Extreme Sport | From Desk Till Dawn

Hiking in the Highlands

Following a 70km trail of craggy peaks and empty roads, James Henderson traverses the sublime Scottish Highlands.

May 04 2009
James Henderson

Here’s a simple suggestion for a demanding weekend in the mountains that minimises time spent in airports by relying on trains. Some of Europe’s finest walking is directly accessible by rail from London. Take the mainline sleeper out of Euston to Aviemore on a Friday night and you can be in the Highlands – in the heart of the sublime Cairngorms National Park – by morning. Then chase south-west towards Fort William and catch the west-coast line back on Sunday night. By Monday morning, you’ll be back at your desk invigorated.

If this sounds challenging – and physically it is (my advice would be to travel light, with safety gear but not much more) – there is at least the compensation of a comfortable night in a hotel and a very good dinner. The compromise is that after the first day you may have to sink your pride and call a taxi, though you can always make up for it by having it take you back to the place it picked you up from next morning.

Friday 2115 The sleeper pulls out of Euston. In the lounge carriage, regulars have cannily installed themselves at the tables, but bench seats face into an open carriage, where conversation flows easily enough. I meet an electrical engineer and then a builder from Skye. When a table comes free I eat; in an effort to get into the spirit of this adventure, I opt for haggis, neeps and tatties. And a whisky. The bar empties at around midnight and so I head to bed. After a final pack of the rucksack, I roll into the berth.

Saturday 0700 I am back in the lounge car for coffee just past dawn. The drop-off point could be anywhere on the line, really, but I have chosen Aviemore (with Roy Bridge, near Fort William, on the west-coast line as the finish point). As we roll north-east, past Newtonmore and Kingussie, the mountains are framed perfectly in the outsize window. Close at hand birch trees race past, their spindly branches furred with hoarfrost. Behind them foothills slide by, mid-brown heather broken by outcrops of schist. But above, immobile, stands the vast Monadhliath, rolled tops patched with snow. Even in sunshine it is bleak and foreboding, challenging.

Saturday 0740 At Aviemore I walk from the station to the Cairngorm Hotel, where I have arranged to meet a friend who will walk with me for a day, Paul Skipworth. He’s the chief operating officer of Glenmorangie, but I know him as Skippy. He has ordered me sausages, fried bread, the works. Fortification for the day ahead. Just after 8am we are off. We climb the Burma Road, so named because it winds remorselessly up and on, supposedly like its second world war counterpart from Kunming to Burma. It is hot work, heaving against the slope, the sun on our backs – unfeasible, I know, but it happens. A high-pressure system has settled over the Highlands and I am getting the best of it. On top, though, the warmth is tempered by a howling, cold wind. We strike out for the first peak, Geal-charn Mor.

The very name Monadhliath hints at what to expect up here. There is a linguistic impenetrability hidden in the obvious physical one, the massive sense of the monolith. To our north and west lies a sea of rolling peaks, stretching for 20 and 30 miles across to the Great Glen. We follow a ridge south and west, a string of peaks marking the edge of the Cairngorms National Park, dropping and then climbing, hard-breathing, with the terrain. The going varies from a hard lichen-heather mix to jumbled rocks and boggy grasses. Snow lies in patches, blown by the wind. In the freezing temperatures, it bears our weight. Mostly. Snow buntings twitter and grouse fly off in pairs, squawking. Hares, still in their white winter coats, jump and run.

Saturday 1300 In a sunny, cornice-edged cleft we pause for 30 minutes to brew up and grab some hot food. Then off again. Even if I am carrying the hiker’s equivalent of a handbag, the steeper slopes suck the energy from my legs. And in the same measure, so the terrain becomes worse. The boggy stretches increase. We leap from one tussock of spindly grass to the next: “Babies’ heads,” grunts Skippy – a description as perfect as it is unpleasantly graphic. And then the ground breaks into peat hags, those massive cauldrons of black sludge where there is no grip. I end up flat out in the mud time and again.

Saturday 1730 It is only on the descent that I realise how high we are. We surprise a herd of 70 deer far below. An hour later we approach our first building, a remote bothy. My mobile chirrups. I confirm the collection time with the taxi company. Dusk and night fall as we re-enter life. Fields, lights glinting through spooky woods, lorry engines on the A9.

