The hulks of the southern Cairngorms rose dark and sombre

Creag nan Gabhar near Braemar
Creag nan Gabhar near Braemar

The forecast was for rain and winds gusting up to 70 miles per hour. I didn’t really want to go! Matt however, up for a few days from London, was all too eager not to waste a single day.

Just south of Braemar, by the road bridge spanning the Callater Burn, there’s a small car park (ticket meter); here begins Jock’s Road, the old and famous cattle drover’s track that wends the hills from here to Glen Clova. We left the car under a lowering cloud base; astonishingly there was no rain; even more amazing, the wind was almost non existent!

Beyond a rough green and flat stretch of ground rose Sron Dubh, the blunt and rocky nose at the northern end of Creag nan Gabhar, the Corbett we had come to climb.

On my first excursions to this hill I’d always climbed this nose direct; it’s like ‘a short sharp shock’ to start the day. But Matt is not as fit as he used to be, life is gentler on the lungs in London. Thus I led him along the riverside track into Glen Callater, i.e. Jock’s Road.

After about a kilometre we spied the little cairn that advertises the presence of another track, this one rougher, greener; its easy zig zags lifted us quickly to the broad ridge above, and almost with the level of the cloud base. The track now pointed roughly south, straight at the heart of the Glenshee Munros. It would be a while before we’d see Carn an Tuirc in the south, but already we were looking over Glen Callater to Can an T-saggairt Mhor, ‘The big hill of the priest’. That ancient Celtic priest was Patrick, his hill with its own high lochan, also climbed gloomily across the Callater Burn. In the west, across Glen Cluny, the flanks of Morrone disappeared into its own shroud of mist.

Hoping that the track might eventually disintegrate into a more friendly hill path, (it never really does), we strode off into the gloom. Yet that gloom didn’t hide the views completely, at our backs, snuggled beneath its own verdant hill encompassed bowl, Braemar poked its spires at the sky. Barely seen behind the Royal Town the hulks of the Southern Cairngorms rose dark and sombre. In the east, almost black yet quite distinct, Lochnagar stood out like a beacon, the granite prow of The Stuic, reminding me of scrambling forays above its hidden lochans.

After a while the track did in fact become a little more ‘path like’ as it arrowed through the heather and increasingly, the quartz. Much of the hill country hereabouts is formed of pink granite and it is in fact this pale red rock which gives the hill region its original name: Monadh Ruadh, or Red Hills. Cairngorm denotes a semi precious stone which ranges in colour from bluish to dirty brownish; such stone used to be found in this region in some quantity and eventually gave its name to the range.

Creag nan Gabhar has little if any granite. As we walked our floor grew ever greyer as the quartz poked through the grass and heather. On a clear night the summit of this hill must gleam like silver in the moonlight.

At one point we were stopped by the familiar ‘burping’ of a ptarmigan or two; yet search as we might, and though the grey bird(s) ought to have stood out stark against the darker heather, we saw no sign of these normally precocious birds.

There came a point when the ground at our feet was comprised almost entirely of quartz, stones and boulders of all shapes and sizes. The worn path stretched a course around a corner of the ‘L’ shaped hill and led us directly to the summit cairn. The last time I was here it had been warm enough to sunbathe; today a keen breeze had us hunched against the shelter and hurrying through our breakfast!

And yet the silence up here was profound. Directly below the summit the A93 cleaved the confining Glen of Clunie, yet not a sound drifted up from the traffic in and out of Braemar.

For off, we didn’t need a compass bearing, however for practice I asked Matt to set one anyway. A simple matter of retracing our steps a few hundred paces showed us an obvious diverging path in the direction we were needing. It took us south east, down onto the hill’s broad heathery heel. Down there we could see the north western end of Loch Callater, today slate grey beneath a sky of equal greyness. Snuggled by its far most corner was Loch Callater Lodge with its little bothy. On reaching a crudely bulldozed track below, we made our way to this hidden away outpost of civilisation.

Over a green, sheep clipped meadow, across a bridge or two, the lodge grew showing us boarded up windows and padlocked doors. The bothy itself was tiny yet tidy and cosy, it would be a fine refuge on a stormy night. On such a muggy afternoon it was good to sit outside and let what slight breeze there was fan our faces after our exertions. With the kilometre-long stretch of the loch backed by the cone of Tolmount for a backdrop, we ate our lunch.

Weather wise it had not been the perfect day, yet when we arrived at the car park we were surprised to see it full to capacity; perhaps we ought not to have been so surprised, after all Creag nan Gabhar, alias ‘the crag of the goats’, is indeed a very popular little hill.