Droves of cattle once made the strength-sapping journey from the Highlands of Scotland over the Eastern Cairngorms to the markets of Crieff and Falkirk. The Highland weather was just too severe for over-wintering cattle. They were sold in the autumn to lowland farmers with more sheltered pastures.
This practice has left a legacy of ancient drove roads, now providing a wealth of walking opportunity in magnificent mountain scenery. The droves of cattle have been replaced now by droves of hill-walkers who descend on the popular visitor centre and car park at the end of Loch Muick. The majority of visitors, though, content themselves with the relatively easy walking around the Loch. But many take to the hill tracks, and watching the gaggle of walkers leaving the car park, you soon marvel at the ability of the hills to swallow people up. Despite an overflowing car park, you can still walk these drove roads and rarely see another soul.
From the car park, head towards Loch Muick, and after a quarter of a mile, branch off to the left on the track signed Capel Mounth. Keep your eyes open for wheatears and the occasional golden plover. The ascent to the plateau is not too strenuous, and before you know it you are up to 2,250 feet. But if you have found it hard going, remember that you are doing it out of choice, and spare a thought for the Highland Cattle which were poked and prodded up here before you!
As you cover the three miles or so of plateau, the grouse will rise from beneath your feet.
Gradually the dark green pyjama-stripes of Glen Doll’s conifer clad hillsides come into view. Despite the unnatural spruce-green, it presents a breathtaking spectacle. It is worth remembering that though the conifers replaced the heather, the heather itself is not the mountains’ original mantle. As these slopes were ploughed for afforestation, many pine and birch stumps were revealed. These hillsides had once been clothed with the ancient forest of Caledon. This forest had been clear-felled or burned to provide grazing for sheep, allowing the heather to colonise. So the picture-postcard purple heather is no more natural than the succeeding Sitka Spruce.
The descent into Glen Doll is a steep zig-zag – hazardous to descend, but makes you relish the fact that you’re not going the other way! Descending into the fir trees, you cross the Capel Burn, and join another track at the Cald Burn.
So now you exercise your choice. You can turn and go back the way you came, or you can return by a different route. Okay then, it’ll be the latter.
A right turn here takes you north-north-west towards Bachnagairn. The waterfalls are superb. Bachnagairn Lodge is shown on the maps, but is in fact only a few remaining foundation stones. From here to the top of the plateau is the steepest, and the most indistinct, part of the route, so take your time and take care.
Soon you approach two huts, and here you will find the junction with the path from Loch Muick to Broad Cairn. Turn right (east) and follow the track until the Loch once more comes into view. And from here, what a view it is! Looking down from some 2100 feet the water below can be rich blue or black as night, depending on the weather. On a gloomy day, a shaft of sunlight picking out the wooded grounds of remote Glas-allt-Shiel is a sight to treasure. This sumptuous lodge has a history which is not easy to trace, but was apparently built by Queen Victoria, and was a favoured haunt of the Monarch and John Brown.
As you cover the last couple of miles on a much “improved” landrover track, you will soon reached the point where you forked for Capel Mounth at the start of your trek.
As you return to the car park, safe and sound, and no doubt planning your next expedition, spare a thought for the last military men to cross the Mounth. On 12 February 1745, a contingent of Highland men loyal to Prince Charles Edward Stuart crossed from Glen Clova on their way to Culloden.
They paid a tragic price for such a beautiful journey.
Gaelic Place Names
Glas-allt-Sheil = the shieling of the grey burn.
Loch Muick = the loch of the swine.
© Mike Clark 2002