Scotland · Travel

Scotland Trip: Day 4 – The Cairngorms

We packed up and left our accommodation in the valleys near Loch Ness early, as we had a decent drive to our first destination of the day. Breakfast constituted food items we had brought with us from Edinburgh the day before. Because of the remoteness of the country, there wasn’t a direct road, so we first had to drive north along the edge of the beautiful loch all the way to the outskirts of the city of Inverness. From there, it was a more mundane drive along the dual carriageway of the A9. But soon enough, the mountains returned: we were in the Cairn Gorms National Park.

Just outside of Aviemore, we left the main highway to turn onto a well made tourist road which snaked its way slowly uphill through the forests. After Loch Morlich, it climbed higher and the scenery became more and more alpine; the trees dropped away leaving only a moorish coverage of tundra. The road steepened and steepened all the way to the car park of the Cairngorm Mountain visitor centre and ski resort; the second largest such locale in Scotland. It was, however, summer and there was little snow in sight, much to the disappointment of one of the Canadians in our group in particular.

We changed into some warmer clothing; despite being summer it promised to be very cold and windy at the top of the mountain. There was a funicular railway that had been built that travelled from the base station to the restaurant and mountain station at the top. We booked tickets for the train, and queued up waiting for the carriage to drop into the station. Using the same physics principles as the previous day’s Falkirk wheel, there were two roughly equally weighted carriages connected by a strong cable, such that as one of them went up the mountain, the other came down.

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We were far from the only visitors to the mountain that day, and the funicular was quite busy. As we rode up the mountain, there was a video and voice over which played and explained the modern history of the funicular and the mountain. After about 10 minutes, the carriage pulled into the top station, and we got out to explore. First, we went the to the observation deck to see down the mountain side. It was here that we got the first hit of the icy cold wind blowing us over. In any case, we could see down the valley into the lochs beyond. It was a clear day, so the landscape seemed to expand for miles and miles.

We wandered the restaurant and gift shop briefly, before congregating at the exit of the top station. Ordinarily, people who take the funicular up the mountain are not able to exit the top station for environmental reasons, except if they are skiing. The summertime exception to this rule is you are allowed out if you are on a guided hike, which we had booked into earlier that morning. People who hike up the mountain themselves are, of course, allowed to wander around too. We met our guide, a lovely old lady who used to be a teacher in Liverpool but moved to Scotland for the hill-walking lifestyle.

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Our guide took us further up the mountain, stopping each time she noticed a different plant or animal and explaining some of the local ecology. Apparently, some of the tiny little leafy moss-like plants were, genetically, trees. She told us stories of the dangers of mountain walking off piste in the snowy winter, and the required navigational care. For now, though, we were treated to clear, colourful views in every direction.

Just as we were about to round the corner away from the top station, a herd of reindeer crested over the pass below us. They casually walked towards us. Annalise had brought some binoculars, and the guide let us borrow hers, and so we stood there for ages staring at the gentle animals munching on the alpine grasses. There were over two dozen, and included both fully grown and some maturing calves. The herd just seemed to take no notice of us, and passed by our group within tens of metres.

We hiked further up the Cairn Gorm, heading around the back of the mountain and over the top. It wasn’t as clear a day as possible, but it was far from cloudy. The mountain dropped off on one side to a steep and rocky precipice. In the distance, several more mountains poked their summits up towards the clouds. There was a cairn on top of the Cairn Gorm to mark the summit. We stayed in the cold weather admiring the beautiful landscape, amazed at just how stunning the Scottish scenery could be.

After numerous pictures and queries to our guide, we headed down the front of the mountain along a well made but dangerously slippery rocky path to the top station. It now nearly being lunch time we were keen to head to the restaurant for food. Annalise enquired about posting a post card from the highest post box in the United Kingdom, but apparently they didn’t sell stamps for their post cards. Lunch consisted of cafeteria-like food: a beef stroganoff, a soup or a chilli.

It was time to take the funicular back down the mountain and return to the car. We had initially planned to head to Balmoral Castle on the other side of the Cairn Gorms, but we realised that, being, summer, the castle would be closed as the sovereign would be in residence. So instead, we drove around the national park in the other direction, heading for Blair Castle at Blair Atholl.

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We stopped briefly for a coffee and fuel break at the tiny village of Dalwhinnie, drinking in what seemed to be some lowly weatherboard house-converted-cafe. Otherwise, the drive was mostly a relatively straight forward journey down the main highway. We pulled into the car park at Blair Castle. Parts of it up to 700 years old, it formed the seat of the local duchy. We drove up the long, tree-lined driveway to the large, white building, and were direct to park in the nearby car park.

We didn’t have time to see both the castle and the gardens, so we opted just to wander around the gardens. They were extensive. One one side of the gardens, there was a planted forest with tall, North American trees and a gentle undergrowth. Finding familiar trees at least partially made up for the lack of snow among one of the Canadians. We wandered through the serene garden, listening to the water flow through the nearby brook. A detour past the deer park, and we found ourselves crossing a bridge to a small, abandoned chapel and graveyard which stood, roof open to the elements and grass growing where there once was floor. Most of the names on the graves had long since weathered away, but we still showed the necessary respect.

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The final part of the garden was a more typical, walled garden, with a large pond in the middle growing water lillies. We wandered around, stopping briefly to watch a badling of young ducklings following their mother. Both the forest and the walled garden had an arboretum or botanical garden feel, but the former was a lot more wild than the latter, which was more formal. That said, there were still large open spaces even within the garden.

With several daylight hours to spare following the closing of the garden, we headed a little way back up the road to Bruar, which wasn’t so much a town, but rather a large distillery complex and produce and fine wares market store. Our intention was to go to the Falls of Bruar, which were in a nearby brook, as we had seen signs on our way in to Blair Atholl, but the market store took our interest instead, sampling some of the fresh fruit and ending up with a packet of chocolate coated sultanas and mushrooms. We eventually found the path to the falls, tucked behind the back of the market, and so headed off on a short hike.

There were two easily accessible water falls; the first barely 10 minutes walk up the gentle path, the second a further 20 minute walk up a slightly steeper, but by no means strenuous, path. There was an old stone bridge at each of the falls, so we could stop and watch the water come rushing past. The area was closed in by the forest, but it wasn’t claustrophobic. Instead, it was a nice, casual walk through some fairly beautiful locations, that brought the large part of the day’s activities to an end.

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We still had to drive on to our accommodation, but as it was far from any town, we needed to stop for dinner first. We stopped at the town of Pitlochry for a pub meal, but only after being told to get a reservation, which we made over the phone for 15 minutes time. In the meantime, we stumbled across a local pipe band who were going marching down the main street of the town. We shared between burgers and salmon for dinner.

Finally, we drove into the setting sun along the windy road into the national park again. We were staying in a bunkhouse in the Spittal of Glenshee, next to a bridge built by the military to help monitor the Jacobite rebellions. We had arrived late, so our room key was left on the counter for us to let ourselves in. Once settled and unpacked, we whittled away the remainder of the evening playing word games on the floor of our shared room.

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