Through the Heart of Scotland
The Fjällräven Classic UK
Written by Anna Blackwell // Photography by Ian Finch // Film by Jamie Barnes
Friend of Fjällräven Anna Blackwell shares her experience of becoming part of the Fjällräven Classic community through taking on the first iteration of the Fjällräven Classic UK, a 65km trek through the heart of Scotland’s Cairngorm mountains.
Tilting my head to peer out from beneath my hood, I took in the view of the route ahead. Or lack of it. Low cloud prevented me from seeing much beyond my dog, Bilbo, as he clambered over the wet rocks, his lead pulled taut. Hearing a shout of glee from ahead, I squinted into the bracing wind, and my grimace disguised the excitement that simmered within me. Then I caught sight of the bright blue fabric of a checkpoint tent and my heart leapt. A small crowd of soggy hikers congregated around it, vivid orange safety tags adorning their rucksacks and marking them out as fellow participants of the Fjällräven Classic UK. Moments later, I was part of the gaggle. Welcoming smiles made me momentarily forget the wet weather.
It was the second day of the Fjällräven Classic UK, a 65km hike through the heart of Scotland’s Cairngorm massif. Despite encountering typical Scottish weather, I was delighted to be out in the hills surrounded by like-minded and similarly soggy people. Over 200 hikers from all over the world had come together for the first UK iteration of this global event series – people from all walks of life with a range of hiking experience, from experienced multi-day hikers, to those for whom these three or four days would form an introduction to wild camping. And that’s one of the joys of the Fjällräven Classic: this levelling, shared experience, forming the basis of so many meaningful friendships.
A few days before, we’d arrived at Mar Lodge, the former hunting lodge marking the start and finish point of our adventure. The first order of business was checking in. Ducking under the blue canvas of the check-in tent, I was met by the beaming face of a volunteer who handed me a map of the area and a trekking pass. This pass was to be stamped by officials at the series of manned checkpoints along the route, which also provided opportunities to resupply food and gas, enjoy a hot drink with fellow hikers, and get an update on the weather and conditions ahead. Now was also the time to collect the first few days’ worth of dehydrated meals, a gas canister, and reusable canvas trash bag.
Throughout the afternoon, there was a steady stream of other participants arriving. As the light dwindled that evening, the land around the lodge seemed to vibrate with the gentle buzz of excitement emanating from the tents.
That sense of anticipation hung in the air the following morning, heightened by the clear blue sky and still air – perfect conditions for the first day of a hiking trip. As the start time approached, a growing crowd of hikers gathered until everyone was assembled. Rucksacks had been packed and repacked, weighed, and finally heaved onto backs to the accompaniment of huffs and groans. Finally, the first notes of bagpipes rang forth and as one, we began inching forward behind the traditionally clad piper. He escorted us along the first few hundred metres before releasing us into the relative wild of the Cairngorms.
The first few hours of hiking took us over easy terrain as we ambled along the banks of the River Dee. Gradually we broke out of the dense Caledonian pine forest and into the open Glen Lui, where a tributary river now wound and tumbled beside us. Ahead, the sun-warmed track was clearly visible against the dark heather and boulder-strewn grass, like a ribbon unravelling into the mountains. Our group, made up of me, Ian, Jamie, Neil, Matt, and of course my dog Bilbo, had by now settled into a steady pace. Conversation flowed as easily as the water beside us.
Entering a woodland, we reached our first checkpoint, and discovered to our delight that fresh coffee was brewing and a pan full of tattie scones was crisping up next to it. After dropping our packs on the ground, we retrieved our mugs and gratefully allowed them to be filled with hot coffee. Next on the agenda was getting our trekking passports stamped. But now Bilbo saw an opportunity too good to miss. In one fluid movement he darted over to the unguarded tattie scones and had guzzled one down before anyone noticed.
Bellies filled and caffeine levels replenished, it was time to get moving again. It now felt as if we were entering the mountains in earnest. After de-booting to cross a fast-flowing river, we gradually began the ascent towards Corrour bothy. Each bend or rise in the path unveiled a new series of valleys and peaks. The ever-changing view motivated us to keep pushing on. Clouds now dappled the clear skies of the morning, and their shadows added to the already mesmerising patterns and textures of the slopes around us.
We reached the checkpoint at Corrour bothy as the sun began to tease the mountaintops, and stopped only to receive our passport stamps before carrying on in the fading light. A short while later we reached a small horde of hikers and tents. That evening, after pitching up just above the throng, we sat outside in the dwindling light, watching the display of head torches and listening to the gentle murmur of new friends eating dinner together.
