Having spent three years at university in Scotland, this beautiful country and its wild and rugged countryside has claimed a permanent spot in my heart. Luckily, with some great friends living north of the border, there is usually an excuse to head for a visit at least once a year and with a bit of cunning I normally manage to persuade husband to extend social visits into walking holidays.
With a good friend’s wedding coming up and her hen-do to attend, it seemed a great opportunity to stay on and explore a little, with the plan being for my husband and daughter to fly up and join me in Edinburgh after the party and spend a few days in the Cairngorms -another favourite location from those good old uni days.
The weekend was great and I headed to Edinburgh on the Monday morning bleary-eyed where a bracing walk up Salisbury Crags (beneath Arthur’s Seat) blew away the cobwebs and provided some beautiful views over a snowy Edinburgh and beyond. So far, so good.
Unfortunately, after heading back into the centre, my husband called to say our daughter had developed yet another ear infection (the fourth since December – it’s been a long indoor winter) and the doctor had advised she had better not fly. After checking the forecast for the Cairngorms (snow, -12 windchill and generally cold winter weather) we decided on balance it was probably best not to bring her! Luckily, her grandparents very kindly offered to look after her so that we could still escape for a now shortened but much needed break.
So on Tuesday we headed for the mountains. Normally just over an hour and a half, it took us a couple of hours plus a supermarket stop to get up to Spittal of Glenshee to the south of the Cairngorms and our holiday accommodation. We had taken a last minute deal for a self-catering cabin at Glen Beag Mountain Lodges – four attractive scandanavian style log cabins set on the side of a picturesque mountainside, not far from the Glenshee ski centre. Whilst the accommodation was comparable to other three & four star offerings in the area in terms of price and facilities, the Glen Beag cabins have the bonus of hot tubs for each property with great views up the glen – we just couldn’t resist!
For the next three days we explored the south side of the Cairngorms National Park and found some lovely low-level and family friendly walks along the way – even if we didn’t have our daughter with us to test them out. With the wind-chill so bad, deep snow and very changeable conditions, we had no great desire to head for the tops of the hills in poor conditions and instead greatly enjoyed doing our homework for future family visits.
From the Glen Beag Mountain Lodges we were spoilt with a choice of walks right from the door. The Glenlochsie Lodge & Forest Walk was a particular favourite and we were lucky to have some amazing weather that day which enhanced the already spectacularly snowy views back down the glen. Despite the sunshine though it was still freezing, especially when in the wind and I was fully (and very stylishly) kitted out in a million layers, full thermals, salopettes and ski jacket!
The first part of this walk is also perfect for pushchairs, following a smooth paved drive up to the hotel – I made a mental note for next time! This was when I also wimped out of crossing a ford on icy rocks and made the somewhat rash decision to paddle through the icy waters to avoid getting wet socks and boots for the rest of the walk back.
This is a definite case of do what I say not what I do…I had spare fleecy clothes to dry my feet thoroughly on upon reaching the other side and restore them to normal temperature with some vigorous rubbing but on the whole, wading in freezing water in the winter is not very sensible if you value all ten toes!
The next day we took the car out for a bit of an explore. Passing over the Cairnwell road pass – one of the highest in the UK – we continued on to explore the pretty village of Braemar. Home to the famous royal Highland Gathering, Braemar is well-kitted out for tourists with a good visitors centre, teashops, pubs and an outdoors store from where you can hire bikes. It also has a series of circular walks from the village including one suitable for pushchairs. You can pick up a leaflet on the five walks from the visitor centre or simply check the noticeboards in the town – they are well-marked with colour coded routes.
Whilst in the area it seemed rude not to pop in for tea with the royals at Balmoral. Unfortunately, they hadn’t got our memo about coming to visit and as Balmoral was closed for the winter season, our curiosity was denied on this occasion. Instead we continued on a very pleasant drive through the tranquil woodlands alongside the River Dee to the charming village of Ballater. This is another lovely scenic spot and definitely somewhere we would consider basing ourselves on future visits if we wanted a shop and other facilities within walking distance.
From Ballater we continued on to Loch Muick – part of the extensive Balmoral Estate and a favourite of Queen Victoria’s. The quiet backroad from Ballater to Loch Muick is really lovely and would make a fantastic family cycle ride in the warmer months. At Spittal of Glenmuick there is an interesting visitors’ centre along with a nice picnic area, clean toilets and the option for many walks into the beautiful and dramatic countryside surrounding the loch.
With snow falling and visibility poor, we opted to stay low and set off on a circuit of Loch Muick with the idea of turning back if the weather deteriorated further. Fortunately, it improved instead and we were treated to glorious sunshine and blue skies to set off the moody mountains and tranquil waters beneath them. Glas-allt Shiel House, built for Queen Victoria as a retreat after Prince Albert’s death, made a pleasant lochside stopping point before returning to the car park on the western side of the loch on pushchair friendly tracks.
Sadly, this was all we had time for on our short visit this time but we were fortunate to have good weather (albeit very very cold) to enjoy the snowy peace of the Cairngorms. What our trip did prove though was that there is plenty to do for all the family in the Cairngorms, not just the mountain goats and we didn’t have time to try out all of the surprisingly long list of pushchair walks that I had researched before our visit. No doubt it won’t be long before I can come up with another excuse to head north again and continue where we left off – this time hopefully with our daughter too!