Today is the second entry in a new series of articles providing you with itinerary ideas for various regions around Scotland, and I will be unveiling more over the next few months. I have largely focused on specific topics throughout the life of Traveling Savage, as I’ve found that kind of specificity is often lacking in travel writing. However, just as the timing of my Best of Scotland series felt right for the past couple of months, the time is right for me to provide information at a higher level to help you in your trip-planning, idea-generation phase.
These Scotland Itinerary Ideas articles will collect many of my previous articles on the selected region into one place, along with my assessment of their criticality for the visitor and a bevy of useful tidbits that might’ve gotten lost along the way. At the end of the day, these articles should be useful cheat sheets to refer to when you begin planning your next trip to Scotland.
As always, don’t hesitate to pepper me with questions.
The Cairngorms National Park
Crack open any map of the United Kingdom and you’ll see a huge green blob in northeast Scotland, hemmed in from the east and west by Aberdeenshire and the A9, and from the north and south by Moray and Perthshire. This is the Cairngorms National Park, a spectacular landscape of mountain peaks, upland plateau, and rolling foothills still blanketed in forest. Covering more than 1,700 square miles, the Cairngorms National Park is the largest national park in Britain, and you could easily spend weeks here on a visit, if not a lifetime. Everywhere you look you will feel the urge to stop the car and take a picture because you cannot bear to trust that image to your memory. There are no answers here, just awesome beauty and hermetic solitude.
Things You Can’t Miss
Rothiemurchus. Rothiemurchus, just southeast of Aviemore, is one of the largest tracts of ancient Caledonian forest remaining in Scotland. The Grants have been stewards of Rothiemurchus for more than 400 years, and by their stewardship they have managed to keep the estate much as it was in the distant past. Today, Rothiemurchus has just enough visitor infrastructure, in the way of trails and shops, to enhance the experience without impinging on it. Rothiemurchus is a great place to go biking, hiking, and fishing while you soak in the age of this ancient forest and get a sense for the grandeur of the Cairngorms.
Cairn Gorm. Cairn Gorm is the name of the most prominent mountain in the range at the center of the Cairngorms National Park, and it’s hard to imagine a visit to the park without a funicular ride up to this lofty peak. Cairn Gorm overlooks the ski town of Aviemore, and it’s northwest slope is a popular downhill spot. For those not interested in rapid, snow-aided descents, the funicular ride brings you to a nice cafe with excellent views across the top of the Cairngorms National Park (on a clear day). This a great scale-setting visit and slots in nicely with a day at nearby Rothiemurchus and Loch Morlich.
Balmoral Castle. Sheltered in a crook of the River Dee between Ballater and Braemar near the Cairngorm’s eastern edge stands Balmoral Castle, the Queen’s royal residence in the north. The royal family possesses 50,000 acres of land in this part of the park, and the castle provides a measure of escape even with a scattering of visitors ambling about the grounds. As you would expect, these grounds are immaculate, the castle stunning if dating only from the Victorian era, and the small exhibit open to the public well worth your time. It is a perfect stop as part of a day that takes in Mar Lodge and Royal Lochnagar distillery (see below).
The Old Military Road. Roads are – thankfully – in short supply throughout the Cairngorms National Park. The main road from Speyside in the northwest down to Deeside in the east is The Old Military Road, a winding noodle with some incredible hairpins and unbelievable, wind-swept views of the park’s stark northeastern foothills. This is the primary route from Grantown-on-Spey to Ballater via the high mountain town of Tomintoul, where you ought to at least stop at the Whisky Castle (while it is most definitely not a castle, it is a shop loaded with scads of amazing, hard-to-find whisky). This section of the park is a very different and interesting landscape from the craggy, forested western edge between Aviemore and Newtonmore.
Things You Shouldn’t Miss
Ruthven Barracks. The ruined Ruthven Barracks are a stunning sight as you drive north on the A9 along the park’s western edge. On a clear day, sn0w-capped mountains provide a gorgeous backdrop to the grey, 18th-century ruins perched on a small green plateau. The view alone should do it, but if you’re feeling curious Historic Scotland makes the ruins accessible at all times free of charge.
