Land that time forgot


Ancient pine forests, giant raptors and Arctic fish still thrive in Britain’s largest remaining wilderness, the Cairngorms, which was designated a national park 10 years ago. Ramblers Scotland’s vice-president and regional expert Dick Balharry shows us exactly where and when to spot its most celebrated inhabitants…

“The Cairngorms is by far the greatest wilderness in Britain, and to appreciate its sheer natural beauty you have to use all your senses,” says Dick Balharry, vice-president of Ramblers Scotland. “Listen to the ringing call of the greenshank, feel the vibrations through the rocks or the icy cold water of the lochs, and enjoy the sweet smell of the pine forest.”

There are few people who can speak about the Cairngorms as passionately or authoritatively as Dick, who has lived and worked here long before it was designated a national park 10 years ago. “It’s 40% larger than the Lake District,” explains Dick, “and is unparalleled in Western Europe for its high arctic-alpine zone, influenced by the ocean.”

This huge upland plateau above 600m/1,970ft forms the core of the Cairngorms and, not surprisingly, has flora and fauna found almost nowhere else in Britain. Ptarmigan, snow bunting and mountain hares are year round residents, while summer visitors include dunlin, dotterel and golden plover. Plants, such as moss campion, mountain avens, Alpine lady’s mantle and starry saxifrage, cling on here, as well as rare lichens and liverworts.

However, almost a fifth of the park is made up of woodland. “Some of the oldest Scots pines are over 400 years, and the mix of native pine, juniper and other broad-leaved species are where you’ll find wood ants, crested tits, Scottish crossbills and pine martens.”

Below the montane zone, the rivers and lochs contain Arctic charr, while ospreys, divers and goldeneye are seasonal visitors. Two of the largest lochs are Avon and Etchachan in the heart of the massif, or visit Loch Morlich to the north. The lower slopes, moorland and woodland fringe are home to other iconic species such as black grouse, capercaillie and red deer.

A final word of advice from Dick: “Take what weather is here when you visit but be prepared, especially if you head for high or remote ground. While beautiful, this place is truly wild.”

For the full photo-rich version of this article pick up the Summer 2013 issue of walk – or why not join the Ramblers and get the magazine delivered to your door four times a year?

PHOTO: David Shawe.