Photograph courtesy of SNH
“Britain’s newest and largest National Park…”
“The largest continuous area of ground lying above 1000m in Britain…”
“The most extensive area of arctic mountain landscape in the UK…”
“Home to 25% of the country’s threatened birds, animals, and plants…”
It sometimes seems as if there simply aren’t enough superlatives to apply to the area of mountainous terrain popularly known as ‘The Cairngorms’. The range is unique, thanks to its combination of geology, climate, and geographical location – and its sheer remoteness. The term ‘Cairngorms’ is a relatively modern epithet, dating from the early nineteenth century when the first tourists to the area spied the most prominent peak visible from the Spey Valley – Càrn Gorm – and began referring to the entire range by its name. The original local Gaelic name for these mountain was Am Monadh Ruadh – ‘The Red Hills’ - an apt reference to these predominantly granite uplands whose very slopes glow pink when bathed by the low sun of dusk and dawn.
Photograph courtesy of SNH
The granite bedrock which underpins the landforms of the range and which lends it so much of its character was forged deep below the Earth’s surface some 400 million years ago. Tectonic movements forced the rocks up into savage mountain ranges as big as the Himalaya; over aeons of time they have been weathered down to relative stumps, but their still impressive roots protrude in places like the Cairngorms to produce the wild countryside of today. The effects of glaciers, which only retreated from these uplands 10,000 years ago, provided the finishing touches to the current landforms, sharpening ridges, ironing plateau, plucking cliffs and producing tors. The high plateau tops, exposed to the full intensity of the elements, have the undoubted flavour of the Arctic.
The result is a landscape which gives an impression of vastness and space, with rounded, burly massifs and broad glens ‘punching above their weight’ in terms of the scale of their scenic impact. It is a place quite unlike any other part of Britain, a fact reflected in the diversity of its habitats, with animals and plants which have evolved to cope with the often unimaginably harsh conditions of life in a sub-arctic environment.
The summits and inner glens of the range, such as those surrounding the environment of The Great Climb (the upper Loch A’an basin) are draped with a mosaic of arctic-alpine plant communities, many of whose species have a notably circumpolar distribution. As a consequence this is a special place, a rare oasis of wildness containing large tracts of the least modified upland vegetation in Britain, where the worst impacts of human activity have always been kept at bay. Dependent on the plants are specialised animals and birds adapted to this extreme environment, another reason why the area is so exciting and important to conservationists. It comes as no surprise therefore, to find that area in which The Great Climb is taking place has been identified by official conservation agencies as outstanding, and is consequently protected by several tiers of national government and European Union protection. Thus much of the inner Cairngorms are designated as a Special Protected Area (SPA) for its rare and vulnerable birds, and also as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) for its vegetation and habitats. In 2003, the area also achieved the ultimate accolade of being accorded National Park status.