Setting off up Glen Tanar I had two simple aims. The first was to hike roads less well travelled and the second was to find a wild and beautiful place where I could pitch my tent and break the journey into a two-day outing. Admittedly the initial leg of my journey was by no means a road less travelled; Glen Tanar is popular with walkers and cyclists, but as I emerged from the forest and pushed into the wilder upper reaches of the valley, I soon found I was on my own.
Just short of the ruined bothy at Shiel of Glentanar I joined the Mounth Road, the first of two old rights of way I planned to pursue over the Mounth Hills. This upland barrier between Deeside and the glens of Angus is criss-crossed by ancient byways that offer numerous possibilities for walkers and lightweight backpackers. Unlike more popular long distance trails, chances are you will meet few people tramping them.
Crossing the Water of Tarf, I began my ascent of Mount Keen. The old Mounth Road links Ballater with Tarfside and although it skirts over the western slope of Scotland’s most easterly Munro, an alternative path rises to the summit. It proved to be a stiff, unrelenting climb and my decision to shed luxuries and travel as light as possible was paying off.
As I reached the top, clear skies offered a great vista east over ground I would soon visit and this put an added spring in my step as I headed down to rejoin the old road for the descent into Glen Mark. I was following in Royal footsteps here; Queen Victoria crossed the Mounth Road in 1921 and an ornate well below the cottage at Glenmark commemorates her passing. I spurned refreshment by Royal appointment – the water was rather murky – and sauntered down Glen Mark to Glen Esk.
The road heads east from Invermark to Tarfside, my next destination, but I tramped tarmac only briefly, picking up a track offering a more direct route over grazing land and below Hill of Rowan, a familiar landmark in these parts thanks to the prominent Maule Cairn memorial erected on its summit in 1866.
With my first day drawing to a close, thoughts turned to finding a place to spend the night. Tarfside has a riverside camping field with a toilet block (cold water only!) in the adjacent car park but I was seeking a more remote spot for my tent so I set off north, on the Fir Mounth Road. As I gained height, grassy fields gave way to rougher heather moor and, above the last outpost of civilisation at Shinfur, I found a perfect pitch by the Water of Tarf. A springy mattress of heather beneath tired limbs brought swift sleep after a very long day.
With much ground covered, there was no rush to set off the next morning, but fine weather drew me out of my tent early and, after a leisurely breakfast, I was back on the road. The Fir Mounth shares common ground with the Fungle Road from Tarfside on to the southern shoulder of Tampie where the pair part company beneath a cluster of signs erected by Scotways, formerly the Scottish Rights of Way & Access Society. With the Fungle striking off towards Aboyne, I stayed loyal to the higher-level Fir Mounth, rising with it on to Tampie.
The elevated route passes east of Hill of Cat, crossing Gannoch, Hill of St Colm and finally Craigmahandle, the highest point on the Fir Mounth. The weather held for me but, as I trekked over exposed and largely featureless terrain, it was easy to imagine how gruelling this crossing must have been for early travellers caught in hostile conditions.
Below Craigmahandle, the Forest of Glen Tanar beckoned once more and, consumed by trees, I wandered down into the valley. Satisfied I had achieved my objectives, I left the Fir Mounth to continue its journey north to Dinnet.
Distance: 29 miles/46km
Ascent: 5356ft/1607 metres
Time: 14 hours (broken with an overnight camp)
Start/finish: Glen Tanar Visitor Centre, near Aboyne (GR: NO 480965)
Maps: Ordnance Survey 1:50,000 Landranger sheet 44 (Ballater)
Information: Banchory TIC, 01330 822000
Travel information: Stagecoach Bluebird (01224 212266) 201 service from Aberdeen to Braemar stops at Aboyne, four miles from start
Route: Follow track SW through Glen Tanar to join Mounth Road 800m E of Shiel of Glentanar. Head S, crossing Water of Tanar, and ascend Mount Keen. Descend S to Glenmark and Queen’s Well and follow Glen Mark track SE to Invermark. Walk E on road for 600m to join track to Westbank then path to Tarfside. Cross bridge over Water of Tarf and head N on track (Fir Mounth and Fungle Roads) to Shinfur. Continue N to junction (NO 499853), fork left and follow Fir Mounth over Tampie, Hill of St Colm and Craigmahandle. Descend into Forest of Glen Tanar and follow track down to visitor centre.