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Chapter 5 - Glenmore and Cairngorm

THE estate of Rothiemurchus is very compact and is all comprehended within our horizon. Nearly the whole of it may be seen at the same time from any elevated central point. But its attractions are greatly enhanced by the estates that are immediately contiguous to it, viz. Glenmore on the north and Kinrara on the south. Glenmore is within the circuit of the same hills, and so also is a part of Kinrara, whose higher points may be seen included in the same comprehensive view. But the Ord Bàn separates between the scenery of Rothiemurchus and the scenery of Kinrara, while it reveals Loch Morlich and the landscapes around the shooting lodge of Glenmore lying at the foot of Cairngorm, which are unseen from the low grounds around. From the top of this conspicuous hill you see the horizon of Rothiemurchus to the north, a horizon of dusky fir-forests, and the horizon of Kinrara to the south, a horizon of graceful birch-woods, another and altogether different world of beauty. Both Kinrara and Glenmore belong to the Duke of Richmond and Gordon, and Rothiemurchus comes in between them, partaking of the characters of both places, passing gradually into the upland grandeur of Glenmore, and shading insensibly into the quiet, soft loveliness of Kinrara.

To begin with Glenmore, which is bounded by the same hills to the north and east as Rothiemurchus, there are two routes by which the shooting lodge may be reached. The first is by Coylum Bridge and Altnacaber and through the fir-forests that line the banks of the Luineag or past the farm of Achnahatnich. The road is a remarkably pleasant one. The open spaces at Achnahatnich are a beautiful contrast to the dusky woods around. Before they were broken up for cultivation they were covered exclusively with an immense growth of heather and juniper bushes, from the latter of which the place gets its name of the Field of the Junipers. The light green meadows and cornfields, with the sun shining full upon them, refresh the eye through the vistas of the dark trees, and the occasional cottages, far separated from each other, relieve the oppression of the solitude. The hills are not very high, but extremely picturesque, forming one continuous line of rounded masses of nearly equal altitude, their bases covered with pine-woods and their summits with bracken and variegated mosses and purple heather. At the western extremity they terminate in a steep declivity, with a red scaur running down the face of it. On the highest point are the ruins of an ancient Celtic fort, which commands a magnificent view, and below it is a cup-marked stone, beside which the early defenders of the fort used to worship. This ridge descends towards the uplands, and between it and the range of hills beyond there is a deep depression, which is the commencement of the Sluggan Pass, leading straight from Abernethy to Glenmore, and becoming grander as you proceed through it. A considerable stream lies far down at the bottom, and the sides of the defile are exceedingly steep, covered with a rout of trees that seem to clamber up, one beyond another, and occupy the most precarious positions. It looks more like a scene in Switzerland or Norway than any in this country. Through the Sluggan Pass the way opens out upon the richly-wooded plains of Kincardine, and the valley of the Spey northward past Boat of Garten, and the blue fields around Grantown, until the far horizon is closed by the traditionary sharply-cut hill called Benn-na-Claidh—or the Cut of the Sword—cleft from summit to foot by one stroke of a prehistoric giant’s brand.

