In ancient times the people of the Highlands didn’t consider the Grampian Mountains as a single block, but as a complex series of ranges and valleys; each with their own characteristics, lofty peaks and secret pathways. A few of the old names have come down to us; and the broad plateau of hills lying to the south of Strathdee is still known as the Mounth; roughly translated as ‘The Mountains’, it is a term Pictish in origin. This wild part of the Highlands was for millennia a tough barrier between the fertile lands of Strathmore and the valley of the Dee; but there are ways through, and from the south that means a trek up through the beautiful Angus Glens.
The County of Angus occupies a small corner of Scotland on the east coast north of the River Tay, and south of Aberdeen; and like its neighbour Perthshire is a land divided between the Lowlands and the Highlands. From the high plateau of the White Mounth, Mount Keen and Lochnagar fast flowing rivers and cataracts tumble down through heather clad hills and sheep-speckled fields racing towards the North Sea. The Angus Glens, which house these foaming streams are deep, heavily glaciated valleys and have a rich and varied history. There are five principal glens west to east: Glen Isla, Glen Prosen, Glen Clova, Glen Lethnot and Glen Esk; and a number of smaller valleys leading off from them, such as Glen Doll, Glen Finlet and Glen Mark. It is an incredibly beautiful area, and an almost forgotten corner of the Highlands.
The mountains make for great walking, and the landscape is littered with evocative sounding names that draw upon the linguistic changes the area has seen, from Pictish, through Gaelic to Scottish English; from An Dul Monadh (Tolmount) to the Shank of Inchgrundle, and the Clash of Wirren to the Corrie of Fee. The highest peaks (e.g. Glas Maol, Dreish and Mayar) are Munros, that is mountains over 3000ft, and are fairly accessible to walkers; although their easy summer slopes give way to some difficult, but great winter walking and ice climbing.
There are also a number of longer routes through the hills – the old traditional passes to Deeside, such as Jock’s Road, Capel Mounth, and The Fungle Road that are good hikes through quiet, undisturbed moorland. Here you can sense the solitude of the place, something lost elsewhere. Not that these routes were always quiet. Historically they were key highways for the wild Cateran raiders: clan mercenaries who fought with ferocity and without mercy and terrorised the land. The routes even provided victims for lone criminals such as Gryp, who mugged hundreds as they travelled the passes, and who’s name is retained in a dark cave known as Gryp’s Lair.
There are also a couple of National Nature Reserves in the upper glens; at the Corrie of Fee and at the Caenlochan; at the head of Glen Doll and Glen Isla respectively. Here if you are lucky you might see eagles, wildcats, foxes,red deer and a myriad of rare and unusual plants and mosses. They also fall under the umbrella of the Cairngorms National Park, the largest in Britain, as does much of the Braes of Angus. There are signs that wildlife in the past was not so revered. There are numerous references to wolves in some of the old names, and the terms ‘lair’ and ‘den’ are common. These are probably the last redoubts of a beautiful animal hunted to extinction by 1700 at the latest. Today, many of the heather moorlands are turned over to grouse shooting and deer stalking; and country sports play a big part in maintaining the local economy and most of the area is owned by large estates.
Lower down, in the flat bottomed verdant glens farming has long been a mainstay industry of the area; and while most of the land is now given over to cattle and sheep grazing it was once home to arable, subsistence agriculture stretching back through the mists of time. There is evidence in Glen Esk and in Glen Lethnot of settlements and smallholdings from the Neolithic and Iron Ages; and from then, right through the medieval period to the 19th century we find remnants of field systems and stone walls. The Glens have long been the demesne of the Lyon, Lindsay and the ancient Ogilvy families; and the area has numerous old castles like Invermark, Cortachy, Forter and Edzell, where local power was wielded by men who acted both as chief in the hills, and noble courtier in Edinburgh or London. The people of the Glens were in their thrall, often fighting for them both against their rivals at home, and for king and country abroad. Today, the relationship is more mutually beneficial.
However, fortification and control of this important borderland goes back much further than clan warlords and aristocratic estates; over 2000 years ago the local Iron Age tribes constructed substantial hill forts, especially where the glens open out into the arable Lowlands. These forts did what later medieval castles did: they protected the valuable routes north. The best preserved of the fortresses are the White and Brown Caterthun near Brechin: good examples of a typical type of fort known as a Dùn in Gaelic. The Romans too passed this way around 80AD, constructing a road linking a set of marching camps and fortlets running all the way from Stirling and Perth; including Stracathro and Battledykes; both of which are considered ‘glenblockers’ (forts built to protect the fertile south from the wild Highlanders), and to be found at the mouth of every valley leading out of the Highlands from Loch Lomond to the North Sea.
Although collectively called the ‘Angus Glens’, each one is different and has a unique signature and they all make for a great day out. The great barrier of the Mounth is still imposing, as there is not one through-route that can be driven beyond the head of any of the glens – Clova, Prosen and lower Isla have loops that are worth the drive, and plenty of places to stop off, from waterfalls and forest walks, to viewpoints and activity centres. If you fancy spending some time in the area then you can also head a bit south and visit Glamis Castle near Forfar, the Pictavia Centre and Cathedral in Brechin, Meigle Museum, Kirriemuir (birthplace of J.M Barrie – author of Peter Pan), the House of Dun, and the bird sanctuaries on the Montrose Basin. From history and legend to wildlife and walking, there’s lots of options.
There are a few hotels and a B&B here and there, a couple of great traditional bars and some camping grounds which make for excellent points to start a hike up into the hills. The scenery is as breathtaking as any part Inverness-shire; yet with a serenity and calm that is often lacking elsewhere. They are easily reached from the Lowland cities, and can be part of a day trip, or longer holiday to the east of Scotland. If you are looking for something unique, old world and beautiful then beat a path to the Braes of Angus and their famous Glens.