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The Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal
The Cairngorms in Summer


By WALTER A. SMITH.

HAVING taken possession of our quarters at the little inn at Abernethy, Strathspey, we went out and sat on Nethy Bridge to survey the mountains, the scene of our week's work. There they were, all grand and beautiful, with the brilliant rosy light of the July evening sun shining full upon their rugged crests—the outline of each ridge and shoulder and snowy precipice showing sharp and clear against the light blue expanse of the sky beyond, unsullied by even the semblance of a cloud. The light blue sometimes merged into an equally splendid pale green, an effect of colouring which the artist of our party described as "medivaL" And as we sat the sun sank behind the low range of hills across the strath behind us, and the rosy flush faded from the mountains, so that they became black and mysterious, although their outlines still remained almost as clear as before. The clearness of the sky-line now, at 9.30 P.M., was indeed truly marvellous. Then, over the broad high forehead of the Cairngorm rose in sparkling splendour a solitary star, and this was the crowning glory of the night!

On a very hot morning soon after, we started to ascend the Cairngorm, intending to sleep at the Loch Avon "Shelter Stone." Owing to the heat, the walk up past the Dell of Abernethy and through the pine forests was rather toilsome. For the first four miles we have an excellent and well-made cart road running SSE. A footpath continuing in the same direction across a heathy opening in the forest, and afterwards out on the open moor, brings us in twenty minutes more to the gamekeeper's cottage (Rynettin); and this being the last human habitation we shall see for the next thirty hours or more, it has a peculiar interest beyond the grandeur of the view from its door. Standing pretty high on the west side of the valley of the Nethy, it commands a very complete and striking view of the whole great mass of Cairngorm, and farther to the east of the strangely back-boned and sharply peaked ridge of BeinnaBynach. [This is a very interesting and satisfactory hill to climb (3,296 feet), the ridge culminating in a good rocky peak. It is best approached by the old track from Abernethy to Braemar, known as the Lang an Lawgh (the road for the calves).] Down the dark, narrow, and terribly rugged glen between the two mountains, rush in wild career over the granite boulders and the debris, the light brown waters of the Nethy, here called the Garavault (rough water). This is a very remarkable glen, almost forbidding in its dreadful stoniness. The whole surface of the ground in it is heaped over with broken rocks; and up in its desolate corries on either side, great beds of loose boulders seem ready, on the slightest provocation, to pour down in stony flood upon the stumbling wayfarer below. When on a previous day we had explored this "Valley of the Shadow of Death," as the artist likened it unto, we found in the principal corrie on the eastern side, just under the lower peak of Bein-na-Bynach, a large ice-bound snow- bed, and a very lofty waterfall. By following the Garavault to its highest spring, and crossing the comparatively low ridge or "saddle" above it, the adventurous explorer will find himself close upon, and not many hundred feet above, the north-west corner of Loch Avon. But to return to the Cairngorm and our present route. The long northern flank of Cairngorm is terminated at a point about three and a half miles south of Rynettin by a narrow and romantic break in the range of hill, through which the path that we are now on finds its way into Glen More. About 500 yards before entering the pass, the track passes a small ruined hut on the bank of a little burn rattling down from the north-east side of the large coned "Herd's Hill," which forms the western.side of the pass, and is the culminating peak of the Nethy range of hills. This path is well worth exploring. Up its high steep sides the Scotch firs climb and cling in the most daring and picturesque fashion. In its centre lies a remarkable little loch of great depth and without visible outlet. It is called the "Green Lake," on account of its peculiar colour. Although the water is of great purity, its bottom is invisible; but lying on its steep sides below the surface may be seen bare skeletons of giant pine trees, ancient denizens of the forest, fossilising or rotting there, I know not which, but still spreading out their gnarled white arms through the clear green water in quite a ghastly manner. The road goes by the west side of the lake, and it is a most delightful walk from it down Glen More by the fir-clad shore of Loch Morlich, and through Rothiemurchus Forest to Aviemore.

