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Autumn in Cairngorms National Park, Scotland

Reminisce about the warm colors of the fall with Chris Townsend's evocative photography.

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by Chris Townsend | 2008-12-30 00:05:00-07

Click a thumbnail to view the image gallery.

Autumn in Cairngorms National Park, Scotland - 1
Looking south over Strathspey to distant cloud-shrouded hills. In the foreground rough moorland grasses are turning yellow and brown. Beyond them birches shine gold in the sunlight.

Autumn in Cairngorms National Park, Scotland - 2
Downy and silver birches (Betula pubescens and Betula pendula) are the most common native trees in Scotland. The great swathes of yellow and gold seen throughout the Highlands in autumn are birches. These trees don't all change color at the same time, which extends the season of autumn glory. Here some downy birches are already golden, whilst others are still mostly green.

Autumn in Cairngorms National Park, Scotland - 3
The native woodland of the Cairngorms is a mix of Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) and birch, the remains of the Caledonian Forest that was once much more extensive. Scots pine retains its dark green needles year round, but the reddish bark glows in sunlight.

Autumn in Cairngorms National Park, Scotland - 4
Strathspey is a glaciated landscape. Here, Scots pines cloak a knoll of hard ice-resistant rock above a flat marshy area dotted with birches. Crossing this innocuous looking terrain requires waterproof footwear and careful route finding to keep your feet dry. Soft ground, tiny pools, and little streams are everywhere.

Autumn in Cairngorms National Park, Scotland - 5
Birches are quite short-lived for trees, most only living 60 to 90 years, though some reach 150. They are pioneer species, rapidly colonizing open ground. Here a fallen dead birch lies on open grassland before scattered downy birch and, on the left, aspen (Populus tremula), a native tree whose leaves turn bright yellow in autumn. Aspen are found throughout the Highlands, but are far less common than birch.

Autumn in Cairngorms National Park, Scotland - 6
Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) is a small native tree found all over the Highlands, sometimes as high as 3,000 feet, far above other trees. In autumn the leaves turn red, but are often quickly stripped off by frost and wind. The brilliant red berries (rowan is in the rose family) last longer, until eaten by birds. I found this solitary leafless rowan on a rise amongst bracken (Pteridium aquilinum), a fern that turns a rusty orange in autumn, in front of a birch wood.

Autumn in Cairngorms National Park, Scotland - 7
View over Strathspey to the Cromdale Hills with bracken and rough pasture in the foreground, birch woodland in the middle ground and cultivated fields (used for growing hay for winter feed for livestock) and conifer plantations in the background. The golden trees in the conifer forest are mostly larch.

Autumn in Cairngorms National Park, Scotland - 8
Rain clouds sweep over the Strathspey woods. This hike took place in fast changing weather with bursts of sunshine and heavy showers.

Autumn in Cairngorms National Park, Scotland - 9
Gnarled old Scots pine frame a view over the fields and woods of Strathspey to the Cromdale Hills, painted with the first snows of winter. The line of trees in the centre of the picture below the hills is a strip of European larch (Larix decidua) and beech (Fagus sylvatica), neither native to the Highlands but both beautiful in autumn.

Autumn in Cairngorms National Park, Scotland - 10
Wisps of windblown cloud streak the sky above the snow-covered Cromdale Hills. In the foreground, faded yellow grasses stretch out to birches, still holding onto some leaves despite the cold and windy weather, and to dark Scots pines.

Autumn in Cairngorms National Park, Scotland - 11
Larches are always colorful in autumn, but in 2008 the colors were exceptionally intense and vivid, glowing gold and orange. This is an old larch wood planted on the crest of a gentle hill and only some twenty feet wide, though several hundred yards long. It lies in the former grounds of Castle Grant, a Victorian mansion, and was probably planted to break the skyline view as part of the landscaping of the estate.

Autumn in Cairngorms National Park, Scotland - 12
The larches rise some 100+ feet above a tangle of boulders and fallen branches. European larch is native to the mountains of central Europe and was introduced into Scotland in the 1600s. Larch has been extensively planted since and has also self-seeded in some areas.

