The High Life

Cairn Gorm is the 5th highest mountain in Britain although the starting point for the simplest and most popular ascent to its summit begins almost ½ way up the mountainside.

However once on the plateau between Cairn Gorm and Cairn Lochan things change. Much of the landscape is featureless and paths become indistinct whilst the route hugs the cliffs above Coire an Sneachda and Coire an Lochan. In poor visibility this walk takes on a more ominous guise where real care combined with good navigational and map-reading skills are required. But on a clear day this is one of the finest walks along the Cairngorm massif with views extending hundreds of miles.

The Cairngorm range is known in Gaelic as Am Monadh Ruadh, which means The Red Mountains, because of the red granite that they are formed from.  It was during the 19th century, when hillwalking and mountaineering became popular leisure pursuits, that  the whole range took the name from Cairn Gorm, The Blue Mountain, seemingly because it held the most noticeable position from Speyside. Although marred by the summit observation mast the panorama across the plateau to Cairn Lochan, Ben Macdui and Braeraich from Cairn Gorm’s top are superb.

The Northern Corries is a wilder landscape, much of it featureless, paths indistinct and where the weather can change in an instant. It is an Arctic tableland, where snow can hold well into the spring – Coire an t-Sneachda translates from Gaelic as Corrie of the Snows and even the most experienced walker can become disorientated in poor weather. However when the cloud lifts above the plateau the view is extraordinary, from big brutish mountains such as Bynack More and Bheinn Mheadhoin, down by the lower foothills of the Cairngorms and across the great forests of Rothiemurchus and Glenmore to where the eye can finally rest on the sprawling upland table of the Monadh Liath.

Only the hardiest of flora and fauna survive at this altitude including moss, lichens, the mountain hare, snow bunting, dotterel and the hurried wanderings of the ptarmigan, a resident of the high mountains of Scotland and the chameleon of the bird world. Ptarmigan change their plumage during the year to reflect the changing landscape and to camouflage themselves from a variety of predators.

Meall a Bhuachaille from Cairngorm
Meall a Bhuachaille from Cairn Gorm
Cairn Lochan
Cairn Lochan
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Dunure’s Dark Secret

The picturesque Ayrshire village of Dunure is built around its small harbour, which is home to a small number of working fishing boats. The harbour was improved in 1811 by the Earl of Cassillis and for a time it became one of the industrious fishing ports along Scotland’s West Coast.

Overlooking the harbour and village is Dunure Castle, which from the 12th century was the original base of the Cassillis Kennedy Clan (during this time much of the land along the coastline was owned by the Kennedy Clan and with separate Kennedy factions, including the Bargany and the Cassillis Kennedy’s, the history of the clan has been a hostile one with much blood shed over the centuries).

Although hard to believe today, owing to its derelict nature, for several hundred years Dunure Castle was more important than neighbouring Culzean Castle. In 1563 Mary, Queen of Scots stayed at Dunure Castle for three nights as a guest of Gilbert Kennedy, the 4th Earl of Cassillis (much more of him later) as she made her progression through the country. The magnificent vantage point overlooking the Firth of Clyde to Arran’s serrated profile provided the Kennedy’s with an easily defendable situation and excellent lookout post. As the Kennedy’s position of power and wealth grew so did the castle, with many rooms being added to the original building, including a prison.

Dunure Castle has a very dark past culminating in what has infamously become known as ‘the roasting of Allan Stewart’. Stewart was the Abbot of Crossraguel Abbey a few miles along the road at Maybole and a dispute arose between Stewart and Gilbert Kennedy regarding who owned the Crossraguel’s lands – abbey’s were very powerful institutions at the time and came with much influence and wealth. After a number of heated arguments Gilbert took matters into his own hands. Along with a number of his men, Gilbert captured Stewart and led him down into Dunure’s ominously titled Black Vault.

It was here that Stewart was stripped, bound and slowly cooked over a large, open fire until he signed over the lands of Crossraguel Abbey. But the gruesome tale did not end there. After a week or so, in which time Stewart (and his untreated wounds) was still imprisoned, it came to light that his first signature was invalid. Therefore Gilbert demanded Stewart sign the deeds again before a witness. At first he refused but after he was strung up again and roasted, Stewart succumbed (under what must have been unbearable pain and suffering) and signed the lands over to the Earl.

Dunure Castle and Ailsa Craig
Dunure Castle and Ailsa Craig

The Fiery Hill

Emerging from the predominantly flat lands of the Clyde Valley Tinto Hill has long been a popular hillwalking destination – the wide track leading from its base to the summit bears testament to its reputation. There are very few days that will not see footfall on Tinto’s slopes with thousands climbing to her spacious summit every year to enjoy an astonishing 360-degree panorama. A much quieter descent (and scenically just as alluring) follows a good track down over Scaut Hill in the company of skylark, lapwing, kestrel and hen harrier.

Tinto Hill is a Site of Special Scientific Interest because of its geological significance, particularly the examples of periglacial stone stripes that have developed over many millions of years on Tinto’s exposed rocky slopes due to intense freeze/thaw cycles. Furthermore much of Tinto Hill’s upper slopes are formed from a red-coloured igneous rock known as Felsite, which may explain Tinto’s derivation, from the Gaelic teinnteach, of Fiery Hill. However, a far more plausible explanation is that Tinto Hill has been an important location since earliest times as it lies on the main communication route between the Southern Uplands and the Central Belt and was used as a beacon hill, in particular a Roman signal station, hence its translation – the summit has also been used as a Druidic fire site. The local name for Tinto Hill is Tintock Tap.

Tinto Hill is not only popular with walkers but also fell runners, handgliders and paragliders. The inaugural Tinto Hill Race took place in 1984 and the intervening years has seen it become a well-established favourite in the hill running calendar. Typically around 200 hardy souls, in whatever elements the Scottish weather can muster, try and run the 4.5-mile route in the quickest time they can. John Brooks, of Lochaber Running Club, currently holds the record for the fastest time, an incredible 29 mins 58 secs, which he set in 1995.

The River Clyde and the Clyde Valley from Tinto Hill
The River Clyde and the Clyde Valley from Tinto Hill
Tinto Hill from Quothquan Law
Tinto Hill from Quothquan Law

Monastic Treat

The beautiful little fishing village of St Abbs sits perched atop dramatic cliffs above the North Sea some fifteen miles north of Berwick-upon-Tweed. The village only developed in the mid 19th century after an Edinburgh brewing company invested in a fishing station here.

However the name St Abbs stretches back many centuries when a Northumbrian princess called Aebbe established a monastery near St Abbs Head in 635AD. When Aebbe subsequently became St Aebbe, the village was named after her.

The wonderful walk towards the National Nature Reserve of St Abbs Head actually provides the finest view of St Abbs, particularly at dawn when the warm rays of the rising sun strike the coastline, which was formed over 400 million years ago when lava flowed from nearby volcanoes. A beautiful, wild and windswept landscape offers views across a variety of twisted, rocky chimneys down to St Abbs cluster of houses and its little harbour, built into the ragged shoreline. The path keeps on to reach St Abbs Lighthouse, which was erected in 1862, initially with an oil burning light, to provide safer passage to the boats making their way along this treacherous stretch of coastline. The view along the Berwickshire coast from here is stunning.

St Abbs from St Abbs Nature Reserve
St Abbs from St Abbs Nature Reserve

St Abbs Head
St Abbs Head