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Winter fun in Scotland

What’s your favourite season?

One of our reasons for moving to the Cairngorms was that we knew we would experience a “proper” winter i.e. snow. None of this wet and slightly cool weather which seems to characterise winter in the London area. No we wanted proper snow. That white stuff which seems to terrorise the rail network and bring London to a grinding halt. Here in the Highlands it can be something to be enjoyed. Fortunately there are others who are of the same mindset as us and look forward to a proper winter season so they can dust off their skis or crampons or snowboards.

Plenty of winter fun to be had here in the Cairngorms. Here’s just a small selection of activities you could enjoy:

A fun packed week in the Cairngorms!

Sonja, Cormac and Katie came to visit Fraoch Lodge Dec 2012 to early New Year 2013. Cormac was booked on our Hogmanay Winter Skills trip as a treat for his significant birthday; which left Sonja and Katie to fill the week with their own activities. They managed to keep themselves very well occupied for the week. Katie even tried to roll her own pasta one evening. She was very pleased – so much more to report back to her friends than she expected.

Sonja kindly agreed to write up their adventures here:

hogmanay winter skills

Navigating on New Year’s Day

The big idea

Cormac’s big birthday was fast approaching and I had no clue what I was going to do. He is an avid hillwalker and mountaineer so I felt something in Scotland might be a good plan. We spend quite a bit of time in the Glencoe area so I wanted to try somewhere new. The Cairngorms National Park seemed the obvious choice. I had spotted Fraoch Lodge while surfing ‘the net’. The idea of a Winter skills courses combined with freshly made homemade bread appealed to me straight away.

I enquired online, then Andy (one of the proprietors) responded to me straight away. He answered all my queries and came back with an excellent price for two adults and a child for a week’s stay with a course included.

winter skills course

Ice axe arrest on the snowy slopes of Cairngorm, Scotland

So Cormac would be yomping around the Cairngorms for the week, digging snow-holes and cutting steps etc.  Now what to do with a nine year old adventuresome type girl?

We decided a spot of snowboarding would be just the ticket.

For the rest of the family

We set off for Scotland early on the 27th of December and caught a ferry from Belfast to Stranraer. Our drive was scenic but uneventful. Upon arrival at Fraoch Lodge, wee Gregor, a roaring fire and tea and cake greeted us. This was all very, very welcome after a 12 hour journey in the car. Each afternoon we would enjoy a variety of cakes in front of the fire. This quickly became my favourite part of the day.

Soon the rest of the Hogmanay group arrived.  We all met in the dining room for a hearty two-course dinner with our hosts. Plans were made for the next day and most of us retired to bed or the cosy warmth of the sitting room. Our rooms were great, clean, comfortable and warm, which just added to our sense of being in a home from home.

Alternatives to snowsports

The next morning dawned bright and clear. Katy (the adventurous nine year old) and I, set out for Aviemore to the local tourist office to find out what was available to us in the area. We were unable to go snowboarding due to the gusting winds up at the piste.

We met a really delightful man in the tourist office who was courtesy and friendliness itself. He gave us a number of pamphlets and outlined so many things that were on offer in the area. We booked tickets for the wildlife park the next day. That day followed its usual pattern of delicious cake, hearty grub and interesting and fun conversation with the other guests.

The next day, packed lunch in hand, we set off to The Highland Wildlife Park. We had never seen such an array of exotic animals before from Polar Bears to Bactrian Camels and everything in between. The park is a wonderful day out with so much to see and great talks at feeding time. Katy thoroughly enjoyed herself and we had no trouble whiling away an entire day there.

 

reindeer

Always a memorable site – the Cairngorm Reindeer herd

The Reindeer centre

The next day the winds continued to stymie our snowy plans so we headed up to The Cairngorm Reindeer Centre. I think this was one of Katy’s favourite activities.

