The Main Changes in the Cairngorms Since 1938

NEMT ex-chairman Roger Owen asked me to write a personal view on changes I have noticed since I first observed the Cairngorms in 1938. By Cairngorms I mean not just the main massive of Am Monadh Ruadh, between Aviemore and Braemar, but also the wider area around it, east of the A9.


In 1938 a great Scots pinewood stretched from Allanmore to Glen Dee and Little Inverey, and from Littlemill to Abergeldie. During the war, lumbermen cut down almost all of this together with big pinewood tracts at Glen More, Rothiemurchus, Feshie, Kinveachy and Carrbridge. The lumberjacks did spare some trees, which can now be seen as the fine old pines at Littlemill and Little Inverey. They left brash in rows to rot unlike today's more damaging practice of burning.

Since 1945 the biggest adverse impact on landscape has been afforestation with very dense planting and often ploughing. At Glen Feshie and Glen Luithe the Forestry Commission paid owners to plant introduced trees under native pine. The FC no longer does this, but allows clear-felling and severe 'selective' felling that destroys a wood as a landscape and wildlife habitat. It also allows brashing and burning, and soil erosion occurs due to the use of heavy machinery. Deeside's planted mature pinewoods and birchwoods are now in their worst state since 1945. Introduced conifers have often replace felled native trees, and uneconomic planting covers big tracts of moorland, and now farmland. The FC encouraged fences, which kill and maim many capercaillie and black grouse, threaten their extinction, and are an eyesore along tourist roads. Owners now get grants to remove derelict fences, yet one may well query why people should be paid to remove their own rubbish.

A big change is the spread of trees which seed naturally on to grouse moors. This followed the decline in family-occupied hill farms and associated fall in sheep stocks on moors with few or no red deer. Good examples of this expansion can be seen at Muir of Dinnet, west of Coilacriech, near Pass of Ballater, and Glen Tanar.

Game shooting

Shooting is the main private economic use of today's moorland. A deer forest does not mean a former wood. Scots 'forest' was a hunting area, often treeless, and a forester the equivalent of today's deerstalker, not a person involved with woods as in anglicised usage. Deer prevented almost all tree regeneration since 1800, save on lower parts of Abernethy, Rothiemurchus and Glen Tanar which held few deer. Since 1960, landowners encouraged higher deer stocks by supplementary winter feeding, opening fenced fields, and spreading fertiliser on moorland.

On sheltered low ground, where many deer winter, grass has spread at the expense of overgrazed heather. Heather is close-clipped and provides hardly any physical cover, leading to fewer red grouse and mountain hares. Bare trampled ground has increased and eroded seriously, as at Glen Feshie.

Until 1964, deer were greatly undershot and many died of winter starvation, providing abundant carrion for eagles. Shooters then killed a higher percentage of the deer, and this led to less winter starvation and big decline of the carrion. Eagle numbers on land over infertile granite, where alternative food was scarce, decreased by about a half.

Ill-controlled muirburn has damaged deer land, with fires covering big areas, often over 100 acres at a time. This results in short heath and soil erosion. Burning and grazing have almost exterminated sub-alpine scrub of dwarf birch and willow. A scrub zone above woodland, typical in northern countries, is almost absent here. At a revealing exception in Glen More, FC fences led to extinction of the deer herd that formerly wintered in the woods and summered on the plateau and corries. With no deer and no muirburn there has been a big increase of scrub pine, birch, willow and broom on the moor.

A big impact was the proliferation of crude tracks to ease access for lazy shooters. In 1982 I found 564 km of new bulldozed tracks in or near Grampian Region, and 104 km of paths destroyed by excavators following path lines. Planning approval is now required for excavating hill tracks for sporting purposes. However, most estates that made new tracks ignore these legislative requirements. A noteworthy example of this includes the obliteration of Corgarff's old military road in 2002.

Raptors have long been persecuted on grouse moors to the extent that eagles and harriers are often absent. From late 2002, courts will be able to jail offenders. Meanwhile, grouse bags have declined following poor muirburn and overgrazing of heather and spreading of tick-borne diseases by high densities of deer and sheep.

