Day 17, April 27th, Glen Tilt to Bynack Lodge, and back again! The cold snap had dumped heavy snow on the high tops of the Cairngorms, and even by the river down in Glen Tilt I’d pitched my tent among large patches of the white stuff. In the night it started to rain heavily, but the air didn’t feel cold. I slept badly as I was worried about the Geldie Burn, supposedly the first difficult river crossing on the Scottish National Trail. At first light, it was still pouring with warmish rain, the snow patches had diminished noticeably and the river was looking distinctly crosser than it had done at bedtime. Even with my total inexperience of Scottish hiking, I could work out that this didn’t look promising.
There were still substantial snow patches along the trail, down in the shadow of the glen, but the sky was clear and as the morning sun warmed the high peaks it became obvious that most of their remaining snow was rapidly melting. The trail got wetter and wetter. It was no longer possible to rock-hop the small streams across the path dry shod. The Falls of Tarf were worryingly impressive.
Glen Tilt is a very long glen, but finally at mid-morning I came to the famous ruined lodge at Bynack, where according to the plan I was supposed to camp that night. Here the trail crosses three rivers in quick succession, normally first thing in the morning. The third, the Geldie Burn, is supposedly the deepest and hardest. Even the first, the Allt an t-Seilich, looked intimidating to me and, judging from the continuing rain, I didn’t see how stopping and overnighting would render it any less so in a reasonable timescale.
I managed to get across, but the force and cold of the water left me a little thoughtful and nothing was going to improve anytime soon; if anything, the opposite. The air was cold too and I was glad of the warm sunshine, although again that wasn’t helping with the ongoing snowmelt situation. I dithered about for ages looking for a safer crossing of the Bynack Burn but could find nothing better than the main trail, so I rolled up my trousers and went for it.
The icy water took my breath away, but I inched across crabwise, bracing myself into the current with my poles as learnt from YouTube. I was seven eighths across when suddenly I came across a hazard I’d failed in my inexperience to observe – a deep channel where the water had eaten down into the far bank. In fact I didn’t so much come across this as nearly tumble into it. The stones were slippy and suddenly the force of the water spun my right leg away into a torrent deeper than my waist. But for my poles and consequent three other points of contact, I’d have had it.
Even if I’d taken a complete soaking to get through it, the depth of this channel made the frustratingly close bank look impossible to clamber up. I was alone, in the Cairngorms for goodness’ sake, there was no help for twenty miles. The freezing water was undermining my footholds, even back out of the deep channel I could barely hold my position against the terrifying current. I had to make a split second decision, and did so – to retreat.
Having failed to cross the Bynack Burn, let alone the dreaded Geldie, I was not only drenched, in the Cairngorms, with snow on the ground, I was exhausted and furious, not least with myself. Surely, if I got my act together and tried a bit harder, I could get across? If only I was taller and braver. That Bear Grylls would have nipped across in a jiffy. Etc, etc. etc. I stomped about up to my knees in bogs for half an hour or so, looking for a safer crossing, but all I could see were rivers visibly increasing in depth and fury.
I started to worry about getting trapped between the Bynack and the Allt an t-Seilich and as I’d been blundering around soaking wet in the legendarily bitter Cairngorm wind, I was now starting to shiver uncontrollably. I re-crossed the Allt an t-Seilich and threw up the tent flysheet, out of the wind at the ruined lodge. I crawled damply into my sleeping bag and drank cocoa. The midday sun came out, thank goodness, and warmed me up. I had no idea what to do, so I had a little snooze. My best hope was that some more experienced walkers would happen along, and either help me across the rivers or tell me in no uncertain terms to forget them. As it was, not knowing whether I’d made the best decision was very frustrating.
