Rich in history and clan traditions, with a wealth of wildlife and spectacular scenery all year round, it's hard not to fall in love with all the Cairngorms has to offer
The best way to describe being in the Cairngorms is to liken it to an embrace. You feel embraced by the solid yet curvaceous mountains which surround you, embraced by the low cloud or curling mist as it rolls into the glens, and embraced by the locals whose passion for their landscape, wildlife and produce is utterly infectious.
Nestled in the north east corner of Scotland’s mainland in the heart of the Highlands, the Cairngorms is Britain’s largest National Park and includes the Aviemore, Angus Glens, Royal Deeside, Donside, Glenlivet, Highland Perthshire and Strathspey areas. Covering an area of 4,528 square kilometres, the Park is over twice the size of the Lake District, Loch Lomond and the Trossachs.Steeped in history
People have lived and worked in the Cairngorms for thousands of years and their legacy can be found in the landscape and the traditions. You can still see remains from the prehistoric, Celtic and Pictish times in the form of stone circles and ancient cairns in the area. From the culture of Celts and Picts the clan system was born, the way of life in the Cairngorms from the 10th to the 18th centuries. Though many of their castles are ruins nowadays you can still hear tales of the clans being told and Highland traditions are still very much alive in amongst the area’s rich cultural heritage. To discover more about the wealth of cultural history in the area it’s worth taking a trip to the Highland Folk Museum, in Newtonmore, which brings to life the domestic and working conditions of earlier Highland peoples. Visitors to this living history museum can learn how Scottish Highlanders used to live, how they built their homes, how they tilled the soil and how they dressed. An award-winning visitor attraction in a beautiful natural setting, the museum encapsulates human endeavour and development in traditional Highland life from the 1700s onwards.
However, this traditional clan way of life was dismantled after the Jacobite uprising in the 18th century. Military barracks and roads were built, forests planted, towns were created and new industries flourished.
If history is your thing, then a visit to Braemar Castle is a must. Situated just nine miles from Balmoral and within walking distance of the village of Braemar – home to the world-famous Braemar Gathering Highland Games – this community-run castle houses an unexpected interior. Built in 1628 by John Erskine, Earl of Mar as his Highland hunting lodge, it is linked to three Jacobite uprisings and was burned down in 1689 then restored as a garrison for the Hanoverian Government in 1748. In the Victorian era, as the seat of Clan Farquharson, the castle was transformed into a comfortable family home and remained as such until recent times. Seen from the main road, with its salient walls, dominating tower, gun slits and barred windows Braemar Castle seems every inch a fortress. However, to the west the walls are punctuated with spacious windows and the property presents itself today as a fascinating museum filled with day-to-day furnishings and personal memorials of the 200 years of the family’s history.
With the Victorian’s love of the Highlands – made popular by Queen Victoria’s fondness for Balmoral – and the coming of the railways came huge changes for the Cairngorms. Tourism flourished and wealthy visitors built large hunting lodges, changing the landscape once again.
Tourism is still huge in the area, and no wonder, there’s just so much to do in the Cairngorms National Park no matter what time of year you visit.All aboard
The railway still plays a part in the Cairngorm’s tourism industry, even now you can take a nostalgic journey on the Strathspey Steam Railway, which runs along part of the original Highland Railway of 1865 from Aviemore to Broomhill via Boat of Garten. Beautifully restored carriages are pulled by majestic steam trains, like the Strathspey Clansman or the Strathspey Highlander, boasting shiny paintwork and gleaming brassware. During the 19-mile round trip you can even enjoy a light lunch, elegant afternoon tea or decadent dinner. And real steam-heads can take a tour of the engine sheds to get up close and personal with the trains themselves.Get active
Whatever the season, whatever the weather, the mountains that make up the Cairngorms National Park offer visitors thrilling sporting opportunities. Five of Scotland’s six highest mountains are within the Park, with 55 summits over 900 meters, 36 per cent of the land area is over 800 meters and two percent is over 1,000 meters. In fact the Cairngorms contains the most extensive range of arctic mountain landscape anywhere in the British Isles – from granite tors to heavings and leavings from Ice Age glaciers. These glaciers have gouged deep, high altitude valleys and corries on the plateau; and the altitude and exposure, plus poor soils, produce their own rich eco-system of vegetation, insects and animals. With some of the best snow holding records in Scotland, it's hardly surprising that three out of the five Scottish Ski Centres are within the Park. CairnGorm Mountain near Aviemore, Glenshee near Braemar and the The Lecht near Tomintoul all offer visitors modern ski and snowboarding areas including lessons, uplift, catering and equipment hire.
In warmer weather there are plenty of walking and hiking trails to discover with over 280km of footpaths across the area that pass through almost every type of walking route imaginable from moor and woodland, riverside to tranquil loch edge and even beautiful farmland.
No matter what time of year you go, make sure you go to the Base Station on CairnGorm and take the 2km journey on the UK’s highest funicular railway to the Ptarmigan Top Station where you can enjoy spectacular views and, from May to October (weather conditions permitting), take part in a guided Walk @ The Top to the summit of Britain’s sixth highest mountain.
If you prefer two wheels to two feet, then you can enjoy plenty of mountain biking opportunities in the area. The roads are quiet, peaceful and far from busy and the National Cycle Network crosses almost the entire area including 64km of off road routes. So whether you want to indulge your passion for cycling and take an entire holiday on wheels – most communities and accommodation in the Cairngorms National Park area are linked by cycle routes – or you just fancy a day out, lots of fresh air and the best exercise you can think of, cycling or mountain biking in the Cairngorms National Park gives you every opportunity to enjoy your own experience.
Pony trekking is said to have started in the Cairngorms, with the sturdy Highland ponies that worked alongside stalkers, carrying deer off the hill. Today there are several pony trekking centres in the Cairngorms National Park, offering everything from beginners lessons to multi-day treks. And with so many quiet bridleways to follow, it's a perfect way to get out and see the countryside.
If you prefer to get your kicks on water than dry land you’ll be pleased to discover the Park has some of the cleanest rivers and lochs in Europe. Fishing, sailing, windsurfing, paddlesports, rafting, swimming or the excitement of gorge walking are all within easy reach of many of the towns and villages in the Park including the Aviemore, Angus Glens, Royal Deeside, Glenlivet, Atholl and Glenshee areas. The Park boasts two dedicated watersports centres, Loch Insh and Loch Morlich. Each has its own individual character and features but both are unsurpassed by the stunning beauty of their natural surroundings.
For more information about the Cairngorms National Park and all it has to offer visit www.visitcairngorms.com
Read the rest of this feature on p.116 of the November/December 2012 issue...By Anna-Lisa De'Ath