A HIGHLAND ADVENTURE
by Barry Van-Asten
THE RIVER SPEY
We followed the trail from Fochabers to Castle Hill and Ordiesque, stopping off at the Earth Pillars for a break. I did not see the famous Earth Pillars but I did see the river Spey from a view point and a man fly-fishing in the river. We continued our walk and I picked up some water at the ‘Burn of Altderg’ a little stream, and we climbed the very steep winding road up the hill and skirted the woods, to continue past ‘White Hillock’ and ‘Laird’s Hill’ which fascinated me, seeing it all those weeks ago on the map and wanting to see it. We saw a possible place to camp in an old disused cottage and I went to view it. The windows were broken and looking in I could see the remains of a shell where laughter and sadness were alive; the gloomy interiors held a few items of beauty including an old cooking range and a moulded fireplace and faded wallpaper. The garden was overgrown and not really suitable for pitching a tent; the out-buildings were almost hidden by weeds and seemed desolate. It was a beautiful place! We walked past the ‘Mains of Cairnty’ and ‘Tor Hill’ to cross the road bridge over the river Spey at the ‘Boat o’ Brig’ and we looked for a place to pitch camp. I wasn’t really satisfied by anywhere, but we had a water source (the river Spey) and it was getting late. We made a decision and walked on under the railway bridge along the river till we settled on pitching on the track itself, as it was reasonably flat. And so we pitched by 9 p.m. The moon was clear and bright but it was extremely cold next to the river and there were more problems with the camping gas. We walked about six miles today and Aimee’s legs are very sore. We saw lots of grouse with their disturbing and haunting wing flapping as they rose cumbersomely into the air. We were in bed by approximately 12.30 a.m.
GRAVE WATERING TIME
Day 15, Sunday 20th April; the night of the full moon… It was a very cold morning and the alarm set for 8 a.m. was ignored and silenced as we slept on until 10 a.m. when the sun had a small amount of decency to show itself and share its warmth. We managed to cook some porridge and have some tea, but one of the three camping gas bottles had a leak so we had to leave it to the side to run empty and dispose of it. We struck camp and began our walk at 1.55 p.m. We followed the trail to Bridgeton and entered the forest of Ben Aigan (a 1500 ft mountain) at 2.45 p.m. We met some youths doing their Duke of Edingburgh Award, going the other way. It was a difficult and steep trail – the most difficult of all the Speyside Way and we had to tackle it. We got to the top of the hill at 3.15 p.m. and Aimee became emotional and tearful at the achievement! At 4 p.m. we stopped at the viewpoint for lunch and to take on more water. Aimee received a few de ja vu’s upon the trail, as if she should be here doing this right now etc. Setting off we skirted ‘Tam Hill’ and ‘Arndilly Farm’ and reached the end of the forest of Ben Aigan at 6 p.m. We walked past Arndilly House, built c: 1750 and over the Macdowel Bridge where we rested. Then we continued along the road and came upon the Fiddichside Inn at the junction, crossing the river Fiddich. Aimee went in to ask where we could have a meal etc. Crossing the bridge we entered Fiddichside Park (the old Speyside Way Visitor Centre) and pitched camp on the grass reserved for tents near the river. There were no other campers in the park. We had been aiming to reach Craigellachie, but this had all the facilities we needed – flat ground, fresh water and toilets. Aimee said the Inn was lovely and warm inside with its log fire and that we should go over later just to keep warm. We pitched camp at 8 p.m. and cooked dinner; Aimee had a lamb hot pot and I had beans, sausage, bacon and egg. We had tea and had finished dinner by 9.30 p.m. We then went to the Inn at 10 p.m.
There was an old landlord behind the bar (a small room with a log fire and walls filled with memorabilia) and there were three German tourists at the bar tasting the many malt whiskeys that were available. I had a pint of beer and Aimee had a half pint of shandy. I bought some cigars which cheered me up and I had a ‘Longmore’ malt whiskey’ to keep the chill off! Time was declared at 11 p.m. and we left after the landlord (a strict teetotaller) obligingly filled our hot water bottles for us at the bar. We had walked another six miles today and we went to sleep about 11.50 with the warm glow of alcohol within us and spent a reasonably warm night on that little lawned campsite!
