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In Thrall to Ben Macdui


Ben Macdui from the west

WE sat by the view indicator on the summit of Ben Macdhui, Britain’s second highest mountain, and found it hard to believe that here on the roof of Scotland on a fine summer day we had the place to ourselves.

The sun shone warmly, even at a height of 4,300 feet, from a clear blue sky and it was so quiet and still that the sound of an insect flying past was a noisy intrusion. Swifts scythed through the still air and the occasional creaky croak of a ptarmigan reminded us that if global warming continues to manifest itself in such hot summers such cold-loving birds as the ptarmigan and the glorious snow bunting will vanish from these slopes forever.

With its jet black mantle and dazzling white wings with ebony primaries the cock snow bunting is as vivid in these elemental surroundings as its song is intense. You’ll often see them by the summit of Ben Macdui, searching for crumbs of food left by picnicking hillwalkers.

Of all the bird songs there can be few as moving and evocative as that of this little chaffinch-sized bird. A rare breeder in Scotland, the snow bunting is a bird of the high and lonely places, a black and white fleck of beauty amid the harsh wind-scoured tundra. His outpouring of song is a moving and powerful anthem to these wonderful Arctic surroundings and like the patches of purple moss campion that clings to life amid the stony gravel of these high places, the snow bunting is a reminder of the beauty that exists in an environment where life is harsh and uncompromising – there’s a sermon in there somewhere…

The lovely moss campion

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve visited the summit of Ben Macdui but I never tire of it. Many moons ago, when as a young man I worked for an Aviemore-based company called Highland Guides, I brought folk up here twice a week, on a Tuesday and a Thursday. I’ve climbed this mountain more often than any other.

I love the place. I love its spaciousness, I love its vast, open skies, I love how it drops abruptly into the deep chasm of the Lairig Ghru, I love its views that can be as widespread as Morven in Caithness to the Lammermuirs in Lothian, and I love the fact that you can wander on its flanks in any number of different ways; from Cairn Gorm, from Derry Lodge in the south via Carn a’Mhaim or by Derry Cairngorm, or up the steep inclines beside the March Burn from the Lairig Ghru.

The standard route from the car park on Cairn Gorm has so many spectacular views the walk becomes a series of visual highpoints and despite the fact that other mountains in Scotland may be steeper, or more pointedly dramatic, there is nothing to compare with high-level wandering in the Cairngorms.

Walkers crossing the plateau close to Lohan Buidhe

With the highest land mass in Britain over 3000 feet and 4000 feet you can walk for hours at these elevations with a wide, open sky above you and extraordinary views all around you. There simply isn’t anything to compare with it in these islands. But the effects of popularity are fast becoming apparent

On our walk from Coire Cas across the Cairngorm plateau by a drought-shrivelled Lochan Bhuidhe my companion, who hadn’t been on these slopes for some years, remarked on the increased erosion of the footpaths, the number of unnecessary waymarking cairns that line the route and the number of stone shelters that exist on Macdui’s summit slopes and on the ridge leading to the mountain’s northern top.

Thirteen years ago the Government agency that preceded the National Park Authority, the Cairngorms Partnership, singularly failed to live up to its promises of removing all these man-made eyesores. The National Park Authority, apparently obsessed with housing developments and unsure of its role in nature and landscape conservation, has fared little better.

It’s about time all these ad hoc shelters and waymarking cairns are removed - the slopes of this important mountain should be returned to their natural wild grandeur. When I chaired the Nevis Partnership we worked alongside the John Muir Trust and other stakeholders to clear all the eyeball searing detritis from the summit of Ben Nevis – surely our second highest summit deserves nothing less?

Intoxicated by the hot sun and the rarefied air of the summit we made our way down the scree-strewn slopes to the top of Coire Sputain Dearg, searching for dwarf cudweed, the wee brother of the edelweiss. A spring, seeping from the sun-scorched ground, bubbled through a bed of golden lichens before maturing into a series of small, sky-blue pools, the shining levels that are magnified a thousand times in the lower levels of Loch Etchachan, its stony shores caressing the three-thousand foot contour.

We wondered at the beauty of the place and in that wonder there was an instinctive recognition of the existence of order, a determined pattern behind the behaviour of things, a celebration of order and harmony. For those few hours we felt part of it. In a land where the basic elements of rock, air and water so heavily predominate it sometimes seems odd that there should be any illusion of welcome. Vast wind scoured slopes and gashes of glens offer little in the way of comfort or ease, and yet up here the untroubled waters and the ancient stones cast a spell as soothing as they are dramatic. The high lonely lochans reflect the mood of the skies, which in turn dictate the future, ordained by the winds and clouds of Biera the goddess of weather and storms.

