Thursday, 20 September 2018

A navigation Mark

A recent overnight trip to the "Tarf Hotel" set me thinking about one of the other relatively unfrequented bothies in the north east of Scotland.  I drove to the end of the road at Spittal of Glenmuick where there's a pay and display car park - the price for which has recently been increased further to £4 per visit, which seems a step too far.

The main paths and tracks all head past the estate visitor centre and head south to Loch Muick to access walks around the loch, to the popular Munro of Lochnagar and over the mountain path of Jock's Road to Glen Doll.  My route left the path before the visitor centre and headed south east into the mouth of a twisting glen; from this point on I didn't see another person until I arrived back at Spittal, despite the car park being very busy - proof that quiet routes can be found even in popular areas.

A narrow path follows the Allt Darrarie up the glen; the water quite low on this day but usually this burn has a significant volume of rich brown water, stained to a coffee shade by the peat moorland where is rises.

A simple bridge crosses the burn half way up the glen, placed high above the water level so it isn't washed away.

At a stream junction the path swings left and climbs, giving a good view back down the Allt Darrarie.

Emerging onto flat and featureless moorland, there's a splendid view back to Lochnagar, the steep crags a contrast to the ground near at hand.  From here on, accurate navigation and a certain faith in map and compass were essential to reach my destination.  Two kilometres of wet, peaty ground climbs very gently with little in the way of features to mark the way.  When the ground starts to drop, it's a case of trusting your navigation.........

........because the small bothy at Shielin of Mark doesn't come into view until you're about a hundred metres away and just above the patch of flat ground it occupies at the head of the Water of Mark. Just across the boundary from Aberdeenshire, the bothy is the first building in Angus for quite some way.

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

A touch of autumn in Morrone Birkwood

We spent a pleasant afternoon walking above the village of Braemar last weekend.  To the south west of the village on the lower slopes of Morrone is the Morrone Birkwood ("Birk" is the Scots name for Birch).  Although named for the Downy Birch (Betula pubescens), the wood has been designated as a Site of Scientific Interest (SSSI) because of the good amount of Juniper Juniperus communis) in the understorey of the wood.

Climbing from the village, a road goes up past a duck pond and becomes a track which climbs to a viewpoint. There's a good view back to the village, which sits in a hollow above the River Dee at 340m/1115 ft.  The relatively high site in a bowl between big hills is part of the reason that Braemar has (twice) recorded temperatures of -27.2 degrees Celsius (-16.9 Farenheit) - a record low for the UK.

The viewpoint has an indicator post mapping all the summits which can be seen - near at hand the main Cairngorms massif looms large.

THere's a definite touch of autumn colour on the high ground now; the heather has turned to rich brown and patches of bracken are bright yellow. 

On the birks, the first sprinkle of gold is among the leaves as this lovely tree starts to colour up towards its climax in early October.

On the woodland floor fungi are numerous and some make for patches of vivid colour such as this Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria).

Poisonous and hallucinogenic as it is, the Fly Agaric is quite beautiful in its own way - and an early sign of  the purple of late summer beginning to give way to the reds and golds of autumn.

This short walk is about 5km in distance with 120 metres of ascent and takes a couple of hours.  There are sign boards in the village and some waymarking along the path itself - a good short walk with great interest and super views.

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Sunshine in a jar

Late summer is beginning to feel autumnal, the farmers have their harvest safely home and this week saw some cold mornings with the temperature hovering just about in positive territory.  The rowan trees in our garden are laden with bright red berries; so we planned a busy day taking advantage of this bounty.....

In batches, we collected a kilo of berries at a time - planning to preserve the berries in two sessions.  Rowan berries are way too bitter and unpalatable to eat if you're human, but the birds absolutely love them, particularly thrushes and starlings.  In fact, a rowan seed won't grow if you plant it, and won't germinate until it's first been through the digestive system of a bird; a remarkable adaptation.  Even taking a kilo at a time from the trees we hardly seemed to affect the amount of berries. A good rowan crop is supposed to presage a hard winter - and we've found this to be borne out in previous years.  As for this winter, well...we'll see!

