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

Tales of the #Tweed

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At 96 miles in length the River Tweed is the fourth longest river in Scotland – a portion of its journey also crosses the border into England.

It is this close proximity between the two countries that has bestowed the River Tweed with much of its intriguing history but it was a double-edged sword; trade links were strong but Edward I of England looked longingly at Scotland.

Glensax from Newby Kipps
The Tweed Valley from Newby Kips, Glensax

He arrived with devastating effect in 1296, leaving a litany of destruction in his wake. Major battles, like those at Flodden and Philipshaugh, and the Border reiving of the 16th century, led to a succession of government proclaiming that the Borders was becoming as problematic as the Highlands.

However on the flip side the gorgeous rural countryside that the River Tweed travels through means the scenery, wildlife and sense of tranquillity is on a par with the celebrated Scottish Highlands, which the lowland landscape of the Scottish Borders has always been unfairly judged as a poor relation.

The term ‘lowlands’ is essentially a misnomer as the Border country has an abundance of high ground granting some superb walking, panoramas and wildlife. The stunning Glensax Horseshoe and the iconic Eildon Hills are two such examples.

The Eildons, above Melrose, were home to a community of around 2000 people for many years. The Romans too were attracted to their shapely outline and when Julius Agricola led his army across the border in AD79 they paused near Melrose at Newstead (reputedly the oldest inhabited village in Scotland) and ended up staying for the next 150 years, setting up their fort of Trimontium at the base of the Eildons.

Eildon Hills
The Eildon Hills

The derivation of the name Tweed is vague but possibly stems from the Brythonic tau or teu, which mean strong, silent or flowing, unquestionably three words that could be applied to this amazing river.

It rises amongst the untamed moorland backdrop of Tweed’s Well, near to the Scottish Borders and Dumfries and Galloway border. It is a lonely setting and a number of little burns trickle down from the surrounding hills to join the infant but ever burgeoning Tweed as it travels north and then east.

Several significant rivers, such as the Teviot, Ettrick, Yarrow and Lyne, then flow into the River Tweed, eventually entering the North Sea at the magnificent walled town of Berwick-upon-Tweed.

En route the Tweed runs through bustling and historic towns and villages such as Peebles, Melrose, Dryburgh, Gala and Kelso and through a landscape that has been lived on and exploited for several millennia.

This exploitation reached its peak during the Industrial Revolution when the River Tweed provided the source to a remarkable economic expansion along its banks.

Although the Borders were far removed from the heavy industry of Central Scotland, the textile industry proved to be an unqualified success, employing thousands of people and putting many of the towns along or near to the Tweed, such as Peebles, Galashiels, Innerleithen, and Selkirk, on the map.

Over the centuries writers and painters like Sir Walter Scott, James Hogg and JMW Turner all depicted the River Tweed in a favourable light, drawing tourists into Scotland’s southeast corner and this continues to the present day.

Royal Border Bridge
The Royal Border Bridge and the River Tweed, Berwick Upon Tweed

Today, like much of rural Scotland the Scottish Borders has used the landscape to boost its economy and create jobs. Fishing plays an integral role (the Tweed is one of Scotland’s great salmon rivers) while activities such as cycling and walking have made the region a major draw for outdoor enthusiasts.

The Restless #RiverSpey

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The River Spey is a restless river, one filled with salmon and sea trout, bounded by vast tracts of woodland, backed by several of Britain’s highest mountains and surrounded by a staggering diversity of wildlife.

Garva Bridge
The River Spey and Garva Bridge

Its voyage results in an ever-changing landscape as each year the river, swollen with snow melt, unleashes a massive volume of water, which subsequently carves new channels and islands, generating its own course and one that is perpetually evolving.

Lonely little Loch Spey, which sits above Loch Laggan in Lochaber, beneath the big, rounded Monadhliath, marks the beginning of the River Spey and a wild and wonderful 107-mile journey.

Scotland’s fastest and second longest river quickly descends alongside General Wade’s historic road then underneath Garva Bridge, the oldest bridge spanning the Spey.

It then carves its course through the scenic splendour of Badenoch & Speyside, one dominated by the remarkable barrier of the immense Cairngorm plateau.

The hills reduce in size as the River Spey enters Moray, renowned the world over as whisky country.

From here the backdrop is more understated as the river twists and turns towards the coast, eventually spilling into the North Sea at Spey Bay, in-between Lossiemouth and Buckie.

