If you want rugged and remote in Britain, it’s got to be the Highlands of Scotland. This is Britain’s last wilderness – a landscape shaped by fire and ice and massive upheaval. The word ‘landscape’ generally has dreamy and romantic associations, but this one has a very energetic past.
Around 450 million years ago, Scotland was on the other side of the globe, part of a massive continent that also contained North America. Over time, two landmasses collided and the resulting crunch created the Scottish Highlands – a huge mountain range. The peaks ran for thousands of miles, as high as the Himalayas.
Today, the Scottish Highlands are just a remnant of that ancient mountain range.
After 400 million years of erosion, the landscape has changed enormously – but
it’s still exceedingly tough
I love exploring the ice-carved scenery of the Scottish Highlands. As I type, I’m en route for another Countryfile adventure in Glencoe, but my last visit, for the geology series The Great British Countryside (with the very funny and very clever Hugh Dennis) took me somewhere new. Or, I should say, allowed me to experience something new, in a corner of Scotland where the Ice Age never quite let go.
The Cairngorm mountains are the roof of the country, and the only sub-Arctic environment in Britain. In the winter, this high granite plateau endures weeks of whiteouts and blizzards. Even during the summer months the snow-fields cling on. And there is a unique creature that thrives in the cold weather.
The Cairngorm reindeer are Britain’s only herd of these animals. In 1952, a Swede called Mikel Utsi introduced these velvet-antlered beasts into Scotland to show that they could live and breed in these surroundings. The herd has grown in numbers over the years and is currently held at between 130 and 150 strong through controlled breeding. They are a most unexpected sight and it’s a fantastic opportunity to encounter these animals living freely.
I spent the afternoon with Fiona Smith, who has grown up handling the reindeer and knows them very well. All 130 of them. By name. “That’s Ringo, Tanner, Paddock,” she reeled off every animal in front of us, including, of course, a Rudolph. They are beautiful and gentle creatures, who apparently like to run against the wind.
That’s not to say they don’t get frisky during the rutting season. In October, the bulls can behave in a more threatening manner and are normally de-horned or fenced in during that period. Luckily for me, these close cousins of the North American caribou (they are the same species) were on friendly form on the crisp winter day we were up in the mountains – gently curious and seemingly not afraid of us. When you’re up close, you can’t fail to hear an unusual ‘click-click-click’ sound, which at first seems to be emanating from their hooves.
Life in the herd
Fiona explained that everything about the reindeer is adapted to the Arctic scene. Their warm winter coats retain so much heat that they do not melt the snow they are sitting on.
They have wide feet that splay out to spread their weight over the snow, and the clicking noise is a clever trick to keep them together as a herd during blizzards. With every step they take, a tendon in their back foot slips over a bone, emitting the audible signal. Very clever.
If you wish to meet the reindeer, a daily visit (weather-permitting) sets off from the centre at 11am. But do bear in mind that when they say they’re free-range, they mean it – it can take the guides time to locate them.
Once found, the reindeer are utterly absorbing. It’s great to see them living in an environment to which they are very well suited. They graze on everything including their favourite food, lichen, which is apparently their equivalent of chocolate. Aren’t
HOW TO GET THERE
From Edinburgh, follow the M90 up to Perth. Take J10 on to the A9, following the road up to Aviemore. Take the B970, heading to Loch Morlich and follow signs for Glenmore/Cairngorm Reindeer Centre. Several trains per day service Aviemore railway station, and daytime buses run the six miles from the town to the centre.
FIND OUT MORE
Cairngorm Reindeer Centre
Inverness-shire PH22 1QU
Aviemore Tourist Board
The Cairngorm Hotel
Aviemore PH22 1PE
A great base for exploring the wilds of Scotland, with a restaurant offering locally sourced produce.
Warm and friendly hostel, just 400m from the Reindeer Centre.
Blair Atholl, Pitlochry
This impressive castle houses 700 years of history.
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