NATIONAL PARK HIGHLIGHTS: THE CAIRNGORMS

In the first part of a new series celebrating Britain’s most mountainous National Parks, we turn our eye to the largest in Britain, by far...

The awesome Shelter Stone Crag (right) stands over Loch Avon deep in the Cairngorms. Photo: Alamy

The awesome Shelter Stone Crag (right) stands over Loch Avon deep in the Cairngorms. Photo: Alamy

You could definitely accuse Scotland of being slow on the uptake when it comes to National Parks. Which is strange, because the daddy of the NP movement worldwide – as generally agreed by everyone – was a Scot.

The problem was, he didn’t stick around long enough to articulate his ideas for protected wild places on his home patch. So what Scotland lost when John Muir emigrated in 1849, America gained in the shape of an enlightened reverence for its wilderness. And during one monumental week in 1890, a few patches of unwieldy American bush bearing the names Yosemite and Sequoia became the world’s first National Parks. It was a hot idea, and it spread like fire: to name but a fraction of the countries that enshrined their first parks in the decades that followed were Namibia (1907), Romania (1935), India (1936), England and Wales (1951), France (1963), Haiti (1981), Belize (1986) and Nepal (1989). A mere 130 – one hundred and thirty – years later, a little place called Scotland followed suit. This is one of two things: unforgivable, or really, really considered. And on the evidence of the National Parks we have in Scotland today, it’s probably the latter. ‘Cos they were really worth the wait.

The Cairngorms National Park is the biggest in Britain – by far. Illustration: Louise Parker

The Cairngorms National Park is the biggest in Britain – by far. Illustration: Louise Parker

The first was enshrined in 2002, and the second a year after: enough of an age gap between their 50-year-old English and Welsh equivalents to be their grandkids. But if that engenders an image of delicate youth, best banish it immediately. While the English parks could be called genteel and those in Wales charmingly rugged, Scotland’s National Parks are the brutal cousins from the hard north that will mess up your hair and push you in the mud.   

And the best news: both are packed to the rafters with mountains. None of this ‘Broads’ this and ‘Forest’ that nonsense: Scottish National Parks cram in the contours like they’re rationed. The first bristles with 21 Munros, 22 lochs and 50 rivers, and it’s the first real slice of the Highlands you encounter when driving north, the first moment where you stop and go: “Ah, okay – wow.” This is of course the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park.

The second is a colossal slice of wilderness that has been described as both a draughty extension of the Arctic and its frosty front step: the Cairngorms. This National Park is huge. Say 4,528 square kilometres and you probably wouldn’t be any the wiser as to what that actually means; but let’s say that’s the equivalent of Snowdonia, the Lakes and the Brecon Beacons combined and you might be a little more impressed. Put a slightly different way, were you to drop Singapore, Liechtenstein, Mauritius, Andorra, Bahrain – and these are countries, remember – one at a time into the Cairngorms, all in, they would still have room to have a decent boogie. It’s so massive that when in 2010 the park loosened its catchment to incorporate a new area the size of Hong Kong, nobody really noticed. Make no mistake: this is a very big, very empty place.

Four of the five highest mountains in Britain are here. Some of our most ancient woodlands. Our most elusive beasties. Our harshest weather, most hoisted terrain and fiercely remote spots. It’s uncannily as if the gods of hillwalking found the greatest congregation of everything that makes our world worthwhile, tossed a fence round it and shouted “Mine!”
 
In terms of terrain, think big and expansive: huge skies, valleys of dizzying depth, and landlocked mountains that hold snow deep into the summer. It’s said there are no great falls or thrills here, that the Cairngorms contours are spread and sedate; but this is nonsense. They may look it from a distance, but get closer and they keep getting bigger, and bigger. You need only look at the ecclesiastical dichotomy of the Devil’s Point and the Angel’s Peak to be seduced by form, look north from the summit of Ben Macdui to be awed by scale, or walk into the wilds of the Atholl Forest to feel the chill of wildest wilderness gnawing at your nerves. And if this isn’t enough, simply stand at the top of the Shelter Stone Crag and look down into Coire Etchachan and tell us that isn’t one of the most terrifying precipices in the British Isles.

