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Discovering hydro history on Falls of Orrin circular walk

By John Davidson

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Down the River Orrin from the bridge.
Down the River Orrin from the bridge.

Tucked away across the River Orrin I noticed the remains of a small building beside the water. It wasn’t until I got home and was doing some research that I realised there is much more to these scenic waterfalls than first meets the eye.

Having been largely confined to the tracks and trails around home in Inverness all winter, it was nice to be able to travel a little further and enjoy this little circuit at Aultgowrie, near Muir of Ord.

Technically, we’ve been lucky in Highland in that we have legally been allowed to travel to some nice places for exercise, but I’ve been staying close to home rather than venturing much further afield. However, with the recent lifting of the ‘stay at home’ message, people are allowed to travel further – but for now, still within their local authority area, or within five miles of the boundary for exercise.

I decided to do this short circuit as a gentle run, but it makes a great little walk through the Fairburn Estate, passing the falls before crossing the river and returning on the main estate road which heads up to the Orrin reservoir.

The Falls of Orrin.
The Falls of Orrin.

The hydro scheme further up the glen isn’t the earliest example of power being taken from the glens here, though. As I discovered, the building beside the water was part of an earlier hydro scheme on the river, which provided electricity to Fairburn House from 1898 probably until the larger scheme created the reservoir upstream in the 1960s.

The North of Scotland Archaeology Society also says that the run-of-river scheme at the falls was revived in the 1980s to again provide the estate house with power.

Today, the estate welcomes non-motorised visitors, but it should be noted that the car park which the estate provided was temporarily closed at the start of the first lockdown last March. While it has promised to reopen the car park once restrictions are lifted, it remained closed on my recent visit and there is only very limited roadside parking available nearby.

It is vital as more restrictions are eased and people are able to move around more freely that people act responsibly, so if there is nowhere to park, please do not block passing places or accesses. It is easy enough to cycle up the quiet road to Aultgowrie from Muir of Ord, so that is one way to visit here without adding to any problems.

Heading through the pine forest above the falls.
Heading through the pine forest above the falls.

The estate, as with many others, has also had issues with other irresponsible access such as people leaving litter, dog mess and even its staff being abused.

It never fails to astound me why people would come to beautiful places such as this and contribute to their destruction in such ways, rather than simply enjoying the peace, fresh air and glorious scenery.

After the problems encountered in many places last summer, it is vital that everybody remembers the word ‘responsible’ in the right of responsible access.

I started on the north side of the river, heading through a green gate and past a gate house which was having some refurbishment work done. Further on, you pass a burial ground as you head through the pine woods.

Very soon, you reach the falls themselves, and it’s possible to cut through a gap in the wall to explore closer – but be careful for drops and slippery rocks if you venture off the main route.

The bridge near Fairburn House.
The bridge near Fairburn House.

The old hydro building is visible on the other side of the river from here as you approach the falls, and the old dams for the scheme are marked on the map as weirs.

I carried on up the main track, eventually coming to a junction. The routes goes left here, the other way heading up to Fairburn House.

Soon I reached a few houses and after passing a little crossroad of tracks, turned left to cross the wooden bridge over the river. This soon reaches another junction, where a sign points right up to the reservoir and left back to Aultgowrie.

The estate road up to the reservoir makes a great bike ride, but can be quite exposed as you head up into the hills. Beyond the dam, the track deteriorates but it is possible to make a circuit on a mountain bike if you go well prepared.

Today I was content to turn left and head back down on the shorter falls loop. The road here is surfaced, so it was an easy run through pleasant woodland, listening to the birds singing and the river tumbling down through the rocks.

In places the road runs close to the river, while elsewhere it heads up and away from the water, passing a couple of fairly new gates on the way back to the public road at Aultgowrie.

Sign pointing back to Aultgowrie on the southern side of the river.
Sign pointing back to Aultgowrie on the southern side of the river.

Route details

Falls of Orrin circular

Distance 3.5 miles / 6km

Terrain Estate tracks and road

Start/finish Aultgowrie – very limited parking available

Map OS Landranger 26; OS Explorer 431

An easy circuit of waterfalls and a salmon run on the Fairburn Estate

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