Walking High Above the Lairig Ghru

At the end of November last year, after a Press get-together at Muir Cottage, near Braemar, our Creatives Editor, Alex Marceau, left the River Dee behind to follow Lui Water upstream into the heart of the Cairngorms. 

Beneath a clear sky, Scots pines stood tall amidst a heather-laden landscape, and the distant hills wore last night’s snowfall—the first of the season. 

I had never ventured into the Lairig Ghru, a steep-sided, glacial-carved hill pass deep within the Cairngorms; however, as I caught sight of Corrour Bothy beneath the Devil’s Point at dusk, I felt a peculiar sense of familiarity, as if I’d been here before. I met the River Dee again and crossed it via the metal bridge, built in 1959, then hurried over mud and bog to where finally, after a dozen kilometres, I stood in front of the wooden door. I flipped the latch and the door creaked open. As if waiting for my arrival, a mouse greeted me by the hearth, before scurrying off through the damp cottage and stopping by a journal on the windowsill. 

‘Go on,’ I said. ‘What does it say?’ 

Receiving no reply, I dropped my rucksack on the floor, picked up the journal and sank onto a bench, whence I entered that special, borderless realm of the imagination, the present stretching to encompass the stories and myths that have sprung from the surrounding hills and within the granite walls of Corrour, erected in 1877 to house a deer watcher. I imagined Sydney Scroggie in the corner, too, with a ‘rucksack under [his] head and [his] wooden leg with its muddy boot beside [him]’ (52), chewing the rag and pondering, as I often do, the metaphysics of the hills. 

My experiences in Scotland’s landscapes are not only shaped by their aesthetics, but by literature and art depicting them. As Scroggie wrote of Corrour, ‘it is as much what happened there in the past as the fabric of the place itself which gives the building its flavour and personality’ (45), and the same can be said of landscapes. Whether it’s reading of a climb’s first ascent, the history of a crofting ruin or a poet’s meditation on the tumbling sea, art gives us a vivid sense of a landscape’s qualities and a revelation of the artist’s feelings so that in time, when we are in that very same place, we are not simply engaging with our ‘own’ experiences, but a shared history—a continuum. 

I returned the journal to the windowsill and got into my sleeping bag. Outside the wind picked up, rattling the door. As I dozed off, I thought about Creatives and how lucky I’ve been to work with so many different writers and artists. Since launching the digital publication last February, we’ve represented 30 geographical areas around the country and expanded the genres we publish to include poetry, fiction, visual art and nonfiction. Lying on the wooden bench, I wondered whether poetry has a different function than memoir; whether there is more to a guidebook than merely describing routes up mountains; whether fiction only entertains the imagination. . . .

At some point during the night the door swung open and two figures barged in, startling and then blinding me with their head torches. 

‘Pissing it down out there!’ one of them declared.  

I hardly budged, but we shared a few words while they hung up their wet garments on nails and set up for bed. As I dozed off again, I chuckled at good old Scroggie: ‘You would not have been surprised to hear the door creak open at any time to admit, blinking in candlelight, a Wolf of Badenoch, a Bonny Prince Charlie, or a wild cattle-drover with bare, hairy legs, brogues and tattered, mud-stained plaid.’ (44) Today’s high-quality Gore-Tex is far less appealing to my romantic imagination, but despite our evolution as keen explorers, you never know what type of characters you’ll meet in these wild, remote places. 

Condensated window of Corrour Bothy.

I awoke as dawn glowed through the bothy’s condensated window. I packed my rucksack quietly so as not to wake the other two snoring occupants, and stepped outside. All was still. Only the River Dee moved. I sat on a rock making breakfast and coffee, neon hues illuminating the Lairig, and I felt the profundity of the silence. For all I knew it was 1901 or 1720 . . . perhaps the morning after the last glacier carved through this sub-arctic landscape. 

My initial plan was to walk through the Lairig Ghru to Aviemore; however, as I slung my rucksack on and tightened the hip belt beneath a cloudless sky, I decided there would be no better place than the plateau, high above the Lairig with mountainscapes for miles. So I slogged up the Allt a’ Choire Odhair, wet granite slabs above shining like armour, reaching the snowline and on to the summit of Devil’s Point, the first of four Munros. Unfortunately, in my spontaneous ascent, I hadn’t accounted for the heat and humidity—the clag rolled in fast and visibility was nil.  

The silence on the plateau can be intense, ‘as if to commemorate a desultory human penetration going back to the dawn of time’ (Scroggie 16), and at times I thought I heard footsteps behind me or the croak of a ptarmigan. I couldn’t shake off the uncanny feeling that I’d been here before, and oddly, that I wasn’t alone. Would I be so superstitious had I not read so much about the supernatural forces that are said to inhabit these places? 

The Lairig Ghru, which connects Speyside and Deeside, was used by cattle drovers, ‘travellers and packmen whose burdens were not recreational, but laces, wools, buttons, knitting preens, thimbles, thread and what haberdashery could be carried from glen to glen, where folk still lived in places impossible to reach by travelling vans.’ (Scroggie 82) Fiona Mossman’s fictional tale, ‘The Devil Take the Hindmost’, leads us across the snowy Cairngorm plateau in search of the Shelter Stone, where a band of thieves must stash stolen goods they’ll use to pay the tacksman, a 17th century Highland landowner. I wasn’t in a blizzard nor on the run, but as certain facts help contextualise landscapes, it is with stories—both true and fictional—that we come to know a place’s inhabitants, their motivations, anxieties and mannerisms—their humanity. 