A neighbour gifted us two big bags of apples - nature has been very abundant after this warm and settled summer.

Rowan berries and apples went into a huge preserving pan, leaving the apple cores in for extra pectin.

An hour of simmering and mashing later and you have a not very attractive thin orange "porridge".  When all the fruit and berries are rendered to pulp, the mixture is strained through a cloth to extract a couple of litres of juice.  Add some sugar, boil rapidly until a "set" is achieved ...........

....and the result is sunshine in a jar.  Beautifully bright pink rowan and apple jelly which goes very well with cold meats and cheeses; and especially well with vension - we use it in casseroles and as a glaze for roast venison.  The new jelly needs to mature for three to four weeks before eating and will last until the berries are ready next year.

Now, it's on to the plums and the rest of the apples!  Jams and stewed fruits were the order of the day, nature's bounty stored for the winter to come.

Monday, 10 September 2018

A "mamba" Munro and the simple joy of a path

I slept deeply and long at the Tarf Hotel, waking 8am, an unusually late hour for me. A combination of tiredness after a long day and the deep silence of these empty miles on a calm night, plus the absence of the usual bothy mice rustling about were all factors.  I felt refreshed but a bit slow when I got up, and it was after 9am when I set out into a morning with a lid on it.  Cloud levels were down to just above the bothy, the air was still and had that heaviness which often characterises the month of August in the Highlands.  A look back at Feith Uaine; splendid isolation and a haven in truly wild country.

I followed the Tarf Water downstream for a short distance before striking off up a side stream.  A little way up the hill I passed a ruined shieling, evidence that this hasn't always been an empty landscape.  Shielings were summer dwellings used in the traditional transhumance of people and beasts to higher pasture in the summer months.  Sited in the crook of a burn (stream) on relatively level ground, its interesting that the surrounding ground is an area of grass among square miles of heather and moss - I wonder whether the site was chosen for this characteristic, or if the ground was cleared of heather to provide better grazing for the cattle?

Continuing uphill on increasingly rough and difficult terrain brought me to a huge area of peat hags and wet ground.  scattered through the peat hags were the bleached roots and stumps of a long-gone pine forest which once covered the land.  A combination of a cooling climate and felling for timber destroyed these forests - allowing the build up of peat which has left vast areas of empty country.

Soon after this image was taken I walked up into the cloudbase and visibility was reduced to less than 50 metres.  I continued to follow a tiny burn uphill until I reached a bealach (col) between the Munros of Carn an Fhidleir and An Sgarsoch - and also on the Perthshire/Aberdeenshire boundary.  I now had a decision to make.  My next destination was a path which reaches high up the Geldie Burn and lay 3 kilometres to the north of the bealach.  I could either continue a traverse across steep, rough, wet and pathless terrain in low visibility to locate this path, or go over the summit of An Sgarsoch.  The latter route would add a kilometre in distance and 300 metres/1000ft of climbing but would make for easier walking and navigation, despite the additional climb.  After a little deliberation I chose the route over An Sgarsoch and began the steep climb up a broad ridge of grass and moss.

The challenge of accurate map and compass navigation in poor visibility is something I enjoy to a certain extent.  Although carrying a GPS receiver in my kit I resisted using it and was pleased to arrive right at the summit cairn.  An Sgarsoch (the place of sharp rocks) is 1006m/3300ft and one of the more remote Munros.  The last time I climbed this hill I recorded in my journal having a good view, but no such luck this time; the inside of one cloud looks pretty similar to the inside of another!

Unusually for a Munro there's very little in the way of paths on the hill so my navigation still had to be accurate.  I elected to head due north to reach the bump of Sgarsoch Beag (little place of sharp rocks) from where I'd be able to head straight for the path.  This descent proved to be not straightforward as the ground falls away at unexpected angles.  Just as I was tempted to check my position by GPS the ground started to rise and I found the summit of Sgarsoch Beag.

