Around New­ton­more

Wil­lie Shand en­joys glo­ri­ous views as he walks the Wild­cat Trail.

The People's Friend - - THIS WEEK’S COVER FEATURE -

MOST of cen­tral Scot­land never saw a blink of sun­shine to­day, be­ing smoth­ered in a thick, un­shiftable blan­ket of fog.

I must ad­mit, hav­ing driven nearly two hours in it, I was be­gin­ning to won­der if my hopes of catch­ing some of the au­tumn colours were a bit optimistic.

Then, sur­pris­ingly, just north of Dal­whin­nie, you could vir­tu­ally have drawn a line across the road where the fog ended and blue skies with wall to wall sun­shine be­gan.

That line hardly shifted all day, and when I went home again at night, the fog was just as thick. Of course, no-one be­lieved me when I told them what a great day I’d had.

Any­way, this is how my day was to turn out when I left the A9 at New­ton­more and took my­self for a walk round the Wild­cat Trail.

Many of my favourite walks fall within the Cairn­gorms Na­tional Park, but for the best mix of moun­tain, moor, river, loch and wood­land scenery, the eight-mile-long Wild­cat Trail must come pretty near the top.

Clearly way-marked, this fine cir­cu­lar route can be joined at any one of sev­eral en­try points, and wher­ever you are on the trail you’re never far from an exit lead­ing back to town.

Leav­ing my car at

St Bride’s Church, a short walk up the Glen Ban­chor road con­nects me with the trail and the track for Crag­gan and Strone – ad­mit­tedly with a few stops for photos on the way. The colour in the trees is even bet­ter than I’d hoped for.

New­ton­more sits above the Spey in the very heart of the High­lands and is sur­rounded by some of the high­est hills in Bri­tain.

Al­though those to the south are in hid­ing to­day, what grand views there are away north to the Cairn­gorms and west to the closer, invit­ing hills above Glen Ban­chor. De­spite the sun be­ing well up, the moon is still clear in the sky. The hills are tinted or­ange with the bracken.

Less than 300 years ago, the town of New­ton­more – the big new town – didn’t

ex­ist. It grew from the re­set­tling of folks cleared from the High­land es­tates to make way for more prof­itable sheep.

Just the same, there have been folk set­tling here­abouts for a good 3,000 years, and in the woods above Strone we find the foun­da­tions of an old round house from these early times.

Above a low perime­ter stone wall would have risen a con­i­cal roof formed with tim­ber poles and cov­ered in thatch. Like the old black­houses, there’d be no chim­ney – just a hole for the reek to es­cape through.

Lit­tle more than a cen­tury ago, the land above Strone was worked by eight croft­ing fam­i­lies – their old home­steads now also re­duced to lit­tle more than a rickle o’ stanes.

In the cen­tre of New­ton­more is a large boul­der mark­ing the in­au­gu­ral walk of the Trail on Jan­uary 1, 2000. The stone was do­nated by Don­ald Macken­zie of Loch Buie croft, whose an­ces­tors tended sheep in Glen Ban­chor and Strone for at least 200 years.

Where our track meets the Loch Gy­nack track to Kin­gussie, we de­scend through open graz­ing land to meet the tum­bling wa­ters of the Allt Laraidh.

It’s in a great rush to reach the Spey and forms sev­eral pic­turesque falls as it goes. Two horses watch as I jump the burn.

Fol­low­ing the wood­land track above the Aviemore road, the Wild­cat signs (a painted black cat) soon have me cross­ing the In­ver­ness rail­way to skirt the golf course and on down to the left bank of the Spey. This track cuts through the mid­dle of the High­land Folk Mu­seum.

The main en­trance to the mu­seum is off the Aviemore road. Mu­se­ums can some­times be a bit dry, but that could never be said about this one. It re­ally is worth tak­ing a whole day to ex­plore on its own.

Cov­er­ing some 80 acres, the mu­seum cov­ers all as­pects of High­land life over the past 300 years. From 18th-cen­tury thatched cot­tages, work­ing mills, work­shops, a one-roomed school and wee tin church to a sweetie shop, time travel has never been eas­ier.

If you’ve ever been to the Swiss Open Air Mu­seum at Bal­len­berg, this is the Scot­tish equiv­a­lent.

In the mu­seum’s ear­li­est sec­tion is a High­land town­ship from around 1700. The cot­tages are built in tim­ber, turf, stone and heather – just like those ru­ins whose foun­da­tions we passed above Strone would have looked in their day.

Two golfers are hunt­ing for a lost ball by the side of a ditch as I make my way along the edge of the golf course. Judg­ing by the height of the grass, it might be a while be­fore they find it!

