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Cairngorms traverse - Blair Atholl to Kingussie, and detours

Cairngorms traverse - Blair Atholl to Kingussie, and detours

Postby Bearded Wanderer » Sun Jun 04, 2017 12:10 am

Munros included on this walk: Beinn Bhrotain, Càrn an Fhìdhleir (Càrn Ealar), Mullach Clach a' Bhlàir, Sgòr Gaoith

Date walked: 25/06/2016

Distance: 160 km

Ascent: 2750m

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A man sits in a corner of a public bar on the edge of the Cairngorms, nursing a pint of one of the local ales produced by an eponymous local brewery. He stands out among the visitors just driving through. He's short, with long ginger hair, somewhat matted by the wind, and a full beard. He wears, in muted colours of green, black and blue, a modern wicking top with long sleeves, a polyester party kilt repurposed for trekking and a pair of boots that, judging by the wincing every time he moves his feet, he's walked a little too far in. By his side is an ex-military rucksack (although he's clearly too short to have ever served), a sleeping bag, lightweight camping roll and day rucksack tightly lashed to it.


Blair Atholl, absent any tourist-laden coaches, is quieter than it was last time I was here. I don't linger. I head out of the railway station, little more than a halt, and turn right towards the bridge over the Tilt. I pass the inevitable hotel where a collie barks for attention, a signpost to a “working mill”, the entrance to a caravan site and, almost opposite a small visitor centre, find a discrete beginning of a footpath, marked by a single pole, just where the road rises to go over the river. There is a field on one side and the River Tilt, the colour of good Scotch, on the other, separated from the footpath by a line of trees, mostly birch and alder. I cross the mill's lade, the overflow control apparently rusted into the down position, and head upstream, relishing the sensation of some serious trail.

I want to do a few stages of the Scottish National Trail, from Blair Atholl to Kingussie, but there are too many Munros around for me not to want to take a few detours.

It's been a while. Injury took me out some years ago, followed by illness, then relationships with women with some interest in the outdoors but none in long-distance hikes or expeditions into the hills. A long period battling depression which, let's be honest here, isn't over, saw me spending far too long without the motivation to do much at all. A walk around the Fife coast was followed by a longer route taking me 360 kilometres to Inverness, then a walk to Berwick, another to finish the last stretch of the John Muir Way and the Three Lochs, then a visit to Bute. All of them alone. This as much a fightback against the demons in my own mind as it is a walk.

It's way past time I'm back in the hills.

The Tilt, after an extended period of minimal rain, is quite low, but produces white water over solid rock. Beech trees were planted here many decades ago, so the woodland lacks a decent understorey. I walk north, as the path rises slowly but perceptibly, under the half dome of some sort of folly overlooking the river, then onto landrover track, past planted conifers, a cow field, and more conifers. A few black beetles, an iridescent blue in the right light, wander the path, and I rescue one, somehow on its back, waving legs in the air. After a few kilometres, the trail drops down, crosses the Tilt and rises again. A small area has been fenced off to protect the rare, and fascinating, small cow-wheat. This plant, a hemi-parasite, steals many of its nutrients through nodules connected to other plants. It produces heavy seeds, which contain a body called an elaiosome, rich in fat and protein, which attracts red wood ants, which help with dispersal. The plants are not yet in evidence, and I press on.

A few hundred metres further on I refill my water bottle from a stream, and continue my trek. Glen Tilt has that classic glacial U-shape, but modern land use, sheep on the lower slopes, grouse moor on the upper, make it uninteresting, at least down here. I had considered a climb of Carn a' Chlamain, which rises above the glen to the west. I stop to brew up noodle soup next to a bridge over the Allt Craionidh, where a few trees, birches and a willow, cling on awaiting the return of the wolves, and an obvious footpath goes up to meet a bigger track that takes you all the way to the summit. I'm confident I can make it up and down before dark, but weather threatens. By the time I've finished my snack drizzly rain settles the question and I set off again, leaving this sheep-ridden, muirburn-scarred hillock for another day, following a landrover track across open ground, past Forest Lodge with its low-quality semi-natural woodland, the plantation further on, and up the glen as it narrows slowly, the occasional drizzle more an annoyance than a problem.

