It was to be Scotland’s answer to the Alpine glamour of the likes of Val d’Isère and Chamonix. And for a while Cairngorm’s ski slopes and the small Speyside town of Aviemore were indeed the jewel in the crown of the nation’s snow sports.

For hardy Scots skiers keen to feel the mountain breeze – even if it did sometimes result in being blown off course by gale-force winds or skiing blind through pea-soup fog, all roads led north on the A9 to Aviemore.

Convoys of weekend skiers climbed the winding road through Rothiemurchus estate and past Loch Morlich; skis which had been hired or serviced at the bustling Ski Shack in the town centre were strapped to roof racks and an après ski session planned for the Cairngorm Hotel, Skiing Doo or the Red McGregor.

They found runs capable of challenging experts and, in the Ptarmigan Bowl, a wide basin of soft snow and gentle slopes which, thanks to the introduction of the £19.5 million funicular railway in 2002, meant beginners could find their ski legs while savouring the postcard scenery of the valley below.

Today, however, storm clouds are gathering over the mountain and what was once Scotland’s premier ski resort. Businesses and locals who rely on it for their livelihoods are asking serious questions over how the snow sport centre is operated and its ability to continue to attract winter tourists.

Concern had been already mounting over a recent slump in skier and snowboarder numbers which have seen the resort slip behind its rivals.

A controversial decision last year to dismantle the mothballed Coire na Ciste and West Wall chairlifts enraged mountain enthusiasts who had already expressed doubts over mountain owner Highlands and Island Enterprise and Cairngorm Mountain operator Natural Retreats’ investment plans.

Now technical problems affecting the funicular – the only route up for non-skiers and beginners – mean it is almost certain not to run this winter.

For experienced skiers and snowboarders who do make the journey to Cairngorm, it means they are likely to face long queues for the T-bar and poma tows. It’s even bleaker for beginners, who will be left kicking their boots on lower slopes prone to poor snow cover, hoping new snow-making equipment can help.

It’s understood a routine inspection revealed issues with floating bearings on the track which help it cope with extreme mountain temperatures. However, specialist engineers have now been brought in to inspect the railway’s foundations.

With the engineers’ report not due until early next month and the bitter winter weather expected to curb any repair programme, Natural Retreats marked the day of the first snowfall to deliver bombshell news to more than 50 ski school workers that their services would not be required.

They join staff at the Ptarmigan Restaurant at the top of the funicular who, with no railway to feed tourists uphill, had already been told to stand down at least until the winter season kicks in. That has fuelled concerns over the operator’s commitment to the resort and sparked interest among local campaigners to press ahead with plans to mount a community buyout, to develop their own vision for its future.

All of which is cold comfort for local businesses facing the prospect of a bleak winter.

Naeela Shahzad of Aviemore Convenience Store on Grampian Road said: “If you don’t get tourists up in numbers, then you’re in trouble.

“It’s not just skiers who use the funicular railway, some people just go up for the view. They take the funicular railway, look around and then spend time in Aviemore.

“People come to Aviemore at Christmas because they want snow. They want to go up the hill to see the views and the only way they can do that is by train. There is real concern among businesses over what will happen.”

Already one of Aviemore’s most familiar names in snowsports, the Ski Shack, has closed, citing the “situation on Cairngorm” for its demise.

Meanwhile Colin Little, manager of Mambo’s Café Bar in the centre of Aviemore, said concern has been fuelled by confusion.

“No one seems to know what’s going on. There’s a lot of concern that it will be a difficult season,” he said. “There will be tows and uplift available so we’re all trying to stay positive.”

According to local MSP Kate Forbes, the situation gripping the resort is “potentially devastating”.

“The impact of this throughout the local economy is significant. It’s snow sports that brings people to Aviemore in the winter.

“There’s no question this situation has an enormous impact on not just local hospitality and transport sectors but on the wider economy too.

“To be announcing in late autumn, on the first weekend of snow, that a ski school isn’t going to operate, is inexplicable.

“Enough is enough.”

But just why has the former jewel in the crown of Scottish snow sport fallen so dramatically on its face?

To trace Cairngorm’s problems means rewinding time to 1971, when Aviemore’s status as a holiday destination was taking shape in the form of a clunky concrete centre featuring go-karts, ice rink, cinema and its showpiece attraction, Santa Claus Land.

The mountain’s ski tows and chairlifts were the envy of Scotland’s other resorts – and, indeed, many continental ski areas – when the Scottish Office took the controversial decision to transfer Cairngorm Estate from the Forestry Commission to HIE’s predecessor body, the Highlands and Islands Development Board.

“That’s where the problems began,” says Dave Morris, former director of Ramblers Scotland. “Both HIDB and HIE displayed flagrant incompetency in how they dealt with the mountain. They simply chewed up one site after another, starting with Lurchers Gully and then the funicular railway.

“They were told the railway was the wrong option, and a modern chairlift was a better option. But they would not listen.”

As well as the current engineering issues, the railway’s tracks are prone to being covered by drifting snow requiring staff with shovels to clear them before the trains can run.

But even before its construction there were deep concerns over whether it would provide an effective alternative to a chairlift or gondola structure, and over its impact on the stony plateau of the Cairngorm massif, the only place in western Europe where both arctic and alpine habitats thrive.

Its lower slopes nurture eagles, pine marten, wild cats and merlin; higher up are found dotterel, snow bunting and ptarmigan.

