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Rothiemurchus by Helen Fisher

Highland Forest

The clearest way into the Universe is through a Forest Wilderness. — John Muir

A great highlight for me during the time I spent in Scotland at the end of February with Kim, was spending some time in Rothiemurchus. We’d arrived there after the Torridon Chair of Terror walk (Coire Mhic Fhearchair), and pootling over to Sheildaig, a really picturesque coastal village, for something to eat and to breathe the faintly salty sea air, but which was much subdued by the rain.

One of the blessings of living in a maritime climate is that the weather can be different within a few of miles of one place. The west side of Scotland is notoriously wet as the Gulf Stream and North Atlantic Drift cradles it, warming up that moist Atlantic air and kindly depositing rain. Despite being farther north than Moscow, you can see (cultivated) palm trees in Inverewe. For us in February the weather was particularly kind in terms of it being warm, but in hope of sunnier climes and despite the extortionate price of petrol (more than a gulp inducing £1.35 a litre now), we headed back east.

Rothiemurchus is one of the largest areas of ancient Caledonian Forest left in the UK, sitting at the bottom of the northern side of the Cairngorms. The Caledonian Forest that is left is just 1% of what is left of an ancient forest, one that was part of the boreal forest that stretched across Europe and can still be found in Sweden, Finland, Norway and Russia. Some of the native Scots Pines are more than 300 years old, and although in other parts of the UK there are trees that are over 2000 years old, these tend to be single trees rather than those in a forest environment. This makes Rothiemurchus rather special.

We’d seen a couple of walks we fancied in the area and I can’t remember quite how we plumbed for this one, but having decided Kim printed off the map and directions at her home. She’s a directions girl whereas I prefer maps so that’s how we split the paperwork. But before we’d barely got out of the car we were both arrested in our tracks by wanting to explore the burned out shack (described as a cottage) presented tantalisingly in the clearing right in front of us.

Too nosey to ignore the glimpses inside, we spent a few minutes investigating what had happened, and how nature was starting to reclaim her land. Patterns formed by plasterwork and bricks, charred wood and areas where animals had tried to burrow into (or out of?) the shack were intriguing and fostered a sense of wistfulness in me of wanting to live in an environment like this, in a cabin in a forest.

Wrenching ourselves away though, we set off down the track, through the five bar gate and on our way. The track itself has been used as a drove road in the past for moving cattle and was doubtless used before that time as a route between Strathspey and Deeside. It’s a relatively popular track now and is used by some people on their TGO Challenge routes across Scotland. Today the weather was a little overcast but glimpses of the sun shone occasionally and the walk along the sandy track with an hypnotic crunch underfoot, and the sight of the different trees and patterns of light and shade along with some fantastic company ensured a magical experience.

There is a different quality of experience, something that connects deep within perhaps, but I can well understand why forests have been described as enchanted in the past. Different pines and spruces, birches alive with hairy lichens, stunted oak trees, twisted and gnarly and reaching out. All different life, relatively static to human beings but if you slow or come to a stop and let the forest world surround you instead of being in a rush to press on, then this spirit starts to pervade. Time starts to take on a different meaning almost, and attention to detail can come forth.

It wasn’t long before we came to the split in the path, signposted Lairig Ghru one way and Glen Einich the other. I took the opportunity to tweet a picture, asking interested people which way we should go! But we had planned where we were headed and though it wasn’t to be a challenging walk by any means, we had relatively limited time and weren’t kitted out for anything more than a few hours walk. Walking the whole of the Lairig Ghru path is reckoned in the books to be a 12 hour affair so that was definitely off the menu though remains an aim of mine for the future, maybe looping with Glen Feshie to complete a multi day circuit.

That said we were to follow the path towards the Lairig Ghru for the next mile or so, which carried us alongside the River Druie. Seeing a gap in the fence we went over to the river which was running high and fast after the rain and snow melt.

Filing away potential camping spots in our mind we returned to the path. The birches looked magical with their adornment of lichen. The Scots Pines and Norway Spruce created gateways for Kim, some hanging precariously in midair after boughs breaking but not making it all the way down to the ground.

Before too long we were at a footbridge crossing the river which was our turning point on to the next leg, but not before a good exploration of the area and  more beautiful, serene views, with the mountains being visible above, calling us but us having to resist this time.

From here the path we wanted took a heading west and views opened up far more to the hills before plunging us back into the forest edge where we came across a pair of early Common Toads mating. So it wasn’t just us humans who were feeling the spring spirit stirring! A couple of photos were taken, then we anxiously looked on as another couple of people headed down the path towards the toads, praying they wouldn’t step on them!

After a small lochan we headed northwards, letting the other couple pass us as we chatted amiably about all sorts of things, joking about the repeated ‘gravestones’ with HV marked on them (yes, we know) and passing through managed forestry areas. A bit of debate over exactly where we were on the map (had we missed the cairn that was marked and was either of us bothered about it anyway?) and then passing through another gate with notice of logging operations made us wonder if we’d missed an earlier sign. But it wasn’t as if we were going to get lost here at all! Looking eastwards we could look down towards where we had walked earlier and had glorious views over part of the forest and to the Cairngorm mountains themselves.

Realising we hadn’t far to go now my eyes were peeled for more communion with the landscape before I had to leave it until next time. Shades of ochre and blonde grass that would soon be greening up with the spring, heather a subdued brownish colour rather than the darker green and then vibrancy of late summer hues; late winter after the snow but before the zest of spring is a lovely time to visit this special place.

About Helen Fisher

I am interested in probably too many things! But I indulge in posts at Helen’s Wondering Wanderings about hill walking and backpacking, which I’m trying to get lighter, and generally any other niff naff and trivia that catches my eye.

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