The proposals to develop the Ptarmigan at Cairngorm

May 23, 2017 Nick Kempe 4 comments
Photomontage of Option 1 for proposed redevelopment of Ptarmigan.  As well as the raised viewing tower, note the glass viewing area added to  design

I understand that Natural Retreats were not happy last week that their proposals for Cairngorm were obtained through Freedom of Information (see here).   As John Hutchison pointed out on twitter in response to my post, the secrecy at Cairngorm rather undermines – or perhaps reinforces the need for! –  the current Scottish Government consultation onengaging with local communities on decisions about land (see here).     While the draft guidance states there is no need for additional consultation where statutory consultation is required, it appears Natural Retreats and HIE are planning to submit a bog standard planning application without any specific consultation with the local community, let alone with the recreational community or conservation organisations, as would be required if a proper masterplan was developed.    No change then to the way HIE has always operated at Cairngorm, plans are developed in secret and then presented as agreed.


More development, high up on Cairngorm, is totally inappropriate


Design Option 2 for the Ptarmigan


Before considering why HIE are pushing the development of the Ptarmigan, its worth stating clearly why the proposal is fundamentally flawed:


  • Its near the summit of Cairngorm, one of our finest and best known hills.  Its not the sort of place where a National Park, whose mission is to protect our finest landscapes, should be allowing further development.
  • HIE and Natural Retreats will doubtlessly argue that the increased visual impact created by their proposals will not be that significant, but the job of the National Park should be to see that existing impacts are reduced, not increased.
  • In tourist terms, Cairngorm is covered in cloud for much of the time so why would anyone take a train up to near the summit to see…………….. nothing?   The concept is all wrong.  If you want to get people to take trains or gondolas up mountains, they need to finish somewhere with a view.  In Scotland, this means taking people half way up the hill where they might get a view most days of the year, like the Aonach Mor gondola, not onto the Cairngorm plateau.
  • Most tourists, however,  want more than a view, which after all you can see easily enough on film.  They want to experience the outdoors in some way, which means a walk.  Leaving aside the legal agreement, which prevents non-skiers from leaving the stop station, Cairngorm is not a good place for a walk most of the time – the weather is just too wild, though maybe Natural Retreats think will buy a ticket up the funicular so they can be blown about on a viewing platform.  Of course, Cairngorm in fine weather is wonderful, which is why so many people care about the place, but those days are far to few to support mass tourism developments high on the mountain


For these reasons further developments high on Cairngorm are objectionable in principle, something which conservation and recreational organisations have been trying to tell HIE for over twenty years.


Why do HIE and Natural Retreats want to develop the Ptarmigan?


While its not clear at present why the earlier plans to develop the Day Lodge were dropped, the current proposals suggest this is all about the funicular.   The risk of developing the Day Lodge into a visitor and conference centre is that on those wet and cloudy days, people would not have bothered to buy a ticket up the funicular.


The funicular was supposed to increase the number of summer visitors to Cairngorm but Natural Retreats figures (from last year) say it all:  “210,000 annual visitors (120,000 in winter and 90,000 in summer) with vast potential to increase”.    The aim of the new Ptarmigan development appears to be to try and attract more summer visitors to Cairngorm.:

Extract from slide obtained through FOI “Cairngorm Mountain Resort Development Plans”


The initial plan was to increase visitor numbers through the creation of three mountain bike trails down from the funicular top station, as mooted in press.   However, it appears the other public agencies made it clear they would not relax the legal agreement preventing people from leaving the top station.  This is not surprising. One could hardly justify mountain bikers  leaving the stop station while pedestrians were stuck inside.

Advice from SNH obtained through FOI

Once the mountain biking proposal was dropped, the only option was to try and think of ways of turning the Ptarmigan into a tourist attraction which visitors would want to visit even though they were unlikely to see anything and would not be allowed out for a walk.   Hence the proposals for viewing towers in the top two photomontages and for a wrap around viewing platform added on to the existing building (purple area below):

This and following slides all from documents entitled “Cairngorms Mountain Resort Development Plans” obtained through FOI

And, in order to give people an “authentic” taste of the outdoors, a board walk out over the top of the funicular tunnel was proposed:


Inside, the idea is first to provide a visitor attraction:



Then, a much larger cafe so people have somewhere to go and spend money after viewing the exhibitions.


