Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Scotland Day 5 - The Cairngorms

Woke up to a very blustery morning, with a murky, sombre sky and very little visibility. So decided on a whim to head for the Cairngorms, to see if the weather was any better over there, and perhaps spot some of the local wildlife which, confusingly enough, had been notable only by its absence.

Also somewhat confusing is the name of the Cairngorms themselves. The range’s original name, Am Monadh Ruadh, translates as the red hills, yet Cairn Gorm (which is one of the mountains in the range) means blue hill. So the title Caringorms National Park in Gaelic means the Blue Hills National Park, yet the park authority also uses the Gaelic strap line Pairc Naiseanta a Mhonaidh Ruaidh, which in English translates as the Red Hills National Park.

But despite the confusion, the park itself is one of the most impressive in Britain. It is the largest in the UK, at almost twice the size of the Lake District, five of Scotland’s six highest mountains lie within its borders, and altogether it has fifty two summits over 900 metres. The fact it represent such a major barrier to travel and trade across Scotland, has helped to create the remote character of the Highlands that persists today.

The Cairngorms hold some of the longest lying snow patches in Scotland, they can remain on the hills until August or September, while in the Garbh Coire Mòr of Braeriach the snow has melted just five times in the last century. The lowest recorded temperature in the United Kingdom has twice been recorded in the Cairngorms, at -27.2C and the greatest British wind speed, 173 mph, was recorded on Cairngorm Summit, where speeds of over 100 mph are common. And lastly, but no means leastly, the park contains the finest collection of glacial landforms outside arctic Canada.

And extending the confusion somewhat, I wouldn’t actually be heading into the heart of the park itself, as there are no roads, I would just be skirting the edge. So with that cleared up, I struck eastwards and, as luck would have it, left the worst of the weather behind me.

I stopped in a parking bay on the main road that lines the eastern side of the park, as the views to the sun speckled ranges in the distance was looking rather nice, and tramped off into the undergrowth. I was pleasantly surprised to find some heather in bloom, as I’d not really seen much so far, so I made the most if it by including some in the shot.

Shame the sun didn't grace me with its presence,
but I like the colours.

After waiting around for a while, it was clear the sun wasn’t going to light up the shrubbery in front of me, so I got a few shots of the hills in the distance with their dramatic canopy of clouds, before moving on.

Nice dramatic shot of the mountains being brushed by clouds.

Continuing on, the weather was taking a very positive turn, I could even see patches of blue above me, so I stopped next to a likely body of water that I thought might be suitable for a snap. I spent ages hunting around the marshy banks, looking for a decent viewpoint, trying to make use of the rocks for some foreground interest.

I finally found somewhere I was happy with, so I set up the necessary equipment, framed up the shot and waited for the light to bathe the scene in its lovely warm glow. It was at this point that it started to rain. Rather a lot.

Just about then I began to think how well I’d done in buying a camera rain cover specifically for this trip, how prescient of me it was to think of such a thing, and what a sagacious display of acumen I must posses. Directly after that moment of self-adulation, and while frantically rummaging through my camera bag, I realised in a moment of lucid disgruntlement, that I had, like a simpleton, left it back in the car.

So with the quick thinking that comes from years having to deal with my own inadequacies, I pulled the hood off my water proof jacket (it was detachable, I didn’t attack the garment) and put it to good use. The camera has some waterproofing but I didn’t want to risk leaving it out in the rain in case it got damaged. It just meant my head would be getting wet, but that’s never worked properly so I wasn’t as fussed about that.

My new lens hood.

After waiting around again, and after a few more showers, the sun did finally make a brief appearance so I got the shot I wanted. By that time of course I was questioning whether it was any good in the first place, and maybe I was just wasting my time on the whole endeavour. Such are the joys of landscape photography.

Not sure it was worth all the hanging around,
but it was a point of principle in the end.

Spotted this colourful patch of ferns on the way back.

After getting a bite to eat I carried on exploring the roads around this picturesque area, and on my travels spotted a little lane that disappeared into a dense pine forest. This was obviously something that needed attention, so I turned the car around and dived in.

I had found my way onto the road that led to Speybank, a little hamlet, funnily enough, located on the banks of the river Spey. It was basically a loose collection of houses, some of them impressively large, situated towards the end of a narrow lane. But it travelled through lots of varied woodland, starting with pine and then moving onto smaller varieties. Once I got to the end of the road, I doubled back and parked up for a bit of a wander.

Here are a couple of panoramas of that lovely woodland. 

I found a charming patch of woodland, with the ground adorned with a carpet of pale pink heather and some rather fetching trees. While the forest beyond was full to the brim with stately and imposing pines, marching off as far as the eye could see. But it was the heather that had captured my attention and I was determined to get a good shot, no matter what the cost.

The cost, as it happened, was waiting around for almost an hour, for the sun to appear and cast some much needed light on the slightly gloomy scene. I’d love to say that the waiting around made the final shot all the more worthwhile, but it didn’t. I left disappointed in the end, as the sun never did come out. Which was a bitter pill to swallow to be honest, as I knew in my stony heart, that it would have looked lovely with a bit of sun on it.

The colours were there, and they look nice enough, but a bit of sun would have
brought the scene to life.
More of the same.

I drove back through Inshnaich forest which is another lovely pine forest, there is something about pine forests that I find incredibly serene. Probably to do with the repetitive, orderly perfection, with every tree in its place and everything placed just so. That of course makes me sound like some kind of perfectionist control freak, never truly content until nature herself is trained into order. Good.

I stopped at the tiny settlement of Feshiebridge to get some shots of the distant mountains, with turbulent clouds roaming above them. Needless to say, the light that brought the scene to life and caught my attention in the first place disappeared from the mountains, and didn’t return.

Another shot that could have been so much better with a bit of light on the ground.

On the drive back I stopped to get a shot of Ruthven Barracks. During the 18th century after the 1715 Jacobite Uprisings, the British Government decided to tighten its grip on the Scottish Highlands by building four fortified barracks in strategic locations, with Ruthven Barracks being one of them.

On the day after the Battle of Culloden as many as 3,000 Jacobites assembled at Fort Ruthven, they set fire to the barracks and the remains today are pretty much how it was left by the departing Jacobites on 17 April 1746. Most of the exterior walls remain but little of the interior structure, flooring or roofing survives.

The Barracks under a gloomy sky.

Just outside Glen Coe I stopped to get some night shots from Ballachulish Bridge, looking towards Loch Leven in one direction and Loch Linnhe in the other, before heading onwards into the village itself.

Looking over Loch Leven towards the village of Glen Coe, whose light is reflected
in the overhanging clouds.
Looking the other way over Loch Linnhe, with the Ballachulish Hotel on the left.

I couldn’t face cooking in the windy darkness, so I violated my golden rule for the trip – spend as little as possible, and made myself at home in the Glencoe Gathering, despite the late hour they were happy to serve me a big burger, and a big glass of wine, which cheered me enormously.

After a tiring day of waiting around for the weather to be more to my liking, I was not looking forward to scrabbling around in the tent like an animal, in a bid to warm up some crap in a can, whose resemblance to real food was nothing more than cursory.

I new I should have gone glamping.

As regards the wildlife, I did see a red squirrel. Admittedly it was running across a main road in one of the towns, so not the idyllic rural setting I was imagining, but nonetheless it was the first one i'd ever seen, so I was suitably chuffed.


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