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Guide to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland
Branch C. Routes across the Grampians to Braemar and Athole, with Loch-an-Eilan, Cairngorm, &c.


Grandeur of the Grampian Mountains, 1.—Various Passes, 2.—Glenmore, 3.—Botany; Rock Crystals, 4.—Geological Features; Loch Avon, 5.—Loch-an-Eilan, 6.—Grand Assemblage of Mountains and Cataracts around the sources of the Dee, 7.—The Springs or Wells of Dee; the Garachary, 8.—Ben Mac Dhu, 9.—The Chest of Dee, 10.—Pass of Minikaig; Pass of Gaick; Catastrophe in 1799; Geology of the Grampians, 11.—Rare Plants, 12.—Cairngorm Stones, 13.

1. THAT portion of the great range of the Grampian mountains which lies intermediate between the confines of Strathspey and Badenoch, on the one hand, and Strath Dee and Glen Tilt, on the other—occupying a width of about twenty-five miles—comprehends at once the highest altitudes and the greatest mass of highly-elevated mountain-land, and the most numerous and closely-congregated groups of lofty mountain-summits in the British dominions, approached only, perhaps, by the great chains which overhang Loch Africk and Loch Beneveian, Loch Lungard and Loch Monar—the sources of the Beauly—where, however, they are not so densely compacted together. Though exhibiting the greatest amount, in any given compass, of the more sublime features of alpine scenery, yet this district is little known, except from the report, and that only of late years, of a comparatively small number of adventurous tourists. The reason is, that these fastnesses cannot be explored, except by dint of a complete fagging day of resolute walking, there being no intermediate stage whatever between Aviemore and Castletown of Braemar, or between the former or Kingussie and Blair Athole.

2. There are four passes across this section of the Grampians, besides those through which the public roads proceed, which require some notice. The first is from Aviemore, by Glenmore, across the eastern shoulders of the Cairngorms, and by the south end of Glen Avon to Bracmar; secondly, by a more westerly course through the skirts of the Rothiemurchus forest, and on the west side of Cairngorm to the sources of the Dee, between that mountain and Bracriach, and thence along the west side of Ben Mac Dhui, and the course of the Dee; the third from Loch Inch, or Inverishie, by Minikaig, into Glen Tilt and Athole; and the fourth proceeds from Glen Tromie, by the forest of Gaick, into Bruar and Athole.

None of these routes should be attempted by the pedestrian without a guide; and each of them will require, in the passage, the greater part of a long summer's day. The first two can only be undertaken, either from Castletown in Braemar or from Aviemore in Strathspey, at both of which places guides may be hired; and the two last routes, in like manner, must be begun either from Blair Athole, terminating the same day at Kingussie in Badenoch; or this order may be reversed. But it should be distinctly borne in mind, that, when once the low valleys at either end of these journeys are passed, not a single hut or place of shelter is to be found in the hills, and that none but persons in robust health, and accustomed to walking, should try these excursions. In tempestuous weather they should on no account be attempted by any one. The length of each exceeds thirty miles of hill and dale, which is fully as toilsome as one-half additional distance on a made road; and as the visitor must start from one end, and sleep next night at the other, without the possibility of finding any place of refreshment, we would advise his carrying provisions with him, and loitering as shortly as possible by the way.

3. Pursuing the first route, we cross the Spcy at Inverdruie, near Avicmore, and proceed eastward, through Glenmore, which, as Dr. Macculloch remarks, "without being picturesque, is a magnificent scene, from its open basin-like form, rising at once up the high and unbroken mountains which surround it, from its wide extent, and from its simple grandeur of character. Everywhere is seen rising young woods of various ages, promising, when centuries shall have passed away, to restore to the valley its former honours. But it is the wreck of the ancient forest which arrests all the attention, and which renders Glen-more a melancholy—more than a melancholy—a terrific spectacle. Trees of enormous height, which have escaped alike the axe and the tempest, are still standing, stripped by the winds even of their bark, and, like gigantic skeletons, throwing far and wide their white and bleached bones to the storms and rains of heaven; while others, broken by the violence of the gales, lift their split and fractured trunks in a thousand shapes of resistance and of destruction, or still display some knotted and tortuous branches, stretched out in sturdy and fantastic forms of defiance to the whirlwind and the winter. It is the naked skeleton bIowing in the winds, the gigantic bones of the forest still erect, the speaking records of former life, and of strength still unsubdued, vigorous even in death, which renders Glen-more one enormous charnel-house." The wood in this valley was sold to the York Buildings Company for 10,000; and it is said their profits exceeded 70,000.

