Nor any voice of joy; his spirit drank
The spectacle.
. . No thanks he breath’d, he
proferr’d no request;
Rapt into still communion that transcends
The imperfect offices of prayer and praise,
His mind was a thanksgiving to the Power
That made him; it was blessedness and love."

With a clear sky, the view from Cairngorm is wide and varied. In the north sparkles the Moray Fifth, with the Ord of Caithness, Ben-Bhraggie in Sutherland, and Ben-Wyvis in Ross-shire, rising proudly beyond. To the west the peerless Ben-Nevis is dimly visible. From the east southwards there is a "multitudinous show of mountains," among which Loch-na-gar, Cam Toul, Ben-Macdui and in the far distance Ben-y-Gloe are notable. Ben-Macdui is about four miles south. It is connected with Cairngorm by a broad, grassy ridge, dipping in the centre, abounding in springs and brooks. Once when passing the savage conies of Cor-an-t’ Shneaehdaidh and Cor-an-lochan with a friend, we had a curious experience. We had stopped to "roll the stone, in thunder down the mountain," when we were surprised to hear the sound of a pipe. We looked, but could see no sign of life. "Where should this music be? I’ the air, or the earth?" The strain went on. At last we discerned a figure perched on the opposite ridge, just on the sky-line, seemingly a mile off.

"This is above all strangeness,
Upon the crown of the cliff, what thing was that?"

‘We whistled loud and shrill, and waved our hats. The musician bowed in return, and then went on with his music. By far the grandest sight at Ben Macdui is

"The grisly rocks that guard
The infant source of Highland Dee."

"The vicinity of some of these summits (Cairn Toul and others) to Ben Muic Dhui," says Mr Hill Burton, "has something frightful in it. Standing on the western shoulder of the hill you imagine that you might throw a stone to the top of Brae Riach. Yet between these two summits rolls the river Dee; and Brae Riach presents, right opposite to the hill on which you stand, a mural precipice, said to be two thousand feet high—an estimate which no one who looks on it will be inclined to doubt. Brae Riach, indeed, is unlike anything else in Scotland. The object that at a distant view it most resembles is Salisbury Crags, near Edinburgh, which may serve for a model of the mighty mass, such as one sees of a mountain in a Dutchman’s garden" "Seldom is the cleft between the two great summits free of clouds, which flit hither and thither, adding somewhat to the mysterious awfulness of the gulf, and seeming in their motions to cause certain deep but faint murmurs, which are in reality the mingled sounds of the many torrents which course through the glens, far, far below." The Queen in her "Highland Journal" has expressed similar sentiments, with Her Majesty’s characteristic simplicity and naturalness. "Never shall I forget this day, or the impression this very grand scene made upon me; truly sublime and impressive: such solitude!"

The descent to Loch Avon may be made from Ben Macdui by the Garbhuisge, or from Cairngorm by the Coire domhain burn, or other of the torrent beds. On the Feith Buidhe there is a narrow gully, broken by ledges and falls. On the left side, among the shelving rocks, there is a hole or "pot," about six feet deep, in which the late James Grant, Rivoan, found quite a treasure of Cairngorm stones. When Grant discovered the "pot," it was full of sand and the debris of granite and spar. On clearing this out he obtained great spoil of crystals of all sizes and degrees of purity. Amongst them was one stone of enormous size, upwards of 50 lbs. in weight, which was afterwards purchased by the Queen for 50. Sometimes, especially after heavy rains, crystals may be picked up on the surface of the ground, but these, though good as specimens, are seldom of any value. The best stones are got by digging and blasting. Experts can tell from the kind of rock and the veins of quartz where they are likely to be found. Various places are pointed out, such as the Garten and the Sleighich quarries, where valuable finds have been made. There is a strange story told about the finding of a beryl or aqua marine stone. Some sixty years ago a certain woman, who was called Cailleach-nan-Clach, "The Carlin of the Stones," came to Abernethy from the Lowlands of Banff. She said she had dreamt of finding a precious stone in the hill. Perhaps she had heard the legend of the crystal that shepherds had sometimes seen sparkling brilliantly in the cliff above Loch Avon. Be that as it may, having had her dream, she could not rest; so one summer she set out for Cairngorm. Long she sought, but in vain.