As I neared the top of Càirn Toul, the clag still heavy and no scenery to occupy my mind, I refrained from entertaining the lead bandit’s anxieties, that ‘the stories must be real: the Devil lurks in these hills.’ Instead, I recalled the mountain’s Gaelic name, Càrn an t-Sabhail, and one of Merryn Glover’s poems from The High Tongue, a series of lyrics on the Gaelic names of the Cairngorm mountains: 

Càirn Toul – Càrn an t-Sabhail
The Barn Shaped Mountain  

Storehouse of stone

Boulders shouldering like beasts
in this dark byre

Hail drumming the watershed.

I imagined a life stirring beneath my feet inside this mountain, whose shape I couldn’t see in the mist but could feel as I hopped from one icy boulder to the next. Who named this hill? And when? I didn’t have the answer, but as ‘the Pictish language and culture was superseded [1,000 years ago] by that of the Gaelic-speaking Scots’, I knew that all around me were Pictish, Scots and largely Gaelic origins (Cairngorms NP). In Scotland, land and language are closely knit—hill names reveal myriad cultural, mythological, environmental and historical insights that contour lines simply cannot convey. Our publication Scottish Hill Names offers a glimpse into the past, revealing some of the stories and legends behind their etymology.

Over the last two centuries Gaelic has become endangered, with only 1.7% of the population in 2011 being able to speak, read, write or understand the language (Scotland’s Census 2011). However, the past decade has seen a strong Gaelic revival, and as a foreigner navigating these complex landscapes, I’ve connected with them through bilingual works of literature and art.

Snowy cairn.

Leaving behind the rime-covered cairn, the silence intensifying, I mulled over the lyrics from The High Tongue and considered poetry’s unique power to express deep thoughts and emotions in a few lines, allowing it to move—line for line—from the page to the imagination, memory, and back to where it came from . . . in this instance, Càirn Toul. ‘Poems exist in the margin of life,’ Helen Mort says. ‘You can memorise them and bring them around with you, and by doing so they become a part of you. You can alternate them, too.’ I think the poem finds its full potential in this act of alteration, for the lines themselves can be switched, the holder of the poem—once author, now reader—altered, and one’s perspective of place moulded and, over time, shared.  

At last, I reached the third Munro, Sgor an Lochain Uaine. Walking along the corrie rim, I was struck by the contrast between the white barren landscape on the high plateau and the magnificent black amphitheatre of rock down below. There was still no wind, but somewhere, water was moving; the noise was a relief.  

I fetched my map and set off on a bearing, soon arriving at the highest river source in Britain: the Wells of Dee, a mere few pools. I followed the various burns that merge and trickle back toward the corrie rim where, in one great torrent, the water cascades into Garbh Corrie and makes its way down the centre of the Lairig Ghru, unspooling south past lonely Corrour Bothy and veering eastward for 87 miles to pick up other streams and tributaries along the way to Aberdeen, where it flows out into the North Sea. How could these pools generate such a waterfall? Dee, thought to come from Deva—goddess or deity—seemed a logical answer: ‘divine river’ (Nicolaisen 60).

As I finally neared the top of Braeriach and skirted around Coire Brochain, the clouds suddenly dropped and the surrounding peaks seemed to rise out of the sea, radiating in late-afternoon sunlight. Càirn Toul and Sgor an Lochain Uaine formed wide, granite angel wings, the Devil’s Point was sharp and pronounced, and across the cloud-covered Lairig, Ben Macduie, which inspired another of Merryn’s Cairngorm Lyrics: 

Ben MacDuie – Beinn MacDuibh
The Mountain of the Son of Duff

High King of Thunder
Old Grey Man
Chief of the Range
Head of the Clan. 

For the first time since breakfast, I took off my rucksack and sat down, looking across the rounded expanse of granite, snow and cloud. As a raven emerged from the clouds and landed on a nearby boulder (perhaps standing guard over the corrie or, like me, basking in the sunlight), the words ‘Plateau Dreaming: Into the Spring Sublime’ sprung to mind—the title of Anna Fleming’s nonfiction piece. All at once, I re-entered that borderless sphere of time, place and story. I’d never stood atop Braeriach, but just like seeing Corrour for the first time, it felt familiar, and I welcomed that interconnectedness between place, people and the imagination. 

Top of Braeriach.

Cairngorms National Park Authority (NP), 2006. Place-Names of the Cairngorms National Park.

Drummond, P., 2010. Scottish Hill Names. Edinburgh: Scottish Mountaineering Press.

Fleming, A., 2022. Plateau Dreaming: Into the Spring Sublime’. Creatives: Scottish Mountaineering Press.

Glover, M., 2022. The High TongueCreatives: Scottish Mountaineering Press.

Mort, H., 2018. Style, Form and Voice in Contemporary Nature Writing. British Council Germany.

Mossman, F., 2022. The Devil Take the Hindmost’. Creatives: Scottish Mountaineering Press.

Nicolaisen, WFH., 1990. ‘Aberdeen: Atoponymic Key to the Region’. Scottish Society for Northern Studies. 

Scotland’s Census 2011.

Scroggie, S., 2021. The Cairngorms: Scene and Unseen. Edinburgh: Scottish Mountaineering Press.