TGO Challenge 2017 Shiel Bridge - Montrose

I turned 60 this year and was looking for something different to do, then I saw the ad….

Walk across Scotland, Eat as much as you like, only £55! I was hooked…

My planning was simple. I drew a line through Newtonmore and Braemar to Montrose and kept it as straight as I could. Shiel Bridge has some fine hills around it and I wanted to pass through Glen Affric.

I travelled across from France by flying to Edinburgh from Geneva then taking the new tram and train to Newtonmore, where we have a small house. In the morning after a final pack I walked along the main street to get some cash from the money mouth and walking back saw a couple of lads outside the hostel that looked like they might be on the Challenge. I said hello to them and to Sue that runs the hostel.

The weather was fine, fresh and clear and the train journey up to Inverness was a pleasure, sipping tea and watching the world go by.

At Inverness I had time to shop for gas and food and have a wander round the town and coffee before catching the bus to Shiel Bridge with a change at Invergarry. At Shiel Bridge most people headed towards the hotel but I walked along to have a look at the campsite and bought a tea and ate a sandwich sitting on a verge in the sun.

Later, along by the Kintail Lodge hotel I found a perfect, grassy spot for my tent on the loch side. I knew it would probably get busy in the bar so I headed there early in the evening to have a beer and get something to eat. I booked a table table for myself but quickly ended up chatting to other people on the Challenge and shared a table to eat.

Loch Duich camp.
Loch Duich.

After dinner I got another pint and sat outside in the sun for a bit. Then, back at the tent I lit a driftwood fire right on the waterline and watched the sun slowly set. In the morning I woke fairly early, made tea and packed my gear. One of my well used Black Diamond Z-poles had come badly adrift and I spent a while trying to fix it before realising that it wasn’t going to happen. So just one pole but half the weight …

Day 1 Kintail Lodge Hotel - Loch Affric 27km

I signed out and walked along the loch shore path and saw a pair of seals playing in the water, then on the road to Morvich, chatting to various people that I met, including the very speedy Barbara and to Lynn and Gavin who live on the Moray coast.

To Morvich with Beinn Fhada's ridge beyond.

Past Morvich I put a little water from the River Croe in my bottle and headed up the lower slopes of Beinn Buidhe. Most people headed up Glen Licht but a few took the path round to Gleann Choinneachain. The going was easy enough though more or less pathless, up grass and heather and around a deer fence. It was warm and sunny with a warm hair-dryer like breeze blowing.

Towards Beinn Buidhe the walking became more interesting with the views opening up all around and the need to pick a route up rockier ground. Beyond this the ridge turns South and becomes a blunt saw-toothed spine with quite a few rocky ups and downs but with only one real bit of scrambling down a slabby section.

Loch Duich and Skye from the Beinn Fhada ridge.
Looking North from Beinn Fhada ridge.
Beinn Fhada ridge.
The slabby downclimb.

Once past the 954m top the mountain broadens to a wide plateau with views down into the corries and Glen Licht and all around to the distant, hazy mountains and out to Skye. I was really thirsty by now and found a pool of clear water and two isolated rocks to make some tea beside. The dry grass of the plateau leading to the summit of Being Fhada felt more like the Serengeti than Scotland. Beyond the top a long whale-back ridge gently descends to Glen Affric. At the bridge over the Affric I made some tea and chatted to a couple of challengers sitting beside the stream. The lady was on her tenth challenge after starting them in the 1980’s.

The 'siesta' stones and Beinn Fhada summit.
Looking back along the ridge from Beinn Fhada.
Glen Affric with Loch Affric still distant.

I was hot and thirsty but kept going past Altbeithe YH as it was still quite a way to Loch Affric. Along the glen a few tents were dotted around by the river. The reforestation on the hillsides here is already looking good. Eventually I reached the open grassy area by the fishing hut at the head of the loch and after sticking my tent up and eating a dreadful foil-pack meal (and half a chewy snake sweet that some fishermen had left in a bag) talked with a few of the other campers before heading to bed.

Albeithe YH.
Loch Affric camp.

