Carn na Lair, Inverness-shire
Grade: Strenuous ride on hill tracks
Distance: 9 miles/15km
Time: 1-2 hours

THE Monadh Liath, the range of hills that drain in the south to the River Spey, may be criss-crossed by estate tracks and suffer from extensive windfarm developments on their eastern fringes, but to the vast majority of mountain bikers this is an anonymous land.

Hill-walking guidebooks are also generally fairly dismissive when referring to the Monadh Liath, a much maligned range of hills that are unfortunately translated as the ‘grey rolling hills’, an interpretation of the Gaelic that offers an impression of drabness that is far from accurate. Admittedly you won’t find sharp ridge crests and summit spires soaring into the sky hereabouts, but you will discover a subtler attraction, a more visceral allure that has much to do space, wide open skies, and an abundance of wildlife. And the high level tracks are great for mountain biking.

The National:

These are high rounded hills, broken by steep sided glens, and form a series of watersheds between the Spey and the remote headwaters of the Tarff, Findhorn and Dulnain rivers. There is a wonderful spaciousness here and you will rarely see another soul. The wide undulating plateau of the range’s higher reaches is made up of peat and fringe-moss on loose stony debris.

It was a few degrees above freezing when I left the big car park at Slochd Lodge, just off the A9, and took the path over the railway bridge and through through the woods towards the keeper’s house at Insharn.

An old military road, constructed by General Wade, the soldier/roadbuilder who was the Robert McAlpine of his day, passes through here and crosses one of his familiar hump-backed bridges before windingup through the woods towards the Slochd summit. An estate track leaves the Military Road not far beyond the bridge but avoid it – the old Military Road follows the trees on a path that looks unused and derelict but soon improves.

As I broke clear of the trees the track began to rise fairly steeply. Indeed, it rises from here all the way to the summit of Carn na Lair, the viewpoint I was heading to. I was on an e-bike so that wasn’t much of an issue but if you are riding an ordinary mountain bike be prepared for a good lung-buster.

I followed this track, revelling in the contrast between the blue sky and the bare hills. "Revelling" is perhaps not quite accurate for these hills are unnaturally bare – the wet-desert look of typical grouse moors – but there is always something inspiring about big wide skies and distant views. I stopped to appreciate it, looking behind me over the dip of the Dulnain and on towards the distant Cairngorms. In front of me the path wriggled its way higher.

Sooner than expected I was opening a gate that led to the summit of Carn na Lair at 599m. My map showed a gap between this track and my upward climb, but there has obviously been work done recently and a new stretch of track joins the two. I went through the gate, turned left and within a hundred metres or so stood on the summit.

And what a viewpoint it was. To the south, across the Dulnain, the Cairngorms were laid out from end to end, all the way from Ben Avon to the Feshie hills. To the north the hills of Affric and Strathfarrar were displayed in similar fashion, with the Farr windfarm turbines adding a distinct industrial feel to an otherwise superb vista. But it was to the west that my eyes kept returning. The low winter sun had flooded the broad slopes with its brittle radiance, spilling its long tentacle-like shadows into every scoop and hollow, in a chequerwork of black and brown. Under the infinity of the domed sky the land stretched away to the west, the rounded summits standing proud, every feature picked out and etched by the rays of the low sun, ridge over ridge, horizon over horizon, rolling moors and shadow stained glens, clear cut land and glistening water.

I had a big downhill run now and it was superb, around Carn na Glaic Fhluich to meet another track that led to a gate by a small plantation. The path beyond the gate looked little used and overgrown but soon became a smooth gravel track, all the way to the minor road at Press. I went through another gate, followed the minor road to where it met the Tomatin road, I turned right and rode ul to the summit of the Slochd where the Sustrans off-road bike path returned me to Slochd Lodge.

Map: OS 1:50,000 Landranger sheet 35 (Kingussie).
Distance: 9 miles/15km
Time: 1-2 hours
Start/Finish: Slochd Mor Lodge, A9 (GR: NH 848238)
Terrain: Hill tracks with tough climbs
Coffee & Cake: None on route.

The National:
Link to digital map: © Crown copyright 2020 Ordnance Survey. Media 059/20.