East Highland Way Day 6: Kincraig to Aviemore

Published 11 March 2015

Boaters on the River Spean near Kincraig

“It’s like when you’re reading a good book, and you don’t want to put it down,” said Tal as we walked down the road. “But you know you’re getting near the end, and you don’t want it to get to the last page. So you want to put the book down, so that it will last a bit longer.”

He paused.

“Do you know what I mean?”

Oh yes, I did.

We were on our last day. And I didn’t want the East Highland Way to end. It suddenly was feeling too short. And yes, I too wanted to pause; to stop where we were. To eke it all out just that little bit longer. For to finish would mean heading home. And heading home would mean leaving this beautiful part of the world. In comparison, returning to London just didn’t have the same attraction.

However much as we wanted to dawdle, to spend more time there, we also had to be brutally honest with ourselves. There are only so many ways you can eke out an 11 mile walk to the town of Aviemore.

The River Spean seen near Kincraig

The sun came out as we crossed the timber bridge that spans the River Spey, and which would take us into the village of Kincraig. We stood on the bridge in silence, watching the sun sparkle and shine on the surface of the river. Two women paddled along it in the canoe; their oars causing the water to ripple mesmerizingly as they moved along the water. It was magical; the spell only broken when a car came along, and wanted to get past, requiring us to walk to the end of the bridge so it could.

The East Highland Way doesn’t actually go into Kincraig, but as we needed to buy some food for our lunch, we made the short detour off the trail and down the road to the village, and its amply stocked shop. For a tiny place, it had an astounding range of provisions, stocking everything from Serrano ham and tapas selections, to Scotch Pies and Tablet, as well as a wide range of fresh fruit and vegetables. Not for nothing did our rucksacks seem substantially heavier as we left.

Back over the Spey, we returned to the East Highland Way as it meandered around farm buildings and along old tracks until arriving alongside a stone wall with a gate in it. Going through the gate revealed a grassy area full of carved tree trunks.

Sculptures from the Frank Bruce Sculpture Park, just off the East Highland Way

Frank Bruce is perhaps not the best known of artists. In fact he’s not very well known at all. He eschewed the world of commercial art, and insisted that his work should always be seen for free. And that’s how the Frank Bruce Sculpture Trail, sited in Inshriach Forest near Feshiebridge, came to exist. Set in a piece of Forestry Commission land, the trail takes the walker through on a gentle tour of Frank’s work, which consists mostly of carved tree trunks in a range of sizes. Some were out in the open in a grassy field, whilst others stood more subtly, surrounded by trees in an adjoining area of woodland.

With themes including violence and inequality, there was haunting element to many of the works, full of twisted and tormented looking faces. Yet these were also mixed in with the more philosophic and thoughtful. I spent some time taking the gentle path between them all, pausing to reflect on it all. One resonated particularly. A giant piece with three legs, The Walker showed someone striding across the land; a stick in his hand. It was as if Frank knew who some of his visitors would be.

Another featured a quote from the artist that particularly stood out.

'If I could write adequately to explain the shapes and feelings I am endeavouring to create I would be a writer' - Frank Bruce

“If I could write adequately to explain the shapes and feelings I am endeavouring to create, I would be a writer.”

Writing’s gain would have been sculpture’s loss, although even then, much about Frank’s work will only ever be transitory. Carved out of the trunks of fallen trees, and placed in the open air, subject to all the elements – and even the odd woodpecker – one day Frank’s pieces may be no more. One had already fallen, and sat decaying gently in one corner. Frank was originally happy for this to be the case, however in recent years some thought and work has gone into preserving them for future generations.

Frank died in 2009 aged 78. And hidden in the trees, mid way through the Sculpture Trail sat a small tombstone-style sculpture, which included a message that was almost like he’d written his own epitaph. “I was privileged to be.”


Feshie Bridge, over the River Feshie

The river Feshie bounded and bashed its way over the rocks as the road crossed it on a large stone bridge at the tiny hamlet of Feshiebridge, which sat in a gap in the Inshriach Forest. Hamlet seemed too strong a word for it; the place consisted of barely a few houses, a road and a statutory declaration of intent to vote one particular way in the forthcoming referendum.

