In the latest instalment of our series on relocating to the hills, Mehmet Karatay weighs the pros and cons of Speyside. With the Cairngorms on the doorstep and easy access both to the north and west highlands, and to the urban facilities of Scotland's Central Belt, it's an ideal base for keen climbers and walkers, he says. Just don't try catching a bus anywhere.
Moving to the mountains was a long-term goal for my partner Gemma and me. Having lived in Edinburgh for nearly ten years, we finally made the leap and moved to Newtonmore in 2014. I'm lucky to work as a Mountaineering and Climbing Instructor and a Winter Mountain Leader, running Northern Aspect Mountaineering. I also forecast for the Mountain Weather Information Service. Gemma works as a ranger at Cairngorm Mountain, helping maintain the paths and advising mountain visitors. Our new location made this possible.
We chose Speyside as the area always felt special and we had friends here.
Close to summer solstice we left our house around 10pm and ended up climbing two Munros. Sunrise from up high was memorable and we were at home in bed by 7am
The weather is drier and colder in winter than the west coast and Speyside maintains reasonable accessibility both to other mountain areas and to the central belt.
Summer weather also brings to mind the dreaded midge. While a problem, they are nowhere as bad as I had feared and are much less of a nuisance than on the west coast. Also, believe it or not, your tolerance to them increases. I'm usually the one slapping myself when my friends in Fort William ignore them, and I can ignore them when visitors from down south are complaining. By mid-August it definitely feels autumnal and you can understand why schools decide to go back then.
We were well aware that we wouldn't be spending all our time up high, and exploring the Caledonian forest, which is a lot less time committing, was a big appeal. We are both active orienteers and the Badenoch and Strathspey Orienteering Club, a particularly active and friendly club, was part of the draw. I grew up somewhere really snowy and Speyside's semi-continental climate holding snow better than many Scottish areas was also a factor. Although it's getting less frequent, we've occasionally had snow lying outside our house for months at a time.
Long summer nights in Speyside are amazing, and I love cragging in the evenings. Our local venues feel more limited than I initially thought. Still, it's great having access to local crags that you get to know very well. The mountain crags are great, but more time consuming and weather dependent.
Public transport should be an alternative to the high costs of car ownership. Unfortunately, I've not found that to be the case around Speyside
More often than not, I find myself sport climbing at Farletter Crag which feels like the local climbing wall at times. The other valley crags, spread out over about 40 miles, are: Creag Dubh (Newtonmore) (serious but great), Kingussie Crag (limited but fun), Comic Crag - Kingussie (lovely lockdown addition) and Huntly's Cave (great but midgey). Glen Nevis, Duntelchaig and Dunkeld are a little over an hour away which opens up easy day trips. Those living a nearer Aviemore also have quick access to Cummingston and Logie Head. The Cairngorms, Ben Nevis and Glen Coe provide good mountain cragging. The north west feels just beyond striking distance for a day trip for me, but others manage it.
As a climber and mountaineer, I've wondered if I'd rather be closer to 'pointier' mountains. I now feel our location in Newtonmore is a good compromise between better day-to-day weather for when we're not in the mountains and satisfying the mountain itch, especially as I spend nearly half of my summer working 'on and near Skye', to use MWIS parlance, and have easy access to Lochaber from home. Even with our less pointy mountains, I love the fact that I can walk up the local Munros from my door.
One evening near the summer solstice Gemma and I spontaneously decided to walk through the night. We left our house on foot around 10pm and ended up climbing two Munros. We never needed a headtorch, although it was too dark to see the map for about an hour. The sunrise from up high was very memorable and we were at home in bed by 7am.
My work seems to have settled into a seasonal pattern. Spring to autumn, I alternate two weeks away, mostly guiding on Skye and living out of my van, with two weeks at home. Vans are very common around here. When away, I often feel like I'm on holiday even though I'm working. Over winter, I base myself from home so most of my work is in the Cairngorms or Lochaber. I'm often running winter skills courses or guided winter walking; I'll get around to doing my Winter Mountaineering and Climbing award one day.
I'd love to say that I get out climbing, running and walking in all my free time, but that isn't the reality. When I'm home there are jobs to catch up with and sometimes my body just needs a break. Luckily, weather forecasting provides that as well as guaranteed home time. Unfortunately the internet isn't always up to the job and occasionally causes stress as I try to forecast.
It's very common for people to juggle multiple jobs or be self employed. There are full time jobs around but the economy doesn't support many. Even when jobs are advertised, some companies insist you have accommodation before interviewing you; others are increasing their in-house accommodation to cope. Local housing is hard to come by, especially on the rental market, but not impossible. House prices are reasonable especially if moving into the area, but this puts pressure on people locally who are looking to stay where they grew up. The amount we paid for our three-bedroom house with a mid-sized garden, we'd be living in a one-bedroom flat in Edinburgh if we could have afforded to buy anything at all. I am aware of the irony of moving to the area and then saying people locally struggle with accommodation.