"Time pass’d on, while still her lonely efforts found
No recompense. Derided, and at length
By many pitied as insane of mind."

But, strange to say, her quest was at last successful. She found a splendid beryl. It was about the size of a wine glass, and of rare beauty. Through the good offices of the parish minister, a purchaser was found, the late Mr Winsloe, Coulnakyle, and the widow’s purse was filled, and her heart made to sing for joy. But the finding of the crystal took such hold of her mind that the searching for stones became a passion. Year after year she returned, making her home at one of the nearest crofts, and often passing nights alone in the Shelter Stone. It was a surprise to tourists and visitors to come suddenly on this weird woman digging at the foot of some precipice, or searching the bed of some winter torrent. Once the late Lord R. and a party fell in with her in Glen Avon. Lord R. said he wondered she had courage to go about in such a wild place alone. She answered, "Why should I be afraid? I never see anything worse than myself, and God is as near me here as in the plains." This reply recalls the famous saying of Howard: "The way to heaven is as near from Grand Cairo as from England," and the sweet words of Monica. Augustine’s mother, when dying at Ostia, far from home and her own people: "Nothing is far from God." The Cailleach found many stones, but never again one like the beautiful beryl. One summer she was missed from her accustomed haunts. Let us hope that she had found "the pearl of great price," and entered into rest.

Loch Avon is the glory of Cairngorm. It lies in a deep dark hollow in the mountains, and is about 1 1/2 miles in length, and little more than a furlong in breadth. "Loch Avon," says Hill Burton, "is like a fragment of the Alps imported and set down in Scotland." The Shelter Stone ("Clach dhion") is at the upper end of the loch. It consists of a huge block, that falling from the Sticil, the bastion crag above, had rested on two other stones, and thus formed a sort of cave beneath. The stone is about 44 feet in length, 21 feet in breadth, and 22 feet in height. It is calculated to weigh 1700 tons. The space available for shelter is small, and can accommodate only five or six persons. Cordiner says "It chills one’s blood to enter it." But it is much frequented in summer, and is fragrant with the memory of Hogg, Wilson, Dick Lauder, and many other distinguished men. Once we found it a welcome retreat. It was a calm sultry day in July. About noon, when entering the Glen at the Diald (saddle), we heard the rumble of distant thunder. Gradually the peals became louder and more distinct. Looking back from the loch side we saw a dense black cloud which filled the valley of the Avon. It came up slowly and majestically, the lightning flashing forth now and again and the thunder following fast. We stood a while awed and entranced. Then we made haste for the Shelter Stone. Just as we reached our haven the storm overtook us. The thunder cloud seemed to dash and break against the massive beetling brow of the Sticil. The gloom and the turmoil became fearful,

"From peak to peak the rattling crags among
Leaps the live thunder,
Not from one lone cloud,
But every mountain now has found a tongue."

The rain fell in torrents. We remembered the words of the Psalm, "The voice of the Lord is upon the waters, the God of glory thundereth. The voice of the Lord is powerful. The voice of the Lord is full of majesty." By and by the rain ceased. The air grew sweet and calm, and the lake gleamed in serene beauty. But still

"The cataracts blow their trumpets from the deep,
I hear the echoes through the mountains throng."

The return from Loch Avon may be by the Lang. The Barns of Bynack, huge granite masses, resembling barns or granaries, are well worthy of a visit. They bear testimony to the tremendous denudation and changes that were wrought in ancient times by the combined agencies of frost and fire and the waters of primeval seas. About Bynack, often in the moor between Big and Little Bynack, and lower down by the Nethy herds of deer may be seen. It is a pretty sight to watch the movements of a herd when started —first their outlook, then their clustering together, and then their gallant flight, with a loud clattering of hoofs and horns, led by the antlered monarch of the glen. Some might be inclined to moralise like the melancholy Jaques as "the herd jumps along by him and never stays to greet him." "Ay, sweep on, you fat and greasy citizens. ‘Tis just the fashion: Wherefore do you look upon that poor and broken bankrupt there?" Then says the second Lord to the Duke—

"Thus most invectively he pierceth through
The body of the country, city, court,
Yea, and this our life, swearing that we
Are mere usurpers, tyrants, and what’s worse,
To fright the animals and to kill them up
In their assign’d and native dwelling-place."


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