Mar Lodge Estate. Deep in the heart of the Cairngorms National Park, west even of Braemar, lies one of the last remnants of the ancient earldom of Mar: The Mar Lodge Estate. This estate comprises 73,000 acres and contains some of the most remote and scenic wilderness in all of Scotland, not to mention four of the five highest mountains in the United Kingdom. As a traditional highland estate, visitors can engage in activities like deer stalking, grouse shooting, and salmon fishing. Mountain bothies fleck the high hills for serious hikers in this ruggedly beautiful landscape.
Distilleries & breweries. The Cairngorms has its fair share of stops for those who enjoy a tipple now and then. On the distillery side of things, Glenlivet, Dalwhinnie, Royal Lochnagar, Tomintoul, and Tomatin all stand within the park’s boundary. You would regret missing Glenlivet and Dalwhinnie, especially. Glenlivet often wins best visitor experience among whisky distilleries. Aviemore is home to the Cairngorm Brewery Company, which makes some excellent cask ales like Trade Winds and Black Gold, and just a hair outside the park’s eastern border you’ll find the tiny but excellent Deeside Brewery.
Things to Do Off the Beaten Path
Hike the Glenlivet Estate. One of the most wonderful things about Scotland is the so-called “everyman’s right” or “right to roam,” which allows free passage across all lands in the country, even the 58,000-acre Glenlivet Estate which is part of The Crown Estate. America’s blight of ‘no trespassing’ signs are nowhere to be seen here, so why not take advantage of this perfectly sensible and wonderful right by exploring the smuggler’s trails around Glenlivet?
Skiing and snowboarding. The Cairngorms National Park is home to three of Scotland’s five ski centers: Glenshee, CairnGorm Mountain, and The Lecht. CairnGorm Mountain is a reliable choice as the snow is good here much of the season. The Lecht is perfect for beginners and those who simply want to say they skied the Cairngorms, while Glenshee is the largest of the three ski centers and home to the gnarliest, most difficult runs. Please be careful.
Explore the Angus glens. The heads of the Angus glens reside within the Cairngorms National Park, and they make perfect places for hiking and wildlife spotting. The glens – Glen Esk, Glen Clova, Glen Mark, Glen Doll, and Glen Prosen – are wild, lonely places reaching toward the feet of the mountain range. This unpeopled and largely unvisited southeast area of the park is waiting to be found.
Logistics and Salient Bits
Bases. To explore the Cairngorms National Park thoroughly, you will want to consider multiple bases since roads and towns are relegated to the perimeter of the park, around the most massive peaks. Aviemore and Braemar are the most well-known and touristed towns in the Cairngorms, but I prefer the peaceful and beautiful Nethy Bridge, Grantown-on-Spey, and Ballater. Nethy Bridge is a collection of cottages in the forested slopes just west of the mountains with excellent proximity to many of the sights. Grantown-on-Spey is just to the north and performs convenient double-duty for exploring the western and northern edges of the park but also the Speyside region. Ballater is pretty town on the crossroads of the Old Military Road and the A93 along the River Dee in the east. Even Blair Atholl, which is now officially part of the Cairngorms, makes a good base in the south if you don’t plan on going much farther north. There aren’t many places in Scotland that I avoid, but Tomintoul has never warmed my bones.
Transportation. The western edge of the Cairngorms National Park runs along the primary road north from Edinburgh to Inverness, the A9, so even if your itinerary doesn’t include a stop in the park you’ll get a great look at snowy mountains and the Ruthven Barracks during the drive. A railroad mirrors the A9 all the way to Aviemore where it splits to Inverness and Speyside, but you’ll want your own car to explore the park.
Food & Drink. If you’re lucky enough to be in Nethy Bridge on a Monday night, keep your eyes peeled for the food truck serving piping hot fish and chips and mushy peas. By and large, I enjoyed standard fare at hotels in towns scattered around the park, and the same goes for drinks, but one bright spot was the classy dinner I enjoyed at Muckrach Lodge in Dulnain Bridge. Don’t miss the tartan waiting room with the whisky bar!
I hope I have been able to convey a smidgeon of the greatness that is this treasure of a national park. Some time in the Cairngorms should be part of any trip to Scotland.