The Angry Corrie 19: Jul-Sep 1994

The Mystery of the Cairngorms:
Whence flows the Dee?

In the temporary absence of our Sherlock Holmes Cairngorm detective story, "Prospect" turns to a similarly odd tale from the same part of the world...

It all began when 1994 was but a few days old. A cold, dark night: rain fell hard and furious upon the gentle Anglian plains, backed by a rising easterly wind. In Scotland it was snowng. As part of the preparation for my imminent trip to the Eastern Highlands, I was re-reading the relevant chapters from Hamish's Mountain Walk. One particular passage intrigued me, though I'd read it oft times before. I suppose it was the current interest in 'electric' streams in the pages of TAC which drew my attention. Hamish was having one of his infamous brew ups in Glen Dee and noted that: "A lochan above me actually drains both ways, to Dee and Derry'. Strange, I thought, an electric stream in the Cairngorms? Why hadn't anyone noticed it before? I dug out the map. It was obvious that Hamish was referring to Lochan Preas nam Meirlach (unnamed on any map), but, stranger still, the OS clearly showed that the lochan didn't drain both ways. I decided that whilst in the area later that month I would have to investigate.

The opportunity came on January 25th, when heavy snow showers dissuaded me from climbing any hills and I settled instead for a relatively low-level walk from Derry Lodge to Corrour and back. My route would take me right past the mysterious lochan. The weather worsened as I started up Glen Luibeg, and twice I almost turned back. But as I neared the Luibeg bridge the skies brightened, the cloud broke and the sun shone down on a clear corridor leading my eye back towards white Lochnagar. A stunning view and, I hoped, a sign of better things to come. Of course it wasn't to be. The blizzard returned and conditions steadily deteriorated as I trudged on through deep snowdrifts alongside the Allt Preas nam Meirlach. Nevertheless, when I reached the lochan I could clearly see - through the shining snowflakes - that there was indeed a channel connecting it to the Dee. Hamish was right; the OS were wrong.

Continuing on to Corrour, it suddenly occurred to me that if the Dee connects to Lochan Preas nam Meirlach, which in turn connects to the Luibeg and thence the Derry Burn, then the headwaters of the Derry might actually constitute the true source of the Dee (the distance from there to the sea, via Lochan Preas nam Meirlach, being greater than from the Wells of Dee). So astounded was I by this sudden revelation that I promptly fell waist deep in a vile-smelling, snow-covered pool of liquid peat! When alone and in a blizzard this is not a recommended thing to do. For that matter, it's not particularly recommended when in company on a warm, sunny day either. I struggled for several minutes (well, probably seconds, but it felt like minutes) to extricate myself from the bog; fortunately I could just reach solid ground and slowy managed to prise myself out. Cold, wet, bedraggled, looking like something which even the cat wouldn't drag in and smelling like a dead sewer rat, I squelched across the nearby bridge and up to Corrour for a brew-up.

After half an hour or so, during which time I concluded that Corrour is not my favourite bothy, even if it was preferable - in my current state - to nothing at all, I set off back to base. For the moment my discovery was forgotten, overtaken by the more immediate concern of getting back safely in the continuing storm. Which, of course, I did. But later that evening, ensconced in front of a blazing bothy fire, I dug out my map again to see where the source of the Derry / Dee actually was: on the upper slopes of Ben Macdui, near to Stob Coire Sputan Dearg. It was an intriguing discovery, but not really earth shattering, and I thought little more of it until after my return to Albion. Then something happened to re-awaken my interest and suggest that there might be far more to my discovery than I had ever imagined...

On Sunday 13th February, two and a half weeks after the discovery, an English woman and two companions set off to climb Derry Cairngorm. All three fell through a cornice and the woman was only found two days later after an extensive (and expensive) rescue operation. The rescue attracted widespread media attention, but it was only when the (supposedly) true facts of what had happened emerged that I realised there might be a connection with my discovery. What intrigued me was the fact that the group had actually fallen from Stob Coire Sputan Dearg - the implication being that they'd mistaken Ben Macdui for Derry Caimgorm and were thus on completely the wrong mountain. This just didn't gel. It's like climbing the Aonach Eagach (surely 'Aggy Ridge"? - Ed.) and thinking you're on Bidean nam Bian! Even the English can't be that stupid. Could the real facts have been deliberately concealed? Why, out of all the hundreds of people to have been rescued from the Scottish hills over the years, was this particular woman given 40,000 - supposedly by the tabloid press for her "story"? Could the money have really been a bribe to prevent her from telling the true story.? Why was the RAF mountain rescue team (ie the military) so keen to take all the glory for the operation? And most significant of all: was it just coincidence that the spot from which the woman and her companions fell was only a few yards from the true source of the Dee?!!!

The more I thought about it, the more questions came. I smelt a rat - and I'd thoroughly washed my clothes since my fall in the bog, so it wasn't that. All the signs pointed towards a secret conspiracy; something to do with the source of the Dee. But what? A trip to the pub was needed to help dear my increasingly befuddled brain. Unfortunately a quick lunchtime pint lasted all afternoon and long into the night, Wth a vindaloo to follow. I staggered home more befuddled than ever. Drinking obviously wasn't the answer.

The next day, surprisingly with less of a hangover than I deserved, I began to scour my bookshelves for references to the Cairngorms. Particularly anything strange, unusual, or indicative of a plot to dissuade people from visiting the eastern slopes of Ben Macdui. This proved easier than I'd expected. Everywhere I looked evidence seemed to leap out of the pages at me. Innocuous little incidences; tiny asides in mountaineering memoirs; things I'd read a dozen times before and never given a second thought to; all took on new meanings when taken in the context of my conspiracy theory. But even so, I still didn't know what it all meant - a conspiracy, yes - but for what purpose? I felt sure that there was something peculiar about Ben Macdui, something which somebody - or somebodies - didn't want anyone else to discover. But what? Finally, I came across a curious passage about the Wells of Dee in Syd Scroggie's excellent autobiographical book The Cairngorms Scene and Unseen:

... this first cold freshet of Dee snotters so briskly out of holes among the boulders as to raise a question where the head of water can be high enough above the altitude of these wells to make this water burst forth so vigorously here at around 4000ft. It cannot be anywhere else in Scotland, for there is no higher land...

Syd suggests a theory that the water actually comes from the Harz Mountains (in Germany), but this doesn't make geological sense. So where does it come from? I decided that if anyone could help me unravel the strange and entangled threads of this mystery it was my old friend Professor PP Posselthwaite. It was time, once again, for me to pay "Old Possel" a visit.

To be continued..

TAC 19 Index