The Tilt, looking gloomy.

Just short of the Falls of Tarf the rain comes on with a greater degree of seriousness and I pitch my tent on the flat spot next to the Bedford Bridge. It clears up by the time I've eaten, but I decide that here will do for the night.

Tarf falls.jpg
The Falls of Tarf.

With an early night I'm up not long after sunrise. Last night's overcast is breaking up so I breakfast, strike the tent, and head up the narrowing glen that enfolds the Allt Garbh Buidhe, emerging onto the watershed less than an hour later.

allt garbh buidhe.jpg
Looking down the Allt Garbh Buidhe

I refill my water bottles at a stream, noting the sharply divided leaves of alpine ladies-mantle and tormentil, not yet in flower, and the blades of a few violets which are, and press on. To my right lies the bog that makes up the watershed, to the left drier grouse moor, where the path lies. A snipe drums briefly; another calls a few hundred metres further on, an almost incongruous sound of a squeaky bicycle pump. I startle a red grouse near the path, which flies off a few metres, making its familiar warning call, before standing in full view.

Looking north from the watershed

Lichens on a rock near the track

Before long I can see the plantation that marks the location of the Geldie Burn and, beyond that, Beinn Bhrotain, which I now hope to summit. I manage to cross the first of the three fords using stepping stones, get one foot damp at the second, and have to wade briefly at the third.

The Ford of the Geldie. It's a paddle now, but would probably be impassable in spate. There is loads of camping space around here. Note how far back the tree line is compared to the location on the OS map.

On a wide, flat area of ground I again put the tent up, transfer essentials into a day sack, and skirt the edge of the plantation. It's been cleared back a couple of hundred metres since the OS map was surveyed, leaving the usual wasteland of shattered branches, so it no longer meets the track at its southern edge. Finding also no fence (marked on the map but absent) at its northern edge I leave the bank of the Geldie and cut across to the Dee, meeting it just above the falls.

For part of its length it, and new woodland planting, are protected by a large deer fence to prevent browsing of saplings intended one day to help cool the water of the habitat of the endangered freshwater pearl mussel.

The Bod an Deamhain (usually mistranslated as "Devil's Point") guards the Lairig Ghru.

A faint footpath leads off to the left at Allt Iarnaidh, presumably up Carn Cloich-Mhuilinn, but the obvious route up Beinn Bhrotain is further on. The main trail leads over mounds of glacial moraine, branching just before Allt Garbh, even with a few well-constructed steps, before becoming fainter as it leads up into the corrie, water rushing over long rock chutes.

Cloudberry is common in patches above about 500m.

The track becomes fainter as you climb

Looking down towards the Dee.

This is not a difficult climb and, while the path is faint and easy to lose in boggy areas, the route is fairly obvious until I reach the watershed.

The Corrie is one big bog. I advise staying out of here and heading for the ridge to the left.

At this point I miss the path, and wind up on the edge of Coire an t-Sneachda, currently one large bog, before cutting across to the higher ground to the north-west. After this it's an easy walk to the top, over thin alpine soils and boulder scree. A ptarmigan rattles at me from among the rocks, but is either hidden or well camouflaged.

While the route up and down has clear interest, in terms of botany, geology and views, the summit of Beinn Bhrotain lies at the top of a rounded dome, disappointing for my first Munro in several years. There seem to be several possible routes down, including an obvious one over Carn Cloich-Mhuilinn but, with weather threatening (an idle threat on this occasion, as it turns out) I decide to play it safe, returning quickly by the same route, diverting only to avoid the wet ground of Coire an t-Sneachda.

Back on the track by the side of the Geldie I meet another solitary hiker, laden with an expedition rucksack, bound for the Linn of Dee. I rest briefly back at the tent, before packing it up and heading upriver along a landrover track, meeting a few people on MTBs coming the other way. A long stretch has been recently deer fenced to protect new tree planting, not on the OS map. It's overcast, but remains dry and almost still.

