The working landscape that we see today in the Park largely reflects changes which arose as a result of the Agricultural Improvements in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and the development of large sporting estates. These had a profound influence on land tenure and management, which moved away from community-based forms of tenure and management to larger scale farming and from a focus on subsistence to productivity for feeding growing populations.
The current pattern of land-use can be characterised in three zones: a lowland zone comprising settlements, enclosed arable farming and grazing; an intermediate zone of woodland and forestry; and an upland zone of moorland and rough pasture.
The lowland zone has been the most intensely occupied and cultivated of the three, leaving fewer traces of earlier cultures. From early times areas were cleared for cultivation in the valley bottoms, with trees also providing timber for housing and fuel. The full extent of the archaeology beneath the ground surface is not known, although aerial photography and excavations continue to reveal some of this resource.
From early times, deforestation has occurred in upper Deeside and Strathspey. However, a good deal of timber remained into the 17th and 18th centuries when it was exploited for shipbuilding, iron smelting and other local uses. Cattle grazing was well established by the 16th century with several drove roads passing through the Cairngorm mountains to the southern markets. Droving continued to the late 18th century.
The uplands were never intensely cultivated, and their current use for grazing and sport has preserved the relatively small evidence of earlier periods and peoples. While there is little evidence of human impact on the highest ground because of the altitude, isolated finds indicate that early people travelled through and hunted in the Park area at least 7,000 years ago. The distribution of shieling huts over 800 metres in altitude also demonstrates that this upland zone continued to be significant in the post-medieval period.
The pattern of land ownership and tenure in the Park is distinctive to Highland Scotland. A significant proportion of the land is owned by large estates for agriculture, forestry and sporting purposes. This is reflected in the extensive moorland and rough grazing in the Park. Recent developments in land ownership have seen an increasing role for conservation charities and organisations, some of which have purchased large estates such as Mar Lodge and Abernethy. There is also an increasing trend towards community involvement and ownership of land following the Scottish Government’s Land Reform agenda.