by Michael Kerr, The Daily Telegraph, August 14, 2018
On the morning of day five, we ducked into a bothy. I’d half-expected to be doing that in June in the Cairngorms, where snow can fall in any month and driving rain and gales are common even in summer. What I hadn’t expected was that we’d be seeking respite from the blazing sun.
For the past few days we’d been walking uphill and down under all-but-cloudless skies, and today promised to be another scorcher. Already, at 11.15am, the temperature was around 77F (25C). As we glugged at water bottles, I noticed a sheet of A4 paper stuck to the back of the door.
It was a poem, written in the Fifties by one A M Lawrence. A native of Cumbria, she knew about heights, but she acknowledged that the Cairngorms (which would not become a national park until 15 years ago, in September 2003) had a special quality:
I shall leave tonight from Euston
By the seven-thirty train
And from Perth in the early morning
I shall see the hills again.
From the top of Ben Macdui
I shall watch the gathering storm,
And see the crisp snow lying
At the back of Cairn Gorm…
I had left from Euston myself the previous Friday night, arriving in Aviemore on Saturday morning to join a “High Points of the Cairngorms” trip run by the tour operator Wilderness Scotland. Six of us gathered outside the station: three Americans, a German, a Scot and (yours truly) an Irishman. Jessica, from Providence, Rhode Island, was running away from the thought of a 31st birthday with something of a world tour.
Maureen, who lived only two hours down the line in Stirling, had long wanted to see the Cairngorm plateau and had decided the day before that, at 74, it was time she got around to it. All of us were looking forward to exploring a place that has more high ground and ancient woodland than anywhere else in Britain, and which is home to 25 per cent of the UK’s most threatened species, including the wildcat and the turkey-sized capercaillie.
Over a coffee, our 54-year-old guide, John Walker, a former Leicester mod (he’s kept the sideburns and the scooters) who has lived and worked for 20 years in the mountains, briefed us on what we could expect.
“Summer on the high plateau,” as Nan Shepherd began her prose poem The Living Mountain, “can be delectable as honey; it can also be a roaring scourge.”
John, to his own surprise, was promising honey: the forecast from the Mountain Weather Information Service was for sunshine, little cloud and no rain – not just for the day but for the week. “We don’t get that consistency here. So it’s phenomenal.”
And the infamous midges? “Midges don’t like strong sun – they get desiccated. But I’ll be surprised if we get through the week without a midgy morning.”
As it happened, the first midge we’d encounter would be dead. John was breaking us in gently, with an ascent from Kingussie of 900ft (270m) to the top of Creag Bheag. “It might be ‘the Little Crag’, but it punches above its weight in terms of views,” he said.
Having grown up in Northern Ireland, I’m well used to the blazing-yellow sight and dry-coconut scent of gorse; I’ve seen bog cotton dance in a breeze in the Arctic. I thought I’d readied myself for the Cairngorms by reading Shepherd, Robert Macfarlane and co, but I still needed to get my eye in. There was a hint of purple in the heather, but in stretches there seemed little between us and the horizon but tawny moor. John got us looking at what was under our feet.
Heather, first of all, was a plural. Those we were walking through included ling, the most widespread, with tiny leaves pushed up against the stem; the dark-purple bell heather, its flowers shaped like cow bells; and the lighter cross-leaved heath, with leaves arranged in pairs down the stem, each at right angles to the last and forming a criss-cross pattern.
“Look at this,” John said, and we sank to our haunches over lime-coloured, star-shaped leaves under purple flowers. “This is butterwort, and it’s carnivorous. See the black spots on the leaves: that’s where midges have landed and not been able to get away.”
“And this foamy stuff here…”
“…is cuckoo spit,” said Janet, from Long Beach, California, who with her husband, John (“We used to wonder why British people snickered at our names”), had seen it the previous week in Ireland. “Bugs produce it to protect themselves from birds.”
Over the next few days, we protected ourselves with liberal applications of sunblock. Our guide, more used to snow-holing than sweltering, ditched some of the gear he would normally carry so he could pack extra water for the rest of us.