Day 2 Loch Affric - Allt na Muic 26km

In the morning I poked my head out of the tent to find a misty day. After a quick breakfast of tea and malt loaf I packed up, said goodbye to the people around me and headed directly up the hillside finding the little stalkers path that leads up to Carn a Choire Ghairbh. I was quickly swallowed up by the clag. It was so gloomy that it was hard to find the top of the hill as each hump has a cairn like spine of rock and I would keep finding something higher looming out of the murk. After the top I descended to the col after almost drifting to the Glen Affric side of the hill (aspect of slope is a wonderful thing). Then after a long traverse I headed up onto the top of An Elric and a slight clearing in the wind on the ridge. Descending to the Beach an Amais the sky continued to clear with the cloud gradually shredding and lifting. Then there is a steady slope of easy walking onto the rounded ridge of Aonach Shasuinn. Lovely walking along this with views down to Cougie, then I dropped off the end of the ridge on steeper but grassy slopes that were easy on my knees to a hot chocolate stop by the stream. After this I went down over the broad col using a good little path to the River Croe. I passed a slow worm and challenged him to a race. He was going quite well as I saw him again the next day). The river was shallow and easy to wade.

Into the cloud.
Carn a Choire Ghairbhe and An Elric fom Aonach Shasuinn.
Loch Beinn a' Mheadhoin from Aonach Shasuinn.
The fastest slow worm in the West
Glen Croe.
Cul Dubh.

This glen has a lot of hydro work going on in it but the resulting track makes for quick progress down to Cul Dubh. From here after a rest I followed the track up and around the forest block. I was thirsty again but there were only trickles of water in the streams that are all siphoned off for the hydro scheme. Everywhere being so abnormally dry. Towards the farm at Tomcrasky it began to rain and I was tiring. Walking along the little road towards Torgyle bridge I met the very chatty farmer who asked if I was “one of those nutters”. I’d been looking for a camp with water and a perfect one appeared by the Allt na Muic, with Scots pines and a little rocky gorge. Gavin and Lynn were camped nearby and I could see another tent higher up the hill.

Allt na Muic.

The rain had stopped and I put up my tent and hung my jacket and rucksack on the tree to air. Dinner was only slightly better than the night before but I had no trouble drifting off to sleep looking out of the door of my tent and listening to the gentle music of the burn.

Day 3 Allt na Muic - Fort Augustus 18km

The morning was fine but with white cumulus burgeoning. I headed along the small, straight road past the neat houses and met up with Lynn and Gavin at Torgyle bridge. Then up the wide track and more overgrown old military road to the junction with the Beauly-Denny pylon system. Now I could see over to the Monadliaths and back to yesterdays hills now satisfyingly distant. Coming into Fort Augustus I met up with Billy who was heading on towards Blackburn of Corrieyairack bothy.

Torgyle Bridge.
Old Military Road to Fort Augustus.
Loch Ness.

I had intended to go straight for coffee at a cafe but the traffic and all the people was a bit much after a few quiet days on the hill so I headed to Cumberlands campsite and lay down on the grass in the sun and watched the clouds scud by in the strong breeze. After a bit I put my tent up on the golf course like grass and washed away the grime from myself and my clothes in the shower. Later I walked to the Boathouse restaurant for a bite to eat and that coffee. Fort Augustus feels like a bit of a through route for tourists but on a fine day like this there are lovely views up Loch Ness and the ladder lochs and boats are interesting. I walked further up looking at the various craft and a duck looking for food at one of the windows.

My tent hidden in the shade at Cumberland's campsite.

I spent the evening in the Lock Inn with a group of other folk doing the challenge, after eating some more chips - an excellent white pudding supper bought from the cheery chippy near the locks. After struggling to fall asleep in the blue campsite light I slept well and was almost the last person away in the morning. At breakfast I realised that I was becoming a real Dr Doolittle as a robin came right up to me to scrounge some of my cereal bar and a blackbird collected some of the crumbs that I scattered and took some to his partner.

Day 4 Fort Augustus - Newtonmore 49km

The wind was quite strong so I abandoned my plan to cross to Newtonmore over the tops and decided to go over the Corrieyairack instead. There was quite a lot of construction traffic for the Stronelairg wind farm driving slowly along the road but at least they had provided a new walkers path through the fields. After a false start I found the track through to Ardachy House. Then on the metalled road I met Donna who was heading the same way. Gaining height past Culachy House it started raining properly and although not that heavy was being blown by the strong wind. I was struggling to wake up properly and stopped for tea and a seat at Blackburn bothy. Lynn and Gavin were just leaving, all wrapped up in waterproofs and Donna soon arrived. Setting out again I felt much more lively and really enjoyed pushing into the wind all the way up to the pass where I sheltered briefly behind the old concrete building. Seeing Speyside I really felt that I was arriving on home ground and with Braemar not so far, Montrose didn’t seem so distant either. Then easily down the other side I soon met up with a tall Challenger who wasn’t feeling great and Gavin and Lynn again. All of us stopped for a break at Melgarve and as ever it was hard to leave the comfy seats and shelter.

