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OUT AND ABOUT WITH RALPH: Scaraben hike serves up montane flowers, birdlife and even jumping salmon

By Ben MacGregor

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The waterfall.
The waterfall.

It’s a walk up Scaraben I’ve done many times – indeed in fitter days I would run the route and be back at the car in under three hours.

The first challenge was just getting to the highest point of the road between Dunbeath and Braemore. The potholes are the worst in the county, which is saying something.

I had to get out of the car to navigate a route through without grounding. I suppose most vehicles on this route are estate 4x4s, but it is a public road!

The June weather was more like November with cold winds and frequent showers, but a few gleams of sun encouraged me as I set off along the wet quad-bike track which crosses the hill to the south then descends 500 feet to the Berriedale Water.


A warm spell a couple of weeks earlier had encouraged the wild flowers which now looked rather as if they had been forced to bloom at Christmas. There were little white flowers and small blue trumpets of the insectivorous sundew and butterwort, there was white bedstraw and purple lousewort, the yellow of meddick and tormentil, blue milkworts and tufted white cottongrass.

The river runs through a narrow gorge spanned by a suspension footbridge with a small waterfall which has been seen by millions. This is where the jumping salmon were filmed in David Attenborough’s Wild Isles. The gorge also features in Neil Gunn’s Well at the World’s End.

Probably only one in a million of those viewers have actually been here.

The bridge is in a bad way with missing planks and broken stays. I would not recommend anyone to try it – or you might meet the fate of the character in Neil Gunn’s story!

The dangerous footbridge.
The dangerous footbridge.

The sun had gone and more showers came on as I slowly plodded up the steep heathery slopes towards the Scaraben ridge. Mist came and went at the line of an old fence, and wind blasted the stony plateaux.

Not far below the east top, a horizontal scar in the peat and bits of alloy still mark the site of an old plane crash.

Cloudberry grows prolifically on the higher slopes of Scaraben, looking like a strawberry plant with white flowers and red berries which turn orange and edible when ripe.

Few plants had set berries, it was too cold for bees and insects. It started to sleet. A persistent, regular peeping sound made me wonder if my rucksac was squeaking but no, it was a golden plover, obviously with chicks nearby and trying to draw me away.

The stony top of East Scaraben was not exactly cosy with a gale, mist and a temperature not far above freezing.

The gorge and footbridge.
The gorge and footbridge.

I always carry on to the main summit… but this time with feet and hands already very cold decided to cut the walk short. And I was glad I did as just north of the top was a mother ptarmigan, very handsome, speckled with a white underbelly, with tiny fluffy chicks scattering into the heather.

It was very good to see that these birds, which are rarely found on such low hills, are still thriving here.

I carried on walking as the mother bird shuffled along a few feet in front of me, pretending a broken wing to draw me away from the chicks. A couple of hundred feet down she took off and circled back into the mist to gather her family again. I hope the ptarmigan and plover chicks survive the unseasonal cold.

Gradually it warmed up a bit as I made my way down the rough slopes of heather and tussock. Here, in a wet hollow, was a clump of yellow cow-wheat and a collection of heath orchids, typical mountain flowers and nice to see again.

Few people live at Braemore now, but old ditches and peat-cuttings indicate former communities.

I aimed for another footbridge on the other side of a deer fence which had to be carefully climbed. The bridge itself had suffered damage in recent floods but was still passable, with care.

The second, damaged, footbridge.
The second, damaged, footbridge.

Change continues here; there has been considerable deciduous planting around Braemore and a new mobile phone mast graces (if that is the word) the skyline above. Perhaps the radio mast on East Scaraben which provides safety cover for lone workers can now be removed?

It was still cloudy, with a cold wind and occasional showers as I walked slowly back up the road to the car. The triangular Maiden Pap had appeared from time to time but the higher peak of Morven remained hidden all day in cloud and rain.

Now just those potholes to negotiate again…

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