The ruined hut mentioned above is the point from which we begin the actual ascent. Crossing diagonally a little gully in front of the cottage, we bear gradually up the side of the steep heathery slope directly in front, towards a curious small stony gap in its ridge. Passing along the western edge of the gap, a very slight descent is made to where a small stream comes down from the ridge beyond the one we had just crossed. This second ridge meets the first almost at right angles. It is near an hour's work from the ruined hut to this small stream, and the ground is very rough. In fact this had been about the most fatiguing part of the whole ascent. The heat had now become very great, and not a breath of air was stirring. To make matters worse, we were persecuted by swarms of buzzing, bloodthirsty flies. For protection from these horrible creatures (I'm afraid our language regarding them was at the time considerably stronger, and might truthfully have been described as "week-day"), whose buzz was, however, much worse than their bite, as well as for a shade from the sun, we here erected a tent by suspending a plaid over our walking sticks, and reposed in quietness beneath. A most successful dodge! The artist has since produced a most "characteristic picture" of this romantic scene. It consists of a background of flies, and a foreground of six human feet encased in nailed leather, and is very beautiful. But on our feet once more, we skirt along the west side of this second ridge without much further ascent for, say, a quarter of a mile; and then, where some black boggy ground occurs, a sort of track is seen bearing a little to the left, and ascending pretty steeply a third ridge. This is the actual main north ridge of the Cairngorm itself, and we are soon on the top of it, with the Garavault immediately below us on our left, and away far down on the right the forests of Glen More lying peacefully in the bright sunshine, with Loch Morlich glistening like a shield of silver in their bosom. It is plain sailing now all the way to the summit of the mountain. Keeping on the backbone of the ridge, we more or less gradually ascend to the top, a height of 4,o90 feet. The climb is very long, and owing to the great heat we had to take it very leisurely, so that it was 5.30 P.M. before we reached the cairn. Just below the topmost ridge, in a slight hollow on the west side of the almost level saddle which there occurs, is a magnificent spring of extremely cold water (the Marquess Well), bubbling slowly up beside a bright green patch of moss among the slabs of granite. This was a great and merciful refreshment. We ascend from here to the top, keeping slightly to the right hand, but owing to the rounded formation of the summit we do not see the cairn until we are quite close upon it. But there it is at last!-

"See yon lone cairn, so grey with age,
Above the base of proud Cairngorm;-
There lies the dust of Avon's sage,
Who raised the spirit of the storm."

The sage and the spirit were represented by two ptarmigan hopping about on the stones, but they fled, and we were left in exclusive possession. What a glorious sensation it is to get to the top of such a mountain as this! All the toil and labour of the ascent is at once forgot, and as you sit quietly on the "lone cairn," you feel lifted up above all mundane cares and troubles. A noble sense of freedom is wafted on the wings of the mountain breeze, and as you look abroad over the length and breadth of the land, you feel that for the time being it is all your own, to be enjoyed to your heart's content. And what a wonderful land of hills it is we looked abroad upon! To the east and south the great masses of Bein-na-Bynach, Ben Muich Dhui, and their neighbours, shut off any distant view, but are themselves a striking panorama of craggy peak, snowy precipice, and ponderous mountain top. To the west and south-west again, however, the eye roams over an endless series of mountainous ranges and deep valleys, reaching one beyond the other far away into the blue distance, until it rests upon, some sixty miles or more away, the giant head of Ben Nevis,- towering grandly above his fellows. Glancing round to the north-west, the broken pyramid of Ben Slioch attracts your attention, and you are carried away in imagination to the brilliant beauties of Loch Maree; and then across the misty firths of Inverness and Cromarty, Ben Wyvis looms darkly in the distant north. But we cannot remain to look at this magnificent prospect all evening. We begin to descend the mountain, bearing a little to the left of the top, and in an opposite direction from that in which we had ascended. Very soon we come upon the head springs of a stream that falls down into Loch Avon, about half a mile below its upper end. At these springs we disturbed a large herd of wild red deer, which were evidently preparing to pass the night at them. They galloped off, however, in a long column of two abreast, headed by an advance guard of nobly antlered stags, and disappeared over the sky-line towards Ben Muich Dhui. We, on the other hand, follow our stream, which rushes down a deep stony gully in a south-easterly direction, making some fine waterfalls in its descent. It is a "pretty considerable scramble" down to Loch Avon, but who would not imperil his ankles for the sake of the truly grand and magnificent scene which opens gradually up before us as we pick our steps cautiously down? It was now almost seven o'clock. The great peaked and rugged mural precipices round the head of the deep blue lake lost in terribleness but gained in picturesque beauty in the bright light of the evening sun, and the large white snow- beds on the rocky slopes above the crags blushed roseately beneath the warm kisses of its horizontal rays. The shadow of the mountain side we were upon was cast with great distinctness on the still steeper cliffs of Ben-y-Main across the loch; but it's no use—words cannot describe the weird grand beauty of this place under these evening lights and shades. It was a sight once seen never to be forgot!