Refreshed by warmth and random carbs I packed up the tent, shouted appropriate abuse at the rivers which were now quite evidently in full spate – their noise was amazing – and trudged or rather paddled back down Glen Tilt. The only thing that made this bearable was that missing the bus to Kirk Yetholm on Day 1 (did I mention I’m unlikely ever to shut up about that?) had already made completing the SNT in one go impossible. In that sense, I was off the hook. Still remaining was the uncertainty, the absence of validation.
This was not helped by encountering two men and a poodle (seriously – a poodle) pitching camp at the Falls of Tarf. Like me, they’d been planning this hike for a long time and despite my tale of woe were determined to give the rivers a go the next morning. ‘I’ll have to carry her across anyway’, said the owner of the poodle, which was looking surprisingly insouciant at the prospect of this Saint Christopheresque exploit. So of course then I dithered about camping with these guys and trying again in their company next day. On the other hand, there’d be coffee at Blair and a warm train to Kingussie…
Just before Forest Lodge at dusk I met the young, friendly gamekeeper in his enviable Landrover and flagged him down, hoping for a lift. He was heading the other way, up into the hills about his debatable business, but before doing so shared with me an opinion for which I could have hugged him, despite the bedraggled corpse of the recently beautiful Fox in the back of his pickup. In his opinion, he said slowly and thoughtfully, given the amount of snowmelt, the Geldie Burn would be unfordable for the next three days.
I felt a great weight of assumed incompetence lift from my shoulders – it seemed on the cards that despite my naiveity I’d after all correctly assessed a dangerous situation and made the right decision. I pitched camp with a light heart, hoping that poodle could swim.
Day 18, April 28th, Glen Tilt to Kingussie by car and train. There’s a surprising amount of motor traffic up and down Glen Tilt. Next morning I hitched a lift most of the way back to Blair with the wife of a chef, whose family are one of several living rather adventurously high up the glen, which must make getting to school interesting in winter. Everyone, including me, rails at the ugliness of the bulldozed tracks that are presently proliferating in Scotland’s most gorgeous countryside but it can’t be denied that they are having the side effect of repopulating the glens.
Modern life being unthinkable with the use of a vehicle, these ugly tracks are now enabling young families to reinhabit even surprisingly remote crofts and shielings. The Highlands were a cultural landscape for centuries before the clearances reduced them to mere scenery and, perhaps surprisingly, I’m all for families returning. It seems to me their presence might eventually dilute the more feudal aspects of the great estates, perhaps democratising the landscape and diversifying its uses further away from exclusively providing playtime for the rich. If this happens, it would be a sweet outcome as of course many of the tracks have been built precisely to enable the rich to play with their popguns without getting their fancy shoes dirty.
Before I was kindly picked up, I met a friendly amateur geologist who explained he was on something of a pilgrimage up Glen Tilt. ‘Why?’ I enquired. It turned out that quite close to where I’d twice camped are the very rock formations from whose peculiar structure James Hutton, the father of modern geology, elucidated the true age of the Earth – ‘Deep Time’. As so often on this trail, I wished I’d known this beforehand, but then I suppose if I’d known everything I wouldn’t have learnt anything. Either way, Hutton will have certainly looked at these very rocks (below) among others.
The Atholl Arms is a quintessential Scottish country sports hotel and the staff are nice and friendly. They let me park my large, wet pack among the swish furniture of their elegant lounge and use their WiFi to tell my loved one I was still alive as I warmed myself before their roaring fire and drank the cup of filter coffee (hurrah!) they kindly sold me at a reasonable price. When the train came it was an unreasonable £18 for the two stops to Kingussie, but to be fair as the conductor pointed out those stops are quite a way apart and the view is decent. There’s also on-train WiFi, with which I discovered an alarming accommodation deficit in Kingussie that I only resolved with quite a lot of old school telephoning.
Almost the entire train compartment was occupied by the very jolly members and staff chaperones of an RSPB ‘great and good’ committee, out and about to see the sights of Scottish conservation on expenses. As a retired professional ornithologist on a small pension, I kept quiet, stealing longing glances at their upmarket and apparently unlimited snacks.
