A Sanctuary For All

The Shelter Stone

The Clach Dhiona (pronounced Clach Yeein) is better known as The Shelter Stone and is, perhaps, the most famous refuge in the Cairngorms. It sits at the base of the spectacular 270-metre high An Sticil – itself more commonly identified as The Shelter Stone Crag – and has provided a sanctuary for walkers, climbers, soldiers and even Prime Ministers (Ramsey MacDonald apparently spent a night here) for over 200 years. The Cairngorm Club, the oldest surviving climbing club in Britain, was also formed here in 1887.

The shelter is fashioned by several boulders, the largest of which is said to weigh over 1500 tonnes, having fallen from An Sticil to fortuitously rest on four other boulders, creating this natural howff. It has room (just) for around six people and its low roof garners a claustrophobic feel. It also has an incredible view across Loch Avon

Loch Avon and Stacan Dubha, Loch Avon Basin

The stunning freshwater Loch Avon sits at the base of a deep u-shaped valley, with the surface of the loch 730-metres above sea level. It is known as a ribbon loch as it was formed during the last Ice Age when a huge glacier carved a deep linear basin. Glaciation also left behind the steep mountain slopes of Beinn Mheadhoin and the vertiginous cliffs of An Sticil and Carn Etchachan.

The Shelter Stone and Loch Avon are not the easiest places to reach although any walk in is spectacular. Perhaps the best routes are via Ben Macdui and Loch Etchachan or the Central Cairngorm Plateau, with a steep descent through either Coire Raibeirt or Coire Domhain.

Descending towards the Shelter Stone from Loch Etchachan
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The Peak of the Wind

Braeriach and Loch Eanaich from Sgor Gaoith

The Munro of Sgor Gaoith (pronounced Skor Goo-ee) grants perhaps the finest view of all within Cairngorm National Park. Its sharp summit clings to the edge of cliffs that plunge some 600-metres into the steely waters of Loch Eanaich, with the scoured corries of Braeriach’s huge western flanks rising beyond – it is simply breathtaking.

Sgor Gaoith is thought to mean the Peak of the Wind and this exposed plateau is open to the elements, having been formed, over many millions of years, through natural forces. It is the high point of Invereshie and Inshriach National Nature Reserve, one of nine National Nature Reserves that lie within Cairngorm National Park. The reserve covers an area of 3600 hectares where scatterings of rowan, birch, aspen, alder and juniper sit amongst large swathes of Caledonian and Scots Pine. Other habitats within the reserve include blanket bog, montane grassland and alpine heath.

Sgoran Dubh Mor from Sgor Gaoith

As you would expect the wildlife is incredibly diverse; blaeberry, cowberry, twinflower, an abundance of mosses, lichens and fungi, capercaillie, black grouse, ring ouzel, golden eagle, kestrel, ptarmigan, mountain hare, red squirrel and green hairstreak butterfly, are just some examples. Dotterel is also found here.

Scotland holds all of Britain’s breeding population of dotterel and is therefore specially protected. Nesting begins during May and takes place above 1000 metres, in amongst scrapes of moss and lichen that are prevalent on the vast, barren mountaintops of the Cairngorms. Distinct by its chestnut-coloured breast and white streak above the eye, dotterel is just one of a few species where the male does the majority of incubating.

Autumn gold, Invereshie and Inshriach National Nature Reserve

The Peak of the Fair-Headed Warriors

Loch Leven
Sgorr na Ciche and Sgorr nam Fiannaidh from Loch Leven

The 967-metre high Munro of Sgorr nam Fiannaidh is the westernmost peak of the infamous Aonach Eagach. A traverse of the Aonach means tip-toeing along 2km of chimneys and pinnacles, where mental agility is perhaps even more important than the physical challenge of coping with real exposure. Because of this Sgorr nam Fiannaidh (and the Aonach’s eastern Munro of Meall Dearg) can feel out of reach for many hillwalkers.

For a relatively simple ascent, however, it is feasible to top out on Sgorr nam Fiannaidh from Glencoe Village. If combined with Sgorr na Ciche then a fantastic day on the hills lies ahead, one with a plethora of exceptional views extending from their slopes and summits.

Beinn a Bheithir from Sgorr na Ciche
Beinn a Bheithir from Sgorr na Ciche

Sgorr nam Fiannaidh translates, intriguingly, from Gaelic as Peak of the Fair Headed Warriors. This relates to The Fingalians, who were followers of Fionn mac Cumhaill (or Finn McCool), a warrior of Irish and Scots mythology. The shapely peak of Sgorr na Ciche – pronounced Skor na Keecha and known to most as the Pap of Glencoe – is a noticeable landmark that overlooks the southern banks of Loch Leven at the western end of Glencoe and translates as Peak of the Breast. At 742-metres above sea level, Sgorr na Ciche’s summit is much lower than Sgorr nam Fiannaidh but the outlook is just as good.

From both peaks a huge portion of the Central and West Highlands is visible – the Mamores (including Am Bodach and  Binnien Mor), Ben Nevis, Beinn a Bheithir (comprising the two Munros of Sgorr Dhonuill and Sgor Dearg), the long finger of Loch Leven, the rugged mountains of Ardgour and the great peaks of Glencoe, particularly Bidean nam Bian, are all on show.

Sgorr nam Fiannaidh
Sgorr na Ciche and the distant mountains of Ardgour from Sgorr nam Fiannaidh

Caerketton – Fort of the Refuge

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Caerketton
Castlelaw and Allermuir Hill at dawn from Caerketton

The shapely peak of Caerketton is one of the finest peaks within the Pentland Hills range that rise above Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital city. Caerketton translates from Brittonic as Fort of the Refuge and its 478m top grants one of the finest views in all of the Pentland Hills Regional Park – the summit also holds the remains of a Bronze Age cairn. Scald Law, Castlelaw and Allermuir Hill are just some of the neighbouring hills on show while on a clear day Ben Lomond can be seen in the distance.

It is the view across Edinburgh, however, to Arthur’s Seat, Salisbury Crags and Edinburgh Castle, onwards along the East Lothian coastline and across the Firth of Forth to Fife’s twin Lomond peaks that really sets the heart racing.

Edinburgh and Arthur’s Seat from Caerketton