Patrick Baker: The Cairngorms—A Secret History

Cover of The Cairngorms: A Secret History, by Patrick Baker

The view had a massive visual scale. It felt cinematic: an epic horizon like the opening credits of a David Lean film. A path scrolled out ahead of me, eventually fading into the middle distance. Across the plateau I could see other tors emerging from the mist: dark, maritime shapes, spectral galleons held up on the rolling levels of the land.

That’s Patrick Baker, describing the view from the highest point of the Ben Avon plateau. If you haven’t been there yourself, you may yet be able to judge the evocativeness of his nautical metaphor by taking a look at this photograph of the summit plateau, albeit one taken on a clear day, rather than in the misty conditions Baker describes.

Baker clearly has a passion for the outdoors, having previously written a guidebook to walking in the Ochils, Campsie Fells and Lomond Hills. In The Cairngorms: A Secret History (2014), he visits remote locations on and around the Cairngorm plateau which have a human story to tell. He followed this up with The Unremembered Places: Exploring Scotland’s Wild Histories (2020), which does the same thing in a rather more diffuse way, covering the whole of Scotland. I may write about that one in the future, but for now I want to concentrate on his volume dealing with the Cairngorms, as a sort of companion to my recent reviews of Nan Shepherd and Syd Scroggie’s Cairngorm memoirs.

In eight chapters, Baker sets himself the task of exploring eight features of the Cairngorms—some natural, some artificial. In seven of the chapters he finds human stories in the landscape, as well as reasons to talk about the geology and natural history of the area.

The first chapter, “Ghost River”, deals with a walk to the source of the river Dee, high on the plateau below Braeriach. Along the way, Baker writes about the abandoned settlements along the route: Dubrach, Tonnagaoithe, Dalvorar and Tomnamoine. (There’s another, Creag Phadruig, which the Ordnance Survey doesn’t name on its maps, and which Baker doesn’t mention.) This is his cue to talk about the depopulation of the Highlands in general, and the Highland Clearances in particular. Farther on, he climbs the Lairig Ghru and then into the Garbh Coire, where he visits the remote Garbh Coire Refuge (which has been largely rebuilt since he was there), and then climbs to the plateau and the Wells of Dee, seeping out of the ground in a grassy patch on Einich Cairn, ludicrously high on the mountain.

“Landseer’s Bothy” moves to upper Glen Feshie, and a story that was more recently discussed in the second episode of Paul Murton’s Grand Tours of Scotland’s Rivers (2021)—the romance between the Duchess of Bedford, Georgina Russell, and the painter Edwin Landseer, which took place at a group of remote (but luxuriously appointed) “rustic huts” at the head of the glen.* Baker visits the Ruighe-aiteachain bothy in upper Glen Feshie, and the nearby chimney-stack which is all that remains of the Duchess’s original accommodation.

“The Lost Shelter” sees Baker visit the sites of a number of high-altitude shelters in the Cairngorms which have been demolished. And he writes about the debate that led to this decision—were lives actually being lost because people stayed at altitude in foul weather and poor visibility, making a futile search for one these small, remote shelters, rather than making an immediate retreat from high ground? And we get the stories behind Jean’s Hut in Coire an Lochain; the Curran Bothy, on the plateau between Cairn Gorm and Ben Macdui; the disintegrating El Alamein Refuge, reputedly built in the wrong place by the 51st Highland Division; and its companion, the St Valery Refuge, perched on Stag Rocks above Loch Avon.

“Final Flight” deals with high-ground aircraft wrecks, in particular Baker’s search for the remains of the Airspeed Oxford 1 that came down on the north end of Beinn a’ Bhuird in 1945—there is now a memorial plaque at the site. The remoteness of the site also gives Baker a cue to discuss the slow development of mountain rescue services, through cooperation between local volunteers and the Royal Air Force. Baker’s first attempt to visit the site ends in a failure, but he evokes the anxieties of failed route-finding in thick cloud very well:

I searched for answers in the visible landscape: subtle variations in gradient and slope that I hoped would match the contours on my map. There were no clues, no obvious signs. In the clouds the terrain seemed limitless, anonymous—a continuing, terrifying unknown. I would never find the Oxford in such conditions, I knew that. Suddenly, all I wanted to do was to find the way home.

“Cairngorm Stone” tells the story of the titular gemstone—a variety of smoky quartz found in the Cairngorms. This is what takes Baker to the plateau of Ben Avon, described in my opening quotation, where the ground is still pocked with old excavations.

The next chapter is “The Big Grey Man”, which is the English translation of Am Fear Liath Mor—the Gaelic name of a large spectral form said to haunt the slopes of Ben Macdui. Baker opens his chapter with the old story of Professor Norman Collie’s famous panic in the mists of Macdui in the late nineteenth century. This gives him a chance to discuss the eery sensations recurringly reported by explorers in trying circumstances, including the hallucinatory extra presence of the “Third Man”. It also gives him the chance to approach Macdui from an unconventional direction (the horrible path up Strath Nethy to Loch Avon), to spend a night at the Shelter Stone, and to describe the truly extraordinary experience of Eric Langmuir at the head of Loch Avon in 1962, when the entire scree slope started to avalanche above him and his party.

“The Cat’s Den” takes Baker to the Rothiemurchus Forest, in search of a cave that was reputedly once the refuge of a local outlaw, Sandy Grant. It also leads him to write about the rare and elusive residents of the forest, the pine marten and European wildcat. And to riff about nature writing and writers. The end of the chapter brings a hugely satisfying double success.

Finally, “The Ravine” sees him walking in from Tomintoul to the Ailnack Gorge. Along the way he talks about the geology and botany of the area, as well as writing an appreciation of Nan Shepherd’s Cairngorm memoir, The Living Mountain, which I’ve written about previously.

It’s all very satisfying stuff. Baker writes evocatively about his own journeys, and knowledgeably about the human and natural history of the landscape. He also has a good ear for anecdotes and relevant quotations, so be warned—readers of this book are liable to finish it with at least another three books added to their reading list from the “References and Sources” section at the back.

* Landseer produced a painting entitled “Duchess of Bedford’s Hut, Glenfeshie”, which is now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The building certainly features a timber and turf portico, but the interior furnishings, visible through the open door, seem rather less primitive.

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