And finally, to encourage people arriving at Cairngorm to buy the ticket up the funicular, a partial facelift for the funicular entrance and funicular itself are proposed:


Why the proposals are misguided and what needs to happen

Whatever you think of the designs – and the firms that have developed them, 365 and 442, have some very skilled people – the problem is they are for a development in the wrong place:


  • Adding glass covered walkways and viewing towers to a visitor facility is a good idea but not appropriate for Cairngorm
  • The proposals for the exhibition may be interesting, but the place for a visitor centre is lower down the mountain, where people can go out afterwards and experience some of what has been shown as in Coire cas.
  • The blingy funicular upgrade might be a great idea for Blackpool but not Cairngorm


The basic problem is that HIE are still hooked on trying to increase funicular numbers in summer, still trying to make their asset pay.  They don’t appear to understand most people who visit the National Park in summer want to be outside.  Why would such people ever want to take the funicular when they have the whole of Glenmore to experience?   A visitor centre might be a good option for a wet day but a visitor centre up the top of a mountain on a wet day will be a disappointing experience.


Maybe HIE has conducted proper visitor surveys providing evidence that lots of people visiting Glenmore would pay to visit such a facility and this has informed their decision to lend £4 to Natural Retreats – but somehow I doubt it (I will ask).   Consultation is not HIE’s forte.


A little early engagement with all interests (and not just public authorities) – as recommended by the Scottish Government – would prevent HIE adding to the financial disaster of the funicular, for which it of course was responsible.


Meantime, there is no sign of any proper plan being developed for Cairngorm.  HIE was tasked under the Glenmore and Cairngorm Strategy with producing a Cairngorm Estate Management Plan – there is still no sign of this or the proposed Montane Woodland Project on Cairngorm and in my view both should have been agreed BEFORE any development proposals.    The Cairngorms National Park Authority also asked Natural Retreats to produce a set of standards to guide their operations on the mountain and there has been no sign of this either.


Its time for the Cairngorms National Park Authority to start speaking up for Cairngorm and a first step would be to ask Natural Retreats and HIE to start consulting on all the other proposed plans before any development proposals are considered.  If they are also feeling brave, they could  point out to HIE and Natural Retreats that the priority for sustaining the local economy is maintaining winter visitor numbers, not summer visitors.

4 Comments on “The proposals to develop the Ptarmigan at Cairngorm

  1. So do you want the Funicular removed completely ? If you do then fair enough if not then you have to allow the operating company (whoever they are) to have some form of development in order to try and encourage visitors to cover the operating costs, if not then no work will be done and eventually they will stop operations, Winter sports can maybe cover 4 months of the year, so using the figures you gave above that suggests 30,000 visitors a month in winter, whilst the remaining 8 months of the year average about 11,250 a month, economically the operating company needs to attract more summer visitors in order to run year round, which their contract almost certainly requires, the biggest issues in the UK are that 1. People want to keep things exactly as they are in terms of appearance but want better facilities and 2. The public frequently ignore requests to not leave paths, drop litter or light fires, frequently because paths are poorly maintained, bins are either not present or not emptied and no facilities are available for people to have a BBQ. Meanwhile in other European mountain regions, paths are well maintained, bins (and doggy bins) are provided and well used with very little litter ever seen, permanent bbq’s are built in safe areas for public use, signs are provided that often include a guide time for a walk and show whether a walk is on an easy path or is harder needing decent boots etc. Oh and they even build (and maintain) mountain bike trails. If you build and maintain facilities people generally use those facilities, in the UK sadly we often build things but then the money for maintaining them vanishes and infrastructure falls apart, when paths are not maintained the fall apart and become dangerous to use, so people move off the path causing environmental damage far greater than created by building the path.

  2. Thanks David, I think you have identified a fundamental issue. While the funicular has never been that much use to either skiers (on the good days you can ski only in Ptarmigan bowl an access chairlift would have worked as well) or summer visitors, what is not public at present is what it actually costs to run it (and therefore what number of visitors are required to keep it going). Local intelligence suggests that there were a significant number of repairs undertaken last year but the reason for this is again not public (problems with the funicular have been concealed). The funicular is there now and if it could be maintained without further increases in visitor numbers, there is no reason not to remain in place to the end of its useful life. I generally agree with your comments on outside facilities and parkswatch published lots of photos showing how the path network at Cairngorm, the mountain garden etc have all been allowed to decay: there is a missed opportunity at Coire Cas

  3. So do you want the Funicular removed completely ?

    It might as well be removed completely. It rarely functions when there has been any significant snowfall thereby rendering the uplift painfully and tediously slow. They also continue to charge ful price for access to the ski slopes even though that access is severely curtailed by the dismal uplift. Scrap the funicular and invest instead in some decent high speed chairlifts.

  4. Yeah, best just to leave it a bit shit then eh? Surely the best result for the area as a whole is to honeypot the environmental impact to one already spoilt location in the marginal ecosystem that are the Cairngorms. Your point blank opposition to development on Cairngorm Mountain is a joke and out of sync with every other ski resort in the world. Wake up and smell the coffee : Cairngorm mountain is a eyesore on the landscape – deal with it. All your protests merely serve to make it an unprofitable eyesore. Right, Ienough chat – ‘m off to ride my bike over the plateau seeing as there isn’t a mountain bike trail in the area….

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