A Cairngorm Library

Sometimes you get the feeling that the Cairngorms are the land that books forgot. Books splitting their coverage of the Highlands into sectors habitually work their way from the ‘Central Highlands’ out to the west, then up the west coast and the islands to the; only then do they suddenly remember Scotland’s largest area of high land, and throw in an often cursory chapter.

But then I may be biased.

In fact, when you keep your eyes open, there are a good few books dealing solely or largely with the Cairngorms, and many more which are partly devoted to the range and have something worth saying.

The following books are in my own library and though many are now out of print, can often be found through sufficient lurking in second-hand bookshops.

Sir Henry Alexander, ‘The Cairngorms: Scottish Mountaineering Club Guide’ SMC (First edition 1928, Second edition 1938)

The classic guide to the Cairngorms and a marvelous read. The second edition has a section added on “rock climbs on Lochnagar and other ascents”.

John Allen, ‘Cairngorm John: A Life in Mountain Rescue’ Sandstone Press (2009)

A lively account of mountain rescue in the Cairngorms by the leader of the Cairngorm Mountain Rescue Team from 1989 to 2007 (and a member since 1972), drawing on considerable experience.

Colin Baxter & Rawdon Goodier ‘The Cairngorms: The Nature of the Land’ Colin Baxter Photography (1990)

Strong on Baxter’s distinctive photography, the conservation-conscious text by Goodier is worth glancing away from the photos for.

Braemar Mountain Rescue Association: ‘Mostly Happy Returns’ (2015)

Great read, written by various past and present members of Braemar MRT – and well illustrated too – celebrating the 50th anniversary of the team’s formation. Lots of tales of derring-do and insights into the guys who give up their time to save lives when things go wrong. See my post about Mostly Happy Returns here.

Ashie Brebner, ‘Beyond the Secret Howff’ Luath Press (2017)

An excellent memoir by the last surviving member of the group who built the Cairngorms’ legendary ‘Secret Howff’, with fascinating tales of walking and skiing in the Cairngorms during the ’40s and ’50s, not to mention brilliant stories about the building of the howff (without the location, of course). Later chapters deal with a no less fascinating life in the northern highlands.

British Geological Survey, ‘Cairngorms: A Landscape Fashioned by Geology’ SNH (circa 2000)

A small but well-written and excellently illustrated account of the geological, glacial and post-glacial processes which have shaped the mountains and glens of the Cairngorms.

Hamish Brown (ed), Seton Gordon’s Cairngorms: An Anthology’ Whittles (2010)

An excellent compilation of writings about the Cairngorms from Gordon’s books other than ‘The Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland’, with a good many of Gordon’s photographs too.

Peter Cliff (ed) ‘Friends in High Places: The Cairngorm Mountain Rescue Team 1963-1988’

An all too brief collage of articles on the history of the team on its 25th anniversary, with accounts of  some of their more memorable rescues. Includes a full list of rescues during the period.

JWH Conroy, Adam Watson, AR Gunson, ‘Caring for the High Mountains: Conservation of the Cairngorms’ Centre for Scottish Studies (1990)

Proceedings of the conference of the same name in 1988, with a number of papers on the human impact in the area.

Jim Crumley, ‘A High & Lonely Place’ Jonathon Cape (1991)

‘The Heart of the Cairngorms’ Colin Baxter Photography (1997)

Jim Crumley wears his heart on his sleeve and his passion for the mountains and their wildlife is clear in these books, although they may be a little inward-looking for some tastes.

Kai Curry-Lindahl, Adam Watson, R Drennan Watson, ‘The Future of the Cairngorms’, North East Mountain Trust (1982, 1988)

A booklet with a clarion call about the importance of the Cairngorms and the development threats facing them. Written as a polemic on then current issues, many references are history now, but the overall tone remains relevant.

John Duff, ‘A Bobby on Ben Macdhui’ Leopard (2001)

Autobiography of the well-known Braemar bobby with particular and sometimes outspoken emphasis on his involvement with muntain rescue during the 1960s and ‘70s. Some fascinating stuff.

