The A93 reaches its westernmost point at the highland village of Braemar deep within the Cairngorms National Park. There the road makes a left turn and shoots south toward the rolling hills of Perth and Tayside, but an unclassified road pushes further west from Braemar, deeper into the mountainous Cairngorms, toward one of the last remnants of the ancient Earldom of Mar: the Mar Lodge Estate.
The Mar Lodge Estate is a lesson in natural beauty comprising more than 72,000 acres and four of the five highest peaks in the Cairngorms. After the hustle and bustle of Sarah’s arrival to Scotland we decided our first order of business the next day would be checking out this remote and rejuvenating estate now owned by the National Trust for Scotland. The rough single-track road leading out of Braemar hugged the side of a valley as a sunny glen spread out far below. Sudden downpours rolled off the mountains and blew through in a matter of minutes.
The approach to the gates of Mar Lodge Estate is one of epic grandeur. Mountains tower to left and right and dense forest presses down on the thin road. A short drive through the tangled forest leads to a natural and well-signed parking area. A short jaunt along trails then leads to the Linn of Dee, where the River Dee passes through a natural rock gorge surmounted by a sturdy 19th-century stone bridge. In this open valley the widespread Dee is forced into a narrow gorge, its waters growing wild and frothy as it passes through. On the east side, the river returns to a more placid state, though now overhung with nearby trees.
After quite a long time appreciating the scenery and taking loads of photos, we pressed on into the heart of the park. The bumpy lane curled through the forest and climbed to a high plateau studded with ancient Caledonian pine forest, heathery moorland, and juniper scrub. As the road impossibly narrowed, we wondered if there was actually a lodge on the estate. Several times we nearly turned back (as difficult as that would be on this narrow road), but eventually our perseverance was rewarded with a sign for the lodge. Sadly, it prohibited vehicles.
A path lead down through the forest to a wide open glen and we reached it on foot. The headwaters of the River Dee flowed peacefully through the glen as horses grazed on the open grasses. Mountains encircled us, and down the path stood the enormous red-roofed and -bricked Mar Lodge, which did not appear to be open to visitors. Another soul was not to be found and all was quiet – except a brisk wind rumbling off the peaks – in the valley.
Endless opportunities for hikes abound in the estate, and supposedly salmon fishing, deer stalking, and grouse shooting are available within the grounds. For serious hikers, there are also a series of mountain bothies – basic, free shelters – throughout the range. The fresh air, unblemished nature, and solace of the Mar Lodge Estate was a wonderful way to re-energize and kick off our two weeks together in Scotland.