By David Jarman
a Powerpoint/pdf slideset accompanies this blogpost, providing a preliminary photo-documentation of the paths, with background history.
The networks of stalkers’ paths created by the Highland sporting estates from their advent in the earlier 19th century and into the 20th century have received remarkably little attention from historians or archaeologists. Yet they transformed access into glens and hills where formerly no made roads or ways had existed, and left persistent marks on the landscape. A recent NOSAS Report (2021) summarises this ‘stalkerpath phenomenon’ and presents the findings of a map, satellite imagery, and field study of a large swathe of the Western Highlands between Glen Cannich and Glen Carron. This study is being presented as a NOSAS Talk in March 2022.
In August 2021, a NOSAS field trip visited Glencarron Lodge to explore a pair of “stalkerpaths”. This novel and simplified term, which I have coined, distinguishes paths made for sporting estate purposes from traditional worn hill paths, and from tracks made for more general use (the NOSAS Report explains the thinking behind its adoption). This pair was chosen primarily for convenience of access, as the better-preserved cases now tend to be rather remote or difficult to embark upon. They are excellent if delicate examples of the classic ‘zig-zag’ design, and have a fascinating history, but unfortunately they display almost none of the typical artefacts.
Glencarron Lodge stalkerpaths locus
The paths ascend the steep, smooth north side of Glen Carron above the Lodge, and are visible as faint zig-zag traces from the A890, especially in low-angle light or thin snow. They have long been abandoned and, unusually for paths close to base, bear no trace of mechanised improvement or vehicular use. They ascend from 150m asl to terminate as the slope eases at ~500m asl, but well short of the broad 550m ridge labelled Coille Bhàn. They share a brief common start, with each branch only half a kilometre long (crow-flight up the hill).
Both paths are marked on OS 1:25000 maps, if not quite to their full extents, but only the western path is shown on the 1:50000. The original start from the Lodge is blocked by a treebelt. The displaced start shown by OS is now also barred, by rhododendron jungle. The path therefore has to be located by crossing footslopes from the lay-by on the main road west of the Lodge. It is reasonably visible near the treebelt, but the bifurcation is lost in thick bracken; even in winter, it is a jink-back that is hard to identify.
The present disuse (both for sporting purposes and by walkers) is a result of vicissitudes of estate history, which must first be addressed.
Glencarron Estate history
The mid-C19 breakup of the once vast Applecross Estate, initially purchased by the Duke of Leeds, led to successive investments by a South Wales ironworks heir, Sir Ivor Guest, who became Lord Wimborne. Very little is known about him, beyond an unsuccessful political career and involvement in railway and other development in Dorset where he made his home. A flavour of the times is provided by a fascinating biography of his admirable philanthropist mother.
Without full archival research, it appears from OS Namebooks (which give the owner of each named location, as at ~1875), and from Grimble’s unreliable memory at 1896, that Sir Ivor Guest made four successive purchases :
|1||Achnashellach Estate||1871||resold c. 1890|
|2||Coulin Estate||before 1875||resold c. 1890|
|3||Glencarron Estate||?1871||retained, reduced|
|4||Glenuaig Estate||after 1875||retained|
The Dingwall and Skye Railway opened to Strome Ferry in 1870, and Guest was the beneficiary of Halts at both Achnashellach and Glencarron, with special stops or even additional trains in the season. It may be surmised from his Dorset mansion and his being satirised by Punch that he was a figure in society who liked to entertain, although his main Lodge at Glencarron is hardly on a grand scale. Nevertheless, his transactions suggest an element of investment for profit (or an embarrassment of debt), rationalising his holdings down to a rather modest core rather than creating an empire such as Glenstrathfarrar (Broulin/Braulen). Indeed the present Glencarron and Glenuaig Estate has quite inconvenient boundaries for deer stalking purposes, with an awkward access track linking them across Achnashellach land; his new ‘lodge’ at Glenuaig is a mere cottage.
