From Lochmoidart on the west coast we make our way across to The Cairngorms following the Caledonian Canal to Inverness and then south via Aviemore to our cottage at Ardblair Castle.
The Bear - "The Facts" - The Cairngorms is the largest national park in the UK, at 4528 sq km. It is twice the size of the Lake District National Park and bigger than the whole of Luxembourg. It has the largest area of native woodland in Britain which includes Caledonian Pine, Juniper, Birch, Rowan, Aspen, Alder and Willow. There are three mighty rivers in the Park - The Dee, the Don and the Spey. In addition to all of that it also has four out of five of the highest peaks in Britain, a myriad of hiking trails....and now me with a broken foot so I can't get up any of them!!
Saturday, 8 Jul 2017 - The Blonde - Our drive across to The Cairngorms started out on a really grey overcast morning as we left the west coast and headed east into Fort William. We view Ben Nevis and I make a note to self that this hike is a must for the future. But today it’s just a quick stop for cheap fuel and a look at the misty peak. On, on along the incredible Caledonian Canal and Loch Ness. The Caledonian Canal joins a series of lochs that run diagonally across the north of Scotland along the Great Glen. It's a geological fault in the Earth's crust, so easy to see the straight line that divides the north of Scotland on maps but I didn’t know until today what an incredible use of nature the engineers had conceived. The canal connects the Scottish east coast at Inverness with the west coast at Corpach near Fort William and provided a safer passage for wooden sailing ships in the 19th century and avoided the route around the north coast.
The closest we came to 'Nessie"...at Fort Augustus
We stop for photos of the locks at Fort Augustus but plan to view the bigger locks at Inverness. However, my planned coffee stop at an organic cafe in Inverness doesn’t work out. We’re too early. So we make an alternative plan and I forget all about the canal locks and the story I’m going to write about this amazing 60 mile Canal where 4 Lochs are joined with only 20 miles of man made canal, 29 locks, four aqueducts and 10 bridges; and that it provided employment in the Highland region after the Highland Clearances which deprived people of their homes and livelihoods, eradicated local culture, including the wearing of tartan, playing of bagpipes, and speaking Gaelic; and that the construction took 12 years longer than planned to complete and Irish navvies were brought in to manage the shortfall of labour during peak peat cutting and potato harvest; and that construction started at both ends so that materials could be brought along the completed sections; and that by the time the canal was finished in 1822 shipbuilding had advanced and many of the steam-powered iron-hulled ships were now too big to use the canal; and The Royal Navy didn't need to use the canal either, as Napoleon had been defeated at Waterloo in 1815, and the perceived threat to shipping when the canal was started was now gone. Oh, I DID write something afterall!
This staircase of five locks takes the canal down to Loch Ness
Commercially the canal was not a success but because of the dramatic scenery it became a tourist attraction as early as 1873, and today the canal is a Scheduled Ancient Monument attracting over half a million visitors each year for cruising, sailing, cycling and hiking. Both the 73 mile Great Glen Way and The Caledonia Way, Route 78 of the National Cycle Network follow the canal along towpaths, cycle paths, minor roads and forest roads. Note to self - let’s get our bikes here!
Our route takes us south now through beautiful scenery towards Aviemore and the Cairngorms and then Pitlochry which is abuzz with tourists, cafes, ice-cream, fish and chips and outdoor clothing. We pick up information for the area from the Tourist Information office with a very helpful assistant. There is so much to do in this little town apart from eating! Check out https://www.pitlochry.org. We will be heading back this way later in the week and now after our 6am start we would like to get to our new cottage and unpack. It all looks so exciting. Blairgowrie is our destination and the Coach House at the Ardblair Castle.
The Coach House @ Ardblair Castle...home for the next seven nights.
We let ourselves in to the Coach House, unpack, have a cup of tea. It’s a super cottage but I’m itching to stretch my legs and explore our new surroundings. The sun has appeared and I get brave and put on shorts and a t-shirt! David joins me and we set out of with a map of local circuits for an hour. The Ardblair Trail takes around across fields of barley which ripples in waves in the gentle breeze. There are peas and carrots too and potatoes. In fact everywhere we look there are crops growing. And there are acres of poly tunnels. The trail leads us through housing and into the centre of Blairgowrie. David’s foot is feeling ok so we add on another section on the Knockie Trail but our desired gentle stroll of exploration soon turns into a hike and the hike becomes a hill climb. Not so great for David’s foot now.
Golden fields of barley...as far as the eye can see...
