A wintry River South Esk in Glen Doll
AS a young man newly in love with hills and mountains there were a number of placenames that thrummed my heartstrings.
Torridon, Glen Coe, Kintail and the Cairgorms were the big hitters, popular haunts that gripped my imagination with thoughts of jagged peaks, tight ridges and wide, open skies. But lurking in the recesses of my emotions was an area that owed its appeal as much to its cultural identity as the quality of its hills.
Few of my gnarly hill companions ever mentioned the Angus Glens. Their route to the hill was invariably north by west and it wasn’t until I moved to Aberdeen in the early seventies that I began to appreciate the link between two areas of my life that I was passionate about – hills and folk music. That link was a series of glens that lay north of the fertile vale of Strathmore; Glen Doll and Glen Clova, Glen Prosen and Glen Isla and lovely Glen Esk.
It didn’t take me long to realise that the Angus Glens, and the Mounths that connected them to Deeside, were culturally very different from the hills of the west. Gaelic place names were far fewer here and there was more of a lived-in feel to the area, the land of 40-verse bothy ballads.
It was while exploring these glens that I came to know Danny Smith, the warden of the Glen Doll Youth Hostel and his wife Nancy. Nancy was a keen hillgoer and folk music enthusiast and she introduced me to Davie Glen, an inveterate hill gangrel, musician and Scottish ‘diddling’ champion. This is the mouth music familiar to most folkies – the familiar ‘tiddly di, tiddly dum, tiddly doo’ and Davie Glen turned it into an art form. He was also an extraordinary story teller and he regailed me with his tales more than once in dark bothies and howffs in various parts of the eastern Grampians.
Nancy and her daughter later moved west to Fersit, near Tulloch, where she ran a walker’s hostel and they were regular visitors to the Badenoch Folk Club which I helped run in Newtonmore in the late seventies and early eighties, but I’ll always associate Nancy with the music, and the hills of the Angus Glens.
And fine hills they are. Very different from the hills of the west, there’s something about the spaciousness and the rolling heights of the eastern Grampians that I find deeply satisfying, especially when those high-plateaux plunge dramatically into high glaciated corries. A series of well defined corries above Glen Clova are a good example.
As you approach Clova from Kirriemuir the hills of the Mounth, the vast plateau that runs south and east of Lochnagar, suddenly appear on the horizon, big frowning hills that drop steeply into Glen Clova. A trio of massive corries catch your attention. A tour of these corries, with the bonus of an ascent of Ben Tirran, a Corbett, makes a good day out.
Start at the Glen Clova Hotel, a walker-friendly establishment and conveniently based at the foot of the right of way that climbs up the hill behind the hotel to Loch Brandy, a glacial loch whose waters fill one of the great scooped hollows of Clova.
Outside Davy’s Bourach on Jock’s Road
This right of way from Clova to Glen Esk is well familiar to those incorrigible backpackers who take part in the annual TGO Challenge, the annual coast-to-coast backpacking event that’s sponsored by TGO Magazine, which I had the pleasure of editing for some 20 years. Heading ultimately to Montrose on the east coast challengers generally funnel down Glen Doll to Clova, the crossing of the high ground towards Glen Esk the last real challenge of the route. The legendary hospitality to Challengers at Tarfside in Glen Esk is the reward at the end of a long day.
I took part in the event myself three years ago and the wind was certainly stirring the dark waters as I made my way above the loch, up the Snub, the narrow nose that separates the dramatic Corrie of Clova from the great hollow that holds the gull-infested Loch Brandy. Above the loch the strong, gusting wind made me wary of going too close to the cliff edge. A massive landslip has occurred here and the cliff edge has collapsed away like a broken cornice. Parts of the cliff edge still looked crumbly, so I stayed well clear.