We were on the granite beach at the head of the loch before 7.30, and crossed the stream that enters it about 200 yards above its mouth. This point is directly below the "Shelter Stone," which lies up the slope a good bit, under the shadow of the sharpest and most striking crag above the south-west end of the loch. A rough and hardly discoverable path leads up through the immense boulders with which the slope is strewn to the "Stone," which may perhaps be best recognised from the burn side by three large patches of a greyish brown colour on its great flat face. Arrived at our "lodge in this vast wilderness," we soon got a good fire lit, and coffee was boiled in an old tin can, in which the writer had heated some soup only two years before! Soon after supper, as the long dark lake below began to look cold and very desolate in the gloamin', we turned in under our plaids, and made ourselves as comfortable as possible on the dry heather on the floor of the "Shelter." But the night was not to pass without adventure. After various pretences at sleep, we were roused from our dozing condition about 12.30 A.M. by the startling sound of distant voices, and then of footsteps scrambling up towards the entrance. They drew nearer and near, and then ceased. There was a few moments silence, during which a hundred wild conjectures were made as to the origin of the sounds, and (must it be owned?) "Young Farquhar's" solemn warning occurred to one of us at least:-

"Yet still at eve, or midnight drear,
When wintry winds begin to sweep;
When passing shrieks assail thine ear,
Or murmurs by the mountain steep.

When from the dark and rocky dells
Come eldrich cries of wither'd men;
Or wind harp at thy shelter swells—
Beware the sprite of Avon Glen!"

We shouted out—"Who's there?" A low mutter in Gaelic was the only response. Then some one seemed to creep cautiously into the "Shelter"; but we first became certain of the presence of our intruder by his beginning to strike vigorously with a flint and steel. We shouted out again, but no answer was made until the stranger managed to light an old end of candle, which he immediately held up and revealed to our blinking eyes a large, red, hairy head bound up in a white handkerchief. On seeing us the head gruffly answered to our queries that it had come up from Speyside in the afternoon, and then disappeared, but returned immediately with two men much younger than its owner. They expressed astonishment at seeing us, but did not seem at all desirous to enter into conversation, and were soon apparently fast asleep at our feet. But sleep with us now seemed impossible, so we stepped out about two A.M. over the prostrate bodies of our strange bedfellows, and were surprised to find it such a brilliant night. The stars were bright and numerous, and although the moon was concealed by the great crag immediately above US) it was evidently shining with a strong soft light that cast sharp shadows of the cliffs upon the loch and the opposite rocks. There was an indefinable air of wild romance about the place, as seen by this strange soft light, a romance not lessened to us by the remembrance of the recent mysterious interruption to our repose. We went in again for a hour or so, but day began to break soon after three, and the three strangers and ourselves were astir by the half-hour. The sunrise over the lower mountains at the foot of the loch rivalled in beauty and colouring effect the sunset of the evening before. It sent a great flood of light right up the lake, transforming its surface into a blaze of brilliancy, and, striking on the precipices above, lit them up with a glow of delicately coloured splendour. It was on these precipices, by-the-by, that the Ettrick Shepherd had that marvellous adventure with the eagles, which he is made to relate in such graphic and thrilling language in the It Noctes Ambrosian." We did not see the eagles, though doubtless some are still about the place. It was a little past five, after an invigorating plunge into the lake, that we started for the top of Ben Muich Dhui. Climbing up by the first cataract that falls into the south side of Loch Avon, we reach in an hour's time the shore of the small mountain tarn—Loch Etichan—lying peacefully in the bright morning light below its snow-capped cliffs. Crossing the hollow in which it lies, just where the burn escapes from the loch to flow down the Corrie Etichan into Glen Derrie, we see gradually ascending the side of the steep slope opposite the well-marked track from Braemar to the summit of Ben Muich Dhui. This, of course, we got on to as soon as possible. It sweeps in a south-westerly direction round the heights above the south side of Loch Etichan, and passes along the verge of the columned cliffs at the head of Glen Lui Beg. From here a grand view of the Lochnagar mountains is obtained, as well as of the distant wooded basin in the Dee valley, in which Braemar lies so beautifully. The track now bears round to the right, and gradually turning almost due north, leads past the roofless sappers' hut to the topmost cairn—the second highest point in the United Kingdom.

