As part of our Green Traveller's Guide to Cairngorms National Park, Paul Bloomfield picks out a selection of visitor attractions in this glorious in this glorious protected area in Scotland.
The Cairngorms is a region of great riches: natural, cultural, historical. And if some of the area’s attractions are best discovered in dry weather, there are plenty more with ample appeal come rain, snow or wind.
Families are well catered for with adventure parks, beaches and watersports, funicular and steam railways, play areas and bike trails, animal parks and even herds of reindeer to feed.
Wildlife lovers can spot red squirrels, crested tits and crossbills in ancient pine forests, red deer and grouse on high moors, mountain hares, ptarmigan and snow buntings in the mountains, and birds of prey hunting over lochs and glens. Then there are hides from which you can watch frisky pine martens, badgers and wood mice emerging to forage.
The creative talents of Scottish artists are well represented here, too; galleries across the region display paintings, sculptures and a host of other artworks and crafts inspired by the Cairngorms’ landscapes, animals and people. Historic castles both regal and ruined speak of centuries of conflict and contentment. And of course the famous Speyside distilleries and Cairngorms Brewery are on hand – exploring is thirsty business!
Whether you want to delve into history, keep the kids entertained with fun activities or learn more about the region’s natural treasures, the Cairngorms has a range of attractions with green credentials.
Landmark Forest Adventure Park
This family attraction does pretty much what it says on the tin – it’s an adventure theme park, but with its roots (pun intended) firmly in the pine forest. There are adrenalin-tweaking rides, as you’d expect: the Runaway Timber Train rollercoaster, a Wildwatercoaster on rubber rafts, and Skydive Two parachute simulators. But there are also a host of activities for testing yourself, body and mind, in the forest – from a hoik up the fire tower or the Pinnacle 10m climbing wall, to aerial courses Ropeworx and Tarzan Trail and mental tests in the Bamboozleum. In a nod to its heritage, you can explore the ancient forest or get lost in a maze, visit a steam-powered sawmill and explore the Wonder Wood. Landmark Park, Carrbridge, Inverness-shire PH23 3AJ www.landmarkpark.co.uk
Funicular Mountain Railway
Cairn Gorm mountain is high. Britain’s sixth-highest peak, in fact, looming 1244m over Glenmore and offering sweeping views south to Ben Macdui (1309m) and across the Cairngorm plateau. But if hiking up sounds like a challenge too far – or even if hiking both ways doesn’t appeal – the funicular railway can whisk you from the Base Station to Ptarmigan Top Station in just eight minutes. At the top you can learn about this dramatic landscape and the flora and fauna that make it so special, or join the Walk@TheTop guided tour of the high mountain plateau. Cairn Gorm Ski Area, Aviemore PH22 1RB
The Rothiemurchus Estate is one of the Highlands’ most historic and beautiful, encompassing a range of habitats including around 30 square kilometres of ancient pine forest and magical Loch an Eilein. With plentiful wildlife – red squirrels, capercaillies, pine martens, red deer and of course the region’s famous ospreys – as well as walking and cycling trails, fishing and myriad other activities, there’s a lot to see and do. To plan your visit, start at the Rothiemurchus Centre, where you can book activities and browse the card, farm and gift shops. Rothiemurchus, By Aviemore, Inverness-shire PH22 1QH
Glenmore Forestry Commission Visitor Centre
Spread below the northern slopes of Cairn Gorm itself, Glenmore is a photogenic ensemble of ancient pinewoods, mountain foothills and beautiful Loch Morlich. Activities about: spot red squirrels, crossbills and crested tits in the national nature reserve; feed the reindeer; kayak or windsurf on the loch; or just get out and explore the trails – on foot, by bike or, in winter, on cross-country skis. The visitor centre has ample information about the forest park and its wild inhabitants, including trail and orienteering maps, displays and a film about the forest, and a café in which to rest up with a slice of cake. Glenmore, By Aviemore, Inverness-shire PH22 1QU www.forestry.gov.uk
Highland Wildlife Park
Part of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, this animal centre is committed to promoting the conservation of threatened species at home and overseas. It’s home to both Scottish wildlife and rare animals from around the world – so you might see the feisty local favourite, capercaillie, or the tall, elegant European crane; the elusive Scottish wildcat or the rarely seen Amur tiger, a wolf or even a polar bear; that Highland denizen, the red deer, or a mighty bison or yak; a red squirrel – or a red panda from the Himalaya. Land Rover tours, feeding talks and Keeper For a Day experiences are, unsurprisingly, very popular.