Creag Bheag
Speyside from Creag Bheag above Kingussie

It has taken a long time for the River Spey to find its path – four ice ages, or several hundred million years, to be a little more precise. Over this almost unimaginable timescale the river system has slowly weathered and moulded its course over a bed of schists, gneiss, granite and sandstone and this amalgamation of rock types makes the River Spey one of the cleanest in Scotland.

As it hits the wide alluvial plain of Strathspey the riverbed is looser with the Spey pushing soil and sediment along. When Spey Bay is approached the river begins to pick up speed, dragging enormous amounts of shingle with it, altering its shape and route to whatever the Spey decides.

The derivation of the name Spey is unclear with several suggestions as to its meaning, including Hawthorn river or, perhaps more pertinently, Vomit or Gush. Certainly the speed at which the River Spey travels means this may be the appropriate label.

Like much of Scotland the Bronze and Iron Ages saw people lay down more definite roots and by the time the Romans marched northwards around the 1st century AD, several small settlements existed.

It was The Picts who were most successful in settling in the region, particularly in the great Caledonian pinewoods of Rothiemurchus and Abernethy. Along with the Gaels they were the dominant race in the northeast and formed a redoubtable force against the Roman advance.

Many of the hill and place names along the River Spey reflect the languages of the Picts and Gaels. Aber translates from Pictish as ‘mouth of the river’ and so Aberlour and Abernethy have their roots in the Pictish language, whilst Gaelic can be seen in the likes of Braeriach, Meall a Bhuachaille, Craigellachie and Buckie.

Whisky has become synonymous with the river and pumps millions of pounds into the local economy annually, and Moray is its spiritual home.

The River Spey
Spey Bay

Originally hailed for its medicinal qualities whisky has now become one of Scotland’s major exports and fundamental to the survival of the towns and villages along much of the River Spey, particularly when it travels through Moray.

The mild climate, pure, clear spring water and abundant supplies of fragrant golden barley provide the ideal ingredients for the ‘water of life’.

The Spey supports a plethora of whisky distilleries (over half of all the distilleries in Scotland) including Glenfarclas, Cardhu, Aberlour and Craigellachie as well as Glenfiddich and Glenlivet, the 2 biggest selling whiskies in the world.

Away with the Fairies: Beinn an t-Sidhein

Beinn an t-Sidhein (pronounced Ben Shee-han) rises above the attractive village of Strathyre, in the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park.

It is thought that Strathyre means ‘twisting valley’ and certainly the River Balvag winds its way through Strathyre’s tight confines.

Beinn an t-Sidhein
Strathyre from Beinn an t-Sidhein

It was part of the main droving route between the Highlands and Lowlands during the 17th century while Strathyre village became a popular tourist destination with the arrival of the Callander to Oban railway in the 1870’s.

The poet Duguld Buchanan was born in Strathyre in 1716. He helped the Reverend James Stewart of Killin translate the New Testament into Scottish Gaelic and wrote an important collection of Gaelic religious poems. A monument dedicated to Buchanan stands in the village.

Folklore is prevalent in many mountain names, including Beinn an t-Sidhein, which means Fairy Mountain.

Robert Kirk, who was born in 1644 near Strathyre, in Aberfoyle, documented many of these stories during his life. However it wasn’t until 1815 (over 120 years after his death) that Sir Walter Scott published Kirk’s work in a book called The Secret Commonwealth. It is still in print today.

A good path climbs steeply through Strathyre Forest onto open hillside where there are striking views of Loch Lubnaig. It is approximately 3½ miles long and is thought to translate from Gaelic as Loch of the Bend. The Corbett of Ben Ledi rises steeply from its southern edge.

After negotiating a boggier stretch of path the top of An t-Sidhein is attained.

At 546-metres An t-Sidhein grants a breathtaking view. The rounded shape of Beinn an t-Sidhein rises a little to the north, with Strathyre and the River Balvag, hemmed in by steep hillside, drawing the eye to Loch Earn and the huge bulk of Ben Lawers. However it is the view east to Ben Vorlich and Stuc a Chroin and west to the long line of jagged Crianlarich Munro’s that really catches the eye.

An t-Sidhein
Ben Vorlich, Stuc a Chroin and Beinn Each from An t-Sidhein

The path then extends across rougher, heather clad moorland onto Beinn an t-Sidhein 562-metre summit and an incredible panorama across a mountainous landscape.

The lonely landscape of Glen Buckie sits way below Beinn an t-Sidhein while beyond Stob Binnein, Ben More, Cruach Ardrain and Beinn Tulaichean, above Crianlarich, take centre stage.

Beinn an t-Sidhein
The Crianlarich Mountains and Glen Buckie from Beinn an t-Sidhein