The next day, day 16 of the expedition to bring civility and gentility to the Highlands of Scotland; a day also known as Monday 21st April and famous for the occasion of my birth, in fact my thirty-ninth year to be precise, saw two happy campers rising at 8.45 a.m (the alarm was set for 7 a.m.). We breakfasted and had tea and struck camp! It was a sunny day with a few clouds in the sky. At midday we began the walk and Aimee had more de ja vu experiences along the trail as we followed the old line of the Speyside Railway which closed in 1868; through the old damp tunnels till we got to Abelour at 1.10 p.m. We rested here and wrote a postcard to Aimee’s mother; the postcard had a cartoon drawing of Nessie requesting more tourists with her tongue drooling from her mouth at the thought of it! Aimee went into the Co-op for some provisions and the sun shone beautifully as I waited across the road near some monument, on a bench. Aimee came back with a small cake each – it was my birthday cake! We had lunch at the old Abelour train station, on the platform. I thought we stayed too long for lunch, which we did and we set off again about 2.30 p.m. We went past a distillery, to Delmore and past ‘Tom of Brock’ hill, over a bridge, past Carron House to the village of Carron where we has a short rest. It was very hot and we walked on past the ‘Imperial Distillery’ built in 1897 and past the ‘Imperial ‘ cottages – it was a long slog to Knockando House, to Knockando Distillery and then on to Tamdhur Distillery – we stopped at the old Tamdhur Station and I took on some water at 4.35 p.m. We continued to the ‘Cally Burn’ bridge where we met a couple coming towards us; they lived nearby and the English man seemed rather ancient with watery eyes like old Poseidon with his wife, walking. He suggested we camp a little further on instead of at ‘Blacksboat’ which is ‘full of fishermen and not very pleasant’ he said. The woman mentioned that Bob Dylan had bought a property in the vicinity. I told them it was my birthday and that I was looking forward to my haggis dinner! We parted and we continued along the trail in search of a place to camp. We followed the River Spey, over bridges crossing streams until finally we stopped at another bridge which went over the ‘Burn of Ketack’ where we made camp at 8 p.m. not too far from the ‘Mains of Kirdell’s’ (short of where we wanted to be at ‘Ballindalloch’ but it’s been a hard and pleasant trail).We walked approximately nine miles today. I cooked dinner (still more problems with the gas) and we had haggis, mashed potatoes and green beans with a cup of tea each! It was a lovely birthday dinner and put much needed life into two tired travellers! But mistakenly, I neglected to wash up and when we retired to bed at 11 p.m. it wasn’t long before we heard the sound of tiny feet – yes, we had a little visitor in the porch of the tent: a mouse! I put the pots and pans together so that the little fellow could not get at them but he was a persistent blighter! And we slept to the gentle stirring of his little feet as they danced across the porch!
A GOOD KILLING DAY!