Loch Morlich

Returning to the Glenmore route the path reveals at every turn some new aspect of landscape loveliness. A herd of deer may often be seen quietly feeding in the open grassy spaces at a little distance from the road, unheeding the presence of the passer-by, if he does not shout to them. Feeding for the most part on the low grounds, where the grass is sweeter and more abundant, such deer seem larger than usual, and confirm a statement often made that before our native deer had been driven by men to the higher and poorer regions of our country, they were a larger race. In the superficial strata of the earth, horns of at least sixteen tines have been found; and it is a well-known fact that when a herd is confined to the luxuriant conditions of a deer-park, it will develop larger horns than when left wild on the hills. Midway on this route a rustic wooden bridge crosses the river and a path over it leads to a mineral well in the forest— which has drawn patients from far and near—and strongly impregnates the surrounding air with the smell of sulphuretted hydrogen. About two miles beyond, the shores of Loch Morlich come in sight, and the drive up to the lodge is as fine as anything in this country. The loch itself is a beautiful sheet of water, surrounded on all sides by fir-woods, and the road passes along the edge of the water. It is about three miles round, forming a wide circular basin, every part of which is visible, without any bays or promontories. There are hardly any trout or char in it, the prevalent pike having nearly extirpated them. The loch is 1046 feet above the level of the sea; and the view, looking down its vast area to the hills beyond, seems much more extensive than one could believe, looking up at it from the reverse way. At the upper end there are great banks of the smoothest white granite sand, formed by the attrition of the waters on the rocks around, in which grow dwarf juniper bushes and willows, spreading widely and flatly over the surface, and knitting the particles of sand into a compact sward. The fir-trees and alders along these banks are most magnificent specimens of their kind. As you go round the head of the loch you come upon some giants of the ancient forest that were spared when the Glenmore Company, a firm of wood merchants from Hull, bought the forest from the Duke of Richmond for about £20,000. The timber of these glorious trees was extremely valuable, and in all Scotland the firs of Glenmore were considered by far the grandest and oldest. The company, it is said, even with the gross wastefulness of their mismanagement, cleared £ 70,000 of profit. Among green and vigorous trees you come upon the wrecks of the ancient forest, trees of enormous girth and great height, stripped by the winds even of their bark, and like huge skeletons, holding up their bleached bones to the pitying heavens, or, broken by the violence of the storms, strewing the ground with the fragments of their trunks and boughs and leaving their twisted and entangled roots with large masses of the surface soil clinging to them high in air. The alders are equally magnificent and venerable. They are the largest and oldest specimens I have ever seen, their branches, tortuous by age and long resistance to the weather, knotted into the most fantastic forms. The trunks of such trees are often hollow, or filled with mouldering dust, and they are frequented by the rare crested tit, the phantom bird of these old Caledonian forests, which is oftener seen in the Glenmore woods than anywhere else. Among the interesting plants that occur in this forest are the Moneses grandiflora, the one-flowered winter-green, with its delicate white fragrant blossoms crowning its lily-of-the-valley stem. The Linnaea borealis is also somewhat frequent in flower among the recesses of the woods. These two plants may be said to be relics of the old Caledonian forest, whose flora and fauna were similar to those of Norway and Sweden. From its far inland, inaccessible position, Glenmore was less exposed to the ravages of the invading foes than any other part of Scotland; and hence the trees were allowed to grow age after age and generation after generation with impunity—without risk of axe or fire—and it became the great nursery of the pine-forests of Scotland, where we see the conditions of the old Caledonian forests reproduced at the present day.

The road along the shores of the loch commands an unbroken view on the opposite side of the great wall of mountains between Cairngorm and Braeriach, which is one of the most stupendous lines of precipices in Britain. It rivets the attention all the way by its simple grandeur and its wide extent. This wall of mountains is not seen from other points, being lost in the mass of Cairngorm, which seems to form part of the mountains around the Lang Ghru Pass. It is only as we advance that they reveal themselves along the sky-line, forming lofty acclivities and huge precipices, and long horizontal plateaus, rising up abruptly from the basin of the loch. The snow lingers far on in summer among the rifts and shady recesses, and brings out by contrast the blackness of the grim rocks, adding greatly to the sublimity of the landscape. On a gloomy day, when the sky is covered with dark clouds, the lofty wall of granite assumes a wild, uniformly forbidding appearance. Very little detail is seen, and the eye can form no true idea of the great height of the precipices. But on a clear bright day, the sunshine illumines each scaur and cleft of the granite rocks, and shows the great variety of their appearance, and they gain immensely in sternness of expression and in vastness of height. Glenmore Lodge before its recent reconstruction was a curious conglomeration of buildings, added, one after the other, to the original central structure. It is now a well-designed Highland lodge with a picturesque effect which harmonises well with the character of the surrounding scenery.

