Characters of the Cairngorms


Our People of the Land: Characters of the Cairngorms

Ed Smith, an internationally published photographer based in Kingussie has been out capturing images of some of the inspiring “Characters of the Cairngorms” you might see out and about or engage with on your adventures here.
We tasked Ed with the challenge of capturing these folk’s spiritual connection to the Cairngorms and the amazing landscape we live in, how it gets into their hearts and makes them proud to call the Cairngorms National Park home.

We want to inspire you to explore on a granular level, look at nature through the eyes of the communities, develop a deeper connection with the land and its people, to respect and protect it and enjoy your time here.

The Cairngorms are unique in that different communities, cultures, characters and wildlife live within its boundaries in harmony, connected by the land. The landscape has influenced culture; the history, heritage, food & the importance of language and dialect.

Ian Stewart, Trail Running Scotland

With over a decade of experience as a mountain guide in the Cairngorms and further afield, Ian has seen the mountains and wildness of the national park in all conditions, following the rhythm of the seasons. Over the past five years his work has transitioned into the thriving business Trail Running Scotland, where alongside his wife Laura, Ian offers guiding, coaching and events in an exceptional and unique offering backed by a wealth of experience and talent that has shone through in events such as the Island Peaks race and winning the gruelling multi-day Cape Wrath Ultra.

Charlie Ironside, Glenlivet Hilltrek

Glenlivet Hill Trek was formed in 2009 by Charlie Ironside and his wife Susan utilising Land Rover 4 wheel drive and Argocat 8 wheel drive vehicles to transport clients in a safe, controlled but fun way into normally inaccessible areas of Glenlivet Estate exploring the rich history and evidence of illicit distilling and whisky smuggling . The couple offer a wide selection of unique whisky themed tours, picnics, drams and experiences from their base in Blairfindy, Glenlivet.

Annie Armstrong, Wild Braemar

Annie has always been drawn to the water, firstly in a kayak, but this was shortly followed by her discovery of wild swimming, and the immersion in the unique landscapes of the National Park which it provides. With a wealth of local knowledge Annie is the owner of Wild Braemar, showing visitors hidden gems amongst woodland walks and finding idyllic pools in which to swim. Her background combines experience in luxury hospitality, environmental science and outdoor education and as a qualified Outdoor Swimming Coach she feels incredibly honoured to be able to show people the hills, glen and waters surrounding her home of Braemar.

Ronan Dugan, Wildland Ltd.

Conservationist and outdoorsman, Ronan’s contribution as part of the team at Wildland Ltd. (one of the most preeminent ecological restoration organisations in Scotland) is a deep routed dedication to a 200 year conservation plan for the landscapes he has grown up amongst.

From surveys and observation of endangered species to deer management and bird ringing, Ronan is often out amongst the hills from 5 o’clock in the morning. He instinctively knows where to look for certain wildlife or plant-life he’s hoping to find expanding its habitat in a rewarding era for the Cairngorms as this work by Wildland comes to fruition. It’s very clear that this landscape is as much his home as any bricks and mortar.

Simon Blackett, Yellow Welly Tours

Easily spotted via either the yellow wellies on his feet or the miniature yellow wellies on his Landrover dashboard, Simon is a “one man mine of Deeside trivia” – according to the Times Newspaper, who also describe him as a “local legend”. 

And, if you don’t see him immediately, you will hear him: his well-spoken, reverberating tones, telling the tales of Deeside, are almost part of the landscape itself in and around Braemar!

If anyone fits the bill of being a ‘Cairngorms character’, it’s Simon. Although not originally from Scotland (he’s from Northumberland) he fell in love with the highlands on account of many a happy summer childhood holiday here. 

He always knew he wanted to live here full time, so jumped at the chance to manage the Invercauld Estate, which he did for over 20 years.

Simon’s passion for local history has been finely woven with his own work for over three decades, as well as his added contributions to the likes of the Braemar Local History Group and being an Elder of Crathie Kirk.

Tilly Smith, The Cairngorm Reindeer Centre

When we meet for this shoot, Tilly is effortlessly hauling a bag of reindeer feed up into the Northern Corries of the Cairngorms on a soaking wet day betraying, not only her physical strength, but her deep comfort being in the mountains. Indeed, she’s completed all 282 Munros probably with the same effortlessness.