We headed once more into the trees, following a succession of forest tracks, lined with the ever present purple heather. The East Highland Way twisted and turned down a maze-like system of forest roads and tracks; our guide book providing extensive instructions to ensure we didn’t get lost on these myriad of tracks. Where do they all go, I pondered, before quickly answering my own question. They were logging roads, ergo they went to trees. That is all.

Well, most of them did. One became a track that took us to the edge of the forest, and seamlessly into the neighbouring Invereshie and Inshriach National Nature Reserve. Housing ancient Caledonian pine trees alongside younger Scots pines, the area is a place where rare species congregate. Those with good eyes can see red squirrels and wood grouse, as well as red deer and even the odd eagle. Or so an interpretation board said. In contrast, our eyes merely spotted a slug and assorted collection of fungi lining the track.

Drakes Bothy, on the East Highland Way

At the edge of the reserve sat Drake’s Bothy, and we popped our head round the door to compare it with the Dalnashallag bothy we’d passed in Glen Banchor a couple of days earlier. A smart wooden hut in good condition, with a double deck sleeping platform, it looked like a fine place to spend the night; especially if you intended to wake early and enjoy the sunrise in this peaceful location. Although as it was barely 11am, to do so would require us to wait some time.

The trees had thinned; the views opened up with the Monadhliath mountains on one side, and the Cairngorns on the other, with the East Highland Way snaking its way between them. It was a lovely track, lined with wild flowers, and crossing small, babbling streams and brooks. There was even a loch to walk past, named Loch Gamhna (meaning ‘Calf Lake’ by all accounts, although who knows why); the sun reflecting beautifully in the water.

Ah, the sun. We’d done well with the weather. Before we’d left London, I’d marched Tal to a branch of a high street outdoor shop, and watched as he’d tried on a range of waterproof jackets and trousers. In my experience it was a rare multi-day walk that didn’t involve at least one torrential downpour, but the waterproofs had stayed unused at the bottom of our packs. The worst weather we’d had, had been some light drizzle on the first day as we’d left Fort William. Every time Tal had said something like “This is the life,” I tried to point out that things were just a bit less fun when it was pouring with rain, however the weather hadn’t seem inclined to back up my point. Not that I was going to argue. Walking in a t-shirt with a pair of sunglasses on was a far more appealing proposition than being bundled up in waterproof nylon.

Sign saying ‘Path Not Maintained’

The loch had been on our list of potential spots to sit and have our lunch, however the path weaved its way along at a respectable distance from the loch edge for the most part, and it wasn’t until we reached the loch head that we found a respectable spot where we could rest. We parked up near the little intake that connected Loch Gamhna with nearby Loch an Eilein, near a sign that warned us the path we had been walking on was definitely “NOT MAINTAINED”. It wasn’t clear who was not maintaining it, as it had seemed in pretty good nick to me.

In fact it wasn’t maintained by the Rothiemurchus Estate, whose land we were now on. Owned by the Grant family since the 16th century, the estate covers a whopping 25,000 acres, including many of the nearby Cairngorn mountains. Whilst the estate may be large, the public face of it was no doubt the paths and trails we now on; those around the idyllic Loch an Eilein. It was clear many people were out enjoying the fine weather. No sooner had we sat down than we were passed by a flurry of walkers who were all using the Estate’s footpaths and tracks for an afternoon of leisure.

“We’ve seen more people here in ten minutes than we have all day,” remarked Tal.

“All week, I think,” I replied.

It was true. There were people everywhere. And not just walkers, but cyclists and dogs too. One dog in particular – a small but loudly yapping thing – had taken a particular interest in us. Or perhaps it was the packet of ham we’d bought in Kincraig, which we were intending to put on our sandwiches. Its owner was nowhere to be seen and as neither of us were dog experts, several minutes were expended trying to fend it off without success. Images of our lunch being dragged off into the bushes and devoid followed, until I finally had a brainwave.

“NO!” I shouted, loudly and firmly and off the dog went, tail between legs, never to be seen again. “And let that be a lesson to you,” I muttered as it scampered off.


People walking in the Rothiemurchus Estate

After five and a half days of being mostly alone, to suddenly be sharing the East Highland Way with lots of other people was a big culture shock. Half of Aviemore seemed to be out walking in the Rothiemurchus Estate, all admiring the trees, the lochs and the wildlife.

