As we launch our Green Traveller's Guide to the Cairngorms, Paul Bloomfield discovers there’s more to Cairn Gorm than skiing and spectacular views, as he hikes up a little-known route in Britain's largest National Park.
I’m a bit confused about colours. Andy of Scot Mountain Holidays, my expert guide for a day walking on one of Scotland’s highest peaks, is trying to clarify how this iconic summit acquired its name.
“Well, the Gaelic Càrn Gorm literally translates as ‘Blue Hill’,” he tells me. “But gorm also relates to the green of plants, so some people think it means ‘Green Hill’. And yet the original local name for these mountains was Am Monadh Ruadh – the Red Mountains, describing the russet hue of the rocky peak in the evening sunlight.”
Blue, green, red – with views of lochs dotted all around, pinewoods of racing green carpeting the northern glens, our path lined with verdant mosses and dwarf tundra plants, and pinkish granite littering the slopes, they all seem appropriate. And I’m discovering a lot more local colour – history, wildlife and, especially, rocks and flowers – thanks to Andy’s insights. We’re tackling the less-trodden northern ridge of Cairn Gorm, partly to avoid the crowds (such as they are) and enjoy better chances of spying birds and beasts, and partly just because it’s a wonderful route in itself.
As we tie our bootlaces in the mountain’s lower carpark, a playful wind tugs at our jackets and the mountain’s rounded summit is cloaked in cloud. This July morning is brisk and breezy, but the haul east up to the first ridge soon has me stripping off my fleece, and the views back north across Glen More and Abernethy Forest to Loch Morlich are enough to warm the cockles.
We pick our way past 3,000-year-old tree roots exposed as soil erodes – the white skeletons of ghostly, half-buried forests. But there’s plenty of life around, and Andy points out the diverse flora en route – though as this is effectively tundra habitat, nothing grows tall and we have to bend down to get a good look at much of it.
“This one is bog asphodel,” Andy says, pointing out spikes of vivid yellow star-shaped flowers. “It used to be known as ‘bone breaker’, because it was believed that if sheep ate it, they’d be prone to fractures. It grows on poor, acidic soil, so livestock grazing here would struggle to get the nutrients they needed for strong bones.”
Our climb is punctuated by this kind of gem. We see tiny insects trapped on the sticky leaves of the carnivorous (but pretty purple-flowered) butterwort or ‘bog violet’, admire the cartographic squiggles of map lichen on pathside boulders, and delight at the orchids dotted through the grasses and mosses.
One of Andy’s missions – other than showing visitors the varied faces of the Cairngorms – is to make geology sexy. Trained in that field, his passion and knowledge might just be enough to convert me. It helps that this region has such a fascinating history. “400 million years ago, where we’re standing would have been under thousands of metres of rock,” he explains. “This was the central part of a huge mountain range spanning from what’s now Greenland to Scandinavia, and since eroded by the vast glaciers that scoured this area.” We walk between enormous pink granite boulders and sift sparkling gravel, glistening with feldspar, mica and quartz.
I spot a movement out of the corner of my eye: a family of ptarmigan, their brindled summer plumage providing superb camouflage. Impossibly cute chicks follow their mother as they bob away through the scree. Though Cairn Gorm is hardly the Masai Mara, there’s a surprising number of species to spot: wheatears chinking among the rockfields, snow buntings darting across lingering patches of ice, the skittering flight of mountain hares.
The clouds lift long before we reach the summit, where we encounter humanity for the first time since setting off – clusters of satisfied walkers munching cereal bars and gazing across to Ben Macdui, at 1,309m Scotland’s second-highest point, just to the south. We head in that direction, and within minutes leave the handfuls of peak-baggers behind.
At the edge of the plateau the land simply falls away. Between pancake-piles of granite we peer down at Loch A’an wiggling through a steep-sided valley; across from us rises a snow-laden plain, with the flat-topped outcrop known as the Anvil to our right and the ribbon of a waterfall glistening on a distant cliff. I recall Andy’s comments about the mountain’s names. It doesn’t really matter who calls it what, in whichever language, I think. There aren’t words enough to describe this kind of lonely majesty.
Plan your holiday Scot Mountain Holidays offers a range of itineraries in the Cairngorms and further afield, focusing on guided walking, family adventures, cycling and winter mountain activities including building and sleeping in snowholes; Andy also runs mountain skills courses.
Participants stay at Fraoch Lodge, a homestay where Andy, partner Rebecca and young son Gregor welcome guests with comfortable accommodation and delectable cooking – Rebecca’s innovative dinners, mouthwatering cakes and ice cream (try the rhubarb crumble flavour) are a treat, and sales of her home-made jams and chutneys help fund local mountain rescue services.