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Usually referred to as The Cairngorms—this 'modern' use of Cairn Gorm to represent the whole range is potentially misleading—Watson (1975) refers to it as a nickname explaining that the range's former name is Am Monadh Ruadh—the red hills distinguishing them from Am Monadh Liath—the grey hills to the west of the River Spey.
If you look from Aviemore on a clear evening, the granite screes of Lairig Ghru and Braeriach do glow a warm red in the sun. The name Am Monadh Ruadh still lives among the oldest folk of Strath Spey, but long ago, outsiders had replaced it with 'the Cairngorms', on maps and in guide books—Watson (1975)
Ironically—naming the range after Cairn Gorm seemingly creates a contradiction since Cairn Gorm means Blue Cairn —taking that literally would make the red hills the blue hills changing the old name entirely This irony appears to have been missed by many for both names were used in the naming of the National Park that incorporates the range. Its official English name, Cairngorms National Park, translates into Gaelic as the Blue Hills National Park, with its Gaelic strap-line, Pairc Naiseanta a Mhonaidh Ruaidh, translating into English as the Red Hills National Park. However, the Gaelic gorm is also used as an adjective and verb, meaning green or greening and is often seen in connection with growing grass. Monadh Ruadh refers colour of the soil and Cairn Gorm refers to the green scenery.
In Alexander (1928) the author refers to Colonel T. Thornton visiting the area about 1786, and his book Sporting Tour published in 1804 in which he refers to the range as the Cairngorms—continuing:
The use of the term "Cairngorms" as applied to the group must have become well established early in the nineteenth century, for we find it in Col Thornton's Sporting Tour (1804), where there is a reference to "Aurora peeping over the immense Cairngorms"—Alexander (1928) (p21)
Both Alexander (1928) and Watson (1975) appear to suggest that Colonel Thornton's book was the first time the term Cairngorms was used in print to refer to whole group.
The controversy over the name of the Cairngorms is representative of other controversies surrounding these mountains, which have the capacity to produce strong reactions in people who regard the mountains with affection.
Although The Cairngorms are within the Cairngorms National Park, they are only a part of it. Watson (1975) delineates the main Cairngorm massif as being between Aviemore in the north-west, Glen Gairn, Braemar in the south-east, and Glen Feshie in the south-west.
The approximate southern-boundary of the range runs from slightly east of Braemar, west along Glen Dee to White Bridge, through Glen Geldie to the head of Glen Feshie. The western-boundary runs down Glen Feshie (northward) and the River Spey to Aviemore. The northern-boundary runs roughly eastward from Aviemore through Glen More to Glen Avon. The eastern-boundary then runs (southward) up Glen Avon, and over Am Bealach Dearg to slightly east of Braemar.
Some map-makers have confused the issue by printing 'Grampians' over the Cairngorms and Strath Don hills as well! As it has often been used on maps to take in the Ben Alder and Perthshire hills far to the west of our area, it is unsuitable for this book.—Watson (1975)
Gordon (1925) draws the area of the Cairngorms even more tightly: the end-papers show a map where Aviemore, River Feshie, River Dee and Creag Choinnich just make it onto the map, and Glen Geldie, and Glen Gairn do not.
Granting the tight delineation of The Cairngorms above—there are no public roads through The Cairngorms. All the public roads in the general area either skirt The Cairngorms or stop short—providing access to them only. Historically, pedestrians have been able to cross The Cairngorms by following the traditional routes of the Lairig Ghru, and the Lairig Laoigh, or around them by following Glen Dee – Glen Feshie, and Bealach Dearg.
From the south, and south-east motorised access ends at Linn of Dee, or Allanaquoich. From the north-west it ends at Coylumbridge or the car park at the Cairn Gorm ski area.
The Cairngorms consist of a large elevated plateau adorned with low, rounded glacial mountains.
Although not strictly a single plateau, the Cairngorms give the sense of being a single plateau, because the passes that cut through them are not very deep. Adam Watson gives the summit of Lairig Ghru as 835 metres, and the summit of Lairig an Laoigh at 740 metres, and The Sneck at 970 metres. Topographically, this means a walker could cross between the Cairntoul (1293m) – Braeriach (1296m) massif to the Ben Macdui (1309m) – Cairn Gorm (1245m) massif and onto the Beinn a' Bhùird (1196m) – Ben Avon (1171m) massif without descending below the 740m summit of the Lairig an Laoigh.
The Cairngorms became part of Scotland's second national park (see Cairngorms National Park) on 1 September 2003. The national park is in the Scottish council areas of Aberdeenshire, Moray, Angus, Perth and Kinross and Highland.
These mountains are all Munros, and there are a further 13 mountains with this categorisation across the area, of which another five are among the twenty highest peaks in the country.
After she had climbed to the top of Ben Macdui on 7 October 1859, Queen Victoria wrote: "It had a sublime and solemn effect, so wild, so solitary — no one but ourselves and our little party there . . . I had a little whisky and water, as the people declared pure water would be too chilling."
