The hill at the back of Braemar gives a taste of the Cairngorms.
Distance 6.8 miles (10.9km)
Minimum time 4hrs 15min
Ascent/gradient 2,000ft (610m)
Level of difficulty Hard
Paths Well-made but fairly steep path, track, 1 stile
Landscape Rolling heather hills
Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 387 Glen Shee & Braemar
Start/finish NO 143911
Dog friendliness On leads in reserve, also on hill during grouse nesting May/June
Parking Duck Pond, at top of Chapel Brae, Braemar
Public toilets Braemar centre (opposite Fife Arms)
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1 Take the wide track uphill, to the right of the duck pond at the top of Chapel Brae, bearing left twice to Woodhill house. The house can be bypassed by taking a small footpath on the right which rejoins the track just above. When the track forks again, bear left to a viewpoint indicator.
2 Cross a track diagonally to a hill path marked 'Morrone'. The path has been rebuilt with rough stone steps. Higher up, it slants to the right along a line of rocky outcrops, a geological dyke of harder rock. At the top of this it turns directly uphill, passing five sprawling cairns. These are the turning point in the Morrone Hill Race that is part of the Braemar Games. The wide, stony path runs up to the radio mast and other ugly constructions on the summit.
3 The summit, if you turn your back on the buildings, has fine views across Deeside to the high Cairngorms. On the main tops, Ben Macdui and Beinn a' Bhuird, snow may show right through the summer. To the east you will see Loch Callater and the White Mounth plateau. A notable hump is Cac Carn Beag, one of the summits of Lochnagar. Morrone's summit area is bare stones, but if you go past the buildings you'll find the start of a wide track. It runs down to a shallow col and climbs to the cairn on the low summit beyond. Here it bends left towards a lower col, but before reaching it, turns left again down the side of the hill. A gentle zig-zagging descent leads to the road by the Clunie Water.
4 Turn left, alongside the river, for 1½ miles (2.4km). Ben Avon with its row of summit tors fills the skyline ahead. After a snow gate and golf clubhouse comes a road sign warning of a cattle grid (the grid itself is round the next bend). Here a track, back up to the left, has a blue-topped waymarker pole.
5 Go up between caravans to a ladder stile with dog flap. A faint path leads up under birches, bearing right and becoming clearer. After a gate in a fence the path becomes quite clear, leading to a Scottish Natural Heritage signboard and blue waymarker at the top of the birchwood. The path becomes a track with a fence on its right and, in 220yds (201m), reaches the viewpoint indicator, Point 2. Here you can either return to the duck pond, or continue on Walk 24.
Coming down the back of Morrone Hill, you descend through several different plant zones, and the home ground of two distinctive Grampian birds.
On the windswept, often snow-covered summit plateau, gravel alternates with shrubby plants that grow barely ankle-high. These are food for the ptarmigan, a bird of the grouse family that's rather like a small hen. Uniquely among British birds it turns white in the winter, and in spring and early summer it will still be white in patches. Its late summer plumage is paler than the grouse, and more speckled. But the easy way to recognise it is by where it lives - a grouse above the heather line is a ptarmigan - and by its behaviour. It relies on camouflage, and when you notice it, will probably be standing on the gravel only a few yards away. Even then, it doesn't fly away, but will probably wander off round the back of a boulder. In springtime, the male bird's soaring display flight is accompanied by a soundtrack of belches and cackles. The 'P' at the beginning of its name is purely ornamental - in Gaelic it's tarmachan.
At the 2,000ft (610m) mark, bilberry and some grass grow, along with dwarf heather. Once you turn down on to slightly more sheltered ground, the heather springs up twice as high. At around 1,500ft (457m), it is deep enough to hinder off-path walking. Wild flowers like yellow tormentil and white woodruff are established, and you may see meadow pipits and mountain hare.
A small brown bird - or more likely three or four - leaps up out of the heather with a squawking cry that seems to say 'go back, go back!' Grouse go with heather, like pandas go with bamboo and koalas with gum trees. Red grouse are found only in the British Isles, and unfortunately their heather country, however familiar and tiresome to Scottish walkers, is rare and vanishing in a world context. The grouse need old leggy heather to nest in, but shorter, younger plants to eat. As a result, grouse moors are burnt in a ten-year cycle to provide tall heather with short fresh heather near by. The piebald effect of 'muirburn', as it's called, gives these lumpy hills an attractive extra texture.
Eighty per cent of the grouse's diet is heather, the rest being the insects that live in it. As birds lack teeth they require small stones in their gizzards to help grind their food up and aid digestion. For grouse, sharp quartz grit is ideal, and you may spot small piles of this beside the track.
The Duke of Fife used to own all Braemar west of the River Clunie. 'He is immensely rich,' said Queen Victoria with approval when he wanted to marry her daughter. The Fife Arms, with the standard hewn pine trunks along its frontage, has a large bar full of hillwalkers (and their dogs, on leads). Bar meals are served in walker-size portions.
The tundra shrubs that grow on the plateau belong to the heather family, but with oval leaves rather than needles. They can be distinguished easily from August as their berries are conveniently colour-coded. The crowberry fruit is black, the cowberry red and the bilberry, also known as whortleberry and blaeberry, has a juicy purple fruit and pale green leaves. Ptarmigan droppings are stained purple with this fruit, which is also tasty to humans.
Braemar Castle is smaller, older and to my eye much more attractive than Balmoral, where the Queen lives. It was an important strong point, replacing the even older ruin alongside the River Clunie just above the bridge. Its surrounding wall is a later improvement, designed to cope with attackers during the age of the musket. Inside it has the world's largest cairngorm (a semi-precious stone), and underneath there's a pit dungeon for miscreants.