East Highland Way Day 5: Newtonmore to Kincraig

Published 4 March 2015

Allt Laraidh near Newtonmore

“Did you see that?” I stopped, as something darted into the undergrowth on the edge of Newtonmore.

“Where?” asked Tal.

“It’s gone now.”

“Where?”

“There,” I said, pointing at a bush.

“I can’t see anything.”

“That’s because it’s gone.”

“Oh.”

We’d reached a level of brevity in our communication, that can only really come after spending four days in close quarters with the same person. It happens. Still, at least we hadn’t killed each other yet.

Wildcat trail sign near Newtonmore

Quite what it was that I saw dashing away from us, I couldn’t tell either. I had a feeling it might have been a wildcat. Newtonmore is famed for them. There’s a Wildcat Trail, a Wildcat Centre, and even a Wildcat Experience. Although it turned out the Wildcat Experience is not some sort of wildcat based theme park, but a series of painted models of the creatures dotted around town. The reality was slightly less glamorous than the name, although I guess “Painted plaster models of a wild creature, placed in spots around town”, would not have been quite a big a tourist draw.

Pure-bred wildcats are pretty rare. These are no strays, but the real deal. Never domesticated; simply pure predator. Quite how many wildcats live in Scotland – the only place in the British Isles where they can still be found – is a matter of debate and conjecture. Some estimates suggest a number in the thousands, whilst others go as low as 35. There are also many more wildcat hybrids – those who are descended from wildcats breeding with domestic cats.

The Highlands are one of the few areas you can find the creatures, with the area around Newtonmore being a particular stronghold, hence the town’s devotion to all things wildcatty. Naturally the East Highland Way joined in with the enthusiasm, initially leaving the town via the Wildcat Trail, a circular walk around town which is supposedly a prime way of seeing the animals.

Well, the East Highland Way was supposed to leave the town that way anyway. As we joined the trail, a small A4 piece of paper pinned to a fence warned us the trail was closed due to an unsafe bridge. We stood, looking at this warning for a moment, wondering what to do. With no better ideas, we decided to risk it, and headed up to see what the damage was. If we needed to, we were sure we’d be able to ford the stream if we need to.

A non-existant bridge just outside of Newtonmore

It turned out that the bridge wasn’t as much unsafe as non-existent. It had complete gone, with only the concrete struts that it used to rest on remaining.

“This might require some fording,” I said, looking over to Tal. Or, more accurately, where Tal had been, since in the time I’d taken to assess the situation, he’d already bounced over to the other side. Fording the River Calder the day before had obviously left him well prepared, although to be fair, crossing this particular stream was far less challenging. Still, we got a reward for our effort. On the other side was a small but very active waterfall, which splashed and whooshed its way over the rocks.


Looking back over Newtonmore

By road, Kinguisse is a mere three miles from Newtonmore. This is because the road takes the most direct route. But quick as it would be, wandering down the A86 would not be the most enjoyable experience for hikers, so the East Highland Way has to go on a bit of a detour. It does so by heading north over open moorland. And then, after a mile, it stars winding its way north east, towards the still and peaceful Loch Gynack. It’s a lovely looking loch, overlooked by a large fell on the other side of the water. Our path arced round the loch’s edge, always staying a respectful distance from the waterside, thus ruining any plans anyone may have had for sitting by the water’s edge and eating an apple.

There wasn’t just a fell on the other side of the water though. Our path was taking us along the foot of Creag Bheag, a 487m high fell which stands guard over the town of Kinguisse. It’s a nice looking fell, and one that is certainly not to be confused with another local fell a mere mile away to the north east which also seems to be called Creag Bheag. At least, according to the OS map anyway. I spent ages staring at, trying to work out if I was looking at a mistake, or if the term was just some Gaelic for “hill summit.”

Were there really two fells of the same name, so close together? It must get confusing, especially when two hikers declare that they’ll meet each other at the top of Creag Bheag. Which one will they go to? It’s a problem that I’m absolutely positive happens at least once a year. Hey, if I lived in the area, I’d be the person organising the confusion.

Sign for the Golf Course Circular on the East Highland Way

If I’d thought about it in advance, I probably would have headed up to the top of Creag Bheag – the one closest to the loch anyway – and had a look at the view. Why wouldn’t you? But the East Highland Way doesn’t bother, and when we came to a signpost which pointed out the summit was a mere quarter of a mile away, I was far more distracted by the fact that the East Highland Way was joining a trail with the amazing name of “Golf Course Circular”. Seriously, why would you want to walk Newtonmore’s Wildcat Trail when you can go to Kinguisse and walk the Golf Course Circular instead?

