After the last few weeks where Glen Gairn had been first reserve, we finally resolved that this would be the week. As it turned out it was also one of the shortest walk in recent weeks! This was due to being a full hour's drive to get there, an hour to get back and a couple of family commitments that meant we were on a relatively tight schedule. The other problem with Glen Gairn is that it's a "there and back" walk, so we simply walk as far as we want, turn and come back. However short as it was it did turn out to be very interesting.
The river which gives the Glen its name is the longest tributary of the River Dee, flowing east for over 30km from its source high on Ben Avon to join the river a mile or so outside Ballater. Our walk started at the rather run down farm of Braenaloin that sits a mile or so beyond the point where the A939 turns to cross the River Gairn on its way to Tomintoul. We parked by the side of the road and as in the past we had the parking space to ourselves. We reckon that we've been in or around this walk three times in the past and had never met anyone. This was going to change today however.
An earlier than usual start, for whatever reason, meant that despite the hour's drive we still managed to be walking by around nine thirty. Despite this we knew that going all the way to Loch Bluig, which is the full walk as I measure it, was going to take too long so we decided that we would go as far as Corndavon Lodge, have lunch then retrace our steps back to the car. We followed the path past the farm, (it's sign posted as the Public Footpath to Tomintoul via Loch Bluig), and swung round past a second farm before joining the estate track that would follow the river all the way to the lodge. For me the Glen is a strange desolate place completely devoid of people. And yet it's a fertile valley and apparently if you know what to look for you can count the remains of 75 separate recognisable dwellings. Of course we don't know what we're looking for but it's pretty obvious that there were a lot of people here at one time and now they've all gone.
One of many ruins
The first building, that's recognisable as such, that comes into sight is what's left of the old manse. It sits perched on the side of the hill and at one time looked over a hamlet by the name of Loinshun. The church itself was at the Bridge of Gairn and the walk from the manse to the church every Sunday must have been a challenge in the winter!
There's no navigation required on this walk as the estate track, (Invercauld Estate), is well maintained and runs parallel with the river. More ruins litter the sides of the track, whether these were once dwellings or simply sheep pens it's impossible for us to tell and the next recognisable building is the ruins of Tullochmacarrick Farm on the opposite side of the river. Mo and I once crossed the bridge and walked up to the ruins but it was a sad sight and I sometimes wonder why buildings like this are simply left to rot away. Is it simply down to cost, or is there a reason I'm missing?
As we walked, the Glen opened up in front of us giving great views of the distant granite tors of Ben Avon. Although the weather was dry with high cloud, there was a stiffish breeze into our faces that, although didn't make walking impossible, it did make it uncomfortable and kept the chat to a minimum.
The Glen opens up
One of the more unusual things about the River Gairn is that it looks so neat and tidy. I know this sounds a bit strange but the thing is there are no raging rapids or deep gulleys or waterfalls, just a gentle river meandering through a mixture of heather and grass. Very peaceful. After about 3km we came to what's left of Daldownie Farm, which has the dubious honour of being the last working farm in the Glen. It was finally demolished in 1977 and local legend has it that the folk there used to come to the door to wave to Queen Victoria as she passed on her many excursions into the hills.
Site of Daldownie Farm
Passing a track coming in from our left, (this leads back to the road and could be made into a circular walk but would mean a walk of around a mile and a half along the road to get back to the car), we continued along the track, crossing the narrow but fast flowing Duchrie Burn by a small wooden bridge. Further on however we crossed the Gairn by a full sized, pretty impressive, iron bridge. The story is told that the bridge was actually built to form part of the railway extension that would join Braemar and Ballater. Queen Victoria however was not impressed and felt that such an extension would pass too close to Balmoral so the extension was never built. The bridge then was surplus to requirements and ended up here in Glen Gairn. The thing about the bridge to look at is that it really couldn't be anything other than a railway bridge!
Solid Victorian Construction
The track now continues along the other side of the river, passing what is left of a proposed mill project which never came to fruition. I must confess at this point that if this hadn't been pointed out to me by a note in our guide book I would never have picked it out as such. From this point our destination of Corndavon Lodge comes into view.
Built as a a shooting lodge, there is very little left of what must have been an impressive granite building. It was built by Lord Cardigan of Crimean fame and was owned, by among others, King George VI before it was destroyed by fire. Having been here before, we knew that the walls inside the building had painted murals showing the surrounding countryside, but my best efforts to photograph them through the steel grilles were pretty fruitless. There's a second, smaller building that once housed the staff but in later years was a bothy of some standing. However it was closed up in the 1990's due to vandalism and we've lost a great place for rest due to the thoughtless antics of a few morons.
What's left of the Lodge
We had just settled down in the shelter of the bothy for our lunch, when we were surprised by the arrival of a 4x4 minibus full of tourists. They had come from the direction of Loch Bluig and were in the care of Braemar Highland Safaris. They pulled up by the lodge and we were a wee bit jealous of them because their excursion obviously included a look inside the lodge, which meant that they would get the photographs I had wanted! However I had not reckoned on Mo's determination to have a look because as we were passing the lodge on our way back the guide, (in full Highland Dress of course), was just locking up. "Any chance of a look inside?" says the bold Maureen, "It's just that we'd like to get photos of the murals". Now to be fair the man would have been perfectly within his rights to point out that his group had paid good money to see them and that if we were that keen then we could take the tour. However he was a perfect gentleman and gladly showed us around and gave us a brief history of the buildings and their murals.
The murals were originally painted in 1968 by Major Philip Erskine. The story goes that he was attending a dinner hosted by Queen Elisabeth the Queen Mother who, when she heard that he enjoyed painting murals, asked him to paint one for her. Then in 1998 the vandals mentioned earlier destroyed the original and the company who maintained the building was forced to replaster the walls. However when the now retired Philip Erskine was made aware of the vandalism at his home in South Africa, he promptly returned to Scotland to restore and extend the paintings. So after many thanks to the guide, (goes to show that you shouldn't make snap judgements about people you meet when you're out and about), we set off back the way we had come. Apart from the tourist bus passing us and a Landrover with a couple of lads who looked as if they were working, we didn't meet anyone - again. It seems such a waste that a beautiful area doesn't see more walkers, not that we were complaining too much.
We were back at the car around 2 o'clock and, since we were earlier than we had anticipated, we headed over the hills to Braemar because this road gives great views of Lochnagar.
All in all it turned out to be an interesting, if not very long, day and if we had decided to go on to Loch Bluig we would never have had a chance to go into the Lodge so all's well that ends well.
My thanks go again to Robert Smith and his highly informative 25 Walks on Deeside as well as the nameless guide from Braemar Highland Safaris who kindly interrupted his tour to give us a brief history of the Lodge and the murals.