In his excellent book, Wilderness Dreams, a young colleague of mine, Mike Cawthorne, describes the area that we know as the Monadh Liath as “Terra Incognita”, the term traditionally used by cartographers to describe “unknown land”.
This range of hills, that drain in the south to the River Spey, may be criss-crossed by stalkers’ paths and suffer from extensive windfarm desecration on their eastern fringes, but to the vast majority of Scotland’s hillwalkers this is an anonymous land, other than the four Munros that lie in the region’s south west corner. You may as well imprint the words “here be dragons” on this huge area (about 700 square miles) as far as most Scots are concerned.
Hikers’ guidebooks are generally fairly dismissive when referring to the Monadh Liath, a much maligned range of mountains that are unfortunately translated as the ‘grey rolling hills’, an interpretation of the gaelic that offers an impression of drabness that is wholly unreasonable and far from accurate. Admittedly you won’t find sharp ridge crests and summit spires soaring into the sky hereabouts, but you will discover a subtler attraction, a more visceral allure that has much to do space, wide open skies, and an abundance of wildlife.
These are high rounded hills, broken by steep sided glens, and form a series of watersheds between the Spey and the remote headwaters of the Tarff, the Findhorn and the Dulnain rivers. There is a spaciousness here that allows you to walk for miles above the two thousand foot contour and rarely see another soul. The wide undulating plateau of the range’s summit is made up of peat and fringe-moss on loose stony debris, a cover that holds snow well making it an ideal playground for ski tourers.
One of my targets for this coming winter is to ski from the A9 at the Slochd across the high uplands of the Monadh Liath to the Corrieyairick in the west, a three-day ski-backpacking trip, so as a little warm-up I dusted down my Nordic skis, threw them into the back of the car and drove along the A9 to the Slochd, only to discover that the snow cover was a little sparse for ski-touring.
I didn’t mind too much for the sun was adding a hint of warmth to a frozen, sparkling landscape. It was still well below freezing when I left the car at Ian Bishop’s Slochd Lodge, an excellent ski touring and mountain biking base, and took the path through the woods towards the keeper’s house at Insharn.
An old military road, constructed by General Wade, the soldier/roadbuilder who was the Robert McAlpine of his day, passes here and crosses one of his recognisable hump-backed bridges before windingup through the woods towards the Slochd summit. An estate track leaves the Military Road not far beyond the bridge and I followed it, revelling in the contrast between the blue sky and the snow-dusted hills. Ahead of me pine-dotted hillsides rose on either side of the River Dulnain, one of the most beautiful glens in the eastern highlands, but that wasn’t my destination for today. I wanted to get up high on a day like this, up onto those wide plateaux and rolling ridges, to see the progression of rounded hill upon rounded hill, fading away to the distant west, the route of my proposed ski tour for later this winter.
The track I was following went on further than I expected, but there again I was using a map with a crown copyright of 1976! I really must buy myself some new maps. The track skirted the snowy slopes of a small hill called Carn an Ailean before switchbacking its way up to the broad summit of Carn Phris Mhoir at 618m. And what a viewpoint! To the south, across the Dulnain, the Cairngorms were laid out from end to end, all the way from Ben Avon to the Feshie hills. To the north the hills of Afrric and Strathfarrar were laid out in similar fashion, with the Farr windfarm turbines adding a distinct industrial feel to an otherwise superb vista. But it was to the west that my eyes kept returning. The low winter sun had flooded the broad slopes with its brittle radiance, spilling its long tentacle-like shadows into every scoop and hollow, in a chequerwork of black and white. Under the infinity of the domed sky the land stretched away to the west, the rounded summits intensely white, with every feature picked out and etched by the smile of the low sun, ridge over ridge, horizon over horizon, rolling moors and shadow stained glens, clear cut land and glistening water. It could have been somewhere in the High Arctic.
The wires of an estate fence glinted in the sun and I followed its course around a high rolling ridge to Carn na Lair 599m, where another estate track took me back downhill to Insharn and the old Military Road. It might have been a fairly short hillwalk but it was a fabulous taster of the beauty and remoteness that these high Monadh Liath have to offer.
Map: OS 1:50,000 Sheet 35 (Kingussie)
Distance: About 10 miles
Approx Time: 5-6 hours
Start/Finish: Slochd Mor Outdoor Lodge, A9 (GR848238)
Route: From the car park cross the railway bridge and follow the track through the woods ignoring the first turning to the left. At the end of the track, at Insharn, turn right onto General Wade’s Military Road and cross the hump-packed bridge. Turn left almost immediately and follow this track all the way to the summit of Carn Phris Mhoir. From here follow the fence NE round the high ridges to the summit of Carn na Lair. Just S of the summit pick up another track that runs back downhill to the woods just above Insharn. Follow the outward path back to Slochd Mor Lodge.