Saturday 1915 Eleven hours and 30km after setting off, we see the lights of the taxi on the road at Cluny Castle. Rucksacks off. Relief. Skippy is dumped at the railway station for the train back to Edinburgh and I am dropped at The Cross, a restaurant with rooms tucked into the back of Kingussie. The knuckle-dragger in me hauls up at the door. There’s something sophisticated going on here.

After a quick soak I pull a smart shirt and trousers from my rucksack, and trainers subdued enough to pass in the dining room. Gradually the critical faculty returns. The Cross is Scottish but not overplayed. A restored tweed mill, it is decorated with bright, modern Scottish paintings. Similarly, the menu is a modern take on local ingredients, including very fine meat and fish, and seasonality. By June there will be fantastic soft fruits and foraged foods including mushrooms, asparagus and wild sorrel.

The Cross’s set meals often start with soup: a tiny cup of hazelnut and fennel in my case, touched with chervil cream. Next came marinated Fraserburgh mackerel fillets with a cucumber and saffron aioli, garnished with a bouquet of herbs and grasses tied like a tiny rococo garland.

It’s hard to resist anything carrying the name Scrabster (which turns out to be a fishing port in the north of Scotland). So for the main it is Scrabster halibut with herb velouté, crushed Witchhill potatoes and marsh samphire. “There’s a virtual party happening on this plate,” says Anne, the waitress.

While I’ve never been a fan of rhubarb, I knew the stringy, sour stalk would sit perfectly in a white chocolate tartlet. Its familiar partner, ginger, came as a ginger-beer sherbet. Before heading for bed, I take a malt whisky, from nearby Dalwhinnie, and look at the small library. Alan Warner’s comic novel The Man Who Walks leaps out at me. Ironic, somehow. By 10.30pm I am fast asleep.

Sunday 0700 The second day promises a lower, more leisurely walk. Again, perfect sunshine, linking the Spey Valley with Glen Roy. The only requirement is to make the train. It’s a long way – 40km – achievable in 12 hours, but much of it is on roads, which are dull and hard on the feet.

I start on one of General Wade’s Military Roads. In 1731, 28 miles of it were constructed in just seven months, through Corrieyairack Forest to Fort Augustus. Glen Roy was the scene of the last battle between the clans and one of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s escape routes after the 1745 uprising.

At Garva Bridge I am joined by Brian Morrison, a guide from Mountain Innovations. We pass woods with matted grass, where shaggy Highland cattle lie ruminating. The lower route gives you an opportunity to look at the mountains from below. Towering over tiny white crofts, they are spectacularly beautiful, some of the oldest land in Europe. Their gracefully rounded shape results from glaciation: they were squashed from above, and the bowl-shaped valleys were gouged by rivers of ice. General Wade’s road is a lot less busy than it was. Barely a car passes.

Sunday 1300 We reach a col. These are the headwaters of the Spey, while ahead, flowing west, is the Roy River, which tumbles down a truly spectacular valley. As we descend, straight lines appear, etched into the valley walls. These “parallel roads” were once said to be the hunting routes of the Celtic warrior Fingal. In fact, they are the shorelines of an ancient lake.

Just outside Roy Bridge a cairn commemorates the battle, in 1688, in which the MacDonells of Keppoch defeated the Mackintoshes. Soon after, the clans were subdued. After covering 65km, I am sore and slowing up, though any doubts about making the train have subsided. As dark gathers, I hobble into Roy Bridge, where there’s time for a shower in The Bunkhouse of the Roy Bridge Hotel, and a pint of Heavy at the bar.

Sunday 2017 The sleeper draws into Roy Bridge station. After a quick sortie to the bar I retire, before 10pm. Then there’s the slumber of physical depletion.

Monday 0645 The rapping of the attendant wakes me, and a mug of coffee is thrust through the door. An hour later I am delivered into London’s morning rush hour. After the empty vastness of the Highlands, negotiating the nexus of commuters is complicated. Gradually I am drawn back into my regular life, but there is a residual backdrop in the mind, the graceful, glacial shape of the mountains and glens.