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Walking Scotland’s Lairig Ghru by Martin Rye

The Lairig Ghru in Spring
The Lairig Ghru in Spring

The Lairig Ghru (Gaelic Làirig Dhrù) is the most famous mountain pass in Scotland. Its 500 meter deep trench cuts between the second and third highest mountains in the United Kingdom. The pass makes for a long day walk, or one of the finest two days backpacking trips to be had in Scotland.

The meaning of the name Lairig Ghru is debatable. Ghru is not a word that has an agreed translation to it; but Lairig means pass, and the pass of the Lairig Ghru takes the hiker traveling north to south over an historical route from Strathspey to Deeside. Once used as a drover road, and by travelers for centuries, there is history in abundance as well as the scenery when hiking the Lairig Ghru. Grasp the history and this walk is truly memorable, let alone the magnificent scenery.

The Cairngorms national park is Britain’s largest National Park, and Scotland’s largest. Within its 4528 sq Kilometers lies the highest mountain range in the UK; this internationally-designated protected mountain range has 55 mountains over 900 meters, and contains stunning glacial landforms which have deposited granite tors on many of the mountain summits.

With the largest extent of semi-natural pine forest in the UK and sub-arctic plateaus, the Cairngorms make a dramatic location for the hill walker crossing the Lairig Ghru.

The path to Scotland's famous Lairig Ghru mountain pass
The path to Scotland’s famous Lairig Ghru mountain pass

The main challenges facing the backpacker or strong day walker, outside of winter, will be the rocky terrain, and storms. Wind speeds in the Cairngorms can easily exceed 90 mph in the Lairig Ghru, strong enough to pick up a walker and dash them onto rocks. The walk is best done in settled conditions – and be prepared at all times, as these mountains can have very localized weather occurrences.

It is not an advisable winter route, with avalanche risks making it best for experienced Scottish winter walkers only, as its summit is narrow and the mountain slopes adjoining it steep; winter snow lies deep here. I have seen the remains of a large cornice breaking away in spring, bringing down avalanches at the passes’ apex; so I recommend this walk as a 3-season route, in settled weather with a good forecast to maximize the enjoyment and minimize the risk. On the plus side, there are only side streams to cross and only one river crossing.

The route is north to south and is made more enjoyable by an overnight stop, giving more time to soak up the views and watch the shadows cast by the setting sun on the mountains, and to see the deer come down the glen from the tops in the dusk.

Route:

The route described here makes use of taxi services to the start to enable you to get into the forest and start the walk as soon as possible.

From Aviemore, get a taxi to the start of Loch Morlich. Where the bridge over the River Luineag is located is the start, at Ordinance map grid reference NH956097. Cross the bridge, heading south via the first right hand branch of the track, past Lochan nan Geadas.

Pass through the ancient  Rothiemurchus Caledonian pine forest
Pass through the ancient Rothiemurchus Caledonian pine forest

Keep on the track until a path on the right (at NH949082) takes you deeper into the ancient Rothiemurchus Caledonian pine forest, which is home to the rarely-seen capercaillie and pine martens.

Stay on this path until a junction of three paths at (NH938075); here the Lairig Ghru is signposted and the main walk begins.

Follow the path now as you climb up higher, out above the tree line, leaving the Rothiemurchus behind, to open mountainside, and before you is the deep cleft of the pass, beckoning you in. To your left on the east from Castle Hill until beyond Ben Macdui at Carn à Mhaim there is a wall of rock and broken scree stretching for over 13km, towering above you as you plunge deeper into the pass. To your west the bulk of Braeriach rises up, Britain’s third highest mountain (and this author’s favourite Cairngorm Mountain).

Follow the path now up into the pass along the rock-strewn track. On the first section you will come across a memorial plaque dedicated to Angus Sinclair, who died on Cairn Gorm, a nearby 4000ft peak, in 1954. Sinclair had lectured at Edinburgh University, and was also a keen political activist who had crossed party lines, leaving the Conservatives for the Labour party and embracing socialism. A blizzard is reputed to have cut his life short, according to many, but his late wife’s obituary stated that he fell ill and died whilst climbing – so there is some confusion as to his actual cause of death.