The upshot of all this was that instead of wild camping in Glen Feshie, supposedly Scotland’s most beautiful glen and of great conservation interest (not to mention the home of a little-known population of Crested Tits) I found myself ensconced in the absurdly friendly Arden House BnB where I was welcomed with a very cheering dram by the kind proprietors.
I had a sunny afternoon to kill and found the entire town completely delightful, everyone without exception was very friendly. Better still, as I’d already booked another BnB in town for the following night, I found there was to be a programme of local history talks which would occupy my unplanned rest day (Day 19, April 29th). This, as it turned out was absolutely great and highly educational. As at Kelso, I serendipitously learnt far more about Scotland from failing to make a stage of the trail than I would have done from completing it – a possible lesson there for trailwalkers.
Above all I recommend Greystones BnB, one of the most charming, homely and characterful places I stayed in Scotland and surrounded by bird feeders – ‘sixty-two Siskins’, declared the owner proudly, having been out and counted them for me after I’d expressed an interest. Lots of gorgeous Redpolls too, you could hear the birds gathered around the house from halfway up the brae.
Day 20, April 30th, Kingussie to Strathspey via Laggan. Refreshed and restored, not least by two large meals at the excellent Joe’s Chippy on the Corner and by Greystones’ sensible and good value light breakfast (perfect for longer term visitors to Scotland getting a bit jaded with fry-ups), I strode lightly up the brae, trotted through the caravan park and positively frisked through the beautiful birch woods above Kingussie.
There were Willow Warblers clamouring everywhere, at one point I saw five at once in a small birch right next to the trail. I then trudged along another ugly bulldozed track which leads onto the quirky Wildcat Trail north of Newtonmore.
The trail then heads into Glen Banchor, which I found oppressive; a dark place of dereliction and death, it seemed to me, with the total absence of visible wildlife characteristic of a grouse moor – this should be eagle country, big time. Maybe it is, the Monadhliath to the north are certainly inspiring and remote and there is kindness to be found – a nice little bothy at the amusingly-named Allt Madagain is left open for walkers and very welcome it was in a sharp rainstorm that blew me and two French couples walking the East Highland Way into it. My only meaningful wildlife observation was the corpse of an inexplicably killed Mountain Hare which, even more inexplicably, had been tossed with that of a Rabbit into a deep culvert, clearly not meant to be seen.
It may have been that my mood in Glen Banchor was subdued by the thought of more allegedly ‘impossible in spate’ river crossings at the top of the glen. As it turned out they were trivially easy, although you could see from the width of the rocky bed and its cleanliness that two days previously they’d probably have been impassible. I was starting to learn about Scottish rivers and their extraordinary mutability.
Now I was glad of the GPS as otherwise on this stretch of the SNT one is left aiming for an invisible, far distant Rowan tree way across a vast acreage of trackless bog. When you finally reach the tree, its isolation and the ruined croft that encloses it are very moving, but there’s no time for sentiment as another baffling bit of navigation follows, culminating in what WalkHighlands amusingly describes as a “slightly ruinous footbridge”.
Passing through some interestingly neglected forestry and a jumble of varyingly shambolic habitations, one arrives at civilisation in the form of the main road and the Laggan Hotel, which was a waste of time as there was nobody there other than a cleaner who kindly offered me a glass of water. This I sulkily refused, in a huff about the fibbing sign outside that said ‘non-residents welcome, teas, snacks’, and pushed on instead to the famous Laggan Stores and Coffee Bothy.
This I found was closed due to the proprietor being deported, a strange and sad tale that doesn’t bear re-hashing here but leaves us at Laggan with an annoying resource deficit, dusk deepening, and seventeen miles (ugh -seventeen miles!) of road walking ahead, into and up Strathspey. I was feeling quite fit after my unexpected rest day and eventually camped a lot higher up the valley than I’d planned. I was hoping this would stand me in good stead for the dreaded Corrieyairack, for which, expecting compacted snow at the top of the pass, I’d lugged trail crampons all the way from Glasgow.