4. Passing the region of the forests, the stranger finds himself about a third of the way up the Grampian slopes, which are thence only sparingly covered with heather, and whortic, and cranberries; and as he approaches the summit, even these disappear, and the naked undecomposed granite presents itself, the crevices of which are but occasionally tinged with the varied colours of small alpine lichens and mosses, more prevalent than which, however, the botanist will descry the little phaenogamous beauties of Statice Armeria and Silene acaulis.

The ascent from the west end of Glenmore to the top of Cairngorm is easy, with little variety from protruding rocks, or watercourses. "One smooth and undulating surface of granite mountain, without the variety of bold precipice or deep ravine, follows another, so far and so wide, that, when other objects appear, they are beyond the reach and powers of the eye, and produce no effect."

To the botanist this mountain is almost a blank, as regards phoenogamous plants; and, indeed, the productions on it and the neighbouring chain of mountains present a greater resemblance to the Flora of the Lapland Alps, than those of any other elevations in Britain. Lichen nivalis is, doubtless, the most striking plant on Cairngorm, but it has not been met with in fructification; while some other species of the same genus (Cetraria), found nowhere else in fruit, often present themselves here in that state. hycopodium annotinium and Azalea procumbens are exceedingly abundant, and Luzula armata, associated with L. spicata, are almost the only phuenogamous plants to be met with on the bare summit.

5. The central nucleus of these mountains, as is well known, is composed of granite, intermixed with and resting on which are a series of slaty and stratified rocks (abounding with beds of primitive limestone), the junctions and relations of which, however, are not so well known or so extensively displayed in the sections on the north side of the Grampians as in the opposite quarter of the country.

From the top or shoulder of Cairngorm the descent is easy to Loch Avon, or A'an, a scene almost unrivalled even in Switzerland, yet one which nature seems nearly to have buried beyond human resort; as, though accessible also from Braemar, the distance from any habitation is on that side likewise so great, that it is only possible to visit it and return within the compass of a long summer day, and at the expense of a good deal of fatigue. In Braemar a mountain exists which is called the Eastern or Lesser Cairngorm; and the tourist will have to take care that he be not conducted to it, instead of to the true and higher mountain, which is situated in Inverness-shire.

Having conducted the traveller as far as Loch Avon, we refer him to a brief description of the route between it and Braemar in the preceding branch, merely noticing that it lies up Glen-dhu-lochan, on the east side of Ben-na-main, and across into Glen Dear;, and the continuation of it Glen Lui, to the Linn of Dee.

6. Proceeding now from the ferry at Rothiemurchus, through the Rothiemurchus woods in a south-easterly direction, we ascend towards Ben Mac Dhui and the Dee; but on the way, or rather on some different day, for time is precious en route for Braemar, we must not omit to visit Loch-an-Eilan.

Loch-an-Eilan is only about two miles distant from the Spey; and the road to it winds round the beautiful birch-clad bill, the Ord Bain, which rises from its western shore; but the lake, its castle, and its woods, recal to the imagination rather the things we read of in the novels of the Otranto school than a scene of real life. "In some parts of it, the rocky precipices rise immediately from the deep water, crowned with the dark woods that fling a profound shadow over it; in others, the solid masses of the trees advance to its edge; while elsewhere open green shores, or low rocky points, or gravelly beaches, are seen: the scattered groups or single trees, which, springing from some bank, wash their roots in the waves that curl against them, adding to the general variety of this wild and singular scene.

"This lake is much embellished by an ancient castle stand-in; on an island within it, and even yet entire, though roofless. As a Highland castle, it is of considerable dimensions; and, the island being scarcely larger than its foundations, it appears, in some places, to rise immediately out of the water. Its ancient celebrity is considerable, since it was one of the strongholds of the Cumings, the particular individual whose name is attached to it being the ferocious personage known by the name of the Wolf of Badenoch. It has passed now to a tenant not more ferocious, who is a fit emblem and representative of the red-handed Highland chief: the eagle has built his eyrie on the walls."—(Dr. Macculloch.)