For present purposes, the puzzle concerns Guest’s disposal of all the land north of the A890 (which has his name on it at 1875) to Coulin Estate, possibly after he had already sold that on, and even though it is hard by his Lodge with no ready access from the Coulin side. This could suggest a certain disinterest in deer-stalking (but possibly a preference for fishing, retaining the river and loch ? – unusually, Grimble notes the salmon fishing in the upper river).
On the face of it, Guest had spent money constructing a handsome pair of stalkerpaths, highly convenient to his Lodge, only to sell the land and render them redundant, their start cut off and their use discontinued. They were not even investments enhancing the value of the land, as with ‘roading’ of forestry plantations, being of no use to Coulin. (Another path north of the road, up Coire Crubaidh and zigzagging onto the moor, was also made redundant, it too being a long way round from Coulin.)
This assumes Guest built the paths, either together or in close succession (the mapping history is unhelpful, see below). Alternatively, one or both paths could have been constructed by the first purchaser and commissioner of the Lodge (a Mr Shaw of Birkenhead), and were thus assets acquired by Guest. After the sale to Coulin, there may have been an agreement that the paths could still be enjoyed recreationally, or even some short-term sporting tenancy. The path still starts from the Lodge at 1902-23 3rd Edn, but has been deflected down to the roadside hut by 1955 7th series (intervening editions are obscured by a spot height). The barrier treebelt may be fairly recent.
Path design and artefacts
West path, lower ground
(see the NOSAS Report for details of the main artefacts – underlined – associated with stalkerpaths)
The western path traverses across wet, irregular footslopes to the edge of Coire Dubh-riabhach, here an impressive gorge. By the standards encountered across the study area, this path is a rather basic, even cheapskate affair. There are no substantial borrow-pits, implying a simple excavation of earth and peat down to the glacial till (morainic sand-and-gravel) which makes a good path surface, where present. Where absent, and usually with bedrock not exposed, the revealed sub-surface would be stony or muddy, levelled out and topped with whatever surplus finer material was to hand. Today, a few hints of ‘till’ surface survive, but mostly the path is a line to follow rather than a pleasure to walk; it is still a lot more convenient than crossing the open slope. It may once have been the usual six-foot width for main paths, but is now reduced by weather and vegetation.
Surprisingly, given the path crosses wet footslopes, there is little sign of any drainage ditches, whether adjacent to the path or upslope cut-off channels. Most such paths are ditched, suggesting this was either an early model, before experience of the need for them was gained, or cheese-paring.
Two main burns have to be crossed. The first crossing-point is hard to locate because it is higher up than expected: the natural line of the path expires at the shallow gully edge, with a jink-back corkscrew only found by looking over one’s shoulder (see slide 7, reproduced above) . There are hints of stone paving for a basic ford. The second burn is in a gully, which has partially eroded the path twisting across it and destroyed the ‘Ford’, which may have been a quite substantial construction as it is marked on the OS map. One rill has traces of a paved ‘water-crossing’. At a smaller burn, an anomalous clutch of stones in the grassy channel below suggests a washed-out paving.
At the gorge edge, the path character changes, now following a parallel morainic ridge, not along its crest but winding up this side and that with several quite exposed points, where indeed some erosion has occurred. A couple of zigzags up the footslope bring the path towards the foot of the east fork of the great, raw ravine heads, without quite reaching it. Here, the ascent of the steep open slope commences.
West path, main slope
The ascent of about 200 m up a high-angle smooth convex slope is accomplished by means of eight zigzag pairs. The first two are permitted to reach the ravine rim, from where the path traverses the entire convexity in a magnificent rising arc 300 m long to the next gully edge east. The upper zigzags diminish in amplitude as the convexity tapers to a roll-over brow. Here, the mapped path ends withan open grassy sward ahead,with no trace of a path. However, aiming for a tell-tale notch on the next brow and maintaining the accustomed gradient towards it finds the path resuming. It can be traced up some final twists, which bring it into a curious curving dry grassy recess (a small glacial meltwater channel) just below the Coille Bhàn ridge.