The ascent of Cairngorm is made by the path that winds across the stream at the bottom of the valley. The distance to the top may be about five miles by a tedious, but not a difficult rout; a distinct path marking the gradual course to the cairn that crowns the highest point The first part of the way leads past a solitary farmhouse called Ricaonachan, which used to be the shooting lodge, for two miles through a wooded defile formed by a large burn from the southern side of Cairngorm. Crossing this burn by a rustic wooden bridge, you climb the actual side of the hill and emerge on a wide open moorland, from whence, by a long, gradual incline by a deer-shooters’ zigzag path, you are brought up to the ridge, from which the summit is soon reached. The surface of the mountain is extremely barren, consisting mostly of rough granite gravel and boulders with hardly any vegetation. The naked soil produces very few of the Alpine plants that are conspicuous on other mountains of similar elevation. Here and there a rare sedge or scale-moss gladdens the eye of the botanist; and large tufts of a chocolate-brown Andreaa, and patches of a snowy scalloped lichen called Cetraria nivalis, both almost entirely confined to the Cairngorm rang; remind you of the vegetation of the Polar regions. In the southern corrie near the top, well-shaded from the sun, a large wreath of snow usually lingers till August, and then melts completely away. The mountain is entirely bare of snow for about a month or six weeks; the last relics of the past winter almost mingling with the first fail of next winter’s new snow. The origin of the large burn at the foot of the hill is from the melting of the snow in this corrie. The course of the water downwards may be traced by the tract of rich green verdure which it nourishes, and which forms a great contrast to the barren sterility of the rest of the region. It is this green tract of verdure that has given its name to the mountain.

The Shetler Stone and Loch Avon

A few hundred yards beyond the crowning cairn, there is a spring of deliciously cold water called Fuaran-a-Mharcuis or the Marquis’s well, which is often a spot of blackness amid the snow, or entirely obliterated by it. The tourist is not infrequently induced to go on from this point to the summit of Ben Macdhui, which adds considerably to the arduousness of the feat. Descending over the steep cliffs by the stream on the south-western side of Cairngorm, you come to the shore of Loch Avon, which is unequalled among the Scottish lochs on account of its utter loneliness and the stern magnificence of its mountain setting. For a large part of the year the sun cannot reach it on account of the loftiness of the rocky walls which shut it in. The wind for the same reason does not often ruffle its surface, and it stretches before the eye for a mile and a half a calm mirror in which the wild solitude sees itself reflected with double grandeur. Its waters are of a startlingly blue colour, breaking at the shore into green and cobalt hues like the bickering colours on a peacock’s neck. At the west end of this loch is the famous Clach Dhian or Shelter Stone, which is an immense boulder of granite resting on other stones, and thus forming a cave sufficient to accommodate five or six men. This spot is often used as a sleeping-place when the tourist is overtaken by the darkness, and it is sufficiently windproof and dry to provide fairly. comfortable quarters for a summer night. Bearing south-east from this well-known landmark, and climbing up by the stream to Loch Etchachan, a foot-track leads to the top of Ben Macdhui, where an unequalled and uninterrupted view of all the Highland hills will reward the climber’s pluck and perseverance.

The views from Cairngorm, notwithstanding its great elevation, are by no means remarkable — the distant ones being too vague and indistinct to produce a deep impression, and the near ones consisting of rolling billows of granite mountains unbroken by bold precipice or deep ravine, and leaving little to the imagination. But what has distinguished it more than anything else is the peculiar crystals that are found upon it. The upward path is strewn with large pieces of granite interspersed with veins of quartz, which have been broken in order to find transparent gems. But in every case the quartz has crystallised into opaque, white hexagonal crystals, which have no beauty or value. It is very rarely that one comes upon a perfect specimen of the gem among the debris of the mountain. The best crystals have been found in drusic cavities in the granite, and they vary in colour from an almost black or dark smoky hue, to a brilliant yellow like an Oriental topaz. The largest specimen ever found is in possession of Mr. Farquharson of Invercauld. It was picked up in 1780 on the top of Ben Avon, and weighed 49 lbs. Invercauld gave £40 for it. Cairngorms have been purchased at a cheap rate by the local jewellers, but an extravagant price has been charged for them elsewhere. Very fine specimens used to be discovered on the mountain in tolerable profusion; but they are now comparatively scarce.

