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Chapter 4 - Larig Ghru

IN the grand, beautifully-balanced view of the great Cairngorm range, obtained from the platform of the railway station at Aviemore, a remarkable cleft is seen between the lofty, long-extended plateaus of Braeriach and the great massive slopes of Cairngorm. This gloomy pass is called the Lang Ghru, or, to give it its full name, the Lang Ghruamach, or Savage Pass, from its extreme wildness. It is generally filled with writhing mists or dark shadows, but when the sun shines directly into it, it discloses its rocky sides moistened by the melting of the snow in the clefts above, and lit up with a silver radiance. You can then see far into its inner recesses, almost half-way through, and the vista reveals visions of bleak cliffs, red granite slopes, an almost perpendicular watercourse, rounded summits retreating one behind the other until the end is filled up with the huge shoulder of Ben Macdhui, which appears and disappears in the mist. Grand as it looks at a distance, you can only form a true conception of its savage sublimity when you actually enter for a considerable distance into the rugged jaws of the pass itself. From both near and far points of view it has often attracted the attention of the artist, and pictures of it in oil or water-colours not seldom adorn the walls of the exhibitions of the Royal Academy in London.

The Lang Ghru pierces the great Cairngorm range from south to north, and is the principal route by which the pedestrian can cross from Speyside to Braemar. It used to be much frequented by drovers and shepherds, who transported their flocks and herds by this route from the hillsides of Aviemore and Kingussie to the markets of Castletown on the Dee. But since the opening of the Highland Railway between Inverness and Perth these markets have been discontinued, and the surplus sheep and cattle of the district are sent by train to the large towns and cities of the south; consequently the pass has fallen into desuetude as a great public road, and is now used almost exclusively by the adventurous tourists who wish to penetrate into the sublime solitudes of the Cairngorms. There never was any road worthy of the name in its palmiest days—only a species of bridle track; but such as it was, it was kept in the best repair of which it was capable. But since its abandonment to the summer tourists, it has been allowed to revert to the wildness of Nature; and were it not for the zealous efforts of members of the Cairngorm Club, who have taken the matter in hand, it would by this time have become impassable. They have in many places smoothed the roughest parts of the track, and in others indicated its course, when it would otherwise have disappeared in bog or rocky desert, by the erection of stone men as guides. Especially welcome are these rude cairns amid the vast bewildering heaps of debris that have fallen from the lofty cliffs on both sides of the pass at its highest point, and meet together in the narrowest parts to bar the way.

A gang of labourers employed for a few weeks would have removed all these difficulties of the route, and made it easy and pleasant for the tourist, either on foot or on horseback. But there are no public funds available for this purpose; indeed, it is not considered desirable by the powers that be, that the track should be maintained at all. It would be considered a piece of good fortune if it should disappear altogether and these solitudes be entirely unvisited, so that the deer forest through which it passes might not be disturbed. For many years the pass was closed to pedestrians, lest they should scare the game; and it was only after many unpleasant struggles that the Scottish Rights of Way Society succeeded in opening up a through communication between Aviemore and Braemar, and re-establishing the public right of way through this defile, which had existed from time immemorial, although for a period it had been foolishly suffered to pass into abeyance. But though the freedom of passage was ultimately conceded, it was restricted to the narrowest line consistent with going through at all. No margin on either side of the track was permitted, and the pedestrian has in consequence to plant his feet in the exact footsteps of his predecessors, and so make the ruts ever deeper and more trying. In this way the path is the most difficult and tiresome of any in Great Britain. It is a pity that a more generous interpretation was not given to the licence allowed, so that the arduousness of the passage might have been somewhat mitigated. No one visiting this sublime solitude for the sake of the wild scenery would wish to inflict the slightest injury upon the sport of the huntsmen—their interests would have been as sacred to him as his own; and the likelihood is that, treated with a generous trustfulness, he might be even more zealous of the rights of the proprietor than, as human nature is constituted, he can be at present.

