This walk crosses the Spey / Dee watershed, one of the principal Scottish watersheds, by means of the River Feshie and the Geldie Burn. It therefore avoids the tops of the mountains but that’s not to say that the country isn’t wild and remote – it is, very.
Newtonmore to Glen Feshie, 16 miles: Thursday 25 May 2017.
The only trouble with taking the sleeper train is that it deposits you very early at the village of Newtonmore – 7am to be precise. I took account of that, and started with a stroll to the nearby town of Kingussie. By the time I got there, the cafés would be open for breakfast.
I’d expected to have to walk beside the road but it didn’t entirely turn out that way. I’d shared the sleeper with a guy travelling north for the christening of his daughter. He knew the area well and suggested that I take the Wildcat Trail for the first part of the walk. I had in fact come across the trail from my trip to Newtonmore for the AGM of the Mountain Bothies Association in 2015, but in planning hadn’t thought it would be of use. It proved however a very nice start.
The trail leaves the village near the folk museum, so plenty of the A86 would still have to feature, but it’s not nearly as busy as it sounds, and there is a cycle path to walk on.
Not far from Kingussie, my route passed the former Ruthven Barracks (pronounced Ru’ven), an important billet for 18th-century troops at a time when the locals would still happily take arms against the Crown.
Not far from there is an entry to the Insh Marshes national nature reserve, which covers the Spey floodplain in this area and at this time of year is an important nesting-ground for lapwings, redshanks and curlews. If I had realised in planning I could have followed the reserve’s Invertromie Trail and got myself away from the road for a bit. Something else for another time!
From the hamlet of Drumguish, my trail set out for the Inshriach Forest. There’s a break at Baileguish but it’s an early taste of some of Scotland’s extensive conifer tree-cover – although in truth there would be little on this route. Gradients are easy though, and I was soon enjoying lunch at Feshie Bridge, the start of a long march by the River Feshie. Rather encouragingly, there were plenty of school parties around, enjoying the splendid spring sunshine (it was nearly a little too hot) under their teachers’ careful eye.
Much earlier in planning, I had intended to stay at Ruigh-aiteachan bothy, a couple of miles down the valley, but I knew that it was at the time the subject of major restoration work. I passed by however, and met up with the bothy’s maintenance organiser Lyndsey who showed me round the works involved.
Very substantial the works were too, with skilled craftsman employed to make sure the renovated bothy could stand all that the highland weather could throw at it, and mechanical craft to help with the heavy lifting.
Even if the bothy had been open, it would have been a bit early to stop; I was there at half-past two. In perfect afternoon weather it made sense to continue on for another couple of miles, to find a wild camp spot.
I’d planned to pitch in a patch of mixed woodland just before the river enters a bit of a gorge and I found a nice spot right at the end of this – though I had to make a smart adjustment when my first attempt disturbed an ants’ nest.
Crossing the watershed, 13 miles: Friday 26 May 2017.
Entering Glen Feshie, the walker sees warning signs:
“Danger in Upper Glen Feshie … The usual path has suffered serious erosion damage on a steep section above the river. The eroded sections are awkward to cross … especially for those carrying a bicycle or a heavy rucksack.”
Now, I found out what they meant. I’d spent the previous afternoon wondering how the path got through the stretch just ahead, where crags come down to a bend in the river. The land rover track gives up here, and makes a ford – probably practical on foot, as there had been little rain, but inevitably there would have to be one more crossing to get back on the correct bank.
Sure enough, the walker’s path vanished. There were signs of a thrutch up bare earth, so I thrutched, and was confronted with a line in the heather with the river flowing fifty foot or so beneath. A line in the heather, not a path … here was the erosion the sign had talked of. I pulled my sack as tight to me as I could, and inched forward. Let’s just say that the heather roots held. Some of the most nervous 20 yards or so of my life. And not far on from the end, where a little stream came tumbling down, signs of another, broader work-around path coming in. I probably should have recce’d it, to find out where it came up, the better to enlighten you.
From then on though all is straightforward. There is a ‘Users cross at their own risk’ sign on the bridge over the River Eidart, a Feshie tributary, but you would have to be a faint-heart indeed not to risk it. By now I’d met my first other people since the bothy, a mountain-biking couple who were travelling from Braemar to Aviemore in a day, a popular route it appears. Maybe they used the work-around above the erosion.
It’s from the Eidart bridge that the watershed crossing starts, a path leading south-east across the moor.
Lyndsey had told me that the path was cairned, but it turns out that this means it had a cairn! In good weather though the track couldn’t be lost. Soon I was back down, following the Geldie Burn for about five miles to White Bridge, where it joins forces with the infant River Dee. Time to look for somewhere to camp, which I found a mile or so further on. It couldn’t have been a bad spot – when I struck camp the following morning, I found a forgotten tent peg right next to one of mine.
Mar Lodge and the Morrone Birkwood, eight miles (part day): Saturday 27 May 2017.
Just a half-day walk to Braemar (after lunch, I would continue the six miles to Callater Stable bothy). It’s almost a tourist walk: I was just over a mile from the popular tourist spot of the Linn of Dee, where there is a large car park and many forest walks for young and old to enjoy.
At the Linn I joined the road for a bit, and soon encountered gran, mum and toddler in buggy, asking me for directions – they would have used their mobile phone but alas no signal (surprise). They were off to a wedding, and presumably had been decanted there by friend or taxi with reassuring words about how close their accommodation was. I suggested they head for Mar Lodge and ask there, but as it happened they soon realised the place they needed was close at hand.
I soon veered off the public road myself, heading for Mar Lodge, a grand baronial mansion which, it happened, would later that day host the family wedding that my worried mum and gran were to attend. Rather surprisingly though, there was no sign of activity yet – at 10 in the morning – so I had a brief pause by the chapel.
I left the estate by the famous Victoria Bridge, built in 1905 in commemoration of the late queen rather than for her.
A short road stretch followed until I could head up through woods to a little loch, where I followed the tourist walk through the Morrone Birkwood. I hope the word ‘tourist’ doesn’t sound disparaging – sometimes it might be, but the mile through the birches is tremendous.
The tourist walk finishes at the Tomintoul viewpoint, with a grand vista of the high Cairngorms. The tors on top of Ben Avon took my eye.
From here it’s am easy downhill stretch into Braemar itself. A hot meal sitting outdoors at Gordon’s café! I really know how to enjoy myself. Wandering round the village, I see the mountain weather forecast at the tourist office has thunderstorms and heavy rain forecast for the afternoon, and I still have six miles to go. Time to leave.
Forward to Braemar to Edzell