Such an experience is very special. These places have taught me the simplicity of ‘being’, uncluttered by everyday things and thoughts, the ascending grace conceded by these vast lands to all who are prepared to seek it. It’s a powerful lesson but you must also realise that while these hills are so powerful in their own way, they are also sensitive, fragile even. Our tenuous relationship needs to be nurtured. Along with a small sparrow-like bird, tiny deep-rooted plants and great granite mountains, we belong to a biotic community and it’s only when we view our relationship from that stance that we can begin to understand it and benefit from it.

Loch Avon

The Cairngorms’ lochs, the shining levels, provide another source of wonder. Further on, deep in its own craggy sand-fringed cradle, lay Loch Avon, the unchallenged jewel of the Cairngorms. The path that drops down into Loch Avon’s basin is badly worn and dangerously eroded but fails to diminish the Gothic splendour of the place. The sheer walls of the Sticil, the square-cut granite edifice that dominates the head of Loch Avon above its skirts of tumbled rock, casts its dark shadow wide but not wide enough to subdue the joyous songs of the waterfalls that crash down the white slabs from the plateau beyond it. The green meadow, the meandering stream, the white-sands that fringe the translucent jade of the loch all contrast vividly with the steep rock walls above. This is a place closed-in and jealously guarded by the mountains and of all the landscapes I know this is the one I cherish most. And it’s here that you’ll find the Shelter Stone, Scotland’s best known howff.

Prime Minister Gladstone reputedly sheltered below it's solid bulk and it's said that the Prince of Wales was fond of bivvying there on school trips from Gordonstoun. Other residents were less salubrious - generations of vagabonds and itinerant rogues on the run from the law of the day, and of course modern climbers and hill walkers.

Crouching over a jumble of boulder scree below the precipitous flanks of the Sticil, the Shelter Stone is an enormous rock which forms a substantial roof over a natural horizontal cleavage, a cave which is reputed to have once held "eighteen armed men".

The men of yesteryear must have been very small, or perhaps the Shelter Stone has moved and reduced the space below it, but I can't imagine more than half a dozen average sized individuals sheltering in there nowadays, but the fact is that many still do, and indeed enjoy the experience, despite the ghostly legends of many years.

In 1924 a Visitor's Book was left in the cavern and many volumes are kept in the Cairngorm Club's library in Aberdeen. Some of the entries make fascinating reading. One party claims to have experienced a rather strange encounter with the legendary water horse of Loch Avon. Hearing a strange stamping and whinneying during the night they went outside the investigate and saw, "a great white horse with flashing eyes and a dripping mane. No other than the supernatural Water Horse or Each Uisghe from the unplumbed depths of Loch Avon...."

In her fine book, Speyside to Deeside, published in 1956, Brenda G Macrow wrote: "For my own part, I have met a young man who, while spending a night under the Shelter Stone alone, heard a climber approach at about midnight, pause at the entrance, and then go away again. He called, but there was no answer. Emerging quickly from the cave, he could see no sign of anyone (although it was brilliant moonlight) and no footprints in the snow."

An old friend of mine, the late Syd Scroggie from Strathmartine, claims to have once sat outside the howff and watched a giant figure walk towards the loch and simply vanish into thin air. Syd believes he saw the image of Fearlas Mor, the Great Grey Man of Ben MacDhui. But could it have been the dreaded Fahm, a grisly monster which was once believed to haunt the summits around Loch Avon? James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, in his poem Glen-Avin from The Queen's Wake tells the fearsome story.

"...Yet still at eve, or midnight drear,

When wintry winds begin to sweep,

When passing shrieks assail thine ear,

Or murmours by the mountain steep;

When from the dark and sedgy dells,

Come eldritch cries of wildered men;

Or wind-harp at thy window swells -

Beware the sprite of Avin Glen!"

The climb out of the Loch Avon basin, on another steep and eroded path, leads to the grassy extravagances of Coire Dhomhain and the edge of the plateau before it drops into Coire an t-Sneachda, the snowy corrie with its pools and rock rubble and echoes of climbs in both summer and winter. The memories of those climbing years always embrace me as I descend the Goat Track, a footpath that has become so badly worn that it is now potentially dangerous. But despite the underfoot problems I realise again just how much I love these places and how badly I want to see them protected from man’s extravagances.

As we left the bowl of Coire an t-Sneachda my whispered prayers, thrown at random to the mountain gods, was that the Cairngorms National Park will overcome man’s contrivances. Like many others I need these places like life-blood but the creation of National Parks comes with huge responsibilities. If success is measured in the number of visitors to an area then we must be prepared to repair the unintentional damage caused by those visitors. The Cairngorms will not be worthy of the title of National Park if we can’t protect these precious places from continual degradation. I would urge the National Park Authority members – the councillors, the economists, the local entrepeneurs and the community developers - to memorise the words of the late WH Murray, Scotland’s finest ever mountain writer and conservationist, who said: “the human privilege is to take decisions for more than our own good; our reward, that it turns out to be best for us too.”

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