It was during a charity walk from Easter Ross to Drymen via the Caledonia Way and the West Highland Way that Mark Carr first pondered: was there an East Highland route to link with the West Highland Way, allowing you to circumnavigate the Highlands of Scotland? And if not, why not? He shares part one of his intrepid journey, along with several of his own illustrations.
In 2010 I completed a solo 200-mile charity walk from Easter Ross to Drymen via the Caledonia Way and the West Highland Way. The weather for the eight and a half days of the walk was glorious, which allowed me to draw, write and think about the ever changing landscape that was unfolding before me as I slightly more than meandered my way south. However, one thought in particular kept recurring: did an East Highland route exist from Inverness to Drymen? Because if it did, this route would enable an intrepid walker to circumnavigate the Highlands of Scotland from Inverness to Drymen and back again.
I had not heard of such a route, but that did not mean that one was not in existence. I was resolved to find out on my return home, and, if one did not exist, I would walk the route and map it for others to follow.
And so it was that one morning in the late summer of 2011 I found myself alighting a train at Inverness station, rucksack packed, in pursuit of a trail that in some form or other must have existed centuries ago for drovers and armies to follow. My planned route would encompass small sections of well-known trails such as the Speyside Way and the Rob Roy Way. However, for the most part it would follow tracks and public footpaths, with several so unused that there was nothing but rusted and battered direction signs limply pointing the resolute hiker in what seemed to be a random direction through glen or over moor and mountain. The finalised trail, which can be viewed in full at www.east-highland-trail.com, was completed in two parts: the northern section running from Inverness to Blair Atholl via the Cairngorms; and the southern section from Blair Atholl to Drymen via Aberfeldy, Comrie and Callander.
The beginning of the northern section of the East Highland Trail (EHT) out of Inverness follows the route of one of General Wade’s military roads. These roads were built in the years after the 1715 Jacobite uprising to enable English troops faster and easier access to the highlands if trouble distilled once more. The irony of course, is that these roads also allowed fast and easy access into England, which Bonny Prince Charley and his army took full advantage of in the 1745 uprising. These roads were ‘state of the art’ in the eighteenth century, but to our twenty-first century eyes and feet – and probably even to a Roman legionnaire – they were crude, cobbled affairs built from locally found rocks.
The road is tarmacked at first but soon turns into a rough track that climbs high above Inverness, giving you stunning views of the Moray Firth and the Kessock Bridge.
However, the real pleasure is harvesting the succulent wild Scottish raspberries that fill the hedgerows on either side of this track during the months of July and August. Not only is this a foraging delight but it nicely slows your pace on that first climb of the day, letting your legs and your lungs ease into the long day’s walking.
So, as well as taking advantage of any semi-domesticated feast on the route south, for me, it is worth spending a little time during those early mornings when the body needs to be eased into action, to converse with the wonderfully beautiful fauna and flora that you may encounter. Of course, any other time of the day is acceptable as well!
This first part of the EHT twists and turns through forestry plantations, down rough tracks, and over small sections of moor and pasture land, taking in the villages of Failie (where a grey restored Fergie is on show for all to see) and Moy. South of Moy the land opens to pasture and it was here that high up in the hills to the east six Red Kites soared into the sky – this type of land gives good hunting grounds for raptures that feed on carrion. A little further south the EHT crosses the Findhorn River where, during the fishing season, you may encounter many 4x4s sporting a plethora of people fly fishing for salmon. I wild camped overnight here and the combination of the water, stillness and late summer warmth was a catalyst for the hatching of a multitude of the dreaded ‘midge’! I spent most of that evening and the next morning hiding in my tent listening to the tiny vampires trying to force their way through the canvas to feed on my blood.
The next morning I had intended to use the rope bridge to cross the river as indicated on my OS map. Unfortunately this was locked; it was obviously only for the preserve of the fishing and shooting fraternity…hikers keep off! So I only had one option at the time (as I had yet to learn of the alternative, unregistered route along the north side of the river leading to a bridge crossing) and that was to ford the river. Off came the boots and trousers and with my ever-present solid oak walking stick I carefully picked my way across the rather cold stony bottomed river to the sanctuary of the grassy south bank, the water often skimming the edge of my underwear. A week earlier this would not have been possible, as flash rains had put the river into flood…lucky boy!
The next section of the EHT winds its way across the moorlands between the Findhorn River and the Spey River, then down towards the village of Carrbridge. These open, almost treeless areas are managed purely for shooting and have, for me, an eerie emptiness about them; maybe a sad echo of the carnage that comes with the shooting season. This being said, the heather was in full bloom during my time there, turning the hillsides into a beautiful purple crimson blanket. Packs of butterflies often billowed out of the small burns that criss-crossed the moor, following me for short periods then dancing off to a fresh patch of heather. On a clear day at the highest point of the moor, Creg na-bolaire, stunning views of the Moray Firth to the north and the Cairngorms to the south can be seen…take that moment.