Among the grasses above the Spey, dozens of back­lit spi­der’s webs catch my at­ten­tion. I prob­a­bly spend as long crawl­ing about among them with the cam­era as the golfers spent hunt­ing for their ball. Each to their own, eh?

The track leads on through the Spey/inch Marshes. This is part of a des­ig­nated SSSI – Site of Spe­cial Sci­en­tific In­ter­est.

It’s easy to cut across to the peb­bled river­side for a closer look at one of Scot­land’s fastest-flow­ing rivers. A heron stand­ing by the bank spots me and takes off.

From the high Cor­rieyairack to the Mo­ray Firth, the Spey wends its twist­ing course of some 107 miles in ever-chang­ing moods.

To­day, on this par­tic­u­lar stretch of the walk, I find her in good fet­tle; oc­ca­sion­ally still and re­flec­tive and oc­ca­sion­ally put­ting on a hur­ried spurt through the rapids. The Spey can spate and rise to dev­as­tat­ing flood very quickly.

There’s a good view of New­ton­more with Crag­gan and Strone above it from the mead­ows by the river.

The path passes un­der the rail­way and we soon reach the point where the Spey is joined by the wa­ters of the Calder.

This is where we now bid farewell to the Spey as we make for Calder Bridge and the Ban­chor Ceme­tery. Part of the track was, in days past, the old “cof­fin road” lead­ing from the river to the ceme­tery. It’s said that the ceme­tery stands at the site of a sixth-cen­tury chapel ded­i­cated to St Bride.

But it’s not only the ceme­tery that has an in­ter­est­ing past. The road to it has also had its mo­ment of fame. In Gaelic this is An Rathad Daing­nichte le Lagh Gu Clach Bhrighde – the Road­way Es­tab­lished by Law to St Bride’s Grave­yard. How it came by this long ti­tle takes

us to an im­por­tant piece of le­gal his­tory. When, in 1875, the ten­ant of Ban­chor Farm built over and blocked the way to the ceme­tery, all hell broke loose.

The mat­ter rose through the courts and in the end, the farmer was or­dered to build not just a foot­path but a proper road which had to be main­tained.

And, so that there would be no re­cur­rence of this prob­lem, a pub­lic no­tice had to be erected. Hence to this day the sign point­ing the way still car­ries the full Gaelic ti­tle.

Be­yond this, the track now climbs steeply into the gorge of Glen Calder. All round the trail the au­tumn colours have been fan­tas­tic, but above the Calder, they re­ally come into their own. The beech, the birch, alder, gean, oak, rowan and hazel make for stun­ning pic­tures ev­ery step of the way.

It’s a short climb down to the river and to a dra­matic set of falls spilling over the wa­ter-carved rocks. Take care, though – it would be very easy to slip and there aren’t many peo­ple about to res­cue you! I’m glad I car­ried the tri­pod – it’s been worth its weight in gold to­day.

Above the Calder used to stand the corn mill of Ban­chor. A busy mill it would have been, too, but, none­the­less, each year on the saint’s day known as Lha Feile Breidh, the wa­ter to the wheel was turned off and the mill stood silent. Woe be­tide any­one who went near the mill on that day.

Ac­cord­ing to leg­end, a witch had put a curse upon the miller and the mill af­ter he brought about the death of her grand­daugh­ter.

When the mill burned down and the miller was killed in the fire, some put it down to just co­in­ci­dence. How­ever, they weren’t so sure af­ter the mill was re­built and the same fate be­fell the miller’s suc­ces­sor.

The witch was con­fronted and pleaded with to re­move the curse. She was un­will­ing to re­move it com­pletely, say­ing that it would still stand on St Bride’s Day.

Time passed; new millers came and the old curse was cast aside as silly su­per­sti­tion. Oh, dear! Each miller that was daft enough not to heed the warn­ing met with one dis­as­ter af­ter an­other un­til, in the end, the mill was forced to close for ever.

Climb­ing out of the gorge, we’re back out in the open en­joy­ing far-reach­ing views again into the hills of Glen Ban­chor. Tempt­ing as it is to fol­low the road for Shep­herd’s Bridge and the glen, the black cat points me in the di­rec­tion of Mil­ton Wood and back down to the car at St Bride’s Kirk.

I dare say, with a few less photo-stops along the way, I might have man­aged it in less than the six hours it took, but then, on such a nice day, what’s the rush? n

En­joy­ing the stun­ning view from Glen Ban­chor.

Au­tumn above the Calder Gorge.

The Calder in fast flow surges over the wa­ter-carved rocks.

The open-air mu­seum gives a real in­sight into liv­ing con­di­tions.

Step­ping stones help pave the way to drier ground.

Fol­low­ing the line of the river, head­ing for the rail­way bridge.

Look­ing from river­side to New­ton­more.

The High­land Folk Mu­seum brings his­tory to life.

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