Kincraig, Kingussie, Inverness-shire PH21 1NL www.highlandwildlifepark.org.uk
The Speyside Centre
Heather isn’t just heather, you know. Spend a little time on the Cairngorms’ hills and you’ll understand that there’s a dizzying diversity of heather species – and more than 300 of them are on display at this unique garden centre that also incorporates an exhibition on the moorland and mountain plant that’s so entwined with Scottish culture. As well as the heather, there are wildlife feeding stations where you might spot red squirrels, crested tits or even a sparrowhawk; a restaurant dishing up the speciality, clootie dumpling; and a gift shop, art gallery and antiques showroom. Skye of Curr, Dulnain Bridge, Inverness-shire PH26 3PA
The Fun House
Set amid the extensive wooded estate of the Hilton Hotel at Coylumbridge near Aviemore, the Fun House offers a range of activities for kids of all ages. The large Cyril’s Tree House has three floors of soft play to keep younger children occupied, featuring ball-pits, slides and tunnels. For older offspring there’s a video-game arcade, a ten-pin bowling alley and a nine-hold indoor-outdoor mini-golf course with obstacles including waterfalls.
Hilton Coylumbridge Hotel, Aviemore PH22 1QN www.hiltonaviemore.com
Strathspey Steam Railway
A century and a half ago, in 1863, the railway linking Perth and Inverness via Aviemore opened. Just over 100 years later, Beeching’s cuts axed the stretch from Aviemore through Grantown-on-Spey to Forres. It took 30 years of effort, but in 2002 the Strathspey Railway Company succeeded in reopening the line from Aviemore to Broomhill (which plays Glenbogle in the TV series Monarch of the Glen) via Boat of Garten. Now magnificent steam locomotives once more ply the route through the Cairngorms alongside the Spey. As well as the atmospheric standard two-hour round trip journey, there’s an array of special themed events, dining options, shed tours and footplate experiences to enjoy.
Aviemore Station, Dalfaber Road, Aviemore PH22 1PY www.strathspeyrailway.co.uk
Cairngorm Reindeer Centre
The first wild reindeer to roam Scotland for perhaps 8,000 years were reintroduced to the Cairngorms by a Swedish herder in 1952. Today, some 150 graze in Scotland, 50 of them ranging freely in these mountains; daily tours to the herd give visitors the chance to meet these hefty ungulates up close. During the summer months, you can lead your own reindeer on half-day treks across the moor and through the pinewood, getting to know its unique character. The paddocks host an exhibition to help you discover more about these big-antlered beasts of the north. Reindeer House, Glenmore, Aviemore, Inverness-shire PH22 1QU www.cairngormreindeer.co.uk
Aviemore Children’s Funfair
This family-run attraction offers traditional children’s rides and activities – trampolines, a big inflatable slide, spinning tea cups, an amusement arcade – alongside some more novel options. The ‘walk on water balls’ allow kids to do just that: climb inside the inflatable transparent plastic balls and roll them across the pool. 3 Grampian Rd, Aviemore, Inverness-shire PH22 1RH http://aviemorechildrensfunfair.co.uk
Highland Folk Museum
This tremendous open-air museum brings the history of the Highlands into focus, showing how local people worked and lived in centuries past. The 32ha site at Newtonmore encompasses 24 reconstructed buildings dating from the 18th century to the mid-20th, including a shepherd’s bothy, 1930s post office and school, clockmaker’s workshop and water-powered sawmill. There’s also the working Aultlarie Farm and a recreation of an 18th-century ‘township’, where people in period costume populate the timber cruck-framed buildings. With collections ranging from farm and home cooking equipment, traditional craft tools, jewellery and clothes, a visit is a fascinating delve into Highland rural life through the ages. Kingussie Road, Newtonmore PH20 1AY www.highlandfolk.com
The ‘Highland tiger’ – the pure-bred wildcat – is a creature as rare as it is elusive: perhaps as few as 400 of these breathtakingly beautiful, shy felines survive today. But in the lanes and paths around Newtonmore you might enjoy a close cat encounter – with one of 100 or so ceramic wildcats, each sporting a unique paint-job. The Wildcat Experience invites families to try to discover all of the cats; buy a TrackPack from the Wildcat Centre, mark each cat as you identify its location and submit it for verification – spot 25 and receive a certificate, 50 and a prize is yours. Walk the Wildcat Trail, a 10km route circling the village, for a wonderful countryside wander. Wildcat Centre, Main Street, Newtonmore, Inverness-shire PH20 1DD
The Cairngorms hosts habitats and species of mammals, birds, flowers and insects found nowhere else in Britain. It’s a wildlife-lover’s paradise offering a wealth of tours and viewing opportunities.
