One Minute Mountain: Ben Macdui

Home of Scotland's answer to the Yeti, our second highest mountain is second to none in terms of scale and sub-arctic atmosphere...


Ben Macdui from Carn a' Mhaim  © Dan Bailey
Ben Macdui from Carn a' Mhaim
© Dan Bailey

Height: At a lofty 1309m, Ben Macdui is second only to The Ben

Personality: A giant, but a shy, retiring and unapproachable one that hides away in the middle of the Cairngorms. Ben Macdui doesn't instantly impress, it's no Ben Nevis, but take time to get to know it (a long walk from any side) and you'll discover a mountain with hidden depths.

What's in a name? In this particular Ben's case, no one is completely sure. Could it be mountain of the black pig (beinn na muic duibh), mountain of the dark heap, or mountain of the son of the black one (meinn mhic dhuibhe)? This latter sounds good and sinister, but may just refer to the historic landowning family Duff.

Utter Desolation below Ben MacDui and above Loch Etchachan. Iain taking it all in before digging a home for the night.  © mrchewy
Utter Desolation below Ben MacDui and above Loch Etchachan. Iain taking it all in before digging a home for the night.
© mrchewy, Feb 2011

Key features: Forming the high point of the central Cairngorm plateau, Ben Macdui at first glance is all rolling and round, a vast open space with an unrivalled sense of height and scale. Expect plenty of wind and weather up here in Scotland's sub-arctic heart, and if visibility is down then hope your navigation is up to scratch. If there's snow on the ground anywhere it'll probably be up here, making this a classic destination for ski touring and snow holing, and potentially quite a challenge on foot.

But there's far more to Macdui than featurelessness. Some of the grandest corries in the Cairngorms can be found here too, scooped out by glaciers that you can imagine had only recently retreated. Spend time in sunny Coire Sputan Dearg, or beside Loch Etchachan, the highest loch of its size in Britain, or among the huge crags and acres of granite slabs above the head of Loch Avon, and it's hard not to become a Macdui fan.

Sunset from Ben MacDui  © wee jamie
Sunset from Ben MacDui
© wee jamie, Nov 2018

Recommended route? Stride in from the north over the expanse of the Cairngorm plateau; make the long trek via the pine woods of Glen Derry and the high shores of Loch Etchachan; rope in neighbouring Carn a'Mhaim and Derry Cairngorm for a three-Munro day; or enjoy a cracking scramble on the unique Feith Buidhe slabs - it's fair to say there are no bad options on Ben Macdui.

  • For starters, here's the classic route from Deeside

Bothy nights Two bothies can be used as a handy forward base for an ascent of Macdui: the ever-popular Corrour in the Lairig Ghru, and the remote Hutchison Hut at the head of Glen Derry. These are two of the best-located bothies in Scotland.

Pub quiz trivia: In days of yore Ben Macdui was thought to be Scotland's highest summit. A survey in 1810 dropped it to second place, a status later confirmed by the Ordnance Survey. The Duff, or Fife, family were apparently so disappointed at the demotion that a plan was mooted to construct a pyramid on the summit to make up the height difference with Ben Nevis (1344m). The Earl intended to be buried within - presumably post mortem.

Hutchison Memorial Hut, Coire Etchachan  © forcan
Hutchison Memorial Hut, Coire Etchachan
© forcan, Nov 2013

Don't look back... Wander solo over the plateau on a misty day and you may get the creepy sensation that you're not alone after all. Footsteps are heard in the snow behind you and a shape looms in the murk. Run for your life - it's Am Fiar Liath Mor, the Big Grey Man. Documented encounters with this sinister presence date back to at least the Nineteenth Century. In 1891 the respected Victorian mountaineer Professor Norman Collie fled the summit in the mist, pursued by something unseen:

'For every few steps I took, I head a crunch, and then another crunch as if someone were walking after me but taking steps three or four times the length of my own... I was seized with terror and took to my heels, staggering blindly among the boulders for four or five miles.'

Perhaps there's nothing to it, but try telling yourself that on a dark night...


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16 Jan

Ben Macdui is such a marvellous mountain, very well presented here. For me, one of the great attractions is the relative ease with which it can be approached, from the north and the south, and various circuits of which it can form a part. 

And of course, not to be underestimated in my view, is the effect it has on walkers in the Lairig Ghru. Although lacking the drama of the Devil's Point, the bulk of the mountain forms a magnificent frame and contributes considerably to the atmosphere of the pass.

(You may wish to correct the spelling error in Coire Sputan Dearg (the 'p' in Sputan is missing).