Ballater, in Aberdeenshire, is a gateway to the Cairngorms National Park and a popular base for visitors looking to explore the Eastern Cairngorms and Royal Deeside areas. The picturesque town arranged in a grid around a large green on the banks of the impressive River Dee, has longstanding royal connections, a rich and interesting history, and good access to the more wilder parts of the countryside.
The River Dee rises high on the Cairngorm Plateau, tumbling around 137km (85 miles) down to the sea in Aberdeen. It has the reputation as one of the finest salmon fishing rivers anywhere in the world, and is a protected area for wildlife, like the salmon, otters, and freshwater pearl mussels found in its waters. The area on the south side of the river is also protected in recognition of its importance for golden eagles.
This walk shows off some of the most beautiful landscapes of the middle reaches of the River Dee, and had some excellent opportunities for spotting wildlife.
My selection of ten of the best birdwatching locations in Scotland.
As I’ve previously admitted on this blog, I’m an avid birdwatcher, and while I’m no expert at identifying different species and interpreting their behaviour, I think there’s something about the curiosity to look, listen and learn a little more about them that builds a deeper connection with your surroundings when you visit a new place.
Across Scotland there are some incredible opportunities to get close to nature, whether you’re an experienced birder, an enthusiastic amateur, or a complete beginner. From sprawling sea bird cities stacked onto coastal cliffs, and wide estuaries and wave-washed shorelines, through native forests and sparkling lochsides, to heather-clad hillsides and wild mountain plateau. I hope this list sparks some inspiration for including birdwatching on your next trip to Scotland, or to try something different next time you explore the outdoors.
So here’s my recommendations for the best places to go birdwatching in Scotland.
A selection of my favourite books about other people’s lives: those living traditional lives in remote communities; people living in unique circumstances as a result of conflict or disaster; and ways of life now long gone.
This edition of Armchair Travel is all about those lives less ordinary, experiences often far removed from our own everyday existance. These books explore different cultures from around the world, written by insiders as well as outside observers; lives in a state of transition and those being rebuilt after conflict and trauma; and snapshots of a traditional way of life now irreversibly changed.
Here are 10 books that bring an insight into a way of life that we’ll never live ourselves.
A collection of interesting, thought-provoking, and beautiful essays, articles and blog posts from around the internet I’ve found or were shared with me over the past few months. This season, it’s mostly been pieces that examine the balance between different forms of recreation and conservation, and the perceptions we hold of certain activities versus their realities, that I want to pass on to you.
Reporting on the historic winter first ascent of K2, Mark Horell examines the collaborative summiting by a team of Nepalese climbers, and reflects on the often overlooked presence of Sherpas in the history of high-altitude mountaineering.
Akash Kapur explores the notion that our romantic perceptions of the high Himalaya obscure the realities of the people who make the region home, and how histories, geographies, and ecologies or mountain areas are often shaped by expectations.
An interesting piece by Dawn Hollis that dives into mountain history, mountaineering, and managing mountain environments against the backdrop of the global climate crisis. Are we prepared to ask ourselves hard questions about factors that drive us to stand on summits, and the sacrifices we’re willing to make to do so?
A longform essay from 2018 by Cal Flynn on the culling of deer in the Scottish Highlands, that dives deeply into the local and national politics of killing for conservation, slaughter tourism, the culture and tradition of sporting estates, and the long-standing inequalities of land ownership and community participation.
Reducing the number of red deer in the Scottish Highlands is a necessary step in the ecological restoration of the landscape, but can be seen as an unpalatable activity. David Lintern reports on the thought-provoking film The Cull for TGO Magazine.
A masterful longform piece by Wells Tower, exploring the mindset of those participating in trophy hunting, and the ethics of commercial hunting for charismatic species as a tool for wildlife management in conservation. It includes a powerful description of the death of an elephant.
In most of the UK the likelihood of encountering large animals with the potential to cause us harm is very limited. Chantal Lyons explores where potential wildlife encounters are shaped by fear rather than wonder, and the rewilding of our senses.
Remembering Barry Lopez
Best known for the seminal Arctic Dreams, a natural history of northern lives and landscapes, and how these shaped and have been shaped by human experience. Lopez died from cancer in December 2020.
A deeply thoughtful profile of the writer and his last book by Kate Harris. Horizon explores the almost unbearable beauty of our planet through moments gleaned from Lopez’s lifetime, and contemplates the point where true places meet myth and speculation, where earth, sky, sea, ice and sunlight merge.
My goal that day was intimacy—the tactile, olfactory, visual, and sonic details of what, to most people in my culture, would appear to be a wasteland.
Well, the best laid plans and all that. At the start of the season I’d had ideas of visiting friends in the south of England for a long-overdue catch up, with perhaps a little holiday on the Isle of Wight. Lockdown in England in November, followed by a national lockdown across the UK from late December onward means I’ve been absolutely nowhere in the last three months, save a short visit to see my parents and sister in south Aberdeenshire on Christmas Day itself.