The Cairngorms represent a major barrier to travel and trade across Scotland and helped to create the remote character of the Highlands that persists today. Passes through the hills such as the Lairig Ghru were extensively used by drovers in the 19th Century herding their cattle to market in the Lowlands, from their smallholdings in the Highlands.
The Cairngorms hold some of the longest-lying snow patches in Scotland. The area is sparsely populated due to the extreme nature of the climate. Snow patches can remain on the hills until August or September, while in the Garbh Coire Mòr of Braeriach the snow melted just five times in the last century. In the last few years, however, the quantity and longevity of Cairngorm snow patches has declined significantly. The lowest recorded temperature in the United Kingdom has twice been recorded in the Cairngorms, at Braemar, where a temperature of -27.2oC, was recorded on 11 February 1895 and 10 January 1982. The greatest British wind speed 150 knots (173 mph or 278 km/h) was recorded on Cairngorm Summit on 20 March 1986, where speeds of over 100 mph (160 km/h) are common.
|Climate data for Cairn Gorm summit (1,245 m ) 1981–2010|
|Average high °C (°F)||−1.3|
|Average low °C (°F)||−5.5|
|Source: Met Office|
The Cairngorms were formed 40 million years before the last ice age, when slight uplift raised an eroded peneplain based on an exposed granite pluton. The highest present-day peaks represent eroded monadnock hills. During the ice ages the ice caps that covered most of northern Scotland remained static, frozen to the ground for long periods and actually protected the rounded summits and valleys and deep weathered granite of the mountains of the area. Glacial erosion is represented in deep valleys which dissect the area. Many valleys are littered with glacial deposits from the period of glacial retreat. The most famous valley is the Lairig Ghru pass, a gouge through the centre of the mountains—a u-shaped valley, now partly filled with extensive scree produced by intense frost action during ice-free periods. Many parts of the Cairngorms exhibit classic periglacial weathering which occurred during cold periods in ice-free areas.
The Cairngorms national park is known for its wildlife. The area also features an ancient woodland, one of the last major ones of its kind in the British Isles, known as the Caledonian Forest. Much of the remains of this forest are found within the national park.
The Cairngorms provide a unique alpine semi-tundra moorland habitat, home to many rare plants, birds and animals. Speciality bird species on the plateaux include breeding Ptarmigan, Dotterel, Snow Bunting, Golden Eagle, Ring Ouzel, and Red Grouse, with Snowy Owl, Twite, Purple Sandpiper and Lapland Bunting seen on occasion. In the forests, Capercaillie, Black Grouse, Scottish Crossbill, Parrot Crossbill, Crested Tit are found.
Of particular fame is the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) reserve at Abernethy Forest and Loch Garten. A famous pair of Ospreys are present in the summer months, and they often attract large crowds to see them. The forest is home to the endangered Capercaillie and endemic Scottish Crossbill.
Red Deer, Roe Deer, Mountain Hare, Pine Marten, Red Squirrel, Wild Cat and Otter are all present, as well as the only herd of Reindeer in the British Isles. They now roam the high Cairngorms, after being re-introduced in the 1950s by a Swedish herdsman. The herd is now stable at around 50 individuals, all born in Scotland.
The Cairngorms represents an unusually cold area of mountains in a maritime climate at 57 degrees North. It would be theoretically possible for the climate to become warmer and wetter, or drier under present climate change models. This is an over-riding concern for the long-term conservation of this area. Ptarmigan has been considered as an indicator species for this process, although the natural population cycles of this bird do not seem to have been disrupted as yet.
Other man-made threats include the problems of popularity in a country with limited wilderness resources and a large, relatively affluent urban population. These include various types of recreation and the associated trampling damage and erosion, disturbance, litter and threats to water quality.
A skiing and winter sports industry is concentrated in the Cairngoms, with three of Scotland's five resorts situated here. They are the Cairn Gorm Ski Centre, Glenshee Ski Centre and The Lecht Ski Centre.
A funicular railway opened here in late 2001, running from a base station at 637 metres up to the Ptarmigan Centre, situated at 1097 metres, 150 metres from the summit of Cairn Gorm. It was built amidst some controversy, with supporters of the scheme claiming that it would bring valuable tourist income into the area, whilst opponents argued that such a development was unsuitable for a supposedly protected area.
The mountains are also very popular for hill-walking, winter sports, birdwatching, climbing, deer stalking, gliding and fly fishing. However, the area can be very hazardous at times, with dangerous and unpredictable weather conditions. Because of this, all safety precautions must be taken whilst out in the mountains.
The area has long attracted winter climbers, especially to the northern corries. It boasts what was for a time probably the world's hardest traditionally protected mixed climb: "The Hurting", grade XI.
In 1964, physicist Peter Higgs of Edinburgh was walking in the Cairngorms when he had his famous idea about symmetry-breaking in the electroweak theory, now a key element of the standard model of particle physics. The eponymous Higgs boson was eventually detected by experiment in 2012.
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