Autumn in the Highlands of Scotland – Part One: The Cairngorms
18th November 2019
Autumn in the Highlands of Scotland is a different world from what I’ve ever experienced. Despite being a country famous for the Scots Pine, there are still huge remnants of the ancient woodlands of the Great Caledonian Forest that include birch, rowan and aspen. During autumn these trees turn crimson and all the shades of ochre – from gold and amber to deep orange, russet and brown – and blaze against the deep backdrop of evergreens. Add to this the deep red and gold carpets of alpine grasses, lichens and mosses above the treeline and autumn becomes a stunning time of year to visit these far expanses of Scotland.
This post covers the first half of my Highlands adventure, the 3 ½ days spent in the Cairngorms of the southeast Highlands. The second half of the trip – 3 ½ days in the northwest Highlands – is covered in my next post.
As a keen hobbyist photographer, I wanted to improve my photography skills as well as really get out into both the forests and the mountains. It wasn’t a trip I wanted to do on my own so I searched for a small group tour offering just that. Wilderness Scotland was a real find – they offer a huge range of wilderness experiences throughout some of the most remote and beautiful areas of the Highlands as well as the Islands of Scotland. With everything from walking, cycling and mountain biking, kayaking and canoeing, as well as photography holidays, they have a huge range of experiences for all ages and levels. And the groups are small, just 8-10 people, though there were just 5 of us in my own group.
I went on the 7-day Photography Highlands Landscape Tour. And, despite breaking my wrist on the 3rd morning (more on that below), I had a completely breath-taking experience. The guide was hugely knowledgeable, about everything from the origin of Scots Gaelic (something new I learned, pronounced GAAH-lik, unlike the Irish GAY-lik) place-names to the flora and fauna, through to the history of Scotland and the great Highlands estates. He also had wide-ranging knowledge of the extensive conservation programmes that are known as rewilding.
I only have one caveat about the trip. Even though I enjoyed it immensely, it wasn’t the trip I thought I was getting; it was actually a walking tour with some photography, not necessarily a photography tour. Despite what it says on their website, this particular tour had no practical instruction or ‘relaxed discussion sessions’ about photography. Although, if you asked, our guide was more than willing to provide some limited one-on-one instruction.
The Cairngorms, Southeast Highlands
The weather can be quite changeable in the Highlands, particularly in the autumn. So, our itinerary was left purposely broad. However, in our case, that didn’t matter; we were lucky enough to have 7 days of extraordinary conditions with morning cloud giving way to broad afternoon sunshine. It did rain once, but just overnight with clearing in late morning. It was cool but not cold. I had brought cold and wet weather gear that I never even unpacked! I couldn’t have asked for more perfect weather conditions.
Day 1 – Glenmore Forest
Located at the foot of the Cairngorm Mountains in the heart of the Cairngorms National Park, Glenmore Forest is a stunning example of the ancient Great Caledonian Forest that once covered much of Scotland below the mountaintops. Caledonia is the Roman name for Scotland and means ‘wooded heights’.
This ancient forest declined over thousands of years, due to a combination of a slow change to a wetter and windier climate, the felling of trees by humans and overgrazing by both sheep and deer.
Deer, in particular, eat new young growth and it’s only relatively recently that concerted forest restoration and conservation efforts have begun to reverse the decline. Even so, Glenmore Forest still has huge remnants of this ancient forest.
Much of the forest park is a National Nature Reserve. And with the leaves beginning to turn it was glorious.
The highlight of this walk for me was when we turned off the main path and walked across the grassy high plain to Loch a’ Gharbh-choire.
Just off the edge of Glenmore Forest, this beautiful lochan has stunning views of the distant mountains in front and the Ryvoan Pass behind. This pass climbs to 380m and is a popular out and back walk.
There are also endless views across the windswept plateau in all directions.
Note the bothy in the photo above. This is the Ryvoan Bothy along the path to Ryvoan Pass. Bothies are small mountain refuges found in wild places and maintained by the Mountain Bothies Association, a charity which maintains about 100 such shelters across the remotest parts of Great Britain. I really love their mission:
To maintain simple shelters in remote country for the use & benefit of all who love wild & lonely places.