The remarkable Lochnagar, which was evoked by Byron. Photo: Alamy

Climbers scratch the wrinkles of the Northern Corries’ gothic faces, using them in summer as a playground and in winter as a test. The high plateau of the Cairngorms has been the stuff of spectral nightmares, and it’s turned many a climber on his heel in blind terror due to the taste of its very atmosphere. Telemark skiers used this place as training for the Arctic during the war, Himalayan mountaineers have thickened their skin on the wet cold of their snows and – last but not least – hillwalkers have straddled all these zones to experience this wildest of British mountain parks to its fullest spectrum of thrill. Ladies and gentlemen: we give you the mighty Cairngorms. Long may they reign.

5 QUINTESSENTIAL CAIRNGORMS EXPERIENCES

Have a wild night out

Leaving the Shelter Stone. Photo: Tom Bailey / Trail Magazine

The Shelter Stone is a cavity of renowned convenience beneath a fallen block of granite that has – as its name suggests – provided solace and shelter to many travellers over hundreds of years. Big enough for four (or five at a push) and located at one of the most remote points of the park at the head of Loch Avon, this is a once-in-a-lifetime night out.
Where? OS GRID REF NJ002015

Climb with Queen Victoria

Given its sequestered location away from the nucleus of the National Park, many forget Lochnagar is there. Which is a shame, as this is truly one of the great mountains of Scotland. Immortalised in Byron’s poem Dark Lochnagar and located on the Balmoral Estate – which Prince Albert bought in 1852 – the mountain’s status as part of royal property gives it a grand air that extends beyond its imposing physicality. Built of scooped northern corries and opaque glacial pools, Lochnagar’s 1155m height punches it into the major league of Scottish
hills – and, as you can imagine, the views are sensational.     
Where? OS GRID REF NO243861

Climb Britain’s second highest mountain

Nightfall on the summit of Ben MacDui. Photo Simon Ingram

Nightfall on the summit of Ben MacDui. Photo Simon Ingram

Ben Macdui – formless, sprawling and singularly barren – at 1309m was long considered Britain’s highest mountain until Ordnance Survey definitively settled the matter in the 19th century. It’s intimidatingly brawny, with northern cliffs dropping sheer into punctured inner corries; a western flank making up one wall of the awesome Lairig Ghru valley; and long, featureless granite slopes comprising the rest of its bulk. Ben Macdui can be both a panoramic dream and a navigational nightmare – both of which present their own appeal to the challenge-hungry walker.   

GLIMPSE THE HIGHLAND TIGER

A Wildcat at the Highland Wildlife Park. Photo: Highland Wildlife Park

A Wildcat at the Highland Wildlife Park. Photo: Highland Wildlife Park

Unquestionably the most elusive – and confusing – denizen of the mountains of Britain, the wildcat is our only feline-at-large. Due to generations of interbreeding with little Felix, the true Scottish wildcat (Felis silvestris grampia) is a difficult quarry to define – but a burly tail, rounded ear tips and a stocky profile as well as the distinctive brown and black stripes on its coat mark the wildcat as distinct from its domestic cousin. A project has been launched by the Cairngorms National Park to protect the threatened predator – which typically occupies the heath, forest and foothills of the park. You’d have to be exceptionally lucky to see one in the wild due to the cat’s shy nature, but for guaranteed success visit the Highland Wildlife Park near Aviemore, then imagine the beautiful captivity-reared creatures you’re seeing as hunting in the woods around you as you walk.     
Where? Highland Wildlife Park is at NH811037

Walk beneath ancient woods

The beautiful paths of the Rothiemurchus Forest. Photo: Tom Bailey / Trail Magazine

The beautiful paths of the Rothiemurchus Forest. Photo: Tom Bailey / Trail Magazine

The trees of the Rothiemurchus Forest aren’t like normal trees. The unruliness of their form and height is far from the regimental Christmas tree plantations prevalent throughout much of the Highlands, and there’s a good reason for that. Rothiemurchus is ancient Scots forest, a remnant of a once much more widespread canopy that covered a large part of the country before humans got involved, and this is one of the few places where you can immerse yourself among the ornate Scots pines and breathe the closest you can get to ancient Caledonian air.
Where? OS Grid Ref NH931099

This article originally appeared in Trail Magazine.