The Linn of Dee car park is set amid beautiful old Caledonian woodlands and; although not as grandiose as the Rothiemurchus woods to the north, Is nonetheless a place to linger at either end of a long day in the hills. Tracks and paths lead in a more or less northerly direction, through the trees, until one suddenly bursts into the open; from now on a good track carries the walker through open moor land, the low foothills giving promise of grander things to come.
Once beyond the trees the River Lui led me the next few miles as it meandered peacefully along the flat, green floor of its glen. Early in the day herds of red deer can often be seen grazing across the river.
Beyond Derry Lodge the track becomes the ancient footpath to Aviemore, via the Lairig Ghru; I was going only as far as Glen Luibeg‘s junction with the lower end of that famous right of way. From there I would be heading for the heights.
A late spring highlight hereabouts (and for this you really must be early), is the opportunity to watch the black grouse as they engage in their curious nuptial ‘Lekking’ ceremonies. If you’re fortunate you’ll witness a number of males gathered on open ground, leaping about and often skirmishing for supremacy. The male bird, the black cock or, to give him his Gaelic name: coileach dubh, is a striking animal. His glossy blue black and bold white patches beneath wings and lyre like tail, set him apart from his female counterpart; known as the grey hen or liathchearc, she is a smaller and duller bird.
Forward, through more pines and on a much stonier path, I passed beneath Derry Cairngorm’s southern outlier, Carn Crom. Its shallow, south facing corrie is called: Coire Craobh an Oir, or: corrie of the tree of gold. Here, beneath a gnarled and ancient pine, Mackenzie of Dalmore, temporarily buried loot from a raid on the far away folk of Lochaber. Originally, so the story goes, he’d deposited his stash in one of Braeriach’s corries. But that new burial place didn’t satisfy him for long; believing that drover’s passing through the Lairig Ghru might happen upon it, he re- buried it on Carn Geldie, four miles farther south and apparently in sight of his house. They say the hoard still lies there, waiting to be discovered…
The path took me to a cairned junction and more memories of the skulduggery of former times. Below me the burn also forked, Allt Preas nam Meirleach, ‘the burn of thieves thicket’, leaving the Luibeg Burn to head west through a little copse of the same name, also the reputed hiding place of Lochaber cattle thieves.
At the cairn I was lured into the deep glen of the Luibeg Burn, and hustled towards the more distant Sron Riach, my first objective for the day. Though I could easily make out the bold path snaking its way to the rocky ridge top, I first had to cross water!
It had been raining. Where the path crossed the burn it was too deep and fast for a dry shod crossing. In the hope of finding an easier place to ford, or perhaps some viable stepping stones, I battled further upstream, but to no avail.
With boots and socks around my neck I took the plunge. Although the water was only knee deep, the stones below were green with slime; I made the crossing gingerly! Mercifully I was soon re-warming on the stony climb to the sheltering granite blocks above.
From up here I could wallow in the vistas of the western Cairngorms. Across a deep and inhospitable green-grey glen, Carn a’ Mhaim, with its rocky arête, unique in these hills, formed the immediate scape. Across the Lairig Ghru, rose the Cairn Toul massif with the little Devil’s Point, struggling to make itself seen.
The clouds came and went but seldom denied me spectacular views into Coire an Lochan Uaine with its stupendous cliffs and lovely green lochan. Nor, before dropping from the summit of Stob Coire Sputan Dearg, and leaving the plateau for a rapid descent to Loch Etchachan, could I fail to be mesmerised by the grand cliffs of Sputan Dearg’s corrie, with its hard and famous rock climbs.
Though Ben Macdui is Britain’s second highest mountain, I was in two minds whether or not to make the short detour to its summit; I’ve been there many times and have always found it crowded. Perhaps a quick trot up there might give Derry Cairngorm a chance to shed its cloak of cloud.
And yes, the summit was alive with walkers, some just arriving, some already leaving and many more scattered around the ruins taking rest and refreshment. I touched the cairn, about turned, and raced off down to Loch Etchachan.
With the cloud base at around 1100 metres, I walked in a gloomy world of pink granite and dark heather. After crossing the burn below Beinn Mheadhoin, I followed the rough path north for a glimpse of Loch Avon, one of Britain’s wildest and remotest stretches of water. Today, reflecting the brooding sky above it, the loch was a sullen steely grey.
Back to business and Loch Etchachan again. After contouring around Craigan a’ Coire Etchachan, I headed east, over high grasslands, to bag Derry Cairngorm’s easternmost top, Sgor an Lochain Uaine. From its 983 metre cairn, the views north, up the Lairig an Laoigh, to Bynack More, it’s own rock tors pale shadows against an inky sky, were breathtaking. The view south into Glen Derry, with its few remaining pines, green and dark against the browns, yellows of the valley floor, were no less beautiful.
And so for Derry Cairngorm. I forced the final few hundred feet, first past the north cairn, then at last, to the summit pile. Slumping to the ground in the lee of the summit’s big tor like boulders I tore open my backpack; time for food!
The views up here are very much of the rest of The Cairngorms; though Macdui tends to block out some of the others you get a good idea of the layout of the rest of the vast sub-Arctic plateau that is well described as the ‘roof of Scotland’.
After soaking up the expansive views I was ready for the final leg. First off, the big boulder field of the mountain’s southeast ridge; a descending maze of granite blocks of all sizes, this slope lays a myriad booby traps for the unwary walker. En route I passed over little Carn Gorm Beag, a boulder strewn top which, though tiny by comparison with its neighbours, gives off a feeling of expansive wideness.
And at last, the woods of Derry Lodge once more and the final stretch to the Linn of Dee. With the light fast fading now I sped those remaining three miles, hearing often as we went, the haunting roars of rutting stags. As I’d left the woods at Linn of Dee this morning, so I entered them again, the stark light of my head torch rudely piercing the blackness, a fresh frosty pine laden tang nipping at my nostrils.