VA Firsoff, ‘The Cairngorms on Foot and Ski’ Hale (1949)

‘On Foot in the Cairngorms’ Chambers (1965)

‘On Ski in the Cairngorms’ Chambers (1965)

Despite the similar titles and the reuse of some photographs, these are independent books of the author’s own experiences wandering in the Cairngorms, each with some interesting period detail.

Seton Gordon, ‘The Charm of the Hills’ (Orig pub 1912, reissued Cassell, 1951)

‘Highways and Byways in the Central Highlands’ (Orig pub 1947, reissued Birlinn Press 1995)

‘The Cairngorm Hills of Scotland’ (Cassell & Co, 1926)

Seton Gordon is the daddy of them all: a naturalist and folklorist who wandered the hills, hobnobbing with keepers and lairds alike, played the bagpipes on Macdui in midwinter and acted as a mobile larder for a dotterel . What more could you ask? The Charm of the Hills is an early effort which set the tone. Largely about the Cairngorms, it paved the way for the ultimate classic, ‘The Cairngorm Hills of Scotland’, sadly long out of print but well worth seeking out for its in-depth knowledge. Highways and Byways covers a wider area but has a fair amount of history and folklore from the Cairngorm area.

Affleck Gray, ‘Legends of the Cairngorms’ Mainstream Publishing (1987)

An account of ghouls, spooks, witches, fairies and other eldritch inhabitants of the Cairngorms, not forgetting the Big Grey Man. One can only hope the list is exhaustive!

Catharine M Loader, ‘Cairngorm Adventure at Glenmore Lodge’ Brown (1952)

The story of the origins and early years of Glenmore Lodge, perhaps most worth seeking out for the marvelously evocative period photographs. (Or maybe it’s just because I’m of a certain age … ?)

Brenda Macrow, ‘Speyside to Deeside’ Oliver & Boyd (1956)

History, folklore and topography all rolled into one readable bundle, with many photographs by Robert Adam.

Alex. Inkson McConnochie, ‘Ben Muich Dhui & His Neighbours, a Guide to the Cairngorm Mountains’ Deeside Books (1885, 2013)

Excellent republishing of a legendary Cairngorm classic – pretty much the first guidebook to the Cairngorms and full of loads of fascinating period detail. More on Ben Muich Dhui here.

Ian Murray, ‘The Dee From The Far Cairngorms’ Lochnagar Publications (1999)

History of the people who lived in the glens of Deeside, often in their own words. A fascinating glimpse of the human history of now empty glens and ruined houses, liberally illustrated with historic photos.

‘The Cairngorms and Their Folk’ Lochnagar Publications (2010)

Another gem of a book full of the people and places of the Cairngorm area, from keepers to crystal hunters to farmers. Once more, liberally illustrated with excellent historic photographs.

‘Old Deeside Ways’ Lochnagar Publications (2015)

What more is there to say? A continuation of Ian’s work preserving the human history of the area, combined with numerous ‘must see’ photos. Additional to his previous work, not a rehash, so just as essential if you have an interest in the area. Reviewed here.

Richard Perry, ‘In The High Grampians’ Lindsay Drummond (1948)

A naturalist’s account of living in Strathspey for two years during the 1940s. Emphasis largely on the lower foothills and glens, although he does have chapters on the high tops.

WA Poucher, ‘A Camera in the Cairngorms’ Chapman & Hall (1947)

A legendary mountain photographer’s trip to the ‘Gorms. One might have wished he’d come back in better weather, but there are some historically interesting photographs nevertheless.

Sydney Scroggie, ‘The Cairngorms Scene and Unseen’ SMT (1989)

Scroggie’s idiosyncratic but fascinating tales of wandering the Cairngorms, both before and after losing his sight and one leg during the war. Even with no eyes he doesn’t seem to have missed much.

Shaw & Thompson (eds) ‘The Nature of the Cairngorms: Diversity in a Changing Environment’ TSO (2006)

Highly detailed acocunt of natural history and conservation in the Cairngorms, although written with the specialist rather than the general reader in mind. More up-to-date and far better illustrated than Watson & Nethersole-Thompson (1974), but for non-academics the earlier book remains the more readable account. The sheer volume of information is hard to resist though.

