The Cairn o'Mount is one of Scotland's legendary roads for cycling. Legendary for the steep gradient and challenge of climbing it. I used this road when returning from a cycling trip in Royal Deeside. Read on to see how I got on.
Highlights of this Cycling Route
After cycling the Deeside Way from Aberdeen to Ballater you have to consider how you return. Do you go back the way you came? Or do you go back a different way? I decided to take a different route to Laurencekirk train station for the journey home. This is a 36 mile journey, via the famous Cairn o'Mount road.
I left Ballater on a cold and misty morning on the B976. The road was very quiet with hardly any traffic. I faced a steep climb, but it was worth it for the views over forest covered hills.
I passed the Deeside Mineral Water factory, an important place in the history of Ballater. Ballater had developed as a spa town because of the large number of visitors who came to drink the mineral water that was renowned for improving health. The water comes from ancient springs in this location and is bottled by Deeside Water. I had a bottle of the stuff with me and it was proving essential on these tough uphills.
When I reached Bridge of Ess I was taken aback by the charming scene before me. There is a fairy-tale tower and a curving bridge with black painted iron railings. It looked such a romantic place to live with the sound of the river, great views and a little garden.
Another pretty scene was the Butterworth Gallery at Ballogie. Here you can buy works from local Scottish landscape painters. It was closed at the time of my visit, but the outside was a scene of nostalgic village life with an old petrol pump, red phone box and red post box.
Before tackling the Cairn o'Mount road I stopped at Finzean Farm and tea shop. Produce on the menu was named after the person who supplied it- 'Sandy Ingram's bacon' and 'Mrs Hesketh's jam'. It had to be cake and there was a huge choice. I decided to tackle the triple layer coffee cake. There were prints on the walls by local artists, at least 3 featuring Highland cows. Two immaculately dressed elderly ladies were chatting to the staff about the daffodils displayed on the counter. "They're from the garden. Lovely faces on them."
There was an information card on the table about the setting up of the business. It was interesting to read that the owners went against the advice of the feasibility study, which stated that this business was too rural to survive. They had clearly proved them wrong because this place was thriving and I noticed many tables with reserved signs on them.
About 5 miles from Finzean old fashioned AA (Automobile Association) phone box marks the beginning of the Cairn o'Mount Road. It is smartly painted in yellow and black, with AA crests in the gables. At one time there were almost 1000 of these boxes across the UK. They were first introduced in 1919 as manned booths where an AA sentry-man provided mechanical help, directions and even medical assistance.
By the 1920s the boxes were turned into "call boxes." AA members were given keys to them and inside there was a telephone for getting help- all they had to do was give the number of the call box and someone would be on their way. The boxes also contained useful items like maps, oil lamps and fire extinguishers.
Another famous feature of the Cairn o'Mount road is that it has snow gates. In bad weather these gates are used to close the road. This can happen frequently in the winter.
The uphill climb begins immediately that you start the road. A warning sign displays a 14% gradient. There is no gentle introduction to the hills; you have to dive right in.
I will not lie to you; this is tough cycling, even with a good level of fitness. At one point I was overtaken by a road cyclist. "This is supposed to be fun.!" He called out.
I laughed, but thought 'it's okay for you. I am loaded down with panniers.' Yes, if you are doing cycle touring on this route you really feel the weight of your baggage on these hills.
The road began with forest, but later the landscape opens up with a more barren appearance. At this stage I thought the hills were over, but no! There were more. I could see the road continuing far off into the distance and it was going up, up, up. It was not good for morale to see the road going up with no sign of leveling off.
The name 'Cairn o'Mount' comes from the cairn that can be seen on top of the Hill. From a distance it looks very impressive, like a craggy mound on a mountain top.
This cairn has been here for about 4,000 years, added to over the years by passing hikers. It is currently about 3.5m high and 15.5m wide.
I was almost out of my Deeside water, dehydrated and feeling sick. I thought that I would collapse if I stopped and would not be able to get back up again, so I kept going.
Finally the downhills began. They were fast and twisty. I arrived at a viewpoint with a car park. I stopped to take photos of the incredible vista. The road, snaking its way across the landscape, was in the middle of a panorama of rolling hills.
Then I let myself sit back and let the bike do the work. I did not have to pedal, just use the brakes a lot. The constant tight turns made this a lot of fun to ride.
The Cairn o'Mount road ends at Fettercairn (or starts there, if you are doing this in the other direction). From there it is a mostly flat run to Laurencekirk train station which provides convenient connections to Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh.
