The Cairngorms

Although Ben Nevis, Scotland's highest mountain, lies on the west coast near Fort William, most of the rest of Scotland's highest mountains form a cluster of summits lying to the east of the Perth - Inverness road near Aviemore. These are the Cairngorms.

cairngorms landsat

The Cairngorms form a massive plateau of granite, about 30 kilometers long by 20 kilometers wide. Five of Scotland's nine 4000ft summits lay within the range, plus a further nine mountains higher than 3500ft and four more exceeding 3000ft. The mountains of the Cairngorm plateau are predominantly vast, rounded, dome-like structures; crags and cliffs are few and the gradients are relatively gentle. The vegetation in the hills largely comprises wiry grasses and mosses. Heather is more common in the surrounding foothills, which are often glacial moraines, though the Cairngorms also boast much of Scotland's surviving primeval forest.

Firm rock, good drainage, gentle gradients and the lack of cloying vegetation make the Cairngorms a walking paradise. There are a couple of downsides, however. Distances are vast, and the weather is cruel. The higher parts of the plateau suffer a climate similar to that of the Arctic tundra. Although the area is much drier than the rain-sodden west coast, the high tops suffer extremes of frost, ice and wind. The plateau can be blanketed by snow through much of the year, and patches often survive in sheltered gullies right through to the next winter. The northern slopes of Cairn Gorm have been developed as a ski resort. Weather conditions in summer are subject to rapid change and can vary dramatically with altitude. The high tops are blanketed with cloud for roughly half the year. Walking expeditions in these mountains should be undertaken only in fine, settled weather.

The Cairngorm plateau contains more contiguous ground over 3500ft than anywhere else in Britain, though it is split by several deep, glacial river valleys. Two of these valleys contain ancient rights of way linking Aviemore (on the river Spey) with Braemar (on the river Dee); the distance between the two is roughly 25 miles. The principal through-route is known as the Lairig Ghru and it has a reputation as Britain's toughest public footpath. The Lairg an Laoigh, further east, is less dramatic but is still a considerable undertaking and should only be attempted by experienced hillwalkers. The central Cairngorm massif lies between these two routes and is dominated by Beinn Macdui, the highest mountain in the Cairngorms and the second highest in Britain at 4295ft. A vast, horseshoe-shaped plateau sweeps around from Macdui to Cairn Gorm, 4081ft high. Cairn Gorm is the principal summit in view from the adjacent Spey Valley and the town of Aviemore, and has thus lent its name to the whole range. Cairngorm itself has two lengthy ridges and several prominent outliers, notably Cairn Lochan and Lurcher's Crag, which many feel should be seperate summits in their own right. Ben Macdui also throws out several ridges, one of which juts eastwards and terminates in the dramatic top of Stob Coire Sputan Dearg; the south ridge rises to the seperate summit of Carn a Mhaim, while a complex system of eastern and northeastern ridges forms the summits of Beinn Mheadhoin (3878ft) and Derry Cairngorm (3789ft), plus other satellite tops such as Carn Etchachan, Stacan Dubha, Creagan a Choire Etchachan and Carn Crom. These folds and ridges contain two of Britain's most spectacular mountain lakes; Loch Etchachan sits at an altitude of 3025ft and is the highest lake of any real size in Britain, while Loch Avon sits in the glacial trench between Macdui and Cairngorm and is a scenic gem from almost any vantage point. Cairngorm itself has a northeastern outlier in Bynack More (3576ft), which is connected to its parent mountain only by a narrow col known as the Saddle, via the subsidiary top of A' Choinneach. Cairngorm is the easiest high mountain in Britain to climb; a road serving the ski lift on its northern slopes rises to 2000ft, from where the ski-lift itself can take you to the Ptarmigan restaurant at 3700ft - only 400ft of ascent and 1km of distance from the summit. The Ptarmigan, an igloo-shaped structure, is the highest inhabitable building in Britain.

The other 4000ft tops of the Cairngorms lie immediately west of the Lairg Ghru. Braeriach (4252ft, the third highest mountain in Britain) is the northernmost and is itself a complex plateau with several subsidiary tops and a number of ridges fanning out to the north and west. A horseshoe ridge sweeping round through southwest, south and east rises again to the beautiful cone of Sgor an Lochain Uaine (4127ft, sometimes known as the Angel's Peak) and Cairn Toul (4236ft). Within the horseshoe is the vast bowl of An Garbh Choire, one of Scotland's most spectacular mountain hollows. Cairn Toul has another outlier to the south, the enigmatically-named Devil's Point (3294ft). The real meaning of this mountain's Gaelic name, Bod an Deamhain, is "Devil's penis". A vast, sloping plateau lies to the rear of Cairn Toul; it rises to form another mountain, the lonely and remote Monadh Mor (3652ft), at the head of the forbidding Glen Geusachan. To the south of this corrie is another Munro, Beinn Bhrotain (3796ft).

The Braeriach plateau is terminated abruptly to the west by the deep, glacial chasm of Gleann Einich, containing the beautiful Loch Einich at its head. To the south of Gleann Einich is a remote, sprawling plateau known as the Moine Mhor (great moss). A vehicle track rises to the Moine Mhor from Glen Feshie to the west; it gives access to the plateaux of Braeriach, Cairn Toul and Monadh Mor but distances in all cases are vast. Sandwiched between Glen Feshie and Glen Einich is another high ridge; it comprises the principal summit of Sgor Gaoith (3668ft) and its outliers of Sgoran Dubh Mor and Carn Ban Mor. To the south of the Moine Mhor is another frighteningly remote mountain, the Mullach Clach a Bhlair (3343ft), the highest point of a vast sprawl of featureless moorland.

The southern half of the Lairg an Laiogh occupies the valley of the river Derry. The third group of Cairngorm summits lies to the east of this river. Once again, the principal tops form a vast, complex plateau sweeping around a mountain hollow, in this case the head of the tortuous Gleann Quoich. Beinn a Bhuird (3927ft) and Ben Avon (3842ft), respectively the 11th and 17th highest summits in Britain, stand either side of this corrie and each is the centre of a complex fan of ridges. Beinn a Bhuird is deliniated in the west by the Dubh Gleann; between this and Glen Derry is a wedge of moorland, arguably the poorest walking country in the district, rising to the summits of Beinn a Chaorainn (3553ft) and Beinn Bhreac (3054ft).

The towns of Aviemore and Braemar are the obvious starting points for expeditions into the Cairngorms. The only useful bus service is that from Aviemore up to the Cairn Gorm car park via Glenmore. A car is very useful for the approaches via Linn of Dee and Glen Feshie; otherwise consider mountain bikes to get you down Glen Einich, Glen Derry, Glen an t-Slugain and the Ryvoan pass.

Pick a long summer day with good weather, get yourself out there, and enjoy!

Gallery Index

Aviemore, at various times
Craigellachie Nature Reserve,at various times
Cairngorm's northern corries, July 1980
Rothiemurchus, July 1980
Cairn Gorm and Beinn Macdui, August 1994
Bynack More, September 1999
Rothiemurchus, the Lairig Ghru and the Chalamain Gap, Sepember 1999
Glen Lui, June 2000

Back to Scottish Highlands index page


The Cairngorms National Park
Official Aviemore site
Visit Aviemore - information and lots of useful links
The Braemar guide
The Rothiemurchus estate
Glenmore Forest and Glenmore Lodge
The Cairngorm bothy network
Cairngorm Mountain
Heriot-Watt University's weather station on Cairngorm, and webcam at the Glenmore Lodge

This page last updated 22nd January 2005

[an error occurred while processing this directive]