Two Books About The Mounth Roads

Two books about the Mounth passes

Robert Smith: Grampian Ways
Neil Ramsay & Nate Pedersen: The Mounth Passes

It is clear enough where the Grampians begin; no-one is certain where they end. The limits of the range have been as elastic as the whims of cartographers, so that the word “Grampian” has become an uncertain scrawl on many maps.

Robert Smith Grampian Ways (1980)

These books are about the old Mounth roads—traditional mountain crossings in the southeast Highlands of Scotland, used by cattle drovers (and raiders), soldiers and travellers for centuries. Some are now covered in tarmacadam and have become major roads; some have been so far abandoned that they’re difficult to find on the ground, let alone the map.

I’ve written already about the origin of the mountain name Grampians, and the variable extent of the mountain ranges to which that name has been applied. Both these books tie it fairly firmly to those Scottish hills that have been called “The Mounth”—south of the Dee, east of the Cairnwell pass. And both are careful to mention the names “Grampian” and “Mounth” in their titles—Smith’s book’s full title is Grampian Ways: Journey Over The Mounth; Ramsay and Petersen call theirs The Mounth Passes: A Heritage Guide To The Old Ways Through The Grampian Mountains.

Smith casts his net a little beyond this strict definition, extending his travels as far west as Drumochter, and straying north of the Dee on either side of the Cairngorms—taking in the Minigaig connection to Glen Tromie, and the old tracks connecting Braemar and Balmoral to Tomintoul. Ramsay and Pedersen, on the other hand, keep to the traditional Mounth area, but find more routes to write about—the minor routes of the Elsick, the Stock, the Builg and the Kilbo Path don’t feature in Smith’s book.

That’s not the only difference between the two books. Smith’s was published in 1980, Ramsay and Petersen’s in 2013; Smith’s is a conventional paper book, Ramsay and Petersen’s an e-book that looks to be self-published (it has no ISBN or publisher listed in the colophon); Smith’s is a chatty personal account, running to 260 pages, Ramsay and Petersen’s is almost telegraphic by comparison (56 pages, containing many photographs, on my e-reader).

Robert Smith was a journalist who lived in Aberdeen. He wrote Grampian Ways while he was still working as the editor of the Aberdeen Evening Express. After his retirement in 1984 he went on to write  much more about the history of the area around Aberdeen, which he clearly loved. His obituary, which appeared in the Scotsman newspaper in 2008, gives a good summary of his life and works.

Grampian Ways is personal. Smith had been walking these hills for many years before he wrote it. Although each chapter describes a specific journey on foot over one of the Mounth passes, they’re full of reminiscences about other days in the same hills, too. Smith often stops along the way to chat—we learn not just the names of two children he encounters, but also the name of their dog. He tells us the story behind ruined cottages, fallen bridges, standing stones and old place-names as he goes. He quotes at length from the writings of others who travelled here—Robert Burns, Lewis Grassic Gibbon and Queen Victoria prominent among them. And he embeds the tracks in history—where the cattle drovers came from, why they travelled, and where they stopped along the way; which army crossed which pass, and what the result of that was; and where exactly Queen Victoria stopped for a picnic. His writing radiates warmth and affection for the area, its people and its history. He also has an ear for memorable quotations—among other sources, he picks lines from a pseudonymous 1880 essay in the Aberdeen Journal, written by “Dryas Octopetala” and “Thomas Twayblade”*, describing an ascent of Lochnagar, during which “the gale would not permit the uplifting of an umbrella, even on the lee side of the cairn” and “the rain, when you faced it, hit in the face like showers of pease”.

The book is illustrated with some rather muddy black-and-white photos (pretty standard for the date of publication), and by some nice full-page maps.

Neil Ramsay and Nate Petersen worked on the Heritage Paths project in Scotland, Ramsay as Project Officer and Petersen as a volunteer. (I’ve already had occasion to link to the excellent  Heritage Paths website when I wrote about the Steplar path recently.) They have previously written about the Mounth roads for Leopard magazine, and they revised and assembled those articles to produce this book. The book also features photographs of the Mounth routes taken by Graham Marr, who maintains a rather gorgeous Flickr page featuring Scottish hill photography.

Each route is described in two ways—first with a potted history of its use over the centuries, topped and tailed by a couple of Marr’s photographs; and then by a brief “route survey”, giving the grid references of the start and finish points and a short text describing the route, illustrated by more photographs. The photographs are excellent, but on my e-book reader are too small to appreciate fully; the same applies to a coloured map of all the routes at the start of the book.

The history necessarily covers much of the ground already trodden by Smith, but there is also a lot of new material. For instance, with reference to Jock’s Road, between Glen Doll and Glen Callater, Smith writes: “There has never been any explanation of how it got its name, or if, in fact, there was ever a Jock at all.” But Ramsay and Petersen report: “Considering the age of Jock’s Road, which has been used for centuries, the name is actually quite recent. A local shepherd in the 19th century, John ‘Jock’ Winter, leant his name to the pass and it stuck.” While Smith refers only to a “bothy” on Jock’s Road, Smith and Petersen give the history of various shelters at that point, culminating in the present bothy which glories in the name of Davie’s Bourach. Ramsay and Petersen are also better at tracing the history of the Mounth routes as record in maps of the area over the centuries—taking advantage, I suspect, of easy access to the National Library of Scotland‘s magnificent on-line map archive, which has featured more than once on these pages.

The “route surveys” are very brief—single paragraphs, in the main, providing no more than the dots to be connected when consulting a large-scale map.

So these are very much complementary works—Smith has the wider scope, a leisurely approach, historical and personal digressions, apt quotations, and more detailed maps. Ramsay and Petersen are more up-to-date, fill in some gaps in Smith’s history, cover routes in the core area that Smith doesn’t mention, provide grid references, and of course have the benefit of being able to easily reproduce Marr’s colour photography.


Glen Clova from Bachnagairn
Bachnagairn in Glen Clova – mentioned by Smith, but not Ramsay and Petersen

* According to the Dictionary of Anonymous and Pseudonymous English Literature, “Dryas Octopetala” was Alexander Copland, and “Thomas Twayblade” was Thomas R. Gillies. They both turn up listed as members in the Transactions of the Aberdeen Philosophical Society in the late nineteenth century—Copland as a “merchant” and Gillies as an “advocate”. Presumably both were amateur botanists—Dryas octopetala is the Mountain Avens; the Twayblade is an orchid.
Ramsay and Petersen don’t explain what a bourach is. It’s a Scots word meaning “a complete mess, a shambles”. There’s a Gaelic word, buarach, which refers to a fetter tied around the hind legs of a cow during milking. if you picture the process of milking a stroppy cow with its rear legs tied together, you’ll get the idea of what a bourach looks like.

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