Undiscovered Britain: Scotland – Taming the Cairngorms
To celebrate the launch of the 2016 Best Loved Hotel & Travel Guide, we are pleased to bring you a series of stories on Undiscovered Britain by leading travel writers.
Taming the Cairngorms by Robin McKelvie
As adventure playgrounds go, the Cairngorms National
Park is a tough one. A daunting prospect for some, over
the years I have done my fair share of bashing around
its hills and forests on two feet, two wheels and even
afloat. But at Rothiemurchus Estate, within one of the
best-preserved patches of the ancient Caledonian Forest,
in a country ravaged of many of its indigenous trees,
there are tamer pursuits on offer beneath the mighty
I begin my gently active day in the UK’s largest
national park in the saddle of a bike. “I’d recommend
doing a big sweep of the forest and checking out Loch
nan Eilean on the way,” says John at Mike’s Bikes, as he
hands me the map on which he’s helpfully drawn a
route. After half an hour following a well-maintained
forest track – a cycle ride even a young family could
enjoy – the shining water unfurls through swathes of
pines, revealing the craggy ruins of a 13th-Century castle
cast adrift on an island. It’s easy to see why these shores
have been deemed the finest spot in Britain to spread
out a rug for a picnic.
I head onwards to Loch Morlich and its watersports
centre. You can swim in this vast glacial lake in summer,
but the waters can freeze solid in winter (we are more
northerly than Moscow here). I plan to stay above
water, switching from two wheels to a dinghy. I try to
find some wind; a few gusts fluff the sails and spirit the
boat away from the beach. Out on the loch, I watch an
osprey hunting for its lunch. These graceful piscatorian
predators had been lost to the British Isles, but in 1954 a
pair showed up in the Cairngorms and the park’s osprey
population is now thriving. They are even helping to
repopulate areas beyond the park’s borders, in England
and as far away as Spain.
Next I go rafting on Scotland’s fastest river, the Spey.
My guide, Dave, from Full on Adventure. explains how
he’ll take the tempo down a little. “This is a nice gentle
stretch where you can just take it easy, enjoy the views
and look out for animals,” he says. And so we ease along,
discovering wildlife on the banks as we go. I spy a red
squirrel, Dave sees a pine marten, but it escapes my
gaze. But the best spot is of one of the UK’s largest land
mammals, a somewhat startled red deer.
For my final adventure amid the epic trees and
heather scrub I pick up the pace with a sleddog ride
on dry land. It’s somewhat surreal to hurtle through a
Scottish wood pulled by huskies. We rattle along the
tight trails, the air filled with the crisp scent of the Scots
Pines that line our path. The panting sleddogs are the
only sound in an eerily quiet landscape that has little
changed in centuries. It’s a thrilling ride, the climax to a
day that has revealed a softer side to the Cairngorms.
For a selection of hotels in Scotland, including the latest special offers, visit Best Loved Hotels in Scotland.
Robin McKelvie (www.robinmckelvie.com) is a travel writer, blogger and broadcaster specialising in his native Scotland, and also the author of National Geographic Traveler: Scotland.