The entrance of the Lang Pass is about six miles from Aviemore. There are two routes by which it can be reached, both equally delightful all the way. The most direct route is by the high road past the village of Inverdruie, which consists of a cluster of grey wooden houses like a Norwegian settlement, situated in a wide clearing in the fir-forest. The clang of the blacksmith’s anvil sounds musical in the still air,, and the busy hum of the long row of wooden hives in the blacksmith’s garden, filled with delicious heather honey, charms the summer silence. The schoolmaster’s garden has bright borders of flowers in it, and the schoolhouse windows are filled with large pots of geranium in full scarlet blossom, which still further increase the resemblance to a Norwegian village. A bypath leads to the Dell, now let to summer visitors. The first lairds of Rothiemurchus lived here in the simplest fashion, and it was long used as a jointure house, commanding in the centre of the plain, beside the much-divided channels of the Druie, covered with thickets of alder and willow, a very fine view all around the horizon. The main road passes the neat and substantial United Free Church—built with much taste, principally of the granite boulders of the place, with its interior ceiling and fittings made as fragrant as a house of the forest of Lebanon with the aromatic smell of red-grained fir boards—and makes a wide opening in the forest all the way up to Coylum Bridge. At this point a board indicating that this is the commencement of the public road to Braemar by the Lang Pass stands in the wood on the right-hand side of the road before you cross the bridge. A delightful track along the bank of the shady river takes you through thickets of alder and clumps of fir to the rustic wooden bridge that crosses the Bennie, about two miles farther up in the heart of the forest. The loud murmurs of the river, whose many boulders awaken its volume to a wilder music, accompany you all the way, and the current of cool air carried along by the flowing waters cools your heated brow. At the wooden bridge, the other route from Aviemore round by the north shore of Loch-an-Eilan and through the long fir-woods, joins this route, and both cross the Bennie over the rustic steps. A kind of ford has been made a little above, by which vehicles can cross in a most jolting fashion when the water is low. The path after a while emerges into open pasture ground beside the quiet stream lined with alders and birches. This green oasis was once cultivated, and on the other side of the river there are the ruins of two large substantial houses connected with the farm of Altdruie. They were tenanted by Macgregors, who were brought to this region by Rob Roy from the Braes of Balquidder. The farm has been allowed to become a waste wilderness, and is now part of the great deer forest, a solitary house and stable being built for the accommodation of gillies and horses employed in connection with the sport. Beyond this bothy the path soon takes you through the luxuriant heather and gigantic juniper bushes, which form the underwood of the forest, along the bank of the stream, to the direct opening of the Lang Ghru Pass. Here at the end of a fir-wood, a stone pillar and a guide-post stand, with the necessary directions. Were it not for these patent indications, the obscure entrance would often be missed by the stranger.

The Larig Pass

For nearly a mile the path passes through a scraggy fir-forest, its narrow course almost concealed by the luxuriant heather meeting over it from both sides. The quality of the ground varies continually from soft peat-bog to hard, granite gravel and rough boulders, and one has to walk by faith and not by sight, getting many rude shocks and sudden trippings from unseen and unexpected obstacles. In wet weather this part of the route is altogether deplorable, and is the occasion of so many disasters that one becomes utterly reckless, plunging on, heedless of the sodden state of one’s shoes and the draggled wretchedness of one’s clothes. The track mounts continually upwards until at last you rise above the straggling forest into the wide open moorland, with a grand view all around, and the free air of heaven playing with grateful coolness on your face. Thereafter you pursue your way over huge moraines, the relics of the ancient glaciers that once swept over this region and converted it into an undulating strath of the most surprising labyrinthine heights and hollows. The path takes you along the edge of these great mounds, where their broken sides slope down precipitously to the channel of the burn that foams and roars over its boulders far below. On the other side, directly opposite you, the bare conical hill of Carn Eilrig rises to an imposing altitude. It is a magnificent spectacle, and the sound of many waters, that comes up to you and seems to fill all the hushed listening air like the shout of a multitude, is very inspiring. The sides of the moraines are covered with masses of blaeberry and cranberry bushes loaded with their purple and scarlet berries; for whatever may be the failure of the wild-fruit harvest in the low grounds, where sudden frosts and blights in spring and early summer are so apt to wreck the richest promise, an abundant crop may always be gathered here, above the risk of such casualties. In the pass there are no less than six different kinds of berries growing— blaeberry, whortleberry, cloudberry, cranberry, crowberry, bearberry—in great abundance. The crowberry offers its refreshing black berries to the parched palate in great abundance beside the path; the cloudberry, with its broad, currant-like leaves and orange, rasp-like fruit, haunts the bogs; while the whortleberry mingles with the blaeberry in the same situations, but is easily distinguished from it by its more straggling habit and by the glaucous or grey-green colour of its leaves. Its berries are very like those of the blaeberry, only of a somewhat flatter shape and with a more refined taste.