I'm expecting to be plagued by midges when I set up camp near the ford below the ruins. I seem to be the only one in for the night. It's exposed, and I'd have probably camped closer to the old building as a windbreak in rougher conditions, but it makes more sense to remain close to the main trail towards Glen Feshie. As it turns out, the wind is just strong enough to keep the bloodsuckers down. I eat, and get an early night.

an sgarsoch2.jpg
Dawn on An Sgarsoch, taken from just outside the tent

I'm up not long after dawn, and make some final decisions. Doing both the Munros that stand above me to the south is possible, even straightforward in a day, but I want to be down in Glen Feshie before dark, which will give me a day to explore the hills to the east of the river. Realistically, I have time to climb only one. On the grounds that An Sgarsoch can be climbed from the south after the postponed ascent of Carn a' Chlamain, I plump for Carn an Fhidhleir, and set out. I extract water from the burn at the second ford, walking a little way upstream to get out of the way of an upset dipper. A wheatear flutters ahead of me for a little while, before flying off. The track is a good one, heading west over dry heath from the ruin of Geldie lodge for a couple of kilometres, before dropping down to the Allt a' Chorainn.

At this point, the track doesn't so much peter out as die in a bog. Ignore a faint track that leads upstream: this seems to have been left by descending walkers using the main footpath as a navigation aid. The couple of kilometres to the west of the burn is a mix of dry heath, wet heath and flush. It's hard to get lost – head for the high ground – but it is hard to cross. I head for a large glacial erratic on the lower slopes, and a faint track to one side suggests I'm hardly the first to do so, but in retrospect I think it would have made more sense to bear more to the north and pick up the summit slope at a lower altitude. As it is, it's a slow slog across the moor in temperatures that climb quickly.

Once on the ridge, there is more of a breeze, and my pace picks up as I regain a clear footpath. Here, I'm in my element in a way I can never be in a town, watching every behaviour among toomanyhumans. Lichens and low-growing heath plants have formed a thin, dry crust, and I'm careful where I put my feet in this sensitive habitat. Midges dance in the lee of rocks, taking advantage of light winds. Dry mosses grow in the cracks of lichen-crusted scree.

Somebody seems to have brought a vehicle into this incredibly sensitive habitat. I worry about where to put my feet up here.

The sky verges on the cloudless as I reach the summit, and I linger for a while, enjoying the views, reconsidering An Sgarsoch before setting off back down. One more hill today may mean skipping two tomorrow, and I'm not carrying sufficient food to extend the expedition. I follow the ridge further north than I did on the ascent, before striking off for the footpath that I can see in the distance. I pump water to refill my bottle from one of the small tributaries I cross, surprised to disturb a trout, which darts under cover of the overhanging peat.

Lichen-covered erratic on the heath. I suspect the black pigmentation to be a natural sunscreen. The footpath back down can be seen in the background.

Back at the Allt a' Chorainn I stop to eat before pressing on back to the tent, encountering several humans on the way up. I'm not much in the mood for company, but pass the time of day briefly. Several MTBs have been left against the walls of the ruined lodge. Back at the tent I rest for a few minutes before packing up and moving on. It's hot and almost windless, and the track down into Glen Feshie is exposed. The next few hours are likely to be brutal.

The next several kilometres are not, indeed, an enjoyable walk. I will never understand why some people consider blazing heat to be a “nice day”. At some point, sweating heavily, sunscreen getting into my eyes, I cross the watershed, and the track more or less follows the contour before reaching the Falls of Eidart. There is a small sign on each end of the bridge warning walkers that they use it at their own risk. While the scaffolding that supports it is probably structurally sound, the railing is low and the timbers are ageing, and I'm uncomfortably aware of the additional weight of the expedition rucksack as I spread my weight to the sides.

falls of eidart.jpg
The dramatic Falls of Eidart with its "bridge"

I cross without incident, before realising that the steep sides of the gorge mean that to refill my water bottles I need to return to a tributary on the far side of the main falls. I leave the rucksack on the western side before doing so. From here, the track descends into Glen Feshie, picking up a landrover track before the OS map shows one. It's getting towards late afternoon by now, and temperatures are starting to fall. Ideally I want to be in the woods somewhere around the bothy at Ruigh Aiteachain, but I don't want to be too close to other campers or the building. A couple of guys have put up tents near the waterfall at the foot of the Allt na Leuma, and I reassure them that I don't want to share their space.

