Six Festive Strolls

Cora pants with unstoppable enthusiasm as she drags me up the side of Carn na Drochaide with ease. Mum follows on behind as we struggle to navigate the slippery path in search of a good viewpoint. As humans we are unable to depend on the natural four-wheel system which dogs have at their disposal.

Eventually we are provided with views across to some of the highest mountains in Britain. The white complexion of the distant peaks of the Cairngorms means that several of them are difficult to make out against a darkening and overcast sky.

We agree to head back to the car instead of pushing onto the summit. It’s the day after the Winter Solstice and the landscape will soon to be pitched into total darkness. I’m tempted to chatter away to Mum about nothing much, but pause for a split second.

As we rest the silence is almost overwhelming. In that moment I realise how much I’ve missed the countryside and how grateful I should be for the opportunity to leave the city over Christmas, especially under the current circumstances.  

During the first unwelcome installment of lockdown, I often found it better to walk instead of run. Primarily, because it was usually a more relaxing form of exercise to slot into my permitted once daily venture out from Leah’s flat.

I suddenly found walking a great activity to slowly release any stress I had in my fragile system. Walks also provided a great opportunity for me to let any creative thoughts flow. Even if they centered on nonsensical nonsense half the time. Thus, I kept a short diary of my walks over the festive period. 

Monday 22nd December:

We left it until early afternoon to hop in the car with Cora, the excitable black and white Greek mongrel who enjoys elegantly posing for photographs. Parking near the punchbowl at the Quoich, we walked around the west side of Carn na Drochaide along a gradual incline to see if we could get a good view of the Cairngorms.

It wasn’t too cold and there was little ice underfoot, but we still had to navigate a couple of sketchy river crossings. From an elevated viewpoint we had a perfect of the east Cairngorm mountains. No one was about and blissfully, there was no unnatural sound. We descended carefully and eventually finished a decent outing as the last light faded in the west.

Tuesday 23rd December:

It was almost a full house for the Braemar Nixons contingent as we clambered up Carn na Sgliat on a chilly afternoon. At 690 meters, it is affectionally referred to by some locals as Coo Hill. The only member of the family missing in action was Skye, a tiring 13-year-old Black Labrador.

Although her fur is greying and she looks a lot slimmer, I don’t think she has run her race just yet. Though sadly, she does seem to be becoming slightly senile in her older age and is unable to come along on the longer walks with us anymore. I think she enjoys being without Cora and Islay’s company for periods though, especially as the former is the equivalent of a jumpy 20 something. Meanwhile, Islay is an 11-year-old Westie with a can do attitude.  

Coo Hill is one of my favourites hill runs. A winding path takes you up through the heather and eventually onto the summit. On a clear day you can get cracking views and it’s a great place to view Braemar village from.

Today it was blowing a hoolie and started to ding down with snow as we turned into the wind to return down the hill. Mags and I reminisced about eating lunch on the summit of every hill we climbed as a family when we were younger no matter the weather conditions. If we had climbed Everest as a family the result would have likely been death by tuna sandwich.

Christmas Eve:

Our Christmas Eve walk consisted of the classic Creag Choinnich excursion which is unequivocally the closest hill to the house. At a canter it takes about 25 minutes to traverse the steep path to the summit. It’s a perfect hill to climb if you find yourself in Braemar and are short of time. With enough exertion involved there is still a feeling of achievement when you’re able to stop and admire the several different views from the hill in all directions. Skye joined us this time and did admirably in slippery conditions.

Christmas Day:

Its almost family tradition to go for a decent walk every year on Christmas Day. In previous years the suggestion of an outing into the usually pretty ordinary festive weather is met quite begrudgingly. As a kid all I wanted to do was play with my new Subbuteo set or play with my new rugby ball.

This year it was definitely worth it though as we ventured out to try and find the Colonel’s Bed, a rocky overhang in a ravine in the River Ey. We parked the Corsa at Inverey, a hamlet three miles from Braemar and set off up Glen Ey. There was a smattering of snow on the ground and we had to take great care around the steep sided canyon where the bed lies.

The Black Colonel was a particularly violent Jacobite by the name of John Farquharson who apparently burnt down Braemar Castle in the late 17th century. Farquharson had also earlier been banished for killing a man from Ballater.

In search of shelter the colonel is said to have hidden from the Red Coats on the large overhang when they would pay visits to the local area. It is an atmospheric spot, but I also felt a little spooked when gazing into the tumbling rapids within the deep gorge.

 According to local legend, the colonel wanted to be buried at Inverey alongside his lover, but instead ended up at the graveyard in Braemar after his death. The story goes that on the day after the burial his coffin was discovered on the ground next to his grave. This happened twice more before he was eventually buried for good at Inverey.

This is a far-fetched story which I would love to explore in more depth as a piece of creative fiction. Despite this, I seem to get a shiver up my spine every time I read or write about the Black Colonel. It’s a bizarre feeling which I also experienced this afternoon in the vicinity of the Colonel’s Bed and again as I write this after everyone else has gone to bed.

Monday 27/12/20:

Today we walked from the Linn O’Dee car park to Derry Lodge, a building arguably at the outer edges of where the largest Cairngorm mountains begin. This was a bitterly cold walk which my numb hands and feet can attest for despite my thick gloves and wearing three pairs of socks.

Cora pulled Mags along on the lead with glee. When walking her we would love to let her run free, but she has run away so many times that we can’t really risk letting her off the lead. Her early years involved a tough upbringing on the streets of Athens, before she somehow ended up in the UK. With gas to burn Cora dog will just keep running.

This afternoon we were treated to stunning views of some snow-covered peaks as they almost blended in perfectly with the low cloud which obscured their summits. I again allowed myself to drift into my own creative thoughts as I strolled along. I considered how the weather conditions would-be near perfect conditions for the Big Grey Man of Ben Macdui to make an appearance on Britain’s second highest peak, which is relatively close to Derry Lodge.

 Macdui is a monroe which I still haven’t ticked off my list. The fantastical accounts of coming across a giant creature near the summit in low visibility captured my imagination, but also irrational fear when I read up on the subject a couple of years ago. On the way back it started to snow heavily and darkness started to ascend quickly. I was suddenly glad that I wasn’t anywhere near the high peaks.   

Tuesday 28/12/20

This latest walk involved trying to find an abandoned cottage in the middle of a forest in a race against the fading daylight. Mags, Mum, I and the dogs went off the beaten track near Crathie, navigating a substantial forest with several spooky dark patches where the trees were more condensed.

After much map work, we finally found the cottage, apparently used by Queen Victoria during her extensive visits to the nearby Balmoral Castle. More recently planted trees now hem the long-abandoned building in and we had to walk a bit further to find the other end of the forest.

Once outside the intimidating woods we were treated to truly stunning views across to Lochnagar, a mountain which is synonymous with Upper Deeside. Today’s hike was the perfect ending to several festive walks which I was lucky enough to experience in a beautiful part of the world and with my family.

 Wherever you are I wish you the best for 2021 and hope you are also able to enjoy some walking when you need some peace. I would highly recommend it.  

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