BRECHIN The Ancient City

Round and About Lochnagar

Last week I put my backpack and boots etc. into the car and headed north to one of my favourite areas, Ballater; Loch Muick and my favourite mountain, Lochnagar.  Places I had visited many times as a member of The Carn Dearg Mountaineering Club since it's inception in 1950. The Club celebrated it's 50th anniversary at Glen Clova in December last year.  I had walked and rock climbed in the area many times over the years along with club members, friends, and many servicemen and their families from the former United States Edzell Navy Base at R.A.F. Edzell, during the 1950s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90's, and still to this day it is a very special place, filled with lasting memories, some of friends who are no longer here.  To me it is a very special place, wild and rugged mountains and beautiful forests, mountain streams and forests of larch and pine.  At times peaceful and calm and at others cold and icy with  its mountains covered in snow and ice.

Leaving Brechin I drove through the lovely village of Edzell and over the Gannochy Bridge across the River North Esk which many Americans who served at Edzell Base will remember as "The Blue Door", where they swam and enjoyed barbeques on the rugged banks of the river amidst woodland scenery of real beauty.  On I went through the Victorian Arch at Fettercairn village and in a few miles started driving up the steep slopes of The Cairn O' Mounth road, a former cattle road in days gone bye, where Highland cattle drovers from the highlands in the north drove their cattle south to the famous cattle markets at Trinity near Brechin, and other places.  The Grampian mountains are criss-crossed by many old drove roads and whisky trails, where "usqubae" , the "water of life", was carried in kegs by highland ponies from secret stills in the glens to be sold illegaly in cities and towns such as Brechin and Montrose.  There were many escapades and fights with the Customs and Excise men, some quite famous engagements, which we shall leave for later.

A few miles from Fettercairn we come upon the steep road up Cairn O' Mounth and, as we rise higher, the heather clad hills are a lovely picture now in September, their heather covered slopes resplendent in purple.  Stopping at the car park at the top, the countryside all around can be viewed, from the higher mountains to the north, Lochnagar; Clochnaben, and the valley of lower Deeside.  To the south is the rich farmland of the Howe Of The Mearns and the Valley of Strathmore, the areas of Glamis Castle and of Kirriemuir, the birthplace of Sir James Barrie famous for his story of Peter Pan and other tales.  The view takes us down the east coast past Leuchars and down as far as the Lomond Hills.  Looking left, up the east coast the towns and villages of Laurenckirk and Bervie can be seen and the old fishing villages of Gourdon and Johnshaven, and St. Cyrus, with it's highly visible church spire, used by fisherman for navigational reference.  The history of the ancient coastal villages is wonderfully written, from the time of The Spanish Armada until the end of World War 2.  The book "A Wild And Rocky Coast" is a mine of history and folklore and well illustrated with pictures of bygone days.  Roy and his wife Lizzie are great friends of my wife Mary and I.  Mary's ancestors hailed from the coastal villages of Gourdon and Kinneff and I have traced the families' history back for hundreds of years.

Back to our  viewpoint on top of Cairn O' Mounth and Montrose, Arbroath, and Lunan Bay can be seen.  In the valley are the small villages of Angus and the ancient city of Brechin, just visible in the centre.  Returning to the car we travel down the steep road, running through heather clad moorland and at the bottom is the ancient hamlet and former Drover's Inn at Brig (Bridge) O' Dye which crosses the Water of Dye.  The ancient stone bridge is now bypassed and a new bridge built.   However, it is pleasant to stop here at this former hostelry and walk onto the bridge, which is built in a curve to slow down traffic so that the former Tollkeeper was not done out of payment.  The story of John Gall a former Brechin man stopped at this hostelry with some cattle he had stolen a few miles further north, many years ago.  A Brechin man, he was caught near his hometown of Brechin, later tried in Aberdeen and sentenced to the penal colony of Van Diemen's Land, south of Australia and never saw his family or his native City of Brechin again.  Here at "Brig O" Dye" are the remains of concrete "pill boxes", or defensive strongpoints from World War 2.  This was a heavily protected area, as it linked north and south.  If the heights of Cairn O' Mount had been taken, the airfields of Montrose, Edzell, H.M.S. Condor; Pert, Leuchars, Fordoun, and Kinnell, as well as the seaports of Stonehaven, Montrose, Arbroath, and the R.A.D.A.R. early warning establishment near Letham at Douglastown would all have been in view of the enemy.  Also, the large expanse of sand at Lunan Bay, which was heavily defended against landing of troops by assault craft.  Hundreds of years ago the Viking raiders landed in their longships and marched into Montrose and Brechin, looting and burning.                                                                             