The trail divides here, one route taking you closer to the river and off the bulldozed track, which is the one I pick. It turns out to involve a lot of loss and gain of altitude, and part of me is glad to be off it. A couple of easy kilometres later, I meet the edge of the tree line, not long before sunset. A cuckoo calls from somewhere off above me.

This is the first of several spots over the next few kilometres where the map and the actual paths don't match. At some point over the past few years the Feshie, whipping her banks around like a snake, has ripped away the old tracks. The bulldozed track fords the Feshie here, while a rougher but straightforward path climbs into the woods to the east of the river. The sun is low, and I encounter one of the Cairngorms' black adders catching the last rays. Adders need complex habitats, and the upper reaches of Glen Feshie, with woods, water, stone, grass and heather, provide them. This far north, melanistic ones are more common than they are further south. I follow the latter track, until just after it rejoins the landrover track in some attractive birch woods.

Melanistic adder.

Here, I decide, will do for the night. I don't know how many camping spots there will be between here and Ruigh Aiteachain, and I'm still not in much of a mood for company.

base camp.jpg
Base camp in Glen Feshie

I leave the tent the next morning, the upper parts of the narrow glen as gold as they were the previous evening, and continue on with my day sack. The wood changes quickly to one dominated by Scots pine, with an understorey of heather and blaeberry.

Feshie woods.jpg
The woods in Glen Feshie, not long after dawn

The glen widens out near the confluence with the Allt Lorgaidh, and I pass the bothy at Ruigh Aiteachain, finding it still closed for renovations, cross the burn a few hundred metres beyond, and turn sharply east up and towards the Coire Caol.

The track is an easy one, surfaced for four-wheel drives, and it's no more than a hard but straightforward slog uphill, first through semi-natural Scots pine woodland, then up through dry heath. Ravens prukk from overhead, and there are pipits off in the heather. Not far from where the track skirts the edge of the Coire Garbhlach I'm passed by someone driving, of all things, a dune buggy. She grins at me from under the helmet. Annoyed by the unnatural buzzing of the engine I don't reciprocate.

Coire Caol.jpg
Coire Caol, showing the track up the hill

Coire garbhlach.jpg
The deep bowl of Coire Garbhlach, where schist meets granite.

I gain the plateau a few minutes later, following an obvious route to the summit of Mullach Clach a' Bhlàir, with a desultory cairn on the top. If anything, this is less interesting than even Beinn Bhrotain. It's too hazy for good photography. The summit of Sgòr Gaoith is an obvious inverted V in the far distance, maybe a couple of hours away. This is the edge of the Moine Mhor, the Great Moss, extending deep into the Cairngorms.

The unimpressive summit of Mullach Clach a' Bhlàir. The top of Sgòr Gaoith is on the horizon, slightly to the left of centre.

The plateau habitat here is a grassy tundra, easy to cross, and I set off making good time, skirting the edge of the Coire Garbhlach again, where the older schist rocks can be seen as a boundary between those and the later intruded granites of the rest of the Cairgorms. I stop by a burn to eat then, keeping to the high ground, crossing a major footpath perpendicular to mine, one heading for Braeriach and Monadh Mòr, over the mound of the Càrn Bàn Mòr head on to an obvious track to the summit. The old instincts of navigation, of where to put my feet, of the complex interplays of conditions on the tops are all coming back to me in a way that actually gives me a rush as I remember how to move my body with the mountain. There was a time, before a bad descent, that I'd have run this, and it's hard not to on the downhill stretches. I'm startled by the “hello” of a woman on an MTB creeping up behind me, a friend, or perhaps a daughter, a few metres behind.

