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The Cairngorms are a mountain range in the eastern Highlands of Scotlandmarker closely associated with the mountain of the same name - Cairn Gormmarker.


Usually referred to as The Cairngorms - this 'modern' use of Cairn Gorm to represent the whole range is potentially misleading - Watson (1975) refers to it as a nickname explaining that the range's former name is Am Monadh Ruadh - the red hills distinguishing them from Am Monadh Liath - the grey hills to the west of the River Spey.

Ironically - naming the range after Cairn Gorm creates a contradiction since Cairn Gorm means Blue Cairn - taking that literally would make the red hills the blue hills changing the old name entirely. This irony appears to have been missed by many for both names were used in the naming of the National Park that incorporates the range. Its official English name, Cairngorms National Park, translates into Gaelic as the Blue Hills National Park, with its Gaelic strap-line, Pairc Naiseanta a Mhonaidh Ruaidh, translating into English as the Red Hills National Park.

In Alexander (1928) the author refers to Colonel T. Thornton visiting the area about 1786, and his book Sporting Tour published in 1804 in which he refers to the range as the Cairngorms - continuing:

Both Alexander (1928) and Watson (1975) appear to suggest that Colonel Thornton's book was the first time the term Cairngorms was used in print to refer to whole group.

The controversy over the name of the Cairngorms is representative of other controversies surrounding these mountains, which have the capacity to produce strong reactions in people who regard the mountains with affection.

Location and area

sketch map showing villages, mountains, lochs, and rivers of The Cairngorms.
Although The Cairngorms are within the Cairngorms National Parkmarker, they are only a part of it. Watson (1975) delineates the main Cairngorm massif as being between Aviemoremarker in the north-west, Glen Gairn, Braemarmarker in the south-east, and Glen Feshie in the south-west.

The approximate southern-boundary of the range runs from slightly east of Braemarmarker, west along Glen Dee to White Bridge, through Glen Geldie to the head of Glen Feshie. The western-boundary runs down Glen Feshie (northward) and the River Speymarker to Aviemoremarker. The northern-boundary runs roughly eastward from Aviemore through Glen More to Glen Avon. The eastern-boundary then runs (southward) up Glen Avon, and over Am Bealach Dearg to slightly east of Braemar.

To the south of the Cairngorms are a separate distinct range, The Grampiansmarker. Watson (1975) describes them as running from Drumochtermarker in the west almost to the sea just south of Aberdeenmarker, continuing:

Gordon (1925) draws the area of the Cairngorms even more tightly: the end-papers show a map where Aviemore, River Feshie, River Deemarker and Creag Choinnich just make it onto the map, and Glen Geldie, and Glen Gairn do not.

Before the Regionalisation of Scotland in 1975, most of the Cairngorms were within the county of Aberdeenshiremarker, with the rest reaching into Inverness-shire in the west, and Banffshiremarker in the north.


Granting the tight delineation of The Cairngorms above - there are no public roads through The Cairngorms. All the public roads in the general area either skirt The Cairngorms or stop short - providing access to them only. Historically - pedestrians have been able to cross The Cairngorms by following the traditional routes of the Lairig Ghrumarker, and the Lairig Laoigh, or around them by following Glen Dee - Glen Feshie, and Bealach Dearg.

From the south, and south-east motorised access ends at Linn of Dee, or Allanaquoichmarker. From the north-west it ends at Coylumbridge or the car park at the Cairn Gorm ski area.


The Cairngorms consist of a large elevated plateau adorned with low, rounded glacial mountains.

Although not strictly a single plateau - The Cairngorms give the sense of being a single plateau, because the passes that cut through them do not cut them very deeply. In Watson (1975) the author gives the summit of Lairig Ghrumarker as 835 metres, and the summit of Lairig an Laoigh at 740 metres, and The Sneck at 970 metres. Topographically - this means a walker could cross between the Cairntoulmarker (1293m) - Braeriachmarker (1296m) massif to the Ben Macduimarker (1309m) - Cairn Gormmarker (1245m) massif and onto the Beinn a' Bhùirdmarker (1196m) - Ben Avonmarker (1171m) massif without descending below the 740 metre summit of the Lairig an Laoigh.

The Cairngorms became part of Scotland's second national park (see Cairngorms National Parkmarker) on 1 September 2003. The national park is in the Scottish council areas of Aberdeenshiremarker, Moraymarker, Angusmarker, Perth and Kinross and Highlandmarker.


The Cairngorms feature the highest, coldest and snowiest plateaux in the British Islesmarker and are home to five of the six highest mountains in Scotlandmarker:

These mountains are all Munros, and there are a further 13 mountains with this categorisation across the area, of which another five are among the twenty highest peaks in the country.

After she had climbed to the top of Ben Macdui on 7 October 1859, Queen Victoria wrote: "It had a sublime and solemn effect, so wild, so solitary — no one but ourselves and our little party there . . . I had a little whisky and water, as the people declared pure water would be too chilling."

The Cairngorms were formed 40 million years before the last ice age, when slight uplift raised an eroded peneplain based on an exposed granite pluton. The highest present-day peaks represent eroded monadnock hills. During the ice ages the ice caps that covered most of northern Scotlandmarker remained static, frozen to the ground for long periods and actually protected the rounded summits and valleys and deep weathered granite of the mountains of the area. Glacial erosion is represented in deep valleys which dissect the area. Many valleys are littered with glacial deposits from the period of glacial retreat. The most famous valley is the Lairig Ghrumarker pass, a gouge through the centre of the mountains - a u-shaped valley, now partly filled with extensive scree produced by intense frost action during ice-free periods. Many parts of the Cairngorms exhibit classic periglacial weathering which occurred during cold periods in ice-free areas.