In Speyside many houses are second homes or holiday lets but Newtonmore seems to suffer less from this and has a greater sense of community because of it. While on the subject of housing, bear in mind there is no gas network, so most houses use heating oil or storage heaters which add to your bills. Heat pumps are getting more common but you need a well insulated house for good results.
Everyone has been very welcoming, especially when they realise we want to make this our home. We've had offers to take part in all sorts of activities, which we've not always been able to see through due to other commitments or priorities. If you want to quickly engage with the local community, shinty appears to be the way. In contrast, I'm still surprised by the number of locals who have never been on the Cairngorm plateau.
The outdoor scene is, as you'd expect, active but perhaps not as much so as North Wales or Fort William, at least in the summer. In winter the Cairngorms come into their own and the place buzzes with locals and visitors. The skiing, mountain biking and wild swimming scenes seem very active too. I love the fact that schools take children skiing during school time as part of PE. If you want to do any sea-based activities this isn't the place for you. Newtonmore is, by some calculations, the village most central in Scotland.
Newtonmore is on the junction of two trunk roads, the A9 which allows easy access to the north and south and the A86 which gives relatively easy access to Lochaber. The Ben Nevis north face car park is just over an hour away, Cairngorm just over half an hour. Only the east is blocked to vehicular access but there is great access to the UK's largest area of wild land on foot or bike.
I love the big open spaces surrounding our home and the ease of access to wild places, particularly the Cairngorm plateau and Ben Nevis
Distances in the Highlands are big. Luckily, roads are relatively empty but it does make you aware of your car(bon) footprint. Cairngorm is a 50 mile round trip and that is considered a standard outing. Vehicle maintenance and fuel costs accumulate, especially with many months of road salting degrading parts. Fuel is often similar to motorway prices but cheaper fuel in the cities is an hour away and not worth the travel unless you're planning to go anyway. Saving and combining journeys is common.
Public transport should be an alternative to offset the high costs of car ownership. Unfortunately, I've not found that to be the case around Speyside, let alone for getting to the mountains or to Fort William. There is a mainline train service which I use occasionally but find the cost prohibitive and the service too infrequent to be convenient. A return to Aviemore, a 20 minute journey, costs the same as an Inverness return which takes around an hour. On the few occasions I've tried to get the bus into Aviemore the online timetable did not match the one at the bus stop and the bus didn't show up at either time. I do see buses driving around so if I did use them regularly I'd probably have an idea of how the system works and be more likely to use them.
The last bus from the Cairngorm ski centre on a Saturday does not leave late, and there is no service on a Sunday. There are no public transport links to Fort William/Spean Bridge without going via Glasgow or Inverness, turning a 1 hour journey into 3 or more. Once in Lochaber, the Shiel Buses seem much more reliable than those around me. By contrast, in Edinburgh and around the Central Belt I didn't feel the need to own a car except to get to the mountains. I mostly walked or cycled, but was a regular on the buses and trains as distances increased.
Newtonmore and nearby Kingussie have facilities such as Co-ops, a medical practice, pharmacies, a small library, a gym, garages and a selection of independent shops. Aviemore has more choice including outdoor shops, cinema, Aldi, Tesco and builders merchants. There are still many things we find we either cannot get locally or at a reasonable price. The selection of groceries in particular seem more aimed at tourists on holiday than those living here full time. The holiday seasons are busy, particularly school holidays, and I do my best to avoid Aviemore at those times but we are lucky that most of the time it's very quiet.
We often save up jobs and shopping lists for when we know we're going to be passing Inverness, Fort William or Perth with their larger shops, all about an hour away. They also have facilities we don't have locally, such as climbing walls and swimming pools. We rely more on internet shopping than we used to but spend a disappointing amount of time researching the 'non-UK mainland' postal surcharges; can anyone tell me where we leave the mainland between here and Perth?
I hadn't realised quite how much I would miss the climbing wall scene, swimming pools and active travel. I used to walk or cycle everywhere in Edinburgh but here most things are either a very short walk or too far to cycle on a day-to-day basis. I feel if Aviemore had a modern wall I would have found it much easier to make friends quickly. There is a small wall at Glenmore Lodge but somehow I've never quite got into using it much.
In Edinburgh, I used to go to the theatre and, after a year or two of hating the crowds, grew to love the Fringe. Since moving north in 2014 my exposure to culture has shot down. I've only seen a handful of live performances but they do come to find us sometimes. Inverness and Perth are better and the Boat of Garten community hall has a very active programme of events, including the odd Fringe show coming up. There is a lot less ethnic diversity than I was used to in Edinburgh and it's even more noticeable in the local outdoor community, which always feels a shame.
Would I want to move back to a city? I really don't think so. I love the big open spaces surrounding our home and the ease of access to wild places, particularly the Cairngorm plateau and Ben Nevis. Now that I've broken into it, the local climbing scene is active and being able to have a weekend getaway to the North West Highlands or Skye is amazing. Even though I don't seem to go into the mountains for half-day hits too often, it's definitely possible and I have friends who love getting a winter climb in between dropping children off at school and picking them up again!
Check out these hill routes in the Speyside area: