The Future of the Cairngorms was first published in 1982 by the North East Mountain Trust. It describes one of Britain's foremost natural resources and last great wilderness areas, and tells of their increasing degradation through unwise land use and bad planning. We hope that the book will stir the reader to a concern over the threatened future of these grand old hills that have meant so much to so many over the years.

Now, 37 years later, there is debate about Land Use and a National Park in the Cairngorms. The Trust hopes that these will provide the long-needed protection. Much of this book is still highly relevant today.

The Future of the Cairngorms - part 1

by Kai Curry-Lindahl, Adam Watson and R. Drennan Watson

International Resolution

At the 15th Session of the General Assembly of the IUCN (the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources) at Christchurch, New Zealand, 11-23 October 1981, a resolution was passed "Recommending to the Government of the United Kingdom to take all practical steps to secure for the Cairngorm Mountains protection appropriate to their international significance"


The Cairngorms are Britain's premier mountain range. Their scale, their altitude, and their value as wilderness country - for recreation and for nature conservation - are without equal in these islands. They stand near the centre of Scotland, between the straths of the rivers Dee and Spey.

In origin, they are the granite heart of a once-molten mass of rock deep in the earth's crust, at the roots of a high mountain range of alpine proportions. Over hundreds of millions of years, these became weathered down to a plain, exposing the granite. Raised by movements in the earth's crust, it became a rolling plateau.

With the coming of the ice-ages, glaciers gouged U-shaped furrows of the glens, dissecting the old plateau but still leaving the remnants of it which still characterise the high ground of the range today. Enormous rivers spewing from the melting ice washed down huge quantities of ice-ground material, occasionally cut a deep rocky defile, and deposited it as hillocks and ridges of boulders, gravel, and clay at lower levels.

Only in a very few places in the world, such as Baffin Island in arctic Canada, can you see such a distinctive and wide range of landforms - granite plateaux studded with tors, varied corries, moraines, defiles, and lochs, concentrated in such a small area.

The great rolling hills of the Cairngorms do not have the immediate and imposing impact of the sharp peaks of the Cuillin of Skye or the isolated bens of Sutherland. Their appeal takes longer to mature. The far views across their high plateaux, unimpeded by soaring peaks or fretted ridges, give a sense of space and scale which no other British mountains can convey. Half hidden between their enfolding masses, the corries and the glens plunge to unsuspected depths, flanked often by immense cliffs and bottomed in places by dark and brooding lochs. Over 100 years ago, John Hill Burton captured the scene in his pioneering book on the area, "The depth and remoteness of solitude, the huge mural precipices, the deep chasms between the rocks, the waterfalls of unknown height, the hoary remains of the primaeval forest, the fields of eternal snow, and the deep black lakes at the foot of the precipices, are full of such associations of awe and grandeur and mystery, as no other scenery in Britain is capable of arousing."

It is the plateaux, the largest areas of ground in Britain over 900 m (3000 ft), that are most notorious for their blizzards, gales and other severe weather. Snow beds persist into summer here, and the plants and animals have evolved superbly to survive the harsh conditions. Many of the plants, birds and insects would make people from Greenland or northern Canada feel at home. This is arctic Britain. Pink flowers of moss campion, catkins of least willow and delicate fronds of lichen enliven the expanses of bare granite grit on the plateaux, and the blooms of starry saxifrage brighten the dark mossy banks of cold high springs. Latin names such as Aphodius lapponum, Elaphrus lapponicus, Miscodera arctica and Otiorrhynchus arcticus tell of the arctic distribution of many of the insects. Feeding on the plants and insects are the arctic bird species the ptarmigan, snow bunting and dotterel, whose main centre of distribution in Britain is the Cairngorms. Here is the most important area for mountain wildlife in the British Isles, and the most important for arctic-like wildlife in the EEC countries. Nowhere else in Western Europe, apart from Iceland and Scandinavia, can you see such arctic-like terrain or feel so strongly that you are in the arctic.

The granite rock that forms most of the Cairngorms breaks down into thin, infertile soils. This and the severe climate have prevented their intensive exploitation. People never farmed the higher glens, and the hill pastures are too poor to support many sheep. Thus the Cairngorms contain the largest tract of country least modified by man in Britain. So few natural areas now remain in western Europe that we must protect the best ones still left. We need these places for research on the earth's climate, water, soil, plants and animals, on which we depend for our existence. They also help explain how our landscape, flora and fauna arose, and offer deep satisfaction to the many who go there for outdoor recreation.

Here also is one of the last wilderness areas in Western Europe. Scotland has a few other large tracts of wilderness, but none so natural, varied, or so important for recreation or wildlife. Increasing numbers of people find in wilderness a respite from hectic urban existence, a restoration of their sense of serenity and proportion in life, and experiences of solitude, adventure and beauty that linger lifelong in the mind. Wilderness country is becoming scarcer just when it is increasingly needed, and the possession of such areas is one of Scotland's wilderness areas. What makes this particular wilderness of exceptional value is that it can easily be reached from the cities at a weekend.