Autumn in Cairngorms National Park, Scotland - 13
The low afternoon sun lights up the line of larches (sunset is not long after 4:00 p.m. at this time of year). The long shadows are from the raised strips of stubble in front of them, this being the edge of a field used for growing hay, which was harvested many weeks earlier when the larches were still green.

Autumn in Cairngorms National Park, Scotland - 14
In a narrow cold marshy ravine that sees little sun, outside of summer, patches of the first winter snowfall linger amongst the reeds. Most of the trees have lost their leaves, but one birch still shines gold. In the distance the purple sheen is from the reddish bark of the twigs and the last summer's new growth on the birches.

Autumn in Cairngorms National Park, Scotland - 15
An autumn sunset in Strathspey, looking over the darkening woods and fields to the snow-capped Cairngorm mountains, where winter has already taken hold.

Strathspey is a wide valley (which is what strath means) lying in the north of the Cairngorms National Park in the Scottish Highlands. The strath is a mixture of conifer plantations, remnants of natural woodland, marsh, low moorland, rough pasture, and farmed fields, through which the river Spey winds its way and above which rise the high Cairngorms. In autumn the woods of Strathspey are spectacular as the birches, aspens, larches, and rowans turn gold and red. In 2008 the colors were even more impressive than usual, the trees glowing with light and brightness. On several day hikes near my home in the strath, I took these photos of that wonderful autumn.


"Autumn in Cairngorms National Park, Scotland," by Chris Townsend. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2008-12-30 00:05:00-07.


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Autumn in Cairngorms National Park, Scotland
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Addie Bedford
(addiebedford) - MLife

Locale: Montana
Autumn in Cairngorms National Park, Scotland on 12/30/2008 19:05:16 MST Print View

Companion forum thread to:

Autumn in Cairngorms National Park, Scotland

(cuzzettj) - MLife

Locale: NorCal - South Bay
Autumn in Cairngorms National Park, Scotland on 12/30/2008 20:39:21 MST Print View

Wow. That was a great photo essay. I love the way the colors were presented, light to dark. It is almost like your pictures worked their way through the day to the sun set (night fall). Great way to capture the imagination. Bravo!!!

I am a visual learner. What can I say.

More like this please. Maybe even Photo Essays that teach you to do some cool outdoor activity.

Again, way cool.

Ken T.
(kthompson) - MLife

Locale: All up in there
Thanks on 12/30/2008 22:49:31 MST Print View

Thanks for the fall color! We don't get much of that here in my neck of the woods, just 70 shades of green. Makes me want to go to Scotland again even more. Good job.

Tom Clark
(TomClark) - MLife

Locale: East Coast
Re: Autumn in Cairngorms National Park, Scotland on 12/31/2008 04:29:13 MST Print View

Wonderful photos and even better descriptive comments about what we are seeing (or not seeing, depending on how experienced we are) in the photos. I'm partway through your Backpacker's Handbook, and enjoy its almost lyrical tones.

Gerry Brucia
(taedawood) - MLife

Locale: Louisiana, USA
Re: Autumn in Cairngorms National Park, Scotland on 01/02/2009 05:40:03 MST Print View

Thank you for your photo essay. Having had a forestry education many years ago, it was especially interesting to read your tree and plant made your beautiful photos much more meaningful.

Norman Bradley
(NormanB) - F

Locale: New York
Cairngorms on 01/02/2009 18:54:31 MST Print View

Thanks Chris. I went through part of the Caringorms in August, though not on foot. I was told this summer was one of the coldest and wettest in years. I found the trip across the North Sea to the Orkneys also quite cold. How did you find the weather and what equipment and clothing did you bring to prep for the trip?

Chris Townsend
(Christownsend) - MLife

Locale: Cairngorms National Park
Autumn in the Cairngorms on 01/03/2009 08:47:58 MST Print View

Thanks for all your comments. I appreciate them.

Norman, the Cairngorms are my local hills so I test a wide variety of gear here. In general gear needs to be wind and waterproof. Last summer was exceptionally wet and windy, making it a good time for testing rain clothing and tents.