Chapter One: The Cairngorms Scene & Unseen

Alex’s piece recalls Syd Scroggie’s classic The Cairngorms: Scene and Unseen, which was first published in 1989 and has stood the test of time as one of the best original accounts of Scotland’s bothy culture. Scroggie was a true man of the hills and an ‘inveterate scribbler’, who, despite losing his sight and one leg just before the end of the Second World War, returned to the Scottish mountains with various companions until well into his 80s. He is often quoted as saying, ‘I can do without my eyes, but I can’t do without my mountains,’ and his eloquent descriptions of his beloved Cairngorms will resonate with anyone who has spent time in this magical landscape.

In the following extract from the book, Scroggie muses on the origins of the name Lairig Ghru, ‘the premier pass in the British Isles’, and describes in vivid detail journeying through it with his friend Dennis Fagan in the ’50s:

The Corrieyairack, the Lairig an Lui, the Feshie, the Tilt, the Monega, the Capel Mounth and Jock’s Road all have much to recommend them. But in sheer length and ruggedness, in the character of its bothies, in its boulderfields and in the fact that it cuts between two of the largest lumps of land in these islands, Braeriach and Ben Macdhui, there is nothing to beat the Lairig. People know you mean the Lairig Ghru when you say that. The only question left is what the Gael of old meant by the adjective ‘Ghru’.

There is a picture of the pass in the old SMC Cairngorms Guide, one of these pictures that folds out. No other picture of these gloomy, eerie and massive hills has ever stirred my imagination more. It shows the Lairig Grumach; the word Grumach means gloomy. It seems even more terrifying when compressed into the contraction of a monosyllable: ‘Gru’.

Tempting as it is to accept this etymology, let us fold back this sombre picture and think of the Lairig as I observed it … In the month of June, my friend Dennis and I were crossing the Lairig in a canny drifting from bothy to bothy. So we found ourselves in the evening, traversing a vast field of sugar snow which buried most of the boulders. The westering sun struck brightly on the snow and emphasised the natural colour of the rock. Dennis sat down, and as we smoked a fag he observed a redness in the boulders which protruded from the snow, and various tints of this same colour in the scraggy slopes which rise abruptly on either hand. A ptarmigan’s eerie croak echoed in the silence. Dennis has as little Gaelic as I have, but we can make that little go a long way. What we saw was not a gloomy pass. What we saw was a red pass, and the Gaels were nothing in their naming of places if not simple describers of the scene. ‘Sydney,’ said Dennis, with all the complacency and certitude of genius, ‘it’s the Lairig Ruadh.’ 

The geographical termini of this ancient route through the Cairngorms are of course Aviemore and Braemar, and I mention them in that order because it was from west to east in olden times, as Seton Gordon reminds us, that a traffic in eggs was carried on between a Speyside teeming with fecund hens and a good market under Morrone and Creag Choinnich on the banks of Dee. Between these termini are some 29 miles of hill terrain, much of it as high and remote as anything you will get in these islands, and between the piping oystercatchers of such places as Corriemoulzie, Inverey and Claybokie, and those of Lairig Cottage and Coylumbridge, there are the chaffinches of Derry Lodge and Luibeg, where the breeze rustles the old Scots pines; the meadow pipits of Carn a’ Mhaim; the sandpipers of Corrour; the ptarmigan of the Pools of Dee; and in the forest of Rothiemurchus, where the heather is high, such rare species as crossbill and crested tit. In addition, if you are lucky, you may hear the deep croak of raven off Sron na Lairig or the mewing of buzzard around the Lurcher’s Crag; or maybe a golden eagle will drift across your line of vision from the boulders of Coire Bhrochain to the upper recesses of the Tailor’s Burn. 

With the Sròn Riach rising before you and Corrie Sputan Dearg, you ford the Luibeg if it is not in spate, otherwise you have to go further upstream to the new metal bridge. Sometimes in boulders, sometimes in bog and sometimes on bare granite bedrock, you breast the brae of lower Carn a’ Mhaim to find yourself gazing at length into the hag-scarred gulf of Glen Geusachan and at Beinn Bhrotain, which bulks dark and big beside it. Further round, as you drop down into upper Glen Dee, is the Devil’s Point, on which there are no more formidable slabs in Scotland, Cairn Toul with its screes, the Soldier’s Corrie, and that other evidence of the handiwork of ancient ice, Coire Odhar, from which the bothy below it takes its name; and even now you catch a glimpse of the shining aluminium roof of Corrour. 

After much hopping over boulders and dragging your feet out of bogs you come to the rushing waters of the Tailor’s Burn, where there is gold for those with the patience to pan it, and maybe sit down to eat your piece under that same big rock where the ambitious but ill-fated men of needle and thread died in a Hogmanay blizzard all those years ago, the Tailors’ Stone.

Next you come to the Allt Choire Mhoir, whose noise you have heard for some time, high up in front of you on the right; ford it, and with the young Dee tearing along below you on the left, start the ascent to the Lairig Ghru proper. Across the glen, and with its inner crags rising to the 4,000-foot plateau, is the mighty amphitheatre of the Garbh Choire where snow lies all year round, and there is a little howff nowadays used by the tigers of the rock and ice climbing fraternity. Big and broad and littered with boulders, Braeriach rises beside it, forming the left portal of the Lairig, and Coire Bhrochain is gouged out of it so that the hill has a smashed, decayed appearance, infinitely sad and lonely. 

Beyond the Pools of Dee and the summit boulder field, and with the thunder of the March Burn behind you, it is a case of gazing down through the cleft of the pass at the lowlands of Spey far away, perhaps golden with evening sun, and behind them, the rolling Monadh Liaths shutting out the west and north. Here there is silence, as if to commemorate a desultory human penetration going back to the dawn of time; a silence broken only by the croak of ptarmigan and emphasised by the granite power of boulder and enclosing crag. So you begin to drop down the stony track, the boulder field receding behind you, and the infant Allt Druie picks up strength to the right of you, and beyond it, gleaming with wetness, the dark massiveness of the Lurcher’s Crag. 