The other route by which Glenmore Lodge is approached is more roundabout. It proceeds past Loch-an-Eilan, the cross-road to Glen Eunach and the entrance to the Lang Ghru Pass. The track goes through the forest, which in this place is somewhat thin and open, and admits of the continuous luxuriant growth of heather among the trees. It used to be much frequented by the country people, but it has gradually fallen into desuetude, until now it has almost ceased to be traversed. The consequence is that the heather has grown over it, obliterating the ruts of the wheels, although still leaving sufficiently distinct traces of the existence of the path, which the horse has no difficulty in pursuing. It is a delightfully soft track, freed from bumping and jerking by the elastic cushions of the heather, although it passes over irregularities of the surface, over heights and depths that might otherwise endanger the safety of the vehicle. There is no forest-path in Rothiemurchus so charming as this is. It offers at every turn far—stretching views over the forest of the open country to the west and north and splendid glimpses of the dark Cairngorm mountains on the right, while the vistas in the forest itself are enchanting. To do justice to it, one ought to traverse it leisurely on foot on a bright summer day, when every knoll and decaying old root, covered with mystic vegetation, affords endless sources of delight. Here and there huge moraines, covered with heather, and crowned by clumps of fir-trees, with wooden huts on the highest points as lookout stations for the deer, rise up on the right hand, between you and the vast wall of mountains filling up the sky behind, and bear witness to the destructive forces that in far past glacial times sculptured the landscape. Marshy places and little lochans add the variety of their black, still, shining waters, fringed with reeds and rushes, to the whole scene, and mirror the fir-trees in their depths. I remember vividly how on one occasion the sunset glow reddened all the pines of this forest path, rested as an indescribable glory on the grey mountain peaks, and filled all the air with a suffused golden sheen that made every object which it illumined a picture. The track continues the same to the end. It takes you to the high deer-fence which separates the property of Glenmore from Rothiemurchus, when passing through the gate you come to Loch Morlich. The margin of stones and sand is decked with bright green water-mosses in great variety and with immense quantities of sundew of unusually large size. The extraordinary profusion of the tufts of this curious carnivorous plant or vegetable spider along the beach is due to the great development of insect-life which is often seen by the side of a loch, the one acting and re-acting upon the other. I was struck by the same circumstance at Loch Gamhna near Loch-an-Elan, where large masses of luxuriant sundews form quite a reddish-brown sward on the margin of the loch; and at Loch Insh the shore is equally covered with large tufts of the rarer long-leaved species, the Drosera anglica. The road comes to a large sluice where the Luineag issues from the western end of Loch Morlich, over which you pass on foot, while your vehicle crosses by a shallow ford a little farther down. This sluice was constructed to regulate the flow of the water of the loch into the river, when floats of timber, cut in the forest, had to be sent down into the Spey, and from thence on to the sea. The dam banked up the waters of the loch to a higher level than the ordinary one, and all at once the imprisoned flood was released, and carried the timber with it over every obstruction down to the Spey with great impetuosity.

The ordinary road to Glenmore Lodge is crowded with vehicles and bicycles during the season, for this is one of the show places of the district, and most of the visitors wish to ascend Cairngorm. At the lodge there gather visitors from all parts of the world, and parties can be traced by aid of a glass all the way up the slopes of the mountain to the top. In the afternoon the crowd disappears, and there falls a great stillness upon the place. It reverts then to its wonted loneliness, enhanced by the contrast of the bustling scenes that preceded. The presence of such a multitude of people interferes no doubt to a certain extent with one’s thorough enjoyment of the solitude, and is apt to take away the bloom and sentiment of romance, which requires loneliness for its development, and to prevent the peculiar thoughts which the Alpine landscapes themselves suggest, while it introduces alien ideas of the great world left behind. But the scene is on so vast a scale that humanity seems to be entirely swallowed up, and the great dumb mountains necessarily subdue the soul to a kindred peace. The popularity of Cairngorm does not seem to scare away the deer from their accustomed haunts in the neighbouring hills and corries, or to destroy in the least degree the sport of the huntsmen. There is room for all; and Nature and human nature act and re-act upon each other, for it is to be hoped that the crowd of visitors take back with them to the busy haunts of man the visions and inspirations that come to them from the everlasting hills.

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