Nan Shepherd, ‘The Living Mountain’ Aberdeen University Press (1977)

A personal favourite. Described as a ‘celebration’ of the Cairngorms by a novelist and poet, this is a beautiful book which, without disappearing up its own fundament, encourages the reader to see things afresh and often with a new intensity. More about Nan Shepherd here.

W McCombie Smith, ‘The Romance of Poaching in the Highlands’ (First pub 1904)

Fascinating (and to a degree fanciful) account of the lives and exploits of noted poachers in the Cairngorms of the 1700s and 1800s, including Alexander Davidson, of Derry Dam fame.

Roy E Starkey, ‘Crystal Mountains: Minerals of the Cairngorms’ (2014)

Excellent and brilliantly illustrated guide to the Cairngorm Stones and other crystals which have been and still can be found in the Cairngorms. Very good on the history of the collectors as well as the geology. A post about Roy Starkey’s book here.

Greg Strange, ‘The Cairngorms: 100 years of mountaineering’ SMT 2010

A long-awaited and thoroughly researched history of rock and ice climbing in the Cairngorms, well illustrated with modern and contemporary photographs. Essential reading for anyone interested in the subject.

Ronald Turnbull, ‘Walking in the Cairngorms’ Cicerone (2005)

‘The Life & Times of the Black Pig: A Biography of Ben Macdui’ Millrace (2007)

Walking… is an excellent and wide-rangiong collection of walks and scrambles covering all the obvious routes and a good many gems well off the beaten track, all in a pocket-sized format in a plastic sleeve, just made for slipping into the rucksack. The second book is a quirky but not entirely successful combination of guidebook, history and ephemera.

John Walton (ed) ‘Glen More: National Forest Park Guides’ HMSO (1949)

The first edition of this guide after creation of the forest park in 1948. Features a chapter on wildlife by Seton Gordon and one on hillwalking by Jock Nimlin.

Adam Watson, ‘The Cairngorms: Scottish Mountaineering Club District Guide’ Fifth edition, SMT (1975, 1986). Sixth edition, SMT (1992).

The Fifth was a complete new version of the SMC district guide, replacing the original Alexander guide, and a classic in its own right. Sixth edition was another complete rewrite: better illustrated, with good quality colour illustrations through the text and more up to date information, but I still hark back to the previous edition which gives a more complete picture.

Adam Watson & Desmond Nethersole-Thompson, ‘The Cairngorms: Their Natural History and Scenery’, Collins (1974)

A thorough and knowledgeable account of plant and wildlife in the area, with especial emphasis on birds, great and small, written by two of the foremost experts on the area. Let down by the paucity and quality of the illustrations, but still a classic worth seeking out.

Adam Watson, ‘It’s a Fine Day for the Hill’, Paragon (2011)

A tremendous book by the master of the Cairngorms, full of enthusiasm and fascinating stories about Watson himself, about the Cairngorms and about Bob Scott, Tom Patey, Tom Weir and Seton Gordon. Hugely informative and even more inspiring. Read more here.

Adam Watson, ‘A Snow Book, northern Scotland’, Paragon (2011)

Lots of information about all aspects of snow in the Cairngorms, based on over 70 years of observation and study. Presented as a series of scientific papers, but lots of fascinating information.

Adam Watson, ‘Some days from a hill diary: Scotland, Iceland, Norway, 1943-50’, Paragon (2012)

As ever with Adam Watson’s books, this is exactly what the title says. But the bare premise of extracts from his diaries doesn’t do justice to this compendium of delights from his formative years, mainly in the Cairngorms, with a cast of characters including Bob Scott and Tom Weir. Great tales told with a wonderful immediacy.

Adam Watson, ‘Mammals on north-east Highlands’, Paragon (2013)

Does what it says on the tin. Again, presented very often as scientific papers rather than in a  more layman-friendly style, but fascinating and educational – and with the power to make you angry at the abuses of landowners.

Fiona Watson & Mairi Stewart, ‘Mar Lodge: Woods and People’ National Trust for Scotland (1995?)