Sunday, 9 Jul 2017, - Ardblair Castle, Blairgowrie - The Berry Capital of Scotland Blairgowrie and its sister community, Rattray are separated by one of the finest fishing rivers in the area - the Ericht. Recently Blairgowrie and Rattray became the largest town in Perth and Kinross when Perth was given city status. At one time there were many textile mills along the banks of the River Ericht including Keathbank and Jute Mill which housed the largest water wheel in Scotland. The Scottish raspberry industry was born in Blairgowrie more than 100 years ago because of the fertile fields in the area and Blairgowrie became known as the “Berry Capital of Scotland”. But where once the fruit was picked by local people the growing scale of the berry season drew increasing numbers of fruit pickers to the area. To house the pickers, corrugated iron buildings with wooden bunks were erected and in 1905 a settlement known as Tin City was established, which could accommodate around 1000 workers along with a grocer’s shop, post office and recreation room with piano.
These days the berry season attracts a new generation of fruit pickers with many coming from central Europe. Raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, redcurrants, aronia and gooseberries are produced using time-honoured skills together with cutting edge techniques. Much of this soft fruit is grown under plastic polytunnels. These polytunnels act like greenhouses, sheltering crops from the wind and rain, as well as providing a warm environment in which to grow. To ensure a good crop year after year, many soft fruit growers will use thousands of bees to carry out the necessary pollination. Polytunnels not only help to protect the delicate berries and less pesticides can be used without compromising the quality of the fruit. I’m slightly concerned to read the post below though. I’m not eating beef again after reminding myself why I stopped for many years. I avoid plenty of other things too. But whoa, now it's my potatoes too!
I take a walk along the River Ericht starting from Kitty Swanson’s Bridge where there used to be a ferry. The afternoon is warm and sunny and the views over farmland are lovely with a patchwork of yellows and greens. The hedgerows are amass with wildflowers and I have a shaggy horse come over for a bit of attention. The river banks are full of wildflowers, seeds and weeds and the river smells so fresh. It’s a glorious walk back into Rattray then across the river into Blairgowrie.......until I see the darkening sky! David has dropped me off and I message him to say I’m really stepping out as the clouds get blacker and blacker around me.
I need to get a wriggle on if I'm going to beat that weather!
The path weaves around farms following the twists and turns of the river but I feel I’ve lost my way when I find myself in and amongst a couple of hundred static caravans. They are neatly lined up and the grass is mown all around. I hear people talking but it’s not English. This is the modern day Tin City and these are fruit pickers from Eastern Europe bringing us our Scottish strawberries.
Monday, 10 Jul 2017, - Scurdie Ness Lighthouse, Montrose and the Coast of Angus County - Today is a grey day and The Bear's foot is still sore. Yesterday’s little amble that turned into a 6 miler with a long uphill and was too much for that tendon. So we head for the coast of Angus and pootle around. Our aim is for a gentle walk along the coast from Boddin Salmon Farm to Ferryden but the start of the trail is very overgrown and we think we must be in the wrong place. By the time we realise it was actually the right place we are in Ferryden!!! No matter, we park alongside the port and wander up to the lighthouse from there. Ferryden is a former fishing village in Angus at the mouth of the River South Esk opposite Montrose. Until the river was bridged, it was the ferry station on the road from Aberdeen to Dundee.
Scurdie Ness lighthouse was built by David and Thomas Stevenson and was first lit in March 1870. The word ‘Scurdie’ is a local word for the volcanic rock found there and ‘Ness’ means a promontory, cape or headland. The lighthouse was converted to automatic operation in 1987 and now displays 3 white flashes separated by 2.5 seconds and repeated every 20 seconds. The light is 182,000 candlepower and on a clear night can be seen for approximately 42 km!
The three rows of triangular glazing at the top of the lighthouse have diagonal astragals (bars separating panes of glass); this design reduces false flashes and obscuring if the beam of the light. Tadada!!! I LOVE this sort of stuff! I need to take a bit of a backstep here because last week I said that the Ardnamurchan Lighthouse was not particularly whoopity doo despite it being the only Egyptian style lighthouse in Britain. Now at Scurdie Ness I read that that lighthouse along with this one was built by a Stevenson. And for over one hundred and fifty years Robert Stevenson and his descendants designed most of Scotland’s lighthouses. And the next incredible statistic is that Robert, Alan, David, Thomas, David Alan, and Charles Alexander Stevenson designed more than 80 lighthouses between them!! There’s one in the Shetland Islands at Muckle Flugga - what a great name!!!! Another Stevenson, Robert Louis, son of Thomas, did not follow family tradition and instead become a prolific writer the famous author of Treasure Island which is said to have been inspired by the family business. Scurdie Ness is at a latitude of 56’42.11’N and longitude of 2’26.24W which is about as far north as we were in May 2015 on the Stewart-Cassiar Highway in British Columbia, Canada on our way to Yukon and Alaska.
