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Loch-an-Eilein - Loch of the Island

To come to the Cairngorm National Park and miss this "jewel in the crown" would be a serious omission. Situated in the heart of the Rothiemurchus estate and easily accessible, just 3 miles south of Aviemore, it has been described as offering "some of the best low level walking paths in Scotland". The scenery is stunning whether you visit in summer when the still waters provide perfect reflections of the sky, mountains and clouds, later in the year when the heather turns the mountains a glorious mauve colour, or in winter when the loch regularly freezes over. I never tire of this route or cease to be impressed by the magnificent setting.

Arriving by car, you're greeted by a relatively unusual sight in this area - a car park - and charges! Now bearing in mind Scotland's right to roam, this can be challenging for the frugal (some might even say stingy) Scot (such as my husband) and might even lead, as on this occasion, to the odd argy-bargy (argument) or even domestic (between husband and wife). My husband insisted on dropping my mother and I off before he parked but unfortunately my mother hadn't changed out of her slippers into her walking boots. So when another car came up behind us he shot off leaving her in her slippers clasping her boots - I was "ragin'"!

The owners of Rothiemurchus justify the charge as enabling "Conservation of this diverse living landscape which does not happen by accident" and aim to "maintain and enhance the forest for future generations". Worthy sentiments, so to avoid future disputes I'll be buying my husband an annual pass before our next visit!

The charge does enable this special place to be managed in a way that makes it accessible to large numbers of visitors - well maintained paths, good sign-posting, toilets and a small shop and gallery in the old bothy. The relatively flat 3-mile route around the loch makes it hugely popular with walkers of all levels of ability, cyclists, wild-campers, kayakers and bird-watchers. The peace and tranquility coupled with views of the loch and sounds of the forest soon soothe frayed tempers!

Before you've even left the car park (assuming you were ever in it), you may be lucky enough to spot crested tits or even the elusive Scottish crossbill - only found in the Scots Pine forests native to this part of Scotland and as such the only terrestrial vertebrate species unique to the United Kingdom. The Gaelic name for the crossbill is Cam-ghob which literally means "squinty-beaked". A member of the finch family, it differs from other crossbills by its call - it's said to have a Scottish accent! The shape of its beak, with crossed bill tips, is ideally suited to extracting the seeds from pine cones. In all my years of stravaiging through these forests I've never seen one yet so please don't expect a photograph - you'll have to Google it!

Continuing down the path on the western side you pass the remains of a kiln that was used to extract lime from the limestone quarried from the rockface overlooking the loch. This was one of two industries in this area, the other being the logging of timber. In the 18th C the loch was dammed to raise the water level and flood neighbouring streams, enabling logs to be floated down the loch to the River Spey and onwards to the sawmills.

Continue on and you begin to pick up glimpses of the island to which the loch owes its name. A natural island and not a crannog, it would have made an obvious refuge in turbulent times when marauding clans clashed over territory and the currency of the time - the black cattle. The route along the eastern shore was known as the "Thieves Road" because the cattle reivers would travel through the mountain passes and converge here before descending on Strathspey in search of plunder.

The smaller loch to the north is called Loch Gamnha which means Loch of the Stirks (young cattle) and it's said that the local folk would leave a few cattle tied up here in the hope that these would suffice and their herds would be spared.

As you draw level with the island you're able to identify the remains of a castle through the thick vegetation. Built as a place of safety in the 13th C it was added to over the centuries and has a bloody history that will be the topic of a future blog!

By the time Elizabeth Grant was writing her "Memoirs of a Highland Lady' set in the 1800's it had already fallen into disrepair and she reports that ospreys were nesting in the battlements. No ospreys nesting there today, perhaps due to Victorian egg-thieves who are reported to have swum out to the island to rob the nests. But if you're quiet and listen for their distinctive call you can often see them fishing on the loch during the summer months.

Loch-an-Eilein also attracts anglers who come to fish for pike. As you can see from the photo below which appeared on YouTube ( Calum Maclean @ caldamac) these fish can grow to monstrous proportions and will regularly take small ducks from the surface. It's reported that a pike was found with talons and sinewy remains embedded in its back - that osprey had taken on more than it bargained for!

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