IT’S 7am. The Braemar sky is patchy with bars of gold and red – sort of warm looking but not warm really. Several miles up the road towards the Glenshee ski station, where I park the car in an empty lay-by, the sky is leaden grey and great clouds are lumbering over.
A few hundred yards up a track at Baddoch I pass a stone house with red doors and windows. It is the type of house you want to walk into and sit down by the fire because you feel you’re entitled to. I can almost smell the inside. It smells like my gran’s kitchen in Sanquhar 40 years ago: bacon frying in lard; slightly burnt toast in the rack; spicy aroma of haggis; warm floury rolls. I have a sudden yearning to try the door handle, leave my boots on the step, walk in and sit down by a window with a mug of tea and a newspaper. But instead I trudge on reluctantly, into the wind and the loneliness of the glen.
Today is supposed to be an easy day. After a mile or two of valley walking and a stiff climb up heathery slopes, I am on the wind-battered North Top of An Socach. As I crouch behind the wall of a stone shelter, I see the summit loom out of the mist two kilometres to the south-west, then disappear again. Somewhere to the west is Glen Ey and Beinn Iutharn Mhor, though with banks of cloud rolling by I get little chance to view anything.
At 11.58am I am standing at the summit cairn – one man on a mountain with the wind tearing his clothes and mist streaming by in damp coils. I drop down to the glen from the shoulder between the two tops, have a half-hour’s kip in a bank of heather, then take the long track back to the main road – past the little house, which now appears empty and has its doors padlocked and windows shuttered.
But the adventure is not over. I drive up to the ski station and head off along an overgrown and barely visible track that runs south above the A93 from the head of the pass. This track, I believe, is the old military road that preceded the abandoned stretch of public road that includes the Devil’s Elbow. The new main road lies between the two.
I’ve done some research. According to the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland my theory is correct. The double row of concrete blocks marching down the glen beyond the hairpin bend is exactly what I thought it was – a Second World War tank trap, and apparently part of what was known as the Cowie Line, a fortified “stop line” west of Stonehaven. The full reference with aerial photograph, conveniently supplied by the RAF, can be viewed here. What I missed on my previous visit, though, is a pillbox that overlooks the trap.
After a couple of hundred yards I chance upon the pillbox, set into the bank with the old military road running over its concrete roof. A set of concrete steps descends into the interior. Four machine-gun windows stare down into the glen, the most southerly having a direct line of fire on the Devil’s Elbow and the tank trap.
This is a fascinating place, a forgotten corner of Britain where men toiled in preparation to fight fascist invaders. What makes it all the more interesting is that the men who built the pillbox used the old military road of the Jacobite rebellions to transport their tackle. The planning and engineering of one military campaign was utilised – 200 years later – to prepare the nation’s defences during another time of strife.
I gaze through the concrete window to the great bulk of Creag Leacach on the far side of the glen, and the tank trap far below, wondering how many motorists on the A93 are aware of the history surrounding them.