With the permission and support of the owners, these shelters are left unlocked and are available for anyone to use. All maintenance activities are carried out by volunteers.
Though we’d only been walking for a few hours, it felt like we were very far away from the rest of the world. At one point during the day it looked like a massive storm was about to let loose, but the wind was blowing fiercely and the dark clouds passed quickly.
At the end of the day we stopped for a short while at Loch Morlich, a freshwater loch in the heart of the Glenmore Forest. The loch is completely surrounded by forest and the sandy beach is just beautiful, with spectacular views of the northern peaks of the Cairngorms.
Even on a cool day the beach was buzzing with activity, with people walking their dogs and sitting out on the deck of the café. The loch has a water sports centre with kayaking, sailing and windsurfing. There are also walking and cycling routes around the loch.
Day 2 – Highlands Sunrise, Glen Feshie, Cairngorm Mountain and Ruthven Barracks
Everyone who knows me knows that I am just not a morning person. When I discovered that our 2nd day would begin with a sunrise shoot I have to admit I was less than enthusiastic. Though with sunrise in mid-October at the civilised hour of 7.15am it wasn’t as difficult as it would have been during summer, when the sunrise is closer to 4.30am!
But I wouldn’t have missed this for anything!
We drove high into the hills above Newtonmore and crossed a field filled with sheep. It was completely dark and so quiet as we were setting up. I had no idea what was coming.
The grass crunched underfoot with the early morning frost and it was a bitterly cold morning, just 0C (32F). Our breath came in puffs in the utterly still air.
It was completely magical. Just the sound of the birds, the occasional bleat of a far-off sheep, and the soft clicking of the camera shutters.
The scene seemed to completely change every moment as the sun rose and the air warmed up (well, at least a little).
Even once it was full daylight, the view was simply breathtaking.
After our sunrise shoot and a hearty breakfast, we went to Glen Feshie – often called the jewel of the Cairngorms. This wild glen has rivers and waterfalls, views of far-off mountains and dense forests.
On this morning we walked off the beaten track deep into the glen to a lovely waterfall, where I had the chance to shoot some long exposures using an ND filter for the very first time.
This entire area is a fascinating example of the rewilding of what was once a traditional sporting estate. I’d read about rewilding before, but never seen the results first-hand. For those not familiar with the term, rewilding is the large-scale restoration of ecosystems, regenerating and reinstating the natural landscapes and habitats, and reintroducing missing species where appropriate.
Like many of Scotland’s Highland estates, this was once a deer forest used for deer hunting. High densities of deer were eating every tree sapling that tried to grow here and Glen Feshie’s 45,000 acres was a dying remnant of the ancient Caledonian pine forest that once covered this entire area. It was only about 15 years ago that a new owner changed all that. Concerted deer culls have now transformed the glen. Seedlings of Scots pine, birch and juniper now cover more and more of the glen. After hundreds of years in retreat, the woodland is now creeping back up the mountainsides.
I was completely fascinated to see first-hand the efforts of rewilding and the resulting large-scale restoration of these landscapes and habitats. Glen Feshie’s owners are now looking at reintroducing the long-lost montane habitats on the Estate. Montane scrub is a zone of dwarf trees and shrubs that lie at mountain treelines, linking forest and open hillsides. These scrublands have almost completely vanished from Scotland.
Though perhaps the largest and most dramatic rewilding programme in Scotland, the regeneration of woodlands and restoration of native ecosystems in areas like Glen Feshie is happening across Scotland, England and Wales. For example, beavers were successfully reintroduced in Scotland after being hunted to extinction nearly 300 years ago. They are now officially designated as a protected native British species. Unfortunately, I didn’t see any during my visit.
Fun fact: Sir Edwin Landseer painted his famous ‘The Monarch of the Glen‘ oil painting in Glen Feshie in 1851.
In the afternoon, we walked up into the Cairngorm Mountains to Coire an t-Sneachda – which translates aptly as the Corrie of the Snows. It’s one of the most accessible of the high mountain corries with a well-constructed and maintained path from Cairngorm Mountain Ski resort to the floor of the corrie.
As you can see in the photo above, the corrie itself is surrounded by a huge circle of cliffs. You may be able to just make out the steep, narrow path to the top of the ridge along the bottom of the cliff face on the left. And no, I didn’t do that climb, but I did strike a pose. Though I think you can tell from my expression that I much rather be behind the camera than in front of it!