A shooters’ track runs round the top of the Brandy corrie to Green Hill, and from there another cairned track runs across to the Craigs of Loch Wharral but leave it it about halfway along to skirt the Craigs on their north side. These waymarked paths often take you where you don’t want to go and I wanted to climb the gentle, grassy slopes of Ben Tirran.
A good windbreak shelters the trig point on this Corbett and you can make full use of it to have some lunch with a view to make your mouth water – from Lochnagar in the west to Mount Keen, recognisable by the dreadful scar of the track that runs up to its summit from the Queen’s Well in Glen Mark. That other eastern mount, Mount Battack is also clear and so is its lower companion Clachnaben above Glen Dye.
Make your way way down into the hollow that cradles Loch Wharral where a rough path drops down into Glen Clova, a couple of miles east of the Glen Clova Hotel. Always keen to avoid tarmac bashing follow another path that leads over the brow of Rough Craig where the map indicates another path wriggling its way down to Inchdowrie House. It’s not much of a path so simply traverse the grassy slopes westwards towards Clova and a welcome pint in the pub.
It was Davie Glen who introduced me to another Angus glen – Glen Isla. North of Kirkton of Glenisla, the broad, open glen is protected by high hills on either side – Mount Blair, Duchray Hill, Craigenloch Hill and Monamenach, the highest at 2648ft on the western side and the sprawling Badandun Hill, the curiously named Bawhelps, and Finalty Hill to the east. To the north, beyond Glen Brighty, Glen Isla becomes hemmed in my the steep sided slopes of the Mounth hills at Caenlochan, a national nature reserve so designated because of its lime-rich rocks and plethora of rare arctic-alpine plants.
To this day I can clearly recall what seemed like a great barrier of mountains to the north of Monamenach. The grey screes of Creag Leacach, the enormous snow-covered mound of Glas Maol and the steep icy cliffs of Caenlochan all looked impenetrable, the southern ramparts of that vast raised plateau that lies south of Lochnagar. Monamenach itself was fairly forgettable – the views to the north much less so.
We climbed the hill from the road end at Auchavan. There was a heavy haze that softened the views of the high hills and made them shimmer in the early light. Mountain hares, vivid white against the snowless terrain, infested the high slopes, and skylarks filled the air with bubbling music.
We elected to add rocky Craigenloch Hill to our day’s walk, sunbathed and had an early lunch on the slopes of Loch Beanie and then reluctantly headed back to Glen Isla down the footpath in Glen Beanie. All the way down this lovely little glen I had been aware of a curious droning sound in the air from time to time and as we made our way up the single track road in Glen Isla I heard it again. At first I thought it was from the electric lines that were slung above the road but it wasn’t – it was the croaking of hundreds of warty toads that infested the pools and ditches at the side of the road. One pool in particular has become a great writhing mass of spawning toads, a mad and passionate frenzy of spring.
Glen Doll can be the starting point for some great high-level sorties into the eastern Cairngorms, including the Mounth roads that run from Glen Clova to Ballater (the Capel Mounth) and from Glen Doll to Braemar (the Tolmount) as well as the two Munros of Mayar and Driesh.
More recently, on a wet and wild day, I took the path that climbs up the length of Glen Doll north of the White Water that has become known as Jock’s Road, although traditionally, the route is called the Tolmount. Jock’s Road, named after a climber by the name of John Winters, is the steep section that climbs out of Glen Doll opposite the dark crags of Craig Maud. By the time I reached this steeper ground the rain had become sleety and the wind was blowing a gale. Best thing to do under the cicumstances was to take some shelter, get the flask out and consider the desperate events that occurred here just over half a century ago ago…
It was New Year’s Day in 1959 and five hillwalkers set off from Braemar Youth Hostel intent on walking up Glen Callater then over the Tolmount to Glen Doll. All the men were committee members of the Universal Hiking Club in Glasgow, an active Roman Catholic club with about 80 members.
After attending Mass the men left Braemar just after eleven and not long after mid-day they were spotted by Charles Smith, a local shepherd, near his house at Auchallater in Glen Callater. According to Smith it was cold and breezy with rain and sleet falling. He was the last person to see any of the men alive.
