Cairngorms Cultural Highlights


Balmoral castle, holiday home to the British monarchy (Martin Bennie/Unsplash)

Although many people come to the Cairngorms to enjoy the outdoor life, the mountains and the rivers, the UK's biggest national park has – like all our national parks – been shaped by man. People have lived here for thousands of years, leaving a legacy of times long-past to discover as well as a buzzing cultural scene marked by vibrant galleries and lively festivals. Explore the past but don’t neglect the present, where tradition thrives in music, dance, sport and language. 

Good to know: Gaelic plays a vital role in the cultural heritage of the Cairngorms, and it is actively promoted as a living language within the national park. There’s a fascinating map if you’d like to know more about the provenance of Gaelic place names.

Historic attractions

The majestic Cairngorms National Park is liberally scattered with historic sights – from Royal castles to traditional crofting cottages. Here are a few places where you can capture a sense of the grand and often turbulent history of the region.

Castles and estates

Great baronial castles form part of the rich architectural landscape in the Highlands, and the Cairngorms has more than its fair share of the treasures.

Balmoral Castle

The Scottish holiday home of choice for the Royal Family since Queen Victoria purchased it as a present for Albert, the sprawling, turreted castle at Balmoral has a dramatic setting against forested foothills. The estate is open all year for walkers, and there’s a café and gift shop that are free to enter. In 2024, the castle itself was opened for summer guided tours for the first time.

Blair Castle

Dating back more than 750 years and home to the last private army in the UK – the Gordon Highlanders – Blair Castle is a fairytale-like confection of white turrets and towers. Visitors can explore the extensive parkland and gardens, while the opulent interior showcases priceless artefacts from the medieval, Georgian and Victorian eras. Time your visit for May and you may coincide with the lively Atholl Gathering.

Braemar Castle

Book a guided tour of this landmark 17th-century castle and you’ll be led by a local volunteer keen to relate its mixed history as hunting lodge, prison and garrison. Today it’s unique in the Cairngorms National Park as it is managed by the community, who stepped in to save its richly ornamented interior, sinister dungeons and rickety roofs from gradual dereliction in 2007.

Historic churches

The two churches below have played an important part in the history of the Cairngorms, and continue to do so to this day for very different reasons. 

Crathie Kirk

Opposite the gateway into Balmoral Castle, this granite-built church overlooks the River Dee and has been the place of worship for the Royal Family since 1848. It was rebuilt in Scottish Gothic style during 1893, when two stained-glass windows were donated by Queen Victoria. Her faithful servant John Brown is buried in the churchyard. Visitors are welcome to attend Sunday service at 11.30am. Just don’t sit in the South Transept, which is reserved for royal visitors.

Crathie Kirk surrounded by trees in their autumn finery (Martin Bennie/Unsplash)

St Margaret’s Church, Braemar

This lovely church designed by Aberdeen architect Sir John Ninian Comper and finished in 1907 was known for its jewel-like stained-glass windows and mock-Gothic styling. After falling into disrepair in the 1990s, it has been painstakingly renovated and is now a cultural hotspot within the park, playing host to jazz, acoustic and folk concerts, photographic exhibitions and farmers’ markets.  

Visitor attractions

Two of the park’s most popular attractions provide an insight into the harsh realities of life – both military and civilian – in this mountainous corner of Scotland.

Highland Folk Museum

Showcasing life in the Cairngorms between the 17th century and the 1950s, the UK’s first open-air museum displays 35 meticulously reconstructed buildings, from traditional black houses to a tailor’s workshop and a sawmill, for families to explore. Actors in period costume add an interactive element to a visit; kids will love buying treats in the sweet shop.

Ruthven Barracks

Built by King George II to defend against Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobite Rebellion in the early 18th century, the barracks housed Government troops. However, it fell to the Jacobites in 1746, who rallied at Ruthven after their defeat at Culloden in 1746. The site has been empty ever since, and has gently disintegrated; its dramatic location atop a huge mound means it’s still visible for miles around.

The hilltop remains of Ruthven Barracks (Johnny Brigs/Unsplash)

Cairngorms food and drink

Bon viveur? Sample the fantastic produce of the Cairngorms on your Highlands holiday and turn your trip into a gourmet adventure.

Culinary traditions

The Cairngorms produce many of the traditional ingredients that feature on Scottish menus from fine-dining restaurants to cosy cafés. The deer that provide fine lean venison range across the hills, and world-renowned tender beef comes from shaggy Highland cattle grazing the fertile farmland, along with sheep whose meat goes towards making haggis. The Spey and the Dee are two of the most famous salmon-fishing rivers in the world, while the pristine waters of remote lochs yield wild brown trout.


Largely thanks to the purity of the region’s water, Speyside is famous for the quality of its whisky, produced in a number of distilleries across the Cairngorms National Park. The five distilleries mentioned below all have visitor centres or are open for guided tours. All tours are for guests aged 18 or over unless stated.

Dalwhinnie, the highest distillery in Scotland (Jaap Mol/Unsplash)


The Cairn

The new boy in the pack, this modern distillery offers guided tours, with a shop to purchase your favourite whisky, tapas-style dishes served in the café and walking routes among scenic woodland.


One of the biggest names in Scotch whisky, the distillery offers whisky and chocolate pairing masterclasses as well as tours and tastings of the distinctive single malts in the visitor centre. 

The Glenlivet

Several tours of the distillery, which you can visit as part of the Malt Whisky Trail,  are available to book online, with various iterations of The Glenlivet Single Malt sold in the shop. 

