Two days in BraemarMarch 8, 2019
Braemar is a small village in the heart of “Royal Deeside”. The village is less than 10 miles away from Balmoral Castle, one of the residences of the British royal family. People who do a lot of hillwalking in this area do sometimes bump into the odd royal personage!
I stayed in the village last weekend, with two friends – not in the hope of bumping into Prince Charles, but to watch Di Gilbert, the mountain guide who led the winter navigation course I attended a few weeks ago, talking about what it’s like to climb K2, the second highest mountain in the world.
Some of my fellow mountain leader trainees also attended the festival, and they also climbed a couple of Munros (mountains with an altitude of at least 3,000 feet) in the area.
For once, I decided to have a more relaxing weekend. We decided to climb an easy Corbett (mountain with an altitude of at least 2,500 feet) called Morrone. It’s relatively easy because it has a very good path all the way up and down, and the walk starts in the centre of Braemar.
Burn O’ Vat
On the Saturday, we left Glasgow and drove up to the Muir of Dinnet nature reserve just beyond the village of Ballater, about 15 miles to the east of Braemar. It was nice to get out into the fresh air after a long drive, and we started following the Culblean circuit, an easy 6km walk through pine woods. At the start of the walk, a slight diversion takes you to an astonishing natural bowl gouged out of a rocky gorge known as Burn O’ Vat.
The cave behind the waterfall was used as a hiding place by the outlaw Patrick McGregor, known as Gilderoy, in the 17th century. Despite some of the legends that grew up around him, he does not seem to have been the most savoury character, and he was hanged in 1736.
The shallow waters of the Vat Burn take on a vivid russet colour in the “Vat”, possibly due to the sediment below, which contrasts dramatically with the green of the moss-covered rocks.
People wading through the iron-coloured waters of the Vat Burn.
The “Vat” is believed to have been formed from around 14,000 years ago, due to the actions of glacial meltwater. It’s an astonishing natural spectacle, with some attractive water features.
If you visit the Vat, wear shoes with good grips. The rocks of the Vat have a grippy surface, but there are a few slippy areas! Care is needed.
We spent about 20 minutes exploring the place and taking photos, before continuing the walk around the Culblean circuit.
After our two-hour walk, we returned to Ballater for refreshment at the Alexandra Hotel. As the driver, I enjoyed an alcohol-free beer. In the past I haven’t been too impressed with alcohol-free drinks, but this one was delicious, and very thirst-quenching! It wasn’t quite as tasty as real Erdinger beer, but it wasn’t too far off.
We then drove to Braemar, where we checked into our 3-bed room at the Youth Hostel. Scottish Youth Hostels are currently undergoing refurbishment, and I have to say this one is in need of it! Despite this, it was warm and comfortable, with friendly and informative staff. The mattresses were particularly comfy, and we all had a good night’s sleep.
The Village Hall was packed for Di Gilbert’s talk that evening. Di summited Mount Everest in 2005, and she is due to lead a team climbing Everest this spring. Her talk, at the Braemar Mountain Festival, described how as expedition leader on a 2016 attempt on K2, she and her team reached Camp 3. Having returned to base camp in order to acclimatise, they were forced to abandon their attempt after an avalanche swept Camp 3 with its vital supplies, into oblivion. Luckily no humans were inhabiting it at the time.
Braemar Village Hall: Di Gilbert describing her 2016 attempt on K2, which was thwarted by an avalanche.
Di was sharing a bill with a climber called Dave Macleod whom I hadn’t heard of when I booked the tickets. However in a strange coincidence, one of my climbing friends had shared a 12-year-old YouTube video showing Dave climbing some weeks earlier.
YouTube had then recommended more of his videos, and without actually linking the names in my mind, I had binge-watched some of them the night before I left for Braemar, in total awe at the man’s climbing skills. At the time I had thought he was just a random climber and YouTuber, although I was astonished at his skill. When he was introduced as the next speaker at the Festival, and I realised it was the man in the YouTubes, I almost fell off my seat!
