In Pictures: This national park is Britain's deep freeze

Landlocked and home to four of the country's five highest mountains, this isn't just Britain's biggest national park – in winter, it's its coldest place.

Monday, December 9, 2019,
By Simon Ingram
The central Cairngorms is a sub-Arctic wilderness containing four of the five highest mountains in Britain. ...
The central Cairngorms is a sub-Arctic wilderness containing four of the five highest mountains in Britain. Linking several is a large plateau which can be disorientating to those attempting to cross it, particularly under snow. When visibility is good, the views are some of the most expansive in the country.
Photograph by Jonathan Miles / Alamy

Landlocked in the centre of Scotland and covering an area larger than Luxembourg, the Cairngorms is Britain's biggest national park – by far.

Like the Lake District, or the Norfolk Broads, the landscape has a distinctive signature. The Cairngorms’ is a collage of deep pinewoods, deceptively high mountains built of long slopes and rounded smooth by time, and surrounded by valleys plunging thousands of feet beneath their summits. Muscular rivers carry salmon, forests filled with ancient trees shelter diverse and charismatic biodiversity, and ancient trackways cross passes and valleys, recalling the ancient 'desire lines' of travellers making their way through this wild place. 

It also contains the largest remaining swathes of the ancient Caledonian forest that once covered much of Scotland, as well as four of Britain's five highest mountains. Here too shelter a number of threatened or endemic species – such as the Scottish wildcat and capercaillie

Scotland's winterland

The combination of its large stretches of high ground, its distance from the warming influence of the ocean and its eastern aspect – as if grasping for Scandinavia – means the park is one of the few places in Britain where long-lying snow is reliably encountered in winter. When the cold sets in, the Cairngorms is the first place to feel the snow, and the last to lose it in spring. There are patches of snow at high elevation in shadowed corries (high valleys) that represent the only snow in Britain that has habitually remains unmelted year-round – though this is an increasingly rare occurrence.

Animals that thrive in the winter here include the rock ptarmigan, which changes plumage in winter from tawny brown to white. The region also is a stronghold of the red squirrel, the golden eagle, the pine marten – and a herd of reindeer that were introduced in 1952 after the area was deemed suitably similar to their Lapland habitat to support a population. Today a managed herd of 150 roam free across 10,000 acres. 

Not all of the Cairngorms forests are defined by the iconic scots pine trees. Here, Glenfeshie's silver birches wear a covering of hoar frost.
Photograph by Peter Cairns / Alamy

Record-splitting cold

The area's low temperatures also the reason a village in the park recorded the lowest recorded temperature in Britain. The village of Braemar actually broke its own century-held record in 1982, reaching precisely the same temperature of -27.2 degrees Celsius (-17 degrees Fahrenheit) that set the previous low-point, in 1895. 

Today the Cairngorms uses its relatively stable cold winters to attract winter sports enthusiasts, including skiers and mountain walkers seeking winter conditions to skill up – or to immerse themselves in an environment that presents the most extreme conditions Britain can offer. This can be a mixed blessing – the area can be prone to avalanches, mists and can catch out unprepared walkers with sometimes tragic results – such as the infamous 1971 Cairngorm plateau disaster, in which six students perished from exposure on a featureless high-level area of the mountains. 

A pair of mute swans on Loch Insh, Cairngorms National Park, December. January and February are the coldest months on record not only in the Cairngorms but in Britain, with -27.2 degrees Centigrade recorded in both 1895 and 1982 in Braemar. Snow often arrives in November and can linger in quantity until May.
Photograph by Peter Cairns / Alamy

History written in snow

This extreme landscape has had its uses, however. So adept are the Cairngorms as a theatre for learning survival skills that during World War 2, British and Norwegian resistance soldiers used the area as training for incursions in Nazi-occupied Telemark, across the North Sea in Norway. The Cairngorms' high plateau and sub-Arctic conditions made it ideal terrain for testing tactics and skills which were, in 1943, deployed to destroy 'heavy water' technology thought to be critical to Germany's development of an atomic bomb.

Only defined as a National Park in 2003, the 1,748 square miles of the Cairngorms remains – with Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park's 720 square miles – one of only two such designations in Scotland. While this is perhaps surprising (John Muir, the North American immigrant widely credited as being the catalyst for the National Park movement worldwide was Scottish, after all) the Cairngorms has grown by a fifth since its inception, and today covers just under 6% of Scotland's area.

A population around 18,000 humans inhabit in the park, most of whom live in towns like Aviemore, Grantown-on-Spey and Kingussie. The area also boasts a Queen when she is in residence at Balmoral – the highland estate purchased by Price Albert for Queen Victoria in 1852.

 

A date in this article has been corrected.

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