But the respect in which he was held by others led to a bothy (a free mountain shelter) being built in his honour in 1957, on a prominent rise, so as to prevent it being buried by snow, at the intersection of the Lairig path and the Chalamain gap path. It was removed in 1991 due to misuse; this is often now the fate of bothies due to abuse and to people not keeping to the bothy code.

The height of the pass below Ben MacDui
The height of the pass below Ben Macdui

The path now climbs higher, over rocky moraine, where in places the it is easily lost, but stick to the east and you will find the path on the higher side of the east of the pass. Now you are at the highest point, 853 metres. From there, it’s a descent into wonderful mountain scenery, as the glen opens out before you as you clear the narrowest point.

You will first come to some land-locked pools of water known as the Pools of Dee – these are part of the source of the river Dee, which is a famed salmon-fishing river flowing down to the coast at Aberdeen. To your west as you descend, the panoramic view is breathtaking, with four Munros dominating the horizon. Braeriach, at 1296 metres, is the largest on the west side, with its massive corrie of An Garbh Choire, strewn with huge boulders and broken rocks. Here snow can lie all year round. Pinnacle Buttress, Sphinx Ridge and Crown Buttress crown its head wall and are the home of the winter climber. The careful eye will spot the run-down refuge of Garbh Choire Bothy down in its bowels. A welcome refuge in winter storms, despite its poor condition. It is worth detouring to walk up to view the cliffs and corrie closer. Snow can lie over 70 ft deep in winter here. A truly spectacular diversion.

One of the main sources of the Dee is above, at the Wells of Dee, high up on the summits near Einich Cairn; it springs up, flowing fast over the Falls of Dee down into An Garbh Choire, where it then goes on to join the Dee itself, which is also fed by the Allt an Lochain Uaine burn and the Allt na Lairig Ghru burn. The Dee widens rapidly and can be impossible to ford in spate (flood) except by the bridge near Corrour bothy.

Further along the ridge, the sharp peaks of Sgor an Lochain at 1258 metres and Cairn Toul, a 1291 metre Munro, cap this impressive view. Further along at the end of the ridge, the Devils Point tops out at 1004 metres; but its lesser height is made up for by its impressive shape and by how it juts out, dominating the view for those heading north as they start a traverse of the Lairig Ghru.

Bothy below the Devil's Point
Bothy below the Devil’s Point

On the east side is Scotland’s second highest peak, a massive lump of a mountain. It lacks the rocky cliff edges of the others but its scree slopes are long and steep as they tumble down into the Lairig Ghru. Ben Macdui is famed, and at 1309 metres is only surpassed in height by Ben Nevis, some 53 miles away.

Once thought to be the highest mountain in Scotland, Ben Macdui’s first ascent is attributed to the Rev George Keith, when on his 1810 adventure he climbed it along with Braeriach (in mist and rain, as well as making one of the first recorded rock climbs) and others in the Cairngorm range.

Legend has it that the Victorians gave the range its name when they arrived with the building of the railway and asked, pointing to the highest visible peak, what it was called. As this was Cairn Gorm itself, the name was extended to the whole range as a result, and so the fame of the Cairngorms was born. Earlier records call them Am Monadh Ruadh (The Red Hills, as the granite can take on a red hue in the evening light). The first written account of being called the Cairngorms is in an 1804 tour book.

Entering the Glen
Entering the Glen

Queen Victoria was taken to the summit of Ben Macdui in 1859 on a pony led by her guards, gamekeepers and the famed John Brown (played by Billy Connolly in the 1997 film Mrs Brown).

Now the Lairig Ghru path drops down from the Pools of Dee by taking the left (east) side path, crossing some burns flowing off Ben Macdui. Here the path is interspersed with rocks, and in places easy walking, as you drop downhill. The glen (valley) is wide and the views expansive.

