The Scottish Highlands. Photo by Canva

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It’s drizzling and the landscape is ensconced in clouds as the bus drives north of Edinburgh. Trees huddle on the roadside, bright colours dripping, and the rest of the countryside is invisible behind white mist. I’m suddenly glad I didn’t hire a car for this leg of the trip- I hate driving in rain, especially when I can’t see more than 100m ahead.

I’m on my way to the Cairngorms, the highest mountain range in the UK – although not home to the highest mountain, a fact I only discovered yesterday. This adventure is one of the only parts of my trip that I’ve been set on since the very start.

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The Journey to the Scottish Highlands

A small bothy (mountain hut) in a valley between the peaks. Photo by Lucy Arundell
A small bothy (mountain hut) in a valley between the peaks. Photo by Lucy Arundell

Before I left Australia I read a book by Nan Shepherd, an authoress who lived near the Cairngorms for much of her life. She’s written some of the most incredible natural pieces in British literature- and her masterpiece centres on the mountain range she loved like a daughter.

The Living Mountain isn’t a story, or a documentary, or a scientific journal- it’s a peaceful walk through the valleys of Ben Macdui, and a harrowing wall along the ridges in snow, and a cup of tea with the funny inhabitants of the park in the 1940s.

I hadn’t even heard of the Cairngorms before I read The Living Mountain. But I became set on exploring them, and so here I am, in a tiny gun lodge turned hostel, aptly named The Gun Lodge Hotel. It’s just steps from the crags. It’s late October, and the peaks already have snow on them.

Several people in my life have expressed concern at this undertaking, especially with the recent snow storms and a rainy forecast, but I’ve bought underclothes from UNIQLO so I’m feeling pretty confident.

The First Day in the Mountains

The trail past Chalamain Gap. Photo by Lucy Arundell
The trail past Chalamain Gap. Photo by Lucy Arundell

Day One in the mountains is full of scattered clouds as I set off, determined to hike the 19km loop through Chalamain Gap and around to Loch Morlich. I’ve consulted the lady at the info office, hikers in the hostel and the hostel manager, all of who have offered varying degrees of advice, from “don’t walk through the gap in the snow” to “turn back if you ever feel unsafe”.

The start of the walk is through the woods, which are full of cold fog and eerie noises. I walk quickly through the trees, before arriving thankfully at the bridge that marks the beginning of the real track. From here, I climb.

By the time I reach the top of the first hill, the cloud has lifted and I’m blessed with some of the views that the cairngorms are famous for. There’s even a few reindeer – the only herd in the UK – grazing in the field nearby.

Heartened, I set off for the rest of the loop. I cross Chalamain Gap with its insane boulder field, and trying not to think about how hard it would be to get out if I got my leg stuck. The hills roll down into sharp, fast-flowing streams, and the snow is bright on the peaks.

At the peaks, it’s blistering cold, the wind pushing me back and forth across the rocks. I huddle behind a cairn and then tumble back down the hill, grateful I was scared into buying extra clothes.

The rest of the hike passes without incident, and I stumble into several other (crazy) walkers exploring the late autumn colours. By the time I make it back to the hostel, I’m tired, wet and hungry- but thrilled to bits. It’s everything Nan Shepherd said it would be.

The Second Day in the Scottish Highlands

A cairn on the top of a cloudy summit. Photo by Lucy Arundell
A cairn on the top of a cloudy summit. Photo by Lucy Arundell

My arch nemesis on the second and third day is not the rain, which varies between a drizzle and a definite downpour, but the wind. I’ve never experienced wind so powerful and aggressive.

I struggle to walk across the ridge of Meall a’Bhuachaille, and almost turn back several times. Nothing but a severe dislike of returning down the same path keeps me stumbling across the rocks.

But it’s a sweet surprise at the bottom of the mountain- a bothy, the Scottish name for a small mountain hut, open to hikers and mountaineers for cooking and sleeping. I happily sit down in front of a fire lit by the last occupant and eat my lunch.

It’s still drizzling outside, and clouds drift across the mountain face, but I’m warm and snug inside the little cottage, grateful to be alive.

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The Last Day in the Scottish Highlands

Early morning view of the Cairngorms. Photo by Lucy Arundell
Early morning view of the Cairngorms. Photo by Lucy Arundell

My last day in the mountains is easily the worst weather of all. It’s raining from the very start, and through an indecision crisis I end up hitch-hiking to the Cairngorm Ski Lodge to have a crack at Cairngorm Mountain itself.

The only other people walking the mountain that day are men in their 30s and 40s with mounds of expensive wet-weather gear- I have hiking boots, a Gortex jacket, and an apparent streak of insanity.

The hike is beautiful for the first 30 minutes, heading straight up the hill face into the snow. The next hour is much less pleasant, with the wind picking up and the rain soaking through my hiking pants into my tights, and eventually into my boots.

I stop to put on another layer, holding tight to my jacket so it doesn’t blow down the mountain, but by the time I’ve put everything back on I’m so cold and wet that continuing starts to seem like a bad idea.

The rain isn’t clearing anytime soon, and it would be so embarrassing to call mountain rescue if I found myself in a pinch. I sadly trudge back down the mountain and perch in the ski lodge Cafe, sipping a hot chocolate and trying to use willpower to dry my clothes. I’ll have to come back to have another go at Cairngorm – preferably in the summer next time.

The Slow Down

I end up returning to the hostel for lunch with a lovely American lady from Idaho, and change my clothes before heading out to the lake. Finally, here, I slow down. Nan Shepherd said that while she was obsessed with summitting the mountain peaks in her youth, as she aged she realised there was more to be gained by noticing the small things in the mountains.

The little creatures living in the burns, the sun shining through the pine trees, or the moss growing across a rock. I wander around Loch Morlich, admiring the orange and red and yellow of the trees, and smiling at other wet hikers.

I wonder what Nan Shepherd would have thought of my trip- what she would think of the Cairngorms now. How less and less snow falls every winter, so the ski lodge barely opens.

How caravans clutter up the campground, generators whirring into the night. But also how so many things are still the same; excited walkers gearing up for a day in the mountains, birds migrating south for the winter, the loch and trees and mountains and views that are still here, eighty years later.

I think she’d be pleased. I definitely am.

If You Go:

Do: stay in the national park! Glenmore has several accommodation options, and the youth hostel has private rooms as well as dorms.

Don’t: underestimate the weather. Take waterproof shoes and jackets, beanies, gloves, and warm underclothes, even in summer. The weather in the mountains can change very fast.

Do: plan how to get to the Cairngorms. Renting a car and driving from Edinburgh or Glasglow is easy and takes about three hours. Trains and buses also run to Aviemore, on the edge of the park, for those on a budget.

Don’t: forget to try local food and drink! The Highlands is famous for its whisky, and you can try local varieties at most pubs.

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Author Bio: I’m Lucy, a twenty-something Australian obsessed with exploring, adventuring, and everything in between. I have a degree in communications and international studies, and have spent time working in print and radio. I love hiking, reading, and convincing my friends to come travelling with me.

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