The high plateau of the Cairngorms is often called a true Arctic environment, right here in Scotland. Having been to the Arctic a number of times, to Lapland and Svalbard, I can testify that the Cairngorm plateau, aside from being well south of the Arctic Circle, is the Arctic in every other sense. There is that same raw glaciated topography, the same soft, pink and cobalt light, and the same savage cold wind.
I’ve always felt you can only get to know the mountains, or any wild place, by spending day and night out there, free from distraction. It takes a day or two to slow down and by rushing we miss what is right in front of us. Wild places become wilder to us when we sleep out in the elements. Nipping out of the house after breakfast and returning to a warm bed before dark is merely dipping your toe in.
On this trip I opted to set up camp for three nights at about 800 metres and explore from there each day. Rather than aiming for a particular summit, I wandered with no plan other than to find two things: the beautiful winter light that falls on the mountains and the cold-adapted wildlife that confirms this as a slice of the Arctic.
Among the granite blocks – scored by ice-bound stones of the past, blades of rime ice down their wind-blasted faces – are mountain hares, ptarmigan and snow bunting. I saw all three on the plateau. The ptarmigan and hare were both hunkered down in the lee side of rocks and both were now well camouflaged in their respective white winter feathers and fur. Both species have been here since the last ice age.
Small flocks of snow buntings flitted from summit cairn to summit cairn in search of crumbs dropped by hill-walkers. In the summer, snow buntings nest on the plateau, the only resident breeding pairs in Britain, but at this time of year there are more of them, as birds from the far north fly south to over-winter in Scotland.
Unlike north of the Arctic Circle, there is no twenty-four hour darkness at this latitude but the days are short and when the long night falls it has the essence of the cold north. My tent was pitched high in the northern corries. It was minus 10C with not a hint of a breeze. The moon had not yet risen so conditions were perfect for stargazing.
Each night I stood outside watching the imperceptible rotation of stars from one dark horizon to the other, snow crunching underfoot as I stamped on the spot to keep warm. I watched the stars every night, and on the final night the northern sky was washed green with a gentle aurora. My homespun Arctic adventure was complete.