People who visit the Cairngorms, particularly from outside the UK, often love to do uniquely ‘Scottish’ activities when they come to the National Park.
So, to help you channel your inner Braveheart/Highlander and live like a local, we’ve put together a list of authentically Scottish things to do when you’re here.
There is possibly no more Scottish hobby than heading into the hills in Scotland and the Cairngorms offer some of the most stunning walks in the whole country.
‘Munro bagging’ is a favourite local past-time in Scotland, and the Cairngorms in particular (a Munro is the Scottish name we give to a mountain over 914 metres. There are 282 in Scotland, 55 in the Cairngorms).
If you’re not confident navigating yourself (and the might of the Scottish mountains should never be underestimated) then you can always get a guide. Search our search facility on the Visit Cairngorms home page for options.
*Please note, if you are coming from outside the UK and English is not your first language, it may be useful to note that telling a local to ‘Take a hike’ is actually a conversational way of saying ‘you’re annoying me, go away’!
While you’re on your hike, a special Scottish thing to do is visit a ‘bothy’. This is a rustic, basic shelter usually located on exposed ground to provide free shelter to anyone seeking refuge from the Scottish weather. Or, even, overnight accommodation if you’re doing an epic hike. These are charming, atmospheric places to spend time and you will often meet interesting characters there, too.
Please note there is a strict code for behaviour if using a bothy, most importantly to leave it in a state you would like yourself to find it, that shows no trace you have been there. For more on etiquette, see the Mountain Bothies Association website.
When doing 1) and 2), you may want to experience another uniquely Scottish and locally celebrated pastime: a dram of whisky. Local hikers will often walk with a wee dram in their handy hipflask ready to ‘warm the cockles’ (get a nice, warm, fuzzy glow) when feeling chilly.
As has been said before, the drinking of Scotch whisky is not just an ‘indulgence’ but is a ‘toast to civilisation, a tribute to the continuity of culture’ (said by historian David Daiches). So, if you really want to experience Scottish culture, drink a local whisky.
There are plenty of wonderful whiskies made in the Cairngorms and fantastic distilleries to visit to learn about the craft and history, too. For example, there’s Dalwhinnie, Royal Lochnagar, Speyside, Glenlivet and Tomatin…
Or, if you prefer beer, then there’s always the Cairngorm Brewery in the heart of Aviemore that runs tours and tastings. Gin is a growing Scottish speciality, too, so if that’s your drink of choice, check out Balmenach and Persie gin distilleries. (Scots are known for their love of alcohol in general!).
4. Meet a Cairngorm Reindeer
Scotland is now famous for its herd of reindeer on Cairngorm, initially brought over from Norway in 1952.
Walking up Cairngorm Mountain to the reindeer enclosure, with the brilliant guides from Cairngorms Reindeer Centre, and hand-feeding the herd is often the highlight of tourists’ stays.
Doing it in the snow around Christmas, adds an extra dose of magic, but it is a super Scottish and memorable thing to do at any time of year.
5. Meet a Scottish Wildcat
Scottish Wildcats, called ‘Highland Tigers’, are critically endangered but the Cairngorms National Park is leading the way in saving the species.
According to the BBC, EU funding worth £3.2m has been secured to develop a reintroduction centre in the Highland Wildlife Park at Kincraig.
You can see wildcats, as well as a wide range of other amazing animals from polar bears to tigers, roaming the RZSS Highland Wildlife Park in Kincraig.
Hamish the polar bear was born in Kincraig in 2018. You can’t get more Scottish than that!
With Scotland’s blood thirsty battle track record, a trip to the country would not be complete without contemplating this rich and gory history while standing in a castle.
The highlands were the start and focus of the Jacobite Uprising in 1745, which is a huge part of Scotland’s cultural story and was when the ‘rebels’ (the Jacobites) tried in vain to overthrow the British throne.
Great castles to visit in the Cairngorms include Braemar, Blair, Ballindalloch, Balmoral and Corgarff castles, as well as the ruins of Ruthven Barracks, Drumin and Loch an Eilein castles.
Golf was invented in Scotland, so it seems remiss to come to the Cairngorms and not swing a club on one of its many beautiful golf courses. Macdonald Spey Valley, for example, is a championship course which affords fantastic views of the valley and was recently voted one of the best courses in Scotland. And Braemar, on the east side of the Park, off the SnowRoads scenic route, boasts the ‘highest’ golf course in Scotland.
(If you don’t like golf, then think of it as a walk while throwing a stick – which covers off number 1) too).
8. Take the Steam Train
Scots are a race of inventors. It was a Scot who invented some of the most important, life changing innovations of all time, such as the telephone and television.
You can experience this inventive culture by stepping on the Strathspey Steam Train; it was James Watt in the 18th century who invented the steam train and was instrumental in the industrial revolution. You’ll feel as if you’re going back in time.
In Scotland, we call lakes ‘lochs’. And the Cairngorms has some absolutely beautiful specimens.
Ones which combine snow capped mountains, Scotch pine forest and sand: Loch Morlich
Ones set in the heart of the pine forest: Loch Garten
Ones where you can fish: Loch Vaa
Ones just a hop off the SnowRoads: Loch Muick
Ones with their own watersports centres: Loch Insh and Loch Morlich
We’re literally spoilt for choice. Check out this blog for inspiration.
Being hardie (that means tough) types, a particularly ‘Highland’ thing to do when you’re at a loch, is dip into it. We’ve been doing this for years in the Cairngorms but, lately, the sport has risen to popular acclaim and become very trendy, being called ‘wild swimming’. Its popularity has been driven by its increasingly recognised health benefits.
There are certainly few things that are as invigorating as wild swimming in a loch in the Cairngorms! For a funny explanation of wild swimming and how to say loch, see this video by regular Cairngorms wild swimmer Calum Maclean.
The Highlands are generally a hub for watersports, due to the entrepreneurialism of Highlanders such as the late Clive Freshwater, who founded the watersports centre at Loch Insh.
Scotland has a rich musical culture in general but the Highlands, in particular, has a strong folk tradition.
Many venues in the Cairngorms host regular free live music evenings where you’re likely to be treated to modern Scottish folk, often called ‘ceilidh rock’, which certainly gets all the locals jumping. For instance, the Winking Owl (affectionately known as ‘the Winky’) and the Cairngorm Hotel (likewise, the ‘Cairn’) both do this.
12. Watch (or even play!) Shinty
Shinty, called ‘Camanachd’ in Gaelic, is the official sport of the Highlands. It’s a cross between hockey, lacrosse and golf and is one of the oldest games in the world, although played predominantly in the Highlands now. It’s a fast-moving, action-packed game, certainly not for the faint hearted.
As such it’s a great spectator sport and well worth a watch if you can catch a match when you’re here. They take place at Kingussie’s Dell and Newtonmore’s Eilan. These two teams – Kingussie and Newtonmore – are two of the biggest in the world and are both based here, in the Cairngorms National Park.
If you want to know more about Shinty, see here. And, if you’re brave enough, you could even pick up a stick yourself – local teams are often looking for new players! (And they don’t bite unless they lose).
13. Go to a Highland Games
There are few more Scottish things to do than attend a Highland Games, where you will find traditional sports – like tossing the caber – as well as culture a plenty from folk dancing to bag pipe playing. You’ll be in good company, too, as the Royal Family is a fan of these spectacles and the Royals can often be seen at the Braemar Gathering, which is closest to the Royal Holiday residence, Balmoral.
Whatever you do in the Cairngorms, have fun!
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