Rothiemurchus: A Morning Walk through the Great Caledonian Forest to the Iron Bridge
On a late October morning, I set out of the Coylumbridge Hotel before first light to cross a paved road and walk along a narrow dirt path. I have been looking forward to discovering this part of Scotland, this forest whose name I can’t pronounce properly — Rothiemurchus. The sun will rise, or maybe it won’t, this is Scotland after all, and if it does I will feel lucky. Mostly, I am mindfully ready for an early stroll before breakfast with my girls who are sleeping now. However the day unfolds after my morning walk, it will have been worth getting up for. Rothiemurchus, I’m coming for you.
Rothiemurchus: A Scottish Forest through Time
The forests of Scotland date from a time when Europe was slowly coming out of the Ice Age, a time when glaciers covered Scandinavia and northern Europe all the way to northern France. As the ice sheets retreated beginning 19,000 years ago, prehistoric humans spread back into northern Europe and about 8,000 years later, Britain was colonised first by boreal species and later by more temperate vegetation. Birch was the first dominant tree, followed by hazel, pine and oak. Woodland cover around 5,000 years ago reached Shetland and the Western Isles. To the modern visitor, this seems hard to picture. Where is the forest gone? What happened?
Agriculture happened, accompanied by deforestation for arable land, heating and farming. By the time the Roman legions of Agricola invaded Scotland in AD 82, at least half of Scotland’s natural woodland was gone, mostly replaced by peatland, though in the Scottish Highlands, it’s likely that such peaty terrain could not sustain woodland anyway. By 1900, woodland covered only about 5% of Scotland’s land area, in several small and isolated blocks. Rothiemurchus is one of these blocks and would have been the centre of the great Caledonian Pine Forest of Scotland, so whimsically described by author Sara Maitland.
The Great Caledonian Forest is a forest of myth and magic. It existed in story, in the imagination, and in the pages of medieval romance: here Merlin wanders in his madness, lamenting the folly and the violence and corruption of ‘civilisation’.Sara Maitland, Gossip from the Forest: The Tangled Roots of our Forests and Fairytales
In my morning madness, I aim to wander through the forest but the only magic I am after is that of a ray of sunshine on ancient Scots pines. Merlin had a kingdom to save; I only have my mind to demist before the day starts, a somewhat easier task given a promise of porridge.
Iron Bridge Hike
I pick this hike on the premise that it is short (7K), easy and beautiful, a winning combination for any hike under two hours. It is also flat throughout, a rarity in this part of Scotland — a regular “rise and shine” hike without difficulties and with visual rewards.
Into the Woods
With a small backpack, I reach the campsite at the trailhead and walk past a metal gate. From now on, the trail to the Iron Bridge consists of a wide dirt path cutting through the forest. This early in the morning, I am the only person out on the trail and the low light makes me wonder if the sun has already risen, obscured by thick clouds, or if some sun magic could happen later. I raise my eyes in hopes to get a clue from the color of the sky but the dense canopy of this plantation forestry part of the hike makes it hard to know for sure. It would be tempting to walk over to the river I am following to get a clear view but I resist the urge to enjoy this path. The reward will come eventually.
Gradually the path narrows, the trees become more dispersed and I can see further ahead. Past a tent (I keep quiet so as not to wake up its campers), I find the Iron Bridge on the left.
Also known as the Cairngorm Club Footbridge, it was built in 1912 to cross the fast-flowing Am Beanaidh.
This is one of many bridges built by the Cairngorm Club in the Cairngorms, including those over the Luibeg Burn at Preas nam Meirleach, and over the River Dee at Corrour Bothy. The sun is barely brushing the top of some trees, leaving the rest of the undergrowth in relative darkness.
Swift and cold, the water of the river would invite a refreshing swim but I must save this for another time. Sadly, COVID guidelines at the hotel led us to book breakfast at a given time and I need to be on my way.
Hello, bridge. Goodbye, bridge. I am grateful for this geographic shrine, metallic enabler of outdoorsy feats, but I am not going further to conquer Lairig Ghru this morning. Here is where I backtrack to the last fork and change directions, entering a completely different habitat.
Direction: Loch an Eileen
I leave a fully planted forest with hundreds of tall tan trunks shooting towards the sky to wander through a regenerating forest and open countryside.
Grassland dominates both sides of the trail and carpets the ground all the way to more mature trees, interrupted to the south by mighty giants, stronghold of the Cairngorms. Within minutes, the sun comes out and the rolling mountains bask in an October golden glow that betrays a chill in the air.
This is it, this is the magic I’ve been waiting for. The landscape comes alive. At that very moment, I want to share this place with the whole world but I am alone so I take photographs left and right. If you are reading this, this was meant for you. Take a moment and enjoy…
… the sun waking up the hills, with purple heather in the foreground and hills covered in Scots pines…
… the trail to Loch an Eileen whose dense Scots pine forest lets a few rays of sunshine through.
The real magic happens around a bend when the path kisses the northern edge of Lochan Deo.
I wish I could freeze this moment in time, the scene is just perfect. Not a ripple on the mirror-like surface of the lochan, a few birds singing in the woods, the reflection of Scots pines in the water and promises of glorious views up on the mountains.
A bit further, the lochan opens up to a beautiful landscape of grassy islands, rolling hills and majestic trees. Clouds start floating in the sky and luckily, I catch the last of the morning’s sun rays, golden souvenirs of a Scottish morning. This boggy lochan shelters incredible microcosms of insect and aquatic life, a seasonal wonder that sometimes dries up but right now, feeds bird legions of the forest.
Hauf-road up the glen
a daurk wee lochan –
a cran tentie
Halfway up the glenScots Haiku by Mr Bruce Leeming
a dark little loch –
a heron watchful
Copyright holder: Mrs Dorothy Leeming
As I edge closer to the lochan, admiring the perfect symmetry of pine branches in the water, my hiking boots sink slowly in the muddy banks. Some of the trees are young, others are old, throwing their limbs out in bold insouciance in the face of the harsh weather of this Arctic plateau. How sweet a windless moment must be for these hardy species.
Intoxicated with the smell of fresh moss and pine sap, I retreat to the path reluctantly and get on my way, each step bringing me closer to a bowl of porridge.
Back via Upper Tullochgrue
At the next junction, I do not walk towards Loch an Eileen. Instead, I take a right back to Coylumbridge via Upper Tullochgrue.
A lone green-roofed farm up on a hill appears like a character to me, setting a different mood to this forest story. For all its ancient Caledonian forest, Rothiemurchus is still a managed estate — not a remote slice of Scottish wilderness.
“It is a business as well as a sanctuary for wildlife which people can also enjoy.”Johnnie Grant, owner of the Rothiemurchus estate, in an article dated April 17, 2014, in The Scotsman
I’ll let you ponder that. Rothiemurchus Estate illustrates a new kind of ecology and forestry, managed nature combining quiet walks on one side with quad bike tours, fishing and tree top adventures on another. Quite the departure from magical realms of old where one can get lost in folklore but on the surface, a Scots pine is a Scots pine is a beautiful tree whether or not it is profitable.
High in the blue sky, stratocumulus clouds are forming white breadcrumbs, impervious to the human buzz below. I reach the end of the trail, hungry for porridge and eager to discover more of this gorgeous part of the world.
Map & Trail Description
You can find the walk description (and a better topo map) on Walk Highlands here.