I came out of the cloud just above the path and dropped wearily down to it.  I'd had over four hours of pathless and rough ground, much of that time in poor visibility.  The simple pleasure of being able to relax and walk on a path felt really good, despite the long miles still to go with a full backpacking load.

The path leads to the ruing of Geldie Lodge, another former shooting lodge in a remote spot.  In contrast to the atmosphere of Bynack Lodge, I've always found this place to be an austere setting.  Just below the lodge there's a crossing of the Geldie which leads to the start of a track heading back towards Linn of Dee.

It would have been tempting to have thought the route to be just about finished, but it's 12 kilometres from Geldie Lodge to Linn of Dee, a long way when already tired.  My usual routine on the hill with day kit is to take a short rest every couple of hours or when exploring something interesting; if carrying backpacking kit it's usually a short rest each hour.  My pace dropped on this route back and I found myself having to dig deep.  On the last stretch from White Bridge to Linn of Dee I was resting every ten minutes - I've rarely been so utterly done at the end of a two day route.

This trip into "mamba" country had been a real pleasure, apart from at the start and end I saw not another person in 55 kilometres of walking.  If solitude is your thing - you'll usually find it at the headwaters of the Tarf and Geldie.

Thursday, 6 September 2018

Checking in at the Tarf Hotel

After a 24 kilometre walk, parts of which were on trackless and difficult ground, it was good to arrive at the "Tarf Hotel".  The actual name of the place is Feith Uaine (green channel or marsh) and it's a bothy maintained by the Mountain Bothies Association.  One of the most remote and difficult to reach of the hundred or so buildings maintained by the charity, Feith Uaine is some 15 kilometres or 10 miles from any public road and lies at 650 metres/1750 feet altitude among country which can fairly be described as "mamba" (miles and miles of b*gger all).

The alternative name for the building of "Tarf Hotel" comes in part from the Automobile Association (AA) hotel sign which adorns the front door - in fact it seems that at one point there were two of these signs which must have been "liberated" from a hotel somewhere.

Neil Reid has written a very comprehensive history of the place on his excellent Cairngorm Wanderer blog - very well worth a read.  The renovation of this bothy has left it in perhaps the best condition since its glory days as a hunting lodge for the Duke of Atholl, and arguably drier than at any time in its existence.

"Checking in" at a bothy is uncomplicated....find a space and unpack.  Each time I use a bothy it strikes me what a unique and precious institution they are - simple shelters, free to use, not bookable and open to all who need them - operating on trust and the goodwill of the owners of the estates on which they lie. In a quite remarkable relationship, estate owners make the buildings available and the MBA keep them in good order. I'm a member of the MBA and have been for many years, though this isn't any kind of condition for using bothies; and confers no privileges other than the knowledge that one is helping to keep the institution going.

Unsurprisingly I was the only occupant and so was able to spread out a bit in the west room.  Basic though bothies are, you'll notice that there's a smoke detector above the window; there are also a carbon monoxide detectors through the building.  I tested all these so that I could include the fact that they were working in the bothy report I would submit.  It's helpful for the MBA and particularly the Maintenance Organiser (MO) for each bothy to receive reports from users; it's a simple online process which can be done here on the MBA website.

In comparison to most, the Tarf Hotel is quite a big and well equipped bothy - let's take a tour.......

There are three main rooms in the main building and one attached at the east end.  The three internal rooms are accessed via the main door and an internal corridor. The room at the west of the building is the largest, this is the one which would have been occupied by the Duke of Atholl and his wife when visiting the lodge.  Originally dry-lined with wooden planking, it now has stone walls which are fee of damp, and a large window.  This room and the middle room have had their timber floors re-layed. There's also a substantial multifuel stove - but if you want heat from it you'll need to bring the fuel all the long miles on your back!

The middle room is somewhat smaller and may have been the kitchen.  A bit more spartan than the other rooms, it is nevertheless dry and clean.