Culachy House.
Blackburn bothy.
General Wade bridge beside the track to the Corrieyairack pass.
Monadliadth view.
First view of Speyside from Corrieyairack.
Melgarve bothy.

I’d already half made a plan to try to walk to Newtonmore in a day as something good to have done and that would give me a full day off at my place there. Further down the track I met Andy A’Court who was camping there to get peace and quiet and was heading over to Dalwhinnie the next day. Down at Garva bridge there was quite a few tents and I said “hello” to Garry and Fred, who’s fame had spread behind them. Then on down the long but fine road to Laggan. It was raining gently but with beautiful views down the glen towards Creag Dubh. Eventually I passed the closed store at Laggan with its sad signs in the window. At the very welcoming Laggan Hotel I stopped for a pint and some crisps and a seat in front of the stove. Then on along the road that I have walked many times in the past, passing the lay-by below the crags at Creag Dubh that we used to doss in when climbing as teenagers and on past the fields that I used to land my paraglider in, until dead on my feet I finally unlocked the house door. After a bath that I really thought I might not be able to climb out of I fell into bed for a wonderful sleep.

Garva Bridge rainbow.
Canal leading to Spey Dam and a distant Creag Dubh.
Laggan Store.
Laggan Hotel.

Day 5 Newtonmore 0k

Next morning I walked next door for a big breakfast at the Newtonmore Grill and then shopped at the garage store for milk and biscuits and a sandwich for lunch. The day passed quickly doing my laundry, downloading pictures and dozing. In the evening I headed to the Glen Hotel (meeting a windblown lad, just off the hill who had camped by the Chalybeate spring) for a pint and ended up staying with Gavin and Lynn and a few other people who were there. We were eventually thrown out with the empties and I headed home to sleep some more.

Day 6 Newtonmore to Glen Feshie 21km

Cycle path to Kingussie and the Cairngorms.

In the morning after a smaller breakfast at the Grill I packed up and headed off. At Ali and Sue’s hostel a few people were outside so I stopped for a tea (even though I’d only walked a few hundred metres!). At Kingussie I food shopped and ate a sandwich in the little park. The weather was bright and sunny yet again and the walk past Ruthven, Tromie Bridge and Drumguish was a real pleasure. Just beyond the bridge in Glen Feshie I met a couple who were on the challenge too, though I failed to learn their names. Ruigh Aiteachain was a building site with a noisy generator so I moved on a bit and camped below a lovely old Scots pine near the river delta. I lit a careful fire on the stones of the flood-delta to pass the time and to keep warm but after an hour it started to rain and I was ready to sleep again. Another green tent was pitched across the river but too far away to see who the tenants might be.

Ruthven Barracks.
Tromie Bridge.
Bridge near Baileguish.
Glen Feshie.

Day 7 Glen Feshie - Braemar 39km

The forecast had been for instability and early thundery showers for the next day so I deliberately rose early and was on the road at 05.50 to try to get over the high ground in decent weather. It was beautifully clear at first and cool. The occupants of the tent near the bothy were still sleeping as I walked past back-tracking a bit to reach the track that runs up onto the plateau. Higher up I peered down into Coire Gharblach which has a few winter climbs. Then easily to the moorland Munro Mullach Clach a Bhlair. Just after this I met a man walking with his dog after camping at Loch Einich, the first person that I’d met on any of the hills that I had climbed. The track leads easily across the Moine Mhor with great views all around and Braeriach and Cairn Toul very close by. Then easily over short heather and moss to Monadh Mor before the dip to the sneck leading to Beinn Bhrotain. For a while I had been able to see my route ahead, to Morrone then the shapely Lochnagar. Down I went towards the Dee crossing ( the positively peaky for the Cairngorms ) Carn Cloich-mhuilin.

Looking back into Glen Feshie.
Coire Garbhlach.
Braeriach, Cairn Toul across the Moine Mhor.
Braeriach and Cairn Toul.
Towards Ben Alder and the Monadhliath's from Beinn Bhrotain.
Deeside, White Bridge and Lochnagar.