I relocated from Braemar to Aberdeen in December, so my activities have been limited to within the city boundaries, but it’s been great to explore parts of the city I haven’t been to for years and make new discoveries. Aberdeen is an incredible place for wildlife watching, and my winter sighting have included otters swimming in the River Don, roe deer in fields near the Bucks Burn and Kingswells, red squirrels in Hazlehead Park, and bottlenose dolphins hunting salmon in the mouth of the harbour.
While international travel has been off the cards for a while now, I’ve been recreating my favourite meals from around the world in my home kitchen, and I’m now feeling confident enough to share some of them with you.
I thought with Burns’ Night just around the corner, I’d start off with my recipe for a vegetarian haggis.
What the hell is a haggis anyway?
A smallish beastie, endemic to the highlands, islands, and rough country of Scotland, a haggis has been compared to creatures such as lemmings, marmots, and guinea pigs*. With a long, golden brown mane, they are perfectly camouflaged against the heather-clad hillsides of the highlands. Highly adapted to their mountain homes, wild haggis have longer legs on one side of their body than the other, enabling them to traverse the most precipitous of hillsides without losing pace, which could leave them highly vulnerable to predation by eagles (probably).
*By me, just now.
It takes considerable hill tracking skills and many hours of watching to observe a wild haggis in its native environment. The best place to see one for yourself, especially if your time in Scotland is limited, is in the natural history section of the excellent Kelvingrove Gallery and Museum in Glasgow. They’re known to have a particular aversion to bagpipes, which are said to sound like the distress call of an adult haggis caught by an eagle. The skirl of the pipes can cause a haggis to start in fear and tumble downhill, which is why professional haggis hunters often play the bagpipes, and why you never usually see wild haggises on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh in August.
The River Dee is one of the most impressive rivers in Scotland, rising high on the Cairngorm Plateau, before squeezing through the narrow cataract of Linn of Dee and carving a course for the coast through rolling hills backing on to high mountains, impressive pinewoods, colourful birch forest, and heather-clad moor.
This area of Aberdeenshire has attracted travellers long before association with Queen Victoria and Balmoral Castle earned it the epithet Royal Deeside, and a position firmly on the tourist trail to the Highlands. The corridor of the River Dee was a easy route between east and west, into the heart of the Cairngorms from the coast, and a safe refuge for drovers, riders, and raiders passing through the mountain passes and wilder lands to the north and south, around the majestic peak of Lochnagar.
The towns of Aboyne and Ballater, and the village of Braemar (one of the highest villages anywhere in the UK), Dinnet, and Crathie are the main settlements in the area, and any could be the ideal base for taking these walks. Braemar is only around one and a half hours drive from Aberdeen, so these walks are all easily possible as part of a day trip out from the city.
These are 10 of my favourite walks on and around Royal Deeside, Aberdeenshire, in the eastern part of the Cairngorms National Park; opportunites to slow down your travel through the area and explore deeper into this stunning part of Scotland.
A selection of the best books about travelling on foot, from arduous hikes in far-flung lands to rambles much closer to home, and meditations on the nature of walking.
A few years ago I learned about the Icelandic tradition of Jolabokaflod, which translates into English as the Christmas book flood, and was immediately hooked by the intention. Icelanders gift family and friends with new books on Christmas Eve, with the idea that the evening is spent reading together in cosy company gathered around the fire, while sipping hot chocolate, mulled wine, or a traditional Icelandic concoction of ale and soft drinks known as Jolabland*.
*It sounds very much like a shandy made of Guinness and Fanta if you’re tempted.
So for this festive instalment of my Armchair Travel Series, I encourage you to cosy up by the fire among friends and family, and crack open the spine on a new book about an adventure on foot (or given the lateness of this post, treat yourself to an e-book download). The list includes feats of endurance in remote and challenging environments, more gentle rambles close to home rich in observations of history and nature, and some journeys on foot where the landscapes tramped are as much internal insights as outwith the mind.
Here’s my selection of the best books about walking.
December 11th is International Mountains Day (IMD); a day established by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations in 2003 and celebrated annually since.
Mountains loom large in some of the world’s most breathtaking landscapes. But it’s not just about sharing gorgeous, inspirational mountain images on my social media (though I’m sure that won’t hurt). It’s about raising awareness of the importance of mountains, inspiring understanding and respect, and encouraging responsible access in mountain environments.
Five Facts for International Mountain Day
So, what do you know about the mountains?
Around 27% of the land surface of the earth is covered in mountains (that’s approximately 39 million km²).
Mountains are home to 15% of the global population (around 1.1 billion people), but it’s estimated billions more benefit indirectly from ecosystem services and mountain agriculture.
Of the 34 documented terrestrial biodiversity hotspots, 25 are in mountain areas (half of the world’s total), and they support around 25% of terrestrial biological diversity.