After many years of walking, I have formulated a rule about walking trails. It’s called, rather imaginatively, Bowden’s Rule of Golf Courses. It states that every long distance walking trail must feature a golf course along its route at least once.

I have yet to find a walking trail that does not comply, in at least once, with the rule. Any walk heading through the South East of England will inevitably come across one every ten miles or so, but even the most remote trails seem to have one somewhere. Even the Pennine Way, which spends most of its time heading through featureless moorland, comes alongside one as it approaches of Hadrian’s Wall.

Kinguisse’s golf course would be the third on the East Highland Way, so this was one trail that certainly wouldn’t be the exception that proves the rule. But quite where Kinguisse’s golf course was, was another question. As we headed down the winding trail that would eventually lead us into town, there seemed to be something distinctly missing; a complete lack of people wearing dodgy jumpers and holding long metal poles. This may be the Golf Course Circular, but where on earth was the golf course?

A tree near Kinguisse

After some time wandering through trees, and heather lined paths, we were beginning to think it was a firm case of false advertising. Perhaps this was some sort of former golf course; one returned to nature and left for everyone to enjoy. Hence, the name. Of course, it wasn’t, and it hadn’t. As we got closer to town, there it was; the golf course’s flags fluttering in the breeze. The Golf Course Circular may have been over-egging its golf course involvement just a little, but it was there. We could breathe easy once more.

Our time on the Golf Course Circular came to an end at a caravan park, from where a road would lead us past St Vincent’s Hospital and into Kinguisse itself. Opened in 1901 as a sanatorium, for fifty years it treated those suffering TB until the rise of modern antibiotics reduced the need for it. Its impressive stone buildings are now used instead as a community hospital for elderly patients, especially those suffering from dementia.

Not far away, a poster on a lamppost proclaimed “Bairns not bombs”, providing an emotional tug for the looming Scottish referendum campaign, giving the image that the Westminster government was some sort of modern day King Herod who destroyed all children on sight. Every time we entered into a new town, the number of posters seemed to increase. In contrast to Newtonmore though, someone from the pro-union campaign had been out and about, ensuring their posters were put up as high as possible on the lampposts. A few days earlier we’d heard tales of “dirty tricks” with people taking down campaign posters they didn’t agree with. Someone here clearly wasn’t taking any chances.

We walked across Kinguisse’s bustling high street, headed past the railway station and towards the grounds of the local shinty club; a team game that involves big wooden sticks, and body tackles. It’s an ancient game, believed to have come over from Ireland, although as it’s been around longer than the earliest written histories of Scotland, much is lost in the mists of time. It’s believed to be older than Christianity, putting it at more than 2,000 years old, although exactly how old it is, no one is entirely sure.

It was once a popular game across Scotland and England, but these days is predominately played in the Scottish Highlands, although there are teams across Scotland and even clubs in London and Cornwall. Along with Newtonmore, Kinguisse’s club is one of the “Big Two”, and in 2005 was declared the most successful sporting team in the world by the Guinness Book of Records after winning twenty consecutive leagues, and going unbeaten for four years in the 1990s. If you want world class shinty, this was clearly the place to be! Although if you do, it’s probably best coming on a day when the game’s being played. The Kinguisse ground was silent as we went past; no roar of the crowds, as sticks hit other sticks, for us.

The club ground sat near the elevated A9 dual carriageway, busy taking cars and lorries towards Inverness and beyond. The road we were walking on was a bit quieter. Well, okay, it was deserted. There was not a single vehicle to be seen, until we came to the small car park outside Ruthven Barracks; a large ruined fortress which sits on a mound overlooking the town.

Ruthven Barracks, seen from the East Highland Way

The barracks were built as a response to the Jacobite uprising of 1715. Whilst that rebellion had failed, there continued to be unrest in many parts of Scotland and in response the British government decided to build fortified barracks in several strategic locations, including at Ruthven. Built on the site of the former Ruthven Castle – which had been reduced to ruin during an earlier Jacobite uprising in 1689 – the new barracks opened for business in 1721 with space for 120 soldiers and 28 horses.