We now drive on through beautiful countryside lined with woodlands and after crossing the small bridge over the Water of Feugh, turn left on the B976 and drive through a panorama of hills and ancient villages until we meet the River Dee on our right side.  We can cross the bridge and continue to Ballater on the main Deeside road.  However there are many beauriful things to view if we keep on the Lower Deeside Road.  At a stopping place, one of many on the banks of the River Dee, wonderful views of this famous salmon fishing river can be had and also a panorama of the Cairngorm mountains to the north.  As we near Glen Tanar Estate there is a beautiful school and a memorial well to Queen Victoria built by Mr. Brooks, a millionaire who occupied the nearby Glentanar House and Estate a few miles further on.  The castleated gatehouse to the estate is a beautiful building, and the views from the bridge over the water below are magnificent.  The nearby path leads over the mountains past Mount Keen and to Tarfside in Glenesk and back to Brechin, but is a one day expedition on it's own and proper walking gear is necessary.  The Lodge at Glentanar was the summer/autumn retreat of the famous Lilly Langtry for some years and also for millionaires during the shooting and fishing season.  On we go, following the River Dee towards Ballater.  A few miles further, on our left, a sign points to the small farm of Ballaterach which Lord Byron visited on holidays in Deeside.  He wrote the verse of the song "Dark Lochnagar", a lovely tune and story of the mountain we shall be seeing before long.  The music of "Dark Lochnagar" is already on our website and the words can be accessed from here.  Further up Deeside, at Braemar is a house where Lord Byron lived and wrote.

Continuing our journey, we pass an old coaching house and inn on our left.  This is the famous Inn at Pannanich Wells, an ancient hostelry famous for it's nearby springs of health giving waters for hundreds of years past.  The bottled water can be purchased at the Inn which is also a wonderful stopping place for a meal and a refreshing drink.  The views from this area over Royal Deeside and Ballater are magnificent.

Now it's on downhill to the famous Royal Deeside village of Ballater.  Leaving Pannanich Wells we drive the two miles downhill with a lovely view of the beautiful Craigendarroch Hill with it's backdrop of trees and crags adding to the beauty of Ballater itself.  A walk up to the top gives a splendid view of the surrounding Deeside and the River Dee.  However, we must leave another day for that.  At the bottom of the hill road we turn left over the beautiful stone-arched bridge leading into the town.  Ballater is a lovely place with churches, hotels, town hall, and other interesting buildings.  There is a lovely caravanning and camping park, nice restaurants and cafes, baker, butcher, sweets and grocery shops.  Clothing shops with a large selection of clothes, including tartans and tweeds.  Sporting shops for anglers and shooters, and one shop in particular is an outdoor sporting shop, Lochnagar Leisure, catering for outdoor activities such as mountaineering, hillwalking, skiing, and much more.  Friendly public houses and beautiful hotels in wonderful settings are all around the area.  The railway from Aberdeen used to end here at Ballater station.  There is no longer a railway, but the station buildings and platform still exist, where Royalty and their guests would arrive for holidays at nearby Balmoral Castle, the Highland home of Britain's kings and queens and their families since the times of Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert.   It was Prince Albert who designed the present Royal Castle, a former castle having stood there.

After enjoying Ballater, we take the road back across the bridge over the River Dee and turn right for six miles towards Loch Muick.  This road is much narrower with beautiful trees on either side for six miles.  The lovely Falls of Muick can be viewed before the trees give way to open moorland and mountains, at Linn of Muick.