We went out to the little paddock set off to the side of the centre and saw a number of reindeer but the real treat was to come. Everyone followed the staff up in convoy to a car park someways up the mountain. We hopped out and were given a brief talk (it was chilly) about the plan and off we set. We went down a winding trail to a beautiful river, across the wooden bridge and up the other side. This lead us into the foothills of the Cairngorms. Soon we were surrounded by a herd of 200 reindeer all looking for attention and of course the food pellets that they knew we had.

It was a wonder to see these majestic creatures up so close, particularly after the long hard Christmas they had just had. They seemed to be enjoying their well deserved break from their North Pole duties!

Cairngorm reindeer herd

Keep a look out for the Cairngorm reindeer herd roaming the hills

Birthday treats

That evening I was really touched to see that Rebecca had gone to a lot of trouble for Cormac’s birthday. She had prepared his favourite chocolate biscuit cake (with candles) for cake o’clock and put up birthday banners in the dining room.

The next day, still unable to snowboard, we hit Aviemore. We treated ourselves to big steamy cups of hot chocolate and a spot of sledding in the town. We planned to go dog sledding the next day so we relished the idea of a relatively easy day spent at home in front of the fire.

at Fraoch Lodge

Everyone loves an open fire, almost as much entertainment as the TV

Dog sledding

The next day we set off for The Cairngorm Dog Sled Centre. This again was easily one of Katy’s favourite experiences. After a long talk by the owner of the centre who is a real character and very passionate about his dogs we set out on a motorized vehicle that was ‘pulled’ by a team of sled dogs. It was exhilarating and we loved every minute of this activity.

We spotted a huge stag watching us, as we flew past him with the dogs running as though their lives depended upon it. My only advice for anyone planning on partaking in this activity: bring a lot of very warm clothes.

That night, after a feed of Haggis, tatties and neeps, we set out for the local Ceilidh with the rest of the guests from the Lodge We had a really wonderful night of dancing. Katy came with us and managed to ‘Auld Lang Syne’ her way into the New Year but we retired home moments after the clock struck twelve. She was all danced out.

 

Relaxing at the Lodge

On our last day Katy was feeling a little under the weather so she, wee Gregor and I had a duvet day. We spent the day lazing in front of the fire wrapped up in sleeping bags, drinking hot chocolate and eating cake. A perfect ending to a wonderful week in the Cairngorms.

I have absolutely no hesitation in saying that I will return to Fraoch Lodge to spend more time in that lovely part of the world. We barely touched the surface with regard to what can be done in the area. We still haven’t snowboarded there so that will need to be experienced. In fact I plan on doing the snow-holing weekend with the expert himself, Mr Bateman and the Winter Skills is also on my wishlist. Can’t wait!

winter Cairngorms

Walkers striding across the Cairngorm plateau

For the full range of walking holidays and skills courses offered by Scot Mountain Holidays please check here.

Autumn seems to be racing up right now. Munro bagging in autumn has it’s own rewards. The day’s are starting to draw in but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. The leaves are starting to turn on some of the trees here in the Highlands bringing splashes of bright red to the landscape. The later start to the day means we’re approaching a time when we’ll be able to see the colours of dawn. We can already see the evening colours (when there are any) without being up late into the night. The cooler temperatures mean we can get the fire on once more and dust off the pie recipes.

It’s a fantastic time to get out in the hills and maybe bag a few Munros. Here’s a reminder of why autumn is a great time to be out and about if you can get away outside of the school holidays.

Review: Autumn Munros – munro bagging in autumn in the Highlands

Paul Chapman’s first walking holiday in Scotland was on the munro bagging week we run in Autumn. Paul has now been on several holidays with us including recent trips to Arran and the Outer Hebrides. Here’s his review:

MEMORIES OF SCOTLAND

My first walking holiday with Scot Mountain Holidays was “Autumn Munros”. I had never walked in Scotland before then and was looking forward to some excellent walking. I finished the holiday having experienced a lot more than that.

