By 2023, I’d got into the habit of week-plus Maytime trips to Scotland, so the five-day Great Glen Way was never going to be enough. The question was, what to add on?

I’d enjoyed my Cairngorms through routes on both my West-East traverse and my two TGO Challenges, but I’d never crossed the grandest of Cairngorm passes, the Lairig Ghru.

Combining it with a walk through Glen Tilt to Blair Atholl, and you have close on 40 road-free miles. This Ghru-Tilt traverse had been on my wish list for some time, and with an easy relocation from Inverness to Aviemore, this was the perfect opportunity.

And there were three plus points.

My friend Graham, who now lives in Tain, was keen to join me. The Munro of Carn a’ Chlamain, rising above Glen Tilt, could form a fitting finale. And the Caledonian Sleeper could whisk me away from Blair Atholl at the end.

For us, this would be a three-day trip, with one bothy overnight (Corrour) and a wild camp. It could be done in two, using a different bothy (Red House) and missing out the Munro, but that’s for the speed guys.

Monday 15 May 2023: Aviemore to Corrour bothy, 14 miles

Graham’s train didn’t deposit him in Aviemore till late morning, and it took us an hour for coffee followed by very-last-minute shopping (don’t forget the gas!). But it’s Scotland in May; there were still ten hours till anything like darkness.

The first two miles don’t really count, they are beside the B970 to Coylumbridge, and we could even have caught a bus if we had wanted. From there the route heads into the Rothiemurchus Forest. It’s ancient forest, not regimented commercial forestry, and delightful to walk through – such a change from the forest tracks of the Great Glen Way!

Three miles in, there’s a key path junction humorously named Piccadilly. It brings a right turn, and slowly the climb starts. You’re out of the trees in about a mile.

Graham at the edge of the Rothiemurchus Forest

Looking north across the forest

Soon the wild land of the high tops of the Cairngorms comes into view. Prime among them are the four 4000ft giants of Cairngorm and Ben Macdui to the east, Braeriach and Cairn Toul to the west. The Lairig Ghru crosses between the two pairs in a great trench rising to 2740ft – perfectly respectable mountain height, in most of Britain.

But the steep scree-girt walls on either side of the pass rise over 1000ft above you; the tops, mostly, out of sight. We were having it fairly easy – wind behind us, a few showers scudding over but nothing worse – but in grimmer conditions this must be a forbidding place indeed. We passed a memorial plaque to Angus Sinclair, a colonel of the Officers’ Training Corps, who died on slopes above in December 1954 in conditions of only our nightmares.

The path disappears as we close in on the summit and a bit of boulder-hopping replaces it. I’d read up on the route, of course, and so this was no surprise; indeed, it felt less in both distance and severity than I thought it might. But then I wasn’t struggling into an easterly gale with hail biting into my cheekbones and ice making every step a lottery. I don’t plan to come back to check.

“Summer on the high plateau can be delectable as honey; it can also be a roaring scourge.”
Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain

The bouldery top means there’s not really a conclusive summit to the path. You know you’re on the way down, though, when you come to the Pools of Dee, commonly held to be the source of the River Dee on its 90-mile journey to Aberdeen, but higher waters cascade down from the summit plateau of Braeriach.

The top of the Lairig Ghru

At the Pools of Dee

For me, the delight of the descent was the opening view of Cairn Toul and its corries, snow still in their upper reaches, away to the right. It drew the eye repeatedly, and having failed to photograph the cliffs of Sean Mheall on the Great Glen Way, made sure that this would not happen again.

Graham and I had originally planned to wild camp somewhere further down the pass. He knew a spot from last year. He’d walked to it with a mate from Aviemore, as we had, then gone up the next day to the Cairn Gorm plateau, and in difficult conditions ended up back, after a lift from an angel, at Avie. No rooms in town. So they walked back to their tent, in darkness, to retrieve it. I suspect I might be a faster walker than Graham, but as sure as eggs are eggs, he’s tougher.

Maybe therefore Graham was increasingly keen to overnight at Corrour bothy rather than wild camp. It’s small, so it depended on it being empty-ish. We met a German couple, probably mother (40s?) and son (15?), walking up the glen. “Only one in the bothy,” she said, but “many walking there.” That’s a maybe.

We opened the bothy latch. Just the one, Hal from New Zealand. Later we would be joined by Ciaran and James, Highland train driver and fire-fighter respectively. Five is the maximum comfort number for this small but famous bothy, but in dire conditions it would have coped with far more.

The corries of Cairn Toul

Corrour bothy beneath the Devil’s Point

Tuesday 16 May 2023: Corrour bothy to Glen Tilt, 17 miles

In essence this is a Dee-to-Tay watershed crossing, but unlike yesterday’s Spey-to-Dee, there is no spectacular mountain pass; indeed, the watershed itself is barely perceptible. But Glen Tilt itself forms a fine ravine.

Soon after the start, I’m hoping no-one is watching from the bothy, for they know our route and would have worked out that I wasn’t on it. Just beyond the bothy, at the narrow bridge over the infant Dee, the path to Glen Tilt turns right to stay close to the river; I miss it, and we clamber up towards Braemar.

That’s what happens if you don’t check the map. But there’s no reader of these notes, I wager, that has not at some time done something similar. The trick is to realise that you’ve done it before too long. Tennish minutes or so (OK, maybe 15) the little lighbulb in my increasingly vacant brain finally pings and asks: “Why are we still going uphill when we should be going downhill?” Cue apologies to Graham, who has entrusted me with the lead, and ten minutes of freelancing through heather to get back on track.