“Look over there!” I muttered, pointing randomly off in the distance where I’d seen a red squirrel casually darting amongst the trees.

“Where?” asked Tal, eyes gazing over the land.

“It’s gone.”

“Where? I can’t see anything”

“That’s because it’s gone.”

“Ah.”

Clearly the week had done wonders for our ability to understand each other.

“Oh hang on, there it is again,” I added as the squirrel bounced around near the foot of some trees, almost brazenly and with complete disregard for the many people heading towards it.

Once red squirrels were everywhere in Britain, but the introduction of the grey squirrel from North America has made their lives more difficult. But many still survive. There’s something like 160,000 red squirrels tucked away in the United Kingdom as a whole, with 75% of them residing in Scotland. The local (mostly) reclusive creatures are helped in their battle against the more dominant grey squirrels by the hand of man. The hand of a man holding a gun. In these strongholds of the reds, there are regular culls of any grey intruders, and although there are no known colonies of greys in the Highlands, the threat is taken very seriously. A few days earlier we’d been told by a B&B owner that a grey had been sighted a few miles away just a few days before. Its fate, if seen again, would be to be trapped and swiftly dispatched. There’s no mercy for the grey squirrel, for if there was, the reds would face a distinctly grim future of their own.

Loch an Eilein castle

Our red squirrel had been pottering around near the edge of Loch an Eilein. It’s one of the few lochs to contain a castle in the middle – an essential feature surely for any loch owner – and the ruins of which now came into view. Looking at it, it was clear that the only way to reach the castle from the loch shore would be by boat. This led to the obvious question of why anyone would build a castle in the middle of a loch in the first place. It is hardly a practical location, and if you’re under attack, all any attackers would need to do is steal or sink the boat, and you’d have no chance of escape.

Of course, when the castle was originally built in the 15th century, there had been another way in. A causeway had been built to connect the castle to the shore, and it remained until the loch’s water levels were raised three centuries later. Now the island is cut off and the crumbling walls of the castle are inaccessible. It sits alone now, undisturbed by all except, perhaps, the faint sound of camera shutters clicking as visitors admire its position, surrounded by water and mountains.


Loch an Eilein

Although the Rothiemurchus Estate was a popular place to walk round, it was obviously from the size of the car park that it was one which everyone drove to. And the loch itself was clearly the main draw. As we began to move away from the loch, the number of people on the footpaths reduced dramatically. Once again, we were the only ones around as we followed a quiet series of tracks through gentle woodland.

“Is this the point where you carry me?” asked Tal, who had been finding things rather hard on his feet.

“You might need to lose some weight first,” I replied, shuddering with the thought of it. Whilst Tal was not a particularly well built bloke, he was a tall one, towering over most people he met. Carrying him, never mind his rucksack, would probably be a bit beyond me.

“So which way do we go then?”

Someone relaxing next to a small lochan

We were stood next to a small lochan, poring over the map, trying to work out which of the three paths in front of us was the one we were supposed to take.

“The guidebook says take the left one and head northwards. Which, according to the compass, is that path as well. Apparently when we take it, we should see another path join from the right shortly afterwards.”

“Okay then.”

We walked up the path, and another path did indeed join from the right shortly afterwards. But there was something that didn’t seem quite right about it. Where most of the East Highland Way had been on bold, obvious tracks of good quality and stature, the one we were now following was a narrow track, frequently swamped by undergrowth. Confused, I looked at the map. We were supposed to pass by a pond on the left, quickly followed by another shortly after. I looked up. There was a pond ahead of us. We walked on, and there was a second. It seemed like everything was good and correct, yet I still couldn’t shake off the feeling that something wasn’t quite right.

“Hang on,” I stopped abruptly, confused. “There’s not supposed to be a third pond.”

If I needed confirmation that we’d made a navigational error, this was it. The map had shown the path passing just two ponds. This third one wasn’t shown at all. It was too big to not be included, unless the cartographer had made a grave error, and that didn’t seem very likely. Finally, I had confirmation that we’d gone the wrong way and got the map out of my pocket. Looking at it, I spotted where we probably were. Looking at my map, I spotted where we might actually be and dug into my pocket for the compass to confirm it. Instead of heading north to Aviemore, the path we’d followed – which hadn’t even been shown on our map – had taken us off course, meaning we’d drifted north west instead.