Loch Eanaich.jpg
The precipitous drop to Loch Eanaich from the summit of Sgòr Gaoith.

The real ruler of these high tops sits just below the summit of Sgòr Gaoith.

The view from here makes up for the less interesting ones, with a sharp drop down to Loch Eanaich six hundred metres below. A ptarmigan stands just below the summit, having not quite shed all its winter plumage. I'm fairly pleased with myself. This is four Munros in three days, which is hardly any sort of record, but is a good start for getting back into it. Just for the hell of it I add the subsidiary top of Sgòran Dubh Mòr a kilometre away, with views over Speyside, before returning to the track that leads down into Coire Fhearnagan.

I speak briefly to a Dutch couple, over here unused to hills, before the long, simple descent to Glen Feshie. The southerly track shown on the OS map effectively no longer exists, walkers being kept on a properly constructed path that, while harder on the feet, should limit erosion. Shortly after you drop below the tree line a track leads off to the left towards the burn, which it fords in the trees. I stop here for food again, the best part of a couple of hours from the tent. A red wood ant carries off a bit of dried noodle.

There are worse places to eat.

I rockhop the burn and follow it downhill, dragonflies and damselflies dancing around me as I descend through the woods, eventually emerging above the Feshie on another well-surfaced track, easily fit for MTBs. I cross an expanse of heather before meeting the Allt Garbhlach for the second time today. The new track, for a short time, clearly either bridged or forded it, before an enraged Feshie decided otherwise,leaving a massive scar and obliterated footpath near the confluence of the two. I'm confident I can scramble it with my day sack, but tomorrow I have to come the other way with an expedition rucksack, and this would be asking for a sprained ankle. I decide to seek out a suitable ford now with less on my back.

A faint track leads east through young conifers, eventually meeting the old footpath as shown on the OS maps, where it's straightforward to ford the stream when not in spate. From here I walk through Scots pine-dominated plantation, before finding another spot where the map has been corrected by the river. A footpath, along which you could just about ride an MTB, rises above the river. I halt again at the edge of the wood, not too enthusiastic about simply returning to the tent where the midges might well be out, and enjoy the glen.

I'm passed by another solitary hiker, who I pass in turn a few hundred metres further on. I leave him behind near the Ruigh Aiteachain bothy, and retrace my steps. On the far side of the river I hear the shouts of adolescents perhaps (and, as it turns out, in reality), a DofE group. I find myself back at the tent before dusk, where I feed myself properly and prepare for another early night.

I'm up later than I have been the past several days, but the stove is burning before 7am. I repack the rucksack for the hike out, carrying enough water to last me until the Allt Garbhlach, where I will resupply with as much as I can carry. It's not clear that there will be decent water between there and Kingussie. For a while then, the rucksack is lighter than it was when I hiked in. The walk through the pine woods is cool and pleasant, the woodland tits calling from the trees, and I pass the bothy without seeing any other humans. I make good time on the clear trail. At the burn I fill a bottle and a hydration bladder, carry one in my hand and stick the other in the rucksack, then slather myself in sunscreen before setting off. It's hazy and the air smells of incipient thunderstorm but, for the moment, the skies are clear enough for sunburn. My hat is carefully arranged to protect me from the worst of it.

lower feshie.jpg
Heading down towards the bridge (in shot, but too small to make out) above Stonetoper.

I follow the old path across the heath, then drop down to cross the Feshie at the bridge half a kilometre from Stonetoper. There is a sign here warning that the tracks to the Linn of Dee and Blair Atholl by the Feshie have been washed out, necessitating repeated fording or retreat. This is not, at least at the time of writing, the case, although, as described, they don't always go where the map shows them to go. Near the building is a party of humans, six in total, looking like the DofE group I heard last night. They haul rucksacks, sleeping bags tied loosely, onto their backs and set off just as I pass them. I'm probably fitter than they are, but I'm carrying more weight and thus walking at about the same pace, and a middle-aged male in the company of six teenage girls is open to misinterpretation, so I use the excuse of a sign for a direct route to Kingussie to stop and have a closer look at the map. I already know I want to take the longer, hopefully more interesting route, but I allow them to get clear.