After camping overnight near Carrbridge I set off the next morning with the full intention of having an extremely easy day, walking the seven or so miles into Aviemore, via a small section of the Speyside Way, then taking the afternoon off to browse the shops and the many drinking holes that service the main drag.
However, all best made plans are quite simply that…plans and this one soon changed once the sun had scorched off what was left of the cloud cover to reveal a day that displayed the Cairngorms in their finest glory. If that wasn’t a ‘call to the hills’, nothing was.
This was not a day to be rubbing shoulders with the holiday crowds, but a day to push on up and through the stunning Lairig Ghru pass to Glen Dee. So, after a chance encounter with a steam train (a real treat as this is another love of mine) on the Strathspey Railway, which for parts runs parallel with the Speyside Way, followed by a quick but excellent coffee at Café Blue in Aviemore, I put my best foot forward and headed into the mountains for not the steepest climb of the EHT, but the longest and most inspiring.
What is wonderful about the climb up through the Lairig Ghru is the ever-changing landscape – from the gentle beauty of the mixed woodlands of Rothiemurchus Forest, through to the steepening slopes of fern, heather and bilberry bushes (another foraging delight) and the rocky bare boulders towards the summit. The towering peaks of the Cairngorms rise steeply on either side, their stark jagged greyness reminding me of the searing towers from Gormenghast Castle, in the gothic trilogy ‘Gormenghast’ by Mervyn Peake. I have often wondered if Mervyn Peake took a hint of inspiration from this landscape.
On clearing the summit of the pass, the path meanders down towards the magical pools of Dee, full of common frogs when I was there, and on towards the river Dee. High up to your right you will notice Corrour Bothy snuggling into Coire Odhar below the Devils Point. Despite being a good place to spend the night, I decided to push a little further so that I might get to Blair Athol the next evening. I could say that this was a bit of a mistake, as the week before the weather had been more than a little inclement, leaving the footpath and the rough grassland saturated with water and the dreaded ‘midge’.
As the evening began to draw in I found a nice sheltered spot to pitch my tent away from everything except those blood sucking hoards! Within a minute of unpacking my rucksack I was breathing, eating and being eaten by ‘midge’.
That was the quickest pitching of a tent on record I can tell you, and the second night of the trip hiding in my tent. The only upside to this nightmare was that as I looked back towards the Cairngorm Mountains, the setting sun caught parts of the wet shear granite rock faces turning them into flashing, if fleeting, columns of golden glass.
I rose early the next morning and packed the tent and the rucksack with just as much haste as they had been pitched and unpacked the evening before. My normal leisurely start to the day was to be rudely disrupted as I frogmarched my way down the soggy midge-infested path through Glen Dee to the Chest of Dee (a beautiful long tumbling set of waterfalls) where a white bridge crosses the river and the path turns west towards Glen Tilt and Blair Atholl.
Luckily by mid-morning the sun had broken through and a light breeze was tugging at the cotton grass, but more importantly had blown the last of the ‘midge’ back into the wetlands to the north.
I lunched with ease at the ruin of Bynack Lodge, before making the last push down to Blair Atholl. A couple of miles west of the lodge the EHT winds its way through the steep sided gully of Allt Garbh Buidhe, where the sudden increase in the sheep population indicate you are leaving the national park and entering the Blair Estate. These arid rocky sides are home to many common lizards during the summer months so step ‘canny’ on this narrow crumbling path.
The gully exits around the head of Glen Tilt where the ‘Falls of Tarf’ are crossed by an ornate 19th century footbridge erected by the friends and family of John Bedford, who was sixteen when he drowned in the deep plunge-pool found there. The last thirteen or so miles to Blair Atholl from here follow a well-used track down the picturesque Glen Tilt which is peppered with waterfalls, pools, lodges, farms and woodland.
Here ends the northern part of the EHT, where I grabbed a pitch at the Blair Estate camp site, which sports the most luxurious heated showers I have ever encountered – a great cleansing treat at the end of four days hard walking. However, Blair Atholl and the neighbouring Bridge of Tilt are full of other lodgings where the weary hiker can rest a soul. Lastly, The Atholl Arms Hotel do a more than decent pint of Guinness, which I always find goes down far better with a wee dram of the strong stuff; Lagavulin is my preferred tipple. Happy hiking!
You can learn more about Mark's East Highland Trail on his website www.east-highland-trail.com.