Day 17 – Tuesday 22nd April, began with the alarm at 6 a.m. but we stayed huddled in our sleeping bags until 7.15 p.m. We rose to the sound of shotguns being fired in the distance as the sun shone. I noticed our little visitor in the night had left several ‘calling cards’ in both of my boots, much to my annoyance and Aimee’s amusement! In fact, he never touched any of Aimee’s things at all and we both laughed about it when she suggested he probably held a grudge because I took his dinner (my birthday dinner) away from him! We had breakfast and struck camp and began the walk at 11.10 a.m. We walked to Blacksboat Station, arriving at 11.30 a.m. and the sun shone as we crossed the River Spey to continue on to Ballindaloch Station which we reached at 12.45 p.m. We had lunch there, amidst the noise of workmen building some new houses nearby and it was a beautiful old station. We walked the trail to the end of the old railway line – or as far as we could travel and we turned off to climb a steep hill where near to the top we saw and touched a toad that jumped in front of our path, on Sidhean na Faile Moire, after we crossed a bog on slippery and sunken stepping stones. We skirted a field of cows and some had broken loose through the wire barrier and were blocking the trail which we had to move on, to their annoyance. We crossed the A95 road and followed it to Ardbeg, where we rested on a style and ate an apple. We entered the Gervault Plantation, a steep hill at 4.09 p.m. just as an old vintage war plane from the forties roared overhead. Its engine was a delight to hear and conjured images of rural life during those years where to hear and see these magnificent machines would have been common place. It was hard going and soul destroying in that plantation – we crossed the Burn of Gervault with its stepping stones to contend with – it became extremely windy and cold. In fact, I had never known such a wind which almost penetrated to my inner being! It ripped flesh from bones and life was extinct, it seemed. We crossed another burn, the Burn of Coire Seileach and yet again more stepping stones and then into the cover of the ‘Woods of Knockfrink’ skirting Knockfrink hill at 380 metres. Another hard slog and we left those damned woods and I was glad to do so at 7.15 p.m. It was a very steep climb down out of the wood following the Alt Eoghainn – there were more stepping stones over a bog. We intended to push on to the Mains of Dalvey (and the Burn of Dalvey) through Meiklepark wood, but light was fading and we were tired at the prospect of yet another climb! We decided to camp, not too far from the stream (Alt Eoghainn) and not too far from a clump of trees. Cows could be heard beyond the woods and I was reluctant to settle on this place, but we pitched camp at almost 8 p.m. and cooked dinner and had tea as the wind began to catch up with us! It roared and the tent was put through a rigorous test of strength as its support beams bent. We got to bed at 11.15 p.m. and we calculated that we had walked approximately nine and a quarter miles today!
What a terrible and disgusting shame it is that our national poet and the greatest dramatist this tiny planet has produced is not celebrated on the great event of his birth and death! It should be a national day of merriment with readings of the bard, not to mention a public bank holiday! After all, it is also recognised as Saint George’s Day, though not celebrated as any other nation would do! But being English, we hide our achievements and feel embarrassed to even suggest such a thing as celebrating anything British or English – Heaven forbid that we should offend anyone! It makes my blood boil and for that reason, today, day 18 – Wednesday 23rd April is known as ‘Shakespeare Day’ and every 23rd of April till the day I die will be known by this title too!
We woke to the alarm at 6 a.m. but slept till 8 a.m. It was cold and still a little windy. Camp was struck and we began to walk at 11.20 a.m. We climbed a steep hill and entered Meiklepark Wood – some boggy areas and stepping stones slowed us down quite considerably, but we followed the trail and crossed the Burn of Dalvey and walked in view of the cows that we heard last night at camp. We then entered Tom an Uird Wood skirting Tom an Uird Hill at 419 metres – a long and arduous slog – the sun faded and the clouds gathered, there was even some light rain. We left the woods at 3.50 p.m. and I was again glad to do so. At 4 p.m. we rested for half an hour and we then got back on the old Speyside Railway line track, after crossing the busy A95 road. It was a pleasant rest and there was even an old office chair on the trail as if placed there specifically for our use which Aimee took advantage of. We ate nuts and dried fruit and then followed the trail towards Cromdale. We came off at a road, (Aimee found an old ten pence coin here – I later found an old penny which made eleven pence – that great magick number!) we walked into Cromdale and rested at the Haugh Hotel (we had just missed a bus) from 5.45-6.35 p.m. in the lounge. The bus came at 6.54 p.m. (number 34 to Nethy Bridge £3.70) which we caught. It was sunny and the nice driver dropped us off as close to the Lazy Duck Hostel as he could – we walked to the Lazy Duck down a forest trail and we arrived at 7 p.m. (the Lazy Duck allows up to four tents to pitch on its site). The nice old English gentleman owner said we could use his outdoor stove which had two hobs and light the log fire stove if we chose to. We pitched camp and was done by 8 p.m. We cooked dinner on his outdoor stove (which the volunteer helpers normally use when they are there, staying in the caravan) and we had a duck egg each (50 pence each) and Aimee got the pot-bellied stove alight. Today we had walked four and a half miles (the bus took us a further eight miles) and so in total twelve and a half miles. It was a very cold night and Aimee was reluctant to leave the warmth of the log fire stove – I enjoyed a lovely cigar and was in bed by 1.20 a.m. Aimee stayed out a while to tend the fire etc.