Originally a volunteer herder in 1981, Tilly became owner of the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd alongside her husband Alan in 1989. 

When we find the herd, she calls them to follow her away from paths, at times calling individual reindeer by name and pointing out identifying markings. It’s clear from the loving, attentive way she is around them that she views them as much more than ‘just’ animals or ‘just’ a job; they are family, her purpose.

Fergus MacLeod, Ghillie, The Fife Arms Hotel

An original member of the recently renovated Fife Arms ‘Ghillie’ team. Fergus has brought his local knowledge and passion to the boutique hotel since before its doors re-opened in December 2018. The Ghillie Team are not only tasked with looking after hotel guests from the moment they step through the door but are also in charge of creating the exceptional experience with which the hotel has become synonymous, providing local guidance and experiences for guests to leave with unforgettable memories of their experience in a local area which is full of many hidden gems.

Dave Craig, Spirit of the Spey

Dave’s love for the River Spey runs deep. He first fell in love with the 106 mile stretch of water when an ‘impressionable’ teenager and relates to it – not as a river – but as a character for whom he feels immense fondness. 

This character has played a major role in his life, being both his passion and his work; he’s been leading groups down the Spey since the mid 1970s as an outdoor instructor.

When he’s out on the water, he feels a strong, spiritual connection to the ever changing ebbs and flows of the river, which is why he named his company ‘Spirit of the Spey’.

He gets huge joy from sharing the wonders of the River Spey with others, and igniting a similar passion in them to preserve it for future generations. Indeed, this altruism has been recognised by both his appointment as adviser of the Scottish Canoe Assocation and his award of a British Empire Medal from Queen Elizabeth II.

Wooden Tom

‘Wooden Tom’ grew up in an ‘urban jungle’ in Northern England but, at every opportunity, found himself escaping into the woods. He would make camps and whittle sticks with tools borrowed from his carpenter grandfather. Then in 2010 a job working with the Forestry Commission brought him to the Scottish Highlands and he immediately fell in love with the Cairngorms.

This Zen character has now nestled himself, and his workshop, into a cosy nook of the Inshriach estate, complete with warm stove, wood workshop and carving benches. Far from the urban jungle of old, today he whittles away his days in the fresh air, carving utentils like drinking vessels and helping others carve their own while they, also, connect with the breathtaking place he calls home.

​Sandy Maxwell & the Kingussie Community Development Company: Paths Maintenance Volunteers ​

Have you ever thought about the paths that you tred as you make your way through the Cairngorms, perhaps as you bag your latest Munro, or take in the views in your favourite highland town? Paths require dedicated maintenance from volunteers, which is why we feel it’s important to recognise the ‘hidden’ characters of the Cairngorms in this series, too.

Path maintenance around Kingussie, for example, has been carried out by volunteers for many years to improve the network. This includes the likes of maintaining signposts and clearing the paths of encroaching vegetation. 

Weather permitting, a team of diehard volunteers meets every Thursday between 9:30am – 3:30pm, around work schedules. It’s not uncommon to see volunteers lugging bags or tools up the hill on their daily dog walks or running sessions! The group has built to a stage of often having 12 people volunteering each week.  

Ruaridh Ormiston, Highland Horse Fun

Ruaridh is a larger than life character in the Cairngorms. Say the family name ‘Ormiston’ to most locals and they will nod their heads in a show of recognition. 

An enthusiastic, exuberant fellow, he inherited a passion for horses from his father when he was a young boy helping him run the pony trekking business. His father had taken over from his own father, who originally set up the business in 1952. Ruaridh then took the reins himself (pun intended!) on his own in 1992 and has been running Highland Horse Fun (formerly Newtonmore Riding Centre) ever since.

He does this with his trademark gusto, between also working in the oil industry and his many hobbies, which include driving a horse-drawn carriage down Kingussie High Street! 

He loves nothing more than hearing the whoops of delight from happy customers, tourists and locals alike, as they trot through the stunning scenery on horseback.

Ed is an internationally published photographer based in Kingussie where he is also the owner of Eleven41 Gallery. @edsmithphoto

Share this article?

Join our Mailing List

Sign up to get notified of the latest deals, news and all the latest information direct to your inbox.