Day 21, May 1st, over Corrieyairack to Blackburn Bothy. So, the Corrieyairack, the awful, the implacable, hated by Redcoat and Jacobite alike. Feared and loathed by the countless thousands who for centuries dragged their frozen limbs, ragged backsides and precious beasts over it in the foulest weather; to fight and die far from home, to escape from famine and clearance, to try and make any kind of living one desperate way or another. The legendary road, finally driven up and over the pass by that incredibly determined Irishman, General George Wade. The highest point on the Scottish National Trail, almost certain to be still packed with snow and quite possibly obscured by its notorious blizzards on this Mayday.
I sauntered up and over the Corrieyairack in warm sunshine, gently encouraged by a mild easterly wind at my back. I was at Blackburn bothy by 2 pm.
I had Blackburn bothy all to myself for the whole of a sunny afternoon, I gave it a good spring clean and foraged quite a lot of (dead and fallen, of course) firewood from the slightly hazardous ravine downstream. Later in the evening, just as I’d got the fire going, I was joined by three friendly Glaswegians.
Day 22, May 2nd, Blackburn of Corrieyairack to Fort Augustus for a planned rest. The stroll down into the Great Glen at dawn the next morning was one of the most sublime little country walks on the whole trail, although there wasn’t a view of Loch Ness, sadly.
Morag’s Hostel was friendly and welcoming but clearly more geared to youths on buses than to trailwalkers; the staff seemed unsure whether there was any kind of drying facility. Luckily it was a sunny day so I decorated the pretty garden with my laundered smalls, hung out to dry on my spare guy cord. Fort Augustus I’m afraid is a dreadful tourist trap, everything is overpriced and coach parties are everywhere. The chippie by the canal is awful, serving me OUT OF THE FREEZER chips with a particularly sleazy microwaved pie. IN SCOTLAND! I rudely told the asian heritage proprietor he was a disgrace to his nation’s catering, which revelation he took very nonchalantly I must say. You even have to pay the use the public toilet in sweet FA.
Still, I enjoyed my day off here; the supermarket is decent and Morag’s is great actually although like many private hostels they’ve fallen under the curse of the squeaky metal bunk. These bunks not only squeaked, they were coupled together in a kind of loose resonance which made the London Millennium Bridge feel comparatively stable. Every tiny movement in the top bunk was, after a short delay, coupled and amplified into a disconcerting and distinctly emetic vibration of the bottom bunk. As I had a large and very twitchy Finn in the top bunk above me, I spent a horribly wobbly and almost entirely sleepless night.
Day 23, May 3rd, along the Great Glen. This was redeemed by the sensible and good value breakfast. I was annoyed to find this a non-optional inclusivity as I like to hit the trail early, but the helpful lad in charge of it said I could start eating at 7.30 and in fact it was just right, again no claggy fry-up but cereals, toast, hard-boiled eggs, fruit. Some of the above items were also alluringly portable. Ahem. I was very restrained, Morag, honest…
There followed a sunny morning stroll along the fascinating and vast Caledonian Canal, via the Great Glen Way which it seems to me would make a very easy expedition for less ambitious trailwalkers, and which is pleasantly punctuated by what look like idyllic lochside campsites.
I saw lots more wild flowers, including masses of Lady’s Smock Cardamine pratensis at Kytra Lock, had an interesting argument with a ranger about health and safety on cycleways and was animatedly ushered off a swing bridge by its operator who, unknown to me, was anxiously trying to open it as a boat approached at some speed.
This led ultimately and inevitably to Laggan Bridge (confusingly, there’s more than one Laggan in Scotland) where the Scottish National Trail joins and becomes one with – duh duh duh – The Cape Wrath Trail – “the hardest long distance backpacking route in the UK” according to one C. McNeish.