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Make time to stop in Strathdearn and discover a world of adventure

By John Davidson

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Duncan Bryden at The Strathdearn community complex in Tomatin.
Duncan Bryden at The Strathdearn community complex in Tomatin.

Crossing the mighty Findhorn river has for a long time been a challenge for road builders passing through Strathdearn.

Thomas Telford’s bridge, built in 1833, was replaced by the current Findhorn Bridge in 1926, engineered by the lesser-known Sir E Owen Williams. The concrete structure carried the old A9 through the village of Tomatin before it headed up over the Slochd pass and north to Inverness.

But for centuries others have been passing through here – from drovers to fugitives, and from military men to wayfarers.

Now, in addition to the old bridge, the Findhorn is passed on the modern A9 dual carriageway as well as the spectacular railway viaduct.

“It tends to be a place people pass through on the A9,” Duncan Bryden tells me when we meet in Tomatin. “Most people will be aware of the Slochd summit, and we’re just to the north of that, but there’s a beautiful area alongside the River Findhorn and those in the know will know that there’s a road up the glen that gives some really scenic views – it’s also great for cycling and walking.”

As well as being a long-time resident of the village, Duncan – a former chief executive of the Cairngorms National Park – was involved in setting up The Strathdearn, a wide-ranging community complex complete with shop, café, village hall and much more.

Duncan, who stresses he is no longer involved in the scheme directly, explained: “The café is becoming very popular – the Three Bridges Café – but it looks out across some very grand Victorian engineering which is still very much in use today. And Strathdearn was traditionally a through route as people moved north and south.

The railway bridge over the Findhorn with the A9 road bridge beyond.
The railway bridge over the Findhorn with the A9 road bridge beyond.

“The A9 is how most people know it today but the railway and now National Cycle Route 7 pass through here - but prior to that the drovers came through here, General Wade with his military roads came through here, so the history and the culture of the area is really quite special and there’s an opportunity to get to know a little bit more about that.”

I’ve cycled over from home in Inverness to meet Duncan and take a look at what is fast becoming a destination in itself, complete with electric vehicle chargers and with e-bike chargers in the pipeline too.

I could have done with some extra power on the long climb on the road from Farr to Garbole, a favourite route for local riders doing a loop from the Highland capital to Strathdearn and returning through Tomatin on the cycle route.

But Duncan is keen to stress that, as well as making a great place for cyclists to stop off on a route such as that, there’s plenty more for people to discover from here – on foot as well as two wheels. A new map has just been published – which should be available soon in the shop – showing a number of possible routes in and around the strath.

The Findhorn Bridge south of Tomatin dates from 1926.
The Findhorn Bridge south of Tomatin dates from 1926.

“It’s a good base as a start or a finish – with the coffee and cakes – and even a place to charge your electric vehicle if you have one,” Duncan suggests. “You can do a lot of walking and cycling from here. The map was intended to show people that there was something sitting in between Strathspey and Badenoch, down towards Aviemore, and Inverness.

“The growth in wind farms has meant that a number of new tracks have appeared over the hills and there are connections - and maybe a few places you have to carry your bike if you’re enthusiastic – which give you an opportunity to link up some of these routes and enjoy the moors of the Monadhliath and make your way across this superb bit of countryside.

“If you link them up with forest roads and some of the more traditional hill tracks that have been there for centuries, you get this wonderful network that we enjoy in the Highlands and, as long as everybody is sensible and responsible and does what needs to be done in terms of leaving no trace and respecting other users, they’re just such a fantastic resource.

“Our area is so accessible from Inverness, and also a bit away from the hustle and bustle of the Cairngorms.”

There’s a fair amount of hustle and bustle here at The Strathdearn, too, with people coming and going. We sit in the café, overlooking the bridges, talking about the area, the challenges in setting up this place, access issues and exploring new routes, as well as some of the pressures that communities across the north of Scotland have been facing since the pandemic brought about a sudden surge in staycations.

The cafe and shop at The Strathdearn.
The cafe and shop at The Strathdearn.

A group of cyclists sits at a nearby table, discussing the route to Inverness from here. Families are here, with children playing at the small play park, and there are local people popping into the shop for a few necessities.

This is everything a modern community hub should be – and it’s a café that’s definitely worth coming back to on future rides. The map also contains a few tracks and trails that I wasn’t aware of, so I’ll be back to pick up a copy for some future route ideas.

Duncan joins me for a while as I set off north along the cycle route. This stretch will all change soon, too, once the A9 is dualled north of the Tomatin junction.

We head to Moy and Duncan suggests a detour. It’s another one I’ve not done, a forest trail around Loch Moy that has become more popular in recent times. A countryside ranger has even been employed here to help mitigate any negative impacts of the increased number of visitors.

It’s a lovely place, with nice views over the loch and not too hilly – though a bit bumpy on the road bike for me!

Duncan and I part ways as we reach the road again, and I continue north inspired to spend some more time in this area that all too often is simply passed through in a hurry to find the very thing that Strathdearn can offer – peace, scenery and a sense of adventure. Not forgetting some coffee and cake.

Loch Moy from the forestry track.
Loch Moy from the forestry track.

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