If, by building the barracks, the government hoped to prevent any future rebellions, then they would be disappointed. Naturally a large fortified barracks was going to be a focal point during any rebellion, which meant that during the 1745 uprising – the attempt to get Bonnie Prince Charlie on the throne, commemorated by the cairn we’d visited on our first day of walking – Ruthven was attacked. The first attempt to take the place happened in August of that year. The main complement of the barracks had headed north to join the government army, leaving just a small unit to protect it. It was then that a group of 200 Jacobites attacked, amazingly fended off by a mere 12 soldiers. However, the following year the barracks was surrounded by a much larger force, and Ruthven was swiftly occupied by the Jacobites. Once again though, the Jacobite uprising failed and the occupiers destroyed the barracks when they fled in April the following year.

Inside Ruthven Barracks

Following the failure of the 1745 uprising, there was a marked decline in Jacobite support. Ruthven was never rebuilt and has remained in a ruined state ever since. These days it’s owned and maintained by Historic Scotland and a steady stream of people arrive daily to view and wander round the sizeable remains. Its life as a tourist attraction will be far longer than its time as a military base. It was a substantial building, and must have been reasonably hard to destroy, although take away the wooden floors and roof and you could probably make a good start.

We wandered over the grass that now covered the ground floor, making note of where the bedrooms, the store cupboards and the latrines were, all dutifully marked by metal plaques. And at the far end, we took in the view, looking back towards Kinguisse and Newtonmore, and its backdrop of hills.

It was a good view, and one certainly worth lingering and admiring. Which is exactly what we did, finding a spot on the castle mound, in the shade of the walls of the barracks, to sit, rest and eat our lunch. A fine view and a good lunch. It’s what walking is all about.


View from Ruthven Barracks

After another mile of walking along a deserted road, we arrived at Insh Marshes National Nature Reserve. The reserve is an important wetland habitat, and attracts a wide range of birds. It also attracted a large number of people with binoculars dangling around their necks.

Not knowing my lapwing from my curlew, my redshank from the common duck (well, okay, I might just know which one is the common duck), I have a tendency to find hides rather uninteresting places. Every time I’ve visited one, I look out of the window and see some birds, but have no real idea what I’m looking at. I can’t stare out and go “Oh blimey, a great crested grebe!” with excitement, because I have no idea what one looks like, and wouldn’t have a clue what one was unless it stood in front of me and said “Hello, I’m a great crested grebe.” And even then, I’m not entirely sure I’d trust a talking bird. This means that when in a hide, I spend most of my time shuttling between the window, and the signs that tell you what birds can be seen (usually on the wall opposite the window, so you have to keep turning round to compare the sign with real life). And then I have to look at the drawing on the sign, and squint at a bird, and try to work out if they’re the same. This all lasts for about five minutes, until I get bored and disappear off out of the door to find something more interesting.

It may not be my cup of tea, but without the hard work of organisations like the RSPB and others, our nation’s wildlife could easily be much less diverse. And it also has to be said that their reserves usually have some great footpaths round them. We followed one now, which wound its way through the nature reserve, initially in trees, before heading out to open land with views far and wide.

On entering the reserve, the East Highland Way had joined another trail, called the Badenoch Way, which we’d be accompanying for the rest of the day. The name was derived from the Gaelic for “drowned land”; highly appropriate given the marshland we were now walking on. Over the years though, the demands of agriculture meant that most of the marshes have been drained, leaving just Insh Marshes as one of the few remnants of drowned land left.


River Tromie, seen from the East Highland Way

Another bridge, another river, another gorge. The River Tromie was busy crashing over the rocks as it continued on with its journey to join the Spey. No matter how many of these gorges we went past, neither of us got bored with seeing them. They were just too visually stunning, usually requiring us to wrench ourselves away from them. The Tromie would be the last water we’d pass for a while. The Badenoch Way was about to take us on a tour of small hamlets, connected by a series of tracks. Drumguish, Inveruglass, Insh. All small clusters of houses, seemingly with no other facilities. Certainly no pubs, shops or schools. Each seemed to be deserted; it may have been a sunny day but there was no one sat in their gardens, enjoying the weather. The only sign that anyone actually lived here was when we passed a house and saw some builders doing some work on the roof.

When not heading through these tiny little places, we were in or walking alongside forests; the inevitable purple heather lining the tracks, and some of the largest fungi we’d see on the whole walk. One was as big as Tal’s foot – and his foot is a few sizes bigger than my own pair of size 10s – which naturally caused some comment and inevitable photography. Although it must be said that Tal seemed to find it difficult to walk past any mushroom without taking a photograph of it.