Waterfall at Loch of Muick, en route from Ballater to Loch Muick

Another three and a half miles takes us to th parking area, which is as far as cars are allowed.  Nearby is the Visitor Centre and Picnic Area with a Mountain Rescue Post nearby.  Ahead, Loch Muick fills the valley floor and a walk around the beautiful lochside is over eight miles.  There are some rough parts and some wet parts on the path and strong footwear is advisable.  The path on the east side of the loch rises steeply over the Capel Mounth and is only advisable for experienced hillwalkers.  On the left side is the Glas Alt Sheil path leading to Glas Alt Shiel Lodge and the nearby Queen Victoria's Waterfall.  This path is a round trip of over eight miles and really only for experienced walkers.  One mile west of the car park is the Royal Lodge of Alt na Giuthasach a favourite of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and has been visited by most of the Royal Families of Europe.  It is a beautiful area with moorland and trees surrounding it.  The lodge can be seen close up except when visitors from Balmoral Castle are there.  The book "Queen Victoria's Highland Diaries" is a good book on the area and has sketches of the lodges and other beautiful spots nearby.

The shiel (cottage) of Alt-na-Giuthasach at Loch Muick, Balmoral Estates.  From a sketch by Queen Victoria.

The shieling (cottages) of Alt-na-Giuthasach at Loch Muick, Balmoral Estates, from the Capel Path.  The cottage on the right is the shiel used by Queen Victoria and her husand, Prince Albert of Saxcoburg, was known by them as "The Hut".  The porch was added later.  After her husband's death the Queen used the shieling of Glas-alt-Shiel at the eastend of Loch Muick for her visits from Balmoral Castle.  The above shieling is still a favourite retreat for the present Royal Family.


A rare picture taken by Eric Walker Sr. on a summer morning while en route to the summit of Lochnagar, with George Coleman and Arnold Newman from United States Navy Base, Edzell.  The sun was rising in the east, over the Capel Mounth, its rays being reflected from the water of Loch Muick through a bedroom window of Alt-na-Giuthasach.  The picture of Prince Albert in Highland dress was being reflected in the wardrobe mirror.  The actual picture was on the inside wall, left of the window, and impossible to see from the outside.  The effect is much the same as the famous "camera obscura" in Kirriemuir, Angus.  This rare shot only lasted for a moment before disappearing.

Queen Victoria's Waterfall behind Glas-alt-Shiel Hunting Lodge, west end of Loch Muick, Balmoral.

This is the starting point for the long walk and steep climb to the famous mountain Lochnagar, especially for the Summer Solstice, on the longest day of sun during the year.  It is a long hard walk and one should be prepared for any type of weather and go with experienced guides.  The view from the top is tremendous on a clear morning and on others it is even hard to see a few feet ahead, definitely not for the inexperienced travelling alone!  Before venturing into the mountains and wild country of this area, obtain advice from the Visitor Centre and Mountain Rescue Post at Loch Muick, or from the Lochnagar Leisure shop in Ballater.

The north face of Lochnagar with the white peak of the summit on the right, Cac-Carn-Beag, taken from slopes of Meikle Pap.  It shows some favourite rock climbs, including Central Butress, Eagle Ridge, Parallel Butress, Raeburn's Gully, Black Spout, Black Spout Butress, etc.

Taken from the summit of Lochnagar at approximately 4:15am during the summer solstice on the longest day of the year in June 1998.  Over the Cairngorm Mountains to the east the early sun is rising and colouring the clouds.

After returning to Ballater a visit can be mad to nearby Crathie Church where The Royal Family Worship during their stay at Balmoral. Across the road from the Church, a sign points along a path, and a short distance from here is the local cemetery. Here is the grave of the famous John Brown, who was the faithful and loyal Retainer of Her Majesty Queen Victoria. the stone has an inscription on it. John Brown's Parents are also buried in Crathie Cemetery.

To enjoy this area takes more than one day.  Ballater and the surrounding district are beautiful and full of friendly people.  It has been a great favourite of mine for many years, since the times when my friends in the Carn Dearg Mountaineering Club and in the Brechin Cycling Club went to the former Youth Hostel there in Dee Street.  Great times with good friends from Scotland, England, US Navy, Edzell, and elsewhere, some no longer with us, round a blazing log fire in the former Lochend Bothy.

"Memories are made of this"

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