One of the oldest rights of way in Scotland, Jockâ€™s road, linking Glen Clova to Braemar, has much to offer the walker says Bob Aitken.
The Angus Glens sometimes seem like a bit of a backwater in the Scottish hill scene: warmly appreciated and cherished by a select band of devotees, particularly the climbers and walkers of Dundee and Forfar, but too often neglected and arguably undervalued by those of us with more direct access to hills further west and north.
Admittedly Glen Clova is a bit out of the way, and something of a long dead-end: itâ€™s 30km up from Kirriemuir to the head of the glen, but apart from its own fine scenery it gives an appealing approach to the mountains. Where the flanks of the glen start to draw in, the hospitable hotel at Clova offers a bunkhouse and self-catering lodges. From the back of the hotel a path leads up to the fine Loch Brandy, filling a classic armchair-shaped corrie under the vast plateau that stretches away north-eastwards to upper Glen Esk.
But the best is further on. Beyond Clova the road narrows to a very Highland style for the last five kilometres, with an increasing sense of stern mountain scenery and drama. The road ends very definitively at the car park, ranger base and visitor centre at Acharn: an atmospheric spot, deep-set where the glenâ€™s flat floor abuts suddenly against the scalloped corrie edges and rocky spurs of the plateau, sheltered by mixed woodland and forestry plantations.
Acharn offers a variety of activities to suit weather and inclination: short low-level walks by the riverside, rock-climbing on Red Craig above Braedownie, and access up into the Corrie Fee National Nature Reserve with its superb suite of glacial features and its exceptional arctic-alpine flora that owes its lushness to the lime-rich rock. Southwards and westwards lie a range of Munros, with a selection of winter climbs in the corrie heads on their flanks.
Take the high road
For the walker, a particular point of interest is that Acharn stands at a notable junction of three historic routes across the Grampian plateau. If you can organise transport on the other side of the hill, all three of these routes can give you a genuine sense of travel across the high watershed in the footsteps of old drovers, pedlars, and other travellers of the past. The Kilbo Path strikes south-westwards up the flank of the spur of the Shank of Drumfollow, and over the high pass between the Munros of Dreish and Mayar into the head of Glen Prosen. The Capel Mounth heads north, climbing steeply out of Moulzie Glen to meander over bleak high moors before sidling down into Glen Muick and the end of the road from Ballater at Spittal of Muick.
But the longest, the finest, and the most serious of the three traditional high â€˜roadsâ€™ that converge at Acharn is the Tolmount, over the roof of the Grampians to Braemar. This is not just the most scenic of the three, but reeks of history: as a droving route, certainly, but also as the scene of several hill-walking tragedies, and as the setting for a key event in the contested story of access to Scotlandâ€™s countryside.
From Acharn the Tolmount route heads west up Glen Doll as a soft track through plantations under the broken rock-and scree flanks of Craig Mellon and Craig Damff. Then it sidles up on Jockâ€™s Road, a fine old stalkerâ€™s path recently renovated, zig-zagging through the craggy valley heading out on to the plateau under the knobble of Craig Lunkard. From there it runs for 4km across the plateau at around 900m: in mist or wintry conditions a serious navigational challenge. In summer this spacious high moorland is the country of the seasonal migrants, the golden plover, dotterel and dunlin, while deer, ptarmigan and mountain hares can be seen at any time of year.
From the flat saddle north-west of the modest flattened crest of Crow Craigies, the route drops sharply into the head of Glen Callater, looking straight into the craggy Coire Kander. It continues down along the shore of Loch Callater to the lodge at its foot, where there is also an MBA bothy, and down the track by the Callater Burn under slopes chequered by heather-burning for grouse. Long years ago, as a keen but green youngster trudging alone up this track in the gloaming, I was spooked by an eerie and to me inexplicable soft whirring sound that seemed to fill the air around me. It was the â€˜drummingâ€™ of snipe, invisible in the gathering darkness. As you descend the track, the distinctive tor-studded tops of Beinn Avon come into view, well to the north across the Dee. The Tolmount joins the highway of the A93 Glenshee road at Auchallater, just 3km up from Braemar.
The historic name, the Tolmount, is now mainly reserved for the flattened dome of the Munro to the south-west of the route; but that was the name of this ancient droving route by which cattle and sheep were brought southwards from Braemar to the seasonal market at Cullow near the foot of Glen Clova, and thence onwards into the Lowlands. Instead, the name â€˜Jockâ€™s Roadâ€™ is now often used for the whole route from Glen Doll through to Glen Clunie. Written sources offer various convincing-sounding explanations as to who Jock was, but no-one seems to know for certain; that is just one element in a sticky web of mythic oral tradition and half-truths that have gathered around this route.
