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.  

The Spookiest Castle you’ve never heard about

It was a particularly gloomy evening as we made our way towards Dufftown in Leah’s yellow corsa. The bright colours of the car contrasted with the dull greys of the sky above Speyside as we navigated the wet roads.

This was a perfect example of a cheaper and shortened version of a good old road trip. One which had started in nearby Keith and would preferably end up somewhere within a 15 mile radius. Still an enjoyable adventure, but one which lacked the mileage of a Route 66 trip or the Scottish equalivent, the North Coast 500.

My fellow traveller wanted to see another castle, inspired by our visit to the dramatic Slains Castle during the previous week. Stopping in Dufftown, a small village surrounded by hills and several whisky distilleries, we had a look to see which historic sites were within our reach.

It didn’t take long for Leah’s beady eyes to spot Auchindoun Castle, an innocuous place name found on Google Maps. The digital generation’s version of a reliable coffee marked AA road atlas.

I recognised the name and swore I’d visited the site when passing down the nearby Cabrach road (A941) in years gone by. This undulating and winding road takes the traveller through a pretty barren and desolate landscape, linking Dufftown with Rhynie. It’s a road I know well from childhood visits to the Moray Coast when travelling over the hills from Deeside.

From the clock tower in Dufftown’s small square, it took us little over five minutes to reach the castle. The only hurdle along the way being a deeply eroded and steep track up onto the hillside from the road. I imagine this would be likely impassable in the wintery conditions which will often grace this area in the colder months.

A corsa or similar make of car isn’t likely an ideal vehicle for this track, but thankfully the makeshift road doesn’t last too long. Parking is supplied for visitors on your right when you reach the top of the short hill.

On this occasion no other visitors were apparently brave enough to visit the eerie ruin at 7.30 on a Thursday evening and we found the car park empty. Walking past fields of cows we first sighted the castle’s highest tower, peaking above the nearby trees.

Leaving the corsa there was a 10 minute stroll to the castle itself. This involved traversing a grassy and slippy path through a sheep field. If visiting its especially important to close every gate which you pass through. The local farmer will probably not take kindly to one of his woolly friends going for a jaunt in search of greener grass.

There are seemingly two or three entrances to the ruin, with a larger one on the North facing side of the castle. From this side there are good views down to the River Fiddich and beyond, although care should be taken not to fall into what remains of the moat.

The 15th century fortification was most likely built by Thomas Cochrane, an ally and architect of King James III. Cochrane received the Earldom of Mar in 1479 as reward for his hard work, but the castle was more infamously owned by Sir Adam Gordon.

The Gordons likely occupied the castle from the mid 1500s onwards and Sir Adam wasn’t a man you’d want to come up against. In 1571 he launched an awful attack on the nearby Corgarff Castle, burning 29 of its occupants to death following a feud with the Forbes of Towie. Corgarff was heavily affiliated with the Mackintosh clan and this slight overreaction didn’t go down too well with them.

Diplomacy was obviously quite sparse back then and Auchindoun Castle faced a similar fate when William Mackintosh took it upon himself to seek revenge. He taking it upon himself to burn the Gordon owned castle down several years later.

Some historical accounts suggest Mackintosh was later beheaded at Auchindoun for this crime. This being one of numerous harrowing unlisted incidents at the spooky site, which unsurprisingly played host to even more brutal clan warfare.

In its heyday the castle would have stood at three stories high, but the site has actually sat derelict for almost three centuries. The Oglivy family left the site in the 1720s before materials were removed en masse from the tower house to construct a house for William Duff of Braco.

Despite the distint lack of human activity at Auchindoun in recent years, there’s something which sends a chill down the spine when standing inside the ruin’s ancient walls. As a cynic of ghost related spirituality there is something about the castle which I just couldn’t quite put my finger on.

Maybe the low light helped create this atmosphere of mystic . Whatever the case, I won’t be returning at night anytime soon, but would highly recommend a visit to this rather atmospheric remote (and free!) castle.

 

 

 

 

 

The Infamous Morrone

At 859 metres high, Morrone hill has to be the most recognisable geographical landmark when entering Braemar on the North Deeside road from the east. It is technically a corbett, missing out on being a munro by a mere 55 metres. For me it is a special hill, being one that I admire but also fear. Can you have a love/hate relationship with a hill? Lets say you can.