We find a Capstan here. I’ve never seen one before so I paddle through long wet grass to get some photos! Sailing vessels still went aground on the Annat Bank. A rocket with a line attached would be fired over the stranded ship and a cable hauled aboard. Teams of horses harnessed to the capstan would attempt to pull the ship off at high tide. We also found a netted crop in a field just behind the lighthouse that we weren’t sure what it was - big leaves on rhubarb like stalks giving plenty of ground cover. I guessed turnips and I’m pretty sure I was right! (Smarta**e!).
Montrose is the northernmost coastal town in Angus and developed at a natural harbour that traded in skins, hides and cured salmon in medieval times. Today it is a supply port for North Sea Oil Rigs and three of the ships were in port today. The town is on a square tidal lagoon, Montrose Basin - a shallow estuary approximately three miles in diameter which is considered a nature reserve of international importance. It is the largest inland salt water basin in the UK, and an important habitat for the mute swan. In 1981 the Montrose Basin Nature Reserve was created and The Scottish Wildlife Trust operates a modern, purpose-built wildlife centre at Rossie Braes, which offers good telescopic and televisual views of the area, and of the thousands of migratory birds. There’s a Tern Raft which was built with a £10,000 donation from GlaxoSmithKline to draw Terns away from their factory where employees were being dive bombed and pecked by the nesting birds! Redshanks, Curlew, half a dozen Herons and a Buzzard kept me occupied at least for an hour! The Bear was not so excited...(The Bear - it was actually more like 2+ hours but when you are so excited to find birds like this...well...the time just "flies" by!).
Arbroath is our next call and the abbey ruins. The day continues to be grey and we’ve done our best to feel energetic and motivated but at this point we say enough. I think we’re missing the lochs and islands a bit.
So we head back to our cosy cottage, tennis from Wimbledon on the TV and a bowl of popcorn. I pop round to see Charlie Oliphant, the owner of our cottage, because he mentioned yesterday that Luke Reynolds from Sydney will be coming tomorrow to lift Charlie’s Gormack stone. I have a lot to learn about this rather unusual sport! Luke is a two- times (and current) Australian stonelifting champion and he’s in Scotland for a stonelifting tour, lifting and pressing overhead most of the famous stones of strength, such as the Dalwhinnie, Newtonmore, and Barevan stones, and one of the most renowned stones in Scotland, the Inver stone—adding his name to the list of a dozen or so athletes who have pressed the Inver stone overhead. Just now Charlie’s friend Mark is having a go. David manages to roll it into place but thankfully retires before any damage is done!!! Tomorrow we’ll see the professionals have a go! Charlie is saving himself to pit his strength against Luke. (see our entry, "Rock and a Hard Place", in Strange and Quirky blogs.
Tuesday, 11 Jul 2017, Braemar - Still exploring this new region of Scotland we take a drive to Braemar in the heart of the Cairngorms National Park.
Good vantage point on the road up to Braemar from the south as the clouds finally lift.
The village is surrounded by stunning mountain scenery, beautiful glens containing ancient pine forests and Balmoral Castle is not far away. It’s a bit of a grey day and we are a little struck by the fact we are back in a tourist haven...bolstered by the fact that two coaches pull into the car park and immediately disgorge a 100 tourists in need of coffee and or tea and cake for their elevenses.
The local "fresh caught" haggis store in Braemar!
We race to beat the rush and find great coffee and gluten free treats at The Bothy in the centre of town. You can get locally caught Haggis too.
All this sustenance spurs us on to drive along the mighty Dee river to find a gentle 3.5 mile walk River Dee walk. After almost a complete circumnavigation to the head of the valley passing impressive views of the river we find a place to stop and eat our picnic - hey, it's all about food today!
But after our packed lunch the skies start to cloud over again with even darker clouds threatening and we find ourselves driving back home. We see a flock of sheep being worked by a couple of sheepdogs on the way home.
We would love to see them in competition while we’re in the region but there’s nothing happening. And we discover too late that this weekend there are Highland Games just north of Braemar but we’ve already booked to go to Durham. So something else to plan for another trip. Mmmm. I guess we have been going non-stop for weeks and today we’ve just run out of steam. However back at base, The Bear’s post on FaceBook is seen by great friends from our Mauritius days. We discover they live just nearby and so we arrange a night out with them tomorrow. What a small world we live in!
Stunning vistas down the Cairnwell Pass on the Old Military Road between Braemar and the Spittal of Glenshee at 2199 feet, the highest main road in Great Britain