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