My relationship with Morrone began before my family had even upped sticks and moved to Braemar. It was June 2016 and I was celebrating the end of my last ever school exams. I was ecstatic (well kind off) and had a long summer ahead of me before heading of to university in September. The only problem was that I didn’t actually know what I wanted to do with myself for these few months with the exception of maybe getting a job at some point. Laziness isn’t something I’m immune to.

However, my parents weren’t too happy with the idea of me being idle, so Mum suggested I travel with her on the 45 minute journey up the valley to Braemar primary school for a couple of weeks. So that’s what I did, volunteering and helping out in her class. It went well, excluding the time I fell asleep at the back of her class. She wasn’t best pleased.

Anyway, while passing Braemar’s 30 mph limit signs, I would always look in wonder at the path which wound its way up the sickeningly steep slopes of Morrone to the mast which was just visible at the summit. I knew I had to run up it and one Friday I was lucky enough to give this a go.

It was after school hours and Mum was making preparations for the next day in the classroom. It had been a scorching day and the heat had seemed to keep intensifying until it had become more and more humid. If I was a weather expert or had basic general knowledge I would have known what was to come next. Hindsight is a great thing though.

At the start of my run I passed the golf course towards Fraser’s Bridge, before taking a right and embarking on the steep southern slope of Morrone. The path that is visible from the main road is the one that I would be descending. The fire road climb was long and winding as I started to feel the burn in the bright evening sunshine. After about 30 minutes of painful climbing at an average gradient of 11% I reached the summit, had a seat and took in my surroundings for the first time.

The 360 degree views from the summit are stunning when the skies are clear and atmospheric when they”re not. On this day I spent about 15 minutes taking in the many hills, mountains and valleys which lay in front of me. During this time I heard a slight rumble from the west and looked up the Dee valley to the Linn O’Dee to see dark clouds forming. Another rumble, this time louder followed by another. Each time becoming louder. Finally logic kicked in and I realised what was happening. It was time to try and loose some altitude quickly.

The approaching lightening was getting closer by the second, seemingly wanting to chase me down the hill to shelter. I scrambled as fast as I could down the rocky, technical single track as huge hailstones attempted to make my descent harder. I could almost feel the electric pulse around me as there were bright flashes and deafening booms to my left.

Eventually I reached the primary school and found shelter as the storm moved away. I realise the chances of actually getting struck by lightening are extremely low but this had still been an interesting experience. According to “Strava” that still stands as my fastest descent of Morrone and I don’t think I’ll ever beat it.

Just over a year later my family had based themselves in Braemar, giving a perfect opportunity for me to put some demons to bed and tackle Morrone again. When in the village it became my staple hill running route and is now one of my favourites. There are a few variations you can do on the route with the longest being 12 and the shortest being 7 kilometres long. The shortest variation takes you up the single track to the “Five Cairns” and is an exact copy of the hill race which is held at the famous Braemar Gathering every September.

Despite my great enjoyment of challenging myself on these slopes, Morrone truly became an infamous hill in my book in September of last year. After work I often climb the rocky path through the heather when there is enough light. Long story short, one night there wasn’t enough light and I ended up at the summit of Morrone in the quickly fading light without a torch. This wasn’t good and was a situation which should have been easily avoided.

Fearing I might not be able to find my way back to the street lights, I wanted to get down the hill as fast as possible. Then I fell. I hadn’t noticed the rock that I tripped on or even felt the one I landed knee first on. I hadn’t hurt too much and dusting myself off, I continued stumbling down the descent, fearing superficial scarring to my right knee at the worst.

As I finally reached the street lights of Braemar after continuing through the pitch darkness (as a part-time jedi the force guided me) I stopped to tie my laces and then looked down at my knee. Seeing the blood which was still flowing down to my ankle, I surveyed my knee and was taken a back by the deep hole which had developed on my knee cap.

Arriving home I tried to plaster it up to stop the bleeding but eventually gave in and showed Mum the extent off my injury. I had certainly done a good job of it. A late night doctor’s surgery visit later and I had three stitches and a very stiff knee. For a second time, the towering hill of Morrone had commanded my respect. Three weeks out from running following a nasty infection on removal of the stitches, and I realised hill running shouldn’t be messed with.

Approaching a year on from this hiccup and Morrone has become a staple of my training again. My weaker right knee reminds me of the risks of becoming overconfident on its steep descent and it seems like a pretty desolate and scary place to go in the dark anyway. Maybe it wasn’t a rock which tripped me…..