7. After traversing for about ten miles along the course of the Alt Dhui, the shelving slopes on the north and west of Cairngorm, of the vast base on which rest the ample superincumbent masses of Cairngorm, Ben Mac Dhui, and Braeriach; and the adjoining Grampian mountains, the summit is attained of a highly elevated pass, where the water shears in the opposite direction from that up which we have been toiling. Here we may define the relative position of the more distinctive mountain masses. We are now at the north-west of Ben Mac Dhui, to the north-east of which lies Cairngorm, and south from it Ben-na-Main and the lesser Cairngorm—these towering Alps encircling the secluded waters of Loch Aven. A great defile runs along the western side of Ben Mac Dhui, through which the infant waters of the Dee make their way. On the west side stretches Braeriach, Cairntoul, and Ben-na-Vrochan. All these mountains range about 4000, several to nearly 4300 feet, while Ben Mac Dhui is computed to rise as high as 4390 feet above the level of the sea; and, if so, of the precision of which measurement, the only, if any room for doubt, may rest in its inland position—exceeding by 20 feet the height of Ben Nevis. All the eastern and north-eastern faces of these, as of most of our mountains, are precipitous, while the western sides present accessible slopes. The wall, as it is called, of the Braeriach, flanking the summit level of Glendee, is a stupendous lengthened range of precipice, computed to be about 2000 feet of perpendicular height. This gigantic cliff forms a very arresting feature of the scenery. Cairntoul projects its huge bare mass in front of the ridge of the Braeriach, intercepting the sunbeams from the wild ravine or corry which descends from this vast barrier. The granite mountains around are remarkable for the teeming springs of water which gush up near the very summits of the mountains. These discharge numberless torrents down the mountain sides, and line the upper reaches of Glendee with a series of cataracts, nowhere in this country matched in number and altitude. And the impending crags and expanded acclivities which stretch around, surpass in extent and continuity most other scenes of the kind.

8. It is matter of dispute whether one of the streams pouring down the flank of Ben Mac Dhui, or another called the Garachary, which comes foaming down the curry between the Braeriach and Cairntoul, is to be regarded as the true parent Dee. The first buries itself, in its descent, amid granitic masses which strew the hill side—to reappear in a series of reservoirs of the most remarkable character, called the "Springs or Wells of the Dee," embedded in structures of nature's workmanship—exhibiting a strange degree of regularity. Near the top of the pass, the bottom of the ravine is occupied by a sue-cession of terraces of broken fragments of stone, presenting, in their downward fronts, so many ledges of masonry one above the other. On each terrace—five in number—there is a deep well of the most limpid water, of varying capacity ; the lowest of very considerable dimensions. At the bottom of all, issues a stream of no mean volume, even thus early. The vegetation around is stunted and scanty, and the rock-work of the wells is almost destitute of soil. For about twelve miles from this point, to near about where it deflects to the cast, the Dee hurries its waters over a broken rocky bed, in rapids and cascades, and quieter intervals, and formidable-looking linnsreceiving constant accessories from the adjoining hills. The first main tributary is the Garachary, which joins it from the west, about three miles below the springs. It issues from a well near the topmost summit of Braeriach, and has some length of course at this high elevation before it precipitates itself down along the edge of the stupendous wall—its progress marked by a permanent scam of snow-white purity. It joins the Dee at the foot of Cairntoul. Expanded, upreared screens of naked rock of the most imposing altitude are drawn around. And this scene of desolation is made doubly impressive by the reflection how utterly secluded it is—there being no dwelling of any kind, however mean, for many miles in all directions.

Next to the Garachary, the Dee is enlarged in volume by the Geusachan, which, on the further side of Cairntoul, descends from Ben-na-Vrochan and an adjoining mountain, accomplishing near its origin one sheer slide of 1000 feet.

9. Ben Mac Dhui is easy of ascent from the upper part of Glen Dee, and the scene from the summit probably surpasses that from any other of our celebrated mountains. The sea can be descried on three sides. To the south and west the expanse of mountain heaps is prodigious—its great extent indicated by such remote points as Ben Lawers, Ben Lomond, Ben Cruachan, and Ben Nevis. Looking north, the Moray, Nairn, and Banffshire hills, with those of the contiguous section of Inverness-shire, subside into very moderate proportions, while intermediate lies the smiling valley of the Spey ; and beyond, the blue waters of the .Moray Firth, girdled by the distant hills of Ross and Sutherlandshires. While on the east, prone at our feet, lie the headlong and stupendous precipices which encompass Loch Aven. The direct descent to Loch Aven from Ben Mac Dhui is almost impracticable, and besides the loss of time and over-exertion would render it impossible to reach any better resting-place than the shelter-stone, a large fragment of rock on its banks, under which a night bivouac has occasionally been made. Should the tourist incline, however, to vary his route, he may descend into Glen-Lui-ben and Glen Lui, and reach Strath Dee, below the Linn of Dee, instead of regaining Glen Dee, and following the course of the river.

