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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
To see a selection of my Loch Lomond and the Trossachs images please click here
For much of the past 18 months I have been walking and photographing in the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park.
The work (if you want to call it that) was for 2 guidebooks that have just been published by Northern Eye Books. They form part of their superb Top 10 series of guidebooks and are the first in the series to focus on walking in Scotland.
The Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park is almost my local patch, being only an hour or so from where I live. It is a place of great beauty, grandeur and drama and one I love exploring.
But what makes it so special?
Well for starters the landscape straddles the highland Boundary Fault Line and consequently has a magnificent array of rugged peaks.
It boasts 40 mountains over 2,500 feet in height including some of Scotland’s most iconic Munros and Corbetts: Ben Lomond, Ben Ledi, Stob Binnien and the incomparable Ben Arthur (better known as The Cobbler), to name but a few.
Yet away from the big mountains and the park is also home to numerous lower hills, such as Conic Hill, Ben A’an and Duncryne, each of which offer a challenge but are within reach of the general walker.
Also within the National Park’s confines are around 50 rivers and burns, 3 National Nature reserves, 2 Forest Parks and 22 large lochs, including Loch Lomond — at 28 miles long and 5 miles wide, the largest body of freshwater in the UK.
Add to this Loch Arklet, Loch Ard, Loch Katrine and Loch Venachar and you have an array of beautiful water with breathtaking scenery and wonderful wildlife.
To see a selection of this month’s ‘Focus On’ images please click here
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.
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.
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.
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.
To see a selection of this month’s ‘Focus On’ images please click here
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.
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.
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.
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.
Loch Katrine and Loch Arklet, which both sit in the heart of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, have been the source of Glasgow’s drinking water since 1914.
They are separated by a wild expanse of moorland where tangible evidence of this engineering marvel exists and a fantastic walk links both bodies of water.
The route begins from Stronachalacher (which translates from Gaelic as ‘The Stonemason’s Point), on the banks of Loch Katrine (itself possibly meaning ‘The Dusky Loch’), only a couple of miles away from Glengyle.
Here, in 1671, one Rob Roy MacGregor was born. He was involved in the Jacobite uprising of 1688 and became a folk hero, chiefly because of his feud with James Graham, 1st Duke of Montrose. Rob Roy died at Balquhidder in 1734.
In 1817, 7 years after writing his epic poem, ‘Lady of the Lake’, Sir Walter Scott published ‘Rob Roy’, a somewhat exaggerated account of Rob Roy MacGregor that romanticised his life. Just like ‘Lady of the Lake’, Scott’s book contributed greatly to the popularity of The Trossachs.
Leaving Stronachlachar, a private road runs above the loch, soon crossing an aqueduct. This flows from Loch Arklet and was opened in 1914 to provide extra water for Loch Katrine, which had supplied Glasgow’s water since 1859.
The 34-mile Loch Katrine/Glasgow aqueduct was an incredible feat of engineering, as it required no pumps, the water’s flow wholly driven by gravity.
The road provides easy walking for a further 3km where it reaches a waymarked footpath on the right. Yet it’s worthwhile keeping on for another 100 metres to the striking Royal Cottage. This was built as accommodation for Queen Victoria when opening the water scheme in 1859.
However a local story states that a 21-gun salute smashed all the windows and therefore she couldn’t stay overnight.
Walk back to the waymarked path which climbs away from Loch Katrine. Continue over moorland, passing a ventilation shaft, a legacy of the aqueduct’s construction. Turn right at the next shaft, following a narrow path to the walks highest point.
This spot has a wilder air and presents a superb view to Ben Lui’s magnificent profile, while to the southwest rises Ben Lomond.
Back at the main path continue as it traverses beneath Tom Ard, eventually descending to a forestry track. Turn right and follow this to a path on the right, just before the B829.
A wonderful section of the walk continues across moorland, following the route of the Statute Labour Road that once ran between Aberfoyle and Inversnaid.
The paths and roads alongside Loch Arklet have been used for centuries. The old Military Road (which the B829 runs along today) was built around 300 years ago to serve the Inversnaid Garrison. Soldiers were stationed here to guard the road and keep control of local rebels and cattle thieves, who would have had superb knowledge of the local topography for their illicit deeds.
In due course a stunning view across Loch Arklet and the Arrochar Alps grabs your attention and once at the B829, an easy walk returns to Stronachlachar.