Laurencekirk station is a fine survivor of Scotland's Victorian railway architecture. It was closed in 1967 and in a sorry state until it was reopened in 2009. The restoration has resulted in bringing back many original features like the canopy and waiting room with wood panelling and fire place. I love that the station name signage on the windows is in the colour scheme and typeface that would have been in place in the 60s when the building was last used.
If you fancy tackling the Cairn o'Mount road then Laurencekirk station is the best placed for access. From here it is only about 4 miles to the start of the road. This is also a good way to return from a trip on the Deeside Way to avoid having to go back the way you came.
Train times for Laurencekirk- about 30/34 minutes to Aberdeen, about 2 hours to Glasgow (direct trains), and just under 2 hours to Edinburgh.
Read my Deeside Way travel feature
The Deeside Way is a 41 mile cycle path, mostly traffic-free, from Aberdeen to Ballater. It follows the line of the Deeside Railway, once famously used by The Royal Family to travel to Balmoral Castle. Here are 10 things you can see and do along the way:
1. Old Station Buildings
Most of the Deeside Line's stations survive today. Information boards tell the story of each building. This is a photo of Murtle Station which has a canopy held up with decorative iron struts. Passengers once got off here to visit the Deeside Hydropathic which offered a variety of treatments, including Turkish and Russian baths.
2. Allan Park
A secret garden just waiting to be discovered, Allan Park, is a short distance from Cults Station. It is hidden away in a valley with a set of steep stairs taking you down to a world of ponds, trees and birdsong. This is the perfect place to relax with a picnic lunch.
3. Drum Castle
Drum Castle was occupied for 653 years by a single family, the Irvines, until the death of the 24th Laird in 1976. Inside there are the expected castle essentials, such as a library full of beautifully bound books, a Gallery hung with family portraits and four poster bed. There is even a cabinet containing the 11th century hair of Malcolm, King of Scots. The extensive grounds offer woodland walks and rose gardens.
4. Deeside Railway
The Deeside Railway has restored a mile of track at Milton of Crathes and created an authentic experience of what rail travel was like back in the day. Travel in the 1950s Battery Multiple Unit where the front seats look into the driver's cab and give a view of the tracks. Grab a coffee in the buffet carriages and admire the restored timber station with its fireplace and ticking clock.
5. Milton Art Gallery
The work of local artists is displayed inside restored farm buildings. Take home a painting, sculpture or jewelry inspired by the Aberdeenshire landscapes and nature. The Art Gallery is adjacent to the Deeside Railway. and Crathes Castle is a short walk from here.
6. Crathes Castle
The sculpted yew trees are the most incredible feature of the gardens of Crathes Castle. They date back to the early 1700s and have been continuously trimmed by generations of gardeners to keep them in the egg and cup shape that you see today. The painted ceilings inside the castle are jaw dropping. The room of the Nine Nobles features bearded military heroes, like Alexander the Great, Hector of Troy and Julius Caesar.
7. Grave Robber Watchtower, Banchory
Cycling into Banchory you will spot a curious round tower; it was a watchtower installed to deter grave robbers in the nineteenth century. It has a bell and the sight of this sent a shiver down my spine as I imagined it being rung by a panicking watchman on spotting body snatchers. The sound would awaken the foggy town and the people would be in no doubt about what was going on.
8. Cambus O'May Suspension Bridge
This charming footbridge, built in 1905, crosses the River Dee. It has lattice girders, a cute turnstile entrance and is painted gleaming white. On the other side there are woodland walks to enjoy. The bridge is 3 miles east of Ballater.
Note that the Cambus O'May suspension bridge is currently not accessible after storm damage (March 2018).
9. River Dee
The 5th longest river in Scotland and famous for its salmon fishing the Dee is a constant companion for cyclists on the Deeside Way. For large sections you are riding alongside it, so make a stop and take a seat by its banks for a bit of relaxation.
10. Royal Station, Ballater
Board a replica of a Royal Train carriage and take a peek at the Royal toilet in the waiting room- it has a blue and white porcelain bowl painted with fruits and flowers. There is a tea room that perfectly captures the nostalgia of nineteenth century railway refreshment rooms.
Read about my cycling trip on the Deeside Way:
Part One: Aberdeen to Banchory
Part Two: Banchory to Ballater
My name is Colin Baird and I want to see all of Scotland by bicycle.