Storm dodging in the CNP

Winter has arrived late, but my friend Tim, who escapes from that London but once a year, was right on time. Plans for the first route of a new book were abandoned as being too high, too dangerous, which in the end was OK by us - sometimes it’s best to stay down. I spent three days showing off the Western Cairngorms to Tim and Mick. It’s somewhere I’m getting to know more intimately now, but it’s always different, never the same. A day of sometimes chilly forest walking was rewarded with a visit to the refurbished bothy cum glamping arrangement in Glen Feshie, where we were greeted by a good measure of whisky and Lyndsey the MO, up for the weekend from that Glasgow.


Friday’s promised visibility didn’t materialise, but by then we’d forgotten that advice about staying down and were already committed. The Mhoine Mhor was a surreal white wind tunnel, and Glen Gives-as-good-as-it-gooshikens was as brutal as I remembered. Corrour was full of happy Danes so I spent the night outside, sleeping with one eye open, occasionally grabbing the tent pole and watching Tim being slapped in the face by a corner of Silnylon. All at sea.

We flushed ourselves out by the Ghru, accompanied by Luke, a green, keen and determined young’un up from that Swindon, in beautiful but coruscating conditions. Heavy, wet snow followed our sandblasting, finished off with a christmas-card-like sun-dappled walk out and a pint of Stag at the Old Bridge Inn.

After a few weeks bouncing off the walls as a small cog in the Save Glen Etive campaign, a simple 57km stumble in fantastic company was a perfect tonic to the politrics back at the desk. My daughter calls it scantavanting, after stravaiging I suppose, but whatever we call it I’m deeply grateful for good friends and big country in these miserly, ridiculous times.

Cairngorm Commission

A few weeks back I took a call from an Edinburgh based photography library. “Could I do a shoot for HIE in the Cairngorms? Sure, when’s it for?” I asked. “Uh, today!” was the reply.

The brief was to showcase a few alternate winter activities in Strath Spey, given the unfortunate status of the Funicular right now. I took the call at about 10am and was photographing at the first of several sites by 12.30pm. I spent the following 2 days chatting to the public, sitting in muddy burns, bumping around in the back of Land Rovers and willing my pretty-swanky-but-nonetheless-landscape-orientated mirrorless camera to damn well hurry up and write that last burst to the card, already!

The commission was well supported on the ground by Cairngorm Mountain and Rothiemurcus Estate, and we had the time and space to photograph real people enjoying the surroundings, rather than just work with models, which tends to make for more authentic pictures. We also had great light for the second of the two days, just in the nick of time.

It’s been a while since I did one of these, and it was a pretty different assignment to my more usual environmental and mountain storytelling work, but I really enjoy the people side of photography and it was lovely to meet more of the local people running small businesses, who live and work in the National Park - we’re neighbours, after all.

I’ve had a couple of people wrinkle their noses when I mentioned this piece of work, but… I met biologists working out of Landmark (the butterfly house, shown in the last photo below) and rope access experts for the Treetops activity at Inverdruie (the first pictures). Clay pigeon shooting isn’t my thing personally, but it’s far more sustainable than some of the neighbouring estates running driven grouse and pheasant. Apparently, they are moving over to 100% biodegradable clays as of next year… so you live and learn.

Here’s a small selection from nearly 300 photos that made the cut.

A brace by bike

A few photos from a 24 hour trip from my door, by bike into the next glen for an outlying Munro and a Corbett. I'm still ticking, not religiously, but out of the corner of my eye. 

The last time I was up at the head of Tromie and Giack estates, it was grouse shooting territory and felt very bleak. Both estates have since been purchased by Anders Polvsen's Wild Land limited, and it'll be interesting to see what happens next. Coming in from Ruthven, there's plenty of birch, pine, rowan and juniper lining the river. I'm hoping for those natives to spread up the hillsides, which are still bare and barren aside from the old tracks for sport shooting. There's masses of potential here, though... and fossilised tree roots in the peat until about 620m. 

Polvsen is open to criticism from land reformers - he is the largest landowner in Scotland, after all - but I'd quietly suggest a little more caution and a fraction less partisanship on that front. Until the SNP top brass get off the fence, people like Polvsen are allies, not enemies in a regenerating Highlands. To those who reckon it's all a tax dodge, note he pays taxes on all his holdings in Denmark... but not here. If you'd (quite rightly, in my own view) like those taxes to be spent in Scotland, then look to Westminster first, and Hollyrood second, and join Green MSP's like Andy Wightman in advocating for a land tax. That would start to break up the estates as well.

For me, these are the hills of home now. I'm no longer a tourist. As I type this, a few of the shinty boys are repairing the roof about a foot from my head. That's money in the community, where it's needed. 

The simplicity of a cycle to camp and a walk o'er the tops was much needed. Family life has been pretty tough in the last year; illness, death, plus the sleep deprivation that comes with two youngsters in the house. I shed a few tears of grief and relief on the rolling hills far above the village. Hills of home - not just places of escape, but spaces to take stock.

Team Heavy reprise

With the book finally submitted (bar edits, of which there will no doubt be 'some') and child 1 freed from nursery for the summer, it was time to venture forth once again on our trusty steel steeds, and attempt the full circuit through the woods that we'd trialed a month or two back. 


A little sketchy hike-a-bike-and-cart over roots, under branches, through heather and bracken, plenty of forestry tracks, relaying kit over the Cairngorm Club footbridge, some flow, some sweat and some push, a little drizzle, some rain and some sun. We made it through to Loch Garten, and a camp so utterly quiet I woke up the family from a half sleep to wonder out loud what the hum was. It was the hum of insects, the sound of the forest. It's hard to explain that sensation to those who haven't experienced it, to express why it's important to have places we can engage with on that level... I think so, anyway. What's the big deal, why should they care? We all should, though, we definitely should.

Our eldest ran alongside the bikes laughing, our youngest crawled around on a pine needled floor, occasionally taking a header. It was only 3 camps and 3 days ride over 4, but we all got dirty and smelly and a little feral, a welcome respite from the end of days atmosphere of the news at the moment. With the kids we camp early, leave late and there plenty of variables other than the environment to factor - naps, feeds, cooking and bed times. Surprisingly full days, even hard - physically and mentally - given that we're not only looking out for ourselves now... one of the touchstones of the outdoors narrative, isn't it, that self reliance, until you go with others. And then you go with your own kids, and realise you didn't know you were born. With our eldest, I'm making an effort not to say 'be careful' as much, but rather say 'be aware' - it's not an easy habit to break.


I was pleased the circular route came together, although some of it clearly isn't meant to have a bike buggy dragged around it. The Speyside way was a really pleasant surprise and a nice, straightforward finish - it's quite lovely from Boat of Garten to Aviemore in particular. Then there were the tiny joys of exploration - trusting in an old narrow gauge horse and cart trail that hugged the contour, tracing the eskers on a dusky Badenoch Way, the bigger pieces beginning to jigsaw with the smaller ones. I'm joining the dots, the stuff I missed when I came for the mountains only, and am glad and grateful to have the chance to know it better. 

There's been a little interest in how all this works, as far as it does, so as for the practicalities, we use Alpkit and Wildcat Gear frame bags - the former being cheaper and the latter being better made and more rigid... but both work well. I also use a bit of Revelate Designs kit - the patagucci of bikepacking stuff - super durable, large capacity and beautifully made - handy for hauling everyone's sleep kit on my handlebars. I wrote about some of the other gear here, and I wrote about the test run for this trip, here

It wasn't a priority - I was too busy trying to eat enough to haul the bike and buggy - but here's a few more photos to finish up the tale (click to make biggerer).