Walking back down from Coire an t-Sneachda the view is simply stunning. The russet and gold carpet of alpine grasses, lichens and moss reaches all the way to the green expanse of the Rothiemurchus Forest past Loch Morlich to Aviemore and the Monadhliath Monros beyond.
The path here near the top doesn’t look like much, but it’s relatively easy walking, though it’s very exposed and it must be brutal in winter.
After our walk into the Cairngorm Mountains, we stopped at the Ruthven Barracks outside of Kingussie just before sunset. These barracks are the best-preserved of four identical barracks built in 1719 after the 1715 Jacobite uprising.
Built on the site of the medieval castles of the Comyns and the Gordons, Ruthven Barracks is visible for miles and dominates the head of the Spey Valley. These barracks housed garrison infantry to control this strategic route through the Cairngorms as well as enforce the Disarming Act of 1716.
In the golden hour of late afternoon, there are sweeping views from Ruthven Barracks across the surrounding flood plains of the Spey Valley.
The previous week here it had rained heavily for days and you can easily see the flooding.
Day 3 – Another Highlands Sunrise and A Broken Wrist
The previous sunrise shoot had been so spectacular that we decided to do another. This time we walked into woods along a muddy track to the north of our accommodation until we reached a small point high up in the trees with views to the northeast over the River Spey.
I didn’t think anything could top the previous morning’s experience, but I was wrong. This was beyond words.
Watching the rising sun light up the low-lying mist above the river left me speechless.
As the day brightened, even more detail appeared out the mist. It was magical, an experience I will never forget.
Unfortunately, on the walk back down, I had lagged behind everyone else and was hurrying to catch up. I stupidly slipped in the mud and came down hard on my wrist. I knew right away I’d broken it. I have to give credit to the Wilderness Scotland guide. No drama, he calmly ensured I was properly taken care of. He took the rest of the group to another part of Glen Feshie, where we had planned to walk for the day. And all credit to our NHS as well – within an hour I saw the local GP where they referred me to the medical centre in Aviemore for an x-ray that afternoon. After a remote consult with an orthopaedic surgeon in Inverness, I left the medical centre in a plaster cast with instructions for when I got home. We collected the rest of the group in Glen Feshie and that was it.
Though I had to miss out on a couple of the walks over the rest of the trip, I was really very lucky. I had a ‘simple’ fracture and though I was in some discomfort, I was still able to participate in almost everything. I wasn’t going to let a broken wrist stop me from enjoying the trip. When I wasn’t able to go out with the group, I went out on gentler walks on my own and figured out a way to use my camera well enough. And there were a few very funny moments, more of which I’ll write about in my next post about the northwest Highlands.
Getting to the Cairngorms
The Cairngorms National Park is the largest park in the UK and is situated in the heart of the southeast Scottish Highlands.
I flew direct to Inverness from London on British Airways for £131 return. I pre-booked a taxi (£20) with Inverness Taxi to meet me at the airport and take me the 20 minutes to Inverness Train Station, where I caught the train to Aviemore (booked in advance via the Trainline for £13) and 40 minutes later I was in Aviemore.
Where to Stay in the Cairngorms
I was meeting my group in front of the Aviemore train station the next morning, so I booked into the Cairngorm Hotel, which is literally across the street from the train station. I stayed in a small but lovely little single for £74 B&B.
We spent the next 3 nights at Coig na Shee Guest House in Newtonmore. I highly recommend this beautiful B&B. It’s a fantastic old Victorian home tastefully refurbished, with everything you might want to see in the northern Cairngorms close by. And the breakfasts were amazing!
Where to Eat in Newtonmore
I hadn’t expected to find much in the way of dining in this remote area. But I have to give a loud shout-out to the Letterbox Restaurant in Newtonmore. Owned and run by the chef, everything is fresh, homemade and locally-sourced. It’s a tiny little restaurant with so much character, local artists on the walls and just a wonderful experience. But bring cash, they don’t take credit cards!
You can find more photos in my Autumn Highlands – Cairngorms Photo Album
And look out for my next post about the 2nd part of my trip, coming soon.