At the White Bridge I could see a walker ahead with two dogs. I stopped by the bridge to make tea and snack and one of them ran over for a pat. Someone else will tell the saga of the Glen Tromie dogs but last summer I had walked past Bhran Cottage in Glen Tromie and a very similar dog had followed me for a bit. I tried telling it to sit which to my amazement worked and then on a roll of dog-commanding told it to stay. I walked on wondering how long it would wait before heading home.

Garry and Brian from Florida passed me and I eventually caught up with them properly at the gatehouse at Victoria Bridge by Mar Lodge. The three of us marched (if you’ve ever walked with Gaz you will know what I mean) along the road to Braemar. A small, weary group gathered outside the Hungry Highlander with Fred and Donna arriving not far behind us. After trying to eat a huge portion of fish and chips I headed off to camp in a quiet spot as the others were all going to the regular campsite.

Braemar camp.
The Dee, Morrone and Braemar.

Day 8 Braemar 0km

Braemar has been as close to home for me as anywhere in the world but since my parents died I’ve struggled to go back there. Now it seemed fine again and after a great breakfast in the Bothy and a chat with Karen the owner I met up with my brother who had driven up from Ballater to see me. We did the little loop around by the Clunie and the Dee amazed at how the flood damage had repaired itself. Then after coffee at the Bothy my brother went home and I shopped for the next few days, sent a postcard and sorted my gear out in the Games Park until it was time to check into the Moorfield where I had a room booked. Later after cleaning up and hand washing some clothes I walked down to Gordons Tea Room and ate sitting with Frank who was on his tenth challenge. Like many of the people that I met he was a pleasure to talk to. After dinner we moved on to the Invercauld for drinks. It was busy with Challengers and I had another good pub night. Back at the hotel I was glad to find that the Ukulele group that I had been warned about had packed up.

The Moorfield has been done up since I was last there and is now very smart. The owners are really friendly and they do a brilliant breakfast so I would recommend it to anyone passing through.

Eagle Rocks looking a bit damp.

Day 9 Braemar - Water of Unich 22km

It was raining in the morning so I put full waterproofs on and headed off through the park then along the golf course road by the river Clunie. Over the bridge and along the glen to Loch Callater Lodge. Inside was like being in a super-bothy. I sat down and had a mug of tea with Andy A’Court and a pair of fishermen up for the day. I could have stayed all day it was such good crack but reluctantly I put my jacket back on and headed up the good path towards Carn an t-Saigart Mor. Until I went into the mist I could see Andy moving quickly along the loch side towards Jocks Road.

Beyond the top I descended out of the worst of the cloud and could see over to Eagle Rocks even though it was still raining. I met three young women travelling the other way. Then quickly over Fafernie, Cairn Bannoch and Broadcairn and more awkwardly down through the rounded boulders below. I stopped to eat at the pony hut (where when when I was seventeen I spent one of the coldest nights of my life (and I’ve had a few) with inadequate gear on a January trip to climb on Creag an Dubh Loch in freezing weather). This time it was only a bit damp.

Pony hut near Broad Cairn.

The going now was soft and easy and not too boggy after all the dry weather. Two people on horseback passed above me on the Capel Road, somewhere that I’d not been since I was twelve on a walk with my dad from Blair Atholl to Glen Doll via Lochnagar.

Then a bit of route finding over the shoulder of Ferrowie to the narrows at the top of Coire Gorm and down in thick cloud to the Water of Unich. This flows down through lovely country though there were a lot of dead birds, including birds of prey that presumably had been shot. I waded the deepening burn over and over to find the easiest walking but was so wet by now that it didn’t matter until just after 8pm I saw a patch of shorter grass on the other side and waded across a last time . The weather had changed to heavy showers with small gaps in between and I managed to get the tent up fairly dry. I was so wet it was funny and I stripped off and put on my dry hat, t shirt and socks but had to take a few bits under my quilt to dry them off. I ate another delectable foil meal and fell asleep, taking peeks out of the tent at the lovely, lonely place and clearing weather.

Water of Unich camp.

Day 10 Water of Unich - Tarfside 17km

Next morning was bright and cold but not freezing. It was dry outside but my damp gear meant that it was pretty humid inside. Thinking about putting my wet clothes on was worse than actually doing it and I got up and dressed and outside as the sun briefly made an appearance.

Further downstream I passed an old ruin and then crossed at the ford that leads by a good track up to the Shank of Inchgrundle. There was a lot of shooting going on just over the hill so I stuck to my planned route down into Glen Lee, along the loch side to a stop at an impassable wooden bench. From here it keeps being a glorious walk, past Invermark Castle then over the col by Hill of Rowan and down to Tarfside which is Braemar in miniature.

