An Introduction to the Cairngorms

For August the weather was really quite disappointing. Any initial brightness subsided into brooding greyness and by the time we reached Loch Etchachan gusts of wind had a destabilising effect. How do you make apologies for the weather? I tried: but Doug’s amazingly positive response to this was: ‘I asked for an adventure … and you’ve given me one!’

Glen Derry

We had started out later than intended: Doug was only in the Scotland for a limited time, having recently flown over from the US and his body clock was very definitely out of sync with BST. So around 10am we left the Linn of Dee car park and headed out to for Doug’s first ever Scottish Highland experience – and where better to start exploring than the Southern Cairngorms? We soon covered the distance to Derry Lodge and then headed up Glen Derry. We had much to talk about and within just a few kilometres we had discovered that we shared many interests, experiences and opinions. Doug was immediately was highly appreciative of the scenery. You need to be patient when out in the Cairngorms: the sheer scale of these mountains only unfolds with distance and that distance has to be travelled for the beholder to fully engage with this landscape. Doug understood this right from the start. We walked along Glen Derry with Carn Crom (890m) and Derry Cairngorm (1155m) rising to our left and Beinn Bhreac (927m) and the retaining slopes of the Moine Bhealaidh (trans: the yellow moss – an upland area between the Munros Beinn Bhreac and Beinn a Chaorainn (1082m)) to the right.  We attempted a short food break, having been lulled into a false sense of security by the breeze, only to find that the wind deliberately waited until we had settled ourselves and then dropped away to nothingness. And, like a biblical plague, the midges arose out of the heather. It was a case of throw everything back into rucksacks and getting moving immediately. This being Doug’s first visit to Scotland, he was incredulous at how such small insects can be so vicious.  But surely the bugs in the US must be bad? The reply was something along the lines of, ‘Yes, but not quite like this!’P1020093


So we continued on our way. We left the Lairig an Laoigh path, crossed the burn 500m or so further on, making our way towards the Hutchinson Memorial Hut. The discussion at first revolved around the Jacobite associations of the area (John Erskine, the 23rd Earl of Mar, proclaimed James Edward, the ‘Old Pretender’, King of Scotland in Braemar on 6th September 1715) , then it turned to the flora around us: deer and cotton grass, bog asphodel and heather. Of course, August is prime heather time with the glens and hillsides tinted purple. As we swung round to the west it became breezy and the temperature started to drop. By the time we were sitting inside the Hut for our slightly delayed lunch the wind was really starting to pummel the little building. It was all too tempting to sit there for a very long time, but we yet had a way to go.

At Loch Etchachan (c.900m) Doug was amazed to see patches of snow above on Carn Etchachan (1120m): ‘I can’t believe that I’m seeing snow in August.’ It was windy enough for me to wonder if we should attempt Derry Cairngorm at all – or whether we would have to retrace our outward route, but before that decision had to be made, we took a side excursion to look down into the spectacular Loch Avon basin.

Loch Avon

Back at Loch Etchachan, the wind was just as bad but we nonetheless started the ascent towards our next objective on spec. As we bore southeastwards towards Derry Cairngorm, it was windy, but nowhere near as bad as it had been at Loch Etchachan. The mountain forecast had been absolutely correct when it stated that localised gusts around 900m would be worse than at higher levels.  So over the boulder field to the summit of Derry Cairngorm we went, before starting on our long descent. The temperature remained chilly, the skies grey and the wind continued to gust but we were suitably attired for such conditions.

Heading for Derry Cairngorm, Creagan an Choire Etchachan behind

Along the long southward sprawl of Derry Cairngorm we went, bypassing the summit of Carn Crom and eventually dropping down through the Caledonian forest to Derry Lodge as the light was fading. The final walk out back to Linn of Dee was done in semi-darkness … .while the drive back to Aberdeen was undertaken in full darkness. Doug’s day on the hill had been a full twelve hours, but in that time he’d been able to walk a fair distance into remote mountain country, experience the changeability of the Scottish weather and the effect it had on the character of the landscape around him. There had also been plenty of time for breaks, to take photos whenever he wanted and ‘space’ to simply enjoy the environment. Mountain days can take on many guises but ultimately it’s all about what the individual wants out of the experience. Doug’s very kind testimonial suggests that he got everything that he’d hoped for from his ‘Introduction to the Cairngorms’. A true adventure.

This account is dedicated to memory of Professor Debra Gimlin.

Debra initially asked whether I would be in communication with her brother about possible trekking in the Highlands, and after much discussion via e-mail, Doug asked me to guide him, choosing one of the routes offered in the Cairngorms.  I didn’t know Debra that well, but I realised pretty early on in our dialogue that she was always very concerned about others: she was so anxious that Doug would have an unforgettable experience in the Scottish mountains. I sincerely hope that I managed to make Doug’s day in the Cairngorms a happy and memorable one – and thus hopefully made Debra feel that she had done her very best to make her brother’s visit to the UK a special trip.DSCF1406slide7