Wildlife sightings

munro bagging in autumn

One of the joys of walking in the mountains in the autumn weather is the increased chance of walking above the clouds

We were three days into the holiday doing Craiggowrie. It had been a lovely autumn day, the walking had been everything I hoped for. Late in the afternoon, with the light beginning to fade we started to make our way off the ridge and down into a corrie. As we started our descent; we saw a group of white snow bunting busily feeding among the heather.They were not really very bothered about us, but as we stood and watched they suddenly took off in alarm, flying low over our heads. Looking up we could clearly see a Golden Eagle soaring effortlessly above us. It had obviously spooked the bunting. You hear about these birds and see pictures of them, but standing in the heather on the side of a Scottish mountain watching one soaring effortlessly above you is an experience that can’t be forgotten.

We continued down towards the floor of the corrie, but then a couple of hundred metres ahead of us saw a group of red deer. There was a stag and a number of hinds. As I watched he calmly led his harem away from us, head held high displaying his magnificent antlers, confident that he was the monarch of the glen. At that point I knew what proud meant. As we stood and marvelled, a second stag with his own group of hinds appeared on our right, equally as majestic and again with a full head of antlers, and he too calmly led his hinds away from us and over the hillside.

Finishing the day

munro bagging in autumn

A herd of deer watch the munro bagging walkers nearby

We continued on, reaching the floor of the corrie as the light faded and soon had to use our head torches. As we walked out of the glen the light disappeared completely.We walked along the track in pitch black with just the light of our torches to show the way. As we walked I could see nothing except a small circular pool of light created by my head torch. Then I started to hear noises. It was a stag roaring in the night, seemingly not far from us. As we continued, more stags started to roar and I looked up. All I could see were the eyes of the deer, like red pin pricks shining through the black of the night.

The volume seemed to grow as we walked through that dark night. Although twenty minutes before there seemed to be two stags and a dozen hinds on the hillside. The deer seemed to be many hundreds of metres away from us. Now there seemed to be many, many, more, close to us, all bellowing into the night. Later I was told that they roared to control their harems. It was rutting season. Whether I was there or not was of no interest to them.

As I thought about the experiences of that day I knew I was hooked on Scotland.

I’ve been back 5 times now and never been disappointed. I may be a “townie” but always feel a lot nearer to nature when in those hills. Each day there is worth innumerable days in a busy, congested city. Now I just keep looking forward to my next visit.

Useful links

Check out the Autumn Munros itinerary

 

For full details on all our walking holidays

 

Have you tried any of our self-guided itineraries?

Choosing a walk: where to go in the Highlands?

Guided winter walking in Scotland

Glorious wintry views in the Cairngorms

Choosing a walk in the Highlands of Scotland is not that easy to do. If you’re not familiar with Scotland to begin with, you’ll struggle to pick out the best options. There’s almost too much choice when you’re trying to pick where to go in the Highlands.

You can use your guide book. The Lonely Planet and Rough Guide in English or the Guide du Routard for French visitors have some suggestions. Unfortunately the guide books generally pick out the most popular well-trodden walks. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but you do have to accept that you will likely see quite a few other people as you hike through the countryside.

You could use a website like WalkHighlands. The Walk Highlands database of walks is constantly expanding and is an invaluable resource. The main problem though is that it assumes that you know a bit about Scotland’s geography and that you may already have chosen where you want to go.

During the year, we visit quite a few different areas of the Highlands to run our scheduled walking holidays. We’ve picked out some of our favourites to explain why we think they’re worth visiting.

Where to go in the Highlands – Aviemore and The Cairngorms

walking holiday

Looking out over the vast expanse of the Cairngorms National Park (Highlands of Scotland)

We’re a wee bit biased here – after all this is where our home base is, but there are good reasons for that one of which means that I’m looking at blue sky at the moment and Gregor seems to think he doesn’t need to take a coat to school as “it hardly ever rains”!