Glen Lee from the Shank of Inchgrundle.
The comfy seat.
Invermark Castle.

I got to St. Drostans and its famously warm welcome at lunchtime (always a good time to arrive anywhere). After tea, a bacon roll and cake I was given one of the rooms and went through the usual ritual when reaching civilisation of washing myself and some of my clothes and hanging all the wet stuff up to dry. Later I kited my tent in the garden next to the fine church until it dried in the breeze.

In the evening a small group sat down to a dinner of soup, chilli with baked potato and salad, followed by tea and cake. People were on great form and we all blethered for quite some time, helped by the wine and beer on offer.

Day 11 Tarfside - North Water Bridge 27km

Next morning after breakfast I said my goodbyes and warned them that I might be back. The weather was as fine as ever and after a section on the road I crossed the river and followed the grassy tracks and more often the fields close to the river. If you’ve never done it, it is an idyllic walk.

Glen Esk.

Miles later I came across Garry and Andy and Mike from Florida and stuck with them into Edzell. We’d sailed past the Rocks of Solitude and the bridge leading to the Blue Door route. In Edzell we lunched together at the Panmure Arms before splitting up to shop. Then after crossing the little footbridge all that was left was the long straight to the North Water Bridge campground. There were quite a few cars on the road but mos,t kindly gave me a wide berth.

Crossing the North Esk at Edzell.

That evening there were about ten tents at the campsite and we all knew each other at least a little by now. We got the table tennis going in the reception area and Garry and I were roundly thrashed by Mick and Andy.

Noisy North Water Bridge camp.
Looking back to the Angus hills.
I see the sea (and Montrose).

Back outside a group of us were having a good conversation when a sudden crash and flash of lightning and the rain behind it drove us all to bed. The storm drowned out the noise from the main road and I slept well until daylight.

Day 12 North Water Bridge to Montrose 15km

Then the noise drove me out of bed and after standing around talking for a while to the people still there I set off for Montrose. After crossing the busy road it is easy road walking through fields, some brightly coloured by rapeseed and with views behind to the now distant Angus hills. Soon I crested a hill and there was the sea and Montrose really close now. I turned right at Hillhead of Hedderwick and followed the small road then a walking route into Montrose, across the golf links and then after being congratulated by a golfer who had made five crossings himself dropped down the bank to the beach and sea. A good feeling after what had been an immensely enjoyable walk.

Then to Park Hotel to sign out and tea and chat. Garry and I camped at the council campsite next to the beach. In the evening we headed back to the Park Hotel for beers with a small group that moved on to the Picture House in town for more beer and food. I think everyone was tired and they drifted off. I stayed and talked to Andy for a bit who was waiting for the sleeper then said goodbye and walked back to my tent. Gaz had left me a bottle of beer - thanks mate!

Morning at Montrose beach.

Day 13 Edzell - Tarfside 20km

In the morning I packed up and walked to the beach for a last look at the sea then hopped on a bus at the station back to Edzell. From here I walked back on my route, passing through the Blue door this time and wading the river to get to the south bank (as much to cool down as anything). It was fun to see all the people walking down from Tarfside, most of whom I didn’t know but a few that I hadn’t seen since Fort Augustus. Most people were looking surprisingly fresh after such long walk.This time I stopped at The Retreat craving ginger beer and tea after such a warm hike.

Blue Door walk near Edzell.
Salmon ladder along the Blue Door walk.

I called in to St. Drostans again for tea and company then put my tent up in the lovely camp area, which was much quieter than the night before must have been with only four tents in the end. There was space for me to eat with the others so I spent another pleasant evening at St. Drostans, though much quieter than the first had been.


Day 14 Tarfside - Ballater 26km

Again I slept well and woke to a cloudless morning. I walked up the road this time, to the start of Glen Mark. Then stopped by the river at the Queens Well for tea. It was the hottest day of my whole trip and although I was still going well I needed noticeably longer breaks than before. At the top I met two lads, both with bikes who had come up from different sides. Then down the hill, very thirsty to make some more tea beside the Tanar.

Queens Well in Glen Mark.
Mount Keen fromm Glen Tanar.
Almost at Ballater.

Finally on up more of the Mounth Road and down to Ballater in the late afternoon to stay at my brothers place and the real end of a fantastic trip.

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