Our Winter Community: 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.

These Cairngorms Characters bring our culture to life and here we take a look at some of the people who feature in our winter community.

Emma Norton, Quad Treks Aviemore:

The ever-bubbly enthusiastic Emma is an ambassador for Tiso, on the back of her many loves in the mountains here which span skiing, mountain biking, climbing, Munro bagging and wild swimming.

However, she’s equally passionate about her ‘real’ job, which is running her family’s thriving quad bike trekking company on Rothiemurchus. This was established 22 years ago by Emma’s dad, Mike, who is affectionately known by family and friends as ‘The Quad Father’.

Emma has inherited her dad’s dedication, enthusiasm and talent for showing people the Cairngorms landscape on quad bike. The routes follow tracks through magnificent ancient Caledonian pine woodland and across heather moorland. Visitors go away, not only high on the thrill of riding quad bikes, but also buzzing with insight and appreciation into the surrounding landscape, and its history and wildlife, through which they’ve travelled. 


Myrtle Simpson:

Myrtle Simpson is a local legend here in the Cairngorms, as well as around the globe, famous for her fearless adventurousness. In 1965 Myrtle was the first woman to ski across Greenland as part of an unsupported expedition and to this day she speaks of such expeditions in the arctic, antarctic, or summiting the highest peaks in Peru alongside her late husband, Professor Hugh Simpson, with an exceptionally inspiring humility and charm. Her four children were equally immersed in these adventures as the family spent long periods in some of the planet’s most exceptional landscapes.

However, although she was born in England and she’s travelled to the remotest corners of the world, her heart is clearly in the highlands. A force of nature in Scotland’s climbing and skiing communities, she’s affectionately referred to as “the mother of Scottish skiing” due to her pivotal role in establishing the sport here, particularly on Cairngorm mountain.

Despite being in her 80s now, her enthusiasm and love for the Cairngorms landscape shows no signs of slowing down or waning. She takes regular dips in the River Spey, which runs by her house, and continues to be an enthusiastic Scottish skier. 

In fact, on hearing she was to be awarded a ‘Polar Medal’ approved by Queen Elizabeth II, her first thought was that she hoped it wouldn’t clash with her planned ski race to defend her ‘Masters Category’ title against 97 year old George Stewart! Luckily it didn’t, and she received this tribute in person from Prince William in May 2017 to honour her character and resilience in extreme conditions.

Bill Smith, Glenshee Ski Centre:

Former principal of the art department at Ellon Academy, polar guide, instructor of polar guides, Chieftain of the Assynt Highland Games and ski patroller at Glenshee Ski Centre.

Mention Bill Smith in these circles and count the seconds until the word ‘Legend’ is spoken. At 77 years old it’s not uncommon for Bill to be taken as 20 years younger as he skis down Glenshee’s slopes towing a heavy rescue sled or doing the last patrol to ‘sweep’ the hill skiing with signs and poles over his shoulder.

His cartoon drawings on the information boards around the ski area are as legendary as the man himself and encapsulate the humour and spirit with with he approaches the mountain and wilderness.   

Gaelic Meaning: Once known as the glen of the fairies, Glenshee it takes its name from the Gaelic “sith” meaning fairy and the old meeting place at the standing stone behind the present day church is called Dun Shith or Hill of the Fairies

Lesley McKenna, Wandering Workshops:

With a smile that is visible from beneath a wave of snow created by her speeding turns, Lesley is nothing short of a legend of Scottish snow sports. It’s hard to know where to start when describing the indomitable Lesley McKenna as she has so many strings to her bow. 

She’s most well known for being a former British professional snowboarder who has competed in 3 Winter Olympic Games (2002, 2006 and 2010). However, Lesley’s lesser known story behind these headlines is her deep, profound love of, and solace she finds in, the Cairngorms landscapes. 

For her, nature is not just an added benefit to living here – it’s an essential part of living, like breathing. She uses the outdoor playground on her doorstep as a way to connect on a deeper level with herself and others, and to inform her approach coaching others to thrive in sports, as team manager for GB Park & Pipe. This process also re-energises her and focuses her, so she can contribute so much to her sport, her family, her community and causes close to her heart.

In her new venture, Wandering Workshops, she is now sharing this creative process to living well, in guided backcountry tours to inspire participants to gain perspective, meaning and connection to the environment and adventure.

Gaelic Meaning: Cairngorm (cayrn GORim): An Càrn Gorm (in carn GORim) – The Blue Mountain

Nicola Welch, Glenmore Lodge:

Nicola is another sports enthusiast who, despite tasting the charms of potentially more exotic climes like the U.A.E, keeps being pulled back by the seductive allure of the Cairngorms. 

She’s now working towards her Winter Mountain Leader assessment here, in the Northern Corries of the Cairngorms. 

As as member of the Instructor Development Scheme at Glenmore Lodge, Nicola uses days off to log what are known as QMD’s (Quality Mountain Days) and practice the likes of navigation and winter skills in the mountain environment on the doorstep.


Alice Goodridge:

Known for sharing her joy and experience of open water swimming with a huge smile, Alice’s swimming has taken her to incredible locations across the globe. Nevertheless, the Cairngorms remains her spiritual swimming home. 

Alice established the Cairngorm Wild Swimmers (CWS) group in 2014 and it now has over 1,500 members on Facebook from all around the world. She created the group to provide a way for locals and visitors alike to connect and experience the nature here via this increasingly popular pastime. Through CWS, everyone is welcome to swim wild in a safe, fun and community oriented way that respects the environment and leaves no trace.

Building on her success, she left her job at Wilderness Scotland to set up a dedicated swim company, SwimWild. This now runs retreats, coaching days, boat-based holidays but probably become best known for its ‘Highland Gatherings’ at Inshriach Estate and the Scottish Winter Swimming Championships.

Think you recognise Alice? You may well do! During lockdown her trademark winter pose swimming at Loch Insh, wielding an ice axe and sporting a typically bright costume, went viral and her picture appeared on many newspaper pages across the globe. 

Matt Brown:

Matt originally moved to the Cairngorms for an Instructor Development Scheme at Lagganlia outdoor centre. 

After falling in love with the landscape and its people, Matt quickly became a mainstay in the local community during lockdown and decided to make the area his permanent base for a career in the outdoors and future adventures.

No doubt his penchant for baking brownies and flapjacks, which he started offering to locals in lockdown via an honesty box helped him feel even more welcome!

Also during lockdown, he worked towards becoming an outdoor instructor and spent a period of time as a local rep for the Scottish Outdoor Young Team network.


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

Characters of the Cairngorms

Read more about our Characters of the Cairngorms and their stories here……

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