Good to know: Hikers can explore peaceful waymarked moorland and riverside walks on the Glenlivet Estate. A half-hour walk from the distillery leads to the photogenic ruins of 14th-century Drumin Castle sitting over the Livet and Avon rivers. 

Royal Lochnagar 

Within walking distance of Balmoral Castle, the distillery received its Royal warrant following a visit from Queen Victoria in 1848. Today, a range of tours include tastings in the interactive visitor centre.


Go behind the scenes to see the team use traditional centuries-old distilling techniques, followed by a tasting of three single malts. Tours are open to anyone aged 15 and older. The Glenlivet distillery is on the Malt Whisky Trail (Rob Wicks)

Cairngorms food and drink Festivals

The following roster of events celebrates the finest of Highlands produce:


  • Kingussie Food on Film – February

This homage to the finest Highlands ingredients showcases regional produce in the Cairngorms Food Hall – and adds an international touch with films and cooking demos introducing cuisines from overseas.

  • Braemar Mountain Festival – May

A mash-up of skiing, hiking and outdoor photography held in March, each evening of the festival winds up with a cèilidh (an impromptu concert, probably with the whisky flowing) accompanied by traditional drinks and food.  

  • Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival – May

May’s paean to fine Scottish whiskies sees Speyside distilleries open their doors to international guests for tours and tastings as well as fine dining. 

  • Golden Spurtle World Porridge Making Championship – October

Elevating oatmeal to new gastronomic heights, one of the quirkier celebrations of all things Cairngorms sees competitors fly in from across the globe to compete for the title of master porridge maker.

  • Blair Christmas Fair – December

Set against the glorious backdrop of ancient Blair Castle, this festive market offers everything you need to fill your Christmas stockings, from jars of Cairngorms honey to local fudge and a range of artisan drinks.

Clan gatherings and Highland Games

Clan gatherings bring together members of historic Scottish clans (the MacDonalds or the MacLeods for example) to celebrate their shared history. Expect swirling tartans and the haunting sounds of bagpipes, plus traditional games and reeling competitions. All rooted deeply in the Highland psyche, these events are held in the Cairngorms throughout the summer.

Pipe band wearing traditional kilts and sporrans (Pixabay)


  • The Atholl Gathering – May

The Atholl Gathering is a colourful whirl of tartans, drums and pipers, plus traditional Scottish sports including tossing the caber and tug o’ war.

  • Tomintoul and  Strathavon Highland Games – July

This is one of Scotland's longest running festivals, with Highland dancing, drumming and piping competitions, as well as hill races and pillow fights. Kids get their share of the fun with a fancy-dress parade. 

  • Newtonmore Highland Games – August 

The reunion of the Clan Macpherson is a crowd-pleasing mix of traditional sports, Highland dancing and piping competitions, hill races and shinty games.

  • Ballater Highland Games – August

Along with the pipe bands and reeling competitions, the games encompass track events and a best-dressed Highlander competition along with a funfair for the kids. 

  • Abernethy Highland Games

Making a great family day out, the event starts with the colourful parade of the Clan Grant, and continues with children’s dance competitions, massed bands and a road race. 

  • Lonach Highland Games

Bagpipe playing, reeling and swashbuckling parades are the order of the day, along with ‘heavy’ events like tossing the caber and ‘light’ sports including long jump. 

  • The Braemar Gathering – September 

The most famous Highland Gathering of all is always attended by the British Royal Family. Events include reeling competitions, shot put and hammer throwing, as well as sack races for the kids.  

Athletes at a traditional Highland games (Pixabay)

Good to know: Up-and-coming musicians play a vital role in keeping the traditions of the Highland Gatherings alive; the Cairngorms Cèilidh Trail sees talented youngsters perform at venues throughout the national park in July and August.

Children dancing competitively at a clan gathering (Pixabay)

Local arts scene

Doubtless inspired by the beauty of their surroundings, there is no shortage of artistic talent on display in the Cairngorms National Park. Here are some of the best galleries showcasing local work:


  • Arbor Gallery, Nethy Bridge 

A enticing mix of stunning photography by Graham Niven and recycled gold and silver jewellery handmade by his wife Amy. Both run workshops and tutorials in their specialisms.

  • Chapel House Arts, Kingussie

Exquisite fused glass bowls, plates and jewellery by Anne Bridgen, who also runs courses in her craft. 

  • Iona Gallery, Kingussie

A combination of workshops, community events and ever-changing exhibitions showing the work of artists resident in the park.

  • Loch an Eilein Gallery, Rothiemurchus

Open April to October, the gallery exhibits the best of local landscape painting, stained glass, driftwood art and wood carving. 

  • Old Post Office Café and Gallery, Kincraig

Displaying the colourful works of landscape artists Ann Vastano – local to Aviemore – the gallery also shares its space with a café run by award-winning chef Kirsten Gilmour.

  • Spey Bank Studio, Grantown-on-Spey

With a schedule of workshops and classes, this space is a creative fusion of pottery, art studio and gallery featuring the work of artists living within the national park.

Whatever your reason for visiting the Cairngorms National Park – mountain hiking in summer, skiing at Aviemore in winter – never forget how rich the region is in culture. Don’t miss your chance to experience warm Highlands hospitality at a cèilidh musical evening, or to hear the lament of a pipe band at a clan gathering. 

Pitchup also has campsites all across Scotland, some of which are open all year.