Three key features of zig-zag path design can now be considered (there are no constructional artefacts, this main slope being dry and ready-surfaced – in other words, simple cut-and-fill with the scraped, levelled and compacted substrate fit to walk):
- width – this is now almost impossible to determine, as a century and a half of soil creep, wind, wet, and frost have infilled the cut notch and degraded the bank. It has narrowed to a thin trod (kept alive by deer more than boots) or even a mere ‘line in the sand’; indeed it xcould induce vertigo in the wobbly, and walking poles may assist. Experience elsewhere (with path segments cut in more stable terrain) suggests 3-4 feet was a minimum width on such upper slopes.
- gradient – the best paths up steep slopes set a consistent ‘ruling gradient’ designed to optimise walking speeds in ascent, and to ease the knees and thighs in descent. Setting out such a gradient with primitive surveying equipment, especially on convex slopes, evidently proved beyond some path-makers. This path does well on all counts, although it is amusing to speculate that the tiny zigzag at the end of the ‘long drag’ was an expedient to arrive at a preset turning point.
- turning points – these are the ultimate test of the path-maker’s skill, or the owner’s expectations and purse. It is not an easy matter to link two slant notches on a steep cross-slope. Three options are available:
- not link them in a continuous level surface, thus requiring an awkward step up from the end of one onto the start of the next;
- make a landing by digging deeper into the hillside, thus requiring walkers to pivot to make the sharp angular turn;
- construct a ‘turning circle’ by both digging in and especially building out, sometimes necessitating a retaining wall.
This path mostly adopts the economy version, with the ‘step up’ degraded by weathering into an awkward little scrabble.
East path, main slope
The footslope segment of the east path is now difficult to trace, although the line on the OS 1:25000 map is correct
. As the slope steepens, five bold regular zigzags break the back of it, with a much tighter amplitude (75 m) than the west path (which ranges 100-300 m), and only occupying half the width of the available smooth panel between gullies. The zags meet the eastern gully edge, but as it is not unduly active their bends have up to now just escaped severance .
The 25k map shows the path ending above the gullyhead at 400m asl. In fact, there is a slight hiatus here (suggesting a second phase) before the zag continues for the same distance again. It then turns up in a tight corkscrew to 460m asl, ending at a slight grassy easing where parties may have rested or garrons waited. This upper part is quite unlike any other stalkerpath segment hereabouts, and is not confined to this 7-15 m amplitude by any slope constraints. Descending it is almost like a tight ski slalom.
Beside and above this path-head, which is unmarked by any cairn, several diagonal lineaments this way and that. Before and at the NOSAS visit, they had been regarded as drainage cut-off ditches, while realising they could be natural features.
Linking the path-heads
Participants of the NOSAS field trip did well to locate the east path head, in mist, on a descending traverse from the west path head across gentle upper slopes. It had been assumed that estate parties were guided by their ghillies if making such a connection. However, close scrutiny of satellite imagery now reveals that above the east path head, the uppermost of the three main diagonal lineaments curves left in an evidently deliberate manner and becomes a “double ditch”. This then heads west for about 300 m, mainly straight-ruled but sweetly curving across a dry groove, passing just above the west path head, then curving up north, and fading onto a bare patch. Whether this double ditch was a preparatory work for a made way or merely a means of demarcating a route, the two path-heads were in fact linked.
Such perplexing features have previously only been encountered on the Cannich–Farrar march, zigzagging up An Soutar and further east along ‘Druim Struthaidh’ (see the NOSAS Report). They are not shown on OS maps, and the writer has not heard or seen any reports of them. With the ditches being a standard 5m apart in all these cases, the Report speculates as to whether ‘roads’ capable of wheeled vehicles were envisaged, before the war brought such grandiose estate development visions to a close.