There’s broad open countryside from here, far different from the spectacular high tops, with most of the mountains in front of us Corbett status rather than Munro, but with technically easy – though never regimented as on the GGW – walking, it’s a passage to be enjoyed despite the occasional showers that rush up behind us.

Our next target is White Bridge, where we cross the Dee and for a mile head on the broad track up Glen Geldie. It’s my turn to be somewhere where Graham hasn’t, for I’ve come through twice from Glen Feshie in the other direction.

Though it’s around 200m off route, it would be daft to miss out on Red House bothy, even if it weren’t perfectly timed for lunch. On my first trip past, in 2017, a ruin; on my second in 2019, a project; and now here it was, a fully-fledged bothy, a flagship for the Mountain Bothies Association and a grand tribute to all the volunteers who had laboured to bring this likely former shepherd’s cottage back from dereliction. Six months after opening, it was in fantastic condition; though on busy Cairngorm through-routes, the marker-pen brigade had got nowhere near the pristine pine cladding. Long may it so remain.

Red House in 2019, before renovation …

… and after, in 2023

A possible difficulty on our route south from here could have been the fording of first the Geldie Burn and then a few yards later the Allt an t-Seilich, but they are nowhere near spate today. The track remains good to the ruin of Bynack Lodge and indeed, rather to my surprise, for some way further on. We’re heading up now, to the Dee-Tay watershed, but imperceptibly; I’d expected more boggy ground, but either the path is very good at missing it, or there’s simply not very much.

But once across the watershed and into Glen Tilt, the soft rounded country we had been walking through gives way to the ravine of the glen. It’s nothing like the trench of the Lairigh Ghru; after the Falls of Tarf, maybe halfway along, its sides are perhaps half the depth of its famous partner. It’s an impressive sight nevertheless.

Finally, a patch of forestry signals the end of our day. We’re looking for a wild camp somewhere between it and the Forest Lodge which signals the start of human habitation, and will place us well for our Munro the next day. There’s a field with a helpful stile to let us access the water of the glen, and it served just fine.

Looking back to the high tops

Heading into Glen Tilt

Wednesday 17 May 2023: Glen Tilt to Blair Atholl, 12 miles

Initially, I’d just planned the easy stroll through Glen Tilt, mostly on the improving track past Forest Lodge, but a quick glance at the Explorer map showed a little zig-zag path climbing the hill above.

Ah ha, I thought. An old-time stalker’s path. The best kind, designed for the feet of Victorian gentlemen, who for all their other faults could climb a hill without the cosiness of a Land Rover, armed only with tweeds and a couple of ghillies.

Better still, it went to the top of Carn a’ Chlamain (‘hill of the buzzard’), a 3161ft Munro, with a nice easy Land Rover track for descent. All we needed was some good-enough weather and it would be a fitting end to my May ’23 in Scotland.

And the day dawned well, no hint of the showers of the previous couple of days, if not blazing sunshine then bits of the stuff peeking through haze and cloud from time to time, the cloud nowhere near the tops.

It wasn’t difficult to locate the start of the stalker’s path, at the corner of a little patch of woodland surrounding the Forest Lodge, and off we set. It’s remarkable the ease with which one can climb a hill on a path such as this; their creators had such an intimate knowledge of their land that every turn is designed to ease the gradient without taking detours so wide as to delay ascent.

In time, we reached a cairn above Creag Loisgte for a little rest, and set off on the easier slopes above. In effect, the summit is the high point of an extensive plateau, a few other smaller summits in its hinterland around 300ft lower not even meriting Corbett status. There’s just a short sharp pull on shattered rock to reach the top.

I saw another walker reach there a few minutes before us; he’d cycled up the glen to the foot of the regular path, he told me, and I thought that if you were simply doing an out-and-back from Blair Atholl, that would relieve some of the tedium. Traversing a hill, as we were doing, is always preferable in my book (albeit a rule I’m not always able to follow).

Looking down on our campsite from the stalker’s path

Graham on the slopes of the hill

But as he set off down, I was surprised that he kept to the right of what seemed to be the Land Rover track on the hill’s SW ridge. We soon found out why; unmapped by the OS, there is now a bagger’s path, more direct than the LRT, apart from the mid-section where the two combine. It’s softer on the feet, and avoids the modern track’s severe dogleg to Clachglas as well. A welcome bonus.

Revisiting the map for this web page, I realised that an alternative, wilder approach is possible. Turn off of Glen Tilt above the Falls of Tarf and follow the Tarf Water to Feith Uaine bothy, aka the Tarf Hotel. Then next day follow one of the branches of Feith Uaine through possibly untracked heather moorland to approach Carn a’ Chlamain from the north. Now that really is a traverse.

View north from the summit of Carn a’ Chlamain

Carn a’ Chlamain from the descent path

Back in the glen, it’s a straightforward descent now; six miles in a couple of easy hours. Were I to revisit (another TGO Challenge?), a couple of minor short cuts might be possible, one in the vicinity of Croftmore, another to take the riverside path south of Old Bridge of Tilt rather than stay on the road. But we were still at the Atholl Arms by half past three.

From the station next door, Graham jumped on the 1531 to Inverness. I had just the seven hours in the pub.

But we’d already met a couple of Challengers making their way up the glen, and I reasoned rightly that there might be more in the pub later; one by one, a table of four gathered. Next door to them, an American father and son-in-law, they wanted to know more about the Challenge, and I got deputed to tell them. Turns out father is very much an Anglophile, follows Blackburn Rovers due to the town’s resemblance to his own home town, and a very pleasant evening follows, in which we talk football, they buy me whisky, and I nearly miss the train.