We have here the largest area for high-level walking in Britain, four of the five highest mountains, the most famous and challenging hill passes, and the best place for the rapidly growing sport of ski touring. The spectacular corries offer magnificent scenery and some of Britain's best ice, snow and rock climbing on scores of fine granite crags. Modern mountaineering techniques of ice-climbing and winter route-assessment, which developed first in the Cairngorms, have since evolved and become widely used abroad. The massif has also been the training ground for mountaineers who have made outstanding contributions to the sport internationally, for noted arctic explorers, and for military units training for operations in harsh conditions.

Vast tracts of lower hill, moor and wind-swept glen stretch for many miles around the high tops. The most varied moorland in Britain is here. It supports numerous red grouse, mountain hares, red deer, and a great number of species of moth and other insects. The peregrine falcons and golden eagles that breed on the moorland cliffs are of international importance. When both species were faring badly or becoming scarce or extinct in other parts of the world because of contamination by pesticides and other toxic chemicals, the birds in the Cairngorms region continued to do well. This area has remained relatively pollution-free. Also, the birds do not have to fly to the polluted lowlands and coast in winter; the rich abundance of moorland prey in the Cairngorms is enough to sustain them at home.

The lower hills, moors and glens offer grand hill walking and rambling at all seasons of the year. They also provide magnificent views of the higher hills. One of the chief characteristics of the Cairngorms is the great distances that you have to walk to reach even the foot of most of the high tops. Because of this, rock and ice climbers who often visit the Cairngorms are also keen hill walkers, who deeply appreciate the value of the lower hills, moors, and glens.

On the flanks of some of the lower hills and glens stretch the largest expanses of ancient pine forest in the British Isles. Relics of the Old Caledonian Forest which once spanned Scotland, they retain the boreal atmosphere of the great natural forests of northern Europe, but yet have their distinctively Scottish vegetation, tree form and feeling. They provide an important habitat for forest wildlife including red squirrels, wild cats, pine martins, crested tits, capercaillies, and other rarer birds, and an equally unusual insect life. Golden eagles build their eyries of sticks in the old trees, as well as on moorland crags. The ancient forests are the only home of Scotland's sole truly native bird, the Scottish crossbill.

Bur these aged forests are much more than that. The old trees have an individuality and beauty that makes them one of our best scenic attractions. The Old Caledonian Forest is, further, a living part of our history. It is as much a part of our historical heritage as castles and cathedrals, but considerably more ancient, going back for 8000 years. It is the primeval landscape from which most of our country evolved. Stephen and Carlisle knew how much these forest remnants conveyed of our origins, when they said in their classic text on the old woods, "To stand in them is to feel the past".

Deep in the old forests lie some of Scotland's finest lochs, and the nearby rivers are noted for their purity and beauty. As well as being outstanding attractions for visitors in summer, they are also important for wildlife. Goldeneye ducks now rear young in them each year, and it was beside lochs and rivers in the old forest that ospreys first recolonised Scotland in the 1950s.

The other major but often-forgotten use of this area is water catchment. Most of the main rivers flow south and east into Grampian, rather than north and west into Highland Region. Grampian has had to cope with high demands for water because of the oil boom and large population influx, and the Cairngorms provide an important part of this supply. Their extensive and persistent high snow fields, found in no other part of Britain, melt throughout the late spring and early summer, sustaining river flows during the driest part of the year. Roughly three times as much rain per hectare falls on the high tops as on the lower catchment ground. Thus they contribute far more to water flows than one might expect from the area. Unfortunately this high rainfall makes the shallow, gritty soils extremely susceptible to erosion if the sparse, slow-growing vegetation which protects them is damaged or destroyed by trampling. This places serious long-term limitations on the use of the high ground. No other Region in Britain has such a large area of erosion-prone water catchment as Grampian Region has in the Cairngorms. A fragile ecosystem, it can withstand very little human pressure. This view does not arise from any sense of elitism or desire to exclude people; it is dictated by the nature of the climate and terrain themselves. It is for this very reason that the management of the area as a wilderness with a low level of human use dovetails with two other main land uses - water catchment and the protection of wildlife sensitive to disturbance and trampling.

In recent years the range and number of people visiting the Cairngorms have increased greatly at all seasons. The wild mammals, birds, and fish have long attracted shooters and fishers but this century they and the unusual landforms, plants and insect life have also drawn scientists from all over the world. We now know a great deal about the ecology of the Highlands; much of what we know has come from major studies done in the Cairngorm area, such as on dotterel, ptarmigan and red deer.

Many walkers, climbers and wildlife enthusiasts have come since the 1940s to both Dee and Spey sides of the massif, and their numbers increased in the 1960s and 70s. Many downhill skiers and increasingly cross-country skiers have also come, to the snows of Cairn Gorm and other hills. As more people live in towns, surrounded by motorways and intensive farmlands, they show a growing interest in fine scenery and wildlife, which add much to their quality of life and well-being. In recent years, many summer visitors have come from the European continent and beyond. Hence the reputation of the Cairngorm as a wild area has spread greatly within and far beyond Scotland.


Problems caused by new public roads and ski development

Lack of tree and shrub regeneration in the Old Caledonian Forest due to overgrazing by red deer

Spread of inappropriately-sited forestry plantations

Badly controlled burning

Inadequate powers to resolve conflicts in favour of the key land use

Failure to balance tourist developments with what the area can withstand

Lack of co-ordination amongst government bodies


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