It is overcast as we set off for our Cairngorms Railway journey. We are obviously doing better for wildlife on this trip as a red deer runs across our path en route. I say en route but the whereabouts of the beginning of our railway journey is a well kept secret. We do have a post code, which turns out to be correct but I lack confidence so we stop by the tourist information centre in Aviemore to check. I am shown the not actually a view from the top on a surveillance camera – pretty grey.
On arrival there is a slight issue with the not actually a ticket that has been emailed to me (well it goes with the not actually a view). Problem solved. I was so jolly organised and booked so long ago that I was buried under hordes of later bookings. We are in time for the first ride of the day (of course) although only just as, when calculating our leaving time, I hadn’t realised that the station was ten mile outside Aviemore. We are welcomed to the coldest, windiest, snowiest mountain in the UK. There is supposed to be an on board video in the railway car but I cannot work out where we are supposed to be looking, so I listen to the commentary instead. Not much of the eight minute journey has passed before we are lost in thick cloud. We had hoped for a guided walk at the top but these do not start until next week. We are able to look at information about the mountain and watch explanatory films, which none of our fellow travellers seem interested in. There is a video with scrolling text that tells us about the longest Cairngorm winter on record, which lasted from 28 November 2009 until 21 June 2010. The text consistently misspells January. Long winters are great for the winter sports season and the emphasis is very much on sustainable tourism. Natural Retreats, who seem to run the mountain, clearly know on what side their bread is buttered.
Cairngorm means Blue Mountain and this is the only true mountain range in the UK, dividing, as it does, the two very different regions of Highland and Lowland Scotland. The mountain has been inhabited for 4000 years although the skiing for which it is now renowned began as recently as 1904. 4000 year old skis have been found in Scandinavia however and anything the Scandinavians can do ……. So maybe Cairngorm skiing goes back further than we think. We don’t see any of the iconic wildlife, mountain hares, osprey, pine marten, snow buntings, ptarmigan, capercaillie or dotterels. We don’t see any wolves or brown bears either as these are now extinct in the region, although there is some debate about the possible reintroduction of wolves. Wildlife are not the only things we don’t see. We do briefly go out on the mis-named viewing platform, where we are told 100mph winds are not uncommon. That I can believe, I can barely stand up. A woman has optimistically set up her camera and tripod. Visibility is about a hundred yards, unless she has thermal imaging she has no chance.
We repair to the Ptarmigan restaurant, billed as the highest in Scotland and therefore presumably Britain; we are at 1097 metres above sea level. Chris has a cup of tea and I wait the required ten minutes until the bar opens so I can consume hot spiced wine – well I am on holiday and red wine is supposed to be good for me. It really is too cold for anything much so we make our way back down and I struggle across the car park through hail, sleet and wind to take a photograph of what I can see of the view at this lower level.
We head for the car. Oh, I should report that today there has been no sign of the red warning light on the dashboard. We have done nothing to effect this, so hopefully it is not just a temporary reprieve; we have a long, uphill drive tomorrow. A decision is made to go home via Boat of Garten, primarily because it has a cool name. Chris is hoping for boats (well there is a river). I wonder if Garten is a corruption of Garden, which makes no sense at all. Apparently it is the anglicised version of the Gaelic Coit a’ Ghartain. I never place much reliance on Google translate but in the absence of anything else I give it a go. When you put the whole phrase in you get Boat of Garten – no help at all. Trying the words individually you get ‘boat of ticks’ – really? I know Scotland is known for its midges but……. Gaelic speakers to the rescue please.
Anyway not boats, gardens or ticks but an RSPB reserve. I don’t get much opportunity to utilise my RSPB life membership so I am not going to miss this one. Like Loch of Lowes there are nest cams on an Ospreys’ nest that has been in the same location for decades. The female, EJ, unimaginatively named for the letters on her leg ring, has been using it since 2003 and has gone through three partners in that time, producing twenty five chicks. The current male is Odin and both adults are on the nest most of the time we are there. This year’s brood have hatched, one five days ago and one at 4.30am this morning. The egg laying and therefore the hatching, is staggered to give at least one chick a chance of survival. Today’s chick still has its head in the egg shell. The staff continually monitor the nest to guard against vandals, poachers and egg collectors. There is great excitement as a third osprey flys overhead and Odin’s alarm calls are clearly heard. This reserve gets full marks for its nest cam, as the screen allows you to take clear photographs, although the nest itself is too far away for my camera. Their viewing window is in rather a dark corner, so my attempts at photographing siskins and greenfinches through glass are less successful than those through the viewing window at Loch of the Lowes.
As the weather is still not waking up to the fact that it should perhaps be pleasantly balmy, we decide that we have had enough for today and return to relax in the van. It is called pacing ourselves. It seems there are folk worse off than we are as a motor home arrives on site on the back of a tow truck, we’ve got that tee-shirt.