Over half of the world’s population rely on mountains as a source of freshwater, which provides drinking water, water for irrigation, water for sanitation, and is used in energy production.
Mountain settings support between 15 to 20% of the global tourism industry, from providing spectacular views, cultural tourism, and soft adventure trips right through to serious expedition travel.
Mountains matter as mountain ecosystems provide us with essential food and water, are vital in regulating the climate of the planet, and are key to the global water cycle. They provide a way of life for millions of people around the world.
Mountains Matter for Biodiversity
IMD 2020 is a day to celebrate the biodiversity of mountains and to address the threats it faces. Biodiversity embraces the profusion of ecosystems and species of flora and fauna, and the unique topography, compressed climatic zones, and geographical isolation of mountain environments have created the conditions for a rich variety of life, including many endemic species.
Think of rare and increasingly threatened species like the snow leopards of Central Asia, the mountain gorillas of Africa’s Virunga Massif, or the vicuña of the high Andes. And the incredible monarch butterfly, which relies on the mountain forests in Mexico for their winter habitat. And closer to home, the Cairngorms are the home of a quarter of the UK’s rare and endangered spacies, including capercaillie, pine martens, and elusive Scottish wildcats.
Mountains at Risk
There’s a range of factors that have led to the degradation of mountain habitats over time, from glacial retreat as a result of climate breakdown to changes in traditional land management practices. Wildlife and plant species are at risk of extinction, and loss of ecosystem services can have extraordinary consequences, for example, unsustainable forest extraction can increase the risk of flooding and landslides. This, in turn, reduces the capacity for water storage which sustains river flow to lowland ecosystems through dry seasons.
Why are the mountains important to me?
Although I grew up on the coast, studied marine biology, and work in sailing, the mountains are where I’ve always spent a large part of my free time. I’ve been heading up into the hills almost all of my life, from walks as a child up Clachnaben and Mount Battock, onto the eastern Munros of Mount Keen, Mayar, Driesh, and Lochnagar as a young teenager.
Hiking in the mountains, either alone, or enjoying the company of friends, makes me feel alive. It gives me a sense of achievement and quite literally, a new perspective on life. Having struggled with my mental health at times, the mountains are where I’m drawn when I need to de-stress and breathe fresh air again; to fade out my troubles with the focus on physical exertion, navigation and route finding, or just revelling in the awesome surroundings.
I’m most familiar with the mountains of Scotland, but have also spent time in the mountains in other parts of the UK, and elsewhere around the world. I’ve hiked in the mountains of New Zealand, Norway, and the Alps, I’ve skied and scrambled in the mountains, and there are so many more places I long to go.
How can you support our mountains?
I’ve compiled a few suggestions for ways to lend your support, and make sure your time in the mountains is sustainable. If you have any additional tips, share them in the comments below.
Leave no trace: I can’t believe that this actually needs to be said, but I’ve seen the evidence on the hills for myself. Don’t leave any of your waste behind on the mountains. Everything you take in, be sure to take it back out again. Anything left behind can fundamentally alter the ecosystem and cause harm to the wildlife it supports.
Follow the trails: On popular mountains trails (think Snowdon on a sunny bank holiday weekend), routes can get extremely busy and you might be tempted to head off the beaten track. This has the potential to exacerbate damage to the trail, increase erosion on the mountainside, and lead to the trampling of fragile vegetation. Contribute to the environmental management of the area by donating to mountain charities, paying tolls or parking fees, or lending your time to conservation initiatives.
Support mountain communities: When you visit the mountains, give thought to the local community and supporting their livelihoods. Use local businesses and buy from local shops, but be aware of the additional challenge of bringing resources into remote areas. Make a donation to the local Mountain Rescue service; you’d hope to never need their help, but if you do, you’ll want them well-trained and fully equipped.
As someone with a deep love for the mountains, and who regularly spends time in mountain settings, I feel the responsibility to share these messages and encourage others to do so too. Mountains are beautiful, inspiring, and, as International Mountain Day aims to show, vital.
Are you doing something to mark International Mountains Day?
Tell me your thoughts in the comments below.
Did this post capture your imagination? Why not pin it for later?
Mountains have long held a kind of magic over many of us, both enthralled and appalled by their wild irregularity and the glimpse of danger deep in their embrace. Many peaks have great significance to different faiths and cultures, a rich folklore to explain their origin, or are places of pilgrimage for locals and visitors alike.
You are not in the mountains. The mountains are in you.
The most spectacular mountains in the world have captivated the imagination of those that have laid eyes on them. The endless play of light and weather creates views that melt and shift in moments. Dynamic landscapes that are at once intimate and vastly unknowable. Peaks that rake the sky and alter the perspective of those that attain the lofty heights. There is no getting accustomed to them.
To aim for the highest point is not the only way to climb a mountain.
Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain
Whether you’re a seasoned mountaineer, passionate orographer or geologist, a photographer, or merely an inquiring traveller, there’s going to be a mountain on this list that will leave you spellbound.