Arable farmland

Here, big changes have occurred as a result of subsidies for drainage of wetland, reclamation of heather to grass and higher stocks of sheep and cattle on moorland. There have also been big impacts on wildlife because of less cereal and turnips, more fertiliser and pesticide causing scarcity of weeds and insects; early rolling and mowing of grass and an absence of stack-yards. Corn bunting and corncrake have become extinct, and yellowhammer, twite, stock dove, partridge, moorhen, curlew, lapwing, snipe and redshank have declined greatly. Farm incomes and timber prices have now fallen. Farmers and timber-growers say they keep the countryside attractive for urban taxpayers who pay the subsidies, and that land abandonment would be bad for the landscape and wildlife. This is bogus. For example, it is known that beautiful and productive woodland comes from abandoning land to nature, as well demonstrated in eastern North America.

Public access, bothies and hill visitors

So few people had cars in the late 30s that estates did not lock gates on private roads. Even in the early 50s one could motor on Balmoral's drives without a key. Few went hill-walking, fewer climbing, and even fewer skiing. From 1943 onwards I noted the numbers I saw on the hill. On most days until the 60s I saw nobody.

In the early days some folk used old bothies. Two of these have since vanished at Gleann Einich and individual bothies have also vanished at Clach Bharraig, Loch Muick and Luibeg, with local staff suspected of burning them with proof of this at Slugain. Others bothies became ruinous through neglect with examples at Geldie, Bynack and Altanour, and Slugain Lodge's slates had already been removed when I first visited the place. Later, new huts appeared, Hutchison in 1954, then Jean's, Sinclair, Garbh Coire, Fords of Avon, Curran and two others on the plateau, and one below Derry Lodge. Save at Derry they were unpleasant metal boxes and two of them led to people dying in snow. Four have been demolished and removed.

Visitors to the hills have increased greatly, especially where new roads or chairlifts eased access. On Cairn Gorm plateau, my July counts of people in years after the chairlift was constructed, exceeded earlier counts 100-fold. New paths developed on popular routes, old paths widened and eroded, and litter increased. Human paths on Cairn Gorm plateau increased from 0 km in 1940 to 17 km in 1980. The three ski centres caused localised impacts on landscape, plants and soils. Only at Cairn Gorm, however, did the developments attract so many walkers as to cause vegetation damage and soil erosion miles away on the plateau and corries. Only at Cairngorm did the many visitors lead to an increase of scavenging crows and in turn a decline of ptarmigan on and near the ski area. The funicular scheme continues to create severe adverse impacts at Cairn Gorm. In particular, unsightly excavated boulders were dumped on either side of the tunnel and in piles around the new top of building, in disrespect of planning conditions. Moreover garish roofs on the top and bottom buildings gleam conspicuously even ten miles away.

Indigenous people

Until the early 50s, Braemar, Inverey, Coylumbridge and other small settlements were almost wholly populated by local indigenous folk, and many spoke fluent local Gaelic. Now, hardly anyone in Inverey or Coylumbridge has local roots, Gaelic has died there, and Scots speakers are increasingly fewer in Deeside. Holiday homes and housing developments seriously threaten native woodland, most especially in Strath Spey.

Conservation organisations

No voluntary conservation body existed in 1938 and the Nature Conservancy was tiny when it declared the Cairngorms National Nature Reserve in 1954. Voluntary conservation bodies have increased greatly in number and strength since 1970. Now they own much outstanding land, and their management stresses public conservation and recreation rather than private shooting use.


In the 80s, acid rain from far-distant power stations and other industry polluted the area. I vividly remember seeing oily black stains on Cairn Gorm's snow. Acidity rose in the burns and lochs that lay over granite. There followed declines of aquatic invertebrates and in turn the trout and birds that fed on them. Modifications at power stations then reduced the damage, but nitrogen pollution has risen, and radioactivity from Chernobyl is still in our hill plants. The orange snow from Sahara dust falling on the Cairngorms shows how conditions thousands of miles away can affect our remote land. Now we experience warmer air temperatures, more rain and gales, less snow and frost, and less frequent conditions for good skiing and ice climbing. On Ben Macdui plateau, the snowiest part of the UK, summer snow patches have become markedly fewer and smaller over the years since I began measuring them in 1974. Unnaturally rapid climate change may yet prove the biggest change since 1938, with potentially huge adverse consequences. Trying to stop damaging activities, such as intensive tree planting, bulldozed tracks or the funicular, has become been difficult, with far more failures than successes. Reversing climate change will be even more difficult.

Adam Watson, 27th September 2002

NEMT Front Page | Previous Page | Volume Index Page | Next Page | Journal Index Page

Please let the webmaster know if there are problems with viewing these pages or with the links they contain.