The mountain and its surroundings are designated a Special Area of Conservation, and the funicular plans horrified the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds – yet their concerns were thrown out by the Court of Session.

The White Lady chairlift was torn down amid claims that the railway would see a boom in skier numbers, bringing 200,000 to the hill each year. Many locals scoffed at those figures.

English-based Natural Retreats, a leisure and travel business based around eco-lodges and cottages, was appointed by Highlands and Islands Enterprise four years ago to run the centre for a 25-year period.

If the intention was to halt any potential decline, the plan quickly fell flat.

“We will build the best Terrain Park in the world here, and my long-term goal is to host the summer and winter X Games at Cairngorm Mountain,” said Matthew Spence, CEO at Natural Retreats, at the time.

“We will nurture, develop and create future British Olympians at Cairngorm Mountain. These athletes will win gold medals at the Winter Olympics in 2018 and the Summer Olympics in 2020 – we want to bring a true sense of pride and place to one of Scotland’s most incredible assets.”

That, points out Aviemore and Glenmore Trust spokesman Mike Dearman, hasn’t quite materialised.

“People have been frustrated, these new operators came in with great promises, and then not a lot happened.

“They came out with a plan for a new day lodge but it wasn’t well received. As far as skiers and snowboarders are concerned, they want good uplift and less queues.

“Then they came up with a plan for a dry slope which again wasn’t well received. There’s real frustration that their promises have not been acted upon.”

With Aviemore’s reputation as the Scotland’s winter playground in shreds, focus is shifting towards radical solutions – including calls to return ownership of the mountain from Highlands and Islands Enterprise back to its original Forestry Commission owners, or for a community buyout.

That idea emerged after horrified snow sport and mountain enthusiasts witnessed the surprise removal of the Coire na Ciste and West Wall chairlifts. “That cost £300,000 even though they could have been refurbished for less,” adds Dearman.

The irony of that decision is now evident. A refurbishment of the Ciste chairlift could have offered a ready-made solution to the funicular railway problems.

Alan Brattey of Aviemore Business Association and owner of Avonglen self-catering accommodation said: “HIE’s long-term strategy with Cairngorm Mountain has been found out to be completely flawed.

“The focus was completely concentrated on the funicular railway to the detriment of the rest of the ski area that that’s been found out.

“Having invested more than £20m in the funicular railway they had the view they need to get as many bums on seats to justify the cost of running it. That has been to the detriment of the rest of the infrastructure.

“HIE suffers from enormous institutionalised arrogance – it doesn’t listen to anyone.”

Meanwhile Morris points out the financial implications. “Cairngorm is losing market share all the time and the government is going to have to respond.

“It’s probably going to take nothing less than another £10m to sort this out.”


Despite local fury and concern for the season ahead, no-one from Natural Retreats was available to talk about the issues. A company statement said: “We welcome the investment from HIE. This new snowmaking equipment at Cairngorm Mountain will go a long way to supporting the surface lifts running out of the Day Lodge area and create a learner area meaning snowsports enthusiasts can come to our resort and enjoy skiing and snowboarding.

“This is great news for beginners and families who love to come to CairnGorm Mountain.”

Meanwhile HIE head of business development, Susan Smith, said: “It’s fair to say that there’s the prospect of funicular not operating during winter, but we don’t know what the engineering report will say.

“Business support service is being offered by Business Gateway and a Highland Council marketing campaign led by Cairngorm Business Partnership is giving a very clear message that we’re open for business.

“We know there’s huge frustration, but health and safety is paramount.”


The small Speyside village had already been on the tourist radar for decades when the first hardy skiers arrived in Aviemore.

The arrival of a Victorian railway in the late 1880s brought the tiny community its first taste of just how lucrative the emerging tourism sector could be.

For the first skiers, enjoying the crisp mountain snow meant trudging uphill with skis strapped to their backs. Scotland’s first ski lift in Glencoe in 1956, was a game-changer.

On 23 December 1961, Cairngorm’s White Lady chairlift, the first mechanised uplift on Cairngorm mountain and reputed to be the world’s first detachable chairlift, carried its first skiers on a chilly 40-minute journey to the top of the hill.

Hatched by a group of friends from the Glasgow shipyards, all members of the Creaghdhu Mountaineering Club, it launched Aviemore as a winter sport hub.

By the mid-1960s, Cairngorm’s network of chairlift, poma and T-bar tows made it one of the world’s most highly developed ski areas, and Aviemore an exciting holiday destination.

Lord Allander, of the House of Fraser chain of department stores, poured millions into creating a Highland playground resort.

Concrete buildings in the village centre were not particularly attractive by today’s standards, but were ahead of their time combining accommodation, ice rink, go-karts, swimming and Scotland’s first purpose-built retail park in a single location.

A generation of Scottish children grew up fascinated by Santa Claus Land. Unveiled in the mid-Seventies, it offered funfair rides, meetings with local man George Swinney, whose feathery white beard and jovial nature sent little ones home convinced they had just delivered their Christmas list to the man himself.

But by the late 1990s, Santa Claus Land – by then a mismatch of inflatable Father Christmas, funfair rides, a model railway and a plastic dinosaur – seemed to sum up an area on its knees.

Concerned that jobs were at risk and the area was on a downward slide, £4.5m of European money was found to prop it up.

At the heart of the rejuvenation plans was to replace the White Lady chairlift with a new funicular railway that would bring income to the mountain all year around.

Now, as attention focuses on Aviemore's future, it once again appears that the only way to go is up.