The Most Beautiful places in Scotland - the Cairngorms
Exploring England, Scotland, and Wales
In this series, I'll be looking at some of the most beautiful places in Scotland, from historic cities like Edinburgh to remote islands like Colonsay, from the Highlands to Orkney. Along the way I'll be sharing some of my favourite photos from over 15 years of exploring Scotland.
Let's start our journey through the most beautiful places in Scotland with the Cairngorms National Park, the closest thing in Britain to ski country. The Cairngorm area takes in the upland areas around Cairn Gorm itself and the valleys of the Dee to the south and the Spey to the north.
Craigellachie Forest Park, Aviemore
If the northern Cairngorms has a capital it must be Aviemore, a haven for people interested in winter sports. On the edge of Aviemore is Craigellachie Forest Park, a wonderful area to explore in autumn when the colours turn shades of gold and orange.
Craigellachie is on the far side of the busy A9, but a footpath from the town centre leads under the roadway to the nature reserve.
If you follow the A9 south-west from Aviemore you reach Kingussie, where you will find Ruthven Barracks, one of the most frequently-photographed historic sites in Scotland. The Barracks looks like a medieval castle atop its motte, but in fact, it was built in 1719 by George I.
The Hanoverian king was keen to control the turbulent Highlands following the first Jacobite rising of 1715. The barracks sit atop a large rocky mound formerly occupied by a 13th-century castle once owned by Alexander, 1st Earl of Buchan, known to history as the 'Wolf of Badenoch'.
Bonnie Prince Charlie's Jacobites seized Ruthven Barracks in 1746. When the Jacobite cause collapsed they retreated, but only after they had burned and plundered the Barracks. The ruined shell of the Barracks is now just a poignant reminder of both major Jacobite rebellions.
If you head north-east from Aviemore you will reach Carrbridge, a pretty village named for its picturesque packhorse bridge across the River Dulnain.
The bridge was built in 1717 and had a very practical purpose; it was needed to allow funeral processions to access Duthil Church when the river was in spate. Not surprisingly, it became known locally as 'the coffin bridge'.
It was not originally as precipitous as it looks now. A flood in 1839 swept away the bridge parapets, leaving only a slender, narrow arch spanning the swiftly-flowing river.
There is a viewing platform at the bridge level, and a set of steps goes down to the water's edge for a view from below. The best time to visit Carrbridge is in autumn when the leaves are turning colour, framing the bridge in wonderful shades of orange and golden yellow.
Between Aviemore and Nethy Bridge are a number of attractive lochs. Most have trails around them and many are set in pockets of ancient Caledonian pinewoods. One of the easiest lochs to reach is Loch Pityoulish (the name translates from the Gaelic as 'The Loch of the Settlement of the Bright Place').
The loch is situated immediately east of Aviemore on a tributary of the River Spey. The loch is small, and very pretty when the surrounding forests are covered in a frosting of snow.
South-east of Loch Pityoulish is Loch Morlich, a much larger body of water at the foot of the Cairn Gorm ski area. Trails lead around the loch and through Glenmore Forest. At the eastern end of Loch Morlich is the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre, and nearby is a popular outdoor centre.
This area is extremely popular for cross-country skiing in winter and the woods are crisscrossed by ski trails. it is also wonderful for walking at any time of year and, as I can attest, for photography.
Near Nethy Bridge is Loch Garten, famous in recent years for the Loch Garten Osprey Centre. The Centre was established to encourage these majestic birds of prey to re-establish themselves in the area.
Visitors can view a 'nest-cam' set up to watch osprey adults and young in their nests. Trails lead around the loch and take in Abernethy Forest, one of the largest areas of ancient Caledonian pinewood still remaining in Scotland.
The woodland is simply majestic, a quiet place of tall trees and moss, trails winding through the peaceful forest to little lochs.
One of those little lochs is Loch Mallachie, reachable only by a circular track from Loch Garten to the north-east. Though there is only a short section of trail along the northern end of the loch this is still one of my favourite places in the Cairngorms simply because it is so perfect for watching sunsets.
All these beautiful places are on the northern edge of the Cairngorms in the Spey valley. What about the south?
This is Royal Deeside, named for the area's links to the royal family, whose family home of Balmoral Castle lies beside the river at Crathie.
if you travel west from Balmoral you come to Braemar, a picturesque village that is home to the most famous Highland Games, an annual celebration of Highland culture.
On the edge of Braemar is Morrone Birkwood (birk being an old Scottish term for a birch tree). The Birkwood is now a nature reserve and a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Trails lead through some of the best 'downy' birchwoods in Britain and include large stands of juniper. The views north to the Cairngorms are simply stunning.
If you follow the minor road further west from Braemar you reach Linn o' Dee, where water rushes through a narrow gorge on the River Dee. This was one of Queen Victoria's favourite places for a picnic, and if you come in autumn when the leaves are turning colour you can see why the Queen was so impressed.
Take the road from Linn o'Dee along the north bank of the River Dee and you will find yourself in the Mar Lodge Estate, now cared for by the National Trust for Scotland.
Linn o' Quoich
The scenery here is simply stunning, with the peaks of the Cairngorms to the north and views across the Dee to the south. After Mar Lodge itself you come to the extraordinary Linn o' Quoich, a woodland area dotted with beautiful waterfalls. Among the waterfalls is a peculiar rock formation known as the Punch Bowl.
These are just a few highlights of the most places in the Cairngorms that we've had the pleasure to explore over the years. Now it is your turn!