The Cairngorms represent a major barrier to travel and trade across Scotland and helped to create the remote character of the Highlands that persists today. Passes through the hills such as the Lairig Ghrumarker were extensively used by drovers in the 19th Century herding their cattle to market in the Lowlands, from their smallholdings in the Highlands.

The region is drained by the Rivers Deemarker and Speymarker; and the latter's two tributaries: the Rivers Feshie and Avon.

The area is sparsely populated due to the extreme nature of the climate. Snow patches can remain on the hills until August or September, while in the Garbh Coire Mòr of Braeriachmarker the snow melted just 5 times in the last century. In the last few years - a possible indicator of climate change - the quantity and longevity of Cairngorm snow patches has declined significantly. The lowest recorded temperature in the UKmarker has twice been recorded in the Cairngorms, at Braemarmarker, where a temperature of -27.2oC, was recorded on 11 February 1895 and 10 January 1982. The greatest British wind speed 150 knots (170 mph or 274 kmh)was recorded on Cairngorm Summit on 20 March 1986, where speeds of over 100 mph (160 kmh) are commonplace.


The Cairngorms national park is known for its wildlife. The area also features a ancient woodland, one of the last major ones of its kind in the British Isles, known as the Caledonian Forest. Much of the remains of this forest are found within the national park.

The Cairngorms provide a unique alpine semi-tundra moorland habitat, home to many rare plants, birds and animals. Speciality bird species on the plateaux include breeding Ptarmigan, Dotterel, Snow Bunting, Golden Eagle, Ring Ouzel, and Red Grouse, with Snowy Owl, Twite, Purple Sandpiper and Lapland Bunting seen on occasion. In the forests, Capercaillie, Black Grouse, Scottish Crossbill, Parrot Crossbill, Crested Tit are found.

Of particular fame is the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) reserve at Abernethy Forestmarker and Loch Gartenmarker. A famous pair of Ospreys are present in the summer months, and they often attract large crowds to see them. The forest is home to the endangered Capercaillie and endemic Scottish Crossbill.

Red Deer, Roe Deer, Mountain Hare, Pine Marten, Red Squirrel, Wild Cat and Otter are all present, as well as the only herd of Reindeer in the British Islesmarker. They now roam the high Cairngorms, after being re-introduced in the 1950s by a Swedish herdsman. The herd is now stable at around 50 individuals, all born in Scotlandmarker.

Man-made Threats

The effects of Climate Change are likely to be seen first in areas such as the Cairngorms that are at the edge of the range of possibilities for the latitude where they are located. The Cairngorms represents an unusually cold area of mountains in a maritime climate at 57 degrees North. It would be theoretically possible for the climate to become warmer and wetter, or drier under present climate change models. The extent to which this is a man-made threat is in little doubt, and is the over-riding concern for the long-term conservation of this area. Ptarmigan has been considered as an indicator species for this process, although the natural population cycles of this bird do not seem to have been disrupted as yet.

Other man-made threats include the problems of popularity in a country with limited wilderness resources and a large, relatively affluent urban population. These include various types of recreation and the associated trampling damage and erosion, disturbance, litter and threats to water quality.

The Cairngorms hold some of the longest lying snow patches in Scotland.


A skiing and winter sports industry is concentrated in the Cairngoms, with three of Scotland's five resorts situated here. They are the Cairn Gorm Ski Centremarker, Glenshee Ski Centre and The Lecht Ski Centremarker.

A funicular railway opened here in late 2001, running from a base station at 637 metres up to the Ptarmigan Centre, situated at 1097 metres, 150 metres from the summit of Cairn Gormmarker. It was built amidst some controversy, with supporters of the scheme claiming that it would bring valuable tourist income into the area, whilst opponents argued that such a development was unsuitable for a supposedly protected area.

The mountains are also very popular for hill-walking, winter sports, birdwatching, climbing, deer stalking, gliding and fly fishing. However, the area can be very hazardous at times, with dangerous and unpredictable weather conditions. Because of this, all safety precautions must be taken whilst out in the mountains.

In 1964, physicist Peter Higgs of Edinburghmarker was walking in the Cairngorms when he had his famous idea about symmetry-breaking in the electroweak theory, now a key element of the standard model of particle physics. If the so-called Higgs boson is eventually detected by experiment, this will give the Cairngorms a special place in the history of science.

Settlements in the Cairngorms


Image:Cairn gorm.jpg | Cairn GormImage:Ben Macdui.jpg | Ben Macdhuimarker seen from Càrn a' MhàimmarkerImage:Carn Eilrig, Cairngorms, Scotland.jpg | Càrn Eilrig, at the entrance to the Lairig Ghru, Cairngorms, Scotland. Taken from BadeguishImage:Ptarmigan9.jpg | Ptarmigan are commonplace in the Cairngorms

Visitor attractions

See also


  1. Cairngorms, A Landscape Fashioned by Geology, SNH 2006 ISBN 1 85397 455 2
  2. The Quaternary of the Cairngorms Neil F. Glasser and Matthew R. Bennett, Quternary Research Association 1996, ISBN 0 907780 32 6


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