Badenoch the Storylands: Scotland’s history at the heart of the Highlands in the Cairngorms

Some people call this wildcat country, others define it as a land of clans, myths and legends. Others describe it as the home of the Monarch of the Glen. This is Badenoch and it is all these things – and much more beyond, writes Alison Campsie.

Spend a few days here, in this thin strip of the Highlands which runs down each side of a stretch of the River Spey south of Aviemore, and you will unpack a place where the timeline of history builds before your eyes and where layers of the past assemble in the mountains, in the woods and in the towns and villages that define this territory.

Of course, there are many gorgeous parts of the Highlands to explore but in Badenoch you’ll find somewhere rooted deep in its own identity, where the stories of people and place flow like fast moving water and the natural beauty of this land – cusped by peaks and pitted with lochs – stirs a goodness as pure as the air.

The curious among us will need just a short stay to get under the skin of Badenoch, where you can walk up into the hills to the Pictish forts that commanded long views over the valley of Spey or where – stepping back further – to the sites where the Bronze Age gathered for rituals for those they held dear. The stories of Highland rulers also effortlessly come to life around here, as do the power struggles that shaped the north over centuries and the strategic sites that still hold sway in the landscape.

History like you’ve never heard it before: the Celtic Atilla, the devil and a Jacobite uprising.

Chess with the devil

One particularly unhinged character known as the Wolf of Badenoch, or sometimes the Celtic Atilla, who favoured arson as his tool of terror, once owned a castle just west of Kingussie on a curious mound created by a retreating glacier, its modest height curiously enough to tower over the flat strath that unfolds all around. Legend has it that in July 1394, the Wolf played chess with the Devil here, and was killed by lightning during a terrible storm.

Hundreds of years later, the superior spot became a crucial base for the State in the aftermath of the first Jacobite rising, with Ruthven Barracks built to watch over the Highlands and -particular to these parts – in these parts the Jacobite supporting Clan Gordon and Clan Macpherson. Stand here and you can almost imagine those they pursued hiding up in the mountains above, their eyes fixed on their foes below. You can only imagine the sight – and the local reaction – as the barracks was burned to the ground by clansmen after the Battle of Culloden.

Wolves and boars

There’s more to Badenoch than the Monarch of the Glen - explore new places like Ruthven Barracks

The Duke of Gordon, who later pledged allegiance to the British Government, laid out the planned town of Kingussie – regarded as the capital of Badenoch –

which takes its name from the Gaelic for ‘at the head of the pines’ in reference to the thick forests that covered this land and where boars and wolves once made their home. Today, these hills are wildcat territory.

Kingussie became a centre for textile production as the Duke sought to maximise income from his tenants, his legacy found not just in the streets of this now tourist town but up also in the hills at Torr Alvie, where a 358-metre commemorative column to the aristocrat can be found after a reasonably easy walk up through the trees. From where it stands, you’ll be rewarded with a superior view over the Strathspey Valley and his former land, among them the Kinrara Estate, which is now owned by Danish billionaire Anders Holch Povlsen, who is leading a 200-year vision to ‘rewild’ this part of the Highlands through restoration of natural habitats and mass tree planting.

Today, this stretch called Badenoch, which is only around 32 miles long, takes you far back in time while holding you in the present with its beauty and strong sense of place. Come, and you will make your very own story.