10. As the Dee descends, the mountains diminish, and the glen widens out. Near the bend of the river the Geldie joins it also from the west, about nine miles from Castletown of Braemar. Some distance above the junction, the waters of the Dee encounter a large rock, in which they have excavated two chambers—the lower considerably the largest, and the waterway in both at a considerable depth. Into the first, the access is by a very confined passage, and from either chamber the contents, contracting overflow—from the lowest in a fall of some height. These excavations are called "The Chest of the Dee." The "Linn of Dee," where its waters are pent up in an extremely narrow duct of some length, occurs half a dozen miles above the Castletown, and will, with this section of Strathdee, be found described in the preceding branch.

11. Of the other two sequestered routes above mentioned, the first commences from the Ferry of Insh (five miles west from Aviemore), and proceeds through Glen Feshie and Minikaig, and through Glen Tilt to Athole. It is shorter than the public road by at least twenty miles, and its elevation is not so great as might be expected.

On the third route the traveller should start from Kina ssie early in the morning. Its course lies through the Forest of Gaick, and by the Water of Bruar, and it ascends to a greater elevation, and is more dangerous, than the one just alluded to. To the pedestrian it does not shorten the road from Aviemore to Perth or Dunkeld so considerably as Minikaig; and it is exceedingly unsafe in stormy weather, from the drifting of the snow, which not only obscures the path, but fills up the passes and openings through which he has to proceed. Some years ago, a party of soldiers were nearly lost on this route; and some of them are said never to have recovered the cold and fatigue they endured. The hardy inhabitants of the country often attempt to cross the mountains in this direction, and not unfrequently perish on the way. The most awful occurrence, however, known to have taken place in the Forest of Gaick happened on New Year's Day 1799. A party of huntsmen, headed by a gentleman of the name of Macpherson, proceeded the previous night to a hut or bothie in the hill, that they might be out early in the morning in quest of the (leer. A tremendous thunder-storm, accompanied with wind and snow, came on, and by the morning the hut was destroyed, the stones scattered about, and every inmate of it perished ; not one having survived to explain the catastrophe. Some have imagined that the accident was occasioned by an avalanche of snow from the adjoining height ; others, that electricity was the cause; and, of course, the country people have their tales and surmises of a blacker and more fearful character. The guns of the party were found twisted, most probably from the effects of lightnin; ; but the men themselves seem to have been suffocated in bed, for only one of the bodies was found a little way beyond the spot on which the hut stood.

12. Before closing this notice of the Grampian mountains, it seems proper that we describe a little more particularly their structure. They are in general remarkable for their extreme sterility and the desolate aspect which they present. The sum-snits are rounded, sometimes nearly flat, to a great extent, and entirely covered by disintegrating blocks of stone, together with grit and sand, except in a few places, where the granite rocks present the singular appearance of large tabular protruding pinnacles, having their blocks seemingly arranged in regular strata. Most of the mountains exhibit perpendicular precipices near the summit, which generally assume a semicircular form, constituting the hollows called corries, and having a lake at their base. In decomposing, the granite assumes either a red or whitish colour, from the character of its constituent felspar; while on the large scale it splits into masses of a tabular form, the concentric or globular arrangement being rare. Except near the base of the precipices, it is difficult to determine whether the blocks and stones which cover these mountains are partially disintegrated and decomposed fragments of the constituent masses, or of diluvial or other origin. On the summits there are extensive tracts of grit and sand, among which fragments occur but sparingly. In other places the fragments are intermixed with grit and sand; and in others huge piles of broken tabular masses appear, with very little grit or sand in their intervals. In the open glens there are immense deposits of diluviuin or alluvium; hillocks of from ten to sixty or eighty feet occur abundantly, which are generally of an oblong form, but rarely present any appearance from which the direction of the currents that had formed them can be decidedly inferred, though there can be no doubt that their constituent particles were derived from the adjoining mountains.

13. We subjoin, in the note below, the names of some of the rarer and more characteristic plants of this mountain district; and we have only to add, that it has also long been distinguished for its beautiful rock crystals (of a dark and of a light brown or yellow colour), called Cairngorrn stones, which are now more carefully sought for in the debris than formerly, and which of late have been discovered in fine six-sided prisms, terminated by six-sided pyramids, extending from one inch to six or eight inches in length, and of which specimens have lately been found weighing ten pounds of solid crystal. Topaz, beryl, amethyst, and garnet, also occur in these mountains.


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