Here the ever-present risk of ‘mimicry’ is worth recalling. At the west path head, satellite imagery shows it apparently continuing on round the ravine rim: this is a bold deer trod. Such trods also traverse the main slope, and while distinguishable from the zigzags by following the contours, some confusion may arise as deer also utilise the paths where convenient. The diagonal lineaments are not ploughed moor-gripping ditches, a common snare, nor are they geological fault-grooves or ground fractures, even though a large Rock Slope Deformation affects this hillside. Finally, the double-ditch is not an ATV track, although where it fades, imagery shows a possible ‘township dyke’ across the ridge to be aware of.
OS mapping history
The Report shows that the sequence of imperial OS editions available on the National Library of Scotland website, plus later metric editions, cannot be relied upon as evidence for path dates, but with care they provide some guidance.
Here however, the inclusion or exclusion of the two paths seems almost random:
|West path||East path|
|metric online 50k||W|
|metric online 25k||W||E|
Several questions arise with this unusually intriguing pair of paths :
- Why are they so close together (only 400 m apart) ? There can be no conceivable deer-stalking purpose in having two similar minimalist paths up the same glenside to the same modest ridge. No other such apparent duplication comes to mind – on the north side of densely-equipped Glen Elchaig, five paths in 10 km (2 km apart) each go up different side valleys.
- Was the east path really not built until decades after the first, or is this merely a typical mapping omission?
- Are they both the work of the same ‘designer’ and maker (save for the very different east path extension), and if so were both executed for Sir Ivor Guest, or did they span two or possibly three ownerships ?
- What was the purpose or intention of the double-ditched routeway on the ridge ?
- Why do the paths cease where they do, when continuing inland to the immediate obvious and attractive goal of Point 575 (OS spot height) at the ravine apex is seriously impeded by rank tussock vegetation and peat hags, as is the continuation across the dip to the original estate march along Carn Breac (stated in OS Namebook to be owned by Guest)? 
- If investment was to be made in a second path, why not take it from the Lodge on a longer slant NNE to the outer end of Coille Bhàn ridge, across generally easier slopes, and opening up access to the north side of the deer forest in Coire Crubaidh? Or alternatively, why not extend the west path round the ravine and back down its painfully steep farther side to the road-bridge?
One possibility to bear in mind is that the ridge/plateau terrain may have undergone substantial deteriorations in vegetation cover and peat erosion, as sheep and deer pressures have increased and waned, and with climatic amelioration. In other words, at the time the paths were made they might have given out onto good open walking country.
Recreational and estate amenity purposes
It is conventionally assumed that stalkerpaths were built for sporting purposes – deer stalking principally, but also shooting and fishing. However, a key outcome of the author’s study (see NOSAS Report) is the strong suspicion that some of the ‘stalkerpaths’ served important recreational purposes, over and above their presumed sporting functions, or even as their primary raison d’être. These purposes would include entertaining guests and showing off the property to advantage. The Glencarron Lodge pair are intriguing manifestations of this possibility. Features of the path design that suggest recreational purposes include:
- the west path route goes out of its way to reach and follow the Coire Dubh-riabhach gorge, and then to reach the branch ravine rim at lower and upper points of the zigzag alignment, in both cases at points of greatest scenic advantage or surprise, and in both cases when simpler lines could have been followed. The Victorian ‘craze’ for waterfalls and awe-inspiring landscapes, to view and to sketch, would have been well satisfied here, this being one of the more spectacular such features, and unusually accessible from a Lodge.
- the pair of paths (especially if linked) creates a most attractive half-day walk, directly from the Lodge, capable of being enjoyed by guests of nearly all ages, sexes and competences. Circular walks are generally preferred to out-and-backs. A walk of this length would be seen as healthful exercise, another Victorian fetish, and as creating an appetite for the generous meals provided.
- the east path in particular attains a brow which, while itself unassertive, provides splendid views across the entire estate to the Monar mountains and down Strath Carron to the sea-loch. The owner might be forgiven for wishing to impress his guests thus.
