Steplar Path: Cook’s Cairn

Cook’s Cairn (NJ 302278, 755m)

17 kilometres
740 metres of ascent

Steplar route
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Contains OS OpenData © Crown copyright and database right 2018
Path data © OpenStreetMap contributors under the Open Database Licence

The guidebooks usually send you in to Cook’s Cairn from the south—from Tomnavoulin up Glen Livet and Glen Suie. But I wanted to walk in from the east, along part of the old drove road called The Steplar.

There was enough room to run the car off the road and on to a little patch of grass verge just short of the farm of Aldivalloch (Allt a’ Bhealaich, “the stream of the pass”). A gate above the farm takes you out into sheep pasture and a track across the grassland which isn’t marked on the map, but which is easy to pick out on Google Earth. Beyond the ruined farm of Hillhead of Largue, this joins the vehicle track marked by the Ordnance Survey. I marched upwards in thick mist, until I reached the deer fence that runs along the ridge-line. The gate stood wide open.

At this point, I was standing in the vicinity of the depressingly named Dead Wife’s Hillock. According to the ScotlandsPlaces database:

It is said that during the famine in the end of the 17th Century ‘the seven ill years,’ a woman was found dead there, who had perished of want, with a child alive sucking her breast, and that it had since retained this name.

From that point of ill-repute, it’s a 140-metre descent to the ford on the Black Water (NJ 330266). As I began to descend, the mist burned off and I suddenly found myself under blue sky, looking down into a still-misty glen with a bright fogbow forming an arch across the path ahead of me. They’re difficult to photograph, especially with a compact automatic camera—the photo below is the best of several efforts, showing the left end of the bow where it reaches the ground:

Fogbow on Dead Wife's Hillock
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I had a contingency plan if the ford proved tricky—there was a bridge marked on the map (NJ 340285) at Blackwater Lodge, a couple of kilometres downstream. But after a fortnight of dry water, the river was so low I barely got my boots wet:

The ford on the Black Water
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The Steplar track now climbs 200 metres on to the southern shoulder of Cook’s Cairn (Thiefsbush Hill—this was once bandit country), before descending into Glen Suie. The track at this point was a mess, and looks like it might have been abandoned by the Glenlivet Estate—at time of writing (June 2016) it’s impassible for vehicles because of landslips low down, and massive water erosion higher up:

Track eroded by water in Black Water valley
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At the highest point on the track, I peeled off northwards, and struck off uphill across easy ground to the top of Cook’s Cairn, which is a fine viewpoint:

Summit of Cook's Cairn
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I was running ahead of schedule, so decided to drop off the eastern shoulder, Hill of Dorenell, for a look at Blackwater Lodge and its bridge. Dorenell turned out to be a maze of peat hags, which would make tedious going under normal conditions. But after the dry weather I was able to stroll along the dry bottoms, winding my way through the two-metre deep hags dry-shod. Then I made a direct line downhill, aiming for the little patch of forest around the Lodge. The lodge buildings looked derelict, with broken glass in their windows, and the track down to the bridge was heavily overgrown. I was beginning to have a bad feeling about the likely state of preservation of the bridge.

Blackwater Lodge
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My misgivings proved justified—the wooden bridge bed had partially fallen into the river, and what remains of the crossing is not much more than a couple of tilted girders (which still seem solidly enough bedded, for now).

The bridge at Blackwater Lodge
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I tightroped across one of the girders, my balance a little disturbed by the sight of water flowing below, and then set off upriver to rejoin the Steplar track. (I had toyed with the idea of climbing up on to Round Hill to see if there was another way through the deer fence on the ridge, but I quite fancied a riverside stroll instead.)

About a kilometre up the track, I was pulling out my camera for a photograph of the river, when I heard a high-pitched wheeping noise from somewhere near my left foot. It was a grouse chick, hunkered down and almost perfectly camouflaged on the bare ground. Had it been abandoned? But I could now also hear the anxious crooning of an adult bird somewhere nearby. After one quick photo I trotted off to let the birds reunite undisturbed.

Grouse chick on track beside Black Water
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I never did get my planned photograph of the river.

2 thoughts on “Steplar Path: Cook’s Cairn”

  1. I’m assuming your walks are day trips out of Dundee, adverse weather not being much of a deterrent
    . I like the wildlife you meet on the trek

  2. This one was actually a side trip while heading farther north (of which, more in an upcoming post). This particular hill isn’t very handy for Dundee, but aligned fairly well with a drive from Aberdeen to Inverness that I was doing anyway. Cook’s Cairn is one of the last few hills I haven’t climbed on my vintage Ordnance Survey coloured shaded-relief inch-to-the-mile map – tucked away in the extreme top right-hand corner.
    The grouse chick was certainly a welcome surprise. And I’d never have got the picture if the camera hadn’t already been in my hand.

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