Just a 34-page booklet, but packing in a fair amount of the history of Mar Lodge and it’s woodlands, going back hundreds of years and up to almost the present. Lots of fascinating stuff in here I hadn’t read elsewhere, along with some great photos (including of the Canadian lumberjack camp at the Lui). It’s only a shame that this isn’t a full-sized book.

AF Whyte, ‘A Cairngorm Chronicle’ Millrace (2007)

Only recently published, but written in the 1940s and built around the author’s 24-hour journey through the Cairngorms, taking in nine Munros on the way. The length of time between execution and writing gives an added depth of retrospect in what is a charming book.

DA Woodburn (ed), Glenmore Forest Park, Cairngorms’ HMSO 1975)

A surprisingly good description of history, topography, natural history and recreational activity in the Northern Cairngorms. Features chapters on walking by Ben Humble and on climbing by Eric Langmuir and John Cunningham.

Various authors, various editions: Cairngorms Rock & Ice Climbs, SMC (1963-2007)

From Mac Smith’s 1963 classic to Nisbet etc’s current edition, the SMC’s climbers’ guides to the Cairngorm are the definitive volumes and are all recommended as good reads in their own right.

General, with substantial info on Cairngorms

JHB Bell, ‘Bell’s Scottish Climbs’ Gollanz (1988)

Abridged by Hamish Brown from Bell’s ‘A Progress in Mountaineering’, to include only the Scottish content, with some notable Cairngorm chapters, including the first ascent of Eagle Ridge on Lochnagar.

Dave Brown & Ian Mitchell, ‘Mountain Days and Bothy Nights’ Luath Press (1987)

The low-key collection of bothy reminiscences that proved a surprise hit and an enduring classic. They got the builders of the Secret Howff wrong, but there’s a lot of North-East climbing heritage here.

Jeff Connor, ‘Creag Dhu Climber: The Life & Times of John Cunningham’ Ernest Press (1999)

A west-coaster, Cuningham was nevertheless busy in the Cairngorms and took part in the rescue effort of the 1971 Cairngorm Disaster.

Richard Frere, ‘In Symphony Austere’ Balnain Books (1989)

Written by a poet, and at times a little on the fey side, one should remember that this was the guy who climbed Savage Slit.

Nick Kempe & Mark Wrightham (Eds), ‘Hostile Habitats: Scotland’s Mountain Environment’ SMT (2006).

Everyone should have this book: a detailed but very readable introduction to every aspect of the mountain environment, from geology to plant and animal life and human impact. Much about the Cairngorms in here.

Ian Mitchell, ‘Scotland’s Mountains Before the Mountaineers’ Luath Press (1998)

Just what it says: accounts of people who climbed the mountains before climbing became a sport. A lot of good stuff on the Cairngorms.

Tom Patey, ‘One Man’s Mountains’ Gollanz (1971)

Legendary mountaineer, who started in the Cairngorms. In his own words before his untimely death.

IDS Thomson, ‘The Black Cloud’ Ernest Press (1993)

Morbid but fascinating account of seven noted fatalities in the Scottish mountains, retold in almost forensic detail. Three out of the seven happened in the Cairngorms.

IDS Thomson, ‘May The Fire Be Always Lit: A Biography of Jock Nimlin’ Ernest Press (1995)

Another legendary hillman, with some chapters in the Cairngorms.

6 Responses to A Cairngorm Library

  1. Know what you mean about the Cairngorms being a land that books forgot…I have just written a book about the little known pioneer of nature conservation and mountaineering in the Cairngorms in the 1890s CG Cash ( a close friend of the better known Alexander Inkson MacConnochie). My book’s called Caleb’s List and it will be published by Luath press in November and includes two chapters about the Cairngorms. CG Cash wrote many articles for the Cairngorm Club Journal some of which were illustrated with photos taken by a teenage Seton Gordon.

  2. Ian Ferguson says:

    One for you to add, Patrick Baker, The Cairngorms: A Secret History. Could be damned with faint praise, but I liked it. Introductions to many themes through the author’s mild pilgrimages in the range.

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