Along the way you will pass some large rocks – one is the Clach nan Taillear stone. Here, one new year’s eve (undated), three tailors set out on a bet to dance in the locations of Braemar, Rothiermurchas and Abernethy. Coming down into Glen Doe a fierce winter storm caught them out. They took refuge behind this stone, but succumbed to the elements. Now, looking at the rough track, it seems the height of madness to cross in winter on a dark cold night, but we know from records that the pass was a well-maintained track, in good order it seems, as it was used as a drove road transporting livesstock to Braemar and beyond, and even saw women carry eggs in baskets upon their heads to market.

Once past this point, the path stays on a fairly level aspect, passing the bothy of Corrour, which is on the other side of the riverbank. A bridge and good path make crossing to this shelter easy. Built in the 1870s as a base to watch deer for the stalking season, it fell into ruin in the 1930s, but in 1949, the Cairngorm Club gained permission to renovate it and turn it into a bothy. Its place in Scottish mountain history is now legend and it is the most well-known bothy in Scotland.

Recently, it had wooden floors and an outdoor toilet built. The harsh concrete floor used by the author in the past and many a person seeking shelter in wild weather nights is now gone. This bothy could be used as an overnight stop, or you could camp outside, but better to camp further down the glen with views up it, in the shadow of the impressive Devils Point, where its shape and cliff face make an imposing bastion, guarding the start to the main north section of the Lairig Ghru.

Philip Werner in front of the Devil's Point when we hiked across Scotland together in 2013
Philip Werner in front of the Devil’s Point when we hiked across Scotland together in 2013

The route then takes a turn out of Glen Dee, as you take the upper left side path as it turns past Carn a’ Mhaim down to Glen Luibeg. The path goes downhill now and you will come to a ford, or, if in spate (flood) a few hundred metres north is a bridge at NO 013942. The ford is an easy crossing outside of spate, but some well-placed stepping stones were washed away in a fierce flood in August 2014. The ford is set amidst a forest plantation and makes for a scenic crossing point. Once across, you pick up the main path again as it drops down into the wide glen.

The tracks on the OS maps seem to lead to a bridge at the Derry Burn, which comes from the north, joining the Luibeg Burn (which will be on your right); but what was the footbridge (which was accessed by following a path on the riverbank, keeping to the left bank as it followed the river around a large bend) got washed away in the August 2014 floods. This area is historically known as the Robbers’ Copse, which makes you think crossing here is a lot safer now than in days gone by.

The strength of this flood was such that it became one of the most powerful floods in decades. It washed away bridges and flooded the nearby Bothy known as Bob Scotts. Severe floods in August are not uncommon in this area, as on the 4th August 1829 (often called the Muckle Spate). This was part of a large-scale event affecting a vast area across the Highlands. Damage was considerable, such that the dining hall at Mar Lodge further down river was left with 3ft of debris deposited in it. The storm of August 2014, though considerable, came nowhere close to the severity of the 1829 one, which washed many bridges away, or the August 1956 flood, which again saw bridges swept away. August, it seems, might not be the best month to hike in the Cairngorms.

But floods aside, the lack of a bridge at Derry Lodge means that the choice of fording the burn – which outside of spate is knee deep in places – must be made, or go North 2km where a bridge is still in place and cross the Derry Burn. Then return south to meet the main track going down Glen Lui. Camping in the forest here at Derry Lodge or by near by Bob Scott’s Bothy also makes for what is, in the author’s opinion, the best stop-over point of the route. Bob Scott’s Bothy is found, once across the burn, by following the Lui Water burn downstream; the building is shown on the 1:25 000 maps at No 042 932.

The current Bob Scott’s bothy is not the first version of this famous bothy. The first was situated up stream and over the other side of the burn, at Luibeg, when the then-keeper, a Mr. Beattie, let climbers and hill walkers use the buildings to the side of his keeper’s cottage. Then Bob Scott took over as keeper, in 1947, working until 1973, when he retired, by which time he was head keeper for the Mar Lodge estate. He let climbers and hikers use the building and side buildings and the legend of Bob Scott’s grew.

