Not long returned from a couple of weeks in the highlands, it’s probably understandable that, randomly, places with Gaelic names still spring unsolicited into the consciousness, accompanied by mental images of a clarity which is almost harrowing. Ironically, the better the time enjoyed, the more acute the ache of nostalgia: this is the comedown to end all comedowns; this is what the highlands can do to you…
The Cairn Gorm wind (Sunday, August 7th, 2016): Winds were predicted and it was indeed a bit blustery in the Spey Valley; blustery but no more than that. After a low-key, settling-in day, we’d ventured to Cairn Gorm, intending to ascend via Sron An Aonaich, otherwise known as the ‘windy ridge’ route – appropriately, as it turns out – and explore some more circuitous descent options, with a view to avoiding the funicular and as much of the ski paraphernalia as possible.
Stepping out of the car at Coire Cas, it was immediately apparent that conditions were a little bit more severe than blustery. As we raised the tailgate a number of items of clothing were plucked from the boot and distributed around the car park. With everything retrieved, an impromptu meeting agreed – unanimously, which is a rarity! – that heading for the tops today would be neither enjoyable or sensible.
It turned out to be a wise decision: later in the day, a record gust for the month of August was recorded by the Cairngorm weather station – a short stroll away from the summit cairn. (From the BBC website): “Met Office meteorologist Stuart Brooks said the wind speed on top of Cairngorm in the Highlands had so far reached 115mph and the weather station there was on track to note the highest gust ever recorded in summer”.
The midges of Glen Einich (Sunday, August 14th, 2016): We love the hills, and being out on them; but sometimes we just like to look at them from beneath. This could be just an excuse for the lazier days, of which we are also quite fond, but there’s no denying Scotland does have some very inviting glens. Glen Einich for one: a walk-in framed on its western side by the buttresses of Sgoran Dub Mor and Sgor Gaoith, with the corries of Braeriach to the east and, when it eventually comes into view, the blank headwall of Coire Odhar. Oh, and of course, there’s Loch Einich.
The looming presences of Sgoran Dub Mor and Sgor Gaoith, heading into Glen Einich
These are the places where it’s good to pause, reflect, and feel that particular sensation unique to the Scottish highlands; unique at least as far as the UK goes. Uneasy but not in an unpleasant way is the best explanation I can offer; a certain acknowledgement of scale on a number of levels – the physical scale of the mountains themselves of course; but also the timescales represented by those mountains, which will endure long after we, as a species, have become a footnote to their history.
I’m no mystic, but I do believe that on a certain level the genuinely wild landscapes communicate with us: come in here with attitude and you’ll likely come unstuck; don’t take liberties and maybe you’ll be okay – but there are no guarantees. And there would be no point in arguing back – mountains don’t debate!
Anyway, to the midges… and maybe, like the mountains, they will endure us as a species; I think they probably will. We’d progressed, largely untroubled, up to the point where the track splits and the lower path descends to closely shadow the river (Am Beanaidh), with the right-hand fork gradually climbing clear of the valley floor. It was here that they sprang their ambush – rising from the ground, descending from the sky, outflanking us and mocking our feeble attempts at defence; and all in the time it took us to make the decision – high or low? The little blighters have no interest in discussing surrender terms either.
Eventually we reached a high point, where the breeze seemed to thwart them a bit, and thereafter we mostly lost them – as long as we didn’t pause anywhere for too long – at least until we picked up a couple of patrols on the return leg, still keen for one last bite.
Edinburgh and the Highland Chieftain (Monday, August 15th, 2016): We’re all pretty fond of Edinburgh, particularly the astonishing variety of landscape to be found within the boundaries of a city. And we also all like a ride on a train…
Having established that even the walk-up return fares from Kingussie were surprisingly reasonable, we turned up at the station and booked for an out and back trip on Virgin Trains East Coast service, a train which goes by the name of The Highland Chieftain and eventually ends its journey at either London Kings Cross or Inverness. One surprise was that using the ‘Chieftain’ – a refurbished High Speed Train (Inter-city 125 in old money) – in both directions was actually cheaper than the alternative Abellio/Scotrail option, travelling by 3-car DMU. We enjoyed a nicely turned-out train – even on the northbound return, by which time it was several hours into its journey – with plenty of room and good seats in both directions. This doesn’t make me a convert to the idea of a privatised railway, and anyway the Mark 3 coaching stock dates back to BR days and could show a Pendolino a thing or two when it comes to seating pitch and window alignment.