At the large boulder, surmounted by a stone man, which crowns the highest point of this part of the pass, and which commands a splendid vista of the richly-wooded scenery of the Spey around Aviemore, the defile contracts, and on the one side are the great precipices of Braeriach, and on the other the rugged frowning buttresses of Creag-na-Leachan, which look as if they threatened to fall down and crush the visitor. These rocky jaws of the pass are composed of red granite, which looks in the heaps of broken debris at the bottom of the defile what it really is, but up in the overhanging cliffs has taken on a dark purple bloom by weathering, which completely disguises its true character, and in stormy weather assumes a most gloomy and forbidding appearance, greatly enhancing the savage aspect of the gorge. Granite, wherever it occurs, is always characterised by a special type of scenery. It usually exhibits a tame uniformity of outline, unrelieved even by the great height to which it is often elevated. Owing to the ease with which this rock may be decomposed by the weather, and the protection which the angular rubbish thus formed gives the surface, being constantly renewed as often as it is wasted away by the elements, it forms long, uniform, gently-inclined slopes. But owing also to its being traversed by innumerable vertical joints, this rock forms savage corries and dizzy cliffs, which the decays of Nature only make more precipitous, as they remove slice after slice from their faces. Thus the different angular exposures of the rock to the wasting powers of Nature at the front and at the back of Braeriach, for instance, have given rise to the widely-different appearances of the hill from those two points of view, which so astonish the visitor. The smooth, undulating slopes and tableland on the west side of the hill contrast in a remarkable manner with the vertical walls into which the mountain breaks down all at once on the east and north sides, descending sheer for two thousand feet into the profound, mist-hidden glens. There is no other rock which combines these apparently incongruous features on the same range—the grandeur of lofty precipices and the smoothness of sloping shoulder and level top.

About a mile farther up the pass you have to cross over the stream at a point where an enormous avalanche of angular masses of rock has poured down the left side of the hill into the valley. Through this cataract of stones you hear the loud rumble of an unseen cataract of water falling from the heights and forming one of the tributaries of the stream at your feet. The spot makes a kind of cul de sac or a recess on the route, where you can get shelter from the wind, soft materials for a couch to lie upon, fuel to kindle a fire, and plenty of the coldest and most delicious water, all inviting you to rest a while, and make ready an al fresco meal. In this favoured corner of the pass, which may well be named le jardin, you may gather in abundance on the slopes around the rare and interesting cornel, the Cornus suecica, beautiful alike in its flowering and fruiting stage. It has a large, brilliant white, strawberry— like blossom, but in the centre is a dark purple tuft, almost black, which gives it a very singular appearance. The apparent white petals are actually bracts, which remain on the plant when the flowers are fertilised, and gradually go back to the green colour of ordinary leaves, as is the case in the Christmas rose. The dark purple tuft in the centre consists in reality of the true flowers. In autumn the foliage of the cornel fades into beautiful red and orange tints, and the blossoms give place to one or more large, transparent scarlet berries. In its fruiting stage it is a very striking and conspicuous plant, and cannot fail to attract the eye even of the greatest novice in botany. I remember seeing the peasants in Norway hoeing it away as a weed in the potato-fields!

The stream above this spot for a considerable distance disappears below the ground, and the channel where it should flow is covered with blaeberry and whortleberry bushes. Higher up you see it again pursuing its rejoicing course in the light of day and in unabated fulness, over stones covered with the softest and richest mosses of the most vivid green and golden colours. These mosses in the bed of the stream give to the music of the waters a peculiarly subdued and muffled tone, like a prolonged sigh, which greatly increases the feeling of melancholy in the forlorn waste around. The path here passes over ground peculiarly bare and storm-scalped. Hardly any vegetation grows on it save the white reindeer lichen, the brown alpine cudweed and grotesque tufts of upright clubmoss. The stones are blackened with various species of tripe de roche, looking like fragments of charred parchment, which crunch under your tread into black powder. Nothing can exceed the loveliness of the lemon crust of the geographical lichen, which spreads over the granite boulders everywhere in great patches, looking like maps with its glossy black fructification and little waving lines. Its vivid yellow colour contrasts in the most charming manner with the vivid red of the surface of the granite stone on which it grows. It is a perfect feast of beauty to the eye that can appreciate it.

