Culture and Traditions of the Land

By the nature of its geography, centred on a mountain massif, the Park is a meeting point of several cultural traditions influencing language, folklore and the arts. At times the mountains have acted as a barrier, resulting in significant differences in areas of the Park. However historical transport routes tended to connect east and west, rather than our present-day north-south focus. This created important links for trade, community contact and cultural interaction.

Place-names give us some insight in to the culture, history, environment and wildlife of the Park. They were used to identify natural and built landscape features and also to commemorate events and people. The names on today’s maps, as well as describing landscape features, remind us of some of the associated local folklore. For example, according to local tradition, the River Avon (pronounced 'Aan'): Uisge Athfhinn – Water of the Very Bright One – is said to be named after Athfhinn, the wife of Fionn (the legendary Celtic warrior) who supposedly drowned while trying to cross this river.

Some of the earliest place-names derive from the languages spoken by the Picts, and include those incorporating for example the prefix Pit – a portion of land; Aber – mouth of river. The Pictish language and culture were superseded by that of the Gaelic speaking Scots over 1,000 years ago. The Gaelic language became the dominant language of the Cairngorms area and because of this the majority of the current place names within the Park are Gaelic in origin. However, there was a gradual decline of Gaelic and by the 18th and 19th centuries many people in the area were bilingual, speaking Scots as well as Gaelic (Scots is a germanic language related to English). As a result of this there are also Scots place-names, which include for example the words Shank – a long ridge; Burn – a stream. Today, ‘Doric’ – a rich dialect of Scots – is still spoken in the east of the Park, while there is a revival of Gaelic in the west of the Park.

There is no definitive list of folklore sites and tales relating to the Cairngorms National Park. Known sites of interest include holy wells such as those at Inverallan, Kinrara, Chapelton of Deshar, Auchnahannet. Notable trees include Craobh an Oir (Tree of the Gold) in the Forest of Mar, and Craobh na Croiche (the Gallows Tree) of Inverey. Well-known folk tales include the Big Grey Man of Ben MacDhui, The Gallows Tree, The Ghost’s Testimony and the Magic Bible.

The landscape and life of the Park have inspired many people, through art, literature, and music, and have had an influence far beyond its boundaries. For example, the renowned Victorian artist, Sir Edwin Landseer, visited often, and defined an image of Scotland that persists to this day with paintings like ‘Monarch of the Glen’. Sport has also defined the image of the Park, with sports like the Highland Games and shinty having their roots in old battles between fractious clans. Shinty continues to play an important part in local communities, with Kingussie and Newtonmore dominating competitively.