Dog Days - Loch Muick, Ballater

I'm really struggling with my fitness right now. After the wedding I relaxed my regime and allowed myself some time away from the gym. The problem is, now I want to get back... and I can't seem to get myself there. It's one thing putting on a little bit of weight (I know I'm not fat, but I am a whole dress size bigger and everything is uncomfortable) but it's losing my fitness levels that gets me down the most.

Every morning I'm full of motivation and promises, vowing to hit the gym/metafit/kettlercise after work, but by 5pm the only thing on my mind is dinner and Netflix. Why is it such a struggle to do something I enjoy, that makes me feel good? How is that so hard?

Hopefully I'll find my gym mojo somewhere soon, but in the meantime there's one exercise I'm not struggling with - walking! After bagging our first munro towards the end of 2016, I'm dying to get out and add some more to our list - Lochnagar, Ben Lomond, Ben Lawers & Bheinn Ghlas... As beginners we're not confident or experienced enough to tackle them at this time of year though. Especially when the weather hasn't exactly been on our side!

In the meantime, we're finding easier paths and exploring some of Scotland's beautiful trails. You might call it walking - I call it training! How can we climb mountains if we don't even walk for more than thirty minutes, never mind scrambling over rough terrains? Plus, it's a good excuse to take the dog out to new and exciting places - Harley loves an adventure!

With this in mind, we found ourselves at Loch Muick near Ballater one Saturday morning in January. The drive up was beautifully scenic, with frosty branches glistening white along the roadside in the winter sun. The loch itself was sans snow but chilly all the same. We crossed the little wooden bridge, ducking into an empty boathouse before following the path above the waters edge. Eventually we came across the widow's house. 

Glas-allt Shiel was built way back in 1868 by Queen Victoria (well, presumably she had people build it for her!) after her husband had passed away, and she couldn't bare to spend time in the nearby home they'd once shared. Queen Vic must of spent a lot of time up these parts - this is the second time we've came across a landmark associated with her! Loch Muick is actually part of the royal Balmoral Estate, so I guess it all makes sense.

Past the house and through the pines, the path opens out to the hills and our trainers soon crunched across the pebbled sand to reach the far side of the loch. The track starts to narrow with a slight climb, which we hadn't been expecting, and the ground is much rockier and uneven underfoot. In the summer it's probably not so bad but at -2 degrees we were wary. Even Harley's big paws had a few slips!

It's definitely the more interesting part of the walk - with the rushing sound of waterfalls and views of the snow topped hills. From here you can look back across to Glass-allt Shiel and seeing it there, sheltered by the arc of pine trees, looking out across the water, it's easy to see why Queen Vic favoured the location.

The highlight of the loop however, came towards the end. Back on more stable ground, we found ourselves looking down towards the boathouse on the shore as we strolled along. It was Gordon who saw them first. His eye caught by a group of children playing in the hills above us, he grabbed my arm, stopping me in my tracks and forcing me to look up.

I'm so glad he did! Five stags stood majestically on the moorland, some grazing nonchalantly while the others stared straight back down at us. I grabbed my camera and snapped away - these guys seemed happy to pose! I will never tire of spotting these iconic creatures in the Scottish countryside.

Two and a half hours later we made it back to the car park, cold and hungry, but feeling rather pleased with ourselves. The circuit at Loch Muick is an easy one, ideal to tackle at any time of year - just remember to keep looking upwards for deer and squirrels! Spittal of Glenmuick is a starting point for a couple of munros and I hope to tackle Lochnagar from here in the summer.

Our hungry bellies led us home via The Long Dog Café - the best spot for our four legged friends in Aberdeen! A delicious bowl of lentil soup warmed me up, while Gordon refuelled with a tasty pulled pork ciabatta and a ginormous chocolate brownie freakshake! It was Harley's first visit and he happily lapped up a tub of Billy + Margot's doggy ice cream. It's safe to say Harley is looking forward to more days like this one in 2017 - bring on the mountain climbing!

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