Lochnagar and Loch Muick

Scotland, Cairngorms, United Kingdom

William Mackesy’s account of this walk

The grey precipices of Lochnagar loom high above the river Dee as it winds, dark and peaty, out of its highland glen into gentler territory. It is the highest point for miles around, with huge views in all directions, as far as the sea some 30 miles to the south-east and Ben Nevis some 65 miles to the south-west. Nearer at hand, the wild moors and rocky peaks of the high Cairngorms dominate the northwestern skyline.

Lochnagar is a bit schizophrenic. At times, it is sinister and gloomy, a dour and capricious old grandee with its dark (thousand foot) cliffs hunched around the lonely loch at its base and the bleak, monochrome moorland rolling away to its south. Then the sun emerges and the same moorland becomes a delicate patchwork of bright greens and browns, the ridges now receding into delicate distant blues. But it always dominates mid Deeside, always present even if often hidden in low cloud.

Lochnagar is at the heart of the Balmoral estate, where the Royal Family escapes each summer from the duties and formality of the south. The Queen often crosses these hillsides, driving herself in a battered old Land Rover, head wrapped in a scarf, deep in cheerful, animated conversation. The area is redolent of royal associations, with Queen Victoria in particular. On the lower slopes of the mountain are cairns of her relatives. Prince Charles has written a touching children’s book, the Old Man of Lochnagar. Even Flashman has had an escapade here, escaping attempted murder, gibbering with fear but somehow once again the hero for apparently foiling a plot. 

The area is now a wildlife reserve, home to eagles, otters, mountain hares and red squirrels, as well as a permanently too-large population of red deer which, reserve or not, still have to be culled each year. In a deep, narrow glen to the south lies Loch Muick, a textbook example of the effects of glaciation and as moody and unpredictable as its great neighbour to the north.

Lochnagar is usually approached from Glen Muick to the south, where a road comes within a mile of the mountain’s base, rather than directly from the Dee valley to the north, which would involve a very long tramp there and back along shooting tracks. The approach road follows the beautiful Glen Muick for some 10 miles from the Dee at Ballater, winding between stone walls through rough pastures grazed by sheep and highland cattle and birch woods, past solid little crofts, then entering pine woods and a small gorge before emerging into a wide, high, valley between heathery hills through which the River Muick winds in glittering curves. I have seen a golden eagle here several times, circling magnificently above the hillside across the stream. 

The walk begins by crossing the wide, boggy valley bottom, a lung-opening 20 minute tramp between peaty pools, banks of heather and bogs of impossibly bright green moss. It then climbs through a pleasing stand of large pines, with sunny, grassy glades between patches of crunchy pine needles, before emerging onto the bare hillside and starting the real climb. The view behind quickly becomes lovely, Glen Muick spread out below, with the hills beyond decorated with patches of grey and green, where the heather has been burned to provide young shoots for the fussy grouse, between the browns and purples of the heather.  

The path climbs steadily through beautiful country beside a little burn for an hour or so. Gradually, the moorland across Glen Muick, and the ridges beyond, come into view. The burn enters a little gorge below the track, then we reach our first saddle, and a grand view down a wild, lonely valley to Balmoral Deeside.

Turning left, you wind slowly up a long field of broken granite boulders to a high, bare shoulder between the summit ridge and the Meikle Pap, or large breast. A good indication of mankind’s obsessions is that I have encountered breast features all around the world, from Zululand to the Himalayas, but this is the only place I know of which has two on one mountain. It must be something to do with the weather, or the whisky. 

This is a favourite lunch spot, with a fine view down into the cauldron, where the peak-base loch sulks, dour and grey, beneath the tremendous cliffs of the curving summit ridge. Unlike the rest of the mountain, this view is never lighthearted. Distances are deceptive here, and you have little sense of the scale, until the harsh, dry, cry of the ravens draws your gaze to a black speck circling in the currents. You nestle in among the rocks, as the sharp breeze blustering across the saddle gets under your layers. 

After lunch comes the hard bit, although it really isn’t too bad; 20 minutes of mildly unpleasant scramble up a steep southward slope of broken granite boulders to a cairn on the summit plateau. The breeze here is cold and bracing even in summer; you don more clothes and you no longer linger over the views. The track follows the rim of the great chasm round to the west, dipping and winding up round the back and onto the bare rock of the final ridge. The final tor of vast weather-broken granite boulders appears. Nestle into sheltered crevices and admire the huge views. Way below to the north, the Dee glitters among a thread of tiny bright green fields which wind through the high moors and peaks of the eastern Highlands. To the north-west, the peaks and ridges of the high, remote Cairngorms bar off Speyside and the western Highlands. To the north-east are Ballater and the grassy bulk of Morven.  And in the south lie the great clefts of Glen Muick and Glen Clova, with the sea clearly visible on a good day some 30 miles away behind the low farmland of Buchan.

When I was last there, a 60 year old was celebrating the conquest of his first (and we hoped not his last) Munro, the not so select group of Scottish mountains over 3000 ft high which are so avidly bagged and bored about.

Then it is the long tramp home. You can  retrace your steps, or head almost due south to Loch Muick, then walk out along its shore, a longer route, but unforgettably beautiful. The path descends over heather moor, which slowly folds into the upper waters of the Glas-Altt burn, which gradually gathers size as it gurgles down into its wide valley. It then scrambles down beside a small waterfall into the long, straight and ravishing hanging valley above the great rent in the earth now filled by Loch Muick, which slowly appears as a narrow strip of deep, sparkling blue, against the sheer, vivid, heathery hillside behind. On a gloomy day, it can be forbidding, a sheet of unworked gunmetal, squalls ruffling its surface as they sweep down from the high hills. To the west, the lake ends with a wide beach of bright, pristine sand, the valley climbs steeply toward the Dubh Loch, lonely among the wild crags at the valley end. 

At a spectacular waterfall, scramble down beside the burn through great banks of imperial purple heather, gratefully reaching the lakeside and level ground in a stand of fine mature pines. This used to be tedious at the end of a hard walk, but a lot of work has been done on it.

To the right is a small royal lodge, snug among its trees on a golden little beach by the lakeside. Turn left along a well maintained track, and trudge along the lakeside. The variety of colours of the roadside – glittering granite, dark myrtles, bright mosses, wild roses, foxgloves and purpling heather – seem almost deliberately contrived. You pass a dilapidated, atmospheric boathouse as you swing round across the valley at the lake end, enjoying the waters splashing on the rocks and the vista back up the lake to the high hills at the far end. A final mile’s tramp gets you back to the roadhead.

See our Cairngorms page for detailed practical information.

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