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Travel: Beware the tame, hungry reindeer of the Cairngorms

© Shutterstock / Richard PaksiReindeer in the Cairngorms.
Reindeer in the Cairngorms.

The sixth-highest in the UK and home to one of our premier ski resorts, Cairn Gorm is a busy mountain.

It has an enormous summit cairn and a weather station providing forecasts for the skiers who visit each winter.

The mountain is also home to Scotland’s only funicular railway. In summer it operates as a closed-loop system – those who take it to the top station a couple of hundred metres below the summit are no longer allowed to access the open hill.

This has drastically reduced summer footfall on the plateau. Countless thousands of feet that made that short journey previously left a wide, eroded scar on the land. With the reduction in numbers, the area is recovering – slowly.

At such altitude and in poor soils, vegetation will take many decades to be fully restored.

Despite not being the highest in the area – that’s Ben Macdui – Cairn Gorm has given its name to the mountain range.

While the crowds make this hill feel far from remote, the views from the summit are wonderful – laid before you is the vast expanse of the plateau. It’s a unique, precious landscape – the UK’s only subarctic environment. Other than Ben Nevis, there is no land higher in the UK than the Cairngorms.

The massif is exposed to the full force of storms blowing in from the west, with nothing to break their fury. The plateau is often windswept and wild. Winter months can be particularly ferocious, with white-outs lasting days.

The mountain is a favourite with winter and summer rock climbers. Good days will see dozens of teams on the faces of the Northern Corries.

The extreme conditions mean it’s the ideal place for walkers and climbers to learn winter skills. You’ll often find large parties of students digging snow holes or practising ice-axe arrests.


Pronunciation: Care-n Gawrm

Meaning: blue hill

Height: 1,245m (4,085ft); Rank: 6

OS Landranger Map 36

Summit grid ref: NJ005040 (large cairn, mast and weather station)

Nearest town: Aviemore town centre is about 14km (8.8 miles) north-west of the summit. A bustling town in the heart of the Cairngorms, it has a railway station, a wide variety of accommodation, bars and restaurants, and several equipment shops. Cairngorm Brewery makes for a refreshing pit stop!

Start grid ref: NH989061

Distance: 11km (6.8 miles)

Ascent: 775m (2,543ft)

Time: 5hrs


There are many options for walkers on Cairn Gorm, and the hill can be linked with several others for long days out. As a single ascent, I’d recommend following the Ben Macdui path from the ski centre base station as far as Coire an Lochain.

Then ascend the wide ridge of Maidan Creag an Leth-choin. Keep well right of the crags of the Northern Corries – especially in poor visibility – but follow their line to Cairn Lochan. Continuing along the clifftops for another 2km (1.2 miles) takes you to Pt 1140m. From the summit descend north to the Ptarmigan Restaurant, then follow the ridge back down to the base station.

New research and camera collars to reveal secrets of Scotland’s free-ranging reindeer herd

A more interesting ascent, for those with some scrambling experience, is the Fiacaill Ridge. In summer it’s a Grade 1 scramble, so you should be comfortable with exposure and competent with your hands on rock.

The start point is the same as above but leave the path sooner, heading for the ridge after 1km (0.6 miles) or so.

All major difficulties on the route can be bypassed to the right, on easier – but still steep – ground. It’ll bring you out on the plateau on the original route, several hundred metres north-east of Cairn Lochan.

As a unique mountain environment, it’s only right Cairn Gorm has a unique resident – the UK’s only free-roaming reindeer herd.

Summer or winter, climbers and walkers will find these beautiful beasts on the hillside.

Incredibly docile and tame, they’re perfectly comfortable around humans – and they’ll think nothing of having a snuffle round your pack to check if you’ve anything to eat, so keep all human food out of reach!

If you don’t bump into them on the hill, pay a visit to Cairngorm Reindeer Centre at Glenmore. The reindeer not out roaming spend their time chilling in the 486-hectare (1200-acre) enclosure.

Indigenous to Scotland, reindeer died out sometime after the last Ice Age – possibly because of climate change, or overhunting.

They were reintroduced in the ’50s by Mikel Utsi and Ethel Lindgren, a married couple with experience of reindeer herding in their native Sweden.