Thankfully we hadn’t made too bad a mistake – just a half mile detour by the time we got back to where we were supposed to be – and even with his dogs barking, Tal took it all with good grace. We were soon going the right way, on a path that was far more substantial and obvious than whatever it was that we’d been following; and one which passed only two ponds too. And, when all was said and done, it was the first wrong turn, which given we were two miles from the end, wasn’t a bad track record. Tal soon cheered himself up again, finding that this new path was lined with yet more spectacular displays of mushrooms.

The last fungi on the East Highland Way

“Right, this is the last fungus of the East Highland Way,” he proclaimed, not taking kindly to me walking a few metres down the path and pointing to another cluster of them. “No, they’re not mushrooms. They’re your imagination.”

“I must have a pretty good imagination,” I replied, admiring the plethora of red topped fungi with their distinctive white tops.

The photographic possibilities of fungi always slowed our progress; and this path had some especially fine examples. Again, I casually wondered whether the ones we were looking at were delicious or deadly, finally deciding the only way to find out would be to try some, and there was no way I was going to do that.

The entrance to Tree Zone on the outskirts of Aviemore

At the end of the path of mushrooms lay a road, and the final haul to the end. A visitor centre with a cluster of shops and other tourist attractions, was attracting the crowds.

“Fancy going on the tree top aerial adventure course?” I asked as we came across a place with a large sign saying “Tree Zone” outside it. “We’ve got time before our train.”

As understatements go, this was rather a big one. It was early afternoon and our sleeper train didn’t depart for London for another seven hours. Tal, however, was less convinced that a tree-top adventure was the best use of our time, and instead insisted we head on to centre of Aviemore.

Aviemore’s main street

Cars zoomed by and tourists ambled as we strode up the main street looking for the end of the East Highland Way. Every lamppost seemed to be festooned with referendum posters, yet unlike most of the places we’d visited, the “No” posters were just as prevalent as the “Yes” ones. Yet again, the “No” posters had also been placed conspicuously higher. Presumably someone here had got the memo about making sure their posters couldn’t easily be taken down by their political rivals. I walked past them and wondered who would be popping out to remove them all after the referendum. Somehow I doubted there would be much enthusiasm on either side to rush out the day after the big vote, in order to cut the pieces of string and remove the cardboard.

We walked past a large hotel, a seventies concrete monstrosity of the “screw you” school of architecture, which felt extremely out-of-place in this small highland town. The town’s railway station was far more appealing, even it did look like it would have been more at home in a Swiss ski resort. Although given Aviemore is itself a skiing resort, perhaps it was the right design after all.

What we were looking for lay somewhere beyond the station, and the town’s cluster of shops. And there it was, placed subtly next to a car park.

Just as in Fort William, the East Highland Way connects at Aviemore with another trail. Here it was the Speyside Way, an 81 mile journey along the River Spey to the town of Buckie on the Moray Firth. The Speyside Way sets off with significantly less fanfare however; the start being marked merely by a simple sign and an interpretation board. No statues of people rubbing their feet or anything.

Stood next to the Speyside Way information board in Aviemore, at the end of the East Highland Way

“Think that’s it then,” said Tal.

“Yep.”

“What do we do now then?”

“Well, I have researched things to do in Aviemore. And it turns out that the public toilets just behind us have public showers, so we can freshen up before the train! Although, for some strange reason, the showers are only open between 11:30 and 3pm. And it’s half three now.”

“Right,” Tal paused for a moment. “Anything else?”

“Well there’s a steam railway. But the only train today went an hour ago.”

“Pint then?”

“Yeah. Go on then.”

Given the journey started in a pub, it seemed only appropriate to end there too.

On Thursday 18 September 2014 the people of Scotland voted by 55% to 45% to remain in the United Kingdom. Despite the huge numbers of “YES” posters everywhere, the Scottish Highland region – through which the East Highland Way travels – only 46.6% of the population voted for independence.

Meanwhile, back in London, Tal swiftly began conversations about options for future walks.

Rambling Man Walks The East Highland Way

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