You pass the Sinclair Hut on your left, where it stands grim and square on a heathery moraine, then jumping the burn follow the long dog-leg of the track through stones, water, peat bog and red grit till you are below Castle Hill and the first pines of Rothiemurchus begin to shadow the track; protruding roots are slippery under your boots, and fronds brush your shoulder as you trudge along. 

The iron bridge is ahead, with its embossed information regarding distances and times, and, where I am concerned, beyond Achnagoichan where the Nature Conservancy man lives, the raison d’être of many a trip through the Lairig over the years, a night with Jock and Margaret McKenzie who farm Upper Tullochgrue. In 1942, stationed with the army in camps at Alvie and Pityoulish, I made evening trips to the Lairig and on to the hills round about it. A war department pushbike with back-pedalling brakes would get me to the Piccadilly junction of paths where there is a cairn and a finger-post. One track turns left for Glenmore and Loch Morlich; the other climbs between banks of overhanging heather to the last scattered pines of Rothiemurchus, the crossing of the Allt Druie, and the cleft of the Lairig, Braeriach very big and upstanding on the right. 

On one occasion I stood on the plateau near this summit, grit, moss, boulders and the big cairn at 4,248 feet, and gazed down into the depths of the Garbh Choire, the massif of Ben Macdhui rising on the far side of Glen Dee. It was perfectly still; only a golden plover cried sadly, and the sky was feathered all over with wisps of high cirrus cloud evenly distributed from horizon to horizon. The sun had set, and these cirrus clouds now caught the last of its light, the wide sky becoming arched with glowing filaments of red fire, and shortly a flush suffused the whole landscape … 

On another occasion, this time with pack, food and sleeping-bag, I struck up the rotten, red rock to the left of the summit of the Lairig, reached the plateau between Creag an Leth-Choin and Ben Macdhui, found the waters of the upper Garbh Uisge where they slide over bedrock or tumble among stones, and followed these down the steep rock terraces to Loch A’an for a solitary night at the Shelter Stone. Fat cumulus clouds turned gold in the evening light, Cairn Gorm was big, silent and still, and the water of the loch was like a glass reflecting the tors on Bynack More. Again I found myself between Creag an Leth-Choin and Macdhui, the chasm of the Lairig behind me, and this time, after a week of rain, the cloud was rising, so that I followed the ascending base of it, grey and lowering, up the flat, granite boulders which litter the shoulder of Macdhui on this side.

There had been no sunshine in Speyside that day, only teeming rain, but now a shaft of golden sun shot through the cloud, to strike a snowfield which covered the boulders ahead. Its privacy disturbed, an eagle took off, and at the same time the whole canopy of cloud lifted, disclosing the summit of Macdhui, to hang a grey and dour umbrella over the clear tops of the Cairngorms. The shaft of sun disappeared, and I broke into a run, leaping from boulder to boulder to get to the big summit cairn before it should be lost again in descending thickness and drizzle. The usual rusty bulk beef tins were there, friendly in a squalid kind of way, and I gazed round at a scene which I dare say few people, if any, have ever witnessed from Macdhui.

The Cairngorms lay beneath what was now a local bonnet of cloud. Everything else was in sunshine and dazzling with colours, cobalts and browns and bright greens, all the peaks around glowing with the pristine pigments of an illuminated manuscript, as far as distant Lochnagar and Beinn a’ Ghlo. Then even the interior gloom began to change, and a violet light stole over the nearby scene, so that my hands and my clothes reflected it, and behind me the Lurcher’s Crag turned as mauve as the most voluptuous ling heather. This was not so with Angel Peak, Cairn Toul and the Devil’s Point, which rose on the other side of Glen Dee, for these turned an emerald green, so that they stood there like vast jewels, soft and glowing, against that brilliant distant palette of incredible colour.

It lasted only a minute or two, long enough for a ptarmigan to croak, a golden plover to whistle and a discarded fag pack to stir in the breeze; then down came the cloud again and shut everything out. One moment I was in the treasure house of Croesus; the next in a dank, gloomy dungeon; and I turned and made off down the hill as fast as the fitness of 22 could carry me. However, the display was not over yet: the Lairig still had something to offer, although the spectacle had been switched off on Macdhui. For as I dropped down from the bouldery pass, running and leaping out of sheer joie de vivre, a second shaft of sunshine, now low from the north-west, struck through the cloud, this time glancing on the Lurcher’s Crag, which rose beetling above me on my right, dark, dreich and dripping. In an instant it was all chocolate brown, shot with gold, and all its algae and vegetation, invisible heretofore, turned a most brilliant jungle green. This in its turn faded, and I was over the Allt Druie and skelping along through the stones and bogs towards the upper timber of Rothiemurchus when the final act in this drama of colour unfolded itself; the last act before gloaming, twilight and a Speyside sky studded with stars.

Like a big red ball, the sun suddenly appeared at the very rim of the world, just visible in the narrow aperture between cloud and horizon, and in its rays the mist which now blanketed the whole massif of the Cairngorms began to flush, the greyness turning to a sombre red, so that the hills now seemed mantled in a great hodden-grey plaid stained through and through with the blood of some gigantic wearer. The sun set, the redness returned to common grey, and from the east cool evening stole over a silent world.’

Portrait painting of Sydney Scroggie, side profile, with green wooly and black scarf.

Portrait of Sydney Scroggie (1985)
by Lex Braes
Oil on plywood
24 x 22 inches
Collection of Tom Johnson