Time was this was the crème de la crème of guidebooks for the Cairngorms.
The last hundred-and-twenty-odd years have seen a few worthy rivals come on the scene, but the republishing of Ben Muich Dhui & His Neighbours, by Alexander Inkson McConnochie is welcome all the same.
For years it’s been a real collector’s item, one I first heard mentioned a couple of decades ago by Hamish Brown, who commented in a newspaper article that he would give much to get his hands on a copy.
Now republished by Deeside Books, of Ballater, it can be obtained for a mere £12.99. No doubt bibliophiles will scorn the fact that it’s not ‘the original’ but I’m just happy to get the chance to read a long-sought book: the paper may be new, but the words are original and they’re what the book is all about.
In his preface to the new edition, Deeside Books’ Bryn Waytes outlines the history of the book, first published in 1885, two years before even the foundation of the Cairngorm Club or those Glaswegian parvenus of the Scottish Mountaineering Club. Originally intended to be privately printed for his hill-walking friends, it was eventually published commercially because of its popularity, and was the first in a series of books by McConnochie.
Reading this book now offers a fascinating glimpse into an earlier age, when transport was by steam train and horse-drawn carriage. When he talks of a driving road as far as Derry Lodge, you have to recall that he means driving by carriage and not car; and when he talks about access to the northern Cairngorms you are reminded that an ascent of Cairngorm itself would start at Aviemore rather than at the Coire Cas car park! A considerably longer walk.
In the original introduction McConnochie talks of a traverse of the Cairngorms talking three days, starting and finishing in Aberdeen. Day one is a train journey from Aberdeen to the end of the line at Ballater, followed by a carriage to Braemar. Day two takes the carriage on to Derry Lodge and then walks across the Cairngorms to Lynwilg in Strathspey, and day three is the return by train to Aberdeen – although, to be fair, one should expect to complete one’s return prior to noon on the third day. (Mind you, I do recall in more recent times, meeting a Polish or Czech guy in Bob Scott’s one afternoon. He had taken the train from Dundee to Aviemore early morning, walked across Cairngorm and ‘Muich Dhui’ and was heading down to Braemar where he hoped to catch a bus or hitchhike back to Dundee – all in one day.)
Given that much of the book is a straightforward description of the mountains, glens and lochs and their relative positions, you might be forgiven for thinking there will be little here that’s not done better in a more modern guide and in some ways that’s true.
But the value lies in the small details, the glimpses of how people thought of the Cairngorms a century ago, the way in which the reach of road access has changed the way we group the hills in our heads, how assumptions we think are natural now were not always so.
For example, McConnochie makes a case (albeit half-hearted) for the Geldie being regarded as the true source of the Dee and, given the northern branch being accepted, takes it for granted that the true source is the Pools of Dee (which he refers to as the Wells of Dee) rather than, as is commonly held today, the Wells of Dee which rise on the Braeriach plateau.
There’s also the difference in names, with the Garbh Choire referred to as the Garrachorry and the somewhat archaic spelling of Ben Muich Dhui itself – not to mention a hill that seems to have completely changed its name: Meall Lundain, north-east of Derry Lodge, is referred to here as Meall Guaille. Anyone know when that name changed?
Mind you, some things seem the same. In his introduction to the Cairngorm Glens McConnochie writes: “Tourists, however, are not specially welcomed by the owners of deer forests west of Castleton (Braemar), and indeed are discouraged among the Cairngorm mountains and glens; but fortunately old and well-established rights-of-way bar any attempt to exclude the public from enjoying their mountain scenery. At certain seasons of the year keepers will be met with in some of the glens who will endeavour – by order of their superiors – to dissuade tourists from taking particular routes, but it is quite unnecessary for the mountaineer to change his plans on such requests.”
I like the defiance in that paragraph and I like, too the modern-seeming assumption at the end of the first sentence, referring to the public enjoying their mountain scenery.
Almost as an afterthought, the author adds one or two accounts of his own ventures in the Cairngorms, including some monumental navigational cock-ups excusable only by the lack of a 1:50000 Landranger OS map and some novel routes to cross the range. He also describes trips in winter (discouraged to all but the most experienced in his introduction) including one when he and his companions crossed Loch Avon on ice, stopping halfway across for their lunch. (Speaking as someone who in his younger and stupider days once walked right up the middle of the same loch from the foot of Coire Raibert to the head of the loch, on ice rather ill-frozen at the edges, I can testify what a daft thing that was to do!)
Maybe you have to be a bit obsessed to be as excited about this book as I am but it’s great to see it available once more and an education to leaf through its pages. All credit to Deeside Books for reviving it.
Now. What about Seton Gordon’s ‘Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland’ next?
By the way, if you’re looking for a good guidebook to walks and scrambles in the Cairngorms these days, you could do a lot worse than Ronald Turnbull’s ‘Walking in the Cairngorms: Walks Trails and Scrambles’, published in 2005 by Cicerone Press. A personal favourite, it has all the routes one would expect as well as many more esoteric routes, all well described, mapped and illustrated.