After a night of wind ravaging through camp, it was with trepidation that I unzipped my tent in the morning. As expected, gone were the blue skies and bright sunshine. Instead, cloud blanketed the mountaintops and the moon winked through fleeting gaps torn by the wind. Seeking shelter from the cold gusts, Matt, Bilbo, and I ate breakfast huddled in the porch of my tent, and then decamped with an efficiency that paid off. The first heavy drops of rain began to fall as we shouldered our packs.
Any hope we may have been clinging to that the morning would stay dry was quickly dispelled. The higher up the rocky Lairig Ghru pass we climbed, the steeper the slopes either side of us became. Soon we were treading through a rain- and cloud-filled chasm. Despite the inhospitable conditions, the companionship and shared experience kept spirits high. Arriving at the Pools of Dee checkpoint, we were welcomed with warm smiles and waves of recognition from people we’d passed time and again on the trail. Just over one day into the hike and already a strong community was forming.
Not long after beginning the descent out of the Lairig Ghru, the wind dropped and we emerged from the cloud to be met by an entirely different vista. Gone were the imposing mountainsides in whose shadows we had walked – now, tree-covered slopes fell away gently below us, and patches of sun slanted across an undulating landscape. No sooner had we entered the protective canopy of trees than the memory of the morning’s weather-induced hardships evaporated from our minds. As we passed through the Caledonian pine forest to the sandy shores of Loch Morlich, we felt lighter, our energy replenished.
That night, a forecast of snow and ferocious winds forced everyone to stay put at the foot of Bynack Mor. Navigating through the ensuing mélange of tents, and stepping carefully over the cat’s cradle of guy lines, we found a clearing just big enough to pitch our tents amongst the small bushes and undergrowth. Back in my tent porch cooking dinner with Matt and Bilbo, I smiled as I heard soft peals of laughter. Gradually the light faded and camp fell quiet. I withdrew to my sleeping bag, allowing an exhausted yet happy Bilbo to crawl in alongside me.
The following morning, camp was bustling with commotion as tents were taken down, bags repacked, and water bottles filled. We wasted no time in setting off – we had a substantial day ahead, starting with the climb up the side of Bynack Mor. Though the forecast snow from the night before had not arrived, sheets of rain were sluicing down by lunchtime. Hiking through rain isn’t my favourite pastime but I had to admit that the weather added to the remote and rugged feeling of walking amongst these mountains. I looked around at the stoicism etched on the rain-soaked faces of my companions. These challenging few hours would undoubtedly make our overall experience far more rewarding.
Finally, we reached the top of an exposed pass and paused to gaze down upon Glen Derry, still beautiful despite the rain. Eager to reach a small woodland so we could shelter and have a long-overdue lunch and hot drink, we quickly descended the saturated path. I was desperately in need of sustenance. I could feel my energy ebbing away rapidly.
A hot meal and a few gulps of Ian’s coffee later and I was recharged. My energy wasn’t the only thing that improved after lunch. Leaving our leafy refuge, we discovered that the rain had almost entirely ceased. The route also felt transformed – a fast-flowing river now cascaded along one side of the path, interspersed with waterfalls and fallen trees.
We paused for a brief snack under the statuesque pines when we reached our final checkpoint. During the remaining miles, I experienced the amalgam of emotions typical of the final stretch of any adventure. I was most definitely ready for a hot shower and comfy bed to sprawl across, but I also keenly felt how much I would miss this landscape.
Anticipation soon replaced any sentimentality as we rounded a bend and saw Mar Lodge looming in all its grandeur. It was with a true sense of achievement that we crossed the finish line to the ceremonial sound of bagpipes and cheers from the small crowd. We collected our finishers’ medals and patches and made our way to the excited hubbub of the large tipi, ready for an evening of sharing stories, applauding each other’s achievements, and laughing over the low points.
The following afternoon I joined the throng of people cheering in the remaining trekkers. I was humbled to see how emotional some people were – an important reminder to not take this sort of experience for granted. For many people, the Classic was their first time taking on an adventure this challenging and rewarding. I could only imagine how they were feeling having persevered through the testing mountains and temperamental weather, all while carrying heavy rucksacks and sleeping under canvas.
That evening there was a ceilidh. Taking a pause from the chaos and dancing to observe the merriment, I was struck by how special this occasion was. Just a few days ago, this roomful of people were strangers. Now, watching the dozens of dancers link arms and charge around with cheeks rosy from the revelry and laughter, I realised that I was observing a wonderful community of friends, forged by the Fjällräven Classic UK.