I pass them again, five on the road, one hidden in the woods, a couple of kilometres further on, before being asked five minutes later by a woman loitering by the roadside if I've seen a group meeting their description. We converse for a while, before they take the track towards Feshiebridge and I into Inshriach Forest. It's at this point that my water bladder, which I've been carrying in one hand, splits at the base, and I lose half a litre of my precious fluids.

This is plantation, mainly Scots pine, but not particularly interesting and frequented by off-road cyclists, some going a little fast. There are a few damselflies, and what appear to be the same species of beetle I encountered when walking up the Tilt. I rescue another waving its legs in the air before taking the easy climb up onto Creag Far-Leitre with its views over Loch Insh. The camera batteries, which I've been nursing since I left, promptly die. I have lunch near the top, having to make it clear to a couple of spaniels that the pasta is mine, before descending to meet the route of the Badenoch Way, which is more or less routemarked through the forest. By now it's clouding over, and rain threatens.

After dropping out of the woods, the track goes in an almost dead-straight line, following electricity pylons for a couple of kilometres as far as the almost insignificant hamlet of Inveruglass, then across open fields and through more plantation to Drumguish, covering myself and the rucksack from a short shower, and from where I take a quick shortcut off the official Badenoch Way route to Tromie Bridge.

Here I hesitate. The quick way, straight down the road, should get me to Kingussie for an early train. The slightly longer one, especially if my habits in nature reserves are anything to go by, probably won't. Again I go for interest over speed, and go through the gate into the nature reserve, listening to birds, and slightly frustrated that I'm a little early for the orchids. I don't make good time here – I rarely do in nature reserves, and am delayed again by bird hides on the far side. I could spend a lot of time here, but opt for a short – by my standards – scan for unusual birds.

I then press on for Ruthven Barracks where, with big beard, bigger rucksack and a trekking kilt, I attract the attention of a gang of Scousers on bicycles, cycling from Perth to Inverness to raise money for a cancer care charity. From there it's an easy amble into Kingussie, where I have a while to wait for that train.

All in all, a good walk, and I sat on the train between Kingussie and Blair Atholl feeling a bit smug, but it never really felt remote. I was always on good track, frequently in sight of something suited for landrovers, and always with, at least to my eye, clear signs of management for deer stalking or grouse shooting, ignoring the sheep along the lower stretches of the Tilt. There is a sense of achievement, but it's done no more than whet an appetite for something more exciting.

(Distances and altitudes are approximate, based on known figures and a few estimates. I spent 4 nights, bookended by two half days. The traverse could be done without the detours in three days or, with an early start in Blair Atholl and travelling lighter, two.)
Bearded Wanderer
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Re: Cairngorms traverse - Blair Atholl to Kingussie, and det

Postby Alteknacker » Sun Jun 04, 2017 11:31 pm

Hey BW, if this is a representative example of your prose/reporting style, you need to do more walking!!! :D . This is a really great read - I loved it; and I particularly liked all the natural history details. :clap: :clap: :clap:

I'd like to

Just one suggestion: if you were to load your pics into a photo storage site like Flickr or Dropbox and then just put the link to them in your report, it would mean that a) the quality of the pics for readers would probably be better (the resolution for embedded pics is not great); and b) readers could click on a particularly interesting pic and blow it up for finer detail. There were a few of your pics I'd like to have looked at in more detail.

I await the next installment with some anticipation...

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Re: Cairngorms traverse - Blair Atholl to Kingussie, and det

Postby Guinessman » Thu Jun 08, 2017 9:47 am

Agree with Alteknacker, an excellent write up, particularly like the first paragraph, it leaves you wanting to read more. :clap:

Quite possibly my favourite walking area, certainly my favourite backpacking area.
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