Day 19 – Thursday 24th April. We woke to the alarm at 7.30 a.m. but continued to sleep till way past 10 a.m. It was cloudy outside and we had breakfast. We had a shower later and it rained at 1 p.m. Aimee said she saw a red squirrel when I returned from the shower. When Aimee took her shower as I was packing, I saw three red squirrels nearby running up and down the bird feeder. It was a wonderful thing to see! This hostel is also a working farm of sorts and they have a white horse, chickens and ducks etc. We left at 3 p.m. and walked a mile or so in to Nethy Bridge village – we went to the village store which doubled as the Post Office and we sat opposite by the bus stop on the site of the old drill hall – on a bench made from the stone step of the Hall where men entered to enlist during the Great War. We walked on at 4.30 p.m. and realised that we had left Aimee’s walking poles behind at the Lazy Duck – those damn poles again! So I marched back and retrieved them returning at 5.15 p.m. (two miles walked in thirty minutes). It was still sunny and at 5.15 p.m. we began the walk again! We followed the trail into Loch Garten forest (Abernethy Nature Reserve), a lovely walk, then into Loch Mallachie forest. We followed the road to the Boat of Garten and came to a bridge across the Spey River where we came off to the side and searched for quite some time for a place to pitch camp. Again we were forced to pitch beside the trail not far from the River as it was the flattest piece of ground we could find, apart from the molehills near the back of the tent. The front of the tent faced towards the bridge and the rear pointed towards the Cairngorm mountain range. We are pitched in the Cairngorm National Park and the tent was up by 8 p.m. we cooked dinner and calculated we had walked approximately five miles today with six more to walk tomorrow into Aviemore. I had a cigar and the sky was alive with stars, beautiful stars… the air was cold and cows could be heard nearby in the next field at the top of the hill. We got into bed at 12.30 p.m.
Day 20 – Friday 25th April. We woke at 8 a.m. to the alarm and there was some sun to warm us. We struck camp after breakfast and were done by 11 a.m. Before we left we flew a kite together but the kite which had been like magic in Aimee’s hands seemed like a lifeless corpse in my own and would not stay up for me! The walk began at 11.10 a.m. and we went across the bridge to the Strathspey Steam Railway. We followed the forest trail to ‘the yard’ and there were lots of heather and boggy land stretching around us which seemed very desolate and much like the moors back in England. The Cairngorms, with their tops glistening with snow were to our left and the weather was gloomy as it showered with rain on and off. We came to a wood near a golf course and the wood was full of rooks and the haunting cries they make. I noticed a small stone cairn and there was a sombre mood to those woods like a small space holding an emotion which had last been felt centuries ago.
We reached Aviemore at 4 p.m. and went to see the Aviemore Ring Cairn (stone circle) which was very beautiful, though to my eyes spoilt by man’s hunger to ruin everything of natural beauty with his greedy and shallow heart by erecting houses around them – the stones nestled amongst houses in a small cul de sac – people are such pigs! Then we battled the rain into Aviemore itself – a terrible dead end of a place with no redeeming features except the mountains, the Ring Cairn and the steam railway! We kept warm and dry at the railway station for a couple of hours before we went for dinner at ‘Smiffy’s Fish and Chip Restaurant’. We waited back at the station from 8.30 p.m. and at 9.23 p.m. the Caledonian Sleeper train pulled in and we had cabin berth M11 and 12. I was glad to be leaving Aviemore with its state of limbo between worlds atmosphere – a sort of elephants graveyard for tourists… I took the top bunk and we had some tea. I worked out that we had walked six miles today and in total we have walked forty five and three quarter miles, perhaps a little more, certainly not less… The hours slipped by as we slept until we reached London, that foul Capital of crime and inhumanness. We arrived at Euston at 8 a.m. on Saturday 26th April 2008 and the adventure had ended!