The eastern internal room has retained the timber lining, paited white to increase the light levels.  Tables and chairs plus a small sleeping platform complete the furnishings.  This seems to have originally been the room occupied by the Duke's retainers, then refurbished for use by the Duchess with the "hillmen" being moved to an external building.

A metal roof and new chimney pots were installed by the MBA in 2013 - and the bothy is completely dry and weathertight.  Perhaps the most significant change is the external room at the east of the building, accessed by a door on the north side.  This is shown in old photos as originally being an open porch, though it did have a fireplace.  The transformation is quite remarkable.....

The new room is of wood construction above the original stone wall and seems very well insulated - it felt warmer in this room, perhaps partly due to the windows catching sunlight.  The last time I visited Feith Uaine it was in fairly poor condition, but all is now changed. The work that's been done here, given the location and the logisitics of getting people and equipment in (there are no roads or tracks for many miles) is nothing short of heroic.

I returned to the west room and prepared dinner whilst reading through the entries in the bothy book.  Tales of epic walks and that recurring theme, the navigational difficulty of locating a bothy door in remote country and in challenging weather.  Turning in for the night, I considered myself pretty privileged to be in this place.

Friday, 31 August 2018

A meeting of waters

Climbing up beyond Bynack Lodge, there's a last long view over towards the main Cairngorm group; Beinn Bhrotain in the middle distance, Cairn a Mhaim and Ben Macdui beyond.  The camera hasn't caught it, but I could clearly make out the cliffs of Coire Sputan Dearg (corrie of the red spouts) to the right of the summit cone of Ben Macdui.

The path towards Glen Tilt then enters a green valley below the hidden Loch Tilt known as Bealaidh Sidhean (fairy pass) , which probably recalls the grim Celtic "Sithean" (pronounced Shee-an) rather than the type of fairies with twinkly green outfits.  I've walked this stretch several times but hadn't previously noticed the small milestone in the mossy ground.  Just about 15cm tall, I think the 15 refers to the miles from Blair Atholl to this point.  It's also just about at the county boundary where one steps from Aberdeenshire into Perthshire.

Having crested the rise and gone "over the hill", the way ahead follows the clear stream of the Allt Garbh Bhuidhe (rough yellow stream) as it enters a narrow valley - ahead there's a glimpse of one of Perthshire's best hills, the multi-summited Beinn a'Ghlo which has three Munros.  I tried to recall the last time I'd climbed that fine ridge and decided it's too long ago....another one to go back to soon!

The Garbh Allt Bhuidhe runs through quite a remarkable gorge which looks like a glacial breach.  The path traverses close to the burn, sometimes at a level with the water and sometimes quite high above across steep slopes.

Eventually the burn is joined by the larger Tarf Water at Falls of Tarf, spanned by an elegant iron and timber bridge.  In dry conditions in one of the driest summers for years this is a quiet, pleasant spot; in spate these falls are an impressive sight.

The bridge is known as the "Bedford Memorial Bridge" and commemorates a young man drowned trying to cross the Tarf here in August 1879.  This is a slightly unusual meeting of waters; the Garbh Allt Bhuidhe is joined from the west by the Tarf Water and from the east by the Allt a'Ghlinne Mhoir (stream of the big glen), but from this point the combined waters enter Glen Tilt and are known as the River Tilt.

My route now left the main Braemar to Blair Atholl path and headed up the north bank of the Tarf Water.  There's a path shown on the OS 1:50,000 map, but it's a figment of the cartographical imagination.  The going was terrifically hard on rough and boggy ground, and I wouldn't wish to walk this section again any time soon.

Eventually I arrived at a much flatter area with better walking ground, near the pony stable below Dun Mor.  THe track coming in around the hill can be accessed from Glen Tilt some 3 kilometres down Glen Tilt from the Bedford bridge and if coming this way again I'd use this longer option.