Small village with a big hotel
Not only was the Mountain Festival special – we all loved Braemar. I’d visited it a couple of decades before, and although I thought it was pretty, and I loved the surrounding countryside, I had also thought it seemed a bit “twee”. Maybe it’s me who’s changed, but this time, we all found it to be a very warm, friendly and quite distinctive little place.
The centre of Braemar is dominated by two things: the Clunie River and an enormous hotel called The Fife Arms.
The Fife Arms was built in the 19th century, after Queen Victoria’s purchase of the Balmoral Estate attracted visitors to Braemar. Like many grand old Victorian hotels, it had lapsed into obscurity until Swiss gallerists Iwan and Manuela Wirth decided to give it a redesign.
We knew nothing of this when we arrived, but the warm lights from the hotel drew us towards it, and we decided to visit for a drink after the presentations. In the end we were too tired after the long drive and walk, but we gazed in at the low windows as we walked back to the hostel, and we were astonished at what we saw inside: not just the typical stag antlers, but an entire stuffed stag with angel wings, “flying” over the main bar; a rainbow-coloured glass “chandelier”, and an astonishing crazy ceiling painted in swirls of colour.
Peering into another bar, among the old-fashioned portraits of what looked like royal personages, I spotted a bizarre painting of a woman with an oddly distorted face at the far end of the room. “Look at that!” I said to my friend Mandy. “It’s almost like a Picasso!” We laughed in astonishment.
Actually, it probably was a Picasso. Apparently there is an original one in the Drawing Room.
A waitress serving drinks, dressed in tartan, glanced up and spotted us with our noses pressed to the window. I expected her to give us a dirty look, as is often the way in such high-class establishments, but she just gave a friendly smile and a knowing laugh.
We resolved to save up and spend a night or two at the Fife Arms. We might be saving up for a while, as room prices start at £130 for one of the small Croft Rooms, but to really experience the magic of the Fife Arms, it might be more appropriate to stay in the plush Culture Rooms or indulgent Victoriana Suites, from £300 to £550 a night.
On the Sunday, we’d decided to climb Morrone, a rounded hill that overlooks Braemar. We were a bit nervous about the high winds forecast for the day, which were expected to reach the high 30s, gusting up to 50mph at the summit.
However Morrone is a relatively easy hill to climb, with good paths. The route follows a circuit, which we did in reverse, in the hope that the wind would be at our backs on the way back down the mountain. Starting in the village of Braemar, the route follows a small road, running alongside the Clunie river and some very quaint cottages for a few kilometres, before a good path turns off to the right and heads up the hillside.
Despite the high winds, the weather was pretty good, with very light rain early on, but clear views of the hills to the west as we gained altitude.
There was one stretch near the top where we had to walk against very strong winds for about one kilometre, making it very hard-going. The raincover on my backpack was pulled off by the wind, and I stopped to stuff it into its pouch. When I looked up, there was a beautiful rainbow over a small cairn marking the top of a mound at 824m.
From there it was a short windy walk to the summit – my 35th Corbett. Morrone has a weather station at its summit, and while not an exceptionally beautiful fixture, it afforded us enough shelter from the gusty winds to have our lunch at the summit, while enjoying the spectacular views.
I was surprised not just at the number of people who were climbing the hill that day, but by the fact that they were all going the other way from us. We were the only ones who had decided to do the circuit in reverse, so that the wind was mostly at our backs.
A man working at the Youth Hostel had also recommended doing the walk this way, and it was a good decision, because the views on the way down were awe-inspiring! I kept stopping to take photos.
View down to Braemar.
As we approached Braemar, the route passed a small pond with some friendly ducks.
We decided not to have lunch at The Fife Arms, as we were wearing our grimy hillwalking clothes and boots. But we will certainly be returning to this village, to climb more mountains – and maybe, to stay at The Fife Arms.
View of Morrone from the duck pond.