Ambivalence on Cairn Gorm


This has taken an absolute age to write and I’m really not sure if I shouldn’t have just paid heed to that and abandoned it. For a while I’ve been toying with the idea of taking the blog in a different direction, without ever really being clear about where that direction should be. Brilliant, eh? An outdoor blogger who can’t even navigate a way through his own thought processes. 

Thing is, there are only so many times it’s possible to write about the final approach to the summit of Worcestershire Beacon, or the tricky descent of Light Spout Hollow. Ironic really, considering there is probably no limit to the number of times I would happily descend Light Spout and never tire of doing so. And it can be tricky…


I’m not a great lover of Cairn Gorm; at least not on its northern side. Actually, that’s not an entirely fair resumé: it would be more precise to say that I’m not a great lover of what’s been done to that part of the mountain, not least the rebranding – and why? – of the mountain’s name, which somehow grates more than it should when I see it on facilities, information boards, or even one of the funicular vehicles and its completely innocent cargo of passengers.

I’ve touched on this before [here] and Chris Townsend recently posted about the rather slipshod manner in which redundant infrastructure was being removed – albeit only partially – from parts of Coire na Ciste. As someone who isn’t, and never has been, a downhill skier, I don’t feel qualified to argue the merits, or otherwise, of the pastime; hence this, from the earlier post…

“It’s true that Cairngorm itself is an untidy clutter on its northern side: mostly the consequences of ski development. I know there are arguments in favour of skiing as a leisure pursuit; not least the economic benefits in the winter months and, equally importantly, the fact that, for some, it’s an enjoyable activity. There’s no denying though that skiing is greedy for land and creates an awful mess on the hillside when there’s no camouflaging blanket of snow…”

I did also – in the interests of intended balance – concede that “there are equally instances of spots (Snowdon summit, Ben Nevis as examples) where the accumulated effects of tens of thousands of walkers can leave the place looking far from attractive…”

With all of that said, and nothing really resolved, I just think that the development – if it had to be done at all – it could have been carried out with a little more subtlety, a lot less intrusion, and with a view to a generally more sympathetic outcome. There’s an obvious question hanging here: if that’s how I feel, why go there? Well, it is a very accessible summit on those days when the weather looks like it might run through its entire repertoire in the space of an afternoon, and – the other side of that coin – a relatively straightforward place from which to retreat. And, once you begin to cross the summit plateau and the buildings and equipment, the tows and fencing, fall behind and dip out of sight, then it really becomes a different place.

I find my gaze is usually drawn first to the lochs Avon and Etchachan, rather than to the neighbouring summits; then, as I adjust my eyeline upwards, there’s often the compulsion to look back down again and confirm that I have secure footing, despite standing on a solid rocky base and a long way from any precipice; a feeling of exposure, where none actually exists – it’s almost become a mannerism. Then the details begin to reveal themselves: the high summits of neighbouring mountains; steep crags falling away into deep-cut valleys; watercourses threading their way down until they meet, combine, create bigger watercourses, spill into the lochs and, in some cases, feed rivers which will make their journey all the way to the coast, gathering power as they go.

And then I realise that I actually love it up here…

I might have liked it more in former, wilder days; I might have liked it more in the future, when the wolves have returned and land management lower down has been reclaimed by lynx and beaver. But for now, and as long as I’m able, I’ll continue to climb past the ugly bits and enjoy the views from the top. To some extent, traversing the summit plateau from north to south is like crossing a watershed, a frontier where national park status is broadly observed to the south, and has been selectively set aside to the north.

(Context: it has been more than nine weeks since I last wandered past the summit cairn to take in the views to the south)

Ski tow equipment – Coire Cas


Just walking clear of the last of the development

Not pretty, maybe, but natural and as its intended to be

No comment needed (other than that this is taken inside a national park)




4 thoughts on “Ambivalence on Cairn Gorm

  1. Hi Conrad, no I’ve never been a skier, although I can see the appeal of cross-country skiing if you happen to live close enough to hills which would offer a reasonably regular opportunity. I just look at Coire Cas and the area immediately around it and think it could all have been done in a rather less brash and destructive way.

    I try to be careful to avoid giving the impression that I think walking is the only acceptable activity on the hills: climbing, skiing, mountain biking all have their participants and their place (I’m not going anywhere near driven grouse shooting and 4wd off-roading, where my views might be considered less ‘balanced’)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A well-thought out piece, Sir and well worth the time taken to mull it over, I might add.

    I have had similar feelings for quite a few years about walking across Scotland on the TGO Challenge each year. Every year the land is more industrialised. The wind farms that gained planning consent five or six years ago are now mostly constructed, but there are still are fair number with consent from following years still to be completed. Amber Rudd’s removal of Renewaable Energy Certificates has slowed the flood of applications a fair bit, but wind companies have realised that the way Contracts for Difference has been constructed means that the damn things have only really paused. Expect a renewed rush for planning applications as the developers will be paid handsomely in subsidies to match a guaranteed price.

    However there’s a new new blight spreading incredibly quickly – the “small hydro” schemes. Their tracks penetrate deeply into wild land and the planning process is over incredibly quickly with construction in very short order. Each scheme is comparatively cheap to build but have large returns for the investors, again based upon the heavy subsidies available for the energy produced. Reading Challengers’ reports from the last few years is like cataloguing the deceased from a war. These things are everywhere. and destroying the sense of the wild at a much greater pace than wind.

    The of course, there is the massive proliferation of shooters’s tracks spreading like a cancer across the vast majority of Eastern Scotland’s highlands… But we’ve already spoken about this over on my place.

    Good piece, Dave. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Alan,

    You’d think in Scotland, of all places, wild and unspoilt land would be appreciated and valued; and by ‘valued’ I don’t mean in the sense of its potential for exploitation and development. The Scottish landscape is so integral to the country’s unique identity and how it is perceived by the outside world (and it is literally a worldwide reputation) that it should be at or near the top of everybody’s list of priorities to protect it and, in some cases, restore what has already been damaged.

    Also, and I say this not just from a walker’s point of view but some of the green zealots (and I know this will be controversial) need to look at the broader perspective. Every cubic metre of blanket bog excavated for a turbine pad or an access track, every hectare of forest clear-felled to accommodate pylons and substations, every hillside chewed down to the bedrock by open-grazed livestock, further reduces the capacity of the uplands to retain water (and, of course, carbon), increases the likelihood of the misery of flash flooding for downstream communities and the loss of yet another layer of surface soil from some of the most fertile arable land.

    The irony is that you’ll find more analytical comment about these issues (whether you agree with it or not) among the blogging community than you will just about anywhere in the mainstream media, where the priority seems to be reducing everything to either a soundbite or a banner headline. Bloody hell, the BBC – and I’m by no stretch of the imagination anti Beeb – has an entire natural history unit; shouldn’t one of its priorities be serious, in depth – and impartial, that matters – analysis of the medium to longer term future of the environment in its own bloody backyard?


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