- likewise, these paths would have been conspicuous when first cut, inscribing the new ‘laird’s’ signature on his acquisition, and confirming his being au fait with the latest innovations and amenities (as seen nearby at Coulin in Appendix 1).
- the immediate environs of the Lodge are shown on the OS First Edition of ~1875 to be ornamented with quite ambitious woodlands and walks, although not on the scale of, say, Braemore House at Corrieshalloch and Strathbroom. Remarkably, these amenities have almost vanished from the Second Edition of ~1902, perhaps suggesting an estate in decline. The mapped young plantations could easily have been destroyed if the estate failed to keep the deer out.
Glencarron Lodge paths in their estate context
The Study has found one of the densest concentrations of stalkerpaths to occur on the present Achnashellach Estate. The study area stops at the Carron, thus excluding this Lodge pair, but that high density would extend over the original Glencarron Estate, when it spanned the valley. Its north side has four paths, all short, while a longer path on the south ascends into its main corrie, together with paths up and down valley.
By contrast, the subsequently-acquired Glenuaig Estate has only two stalkerpaths, above its modest Lodge and opposite Doirevaire. Both are finely crafted zigzag routes up the trough walls, if both rather the worse for gully erosion. These paths appear primarily made for stalking purposes, given that non-sporting guests could hardly be well entertained at the Glenuaig ‘bothy’.
The stalkerpath development on Achnashellach began early, with several impressive zigzag routes on both sides of the Carron, notably that to the Bearnais col, which commences from a footbridge (now lost) below the Lodge. Also from this footbridge, a short path up Golden Valley ascends by bold zigzags onto the low shoulder of Creag an Eilein. It serves no obvious sporting purpose, unless for game shooting, but conveniently accesses views up and down the valley by way of a prettily wooded gorge, thus no doubt raising appetites. These paths may have been constructed for Sir Ivor Guest or possibly for a predecessor. However the magnificent high-level all-day circular walk over Sgurr na Feartaig was only completed (per OS maps) well after he sold Achnashellach post-1875.
Participants in the NOSAS field trip well appreciated the dramatic landscape of the great ravines, albeit the mountain panorama was lost in mists. Even in their degraded state, the paths made light work of otherwise backbreaking slopes, which few members would have considered attempting otherwise. A consensus of opinion saw the recreational and display benefits of the paths as deserving consideration in understanding the motives behind their construction.
Special thanks to Anne Macinnes for coming on a reconnaissance, thus confirming the feasibility of the walk, and for great assistance in bringing the visit off.
The efforts of the men who made these paths remain evident in the landscape as their memorial. They are there to be appreciated still.
 Revel Guest and Angela V. John, Lady Charlotte Guest. An Extraordinary Life (2007)
 not 1848-52 as currently stated, an error they have acknowledged and agreed to correct . A mapping of Namebook ownership distribution in this area is available from the author.
 Augustus Grimble, Deer Forests of Scotland (1896) (available online at https://archive.org/details/deerforestsofsco00grimrich ) Grimble states (p.231, Applecross) that “In 1871 Lord Wimborne bought Achnashellach and Glenuaig” which if OS Namebook is correct must be an error for Glencarron. We sympathise…
 stone for cairn building is sparse here, so a wooden or metal post might have served more effectively – and have decayed or been removed.
 Carn Breac well repays a visit – a pleasant broad bony ridge, a fine viewpoint for Torridon, and endowed with a remarkable ‘tor’ outcrop on its eastern brow resembling a gigantic seated couple, in the style of the pre-Columbian Americas. This landmark remains unmarked and unnamed on maps.
 the broad cavity and slope bulge constitute a large RSF (Rock Slope Failure): such features are favoured by the deer for their drier and lusher grazings, and are sometimes utilised by stalkerpaths as breaks in trough walls (notably above Glenuaig Lodge).