Wednesday, 22 May 2013

The Gaick - A tale of two passes

If you pay any attention whatsoever to this blog, you might remember that a couple of months ago I had a clever plan to bike the Gaick Pass with my Belgian beau, Bart, and my bike buddy, Graham. At the time several feet of the white stuff put paid to that idea. However by mid-May the snow was gone. Sadly, so was Bart, at least for a little while as he gets to grips with some work back in Belgium. I really miss him for his cosy company, his sense of fun and for carrying more than his fair share of the kit on our outdoor expeditions! But, despite being a man down, the Gaick was back on!

The Gaick is a steep-sided, curved valley carved out by glaciers in the last ice age with a flat bottom that holds three lochs into which plunge the scree and heather clad slopes. For centuries it has provided passage for drovers, travellers and walkers between Atholl and Strathspey, being a shorter alternative to its more westerly neighbour, the Drumochter Pass. In the old days, anybody travelling to Kingussie on a tight budget to watch the shinty might have preferred the Gaick route – it was free while the road through Drumochter demanded a toll.

We were also on a tight budget so the bikes were loaded up with camping kit as we pedalled north out of Blair Atholl. We were cycling on the national cycle network, a very pleasant route along bike paths and quiet back roads through springtime woods bursting into life with daffodils and birdsong. The Gaick route leaves the cycle network and heads into the empty wilds of the Drumochter hills at Dalnacardoch. There’s not much here today but in the 18th century Dalnacardoch was an important communications post being at the junction of the Stirling and Perth roads as they came together to journey north to Inverness. For a number of years, the lodge here was an inn and during the 1745 Jacobite rebellions it housed many military types including Bonnie Prince Charlie who stayed there on his advance south. Judging by the number of "Bonnie Prince Charlie caves" that you see on Scottish hill maps, he must have decided it was time for a bit of luxury or at least a bath.

We, on the other hand, were advancing in the opposite direction of north, onto dirt track and open moor under a blackening sky. After a few miles, the hills closed in around us, the pass narrowed and the track disappeared, leaving us pushing heavy bikes through bog and peat hags. It might have been so different. When that great military road-builder General Wade was making tracks north and even when more modern planners were pondering routes to Inverness, the Gaick Pass was considered as a possible option.  However, the steep-sided hills were so prone to avalanches that the decision was finally made to take the main route over the safer Drumochter Pass. So on our bike ride Loch an Dun, at the head of the Gaick, was a forgotten and peaceful place as we partly pushed and partly cycled our bikes along the narrow path above its grey waters. As we crossed the watershed, the clouds lowered and the rain came on, creating a driech, gloomy atmosphere in keeping with the Gaick’s reputation as one of the most haunted places in Scotland. Fortunately there were no ghostly apparitions and the only ghoulish sight of the day was Graham’s bare legs when he rolled up his trousers for a river crossing.

Sunnier skies greeted us on the north side of the pass as we whizzed down into Strathspey, eventually popping out at Ruthven Barracks, near Kingussie. The barracks are a dramatic sight as they sit on their grassy knoll with a commanding view of the Spey Valley and the Cairngorm Mountains. There has been a fortification on this site since the early 13th century when it was the hub for Alexander Stewart, who was known as the Wolf of Badenoch for destroying Elgin Cathedral following a tiff with the Bishop of Moray. After the 1715 Jacobite uprisings, the site was strengthened as part of the British Government’s drive to tighten its grip on the Highlanders. The day after the battle of Culloden in 1745, three thousand Jacobites gathered at Ruthven with the intention of fighting on but, when a message came through from Bonnie Prince Charlie to disband, they set fire to the barracks before abandoning it. Today it looks pretty much how they would have left it. Their desire to leave the area was understandable – we found it impossible to get a decent cappuccino in Kingussie!

So we also fled, although the only battle we had was that with the wind as we made for the next village of Newtonmore. It had been quite a tough ride on rough tracks with a climb to 500m so there was no guilt as we rejuvenated weary bodies with coffee and cake. There was a little more pedalling to do to get up into the pretty environs of Glen Banchor, high above the village, to make a wild camp for the night by the river.  There were more hideous headwinds next day as we rejoined the national cycle network, this time heading south and back to Blair Atholl through Gaick’s neighbour, the Drumochter Pass. The Drumochter is a far grander pass with mountains either side reaching to nearly a thousand metres. However General Wade’s decision to build through it set in stone its long future as a major transport artery and stole what magic it might have had. Wade wouldn’t recognise the place today and with the bike path squeezed between the busy highway and the railway line, it was a sharp contrast to our remote route the day before.

As we pedalled along, even the wind didn't mask the noise of trucks and trains and we wished we could swap them for the calls of the oystercatchers and sandpipers of the Gaick.  

For more photos click here.  
Flickr has changed a little - when you are in the set of photos for Gaick Pass, hovering your cursor over the bottom of the photo will bring up the description. View individual photos by clicking on them.

Fact file
Start/finish: Blair Atholl served by Inverness trains though if you want to get your bike on the train, you'll have to book several years in advance.
Maps: OS Landranger 35 and 42 (yes, annoyingly the route is on two maps).
Route: From the main street in Blair Atholl follow bike route 7 signs north. Where the B road from Trinafour comes in, cross the A9 (there is a proper crossing point but be careful) and on the other side join the dirt track through the Gaick. After abandonned Sronphadruig Lodge there is a section with no trail just bog but after this there is a good path above the loch and then track on the other side. At Tromie Bridge cycle on the B road to Kingussie - you're back on bike route 7 and can follow it to Newtonmore, Dalwhinnie and south through Drumochter back to Blair Atholl. Most of this section is on traffic-free bike path.
Tip: there are three river crossings on the Gaick - the first one now has a new causeway, the second one shouldn't cause you too much trouble but the third one is tricky in high water. For big river crossings I wear neoprene socks with a sticky pattern on the sole - you get them from canoe retailers.

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