I now had to decide which side of the Tarf Water to use in order to reach my destination for the night; settling for the south side which gave reasonable walking partly on a vehicle track.  After what seemed a long time, my planned accommodation came into view......

.....and after a long and exhausting day, it was a welcome sight - a building standing in splendid isolation in true "mamba" country.

Tuesday, 28 August 2018

Destination "mamba"

Late August in Scotland.  The hills are covered with the purple shades of heather, the sun shines on long days and all things seem possible.  Or......the midges are at their worst, the weather is muggy and oppressive and a heavy green and grey cloak covers the hills.  Towards the end of the month it seemed that there would be a bit of all of these things.  I'd initially planned a sea kayak trip but realised that forecast light winds and overcast conditions along the coasts would mean midge purgatory.

So, I looked for a backpacking trip which would give the opportunity of at least one night in a bothy, giving respite from the biting hordes.  The journey I settled on would take me into some of the most remote country Scotland has to offer - I'd need to be completely self sufficient in shelter and food so that if I didn't make the planned route I could still camp and be relatively comfortable.

Linn of Dee is the starting point for many long walks; to the north you can head off on some of the best known treks in the country; through the Cairngorms from Deeside to Speyside via the Lairig Ghru or the Lairig an Laoigh; or onto the great plateaux of the eastern Cairngorms and over to Donside perhaps.

Heading west, the choice is hardly less enticing - the routes shown on the Scottish Rights of Way Society sign indicate an alternative start to reach the Lairig Ghru and two great through-routes towards the west.

Anyone heading off on these journeys will enter true wild country, and though there are either tracks or defined paths the whole way, the challenges of distance and weather can test the strongest walkers.  Then there are the rivers - the routes to the west require crossings of water which can be running hard and fast; and there are no bridges over two of the most significant rivers.

My plan was to take the first part of the route from Linn of Dee to Blair Atholl, then head into the trackless country west of Glen Tilt to visit one of the most remote of bothies.  This view shows just the first few miles of my route, up the River Dee to the hills beyond.

The first significant river crossing at least has a bridge - White Bridge crosses the Dee and is a meeting point of tracks and paths (though it's not white!).

The view up the valley of the infant River Dee is one of glimpsed giants.  To the left, Beinn Bhrotain at 1108m/3635ft with the flank of the Devil's Point and Cairn Toul beyond -big hills for big days.

After such a dry summer I was confident of finding the water in the next river, the Geldie Burn, low - but I can't ever recall seeing it so low.  The Geldie is termed a "burn" (stream), but make no mistake, this is usually a river and it runs hard and deep in wet weather or during snowmelt; it's often impossible to cross safely and there are no bridges over it.  I've several times arrived here and found it birling along with an ominous rumbling sound of boulders being rolled along its bed - a crossing to treat with caution in normal conditions.

From here on I was entering "mamba" country.  Not referring to venomous snakes, thank goodness, the word is an acronym possibly coined by servicemen sent from southern England to serve in the Highlands and Islands during the Second World War.  "Mamba" stands for Miles and Miles of B*gger All !

Beyond the Geldie a substantial ruin stands in a patch of green sward, a bright spot among the heather.  This is (or was) Bynack Lodge, a ruined 19th century shooting lodge from the days of the great estates.  Perhaps it's the green setting or the trees surrounding the ruin, mainly pines and sycamores, which make this such a pleasant spot; I've always found this ruin a place of peace and have camped here several times.

The ruin has been stabilised by Mar Lodge estate and you can see some of the brickwork used to support the mortared rubble original wall.  There are actually a few ruins here, one building was a game larder with a subterranean meat store, there was a separate building which may have accommodated the staff, traces of kennels, a stable and even a walled garden.

One slightly surreal but enjoyable experience I had here was watching the balcony scene from Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" being performed using the window sill in the left of this image as the balcony - and that can't have happened too many times!

After a final glance through the arched wall aperture back down the Bynack Burn towards Geldie I hoisted my rucksack and headed onwards; there was still a long way to go today, much of it "mamba".