Jockâ€™s Road offers an attractive, not too demanding walk from Acharn up to the point where it opens out on to the plateau. A useful turning-point is the small rough shelter called Davieâ€™s Bourach, a veritable Hobbit-hole half-hidden under a rock and grass hummock. The shelter and a plaque nearby are testimony to the hazards of the Tolmount route in bad conditions, which led to one of the most tragic accidents in the history of hill-walking in Scotland, when five members of a Glasgow walking club came to grief in a ferocious blizzard at New Year 1959. They had set out from Braemar to make the crossing to the then Youth Hostel in Glen Doll, but succumbed one by one on the plateau in the kind of extreme conditions of wind and snow in which even the hardiest and best-equipped party may struggle to survive on high ground. The last two members of the party fought their way to the very brink of safety at the head of Glen Doll, only to miss the crucial turn to the top of Jockâ€™s Road, and to succumb in the gorge where the White Water cuts through the broken crags. Davieâ€™s Bourach is named for Davie Glen, a celebrated bearded hill gangrel who took part in the search for the victims of the disaster and rebuilt an old wooden shelter on this site.
In fine clear weather an attractive circuit can be made by continuing along the rather faint Tolmount path on to the plateau behind Craig Lunkard, striking east past the high Loch Esk and then down by the wonderfully named Glittering Skellies to the ruined larch wood at Bachnagairn, at the head of Glen Moulzie, and so back round to Acharn. This is a favoured deer-stalking ground at the southern extremity of the Balmoral Estate, so you should allow for that in the season. In either direction this can also give an adventurous circuit for the more rugged style of mountain biking. But like the Tolmount, that route too can be serious in the wrong conditions, and has its history of tragedy, in the loss of a young student couple from Dundee in March 1976 in severe winter weather. Their companion barely survived a night out to raise the alarm, but despite extensive searches the victims were not found for a week.
But Jockâ€™s Road has a more positive claim to fame: as the crucible for a key conflict in the history of public access to Scotlandâ€™s countryside. In 1885 the Glen Doll estate had recently been purchased by a Duncan Macpherson who had made a fortune as a grazier in Australia. He made plain his intention to maintain the estate as a private fiefdom for deer stalking and fishing, and to keep the public out.
As a result, that same year he was the first proprietor to be visited by a small â€˜deputationâ€™ from the newly revived Scottish Rights of Way Society, which had set out to assert public rights in several contested routes across the Grampians. This was an expedition distinguished by exemplary organisation: it carried signposts prepared in advance to mark disputed footpaths, which they erected as they went along, and included a solicitor to take details of estate staff who ventured to obstruct the party.
Macphersonâ€™s immediate response to having a signpost erected on his land was to proceed at law against the Society, and to pursue his case all the way to the House of Lords. The Society mustered a flock of ancient drovers and shepherds, whose honest homespun testimony of long-continued uncontested use of Jockâ€™s Road finally won the case in 1887. The costs of the litigation almost broke both parties, but the effect of upholding the right of way over Jockâ€™s Road was profound. In the short term it precipitated public action to assert threatened rights of way across Scotland, including celebrated direct actions near Braemar and Alyth that involved mass trespass and ceremonial burning of barrier fences. That campaign led to the Local Government (Scotland) Act of 1894 making local authorities responsible for protecting rights of way.
In the longer term the Glen Doll case fundamentally changed the balance of attitudes to public access to Scotlandâ€™s countryside, not least by warning obstructive landowners that the costs of contesting historic public rights of way could be ruinous. Weâ€™re all much in debt to that deputation, and not least to its leader Walter A. Smith. Walter seems to have revisited Jockâ€™s Road with the same kind of pleasure as a rock-climber might take in climbing again a route he had pioneered. He went on to compile his guide to Hill Paths in Scotland, which passed through multiple editions and several hands. Thanks to ScotWays, the successor to the original SRWS, it now continues as Scottish Hill Tracks.
The Societyâ€™s signs still point the way through Glen Doll in vindication of its historic success in establishing the public right of passage by Jockâ€™s Road. You too can go there and feel yourself part of that grand tradition.
This article first appeared in the January/February 2016 edition of Scotland Outdoors magazine. Buy it here.
Find out more about traditional byways here.
Main photograph: Ian Dow.