Large fungi, with foot for comparison on sizing

Barely had we finished admiring it, and we went round a corner and found an even bigger one. It was an ugly brute of a fungus though; all murky brown and yellow. A far more photogenic, and smaller, mushroom was found instead on the outskirts of Insh where an uprooted fungi had been artfully placed on top of a wood fence post, for reasons unknown.

We were heading for Loch Insh, and it seemed to be taking forever to get there. The Badenoch Way appeared to be one of those trails that seemed to delight in never taking a direct route somewhere, if it could twist around, and randomly head up and down as much as possible. When we finally did make it to the edge of the loch edge, the Badenoch Way seemed desperate to leave it as soon as possible. No sooner had we stood at the shore, watching what little sun there was glimmer on the water, than we were being marched off into some trees, up a small embankment, and then down an alleyway.

The head of the loch – home of the Loch Insh Watersports Centre – was our destination. When I read before the trip, that the centre had a restaurant overlooking the water, and that the place also did accommodation, I knew we just had to stay there. Now arriving at the complex, there was just the simple matter of finding out where our rooms were. It was a sprawling place, split over several buildings and naturally the East Highland Way hadn’t arrived at the main entrance, but at a children’s playground near some chalets.

The bar and restaurant building at the Loch Insh Watersports Centre

“That looks a likely building,” I commented to Tal, pointing to a large wooden structure perched on the loch-side, and we headed inside to what turned out to be the restaurant and the centre’s small shop.

“Ah yes. You need main reception. It’s just up the hill,” came the call from behind the shop’s till. “By the way, are you going to be eating here tonight. If so, I’d book a table now. It can get busy and the place is going to be swimming with fifty school children very soon.”

I exchanged hurried glances with Tal and headed to the bar, the pair of us having images of ravenous kids wolfing down all the food in the building. This was far more important than finding where our beds were.

Thankfully there was still enough space at the dinner tables, and having reserved ours, there was just the matter of finding the reception building. This we found after an extensive search of the centre, where we also found another playground, several more chalets and an amusement arcade, and had to battle to through an army of school children who were marching off to get their tea.

Of course, the reception building naturally turned out to be mere seconds away from the path on which we’d entered the grounds. The staff were just leaving for the day, leaving me to wonder what on earth happens after 5pm when everyone’s gone (the answer, I found out the next morning, was that they put a sign up to tell you where to go), and with her handbag and coat on, one of the staff members showed us to our rooms.

“You’re the only other guests, but you’re on the opposite building to the kids, so you should be fine. They’ve got the main lounge, but there’s a small one upstairs you can use instead,” we were told before she ran out of the building as fast as possible.

After finding our rooms – and the all important shower and kettle – we headed back to the bar, again fighting away through the throngs of now-fed children who had by now finished their food, and were heading back to their rooms.

Even without the children in it, the bar and restaurant was absolutely heaving. It turned out the restaurant was the only place to eat for miles around. Whilst there was a pub in the nearby village of Kincraig, it didn’t do food, so everyone staying in the village was faced with driving or walking the mile down the road to the loch, in order to get something to eat. The latter was something that Brian and Kathy, our fellow East Highland Way walkers, had already had to do, and as we entered the building we spotted them busily checking out the menu.

Loch Insh, seen from the Watersports Centre

It would have been worth the walk though. One of the reasons I’d been so keen to stay there was reading that the place had been voted as having one of the top five views from a restaurant in Europe. Where it had been given this accolade, I never did find out, but to know that someone had, was good enough for me. The view from our table overlooking the loch was certainly impressive, and the food proved to be mighty fine too. With a captive market, good views and canteen style counter dominating the restaurant area, we’d both been a little worried about what we’d eating, but my lamb shank was heavenly. As we ate, the children ran around outside on the loch shore, doing some sort of treasure hunt.

It was exhausting just watching them, and in the end we had to retire to the bar instead to refuel with some more beers.

Well, one more beer. One of the problems with being the only adults staying at the centre was that no one seemed to think it was worth keeping the bar open for a couple of walkers. By half eight, last orders had been called, and by nine we were heading back to our rooms. Of course we could have headed into Kincraig for a pint. But somehow the two mile round trip just didn’t seem to appeal.

Rambling Man Walks The East Highland Way

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