Wildlife Watching & Photography at Rothiemurchus
With such an expanse of wild landscapes – including some 30 square kilometres of ancient pine forest and the entrancing Loch an Eilein – it’s no surprise that there’s ample animal magic to watch (and photograph) on the Rothiemurchus Estate. And there are many ways to experience a wildlife encounter: simply walking the woodland trails could bring sightings of red squirrels, crested tits, crossbills or, if you’re really lucky, a capercaillie. Organised activities include ranger-led Land Rover or walking safaris, guided photographic trips to see black grouse and ospreys, or a night visit to a comfortable hide offering the chance of watching pine martens, badgers and red deer at close quarters. Rothiemurchus, By Aviemore, Inverness-shire PH22 1QH www.rothiemurchus-activities.co.uk/Activities.aspx
With two decades’ experience running holidays in Scotland, Speyside Wildlife now runs tours worldwide – but the outstanding knowledge and passion of its guides for this region remains inspiring. All-inclusive itineraries in the Cairngorms cover special topics including mammals, butterflies and wildflowers and spring birds, many adding combinations of islands further afield, with chances of spotting dolphins, otters and sea eagles on Mull, Shetland and Orkney, for example. It’s also possible to tailor a day trip with an expert guide based on your particular interests. A dusk visit to a comfortable hide overlooking a feeding station can yield encounters with badgers, pine martens and tawny owls. Wester Camerorie, Ballieward, Grantown on Spey PH26 3PR www.speysidewildlife.co.uk
Loch Insh Wildlife Cruises
Known for its watersports, Loch Insh is also a great spot for a wildlife-watching boat trip. Hour-long cruises aboard the 28ft passenger vessel Molaise explore the Insh Marshes and River Spey as well as the loch itself. Accompanied by audio commentaries and with a knowledgeable skipper on board, you’ve a good chance of spotting some of the region’s charismatic creatures – a red-throated diver on the water, perhaps, and almost certainly the ospreys that nest atop a tree on an island at the northern end of the loch.
Loch Insh, Kincraig, Kingussie, Inverness-shire PH21 1NU www.lochinsh.com/tourboat.asp
Braemar Highland Safaris
Nestled on the banks of the River Dee, Braemar offers an excellent base from which to explore the southern and eastern parts of the national park. Four-hour trips in comfortable 4WD vehicles, equipped with binoculars and spotter scope and accompanied by an expert local guide with over 30 years’ experience in the area, you’ll head into the mountains, moors and river valleys to look for wildlife. You might reasonably hope to see large herds of red deer, mountain hares or red grouse skittering across the heather, ptarmigan camouflaged against the granite rocks (or snow, depending on season), and golden eagles soaring above the glens. Braemar Highland Safaris, North View, Hillside Rd, Braemar, Aberdeenshire AB35 5YU www.braemarhighlandsafaris.co.uk
Deeside Nature Activities
DNA offers a range of half- and full-day wildlife-watching tours, run by an experienced nature guide. Land Rover safaris take in the natural highlights of the eastern sections of the national park; a popular option is the trip into Glen Muick to look for red and roe deer, lekking black grouse, peregine falcon and osprey. The DNA guide spent two years working as a conservation officer on the Balmoral estate, so can offer insights on a tour to the royal property, and also guides wildlife-watching walks. Other options include tours to the coast to look for dolphins, otters and Slavonian grebes. Knockanduie, Crathie, Ballater, Aberdeenshire AB35 5TP www.deesidenatureactivities.co.uk
The Glenlivet Crown Estate at the far east of the national park is just that bit off the beaten track (not that any tracks in the Cairngorms are too beaten!), and harbours the rare species for which the whole region is renowned. Glenlivet Wildlife tailors its Land Rover tours to focus on seasonal events – so in spring you might watch black grouse lekking, in autumn listen out for the bellows of rutting red deer stags or admire the dazzling fall foliage and spot otters fishing for spawning salmon, while in winter you’ll look for mountain hares and ptarmigan in their pristine white winter garb. Walks on Blairifindy Moor often reveal roe deer, fieldfares, red and black grouse. Easter Corrie, Tomnavoulin, Glenlivet, Moray AB37 9JB www.glenlivet-wildlife.co.uk
Atholl Estates Land Rover Safaris
