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The Pass of Ryvoan and the Thieves' Road

Following cattle thieves and drovers to the lochan used by the fairies for their laundry.

Distance 5 miles (8km)

Minimum time 2hrs 15min

Ascent/gradient 400ft (122m)

Level of difficulty Medium

Paths Smooth tracks, one steep ascent, no stiles

Landscape Views over Rothiemurchus Forest to Cairngorms

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 403 Cairn Gorm & Aviemore

Start/finish NH 980095

Dog friendliness Off leads but under close control

Parking Bridge just south of Glenmore village

Public toilets Glenmore village

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1 Head upstream on a sandy track to the left of the river. Interpretation signs explain the flowers of the forest you may come across, many of which are ferns and mosses. After 550yds (503m), turn left on a wide smooth path with blue/yellow waymarkers. Ahead is a gate into Glenmore Lodge rifle range; here the path bends right, to a wide gravel track.

2 Turn right, away from Glenmore Lodge, to cross a concrete bridge into the Caledonian Reserve. Immediately keep ahead on a smaller track (marked by a blue waymarker) as the main one bends right. The track narrows as it heads into the Pass of Ryvoan between steep wooded slopes of pine, birch and scree. At a sign that warns of the end of waymarking, a path turns left, with a blue waymarker, which you take in a moment. Just beyond this, steps on the right lead down to Lochan Uaine. Walk round to left of the water on the beach. At the head of the loch a small path leads back up to the track. Turn sharp left, back to the junction already visited; now turn off to the right on to the narrower path with the blue waymarker.

3 This small path crosses some duckboard and heads back down the valley. Very soon it starts to climb steeply to the right, up rough stone steps. When it levels off the going is easier, although it's still narrow with tree roots. The path reaches a forest road at a bench and a waymarker.

4 Continue to the left along the track. After a clear-felled area with views, the track re-enters trees and slopes downhill into Glenmore village. Just above the main road turn right, through a green barrier, to reach Glenmore Visitor Centre. Pass through its car park to the main road.

5 Cross to Glenmore shop with its café. Behind a red post-box, steps lead down to the campsite. Pass along its right-hand edge to a wide smooth path into birch woods (blue/brown waymarkers). Head left across a footbridge to the shore of Loch Morlich and follow the shore's sandy beaches (or paths in the woods on the left) until another river blocks the way. Turn left along the riverbank. Ignore a footbridge, but continue on the wide path (following brown/blue waymarkers) with the river on your right. Where the path divides, the smaller branch, with blue waymarkers, continues beside the river through broom bushes to the car park at the start of the walk.

The Pass of Ryvoan has all the atmosphere of a classic Cairngorm through-route. It's a scaled down version of the famous and fearsome Lairig Ghru that cuts through the Cairngorm range southwards from Aviemore. You pass from the shelter of the forest to a green lochan, trapped between two high and stony mountainsides. Once through the narrow gap, you're in a different country. Here you will find wide moors and a ring of peaks around the horizon.

Ryvoan marked the exit of the Thieves' Road that ran out of Rannoch and Lochaber by secret ways through the Rothiemurchus Forest. The MacDonalds of Glen Coe used to come raiding here in the 17th century, as did Clan Cameron from Loch Eil near Fort William. Once through the pass, they could take their pick from the rich lands of Moray and Aberdeenshire.

In more settled times, the raiding chieftains became landlords, and their rents were paid in the small black cattle of the glens. Every autumn, the drove herds assembled for their long walk to the markets of Falkirk, Perth and northern England.

The drovers used the same road as their thieving grandfathers, but once through the pass they turned sharp right across the flank of the mountain. The Lairig an Lui, the Pass of the Calves, crosses the dangerous ford of the Avon and runs down Glen Derry to Braemar. It's 30 miles (48km) to the next good grazing and shelter from the rain - two full days for the drove. Overnight the cattle would snatch some grazing from the rough grasses, while the drovers cooked their oatmeal and potatoes, before rolling themselves in their woollen plaids on a bed of heather. As late as 1859, Queen Victoria found the Lairig path torn up by hooves and scented with fresh cow pats.

Lochan Uaine means 'Green Loch'. Some say the green colour is caused by flecks of mica. Others claim that it's where the fairies wash their green garments. The Highland fairies, the Sith (pronounced 'Shee'), don't dance around with magic wands and grant you three wishes. They are touchy and vengeful, and if you meet one it is best to address him very politely in good Gaelic. Precautions you can take are to avoid wearing green, which is known to annoy them, and never to address your friends by name while still under the trees.

The Bodach Lamh-dearg is a spectre who appears wrapped in a grey plaid with one bloodstained hand, challenging passers-by to a fight and leaving their bodies for the foxes. Big Donald, the King of the Fairies, lived beside Loch Morlich. While wolves and bears may one day return to the forest, we should be more alarmed about the return of the Sith.

Where to eat and drink

The Forestry Commission's visitor centre has a café serving baked potatoes and snacks. Across the road, the Glenmore Café offers chips, toasties and red squirrels - the squirrels are outside, using a feeder placed directly opposite the windows.

What to look for

Elsewhere in Britain, red squirrels are being supplanted by their big grey cousins which were introduced from America. However, the red squirrel's smaller teeth are better adapted to life among the pines, and it is widespread in the Rothiemurchus Forest. Typically they'll run up the side of a tree trunk facing away from you, but then you'll see them escaping through the branches overhead. Close up - as at the Glenmore Café - you may notice their vicious little claws and teeth and realise they're nothing more than fluffy orange rats.

While you're there

Reintroduced to the Cairngorms after an absence of around 1,000 years, the Glenmore reindeer herd is based at Glenmore village. From the Reindeer Centre you'll be taken up the hill to visit the herd. Some of the reindeer pull sleighs in Christmas parades in December, and all are tame enough to handle.

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