Beyond this point you enter on a region of extreme desolation. The stream that has been your companion all along has disappeared. You are now on the watershed of the pass, about 2750 feet above the level of the sea. On your left hand the south-west side of Ben Macdhui rises up to the lofty sky-line in almost perpendicular slopes of granite detritus, on which hardly a speck of grass, or lichen, or moss is seen. These slopes stand out against the clear blue, cloudless sky, when the sun on a bright day is shining full upon them, with the most intense scarlet radiance, like mounds of newly-burnt slag at the mouth of a mine. You have a sense of imprisonment, of oppression. Each rock and height seems endowed with personality, and impresses you with a feeling of hostile and irresistible power. The red screes take on a look of cruel menace. Where the rocks of Creag-na-Leachan form the western boundary of these screes, there is a breakneck descent from Ben Macdhui into the pass called the Chimney, which presents almost insuperable difficulties to all but the experienced climber. The course of a side stream, descending from the heights in a series of white cascades, breaks the uniformity of these great slopes, and is supposed to form the true source of the Dee. Immense heaps of rough and crowded blocks of stone that have fallen from the cliffs on both sides of the pass obstruct the way, and being often sharp and set on edge in all varieties of awkward positions, the footing is exceedingly precarious, and the progress over them must be slow and cautious. The stone men of the Cairngorm Club are an immense help in the perplexing intricacies of the track. Here and there oases of Alpine verdure occur among the leafless cairns, where the weary eye is refreshed by seeing frequent grey-green rosettes of Alpine cudweed upholstering mossy ground, tufts of glossy dark green Alpine rue, and, in one or two places, clusters of the rare and striking Saussurea alpina, with its pale blue composite flowers and large, handsome leaves. In hollow basins among these heaps of detritus are the three principal pools of Dee. They are evidently formed by the perpendicular stream that falls from the shoulder of Ben Macdhui, and is lost for a time under the cairns, to reappear at intervals in these sheets of water, where the ground is unobstructed.

The Pools of Dee

Clambering over the last barrier of wreckage from the cliffs, you come down on the other side to the source of the Dee. There you see the river rushing full-bodied and complete at once from under the huge mass of moss-covered stones, proclaiming its freedom in a loud, confused roaring. You obtain a long vista of the other side of the pass, with the narrow, rugged path gleaming white at interval; and the noble river, which has no superior in Scotland for the clearness of its waters and the uniform swiftness of its current, winding down at its side to the cultivated glens and straths. Amid an array of giant mountains unequalled in Scotland within a similar area, forming the guardians of the pass on either side, your eye catches the magnificent steep sides and conical top of Cairn Toul, which fills up the whole southern side of the gorge. You sit down beside the clear waters that give you such a sense of overflowing, unfailing fulness, and yield yourself freely to the thoughts and feelings that arise in your heart. You feel that there is a spell upon you which it should be sinful to disturb. The imagination of a Doré could suggest nothing more wildly desolate than this secluded fountainhead of waters, with the mountain streams murmuring around it and the vast solitary peaks rising above it, shutting it out from all except the sun for a few hours at midday and the stars at night. Nothing can exceed the loneliness of the place. One coming here alone would almost thank his shadow for the suggestion of companionship which it afforded. But what a field for meditation to one who is in league with the stones of the field, and who can interpret the mysterious signs in which the dumb mountains speak to him! The stream has the voice of a sibyl uttering mystic oracles; and an occasional Alpine bird flitting about, made almost tame by its ignorance of man, soothes the listening air with its tender twitter, and makes the place where it is seen and heard the very soul of the loneliness. How full of significance does every stone become, and how touching is the mute appeal of each Alpine flower by your side! You feel yourself a small and unheeded atom in the midst of the overwhelming mass of matter around you; and yet you feel at the same time that you belong necessarily to the heart of things, and supply the element of consciousness to them all, and are folded closely round in the arms of Infinite Love. In all your life you have never been so alone with Nature, in the very heart of it, as here. You seem to hear the pulse of the earth, to feel something of the eternal leisure of the mountains. Nature lays her calm cool hand upon the tumult of your heart, and while she humbles you, and makes you poor in your own esteem, she exalts and enriches you with her wealth of grand suggestions. On a calm summer’s day the mystery of the origin of the river in this spot captivates the mind and recalls all the romance and tenderness of "youth and buried time." But what must it be in winter, or in a storm, when the shallow waters are changed into raging torrents, and the wind is shrieking fiercely among the rocks, and the sky is blotted out with dark clouds, and the corries are filled with swirling mists and stinging rains and blinding snow!

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