The vast Atholl Estates, covering nearly 60,000ha of moors, glens, mountains and forests in the southern Cairngorms, span a historic and dramatic realm that’s bustling with wildlife. Guides on the excellent Land Rover safaris (scheduled or private) all live on the estate, and most have spent a lifetime working on the land – you might be guided by a former stalker – so have an intimate understanding of all its animal inhabitants. Sightings of big red deer herds are almost guaranteed, while golden eagles, hen harriers, merlins, peregrines and kestrels are fairly common, as are black grouse and mountain hares, and you might also spot golden plover. Atholl Estates Office, Blair Atholl, Perthshire PH18 5TH
Cairn Gorm Mountain Guided Walks
The looming bulk of Cairn Gorm might look bleak and rugged, but in fact it’s a fragile environment that harbours countless rare and fascinating species, from mountains hares and ptarmigans to snow buntings, wheatears and meadow pipits, not to mention myriad mosses, sundews, dwarf willow, creeping azalea and delightful orchids. Tempting as it is to take the eight-minute funicular railway ride to the top and explore from there, during the summer months access to the plateau is restricted to those undertaking a guided Walk @ The Top, the weekly Northern Corries Walk or a hike down to the base station – all conducted by expert guides to help you spot the wonderful wildlife. Cairn Gorm Ski Area, Aviemore PH22 1RB
BREWERIES & DISTILLERIES
A visit to the Cairngorms wouldn’t be complete with sipping a dram of Speyside whisky or supping a pint of local ale on a visit to a distillery or brewery.
Glenlivet Distillery Visitor Centre
The first Highland whisky – or, at least, the firs t to be produced legally – was the brainchild of George Smith who, in 1824, obtained a licence to found a distillery in the Avon Valley in Speyside, where illicit stills had been operating for many years. Today, The Glenlivet is one of Speyside’s finest single malts, with numerous vintages and expressions. Visitors can learn more about the history and production of the whisky, or take one of three tours around the distillery, tasting a dram for good measure. Three waymarked ‘Smugglers’ Trails’ paths lead walkers around the Glenlivet valley. Ballindalloch, Banffshire AB37 9DB
Tomatin Distillery Visitor Centre
Sited at an altitude of 315m in the pure, clear air of the Monadhliath Mountains just north of Cairngorms National Park, the Tomatin distillery is one of the highest in Scotland. Take a tour to learn about the distilling process and try a dram of the 12-year-old single malt, or visit the shop to pick up a bottle from the range of malts and special editions (including a 40-year-old limited release). Tomatin, Inverness-shire IV13 7YT www.tomatin.com/distillery/visitor-centre
Founded in 2001, this craft brewery in Aviemore produces a range of ales based on traditional Scottish recipes – bitters, stouts, pale ales – as well as brewing new varieties using new malt and hop types and trying out innovative formulae. The result is a succession of awards from CAMRA and the like. An hour-long tour and tasting gives a flavour of the business and its lip-smacking products, which you can pick up from the brewery shop. Dalfaber Industrial Estate, Aviemore, Inverness-shire PH22 1ST www.cairngormbrewery.com
GALLERIES & CASTLES
The Cairngorms is a dramatic, inspirational land, both harsh and bountiful. Small wonder, then, that art galleries are blessed with works celebrating the area's natural beauty – nor that mighty castles were built to defend these lands.
Loch an Eilein Gallery at Rothiemurchus
The ‘Loch of the Island’, with its pine-lined shores and ruined castle, is a place of extraordinary beauty – so the ideal place for a gallery showcasing the work of artists who’ve drawn inspiration from the region. Open from Easter to October, this compact gallery displays an array of local arts and crafts, from photography, sculpture and paintings to jewellery, soaps, textiles and candles. Special exhibitions, rotating monthly, give artists the opportunity to show broader collections. Rothiemurchus, By Aviemore, Inverness-shire PH22 1QH
Scottish landscapes, wildlife and people provide inspiration for artists across a wide range of media, and the Braemar Gallery provides a one-stop shop for enjoying and buying pieces by some of the finest artists living in, working across and portraying Scotland. From impressionistic landscapes and colourful bird paintings to textile prints, etchings, jewellery and pottery, as well as prints from originals, there’s a host of styles and formats to admire. Screenprinting workshops offer the chance to explore your own creative talents.