Friends and family members were due to meet the men at Glen Doll Youth Hostel at about 6pm but by that time the weather was so severe the road out of Glen Clova became blocked with snow and the single telephone line to the hotel at Clova was cut.
The storm continued for two days and it was some time before the police could be informed of the missing climbers. It was January 4 before an ‘official’ rescue team could set out and they were hampered by horrific blizzard conditions and deep snow. Despite the conditions they soon found the body of young James Boyle above the head of Glen Doll near Craig Maud. That night a temperature of –19.5C was officially recorded in Strathdon in Aberdeenshire.
The search continued on the Monday and Tuesday but was then abandoned as the frozen ground conditions made access to the hills difficult and dangerous. By then, it was felt there was little possibility of finding anyone alive.
The others victims weren’t found until a thaw had set in at the end of February. Most of the bodies were found by Davie Glen, who knew the area intimately, but it wasn’t until April that the final body was discovered, that of Frank Daly. He was discovered in a metre of snow near the upper reaches of White Water.
This Jock’s Road disaster was a sobering reminder of how conditions can quickly change. Below me the White Water tumbled through a wild and rugged landscape before vanishing into the green choke of conifers that covers much of lower Glen Doll. On the other side of the glen Corrie Kilbo and Corrie Fee opened up beyond the steep and glistening crags of The Dounalt and Craig Rennet. I silently gave thanks to Jock for his path as I climbed over the lip of Glen Doll onto the grassy plateau beyond – the traditional Tolmount route took a wet and scrambling route up the ravine that contains the nascent White Water.
Once beyond the confines of the glen the path passes the rough howff known as Davy’s Bourach (built by the irrepressible Davie Glen) and follows the ridge that runs to Crow Craigies before dropping down into Glen Callater bound for Glen Clunie and Braemar. I huddled down just below the cairn of Crow Craigies, ate some lunch, and decided that enough was enough. I retraced my steps back down the glen as the wind grew stronger and the rain lashed even harder. We looked forward to a hot drink in Glen Clova but the dark cloud of the disaster hung over me all the way home.
For most hillgoers the big attraction of the Angus Glens is the pair of Munros that rise to the south of Glen Doll – Mayar and Dreish.
Close to the summit of Dreish, with Mayar behind
These are most popular hills in the area and the quickest route to the high bealach that offers easy access to both of them is via the old Kilbo hill path that climbs up through the Glen Doll forest, runs over the wide bealach between the two hills and down into Glen Isla.
The first time I climbed these hills I must have missed the Kilbo path for I found myself fighting through dense forestry as though it was an Amazonian jungle, but in recent years new signs have appeared pointing out the exact route. More recently the trees in the area have been clear-felled and Forest Enterprise have created a diversion, a long and steep haul up through the forest on what has become a very boggy and unpleasant path.
The diversion climbs through the forest to meet up with the Kilbo path as it breaks free of the trees at the foot of the Shank of Drumfollow where the path hugs the steep contours to climb up to the wide bealach between the two Munros. The Shank is in fact a long and narrow shoulder that separates the corrie below, Corrie Kilbo, with its neighbouring Corrie Fee. As you climb higher the views behind begin to open out across Glen Doll to the wide, bare tableland of the Mounth, patched with snow and sparkling under the winter sun
Once you reach the high bealach Driesh, 3107ft is a mere stroll away, easily reached in about a mile of easy walking. Continue to The Mayar, 3045ft by returning to the col and following an old fence west over grassy slopes. From the summit, steepening grassy slopes drop away north to the head of Corrie Fee where a steep section to the south east of the burn leads you down past some waterfalls to a footpath which continues to follow the Fee Burn into the forest where the footpath becomes a forestry road leading all the way back to Glen Doll.
This feature first appeared in The Scots Magazine