For the most part, in the Cairngorms there are fewer midges than the west coast and you stand a much better chance of going for a dry walk. You only have to study a rainfall map to understand why. Most of our prevailing weather comes from the west, dumping the rain there before fizzling out and leaving a dry, clear day here.

We’re also ideally placed for access from Edinburgh and to head out into whisky country, up to the Moray coast or over to the west, if the forecast is good.

There’s the largest area of wild country in the UK here and a great variety of habitats for all kinds of beasties which is why the area is so popular with wildlife photographers and documentary makers.

Where to go in the Highlands – Assynt

mountains of scotland

Stac Pollaidh, Assynt, Scotland – north of Inverness

Home to a geopark and stunning mini-mountain formations, Assynt is an area which really should be higher up on the radar for hikers, but there isn’t much in the way of accommodation and facilities – which is why we like it. They say this is where the norse Gods practised making mountains before they went to Norway.

Where to go in the Highlands (and islands) – Mull

walking on Mull

Beautiful and unique coastline of Mull

We love going to Mull. It has sandy beaches, cliffs, caves, sea eagles and a few wee hills plus a Munro. There are also a few wee islands to explore just off the coast, like Iona and Ulva, which are both cultural gems in the own right. The seafood is to die for and it’s also a haven for artists. It really is a rival to Skye, but for some reason doesn’t receive anywhere close to the same coverage in promotional scenic photography. Perhaps this is a good thing.

Lewis and Harris

images of the Outer Hebrides

One of the local residents observes the tourists disdainfully from his/her comfy abode.

There’s something inspiring about the Outer Hebrides. It seems to be a different world where life still goes on at a completely different pace from the rest of the world. Very restful and also truly stunning with white sand beaches and thatched houses and sheep which seem to outnumber the crofters. Miles of single track roads and hardly a tree to be seen. Still the hills of Harris are a wee wilderness where you’re unlikely to bump into many other hikers and will have the stunning vistas to yourself.

Arran

Ridges of Arran on a blue sky day.

Scotland in miniature. The climate on Arran is unexpectedly balmy with palm trees growing along some shores. Arran has it’s own dairy, it’s own brewery, it’s own soap company and it’s own distillery. You really want for nothing and to top it off Goat Fell and the surrounding hills are very interesting walks enhanced by the island setting.

Skye

Skye Munros

Sunset over Am Basteir from Sligachan on the Isle of Skye during the Skye Munros itinerary

What can we say that it original about Skye. The landscape continues to attract visitors in their droves all wanting to emulate the stunning images they see of the Old Man of Storr and the Cuillin ridge. Skye has been the setting for some amazing video and film footage, which has attracted a huge number of visitors in the height of the season but if you can visit in April, May or September/October you’ll probably get the appreciate the stunning nature of the landscape without having to deal with the logistics of traffic and lack of accommodation.

Torridon

walking holidays scotland

The spectacular sandstone peaks of Torridon, over 2500 million years old

The mountains dwarf us here in Torridon. They provide a really special stunning setting which is now matched by some real gems to explore for culinary delights and artistic souvenirs. One of our favourite pictures is the work of an artist based in a studio in Torridon Community Hall. During the day the Hall operates as a cafe and art gallery – definitely work a stop if you’re not planning a huge hike. Liathach in Torridon is one of those ridge walks which should be on any hillwalker’s hit list. Nothing like a wee bit of exposure and a couple of scrambling steps to liven up the route.

Braemar and the Southern Cairngorms

Castles in the Cairngorms

Pipers welcome visitors to Braemar Castle

The southern side of the Cairngorms (Royal Deeside) has a lot of unexpected delights to explore. If Queen Victoria was drawn back to the area again and again, there must be something here for us lesser mortals to appreciate.

 

Choosing where to go in the Highlands – the research

WalkHighlands

VisitScotland

Undiscovered Scotland

Lonely Planet

Rough Guide

Guide du Routard

BBC Scotland Travel – the Hebrides

BBC Scotland Wildlife

 

Further reading

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