34 Mar Road, Braemar, Aberdeenshire AB35 5YL www.braemargallery.co.uk
The Lost Gallery
The name of this remote gallery, in a 19th-century farmhouse nestled into the side of Moss Hill in Glen Nochty, is not far from the truth – it’s not an easy place to find. But its location and setting is in keeping with the spirit of art displayed here, which largely reflects Scotland’s wild landscapes and inhabitants. As well as contemporary paintings in styles ranging from expressionist and impressionist landscapes to naturalistic portraits and stylised still lifes, there’s a diverse array of both indoor and outdoor sculptures. Strathdon, Aberdeenshire AB36 8UJ www.lostgallery.co.uk
Fused and Light
At the heart of this gallery and studio in Newtonmore is owner Anne Bridgen’s love of glass fusing and fascination with light – especially its role in the creation of colour. Her work ranges from pendants and coasters to plates and fused-glass ‘paintings’. The gallery displays work by local artists, focusing on paintings and photos of the surrounding mountains, and Anne also offers introductory glass-fusing courses as well as shorter sessions at which you can make your own pendant or coaster. The Trove, Main Street, Newtonmore PH20 1DD
Exhibiting works by many of Scotland’s most acclaimed contemporary artists, the Aviemore Gallery displays a wealth of talent across varied themes, styles and formats: landscapes, wildlife, local characters; acrylics, oils, pastels, photography, sculpture, glass, pottery and jewellery, for starters. Affordability is a key tenet, and the addition of a bustling craft and gift shop means pieces are available at a range of prices. The café serves terrific Fairtrade coffee and tea, too. Inverdruie, Aviemore, Inverness-shire PH22 1QH www.theaviemoregallery.com
This landmark 15th-century tower – or what remains of it, having mostly fallen into disrepair in the 18th century – looms over the rivers Livet and Avon in the north-east of the national park. Despite its ruinous state, with only two walls remaining, it’s an atmospheric site, once the lair of Alexander Stewart, the 14th-century ‘Wolf of Badenoch’, and probably rebuilt by his grandson. Today you can stroll up from the carpark to explore the kitchen garden and ruins, or hike the gentle signposted 3km Drumin Circular Walk, offering fine views and chances to spot dippers and goosanders on the river. Glenlivet, Tomintoul AB37 9EX
The Queen’s Scottish home, built in 1856 on the estate bought by Queen Victoria, is one of the region’s top attractions. Though the castle itself is only open for four months during spring and early summer (and only the ballroom is accessible to the public during that time), exhibitions and an audio tour give a fascinating glimpse of the history of the castle and its regal inhabitants, as well as the estate’s wildlife and landscapes. As well as exploring the grounds, visitors can venture further afield on guided walks and luxury Land Rover safaris.
Balmoral Estates, Ballater, Aberdeenshire AB35 5TB www.balmoralcastle.com
Home of the earls and dukes of Atholl for seven centuries, this magnificent whitewashed castle is both stately home and fort – and a wonderfully atmospheric, historic destination. Originally dating from 1269 (medieval Cumming’s Tower still stands), much of the castle was redeveloped, particularly during the Georgian era. Thirty rooms are open to visitors, displaying paintings, furnishings and particularly fine ceiling mouldings, giving a feel for how life was for landed lairds in times past. The serene, walled Hercules Garden and Diana’s Grove, encompassing huge pine trees, are also worth visiting, and red deer and Highland cows can be seen grazing in the grounds. Blair Atholl, Pitlochry, Perthshire PH18 5TL
Braemar is unique in Scotland, being neither the home of a grand family nor a state-owned museum. Instead, this 17th-century castle – built in 1628 by John Erskine, Earl of Mar, then occupied for two centuries by the chiefs of Clan Farquharson – is now managed and operated by the community of the village of Braemar. Despite the turrets, it was built as a hunting lodge so has a pleasingly intimate, homely scale; a tour led by a costumed guide reveals the castle’s long history and the many events and people that have influenced its peaks and troughs in fortune. Braemar, Aberdeenshire AB35 5XR www.braemarcastle.co.uk
For information on characterful places to stay, local food and drink, and nearby outdoor activities, see our Green Traveller's Guide to Cairngorms National Park