Viewed from the train: early morning, low cloud rolling over the hills of Drumochter
Despite closely shadowing the A9 for a a sizeable part of the route, the train gives a much different perspective; particularly to someone who would usually be the driver. Passing Dalwhinnie, there was time to savour the view down Loch Ericht towards Ben Alder, looking massive even at this distance. Somewhere south and east of Drumochter, possibly around Killiecrankie, the highland wildness finally concedes its stranglehold, merging into the fertile prosperity of Perthshire and, for a while, we were back in familiar territory around Pitlochry and Dunkeld, rattling over the iron viaduct near to Dalguise. Away from the fractious and overcrowded peak-time commuter trains – which are an altogether different experience – it’s a great way to travel.
Looking along Princes Street from Calton Hill
We had 5 hours in the city: a little more would have been nice but, as we already knew our way around, we were able to make the most of the time available. August in Edinburgh means Fringe, and negotiating The Royal Mile felt like the most tiring walking of the entire fortnight.
There and back, we spent roughly as long on the train as we did in the city. Not once did the journey seem to drag, not even for a second and not in either direction. In fact we were all visibly downcast as the northbound service passed through Newtonmore and began to slow.
Sadly, all good things have to come to an end – holidays, train journeys…
The birds (various dates and locations): What follows is nothing more than a sequence of disproportionately fortunate encounters, which will probably never be repeated during a single fortnight. That’s all there is to it: no claims of expertise or meticulous planning; just sheer dumb luck.
Two young cuckoos being fed, in plain sight, by a pair of warblers at Achlean – mentioned here
An impromptu pause at Loch Morlich roadside, where a firecrest – a bird I’d expected to go my whole life without ever seeing – worked its way through the foliage until it was a few feet from the passenger side windows, while the three of us sat as motionless as is humanly possible
Two golden eagles – one in Glen Feshie, the other, a few days earlier, barely into Glen Einich – and neither at a time of day when you would generally be optimistic. In the case of the Glen Einich one, we were no more than a couple of paces from stepping out from the tree cover – and almost inevitably spooking the bird – when we spotted it, drifting at not much more than tree height. As it was, we got to see it circle a few times before heading off towards the west. The Glen Feshie eagle was being mobbed by a flock of smaller birds and was distracted enough not to notice us for a while. Neither sighting would have lasted longer than about 15-20 seconds but – having only ever having seen about three or four in my whole life – I don’t recall ever seeing a golden eagle for more than a few seconds.
We have, over the years, squinted at the tree line, trying to work out exactly where a cuckoo’s call might be coming from; never with any luck. We’ve similarly scanned skylines and hillsides, hoping to pick up the dark shape or shadow of an eagle in flight. Perhaps the occasional unlikely stroke of luck is nature’s trade-off for the fruitless hours.
Meall a’ Bhuachaille (Saturday, August 13th, 2016): For years we did this hill a disservice; an error of omission. We now try to make time for it whenever we’re in the area; the views are exceptional, it can easily be fitted into a part-day, and the summit shelter is sufficiently ‘wraparound’ to protect against everything other than a full-on northerly (there has to be a gap somewhere!). While we were taking advantage of the protection, a couple of young lads arrived who had run to the summit from Glenmore Lodge, via Ryvoan bothy; after all of 30 seconds, one said “Ready?”, the other nodded, and off they went in the direction of the next top – Creagan Gorm. We could only wonder, and wish them well
Lochan Uaine from Meall a’ Bhuachaille
Looking back down the track on Meall a’ Bhuachaille; Ryvoan bothy is just visible below.
Hillsides virtually stripped of trees – lynx needed!
Curtains of rain moving across Loch Morlich.
Bynack More from Meall a’ Bhuachaille
It’s probably a consequence of its distinctive shape and position at the head of the Ryvoan pass, but Meall a’ Bhuachaille – despite keeping company with much loftier neighbours – seems to be in view from most of Strathspey. We began to wonder whether Meall a’ Bhuachaille might be Gaelic for “visible from everywhere” but apparently it translates as ‘The hill of the herdsman’.
[Below] Meall a’ Bhuachaille and neighbours from… actually, I’m not sure. Probably (top to bottom): Glen Einich; Whitewell; somewhere else…
So that’s it for reflections until next time.
Which can’t come soon enough.