Monday, 28 May 2012

Under Lochnagar to Conachcraig

Friday 25th May,

The weather up here, like the rest of the country, has been sunny and warm all week so Mo and I decided that, come Friday, it was time for stretching ourselves a little after our stroll along St Cyrus beach last week. Now there are wild places in Aberdeenshire that get some fairly heavy traffic when the weather gets nice, and one of those is Glen Muick. With its narrow but well maintained road in, its ample car parking, its information centre, its toilet facilities and its easy tracks and paths around the loch make it a haven for families and tourists alike. Added to this is that it's a favourite kick-off point for Munro baggers climbing Lochnagar - I've done myself a few times. Don't get me wrong, I like Lochnagar; it is a very impressive and photogenic mountain - especially from the A93 or even better the B976 - but on the "tourist" path from Glen Muick you almost don't see the dammed thing until you're on top of it, added to which is that the path is the mountain equivalent of the M6, and it's sometimes just as busy! So a route described on the Walkhighland website that would take us in under Lochnagar's towering cliffs to a couple of smaller hills sounded more like the thing we were after.

I think it's important to make the point at this stage that I'm neither a royalist nor a republican. The debate as to whether we have an elected head of state or a politically toothless monarch leaves me cold. I genuinely believe that I don't care enough to make up my mind which, if either, would be better for me personally. So having made this point I would now like to claim that Queen Victoria and I have something in common - we both believe that Deeside is a stunningly beautiful place to live and this is exemplified by the Balmoral Estate. I don't mean the tourist areas, with its manicured gardens, and a castle that is, to say the least, a bit over the top, I mean the remoteness of the place as you climb away from the tourists and the trip buses and the souvenir shops and into the high moorland - well what can I say.

We parked in the Balmoral Castle / Crathie Church car park and paid our £1.50 per visit fee and joined the rest of the tourists crossing the river Dee by the Isambard Kingdom Brunel designed bridge. It was opened in 1857 and apparently cost the princely sum of £1,650, but the Royal family it seems "were not overly impressed by the simple aesthetics of the bridge". Oh well you can't please everybody!

The Isambard Kingdom Brunel design was not to one's taste it seems!!

The bridge might lack grandeur but the view downriver makes up for it
It's worth mentioning here that there are a couple of things we came across on the Royal Estate that you don't see much of in other estates in the highlands.

Private Golf Course

Curling rink, complete with floodlights and clubhouse
Security checkpoint and CCTV cameras.
We walked up through the birch woods past some very pretty estate houses and the empty security hut with its CCTV cameras, (there were even some in the woods as well as at the post and although probably not operating, since no Royals were in residence, I found I was still too self-conscious to photograph them), and into the usual commercially planted pine forest. Although we could hear timber operations going on in the distance we had the place pretty much to ourselves and after a stiffish but short climb we cleared the treeline to be greeted with our first view of the high moors and Lochnagar.

Looking south to Lochnagar

and north-west to the distant snow-capped Beinn a'Bhuird
Walking was very easy on what must be the smoothest, best maintained estate track in the country, (I'm pretty sure I've driven on worse roads this year), and we were making good time despite the steady climb and a brisk, but warm, southerly breeze in our faces.

She tells me it was only juice!
Our first port of call was Gelder Sheil and this meant a wee bit of a detour from our route but still following the super smooth track. Gelder Sheil is made up of a cottage, which is still owned by the Royals, (and if I was being cynical, I might suggest that this is the reason for the state of the track), and a bothy maintained by the Scottish Mountain Bothy Association and available to anybody; although I don't fancy your chances of getting to stay if the royals are in residence. To say that the complex is out of the way is a major understatement!!

Gelder Sheil is in the shelter of the only trees for miles around
Royal bolt hole
Bothy - the old stable block apparently

Coffee and chocolate in the royal sun porch!
We had a root around of course but the cottage was securely locked up with wooden shutters on all the windows. It wouldn't have surprised me to see CCTV cameras as well but if they were there they were well hidden. After a bit of sustenance we left the estate track to follow a boggy, sometimes indistinct path along the east bank of the Gelder Burn until it cut up through the heather to pick up our original estate track, now much more like the estate tracks we're used to. Funny that!

Not much of a path but it is there

Heading back up onto the estate track
The goal for today was a couple of hills on the east side of Lochnagar. Conachcraig at 865m, (Corbett number 69 by height if you're ticking them off), was the highest point of the day although Caisteal na Caillich at 862m wasn't far behind.

Caisteal na Caillich (left) and Conachcraig (right)
We followed the estate track as it snaked its way around the shank of our two hills with Lochnagar now huge on our right side until we reached the "tourist" path coming up from Glen Muick. It was opposite this junction that we picked up the path to the summit of Conachcraig.

Upward slog

Nearly there!!

Conachcraig (865m) - on top of the world!

Looking across to Lochnagar
Having reached our furthest point south, we turned north down and across a top at 850m before heading back up onto Caisteal na Caillich.

A rare photo of me! (850m)

Caisteal na Caillich (862m) with Conachcraig in the background.
The views on all sides were now majestic, with a glimpse of Loch Muick and a distant, hazy view of Mount Keen the pick of the bunch.

Loch Muick

Mount Keen in the distance
There was a certain reluctance in our steps as we made our way down through the pathless heather of Caisteal na Caillich towards the estate track and our long walk back to the car. The weather had been fantastic and the views spectacular and it seemed a pity to be heading off the hills while it was still as beautiful. But at some point you need to go home so having safely negotiated our descent to the track we started downhill and, with the wind now at our back, it was a pleasant walk towards the car. There was nothing of great note as we retraced our steps, (by-passing Gelder Sheil by staying on the estate track), apart from a little bundle of litter that turned out to be empty packets of insence sticks!! Now we've come across some rubbish on the hills in the past but that was a first!

Insence stick litter - but why? Answers on a postcard.

Only on the Royal Estate would you find a post to tie up your pony!

I'd quite like one of these for Christmas please - the crane not the trees!!
We had left the car at around 10.30 and arrived back weary and foot-sore at 17.30 so it had been a long day, (probably too long in the big scheme of things), but a most enjoyable day which we finished off with ice cream in Ballater. I've seen the days when it would have been pints of beer rather than ice cream but I guess that's old age for you!!

More Photos


  1. That royal residence out in the wilds looks a nice place to spend a weekend. Having said that, I don't suppose the royals have weekends, do they?
    I like places with wide open skies and heathery slopes. I felt I was there under that blue sky while I was reading that, John, and looking at the pictures.
    Great stuff. Alen McF

    1. Thanks Alen, it was a bit of a special day and I've still got the sunburn to prove it! Appreciate the comment as ever...............J