We sweated to the summit of peaks including Meall a’ Bhuachaille (Hill of the Herdsman) – one of several overlooking Abernethy Forest, which has the biggest single remnant of Caledonian pinewood left – and Carn Dearg Mor (the Big Red Hill).
The latter is on the west of Glen Feshie, which until 2004 and the start of a cull was a deer forest that the deer had overrun. Now carpeted with Scots pine, birch and juniper saplings, it is celebrated by the charity Rewilding Britain as “one of the most dramatic examples of rewilding in the UK”.
Sometimes a route suggested by Wilderness Scotland was either new to John or – thanks to the park authorities – improved (“This used to be a boggy trail through boulders – it’s a lot easier now”).
The only walk on which we encountered more than half a dozen people was a Sunday outing under the cliffs of the Northern Corries and up to the main plateau and summit of Cairn Gorm itself. Until 1997 this was the fifth-highest mountain in Britain; then a revision by surveyors demoted it to sixth (at 4,081ft) after Sgòr an Lochan Uaine (4,127ft).
On a clear day – like the one we had – all the Scottish mountains over 4,000ft can be seen from its summit. Five of them are in the Cairngorms, four in distant Lochaber, including Ben Nevis (4,438ft).
Among those we met on the top was seven-year-old Toby Moir, bagging his first Munro (a peak higher than 3,000ft) on a hike with his father, Grant, chief executive of the national park, and grandfather. A solitary reindeer came over a ridge and, for a few minutes, made meandering moves towards us. “Maybe he’s after your chocolate,” Toby was told, so he swiftly polished off his bar. Reindeer, which were once indigenous to the Highlands but died out, were reintroduced in 1952. The herd, Grant told us, now numbered well over 100, and while groups were spotted regularly, it was unusual to see an animal on its own.
During our week we regularly put red grouse into flight when we were on foot and sent hares scarpering across fields when we were in our minibus. Rounding Loch Insh one morning, we glimpsed an osprey at the top of a shoreline pine. We also saw a couple of red squirrels, one of them bounding away in the morning from my bedroom window.
Our base was Ballintean Lodge, close to the banks of the river Feshie, a light-filled retreat with rustic furniture and walls decorated with landscape and wildlife photography.
There in the evenings, after John had briefed us on the following day’s walk and scratched his head at an unchanging forecast, we’d tuck into three courses that might feature anything from Cullen skink (a smoked-fish chowder) to Caribbean fruit curry.
On our penultimate day, to minimise exposure to the midday heat – it would be 88F (31C) in the shade by 11am – we had breakfast at 5 o’clock and before six were heading into pinewoods towards Sgòr Gaoith (Windy Peak). Leading the charge, as usual, were Jessica and Birger, a 36-year-old IT consultant from Cologne, getting in shape for a trip to the Alps.
A few days earlier, John had remarked that not all walkers in the Cairngorms were intent on a summit, to which Jessica responded, with a grin: “What kind of world is that?”
By 8.30am, three of us were at the top, stepping cautiously to the edge of broken crags that fall steeply nearly 2,000ft to Loch Einich. Below us, the sun was a silvery disc in the water.
For much of our way up, we could see a patch of the lingering white celebrated by Christopher Nicholson in his book Among the Summer Snows. This one had the shape of a wolf, or at least its head and body, like some installation on which the artist had yet to add the legs and tail. A snow wolf, a wintry beast.
It was still there on our return. Then we rounded a corner, and the wolf was no more, and down below lunch beckoned at the Boathouse Restaurant at Loch Insh.
On the website, you’ll see snow on its roof; while we were there, the sun was baking its timbers.
Michael Kerr was a guest of Wilderness Scotland (01479 420020; wildernessscotland.com ), which offers walking, canoeing and cycling holidays in the Highlands and islands. In 2019, the “High Points of the Cairngorms” trip costs from £1,495 per person sharing, including six nights’ all-inclusive lodge accommodation, transfers and guiding. Trips depart on June 22, July 13, Aug 24 and Sept 14 2019.
Further information: Cairngorms National Park Authority ( cairngorms.co.uk ).
Further reading: Among the Summer Snows by Christopher Nicholson (September Publishing); The Cairngorms: A Secret History by Patrick Baker (Birlinn); Cairngorm Ranger by Nic Bullivant (Matador).