Seton Gordon was probably the first writer about the Cairngorms to take his writing beyond merely describing routes to their summits. Although his primary interest in the Cairngorms was ornithological his writing goes beyond his narrow field of interest, and gives us a glimpse of the everyday life among the Cairngorms in the early 20th century.
By giving us a glimpse of the everyday life among the Cairngorms - his 'hundred year-old writing' is still relevant to anyone interested in the place names, people, history, and geography of the Cairngorms. But Seton Gordon doesn't make his writing as immediately useful to us as it could have been - his writing frequently nods towards known, or knowable facts while modestly stepping around them ; leaving them unsaid. By reading his published writing - for example - it is impossible to tell in which year he began getting to know the Cairngorms. In Gordon (1948) - the author (while describing the route between Corrour Bothy, and Gleann Laoigh Beag) gives us a clue - writing :
It is beside the Luibeg burn that the outposts of the Mar Scots firs are reached . They are strong and stately trees, and must be of a great age ; they have indeed scarcely altered since the day, now over forty years ago, when first I saw them
- Seton Gordon (1948) (p319)
That oblique reference to his first visit to Gleann Laoigh Beag is typical of Seton Gordon ; a telling example of his modesty that he can't actually tell us when he first passed through the glen. It's not about him, but speaking for myself I wish he'd put a little more detail into his earlier writing. I'd love to know exactly when he first began getting to know the Cairngorms. It would be a useful datum for me to have in mind while reading his books.
In 1886 Seton was born in the city of Aberdeen on the 11th of April. Although born in the city he 'grew up' in Aboyne after the family moved to that Aberdeenshire village in 1902. The comfortable family wealth, and their residence in Aboyne, ensured his freedom to pursue his ornithological interest ; roaming the hills near the village from an early age.
By 1905 he was venturing around the edges of the Cairngorms. It's difficult to be precise about dates, but the journal entry for the 11th of August 1905 is a record of him going 'so far over the Larig Ghruamach pass' - just how far is probably impossible to know, but if he'd reached the summit I suspect the journal entry would have recorded that fact. The same journal contains a description of what may be his earliest journey between Strath Spey and Strath Dee. In the journal entry for the 24th of September 1905 – the author writes :
Cycled (& walked!) from Kingussie to Braemar. Left Kingussie 6.30. Frosty then. … Lost the path at the watershed, & had to carry our cycles through a bog. Met 2 men who put us right. Heavy rain from the watershed till Geldie Lodge. Then fine till Braemar. There there had scarcely been any rain! The Williams met us in the car & took us down. Max: temp for Sat : & to-day. 56º
– Gordon (Journal 1905 – 1906)
This account has the appearance of a tentative expedition - an initial, relatively safe exploration around the edge of the Cairngorms by a 19 year-old who knows how far he can ''push it''. However - that tentativeness did not last long.
In 1907 his first book Birds of the loch and Mountain (1907) was published. I think it remarkable that the 21 year-old Seton Gordon was already a published writer.
Although his first book is not specifically about the Cairngorms, they are well represented. In Gordon (1907) the author describes his ascents of these hills in the comfortable style of someone not referring to them for the first time - writing :
I noticed last April, while ascending Ben Muich Dhui (the hill of the black sow), 4,297 feet above sea-level, that the Ptarmigan which were met with at about the 3,000-foot line were still changing plumage, while those nearer the summit were still, for the most part, spotlessly white ... only recently, while ascending Brae Riach (4,200 feet), I did not see or hear a single Ptarmigan until I had reached the summit plateau
- Seton Gordon (1907) (p40)
Although it's not clear whether 'last April' is 1907 or 1906, this passage clearly show how quickly he'd quickly built a familiarity with the Cairngorms following the tentative expeditions of 1905. This book also contains some very good illustrative photographs of the Cairngorms that (I suspect) could only have been taken by either a very lucky photographer, or by a photographer who'd spent a great deal of time among them.
In 1908 Seton had an article published in the Cairngorm Club Journal in January. In the article Braeriach in September in (ccj 30, January 1908, p302-305) describes a 'tramp' in September 1907 (I assume).
In October of that year the already published writer 'went up' to Oxford. Neither the distance between Oxford and the Cairngorms, nor the attractions of the undergraduate life kept him from the Cairngorms during those undergraduate years. In Gordon (1951) the author relates a visit to Corrour Bothy in (apparently) 1910 - writing :
on the January afternoon when my friend and I, heavily laden, approached the bothy, we knew that it was shut, but the key was ready for us, and we soon had a fire burning from the store of peat and bog fir. It was either the next day or the day after that the most severe blizzard I have ever experienced struck the Cairngorms
- Gordon (1951) (p158)
References in later books suggest that this undergraduate visit to the Cairngorms was not a one-off event.
In 1912, when his second book The Charm of the Hills (1912) was published, there was probably no other writer with a comparable knowledge of the Cairngorms.