Scott was born on the estate in 1903 and began working as a young man on the estate. He served in WW2, and after, returned to the estate as a keeper. During what is called the Golden Age of Climbing in the 1950s he built a close friendship with the pioneers of Scottish climbing, like Tom Patey. This period cemented the legend of Bob and the original bothy. Before the days of mountain rescue teams, Scott often led rescues into the mountains he knew so well, and his fitness and hills skill must have been considerable, as then all deer stalking was done on foot.

The original bothy was destroyed by fire in 1986. The Friends of Bob Scott gained support and permission to build a new bothy away from the original location, on the spot where the current one is now built. Sadly, that too burnt down in 2003. But the Friends of Bob Scott kept going and in 2005 a new bothy was built and opened.

Anyone walking the Lairig Ghru needs to call in or stay at Bob Scott’s. The history and legend somehow permeates the glen. The story of 40 or more climbers celebrating New Year with Bob up at the original site, and the tales of the climbs they did when using the bothy as a base, are the stuff of Cairngorm legend.

Martin Rye bundled up in front of Bob Scott's bothy on a chilly Scottish morn
Martin Rye bundled up in front of Bob Scott’s bothy on a chilly Scottish morn

Tom Patey, the famous (now deceased) Scottish climber tells in his writing of spending New Year’s Eve (Hogmanay) in a side building, as he and his friends from school lacked the social standing within the climbers’ gatherings to get into the bothy itself. Snow drifted into the ‘stick shed’, as he described it, and he was in awe of the lead climber, Mac Smith. Patey went on to be a legend himself in Scottish climbing circles until his tragic death in 1970.

From the bothy a path takes you back up onto the main track down the glen. Follow the main track and keep an eye out for remains of old townships, which are marked on the maps. The inhabitants were evicted after the harvest in 1726 as part of the Highland Clearances. The track parallels the Lui Water down the glen.

A large bridge, located at NO 064 915, takes you back across the Lui; keep to the track until a path on the right at NO 065 903 appears, and follow this through the forest to the Linn of Dee. Here you need to arrange transport, or decide to walk to Braemar to find some. Whatever you decide, the Lairig Ghru will have been one of the finest walks in Scotland. Enjoy it.

About Martin Rye

Martin Rye is a UK-based backpacker and blogger. His blog, Martin Rye, contains a mix of gear and trip reports. He has hiked across Scotland and many other UK locations, as well as in Maine and other parts of New England.

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13 comments

  1. when have you been there Philip, right now, no more snow ?

    • Martin and I walked through the pass in 2013 when we hiked coast to cost across Scotland in the TGO challenge. There was plenty of snow left when we were there in May. It was one of the highlights of the trip for me.

  2. If the wind is not up it is a nice route through. Impossible to get lost.
    But if snow, you have to take care on the boulder fields, sometimes it is melted underneath so care is needed.
    A stop over at Corour for a day and a hike up to Devil Point, or Cairn Tour can be fun too.

  3. It has been on my to-do list for sometime. Maybe I’ll get round to it in 2015!

  4. I can recommend the alternative route down Glen Dee rather than the trade route to Derry Lodge. Not much used as it’s a bit longer but fabulous views back to Devil’s Point and the path passes the wonderful Chest of Dee.

    BTW. Devil’s Point is a prudish Victorian translation of the Gaelic name. Literally, it is Devil’s Penis.

  5. Glen Dee is a fine route choice Ian, and no river crossing. So best route at current if river levels are high and you don’t want to go to Derry Dam to cross on the link route. Down to White Bridge and then to the end. No Bob Scotts mind you.

  6. Nice peice Martin, have wandered across the Ghru many times but my most memorable have all been in winter, in the right conditions. It certainly can be a wild place.

  7. It’s history and setting do make it a fine walk, and winter with the right conditions and skills is the best time for the hills Paul.

  8. Beautiful scenery, you’re a very lucky man to get to do this.

  9. Worth noting that the footbridge at Derry Lodge was replaced in May/June 2015.

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