We sit down on the summit at 8.30, a time when many people are beginning to think of getting out of bed. A morning's work like this teaches us what a large and most beautiful part of these summer days we regularly waste. Could not people get up at four, and go to bed at nine? It would save no end of candles. The view from the desolate plateau of grey granite which forms the summit of Ben Muich Dhui is of the same magnificent character as that from Cairngorm, only more extended to the south and south-east, the principal object of interest in the former direction being the grand group of the domes of Ben-y-Gloe. The near view across the "Lang Ghru" of the great cornies and rough bald ridges of Braeriach is also imposing to a remarkable degree. Leaving the cairn we go gradually down the northern shoulder of the mountain to a depression of considerable extent, from which issues a double-headed stream that descends rapidly to the Lang burn, and joins it not more than two miles below the "Wells of Dee." Round the sources of this stream, whose headlong career we are to follow, are large beds of the most beautiful Alpine mosses. They form soft damask cushions among the rocks of the most brilliant colours imaginable. Light and dark green, red and purple, show side by side in striking contrast. This descent, which is made on the right hand side of the stream, is very steep and rough. Great part of the way we have to scramble down over loose rocks lying on the steep slope; but the Wells of Dee are reached in safety about eleven. The ancient track from here through the defile to the Alt Drui Glen, whose waters flow down to the Spey, is of the very roughest description, and several times seems to lose itself almost entirely in a sea of rocks and stones. It gradually improves, however, as we descend the wild narrow glen towards Rothiemurchus. The distance from the "Wells" to the Aviemore station on the Highland Railway is about thirteen miles. A shorter route from the top of Ben Muich Dhui to the same place is to keep along the top of the mountain ridge until you are above a point perhaps a little more than a mile from the head of the pass over to the "Wells." A snowbed lies here between two cliffs, and a slanting route may be taken down from it to join the path by the burn side. But this route avoids the Wells of Dee, which are most interesting and curious phenomena. About two miles down the Alt Drui, where the glen begins to broaden out a little, the path bears considerably away to the right of the stream, gradually coming back to it, however, as the outskirts of the Rothiemurcus forest are entered. It then keeps on the top of the wooded bank above the watercourse, and not long afterwards emerges on a cart road. The route is to the left along this road, which soon bears rather to the right across a small oasis of meadowland in the forest, along the west side of which flows the now softly purling brook. Shortly after re-entering the wood, the Eunach river (with whose waters our old companion the Alt Drui has just mingled her more rapid stream) is crossed by a wooden bridge, and we enter on a large and beautiful opening in the forest, the site of the old hamlet of Auldrui, about 41 miles from Aviemore station and 7 from Lynwilg Inn, which may be reached either by Coylum Bridge or by the lovely Lochan-Eilan and the Poichar.

These rather puzzling routes through the great forest of Rothiemurcus are now indicated by some of the guide posts of the Scottish Rights of Way Society, which here, as elsewhere, are a great help and encouragement to pedestrians.


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