Published 22nd April 2020, 18:35

    THE eastern glens may be short of soaring peaks and pinched ridges, but these are my home hills and the rolling, heathery terrain has a desolate beauty of its own.

    I've been wandering these hills since I was a boy, so it seemed strange to realise a few years ago that I had never walked the full length of Jock's Road.

    This right of way – also known as the Tolmounth – runs for 22 kilometres from Glen Doll to Braemar, and is famous for being the subject of a successful early battle over access rights. 

    A court challenge was brought by the Scottish Rights of Way Society after a rich Scot, Duncan Macpherson, returned from Australia and bought the Glen Doll estate, then tried to ban anyone crossing his land. 

    After protracted hearings that went all the way to the House of Lords in 1888, Macpherson lost the case after it was shown to have been the practice of drovers to take cattle and sheep from Braemar over the route to market in Glen Clova.

    The route is often said to be named after a shepherd, John (Jock) Winter, who testified against Macpherson, but the name Jock's Road had been used long before the case and there is a mystery over the true identity of John Winter.

    Any day traverse relies on transport being available at one end or the other, which probably accounts for my piecemeal endeavours over the years. I finally achieved my goal last weekend, but it was touch and go as to whether the long-organised trip would go ahead with all the uncertainty swirling around at the moment.

    There was much soul-searching among our group, the weighing up of the risks in the current climate. In the end, most decided that the benefits of a healthy hill day tipped the balance. There was also the feeling that this could be, if not the definitive last hurrah, then certainly the last for a while, and that may have contributed to the decision. 

    The landscape we were walking into seemed to fit the mood. Jock's Road may be a well-established trail, but it reaches a high point of 920 metres and in foul weather it is not be taken lightly. Once on the high plateau, there is little shelter from the elements, and when the path is buried under snow it can be tricky to remain on the correct line and then find the crucial turn leading down into Glen Callater, a passage squeezed between dark crags.

    The snow accumulation had been washed away from the lower reaches, the temperature having risen enough to replace the threatened solid ground with soft steps. That changed as we reached the top of the tumbling stream on the skyline. Now we moved into a different world, a dark line strung out on a smothering white blanket.

    We passed the red door of Davy's Bourach, the rough shelter at the col which has been a lifesaver for many over the years. It had been closed for a spell due to a collapsed wall, so it was good to see it open again after fine restoration work by members and friends of the Forfar and District Hillwalking Club.

    The tragic history of Jock's Road is very much in evidence here, a plaque on a nearby rock in tribute to the five members of the Universal Hiking Club from Glasgow who died during an attempted crossing in 1959.mThey had set off from Braemar on New Year's Day but were caught in a ferocious storm at the head of Glen Callater. Most of the group were highly experienced and it is thought they tried to take a more sheltered route to avoid the worst of the fury.

    A rescue team found one of them three days later but had to abandon further searches due to deteriorating weather and deep snow. The others were discovered one by one over the next three months, the last in mid April. All had died from hypothermia. The shelter was built the following year by Davie Glen, near the spot where he had found two of the bodies, and leaving the bourach and the plaque to head on to the open plateau is always a sobering moment.

    The snow was deep here and the invisible path merely a compass reading, but there was blue sky on the horizon so we headed straight for it. As we took the loop over to the highest point, the clouds grew angry and began spitting icy bullets with a horizontal fury. Now we could see nothing in the spinning grey and white.

    We kept the line and the tempest was short-lived, the views opening up again to show us the correct line down to the watershed and the circling black crags laden with white. The walk out to the head of the loch was accompanied by half-hearted showers, the wind dropping in strength with the loss of height. It appeared that even the weather didn't know what to make of it all.

    We ended in a somewhat reverential silence, contemplation perhaps of the uncertainty ahead, thoughts of when normal service will be resumed. Maybe we should take heart from the mysterious Jock and his struggle for justice.